True-school disco. True-school electro. True-school reggae. True-school anything: Finn Johannsen – DJ, Macro co-owner and Hardwax employee – has been collecting vinyl since the age of six. As a taste-maker, he commands a sky-high authority: embracing both the old and the new, he truly is a record king of future past. And he can tell you a story or two about club culture. Which is why we made we made an extensive interview with him. Thank you, Finn, for all the inspiration.
Finn, what memories do you have of your first DJ set?
It was mostly playing records at school and private parties from the mid 80s on, playing a variety of disco, soul, synthpop and post punk. I’d like to remember that as eclectic, but probably chaotic would be the more apt description. Actually my memories of my first forays into playing out in public are bit hazy by now. After all, that was nearly 30 years ago. What I vividly remember was a soul allnighter in a basement club of my hometown of Kiel, in ’86 or ’87. Actually it was a whole Mod Weekender, with several events all across town. My friend Ralf Mehnert, who became a well respected Rare Soul collector and DJ, and me took over the Soul part of the proceedings, playing records for a crowd that consisted of mods and other hip folks, but predominatly drunk scooter boys. Somebody saw them standing outside, mistook them for skinheads, and alerted the most notorious local Turkish street gang. They arrived not much later, crashing the door and storming down the stairs, only to face quite a crowd of completely unimpressed heavy parka-clad folks. Ralf and me ducked away in the DJ booth and things got really messy. About 30 minutes later there was no intruder left and the party continued as if absolutely nothing had happened. There were numerous other similar experiences. Kiel was quite a tough city, probably still is.
Can you re-engineer what influence being a small town boy – born and raised in Kiel, in Northern Germany – had on your musical education?
I did not really feel limitations. There were record stores as Tutti Frutti or Blitz which were very well selected with electronic music of the 80s, Punk, and experimental stuff. And quite a number of second hand stores to choose from, where I mostly bought soul, disco and obscure 60s and 70s records. Some of those acquired bigger record collections from Danish libraries and sold each record for 2 Deutschmarks, regardless of format. I purchased the bulk of my disco collection in those years, for example. You did not have to spend much, so you would explore what you would have otherwise not listened to. I had a lot of friends who were very interested in music, and there was a constant exchange of knowledge, good and bad finds. It was all very social. I made regular record shopping trips to Hamburg, too. There were plenty of excellent record shops there, for everything of interest to me. I always looked for dance music of any kind, and Hamburg had stores that were importing records since the disco era. They had the contacts and the knowledge.
And as for the clubs?
I did not mind being in a smaller town either. There were quite a few. The DJs mostly did not mix much and played all over the board stylistically. There was a tendency to play music in topical blocks. A 30-minutes block of disco, followed by a 30-minutes block of new eave, then hip hop, then some rock, then soul, then slow songs, then everything all over again. Once a few tunes worked together and on the floor, the DJs tended to rely on the according selection and did not change it for what seemed to be years. That drove me mad, but in retrospect I could hear lots of different music in one single night, and that left a mark on me. You learn about the contexts of what you hear, and how they relate to each other. I still make use of that. I travelled a lot, and I have been to a great number of clubs in my life, but when I moved to Berlin I was already in my early 30s. I spent my formative years up North. I did not move because I had to get out either, I left because the job situation was difficult for me. If I would had found an interesting job at that time, I probably would have stayed. I still go back regularly, I have family and friends there, and I still miss the sea.
You were born into club life by the sets of Klaus Stockhausen at Front Club in Hamburg, when you were dancing the nights away at the age of 18. What made this experience so fundamentally alluring to you?
I started going to clubs in Kiel in the early 80s, 12 or 13 years old, then to Hamburg clubs only a few years later. Most clubs in Hamburg were not as different to Kiel as they maintained to be, but the people had arguably more style and the music was more specialized. You went to certain clubs for a certain kind of music. I had been to some gay clubs in Kiel before, but they seemed to be stuck with a soundtrack that had been tried and tested for years, classic disco anthems and the occasional Schlager drama excursion, and the scene was not that open. You often felt like the stranger entering the saloon, and the crowd often was more made up by people with a common taste in music and fashion that just happened to be gay. A lot of 80s fops and some sugar daddies. It could be fun, but more often it was not. These people had to live with other prejudices and repressions than just getting beaten up for the style of the subculture you had chosen for yourself, like I did, and you did not belong.
At Front Club I witnessed all crucial developments right on the floor, played by the best DJs. And dancing to it in the best club with the best crowd.
And Front Club was different?
