A chat with…Finn Johannsen

Posted: May 16th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Features, Gigs | Tags: , , | No Comments »


The next instalment of Acetate will once again exhibit selectors of world class calibre. David Kennedy aka Pearson Sound, who organises the night, errs towards the DJs who dedicate their time to collecting music, infrequently booking those who attempt to spin plates and produce music at the same time. The DJs’ heightened awareness of the vinyl record landscape seems to breed a uniquely rich atmosphere during the club night.

Alongside long time dubstep colleague, and one of the world’s most sought after selectors, Ben UFO, Kennedy has invited a bona fide head out to play in the Wire basement: music critic and Hard Wax staff member, Finn Johannsen. The German also runs Macro Recordings, Stefan Goldmann’s primary production outlet.

Finn is rarely seen by Brits out of his natural habitat of the Berlin record shop, and is normally only spotted in the by-line of an online electronic music article. So we thought we’d do a bit of investigative work and reverse roles. Here’s our interview with him:

What is the application like for a job at Hard Wax? How did you come to work there?

We get a lot of mails every week by people looking for a job at the store, but all current staff members were already regular customers or otherwise affiliated with Hard Wax before they started working there. Same with me. Six years ago I became father of a wonderful girl, and I realized that all the deadlines involved with freelance work did not work well with that. So I was thinking about adding some steadier work to my weekly schedule, and my wife suggested Hard Wax as an option. I tested ground and what I did not know at the time was that Prosumer was quitting the job, and they were looking for a replacement anyway. So I had a meeting with Michael Hain, the store manager, and Mark Ernestus, the owner, and started working there, all within a very short time.

It’s every young DJs dream to work in a record shop. Did you always know you’d work in one? What would you be doing if you weren’t there?

I worked in a second hand vinyl store when I was studying in the early 90s, but that was more to fund my own vinyl purchases. When I started DJing in the 80s I was not trying to get a job in a record shop, I only liked visiting them and it was that way for years. My focus at university was actually on film history, not music. But apart from a brief stint reviewing movies for De:bug magazine I never really did anything with that, nor did I really intend to. I also worked as an editor for art books a few years ago. But at some point I realized that it always fell back to activities connected to music, because it probably is what I know and do best. So I stuck with it. If I would not be there I would be doing something else, but it probably would have something to do with music as well.

What do you look for in a record when buying for Hard Wax?

Something new, or at least different. A personal signature. Ideas. Integrity. Attitude. When the record is referential I check if the references are used in a smart way, and if aspects are added that were not there before. I also take a good look at the proportion of value and money. I adjust my level of support for a release according to the level of how these criteria are met.

What led you to buy your first vinyl record? And what was it? 

I started taping radio shows in the mid 70s, but I did not have enough pocket money to afford buying records then. But I already had a record player and I used to play records from my parents’ collection. When I was 9 years old, in 1978, I recorded Blondie’s Heart Of Glass and decided to buy it on 7“. When I entered the record store I just knew that I loved the song and her voice in particular, but I did not even know what she looked like. I was probably assuming that she had blonde hair, but not really that she looked that fabulous on the cover, and what she really was about. I probably learnt quite a few lessons about pop culture at once with that purchase, and soon I started spending nearly all the money I had on records.

We’ve just had record store day in the UK. Do you have any comment on it? Do you see it as a celebration or capitalisation of record buying culture? 

It is the same in Germany, and I think it is the same all over the world. Which is why the recent negative implications of the event weigh in so heavily. Hard Wax decidedly never took part. We stated from early on that for us every day is a record store day, and that is basically it. But we feel the fallout from RSD as anybody else in the business nonetheless, especially the delays with the pressing plants, which affect our distribution as well, for example, and the releases we buy from other distributors. That has improved a bit lately, but it is still a tremendously hypocritical event, and that does not seem to improve. Nearly everybody’s trying to cash in now on a format that was willfully pronounced dead before, and nearly everything is blocked by back catalogue you can find around every corner, just in different layouts and for a much lesser price. Old wine in new skins. And the new grapes cannot be harvested because of it. It is totally absurd. There may have been some respectable thought implied with it once, but as soon as the major labels entered it predictably withered away into nothing. They want to gentrify vinyl into pricier artifacts instead, for customers that care more about the item itself than the music it contains.

At Acetate, you’ll be playing on a 1970s Bozak mixer and two turntables. Do you think that the way forward for club culture is to retain, or return to, these kinds of formats? Do you approach partying with a sense of history?

