To mark the start of our new podcast mini-series on record shops, Finn Johannsen of Hard Wax Records Berlin chats to Josh about his place of work, the state of the vinyl industry, and of course his excellent newly recorded Louche Podcast.
So Finn, this marks the first of a new mini series of Louche podcasts, focusing on dudes like yourself who work in record shops. Tell us, how long have you been working in Hard Wax and how did it come about?
I’m working there since the end of 2010. It was basically coincidental. I realized that all the deadlines that come with working solely as a freelancer were not that compatible with my newborn daughter and I was vaguely looking for some additional steady work. I was a regular customer at Hard Wax and dropped some hints that I would be up for it if there was some vacancy. Then Achim (Prosumer) decided to quit working at Hard Wax and I got the job within just a few weeks.
Your one of the shop’s house music specialists right? Do you take pleasure from discovering music to sell in store?
I’m probably particularly knowledgeable with House and Disco. But then I’m over 40 now and buy club music as long as I can remember, thus I’m able to offer some good advice on almost anything we are selling. And this applies to anybody working at Hard Wax. We all know a lot about music, and all of us are eager to learn much more. And we like to provide our customers with what we know and love. You need the urge to do so by any means, else maintaining the high standards of the store would not be possible. If you lose the thrill of unpacking and checking the week’s news or delving into sounds you were not accustomed with before, you better reconsider. But I doubt that will happen too soon. There is always good music to discover, every day.
Do you feel responsible for breaking any producers into the scene? Has anyone seriously blown up after Hard Wax stocked their music?
I certainly helped some producers before I started working at Hard Wax, particularly as a journalist. But I’m modest enough to not drop names. They know. As an institution, Hard Wax surely plays a role. A record stocked and recommended at Hard Wax is still a welcomed quality marker, and it takes some responsibility and care to maintain that status and also not to abuse it. There are quite a few labels and producers affiliated with the store who left their mark after the heyday of the classic Hard Wax labels, which is great. The same goes for labels and producers we discovered or supported over the years. If you follow our tracks on a regularly basis, you should be aware of who I am talking about. But any store in our position should do that the best they can, to keep things going.
You must have an absolutely massive vinyl collection at home, but whats the deal- do you get to take home whatever records you want?
I have a few thousand records but I decided to keep it at a certain level and thus my collection is now more or less like a revolving door. Whenever I buy some records, I also sell some. I have the privilege of being handed vinyl promos and of securing records that sell out quickly, but it is not that anything that might interest me automatically gets put into my shelf. When I’m not in the shop, I check out the website like any other customer, and I also miss out on releases if I do not have the time to do so. But if you are surrounded by so many new releases every week you also learn to distinguish what kind of records you really need. I only buy records on the terms of my musical preferences, and nothing else.
What do make of the vinyl game currently, or after the last few years? Do you think there has been a noticeable resurgence in people buying wax recently?
Vinyl sales are still going very strong at Hard Wax, but sadly that is not necessarily a reality for other smaller shops, who are often struggling to stay open or have to close down eventually. There will always be music collectors who prefer the convenience aspects of digital releases, and music collectors who favour a haptic vinyl release. It is a fact that there still is a DJ and collectors vinyl market that labels and producers can cater for. And I do not blame anybody for preferring a certain format, as long as they make good use of it. Hard Wax is very determined to sell vinyl as long as possible, that is for sure.
Do you produce Finn? Or ever considered getting into it?
No, I don’t. Being a father, working at Hard Wax, co-running the Macro label with Stefan Goldmann, playing out in clubs, writing. Consider me well busy. Who knows, someday a ridiculously limited stamped white label hyped and killed for by people of all nations could be my doing, but I probably won’t tell. As for now, I have nothing to tell. That is the absolute truth.
Can you tell us a little bit about the mix you recorded for us please?
