House music in Switzerland? Mandrax was there in the beginning. Stephan Kohler was the man who brought us the gospel of garage and underground house. Mandrax was our guy in NYC, where he did his weekly mixtapes for radio station Couleur 3. Few European house DJs have witnessed the ’90s like him. And Mandrax had his hour of chart fame: In 2001, the Shakedown hit “At Night” landed Stephan and his brother Seb in the Top of the Pops.
The indisputable truth: Mandrax was the DJ idol of our early twenties. Between ’91 and ’95, our crew of fanboys and fangirls followed him everywhere – which was everywhere our friend Jean-Paul’s car would drive us: to an Art Basel anniversary (where thousands of Swiss francs fluttered from the ceiling, true story), to a superb bash at Kaufleuten in Zürich, to a Chateau near the French Border or to that quite forlorn Garage floor at possibly the biggest rave Switzerland has ever seen (Roggwil ’95). And always we went to the Mad Club in Lausanne, his homebase. Mandrax, we’re tipping our hat.
Stephan, let’s talk about house music epiphanies.
Oh, there were many of those! When I was living in London I went to see New Order and The Happy Mondays in ’86 in Finsbury Park. Mike Pickering was DJing after and listening to him is one of those moments. Another killer experience was when I heard Frankie Knuckles the first time properly! That was on my first outing to the Sound Factory in NYC in ’92. Frankie, the club and the crowd were just on another level. Or hearing Robert Owens perform “I’ll Be Your Friend”. Live from the booth, way before the track got released.
When did you start bringing house to Lausanne?
That was around ’87. Patrick Duvoisin (Rollercone) and me, we organized the first illegal parties. I also DJed there. It was amazing to see hundreds then all of a sudden thousands of people coming to dance in underground venues. To see that thing thing blow up! Particularly when we brought over guests like Kid Batchelor, Adamsky and Seal for the first time.
And your involvement with the Mad club was next?
Well, after we had been throwing illegal parties for a few years, Dolce Vita was the first legal club that was ready to try our house nights regularly in Lausanne. But the next step was a larger place like Mad. I did the first house night there in ’90. I had to convince the owners Pascal and Monique (Duffard) that this music was the future and that their club should give it a go. The first parties were crazy with around two thousand people raving wild, which was a first for them. Then it became a full on dance club, where I’ve had great nights throughout the years. It was the biggest club around for years, and was quite large for a small city, so obviously people were coming from all over the country to dance there.
I’ll never forget those Trixx nights.
The weekly gay Trixx nights were awesome. I played there amongst others for years on Sundays. The vibe in those days was quite magic, and sometimes at Trixx it just wouldn’t end. It’s the place where I played my longest sets. I also played at the first Jungle event, a gay party that was associated with Trixx. That was actually at the Casino de Montbenon, before Jungle moved in at Mad.
How did the radio station Couleur 3 come into the equation? The radio was instrumental in the way it made club music popular in Switzerland.
They were really frisky at the beginning, wouldn’t support anything but commercial funk on Saturdays. Then slowly they opened up for mixshows, but only on weekend nights, would not program dance stuff during the day for years. I was doing a weekly show on Sundays that I would then send from NYC when I was living there. Now Couleur 3 plays a lot more electronic stuff in daytime obviouly. I have a monthly show on Saturdays, but it’s not a mixshow. I program all kinds of stuff and do a bit of talking.
Back then, the scene in the Romandie really lit up. You had DJs like Djaimin and Mr. Mike or Willow.
The scene was very healthy back then, every month there would more people getting into it. Soon there were clubs started in Neuchatel, Geneva or Bienne. Everybody would bring their own take on club music on different nights into those clubs. From ’95 that scene was quite large with a network of clubs and a nucleus of good clubs in Lausanne. Locally, I was always more in Lausanne. Montreux was the turf of Djaimin and Willow who were DJing and Mr. Mike was the MC. They were throwing massive raves at the Casino de Montreux.
Djaimin represented a different sound than yours. Notwithstanding his “Give You” release on Strictly Rhythm.
Back then those guys were into a more European sound. And Willow was clearly into trance as well. I was more on a US underground tip. That is why around ’95 or ’96 I accepted an offer from Stephane Bezençon to go to a fresh new venue, D! club, where the focus would be more on underground house.
And then Robert Owens Sang “I’ll be your friend”: live in THE BOOTH. WAY before IT’S release.
You were often in Paris in the early ’90s, right?
