Most of you will know Thomas Hammann from his mix CD for Live at Robert Johnson, a collaboration with Gerd Janson. Hammann is a DJ since the early 80s and few have soaked up German house history like him: What fire Ata Macias kindled with the Wild Pitch Club during the mid-nineties in Frankfurt, Thomas Hammann ignited at the Kesselhaus in nearby Darmstadt. In July, Thomas debuted as a producer on Workshop, under the name 808 mate: with nothing less but a Grace Kelly of a house track, luminously beautiful. In the interview Thomas talks about Ricardo fooling the police back in the days, why a good track always remains a good track and the sorrowful process of having to close down your record shop.
ROOF.FM: You just finished working at your recordshop Pentagon in Darmstadt. How are things going?
THOMAS: Well, it’s a sad time for me, because we’re closing it down soon. People don’t realize that. I’ve been running this shop for fifteen years, but this process of saying good bye is taking way too long. Sale has been going on for weeks. No, this is not a fun time.
When will Pentagon close?
In three weeks (Editors note: the interview was conducted on the 9th August 2012). The shop started as a record shop only. But as vinyl sales started shrinking, we started selling more and more fashion. Which is okay, but I never really got into it. Records were always my love.
So what will you do next?
I’ll take some time off first. I plan to launch a new project in the beginning of 2013, a 2.0 version. Right now I’m developping new ideas. You have to come up with a very special recipe as a small shop, to counter the enormous offer in the web.
House music was always the main thing at Pentagon?
Yes. We had a good back stock, going from disco edits to house classics. The nice stuff we stashed away, so that younger buyers could have a go at it years after. When I took over the shop fifteen years ago, it was a pure techno shop. Little by little, we brought in our sound and then changed the direction completely. Some people in Darmstadt were disappointed, because they would no longer find their Chris Liebing records…
When did you start playing house records?
I started mixing in 1983. I used to make electro mixtapes and sell them in my school so I could buy more records. One day, in the early Nineties I was at the Black market record shop in London which at the time had a very good PA. That’s when the holy house-spirit came over me (laughs). The classical NYC gospel house sound, which I didn’t get until then, suddenly it made all perfect sense. It’s a dedication that has never left me since.
Your passion for house music resulted in a residency at the now fabled Kesselhaus. At a time when techno ruled the German scene.
Yes, when we started organizing pure house events at the Kesselhaus, the techno dominance from Frankfurt was very much a reality. It was difficult in the beginning, but soon things caught fire and it turned out to be a lot of fun, so we started doing it regularly. In Frankfurt, they had a similar thing going at the Wild Pitch club.
Ricardo Villalobos also hails from Darmstadt. From what I heard, he threw some great parties back then…
Yes! We owe a lot to Ricardo. He organized illegal parties in the cellar of his parents house or in a defunct slaughterhouse and brought over people like Chez Damier. Once, he broke into the brickwork of a future Aldi supermarket and used the breaker box as a power source. When the police came, Ricardo produced a fake permission and off they went. There were things going like this all the time. Those were very lively days!
What remains of this legacy in Darmstadts club scene today?
There are very few people from back then still active in the scene today. I try to uphold a certain oral culture by telling kids in my shop how it was back in the days and it seems to inspire them to do their own thing: they make illegal parties in the forest or some derelict buildings.
Are you still hosting parties in Darmstadt?
A friend and I have been trying to establish a monthly venue in the past one and half years. It’s called Back2Life. The motto is “uptempo-dance music”, embracing soul, funk, disco and mostly house. But apart from that it’s a bit difficult around here. Luckily, Frankfurt is near.
Some PEOPLE stopped playing certain records, because they became too popular. I don’t give a rats ass if a record no longer is cool: if I feel like it, I’ll PLAY it any time.
Gerd Janson, who is a longtime DJ companion of yours, in an interview once waxed lyrical about the unexcited way you let your records fuse…
I never lost many thoughts about my mixing. I guess it all comes from intuition, I never prepare sets. I always carry too many records in my bag and I then just try to go with the flow. I suppose it’s the same way it works with the DJs I admire most. They don’t have a masterplan, they just have good antennae and can pick up the vibe and transfer that into sonic gold.
Who impresses you as a DJ?
For a very long time, Theo Parrish was my ultimate hero. Then maybe the last two couple of times I saw him, I wasn’t so thrilled. Two years ago, I heard Harvey play at the Robert Johnson. And that was the first time in ten years that I danced nonstop for six hours, while I could have asked the name of any record he played. It was a total blueprint of DJ set. I never experienced anything like it: Insanity!
Speaking of the Robert Johnson: Tell me how your Liquid night came into being.
Well, one day in 2001 Ata called me in the shop and asked me to start a night and that I could bring someone with me. So I aksed Gerd Janson and Sven Helwig to join, who were the most ambitious young djs I knew.
The Live at Robert Johnson mix you completed with Gerd was a result of these Liquid nights?
Yes, Gerd wanted to do it with me, as he felt it necessary to tell the story oft the Liquid club nights.
Did you record the mix at Robert Johnson?
We tried to, but due to technical difficulties we ended up doing it in my place.
If you look at today’s DJ scene, what springs to mind?
I’m bothered by the fact that some people have developped a kind of elitist separation complex: they have stopped playing certain records, because apparently these records have become too popular and are now being played by the wrong people. I believe a good record stays a good record, no matter what. I really don’t give a rats ass if the record no longer is deemed to be cool: if I feel like playing it, then I’ll do so at any time.
How has the game of record collecting changed since the mid-nineties?
I keep being astonished by the knowledge these kids have nowadays. In our time, it took us a long time to get there, we did it by our own digging experience. But I think it’s great that people can now amass so much knowledge in such few time. The sheer information that’s available at a mouse click. All the secret lore we had: it’s gone now (laughs). But I guess it’s okay that way.
You recently released your first track, “Retina Dreams” under the moniker 808 Mate. There’s a yearning I sense in there, a feeling one also gets from your mixes. Was that intentional?
Good question. By chance I got some equipment and I locked myself in for a weekend. And that’s how If you play long enough on a keyboard, after a while it feels it no longer comes from your heard. A melody just grows that way. What you described with yearning: I was always a sucker for these melancholic house tracks, like New Day on Main Street.
Reduction seems to be something you strive for as a producer?
I’m totally fascinated by a classic simplicity. To create something big with very little, that’s what it’s all about. If I will achieve that one day, then I’ll be a happy man. Like the KMS 49 by Chez Damier. Timeless beauty.
How did “Retina Dreams” end up at Workshop?
Well, after the weekend I finished the track, I listened to it in my shop and then Paul David from Workshop came in and asked me what was playing. I answered: Ah, that’s just a demotape. But then he started drilling me until I told him. He signed the track right away.
What are you up to next?
The last four or five months I didn’t do much in the studio. Though I hope this will change, I have a couple of tracks that may have some potential. But first things first: I’ll have to close down my shop properly.