It’s basically a run through records I took home from the shop and played out regularly at the moment I recorded the mix, two months ago. A mixture of artists and producers I think are well worth supporting and who have their own distinctive signature sound, and some tunes that just stood out for me. It also touches most characteristics I look for when buying records. If you would have heard me playing out at that time, this is what it probably would have sounded like. I rarely ever play the same set twice, but some of these are still in good use. Which speaks for the records included.
And lastly, what are your favourite record shops to go digging through?
Since I started working at Hard Wax, I have considerably less time for digging than before, but I try to spare some if possible. But then it is mostly shops with second hand vinyl, or flea markets. In Berlin, I like shops like Audio-In, O-Ton, Power Park, Cover Music and some more. I also love checking out shops I haven’t been to before, which luckily enough is still happening. Shops in other cities that I enjoyed the most recently were ZeroZero in Zürich, and A-Musik in Cologne. My favourite shop ever for digging is a store called Plattenkiste, in my hometown Kiel. The sheer amount of rare and good stuff I bought there since the 80’s is just incredible. The owner is not really interested in music, and every record costs 1 €, regardless of format. You have to dig deep, but you will find.
Words by Josh T
After dropping some serious euros on records whilst recently in Berlin, on the flight home we had a brain wave. In a musically inspiring city like the German capital, with all these top DJs buying tunes for their gigs every week, who are the behind the scenes guys who stock the shelves? The guys whose taste so influences our scene. This podcast starts a new mini collection within the Louche Podcast series, a selection of mixes created by dudes who work in record shops around the globe.
First up, Hard Wax Berlin’s House and Disco specialist Finn Johannsen. Working there since 2010, but cutting his teeth before then as a DJ, label owner and music journalist, Finn’s knowledge and taste in the music we love is second to none. Buying in tunes from distributors which are in turn bought by music enthusiasts, DJs or whoever else; Finn’s selections help shape the city’s musical climate. This mix, as you would expect, is sheer class; rolling from house to techno to a bit of proper old electro with consummate ease. Make sure you check Finn’s new Louche Interview to support this podcast to learn more about the guy. Finn Johannsen and the others record shop buyers out there, we salute you!
(printed on a Front T-shirt)
The typical club coordinates in Hamburg in the mid-1980s moved somewhere between mod culture and northern soul or post-punk and wave – in locations such as Kir – and disco preppydom at Trinity, Voilà and Stairways. The port of call was usually chosen by whether the evening plans focused on music and dancing, women or drinking. Some locations would satisfactorily cover all these needs, but in Hamburg it’s always been customary to frequent new locations as soon as an imbalance of these factors becomes too apparent. DJs usually didn’t do any mixing in those days and the music was often quite a wild potpourri of styles, so the nightlife crowd was used to only dancing to a couple of tracks and spending the rest of the night doing other things.
However, a little off the beaten track, near Berliner Tor, there was Front, a club Willi Prange opened in 1983. In 1984, Klaus Stockhausen from Cologne became the resident DJ and like his fellow DJs in others parts of town, he played a mixture of boogie, synthpop, electro, hi-energy and Italo. However, in the eyes of the rest of the city, Front soon had a special status. The main reason for that was probably that most of the guests were gay, that is if one can believe hearsay, who didn’t mind partying the weekend away so far-off from the usual Reeperbahn and Alster area haunts. On the other hand, what was perhaps even more deciding was Stockhausen, who was miles ahead of his colleagues in many ways. I first heard about his amazing DJ skills from one of my best friends, who was a few years older than me and had been frequenting Front since 1984. One evening he’d persuaded Stockhausen to sell him a set of live recordings on tape, for quite a lofty sum – well, the man certainly knew what he was worth.
When I heard the tapes for the first time, I was pretty stunned. I’d always had a weakness for all kinds of danceable music, but what you could do with it when you mix it was totally new to me then. I spotted certain parts of my record collection, but somehow it all sounded different, more energetic and more exciting. There were many instrumental versions, laced with sound effects, scratching and a cappella vocals. You could hear different records playing at the same time, sometimes for several minutes on end, or certain parts for just a few seconds. Most of the time I couldn’t even tell the tracks apart anymore, and I didn’t have a clue how he did it. Moreover, the choice of music was always both very stylish and adventurous. Must be mind-blowing to hear him perform live, I thought.