Absolutely. When a friend took me to the Front Club in early 1987 that was dramatically different. The crowd was predominantly gay, but if you were not, like me, nobody seemed to care. I was aware of the major role gay subculture played in the evolution of dance music, mostly by reading features about legendary disco clubs in magazines, but they were about Bianca on that horse for instance, and not about what was booming from the speakers as she rode in, which was exactly what interested me most. Front was the first club where I could actually experience it, and even be a part of it. And Klaus Stockhausen was the first DJ I ever heard who did not only play records, he mixed them. Like no other I heard ever since. It was not that I did not know any of the music before, but he was transforming the records into something else. And the club itself was incredibly intense, I have never witnessed something like that again either. A dark, gritty basement filled to the brim with extravagant people who completely lost their minds on the floor. And my first visits were coincidentally a good timing, because it was the transitional period between the music played there from 83 on, and House. House was introduced there much earlier, but it still was not ruling the playlist. It was brilliant to hear Stockhausen play favourites I loved from the years before, and more often records I never heard, and then the added early Chicago house sounds that seemed to have swallowed decades of dance music history only to spit them out as this raw, primitive version of it. It fit the club perfectly, and soon I was heading over to Hamburg on weekends as much as I could, because I simply could not get enough of the experience. That lasted until around 1995, and then I took up a residency in Kiel for almost ten years, and it kept me well occupied. But just think of all the incredible music released between 1987 and 1995. It really were the blink and miss years of what we still hear today, and I could be witnessing all crucial developments right on the floor, played by the best DJs, and dancing to it in the best club with the best crowd. Good times.
When did you start collecting records? During those blink and miss years?
No, much earlier. The little money I had I spent on records since I was about 6 years old. My parents gave me a record player, and the Forever Elvis compilation, plus radio and cassette recorder and they were my favourite toys by then. Especially the radio was very important. I spent endless hours recording music from the radio, cursing presenters for talking too much over songs I liked. And the hit music played on the radio in the mid 70s was just great. Chic and Roxy Music were probably my favourite bands. And all those weird and wonderful glam tock acts. But luckily enough I had also a chance to catch the music from early on that was not deemed fit for airplay. I had an uncle who had the idea to buy record collections at judicial sales, and he often gave me the records he did not like. Thus I could become the proud owner of Can’s Monster Movie or the first Suicide album and several obscure Soul albums when most of my classmates were still just listening to the charts. I know this sounds terribly made up, but it is the truth. And at a very young age you tend to play your favourite records over and over and over, your relationship to music is very intimate and deep. Soon I felt quite confident in my taste, and I was spending more and more time and money on music. But I actually had not the faintest idea how much great music there really was out there to discover, and I had yet to meet the right people to share my passion for it. That changed as soon as I could sneak my way into clubs.
Former RA editor Todd Burns called you a DJ who “favours versatility over fluidity”. Do you feel content with that characterization?
Well, I am able to play a homogeneous flow for a whole set, but I am not much interested in that. I like breaks and detours, and I like DJs who are able to change gears completely with two or three records, or even just one. So yes, I like versatility. If I hear the same sound for too long I simply get bored. There is so much interesting different music to discover and play, and I just was not socialized with this streamlined approach to DJing, and I get along with that fact just fine. But even when you decide to play a certain style, it still does not mean that every record has to sound just like the one before and after. I like a lot of DJs who can maintain a vibe and lock the crowd with it, but I guess it is just not who I am. I hope I can achieve some fluidity with versatility. I like to do topical mixes though, where I shed light on certain aspects of music I find interesting. And sometimes I even do that in a club context, if the setting allows it. But recording mixes and playing in a club for me are two separate things. In a club I am a different DJ than elsewhere, both in terms of mixing and selection. I also do not drink and smoke as much at home.
So, what is the mix you did for us about?
When I recorded the mix, this is what I would have included in my bag for a gig when intending to play more recent releases that stand out from the rest, to my ears at least, and few chance finds from the shelves I have not used in a while. I made a few more special statements with other radio shows or podcasts, but I would like to avoid that becoming a routine. These are my favourites of June 2015, and that’s it. Oh, and the last song is a shout out to Superpanzer, a sadly defunct best friends’ band from Kiel. With all due respect, and friends will be friends.
I like breaks and detours, and I like DJs who are able to change gears completely with two or three records, or even just one.
You belong to a generation that was initiated to club music on the dancefloor and in the record store. In the pre-Internet, pre-Discogs and pre-Shazam-days, getting a proper old school education. Still, do you envy nowadays’ club kids for some of their ways of growing into electronic music?
