Once you got a chance to talk to Nick Höppner, especially shortly after release of his insanely good Panorama Bar 04 mix, try not to force him into talking about the most obvious topics – his curatorial effort as a chief of Ostgut Ton label,
We did it all. And yet he had so much to tell! Specifics of playing at Berghain/Panorama Bar – the present-day home of techno and house music and his view on GEMA tariffs.
Perhaps he’s the one who’s changing things in club music nowadays, but, first and foremost, he opens the space for the change to occur. He lifts the curtain on the spontaneity of the art of mixing, not waving his arms, club antics, as well as on the future of Ostgut Ton and the idea behind Unterton label. Oh yes, and why he hasn’t issued any piece of his own music for quite a long time.
Jacek Plewicki: What seems to me quite extraordinary in your recently issued Panorama Bar 04 mix, as well as in your sets at Berghain, that you use two radically different types of transitions between tracks – swift passages go along with contrasting of the consecutive tracks. Is it a kind of strategy you use?
Nick Höppner: I don’t think it’s a real conscious decision – that’s coming from the music itself. I’m interested in both ways of mixing. I really like to play long mixes, when both tracks sound together for a long time and they really match, it’s also really great when beats play off each other and create something new. Like this old idea of creating something especially for-that-moment that hasn’t been done before. On the other hand, it’s very effective to, as you said, to create a contrast between one record and the next. That’s also in line of my ambition as a DJ to play different stuff, various kinds of techno and house music within a relatively short amount of time. I’m really fond of things changing a lot in a short period of time. That’s where it’s coming from.
That’s interesting, because in your interview for The Quietus you want club music to be relatively simple – the simpler it gets, the better it is.
The question was if I was agreeing with the quote from Scuba – that the best music is always simple. I don’t think that goes for every kind of music, but it’s certainly for dance music, based on 4/4 kick. There’s a certain formula to it which is tried and tested that works really well. You can do something really cool with 3 or 4 elements.
But what about a certain feeling of uneasiness? For example, contrasting two tracks, or a certain switch in your mix may sometimes result in a brief pause from dancing and then, after this change, people somehow decide to go on. What do you think about techno music involving this kind of language?
I think that’s cool, but in general my DJ-ing is not as thought out. Of course, I have an idea about what you want my DJ set to be – I want it to be coherent and varied at the same time. I want to surprise as well which involves contrasting things, sometimes it’s really cool just to cut from one track to the next, and from time to time it’s good to have a really long blend. But I’m not consciously planning all of this stuff. When I pack my bag at home, I just say to myself “this one is a great record, I would like to play it”, but I’m never thinking about matching records in this stage of preparation, I’m not thinking about the entire set. When I’m starting to play I always think about first three or four records, so I can tune in easily – but it’s completely spontaneous. It’s obviously restricted by the number of records I got in my bag.
How much of them are you actually bringing to the performance?
I always travel with the same bag that fits approximately 80 records, with one track in mind from each of them. Apart from that 80 tracks, I got 2 USB sticks with digital files – it’s a lot more, but I mostly use it for promos and unreleased stuff.
When asked about the advantages of vinyl, Mark Fell from SND responded that it’s best not because of the quality, but because you can physically observe the time that passes. What do you think about the notion of time in context of club music, especially when you think about extended sets at Berghain?
Timing is very important for a DJ. I think that’s one of the main skills of a DJ. Sometimes it’s really cool to play a record just for a half of its actual length, because then it gets redundant. Some records are just a kind of tool, like bridge in song formula – you play them very shortly to get from one place to another.
But I’m not sure that using vinyl is allowing you to feel the timing better, because all the digital tools are allowing you to observe the waveform of tracks. Timing-wise, these tools are even better, because you don’t have to know all of your tracks so well, it’s easy to find the breakdown, and the next one and so on…
I’m sorry to introduce this topic so suddenly – but, thinking of GEMA regulation in its current form, do you mind describing consequences of passing it?
I think it’s a significant threat to any kind of club. But there are some differences – Berghain, Watergate, Weekend or KaterHolzig – the major clubs in Berlin – won’t be as affected as, let’s say, small clubs or live venues, which are focused on some special, niche sound – presenting experimental sound that’s obviously attracting smaller audiences.
