There are not many DJs who can look back on such a long and successful career as the 54 year old New Yorker Danny Tenaglia. Towards the end of last year he confirmed his extraordinary status once again during a rare visit to Germany where he played at Berlin’s Panorama Bar and Berghain on the same weekend. His enduring popularity can certainly be attributed to his often several hours long sets which still are packed with the most relevant new records of the current day. After all these years, Tenaglia still has his eyes on the future instead of the past. For this interview, though, he made an exception and looks back to the beginnings of his career.
Apparently you got hooked on dance music at a very young age. What led you into it? Were you coming from a musical household, or did you learn by yourself, by listening to the radio for example?
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we (mom, dad and four brothers) had always been around all kinds of music especially during big family gatherings, which were quite often. It was mostly my mom’s side as she was one of nine children. My dad only had one sister and his side was very reserved. All of my mom’s siblings were married and they all had children except for one aunt. This brought me 20 cousins, ten boys and ten girls, and when we all gathered together it was like an army! (laughs) We also had many second relatives and we were all born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is extremely popular these days since it is very close to Manhattan. Back then, Williamsburg was like a big version of Little Italy. When I visit Naples, Italy, it always reminds me so much of my childhood since Naples still looks exactly the same as it did 50 years ago. I can relate so well to the people there and on the island of Ischia as well.
I truly consider that this all started for me when I was only just a tiny fetus inside of what I call: “The Boom Womb Room!“ I guess I was always paying attention to beats, rhythms and melodies long before I knew what they even were. There was always music in my childhood. My mom’s younger sister Nancy was unable to have children of her own. However, she wound up becoming the most influential person in our entire family and had a wonderfully gifted voice. She always had music on. She bought records very often as there was coincidentally a record store right on our block. She even taught herself how to play piano and guitar by ear and this was initially how I learned to play as well.
Our family often had good reason to celebrate events like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, family picnics, local catholic church festivals from the schools we all attended. I grew up listening to a lot of typical music that elderly Italian people would listen and dance to. Besides the obvious traditional music for dancing like the Tarantellas and the big band Benny Goodman swing music, there was plenty of the 50’s Doo Wop music as that’s what was big for them during this era. So I had no choice but too hear it all. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Bossanovas and lots of soul music as well, Motown records particularly. Sometimes I think maybe my family were the ones to have invented karaoke? (laughs) There were many relatives who would love to take turns and sing their hearts out. And to end this deep question, it was most definitely my very dear aunt and godmother Nancy who taught me (and many of us) how to fully appreciate God’s gift of music, how to “feel it deep down in your soul“ and how by the changing of one simple chord that could be played with „great emotion“, it could bring upon unexplainable goose-bumps and quite often – even tears!
Were you aware that the music of those years was extraordinarily important, or was it just what was around then?
I definitely knew in my soul that it was meaningful. But I don’t think I realized how important it all was for me until I passed the age of ten and was realizing what type of music I was loving the most and only wanted to hear music I liked, as I was becoming sick and tired of the Frank Sinatra music and I was not a big fan of ballads and slow music until I eventually got heavily into soul music. I knew that I had possessed an incredibly deep passion for music since birth as relatives and friends would always make it obvious to my parents by saying things like: „One way or another this kid is going to be in the music business when he grows up“, because it basically was the only thing I displayed interest in. I had all kinds of little instruments and child record players, even reel to reel tape machines for kids. However, it did not truly hit me until I was about eleven or twelve when I was quickly finished with some music lessons because I was very young and did not like the discipline and how strict they were with me. They first took me for piano and then guitar lessons. I even attempted saxophone in seventh grade.
I had a great ear for music and which melodies worked together and which ones did not. Unfortunately, I did not posses „the gift“ of mastering an instrument, but I guess that ultimately it was a DJ mixer that became my main instrument of choice that I am stilling playing with today nearly 40 years later.
When you were still a kid, you got to know the prolific DJ Paul Casella, who played a part in turning you onto the profession. Can you tell how that shaped your decision to pursue a career in DJing?
