Talking Shop with Running Back

Running Back is one of the most consistent labels about. Only in terms of quality, mind. Consistency doesn’t equal homogeneity, and frankly Running Back can be all over the shop stylistically. Ravey, wildpitch house from Radio Slave one release, Robert Dietz’s desiccated Mannheim funk the next, Running Back is unafraid to thumb its nose at genre purists. This past year has been a particularly fruitful and varied one, combining essential reissues of the famous Prescription label and bizarre Japanese sound effects with original and enervating productions from Dplay, the mysterious Precious System, Lil Tony, Jacob Korn and of course the massive Tensnake disco-smash “In The End (I Want You To Cry).” Without a set roster, and such a varied palette, many other labels would be left floundering. Fortunately, Gerd Janson is at the tiller, keeping the good ship Running Back on course with his sturdy hands and immaculate taste. Mr Janson may be familiar to you from any number of encounters; interviewing Theo Parrish for the Red Bull Music Academy, manning the decks at his internationally famous local Robert Johnson, or applying his dry wit and playful phrasing to his journalistic assignments for Spex and Groove, among others. For a busy man, Janson is exceptionally generous with his time, and it was a pleasure to shoot the shit with him for a couple hours about the eternal vinyl versus mp3 debate, Walter Benjamin, British dub soundsystems, and what we can expect next from the least predictable of labels.

How did Running Back start? How did you pick the name?

Gerd Janson: Ah, well, I’m not sure of the English word, but it was quite a fast idea. Back in 2002, I spent a lot of time with Thorsten Scheu, who was producing under the moniker of Glance for the [Frankfurt] label STIR15 which was coming out with some deep house, classic house influenced releases like Motorcitysoul, for example. We just talked about starting a label for his stuff, and a few other close friends’. We had quite a hard time finding a suitable name, and all the best names, like Strictly Rhythm, were already taken! Another friend, Thomas Hammann, who I still DJ with quite a lot, he came up with the name Running Back. We liked the notion of it; of course on the one hand it is an American football reference, but then you could also use it as something old-fashioned, or anachronistic. Going back, but forwards at the same time, if that makes sense. It can be quite difficult at first to find a name for this idea that you have, but after a while when other people are using it also, it starts to make sense.

[Later] Thorsten then sort of got out of the straightforward four-to-the-floor house music, and more and more interested in Northern Soul. And a lot of the other guys like Mute, who did two of the early releases on Running Back, he slowed down with his productions, and I had to ask myself, is this something I want to carry on? There were never any hard feelings, but if you’ve started something for a group of friends, and then over time they become less interested in making music or prolific or dedicated… So from the first Mark E record onwards I took it in my own hands.

I was interested in how you hooked up with Mark E… and then also you have this thing on your MySpace page, “The Demo Policy Of Truth,” which is pretty funny…

(Laughs) Well, y’know [the policy] sounds quite blasé, but it’s not really meant that way. Of course people who you don’t know can approach you, and you can tell from the way they approach you [that they are genuine]. They have certain manners: ‘Hi, my name is …, I like your label, blah blah blah.’ Even if you can say these are superficial things. You get so many emails and links, and you can tell the guy doesn’t even know, he got the label email from I don’t know where, and they don’t even bother to BCC the addressee, so you can see he’s sent it to every label on the planet [laughs]. Sometimes it’s almost rude: ‘Please let me know when you want to release it’. Of course part of this is due to language barriers, but…. One day I got so angry… I don’t know if it helps anything, it was just my little take on it [laughs].

With Mark E, a mutual friend, Rob J, who runs these nights in Birmingham called Dropout Boogie, said, ‘Hey Gerd, there’s this guy who you should check out.’ Mark had just brought out the first Jisco release, which I liked a lot. So we got in touch, and brought out the “Deja Vu/Beat Down” twelve, and since then we’ve worked together — there was another one [Slave 1] and there will be another one.