The nights at Front were already quite a steamy affair at that time, but things really took off at the end of 1985, when Tractor and later Rocco and Container Records started stocking the first house imports. In fact, I only really noticed house when “Jack Your Body” and “Love Can’t Turn Around” suddenly became hits in 1986, but I took an instant liking to it. It seemed like the perfect synthesis of all sorts of club styles, and yet it was also really basic and direct. A promising variation in the chronology of disco music, so to speak. And according to ear witnesses, house was monopolized as of day one at Front, even though there weren’t that many records you could buy, but whatever was available, you could hear it at Front. The European club landscape is admittedly too diverse and extensive to pinpoint where things were actually sparked off exactly, but if you take a look at the musical history books of other countries, Hamburg was in there damn early, without even making a big fuss about it. The regular weekend guests from England certainly seemed to have set out to the touristic wasteland on Heidenkampsweg with full intent to dance and were not there by chance.
The first time I was actually part of the bizarre queue that lined up in good time in front of the stairs leading down to the club was in early 1987. I was almost of age and a little tense. It seemed as if the cool guys around me could hardly wait to be let in by the grumpy moustached geezer who was in charge of the cellar door. The proud majority of the audience consisted of pretty boys in glamorous outfits and half-naked muscle-packed leather types, and there were plenty of them, later to be found on the dance floor, dancing and screaming their hearts out in delight. The club itself was anything but glamorous – “bare” would be putting it mildly. There was nothing on the walls apart from a few emergency exit signs on which the word “danger” blinked from time to time and intermittent slide projections of meaningless phrases like “I mean… is he…” or “…and suddenly…”. The dance floor was surrounded by low platforms with railings which – owing to the low ceiling – meant you were even closer to the nasty tweeter loudspeakers of the sound system that wasn’t exactly good, but it was very effective and, what’s more, very loud. The light-show merely consisted of different-coloured fluorescent tubes, sporadically lighting up the dark dance floor at incomprehensible intervals. And in contrast to other clubs in Hamburg at the time, it was very dark, not to mention the incredible fug of more or less naked bodies that was dripping from the ceiling or channelled back onto the street by the ventilation system, pouring out right next to the entrance as a thick cloud of steam, as if announcing to the outside world like the smoke at a papal conclave what levels of excess had been mutually reached that weekend.
Front was a place that you’d go to in order to dance, rather than to pose, although you could of course also do both if necessary, and wander from left to right, spellbound by the booming splendour. The atmosphere was extremely physical and highly sexed: the Front kids had designed their temple, paying reverence to hedonism with unconditional allegiance. In fact, nothing mattered as long as it was fun. If you left the dance floor, not that anyone would ever want to, the only distraction was a bar with a few benches, one floor down, whose drinks taps were tipped to the beat accompanied by the sounds of partying bar staff – often dressed in torero outfits. Other distractions included the notorious toilets, which were extraordinarily highly frequented and snubbed any notions of segregation of the sexes, as well as a pinball machine that never worked. The exuberance was deliberate, controlled from a DJ area which was very different to those in any other clubs in one respect: you couldn’t see the DJ. It was an elevated dark booth that you accessed through a door from the dance floor, and the DJ – whom you could only catch glimpses of – could look out through two tiny crenels. That had the effect that you concentrated on the music and sometimes it seemed as if it was coming from another world, although you were fully aware, of course, that the master of ceremonies responsible was something special, applauded with screams of delight on the dance floor. Clearly a renunciation of the elsewhere increasingly popular trend of hero-worshipping specific DJs – a trend that was ultimately the reason why Stockhausen laid down his headphones forever in 1991 to pursue an equally successful career as a fashion editor for well-known lifestyle magazines. I only found out many years later what he actually looked like, thanks to a series of photos in a city magazine, though it didn’t really matter anyway. The same went for his highly talented successor Boris Dlugosch, who became Stockhausen’s protégé as of 1986 and took over the baton after he left, directing the next era of the club just as stylishly – as did other DJs such as Michael Braune, Michi Lange, Sören Schnakenberg and Merve Japes. In time, more and more celebrities came, but were hardly taken any notice of.