Well, this is where I had then realized instantly at the mere age of twelve years old upon hearing an eight-track tape mixed continuously by Paul that I was somewhat mesmerized by because when I expected a song would end, then another would blend in. Sometimes harmonically on key and sometimes so perfectly that I kept asking my cousin who made this tape and how did he do this and how did he do that? Long story short, I called the telephone number on the 8-Track tape and Paul Casella happened to be nearby and came to our families grocery store and he brought us more 8-Track tapes. He wanted to meet me as he was amazed some little “little kid” was so impressed with him and the art of DJ-ing. I guess it was right around then in 1973 that I never showed much interest in anything else, including sports. I was not interested in any subjects in school, I was only interested in music, becoming a DJ, getting professional DJ equipment and getting gigs in big nightclubs and eventually this obviously led to my second career by nature which was producing music of my own, collecting synths, drum machines and various studio gear.
As you loved the music and heard about what was going down in the seminal clubs of that era, I guess you could not wait until you were old enough to go there yourself. Was it like you had imagined it to be? What kind of clubs could you already go to?
I was barely a teenager, so nightclubs were still a long way for me. But I can recall the anxiety and being extremely envious of my two older brothers, because they would go out often. But their interest was mainly to drink with their friends, meet girls and do what most guys from Brooklyn were doing in 1975. It wasn’t much different than what you can see in the movie Saturday Night Fever, including the fighting! However, when I was about 16 or 17 my older brothers would sometimes sneak me in to a few places which I will remember forever, and then they and other mature relatives and friends would basically chaperone me when I got my first job in a corner bar called The Miami Lounge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was just a few blocks away from our house and the nights were starting at 9 pm, but my parents wanted me home by 1 am. The lounge is still there and it’s walking distance from the new and already famous club Output. The lounge looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970s but it’s now also a restaurant as well. I’m not sure of it’s current name, though.
You then had the privilege to witness some of the most celebrated clubs and DJs in New York like the Loft and the Paradise Garage and numerous others. Are the first impressions of those nights still vivid? Was it every bit as outstanding as it is described up to this day?
Yes, yes and yes! The Paradise Garage, The Loft, Inferno, Better Days, Starship Discovery 1, The Saint, Crisco Disco and many, many more that had come but now are sadly all gone! It’s a shame we don’t have much footage or even great photos of so many of these nostalgic parties and venues. There were so many options back then from all the way in Downtown Manhattan up to 57th Street and from East to West, seven nights a week. We had big venues, small venues, raw underground parties with no decor at all and obvious mega places like Studio 54 and Xenon. Then as the 80s came around we saw lots of changes with all kinds of theme parties at places like The Limelight, Area, Roxy and others. Read the rest of this entry »
For our final podcast of 2013 – vinyl devotee, Hard Wax curator, part-time journalist, Macro co-boss, family man and a damn near impeccable selector, Finn Johannsen steps up.
Having been one of a select few at the helm of the Hard Wax institution since 2010, it comes as little surprise that they would turn to somebody such as the likes of Finn for the coveted position. Casting his net wide, Finn’s general philosophy when it comes to music echoes the sentiments – if you are no longer being stimulated by what you are hearing, then “look elsewhere, or look harder”. Though in his eyes a decidedly necessary standpoint for somebody that has been frequenting clubs since the 80s, Finn’s ability to keep his finger ahead of the pulse demonstrates a breadth of knowledge that shines through heavily both in his selections and writings.
A unique and highly refreshing figure, Finn turns in over two hours of fresh wax for us – with an extreme wealth of wisdom to back it up, take time with both facets of this episode, as there is much to take in.
So we come to you as 2013 draws to a close – as somebody that is so involved with new releases from far and wide through your position at Hard Wax, do you feel 2013 has been a good year for electronic music? Has your wide-ranging palette been mostly satisfied?