I never have the feeling that I have to use handcuffs for people. I’m just glad if the thing works, and then of course they are free to do stuff for other labels or starting their own labels, like Mark has now. I always try and look for what is best for the music. I am sounding pretty angelic here, although in reality it’s just promiscuity. Of course you get demos that you like and that you would buy, but you don’t know when to do it, or how to do it. This is almost the hardest thing. On the one hand there is this talk, ‘Yeah, the music industry is all going down, blah blah,’ but then on the other, I’ve been a record buyer for some years but I’ve never got that feeling, like it is nowadays, that there is too much music to buy. Reissues, re-edits, new stuff, old stuff.

I know, it’s frightening isn’t it?

Yeah, it is. It’s not only the money thing, but also who can digest all of this stuff?

Yep, who has the time? The way there are so many micro-genres, it’s all quite segregated, and there are so many records. You can’t go into the record shop and say, ‘Give me everything.’

Yes, you could spend your monthly budget just on dub-techno [laughs]. No need to debate if there is any need for it after Maurizio and Chain Reaction. A lot of the stuff is very good and well produced and has a certain aesthetic, but do you want a whole Ikea Expedit shelf full of just dub-techno? I have a bit of a thing with the dubstep stuff. I’m talking here about the reggae or soul influenced stuff. I’m not a fan if it gets too dark or ravey…

Who are you thinking of specifically?

Well, there’s this Shackleton guy, and I’m not namechecking him just because he is on Perlon, but you know you can’t label this dubstep at all, he is in a league of his own. Peverelist, Appleblim, if you like the IDM branch of dubstep. Kode9, and recently Joy Orbison and Martyn also. I was always a fan of UK bass music, Shut Up and Dance for example, jungle, and this stuff talks more to me than the ravey stuff. I guess if you are dubstep DJ then you can buy all of it, but I’m not. And I love Roska, Roska, Roska who is an exponent of a new genre altogether, right? The funky commonwealth. And then I’m a big reggae fan, and in that field it’s almost impossible to keep pace with it. Then there is the old records, the second-hand market. It’s a downward spiral [laughs].

Running Back has a very open policy, and it almost feels as if you would release anything, as long as you thought it was good. Perhaps like the old Playhouse/Robert Johnson t-shirt: “Good music I dance. No good music I not dance”?

Yes, if you want to put it in a nutshell, this is it. I mean, within a reasonable frame. As I say, I am a big fan of reggae and Jah Shaka or Aba Shanti and these other very unique UK takes on steppers riddims, but it would not make sense for me to put them out. The electronic music guys, some of them might like it, but… And guys that were into that wouldn’t check for Running Back, so… It’s just looking at what you can do with the four-to-the-floor stuff, and there is enough already that I like. I like the idea of concepts (for example I mentioned Maurizio earlier), but I think with Running Back we’re not tied to a particular clique or gang, so it doesn’t make sense to be that strict about it. If it feels to me like a thing that I would buy, or play, I try to make it happen.

I also wanted to ask about the artwork – the Sex Mania tribute for the Radio Slave record, the football team for Dplay, and the Jacob Korn — I heard somewhere that this was your niece, or?

[laughs] Actually no, this is Prins Thomas’ son. If you look closely, it credits him on the sleeve, with a little help of LastMinutePanic, who has been looking after the artwork since the start. The first four releases looked quite similar, the idea being to have cheap, interchangeable artwork; we change the colors, and the names, and then off we go.

I guess like Perlon, with their instantly recognizable company sleeves.

Yeah, exactly. But I also feel that after about number twenty, it all starts to look samey. I like the idea that the records are quite different to each other, and giving each one its own face. With the Jacob Korn record, the initial designs looked a bit sterile, so I had this quite cheesy idea to have this child’s drawing…

I like the way that the drawing matches the optimistic or almost naïve feel of the music.

That is very kind of you. I actually called up the mother of my niece, and asked if she had a picture of the sun lying around. Her name is Rosa and she is turning three now, so she’s not really painting or drawing yet, it’s only scribbles. So I asked Prins [Thomas], who of course does the remix, and his son is a little bit older [laughs]. Prins said he ended up feeling like one of these football coach fathers, motivating their children: ‘C’mon, draw more, draw more.’