You forgot radio, magazines, books and friends telling you about things. Trying to learn about music any other way would have not led up too much. It amuses me when younger people moan how difficult it is to get a hold of a certain record right now. It is not comparable at all to the efforts you had to endure years ago. And then you might have finally identified something, and you still had to purchase it. And now you know about music and purchase it with a few clicks. I can hardly blame anybody for feeling totally comfortable with that, and I use it as well. But I have thousands of records and I can probably tell how and where I bought most of them, with stories and memories attached. And the longer you look for a certain record, the more satisfying it is to find it last. I often caught myself buying records from my wantlist online, only to tick them off as done. This did not happen once with records it took me a while to purchase. Or in the 90s I had a crate of mixtapes, and I knew them all by heart. Now I have thousands digitally, and I can only scratch the surface. I’m a hoarder by nature, and it feels good having them, but I cannot develop a deeper relationship to files. I do not really envy the easier access to music. It makes perfect sense to me to utilize it for your purposes, I would not do it any other way given the choice now, but all those convenience aspects swallowed the mystique of finding music. To me, it used to be much more relevant what you had, and more importantly, what you did not have. Now it is just a matter of budget. And the value you attach to music is more economical than emotional. If you never experienced that, why would you miss it? I often do. But I am just busier now with work commitments than I used to be, and I’d rather spend my free time with my wonderful wife and my wonderful daughter instead of digging through crates and crates and crates. Then again I did dig for too long already, I will probably never lose the urge completely.
You’re known as a roots-loving and future-embracing music lover in equal measure. Are you more of a cultural optimist than a pessimist?
I’m a realistic optimist. I like to know where what is coming from, but for my work it is more crucial to be interested in where things are heading to. I’m not as nostalgic as some might think. I’m ever curious. When I’m dissatisfied with new music it is mostly because it sounds like something I already know, but not adding much else. But I’m certain there will always be enough ideas to push things forward. Pioneering days are always easier, there are less precedences. But I can remember not one year I bought considerably less records because I found nothing interesting. If I do not find, I look harder.
Still, I have the impression that the quality of club music has never been as high and interesting as these days, due to the simple fact that more people produce more music.
I think there is an avalanche of mediocrity due to the simple fact that more people produce more music. A lot of DJs need to produce because otherwise they get no gigs, for example. And a lot of them are better DJs than producers. Producing is much much easier than it used to be, but a lot of people just toy around with other people’s ideas and do not wait for any feedback before they put something out that is just generic at best. I think your impression derives from the fact that the easier production access also applies to more talented producers who could not afford musical equipment before. But if they do use the same software as less talented producers, they run the risk of sounding similar, only with better ideas. So, easier access to production means more quantity in both negligible and interesting music. But it does not mean the same quantity of music that sounds significantly different. And the less interesting music is blocking the view. But if said ideas are good enough, you can still get recognized.
Since an avalanche of mediocrity is blocking the view, as you put it, the role of the pre-selector or taste-maker – like yourself – has gained more momentum.
You really cannot expect anybody to keep up with all the music that is being released. Even if you really have absolutely nothing else to do, it is still impossible. And that just applies to the music that is directed your way through numerous media and purchasing platforms, it does not even include you setting time aside to explore music on your own. So filters have become more relevant, either through media, distribution, record stores, or DJs. You look for something or someone you can rely on. It is not a good sign if you have to wade through tons of reviews or releases that are not worth your while. If you browse the stock at Hard Wax or other stores with a similar approach and size, it is very likely that you do not have to spend too much time listening to that kind of music, because it has already been rejected in the buying process for the store. Of course every store has different criteria, but there are enough choices to find the one that fits your taste best. Of course you cannot buy for a store just based on your personal preferences, but you can and should try to separate the good from the bad. And you can highlight the releases that really stand out. You can of course also look for DJs who deliver the same results. It means a lot of pressure to handle that adequately, but it is very important. One of the reasons that Hard Wax is still so successful is that we apply a very rigid quality control. Nobody is safe from mistakes in that aspect, but they should remain an exception to the rule.
Easier access to production means more quantity in both negligible and interesting music. And the less interesting music is blocking the view.
You’ve started working at Hard Wax a couple of years ago. What’s the main lesson you’ve learnt?
That it takes way more work than I thought to keep it as thriving as it is. I knew it was unlike most other record stores, but I underestimated the level of identification and expectation people all over the world direct towards it. And the amount of responsibility required to fulfill that. I also learnt something about myself. Even if I am at the store for years now, I am most happy when the boxes with the new releases arrive. And there are always enough records I like to keep me looking out for the week after. Once that feeling stops or even dwindles, I probably should do something else.
In what ways has working at Hard Wax changed your outlook on the records industry?