I had a weekly residency in Paris from ’90 to ’91: it was called “Mais Quoi ?” at the Follies Pigalles. House music back then was pretty exclusively a gay thing in Paris while it was huge everywhere else. I met people like DJ Deep or DJ Gregory, we became friends. Later I played for the Respect parties here and there. Yeah, I met a lot of people then and also later when the French invaded Manhattan with their Respect parties. At a certain point, these were the most happening parties in NYC.
Another Parisian, St. Germain, did a shoutout to “Mandrax in Switzerland” in his track “What’s New”.
Yeah, I met Ludo (Ludovic Navarre AKA St Germain) through DJ Deep. At the time I was really pushing garage and deep house which got me the namecheck on this record. I didn’t make much of it back then but I still have people telling me about it now. Which is cool!
When did you move to NYC?
As I had been touring extensively around Europe for a few years by then, I wanted to see something else and NYC was the right destination for that. I started to go back and forth for a few weeks around ’92. I was crashing wherever I could. I was fascinated by the city, the buildings, the people and the music. As soon as I had the chance I got an apartment: first in the East Village and later in the Lower East Side.
That’s when you met Mike Delgado and Tommy Musto?
I met Mike with Matthias Heilbronn. I think I wanted to hear their music to sign it. I really liked the tracks Mike was coming up with and how he was playing the keys. I worked with him on a few things, gigs and records. Mike is a great guy and so is Tommy. I had been playing his records for years, eventually I got my own room in his Northcott studio which was a great environment to work on my stuff and good fun, too.
Also, you had your own label Liquid Groove and your project H20 with Zürich producer and DJ Oliver Stumm going.
Right project and right label. But with the wrong person. I met great people like Billie and Tedd Patterson or John Ciafone from Mood II Swing doing that.
What was the scene like in New York?
I was surprised by the small size of the scene and also by the fact that for such a huge city there weren’t that many house clubs! Hip-hop was big but not house. In Europe all the American artists from that scene were worshipped but in America they were quite sadly ignored. I then realized that the record industry wasn’t interested as the whole house thing was seen as black and gay, therefore not considered interesting economically. I began to travel outside of the US to DJ every two or three weeks to support myself, which was exactly what most of my American colleagues were doing.
Which feels ironic. For a Swiss house DJ.
Yeah. Eventually one of the reasons that made me to move back was that I had gigs in Europe. And I was tired of traveling, too. In Europe I could talk to labels to release my music, but not in the US. My days in NYC made me understand that well-known cycle : music genres that originated as American sub cultures were ignored in the US, boomed in Europe for years and then got repackaged, sold to white America and became profitable years later.
What’s the story behind Shakedown?
I started to make music with my brother Seb when I lived in NYC and he lived in London, which wasn’t practical. But at least it was inspiring! We were getting offers to make a record everywhere, but in NYC we could barely get an appointment with a big record company. After a while we had enough material for an album and I moved back to Lausanne. We released it in France which was a chaotic nightmare, but in England my friend Simon Dunmore broke “At Night” on his Defected label. So it became a hit and from there we had a lot of studio work and I went on to DJ all over the world even more intensely. The funny thing is that “At Night” started with all the underground DJs from left to right playing it. Gradually it went to big clubs then to radio on A list rotation. The whole ladder in a few weeks without compromising much.
You had your Top of the Pops moment back then, jamming in an astronaut’s dress…
When “At Night” blew up we had to do a lot of radio and tv shows. We weren’t exactly comfortable with doing TV shows. When we realized “At Night” was going to be in the top 5 or 10 of Top of the Pops, we nearly flipped out. We were supposed to play in the show where I had seen all my favourite bands I liked as a teenager! Also I think that was a primer for any Swiss band. We had to drink a few beers to loosen up. And I still cringe when I see that video from the show, haha!
What are you up to these days?
I’m involved in all kind of music related activities. I am still making music, working on an album, also occasionally on film soundtracks and I manage all my rights. I DJ a lot less, trying to choose very carefully where I play to make sure that it is worth the experience musically. I have a monthly show on Couleur 3 as well as other radio and tv bits and bobs. I also regularly give school lectures. I just got out of a successful bar/restaurant that I co-owned for 4 years. And I’m working on another project.
What is this project about?
I’m afraid it’s too early to say.
So, you did this mix for us. Oldschool, just like we wanted it.
Ha, I guess I did this for all the people who have been bugging me to do a mix like this for years! So I went in my vault and dug out a few relevant tracks that I have played a lot back then. I never jump into full on nostalgia as there is a lot of good new music coming out all the time. I play old tracks and new tracks, as varied as my tastes go in my current sets. So this mix is not a statement. Just a bunch of cool tracks and memories thrown together for fun.