There was only one period where I was really bored with House and Techno, that was the mid 90’s. The wild creativity made way for bigger clubs and the according income boost possibilities, and innovations seemed to trickle in comparison to the years before. But then there were other styles emerging, especially in the UK, and as I dug deeper, I also found enough interesting music to keep me hooked. Which since then I had established as a rule for myself. If there is not enough happening in what you are used to, look elsewhere, or look harder. Since then I did not find any year in electronic music disappointing. I took home a lot of good new releases week in week out, year in year out. Discovering a lot of new names, new labels and lost or overlooked obscurities in the process. For me personally, there is still too much music released that tries to recreate something that has already been done, especially when you consider the fact that both the landmark originals and the according copycat records from the same period of time are easily accessible via second hand. But if I were 20 and just becoming aware of certain sounds, it would probably thrill me in the same way. And of course the overall interest in vintage blueprints brought a lot of interesting reissues as well, some of which I did not know before. But generally the amount of previously unreleased or longtime deleted material is not a particularly healthy sign for such a fast evolving culture like club music. And I could not help noticing that the producers and DJs moaning the most about retroesque phenomena were often a bit more seasoned, and also often the ones seemingly failing to deliver the same spark they felt was now lacking. If you have the feeling that things are developing for the worse, take a close look first at what you can do or actually do about it. In any case, what interests me most is what happens next.
In the Critic’s Round Table edition of RA’s Exchange in August, you state that personally, “surprises” when going out or listening to music are fewer and further between. Though you also state that this is to be the natural state of things when you have been engaged in both activities for as long as you have and those pioneering years have well and truly past.
We’re interested to know what some of these more recent surprises have been and what it takes to grab your attention when you have been steeped in this history and culture for such a significant period of time. And do these increasing lapses between ever cause you to lose some of your vigour for the scene?
I started collecting records in the mid 70’s, 6 years old, and sneaked my way into clubs in the early 80’s. And I still buy records and go out. So a certain degree of recurrences is just natural. Hype tends to move in circles. There are shoes I still like to wear that have been in and out of fashion so many times that I simply do not care anymore if they are fashionable or not, and the same applies to music or club nights. Music production is so standardized by software today that it is unlikely that someone comes up with a sound unheard of before, and using analogue gear does not guarantee an individual signature sound either. For some time now, a lot of interesting innovations in electronic music happen in the realm of recontextualization, deconstruction and interpretation of certain traditions. And if it is done with enough fresh ideas to add a new perspective, I do not mind that at all. I look out for artists who have their own sound. And I must add that in that aspect it does not matter if a producer able to do that is just surfacing or has been around for a longer time. I do not make a big difference between artists refining their own sound, or artists just establishing it. The main difficulty is trying to remain relevant, and I salute everybody trying and succeeding. Thus for example, I had the same pleasure with artists like Mark Pritchard, Soundstream, Pépé Bradock, Terrence Dixon, Kode9 or Terre Thaemlitz still doing their thing as it should be done, as with newer artists like Tapes, Call Super, DJ Richard, Gorgon Sound, Moon B, Aquarian Foundation or MGUN, who are just in the process of developing their own creative persona. There are many more fine examples for both camps, of course. For inconsiderate omissions, please consult what I charted and mixed in 2013. Read the rest of this entry »
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
We go back in the days when DJ rooms only existed as an expanding Facebook page. Finn Johannsen, author, label owner and DJ from Berlin sent us his wonderful room, packed full with records. Of course we’ve had a little interview with him…
Tell us and our readers, when you started DJing:
“I’m playing records in public since the mid-80’s”
What else can you tell us about you:
“I’m an author for several mags (de:bug, resident advisor, sounds like me, groove and numerous other print and web publications). I’m also co-running the label Macro Recordings, and working at Hard Wax. I live in Berlin”
The size of your record collection?
“I think around 8000 records”
What equipment do you use in your room?
“2x Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntables, 1x Ecler SmacFirst mixer, 1x Yamaha RX-495RDS Receiver, 1x Harman Kardon HD7300 CD Player, 2x 1970′s Bang & Olufson speakers, 2x JBL Control 1 Pro monitor speakers, 1x Sony MDR-7506 headphones, 1x Technics Stereo Cassette Deck RS-TR373, 1x Technics Cassette Deck RS-B675″
Your record choice for the lonely island?
“Sister Sledge – Thinking Of You”