I actually approach anything related to music with a sense of history. I am just interested where things are coming from, and how they connect with each other, and how they connect to current developments. I roughly work with a two steps forward, one step back approach. Sometimes I even skip forward, and only step back. It depends on the purpose. I think you can only keep things going in a good direction if you have a wider perspective of what has already happened. Not only to avoid mistakes, but also in order to not repeat too much of what has already been done before. I usually use a crossfader when mixing, because I mainly played Soul and Disco when I started out as a DJ, and thus cutting was an integral part of the process. I played a Bozak mixer or other vintage mixers before, and while the handling may not always be comparably convenient, the sound of mixers from that era is mostly unmatched. I love their warm and rich palette. They were made for vinyl, and you can hear that. And I always have played vinyl only, I do not even know how to handle CDJs. I will probably play a lot of overlooked gems from the past at Acetate as well, so I am sure that will work out just fine.

There was controversy in the British clubbing community recently when the Bloc organiser said that young punters aren’t doing it properly. What’s your view on this? Have you noticed a change in atmosphere or approach in the past ten years or so?

I strongly believe that it is a prerogative of youth to not care about what older people think, say and do. When I was younger I was interested in the music of previous generations but it did not match my interest for new music. But if you are not interested in what your parents did at all, bless you. If anybody would be convinced that it really was better back in the days, there would be no progress at all. I had the privilege to belong to a generation that witnessed a lot of what is still resonating today right on the floor, but pioneering days are always easier. I still do not think it was better. It was just different. And as some people get older, that difference becomes a problem. They get sentimental about their youth, and they miss what they did and were back then. And then glorification creeps in, and comparisons, and disrespect for what became of the experiences you had. In any case, if you are convinced that something has changed for the worse, try to change it for the better, and not just complain about it. It makes more sense to me to encourage than to discourage. And I do not like it had when people generalize the past. There were good and bad parties now and then. People get down as much as they did before when they feel like it. That will never change, only the clubs and the music do. Thankfully. Club culture needs to move fast, and before you criticize the direction it is moving to, better check if your criticism really holds up, or if it is just nonsense that does not help anybody except your own tired and bitter ego.

A lot of people tell me that they don’t see the point in music writing and criticism. As a music writer yourself, what would you say to counter this?

In my opinion music can only evolve and improve if there is discourse. There might be not enough left to justify paying for it for some, but still a lot of writers have the knowledge or the research skills to put things into a perspective you can develop a better judgment from, or to learn about something you did not know before. There might be fewer writings that deliver that, but it is still important. As with nearly every other aspect of the music business the according journalism is in crisis, and sadly economic obligations made thorough criticism an exception, when it used to be the norm. I also hear that a lot of people do not see much value in music journalism anymore, but that is also often based on what they read. Which is mostly news items and social media threads, and less longer features or reviews that think about their topic further than a short and juicy opinion. If you do not need more than that, fine. But what you listen to could maybe have a higher quality, and if everybody would be as ignorant that would be much more difficult to achieve.“If you get it, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But you should probably read more.“ (Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People, FAC 424)

Is there anything particular about British clubs that you enjoy?

I enjoy working with the long and close connection of British people to club culture, and pop culture in general. You can sense the long tradition easily, there is a lot of attention to detail in UK clubs. There are more people that know certain records you play than in other countries, including Germany. You already notice that with the kind of music played in public spaces, cabs etc., or people you meet that unexpectedly come up with extensive knowledge about some tunes you thought only few people know about. And probably not any UK punter would agree, I also enjoy that UK club nights usually have an end. When I started going out in Northern Germany it was the same. Ok, maybe curfew was more elastic, and laws for alcohol were more relaxed than in the UK, but the way a club night proceeded was similar. You have a structure. Beginning, climax, end. Enough leeway for detours in between. You can choose records to reflect that structure, you can play with it. There is an urgency to take in as much as you can. A typical Berlin weekend has a beginning, and the end might be lots of hours later, and it often feels like constant peak time. People might take in as much as they can as well, but for other reasons. It is more like an excess routine than anything else. And I just prefer to play at night.

What’s your main aim when stepping up to the decks? Is it to make people move? Or is that a byproduct of more personal goals?

I like to spread some knowledge, but ultimately I want the people paying to hear me play to have a good time. I’m old enough to keep in mind that a DJ should not feel more important than the music he or she plays. I think you have to obey the people on the floor, not vice versa. If I can help to achieve a night to remember by playing the records I have brought for the occasion, I’m more than happy.




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