These conditions didn’t change much in the years that followed. There were rituals like the quadraphonic test record that crackled away with the lights turned off, usually heralding in the final phase with a review of disco classics, though the Front’s sound system made even those sound like they’d been reborn in a ball of lightning. There were various wild and special events plus the annual birthday bash where, believe it or not, everything was turned one notch higher. Unforgotten is also the performance of an innocent busker who, on the outbreak of the first Gulf War, was engaged ad hoc on the high street and nervously played “Give Peace A Chance” on his guitar to an ecstatic audience.
In the developments of house music and all the various different styles emerging from it, Front served as a tough yardstick in the following years. First came the acid phase, which also conquered the rest of Hamburg in other new locations such as Opera House, Shag and Shangri-La, and the first wave of Detroit techno was welcomed with open arms. In those days, trips to clubs in other cities were often rather disappointing by comparison, and you soon looked forward to the next night out at home. In 1989 the New York hybrids of techno and house from Nu Groove and Strictly Rhythm followed, and the post-acid developments from Britain, such as Bleeps or Shut Up And Dance and 4hero, generally referred to as breakbeat techno back then, were also received to some acclaim. When techno started to increasingly define itself in terms of hardness as of ‘91, Front returned to its groove roots, leaving the speed-freaks to get on with it at locations like the first Unit. Overnight, garage and deep house were virtually mixed to new heights under the aegis of Dlugosch, without losing any of the easygoing dynamics on the dance floor: the delirious frenzy just happened to sound a little different now. Front embodied thrust and style and had brought its followers up on house to its best ability, which is why Hamburg never became much of a techno city compared to other metropolises. The club featured in Face, I-D and Tempo magazine as a world-class location and, with Dlugosch, was at least on a par with purely house and garage clubs in the USA and England, and was practically unrivalled on the continent for many years, which was underpinned by the fact that Front soon started to book big names from abroad. DJ Pierre slipped up on Wild Pitch and made up for it with acid meets garage; Mike Hitman Wilson botched up completely; Frankie Knuckles put a towel round his shoulders, placed a bottle of cognac and a desk fan in front of him and then set out to communicate just that; the Murk Boys were mutual love at first sight; and Derrick May didn’t want to stop.
But the first guests also offered insights into other scenes, which got more and more club-goers interested, and competition in Hamburg soared, generally using Front as the benchmark. The gay crowd felt increasingly more corned by prying eyes, and eventually the faces of the first generation gradually stopped coming and started going elsewhere. Not only the spirit of the pioneering age was waning but also the music began to lose its intensity. Even the 24-hour petrol station round the corner suddenly shut down. Nevertheless, like many others I felt privileged to have witnessed the emergence of house, happening live at such a special place that we all still carry in our hearts. At some point the show ran by itself and at other venues – as of ’94, I went there far less frequently, until I got a wake-up call in ‘97 when I suddenly heard about the farewell party. I preferred to remember it as it was in its heyday and decided not to go. Befitting for a truly legendary club, the deco was later auctioned like relics to the highest bidders. But I already had the perfect souvenir and it still adorns my door: the sign of the ladies’ toilets, mysteriously stuck to my T-shirt one Sunday afternoon when I woke up on the floor at a friend’s place still in my outfit from the night before. Those were the days. Klaus Stockhausen is still the best DJ I’ve ever heard and for me the club’s intensity is still unparalleled, minus a bit of sentimental glorification. It left a deep impression on me. Whenever I drive into Hamburg coming from Berlin, I always steal a glance at the Leder-Schüler building and hear music in my head. This used to be my playground.
Many thanks to Walter Fasshauer, Patrick Lazhar and Frank Ilgener.
R.I.P. Willi Prange and Phillip Clarke
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