Welcome to DJ Debriefing, a series of LWE features where we ask DJs about the music they’re actually playing, both old and new. Our forth interview subject is the UK-born, Berlin based John Osborn. Literally a DJ first and foremost, Osborn has been behind the decks since 1992 and developed a sizable following for his deep, dubby, hypnotic style. More recently he and DJ October founded the labels TANSTAAFL (There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) and TANSTAAFL Planets, which host music from both founders (Osborn having gotten into the production game as well) and talents as varied as John Daly, Bill Youngman, KEL, and Tallmen. 785. John reached out with an exclusive mix (found at the bottom of the article) recorded at a secret location in Tokyo, so LWE decided to catch up with this sought after selector who was just today announced as joining the line-up of the 2014 Labyrinth festival in Japan.
Let’s pretend we’re starting at the beginning of a DJ set. What would you say is one of your favorite opening tracks, something you’re able to start with no matter when you’re playing in the evening?
John Osborn: I have quite a few of these tracks that change over time. There is never a single track, but one track of many that I guess all do a similar service and that is to reset the dance floor and to mellow it out. I really enjoy building up my own vibe and putting my own stamp on the duration of the night. I quite liked the old UK dubstep/jungle DJ ideology of actually stopping the music between DJs as we are different people — albeit having been booked for having similarities in sound but, at least hopefully, we have different styles that suit and compliment each other.
The first few records are something I obsessively contemplate, so over the years I have built up a mental crate of quite a few good tracks that I like to open with. Currently I enjoy using “A Hymn To Him” by The Persuader, or more recent is a new track from Scuba called “Aphids.” Neither have a kick drum and have a very dramatic feel. Its quite enjoyable to see how long I will actually let the track play for before I mix out of it. If I am feeling in the mood I will go one step further and choose a track like Roger 23’s “No Movement In A Cycle,” or even something darker like Raime’s “Retread” and then build up from here. Or if I do feel like I want to keep the beat rolling but just drop the vibe then a lot of Fred P’s music does this job well. I could go on forever.
Do you enjoy playing your own tracks in your sets?
I play them when they are still unreleased so I get the opportunity to “test drive” them and hear them on a big sound system, see what needs changing and what kind of reaction they get. But pretty much once they are out I rarely play them. I think this is a personality issue I still need to deal with as it makes me feel kind of awkward.
Earlier this year you released a collaboration with Tallmen785. Tell me how that came together and maybe a little bit about your collab partner, as he’s a new name to me.
Tallmen785 is Brian Mitchell. It was around 2008 and he was fresh in Berlin from the U.S. He was into my sound and came to nearly all the TANSTAAFL parties, this is how we initially met. I kind of shared a studio space with him and he has been helping me learn the deeper music theory side of electronic music production over the past year. He is a really amazing jazz guitarist with an ear that most producers would envy, I know I do. Tom Diccico got in touch with me just as I was moving gear into the studio and I thought why not break the “studio partnership” in by doing this release together. Tom kindly agreed to this, as he was a fan of the Tallmen track on TANSPLAN, and it turned out to be a very fruitful working relationship and we are currently working on more stuff together now for RunOutRun.
The summer is just getting going, but I wonder if there is any track in particular you’d consider your “summer jam”?
I don’t think I have ever thought of a record to be a summer jam, although I am aware that certain music will work better in sunny locations. I feel that seasonal music is something that is more for mainstream “pop” than for real house music. A killer house track works all year round.
What are a couple of the records you can always reach for if you notice the crowd isn’t feeling what you’re playing?
Falko Brocksieper, “Outride A Crisis.” An aptly named track for such a situation don’t you think? Haha, but yeah, this always motivates the floor to listen and dance with intent. Or October’s “Singularity Jump” on TANSTAAFL. Straight up killer.
Are there any other tracks that when you first heard them you didn’t think that they would work in a club context, but then you actually tried it, it worked better than you expected?
Actually I would have to say October again, and that is his “Homo Sapiens” track — the first release on Caravan from 2008. I always thought it was way to deep and heady for a dance floor track — more an after-hours number– but I dropped it once with intent of slowing the pace down and got and incredible response as the bass washed in.
What would you say are some of your favorite or go-to tool tracks?
Stuff by Delano Smith, Fred P, DJ ESP, Mike Huckaby, Mr G, Norman Tally, Steven Brown and some early Radio Slave always keep things chugging along nicely.
I know you recently played in Ibiza. I wonder if you can share your thoughts on playing there and maybe why you feel like many DJs consider it an essential place to play?
It was definitely interesting. The people are there to have a whole year’s worth of savings of fun all in one big explosion, so they are not really up for faffing about with deep wandering story telling sets. They want a bang and they want it instantly, so you need to be aware of this, and also to be sympathetic to it. I certainly found myself mixing much quicker than I normally do, to inject more energy and finding out how I can make this type of dance floor work within my musical palette. I think it is considered so important to play there purely based on the fact that for more than two decades people have been going to this stunning island just to hear house and techno and to party. This has built up self perpetuating scene over the years meaning that the people want to hear the best, and if you’re playing there it means you have made it some way up the ladder of DJ success. Bottom line is, I am looking forward to going back that’s for sure.