When I started working at Hard Wax, I basically switched sides. I lost a lot of illusions along the way, past recovery. I am in a position where I can actively support music I find interesting, and I try to deal with that in a good way. But the music industry is as bad as it always was, probably worse, and it will not change for the better. Right now everything is really fragile on a shaky ground, future uncertain. But as long there is a chance to make difference, I will stick to it. And I spent a year away from the music business a while back, working as a copy editor at a big publishing house for art books. Only to realize that the art business is much worse. So I might as well work with what I enjoy most.
I remember your Facebook post in 2012 announcing the white labels from the second Headhigh record. It went something like “Hot Wax: Unknown – Rave – Evar”. I read in a magazine that this record later turned out to be the best-selling record in the history of Hard Wax. Was there a point when you started frowning at the “hype” surrounding that record?
It was actually not the best selling record in Hard Wax history.
Which one was?
I have no exact figures for you, but just take a look at all the releases by Basic Channel and the affiliated labels. Or any other items distributed by us that have constantly been in print since they originally came out. Or the back catalogue of Jeff Mills for example, which was available until very recently. Those are different measures. Probably we sold more units of other Shed releases than this particular one. But this was the record where the supply was comparably most disproportionate to the demand, unintended, and it meant some really busy working hours. We could satisfy anybody soon enough with an official version, but the buzz sure was a bit worrying. I prefer a situation where there is a measurable interest in a record and you can satisfy any customer or retailer right away and for good. We are not interested in creating hype, and we certainly do not speculate with it. Hype mechanisms make our job more difficult. But you cannot really stop releases from being hyped. You can only try to handle the result as good as you can.
How fares Macro, the label you co-run with Stefan Goldmann?
It fares very well. We still just do what we want to do, and there are a lot of people who are interested in what we do. These days, we consider that quite an achievement, and we are very grateful that we can operate that way. But we also spent a lot of time on achieving that, and will still spend to maintain that. The label is a very personal matter for both of us, we will only let it go if there is no other way.
What’s the record you’re most proud of having released and why is that?
The Catholic album by Patrick Cowley & Jorge Socarras. I think this will remain the one release to tell stories about for years to come. From the point where Stefan Goldmann was handed a CDr of these unreleased recordings to the actual release date we spent one and a half years of hard work on it, but I do not regret it at all. A once in a lifetime incident, we just had to do it. There are so many incredible stories attached to this album. Jorge Socarras had a cassette copy of the recordings, and thought it was the only one in existence for thirty years. But the original reels were in storage in the basement of former Megatone label head John Hedges, where they were discovered by chance by the DJs who helped him move. They had invited Stefan to play at their party and the rest is history.
Well, up to this release Patrick Cowley was the seminal Hi-NRG producer legend and one of the first known celebrities to pass away due to AIDS. We were surprised how few public photographs existed of someone so famous, and how little biographical background information. It was all about his legacy as a hit producer and a key figure for electronic dance music. The recordings we were given showed a very different side of him as an artist. More Post Punk than Disco, rather dark and seedy than bright and flamboyant. Very openly gay lyrical content, which was not a common thing in the mid to end 70s, when the tracks were recorded. And of course Jorge Socarras had other qualities as a singer than Sylvester or Paul Parker. In a lot of ways the music on Catholic was way more radical than what it preceded in Cowley’s career, even if his success with combining electronic music with floor appeal was way more lasting. And we were so happy to be able to show a different side to Cowley’s music that was previously unheard of. It was quite confusing, and disappointing, that most Disco scholars were refusing to reconsider their image of Patrick Cowley subsequently. But I’m very proud of having contributed to the fact that it could hardly be denied any longer. The whole project also taught me a lot about Patrick Cowley himself, both as an artist and as a person. And about Jorge Socarras, who is quite a legend himself, and became a good friend. It was often a painful process for the people involved who knew Patrick Cowley, and whom we asked to contribute, with information and photographs and so on. He meant so much to them that they were both glad the music was finally coming out and sad, because all the grief about his untimely demise came back to life again.
What mistakes have you made along the way that have been instructive as to how you run the label now?
We had successful releases we did not expect, and less successful releases we did expect more of. But that’s it. These are not mistakes, and we would have done it anyway. I can claim that we do run the label as we used to in 2007, when we founded it. There were no failures that forced us to run Macro differently, and opposed to what we set it out to be. And I would rather let it be than compromise, and Stefan most probably thinks the same.
And what can expect in the future from Macro?
Already in the pipeline are 12“s by Stefan himself, L’estasi Dell’oro, Rroxymore, and a very exciting band we just signed. There might be more happening along the way that we do not have on our radar yet, which is exactly how we like it.