Things will get more expensive, but the biggest clubs all over Germany will manage – still, it’ll be reasonable, comparing to other European cities – Paris, for example, is 3 times more expensive…
But raising entrance fees is inevitable…
It will have to get more expensive – for example Berghain is going to pay 10 times more in GEMA fees than it does right now. But it’s manageable – the problem is not that authors or creators of music should have a bigger share – I’m totally up for it – the problem is how GEMA is accounting for it and how the money is distributed. The amount they’re asking for right now is still not justified. Another difficult question for club management is that it will take a longer time to decide whether this is right or not than January 1st. The solution that is proposed right now is that every club has to pay the money that is due beforehand, and they might get it back only if the case is decided in their favor, after a certain period of time. That’s a big insecurity – they don’t know what kind of actual money they’ll have to pay.
GEMA is waterproof, the law is on their side. What’s important right now is the reformation of the system of the money distribution. That can only be achieved only from the inside of GEMA-– only after 6 years and proving a lot of things they can accept you as a full member. There’s this three-stage membership system – you can be on a low, middle or on a top level of this structure. GEMA is representing 65000 artists and only 3600 are allowed to decide on its policy – this sum comprises of mostly mainstream artists, doing music for advertisements and stuff. They’re a super-strong lobby and they know how the system works. So every time GEMA members come together (which happens twice a year), they vote in their own favor. It’s all about lobbying from the inside, so every techno or house or experimental producer that’s a member of GEMA, should take the responsibility, make an effort to influence the policy of this institution. That’s one of the few ways to actually change something, because GEMA doesn’t have to give in to the public pressure, which is, at the moment, enormous. Legally, they’re fine.
What seems quite funny in this context is that it seems to me that this year you haven’t issued any record of your own music so far. Last years you claimed that you plan to release an EP every year…
Yeah, that is the case, I just don’t have time for that – I’m a father, I’m bringing 10-months old twins which requires a lot of time. I’m also managing a label, playing on the weekend but I went back to the studio a couple of weeks ago and I’m going to issue a track on Danish echochord color imprint. The guy running a label is also curating Culture Box club – it’s really nice and I’m playing there regularly, so I decided to give him a track that he really liked. Deadbeat, a friend of him, is going to remix it – it will come out in October. Recently, I also did a remix myself for a Dauwd. It will come out on small label called Pictures Music. Ostgut Ton schedule is already filled, so I wasn’t able to put it out there.
What’s the method for selecting records published on Ostgut and Unterton?
The idea for Ostgut was always pretty clear – it was always meant as a platform for the residents of Berghain and Panorama Bar and closely related artists. In the beginnings it was solely dedicated to the residents but other artists that we publish have a long-standing connection to the club.
But you’re the one who decides whose turn is right now?
No, actually it’s really down to artists themselves – whether our artist has some record available or not. If someone hasn’t done a record for a long time for us comes up with new music (of a proper quality), then there’s no question if we’re releasing it ASAP. There’s no classic A&R-ing involved. The only thing restricting our policy is time – there’s no possibility of releasing a record once a week or so.
The concept behind Unterton is that there isn’t a concept at all, except for the packaging. It’s a hand-stamped white-label thing, but we’re actually spending quite a lot of money on it. For the second release we actually manufactured green-paper sleeve and there was a yellow label that was still handstamped – we’ll continue to do so in the future. Next time it’ll be a clear vinyl in silver – it’ll always be the same – one color for the sleeve, different one for the label which is then handstamped.
You may describe Unterton as a kind of playground – we don’t even know what no. 3 will be – when something comes up naturally – if a friend gives us music or we discover something, then we will put it out. But there’s no release plan and no pressure – we use Unterton when we find something nice and what we consider special… But having said that, I must mention Jon McMillion whose exclusive track was included in my mix CD – he’s giving me music all the time… I think some time next year we’re going to do a record with him. But other than that, there aren’t any plans at all.