Have you had the opportunity to play at any music festivals? When playing those sets, what do you do differently to make sure your set goes over well with that kind of crowd?
In general it is really hard to read a festival crowd because your more than often put on a high up stage so that your immediate “vibe” connection is lost. You have to concentrate more on the sweet spot of the crowd and try your best to reinstate that connection and certainly not worry about the people on the peripheral edges — they are only half listening anyway. If you build a good connection with the sweet spot of the crowd, that sweet spot will grow, dragging in the peripheral half-listeners and turn them into full on hands-in-the-air ravers if you drop the right tunes at the right time. Having said all that, I do play club music that is meant for night clubs. They are two different worlds and I am definitely more about the club. There is one festival I am looking forward to playing this year which manages to cement to two (ether)real environments together — Labyrinth in Japan. Really looking forward to that one.
What is your favorite time of day to play? And perhaps a favorite length of time?
I like the twilight hours, which in Berlin can be at several points in the 48 hour marathons clubs stay open for. I enjoy being able to go a bit weird and deep but still keeping things chugging up to a climax and I really need at least four hours to do proper damage. I will take three, but anything under two is just pointless.
What would you say is the oldest record that’s still in your DJ bag? What about the newest?
Well, the oldest that is pretty much always with me is Dionne, “Come And Get My Loving,” which was released in 1988. Such a tune. The newest, well, that was the promo I decided to download today, haha! It’s taken from a forthcoming album on Ninja Tune, Moiré’s Shelter and the track is called “Stars.” But he newest track I actually played recently in a club was a Spencer Parker remix of a track called “Vostok” by Rekord 61, or even a new ESS003 that I closed the set in Ibiza with and I don’t think this has even made the promo rounds yet.
In addition to TANSTAAFL, you also run the sub-label TANSTAAFL Planets. What brought about this sub-label and what differentiates it from the parent label?
The sub-label is for other artists that we like, and the parent label is currently for mine and October’s output. This may change. Nothing is set in stone, I have learnt that over the past years. Keep changing, keep evolving and things stay fresh and interesting.
Now for some gear-oriented questions: What kind of headphones do you use, what kind of needles do you use, and what is your favorite record bag?
Sennheiser HD-25s. I no longer have a record bag as I recently switched over to playing vinyl via digital medium which means all I carry is a little leather pack of SD cards and my MacBook. I am still playing vinyl though, via a high quality ripping set up that includes a Nagaoka MP-500 cartridge. This means my vinyl recordings actually sound better in the club than if I played the vinyl. Even if the decks were perfect and the needles were brand new, they can’t beat the sound I get via my ripping station. So for all the diehard vinyl only heads out there, sorry guys, but in this case. Through this process, sound quality wise, my digital files piss all over real wax in a club, unless you want to DJ on Thorens turntables with Nag carts (no back spins, cues and no pitch controller!). This is even something I would like to take up with Tony Andrews from Funktion One.
What’s your preferred mixer? More realistically perhaps, what kind of mixers are on your technical rider?
After two years of being a resident at a club with a Urei 1620 with EQ expansion I can say I do NOT like rotary mixers. I appreciate the sound, and the gorgeous, musical sweep on the pots themselves but long slow blends, no drama or action is not what I do as a DJ, it’s just not my style. So an Allen & Heath Xone:92, or actually, and controversially, I would prefer the Pioneer DJM900 Nexus mixer. Personally I like the cleaner, less EQ-ed sound it has to the A&H and I definitely prefer the DJM900 layout. A few current trend bomb shells there I guess, no records and no rotaries! Haha.
I used to be super trendy by default, labeled a vinyl-only, deep dubby house DJ, but the truth is I just never learned how to use CD players because I started DJing and buying vinyl in 1992 and saw no need to use CDs. Now I have made the effort to learn more about modern DJing technology mainly because I was motivated by the concept of having better sounding vinyl via a high end ripping station recording 24-bit aiffs. This has meant I have moved away from current dance music trends within my scene. I get a lot of shit for this by my “vinyl-only” contemporaries, but all I care about is sound quality and this takes a lot of my time up: cleaning, recording; and metadata labeling my tracks. At the end of the day its what ever works best for you, what excites you the most and what your tastes are. On my rider is the DJM 900 Nexus and/or the Allen & Heath Xone:92.
What’s coming up from you and your labels during the second half of 2014?
There is a collaboration from myself and October to come on TANSTAAFL, and there is also the second collaboration with Tallmen.785 on RunOutRun at end of this year. For the beginning of next year I have a solo EP on Hotflush Records lined up. Also we have plenty of great releases lined up for TANSTAAFL PLANETS, from the likes of Lerosa, XDB, Joey Anderson and some new debut artists. Plenty happening that’s for sure!
Download: John Osborn, LWE Presents Live In Tokyo (61:07)