As for the Ostgut – last week we’ve had a 12’’ by Tobias. Then, in September comes Barker & Baumecker debut album, a new 12’’ by Steffi. October brings new Marcel Fengler 12’’ and Berghain 06 by Norman Nodge, also with exclusive tracks. November is the time for a new Marcel Dettmann record and, perhaps, Ben Klock but that last one is not decided yet…
Considering Norman Nodge and a couple of other techno DJ-s, what do you think of a certain seriousness that’s connected with playing a techno DJ-set? I mean, having a certain posture, sometimes even a negative attitude towards the crowd…
I think sometimes it’s too serious. I don’t have a problem with serious music but I don’t think you have to have this serious image. I know I’m looking pretty serious when I’m DJ-ing but I don’t consider myself to be that serious.
What about the music you play? Do you find it humorous, from time to time?
I think humor is very important, but it’s hard to pull it off in the techno context. There’s this big expectation this days for techno music to be dark, kind of industrial and gray-scale…
And house music? Do you like to joke during DJ-sets?
Yes, just recently I started using Teardrops by Womack & Womack – a big pop R&B classic. It’s easier with house music to do things like that.
A certain element of surprise perhaps… playing a track that one would not expect being played at that exact moment.
Right now, in Warsaw, I don’t have a big surprise in my set [the talk took place just before his DJ-set at Burn Studios pres. Pets Recordings Picnic on August 14th]. I don’t think you can or should plan things in a manner like that. I have records in my bag all the time that I’ll only play at special occasions… but that’s mostly pop-edits or really big classics. I’m using them occasionally, because otherwise it wouldn’t be funny and surprising.
Maybe that’s the thing about Berghain and Panorama Bar…
I think that’s a wrong impression, because over the course of a party in Berghain or Panorama, you here so many classics – there they are – Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, some proto-techno or early electronic pop music…
But the key is to be constantly surprised.
Yes, but that’s also a quest for the DJ – to find records that weren’t used so frequently… It’s so difficult these times surprise anyone, there are those Facebook profiles of Berghain and Panorama Bar where everyone is posting tracks they heard at the club. If you’ve found something special, which is hard these days because everyone knows everything about the music . Even if you’re a fan, not a DJ, it’s very easy to know a lot about the music, because it’s so accessible and everything is archived. After you play, say, a forgotten classic for about 3 or 4 times, it catches on really quickly – your colleagues rediscover it – all of the sudden it’s everywhere again. Then it gets posted somewhere and it loses its surprise/fun factor.
And what do you think about people peeking at your records while you play?
I’m always showing them the label, writing down what I’m playing – simply because I’m there to spread the music. If someone likes it, I want him or her to be able to buy it or listen to it on YouTube. That’s what I’m there for, otherwise I would scratch off labels of every record that is really important to me – like in Northern Soul.
I’ve heard of those guys taking photos of the Traktor playlists…
Of course, I just had the case last Saturday, while I was playing in Berghain – for every second record the same guy came up to me, asking what I was then playing and demanding me to write down names of tracks. I did it for the first four records and then I said ‘ok, let’s stop this’ – that was a bit ridiculous. I can’t do that all the time. Usually, I get like four people during a set, asking for the name of the track. But if it’s the same guy coming over and over again, then I got a problem. But I’m usually open about it… especially because it’s not my music – I bought it, I play it but I didn’t make it – so I think it’s only fair enough to give credit to the artist who has made this great record I chose for a reason.
I think it’s a part of techno culture – for a DJ to ‘disappear’, just being this guy in the corner who puts the needle on, without being specially recognizable…
That’s getting more and more into background because the way techno and house is being promoted nowadays has become very much about personality and about how you act on the stage – it’s the same kind of mechanism as in pop music. What I like about techno and house in the beginnings was that through the 90s you were that guy in dark corner. There weren’t much light – just enough for you to work – it wasn’t about superstars except for a couple of English DJs. But you could still do something creative without having to perform or be someone. For me, that’s still the biggest attraction and that’s how I see myself – you know, I’m not clowning around while I’m DJ-ing. When I’m playing something I don’t have to do like this [waves his arms]. Music should work on its own. Of course, I know that people like when someone is acting out, but that’s just not me, I won’t do it.
Many thanks to Michał Brzozowski [bshosa] for arranging the interview.