Like you said, we try and match the artwork and the music. With the Radio Slave, I am a big fan of DJ Duke, and when Matt [Edwards] played me the tracks that he kindly donated to Running Back, I felt like it was an update to this sound. And with the original Sex Mania artwork, I always thought it was a shame that the girl didn’t have a bra, so I thought it was a good idea to give her one [laughs]. I’m not a graphic designer, or a big art guy, but if I have seen one thing in my life over the years, it is record labels. I like the idea that it could remind you of something you have seen before, or that it fits with the record. I feel like artwork is important, especially when you have these dry download files.

So what is your favorite Running Back release, and why?

Ah, it’s like asking a father about his favorite child. I can’t really pick one. The main impetus for me is picking something that I would play and that I like. Maybe a fan of the Mark E, 100bpm “Deja Vu/Beatdown” release is put off by the Radio Slave, or maybe the guy that likes Radio Slave is put off by the Jakob Korn because he thinks, ‘Oooh, this is not techno!’ or whatever. For me, it’s just different sides of one coin.

It’s also for different times of the night, right? Your Radio Slave is for 4 o’clock in the morning and the others are for earlier or later…

Ideally, yes. I mean someone once said that for a music journalist I put out pretty straight records [laughs]. I mean, I’m a DJ as well so I see it like that. ‘OK, this is something I would play at this club at that time, and this is something that I would play at another club, at a different time.’ But really, picking a favorite, I can’t. I know it’s a cliche, but I like them all for different reasons.

Well, I guess my question is as much of a cliche [laughs]. Which brings me onto my next question — you write for Spex and Groove — how does it feel to be “on the receiving end”? People reviewing your stuff, me asking you stupid questions…

Actually it’s pretty strange, because when I’m on the other side, it all seems pretty easy. I’m asking questions, I’m putting records in a certain context. For example, I don’t have a problem if someone says, ‘Oh, this Running Back record is utter shite,’ not at all. Of course, artists don’t want to read a bad review or a poor RA rating or whatever. I look it from this angle — I can read a bad review and then actually listen to the record and really enjoy it. That’s how I try to do it — the reader should know why the guy does or doesn’t like it and what his arguments are. For instance, it wouldn’t make sense for me to review Tiësto’s new album because that’s just not the music I’m into. It wouldn’t be surprising to read me saying bad things about it. Then for interviews, it’s harder than I ever thought. Actually it feels a bit like on Sigmund Freud’s couch because a lot of the time it’s the first time you consciously think, ‘Why am I actually doing this?’ I know it’s also a cliche to say that it’s a gut feeling, and then all of a sudden you have to answer these questions. I hope I’ll get better at it! [laughs] Now I finally understand why many people don’t like music journalists. Talking to guys like you, or Bjørn [Schaeffner] who did the RA feature, it’s a bit different, because you are like-minded people, people who are music fans. I think the bad reputation of music journalism comes from more of the (can I say this?!) Jockey Slut or MixMag, the British dance press thing. They have more of a tabloid, sensationalist mentality, y’know, phoning people like Theo Parrish and saying, ‘So, Theo, who is better, you or Kenny?’ Things like that, which are not even tongue-in-cheek.

A few of Running Back’s notorious center labels

So what is the best thing about running a label, but also what is the worst?

Well, the best, it’s no secret that you won’t become a rich man but it’s still a nice thing if you can sell a decent amount, to break even, or even make a little bit and share it with the artist. It’s nice to see that people actually enjoy the music. Of course it’s a bit selfish also — it’s putting out stuff that I want to have on vinyl!

Surely it’s also a thrill to hear music you’ve put out in a club?

Yes, of course. This has happened to me a few times, and you can try and stop yourself a little bit, but you have to smile! And sometimes it took me a while to even recognize it. You know the feeling of thinking that you have heard this record before somewhere. The worst stuff about it: it’s time consuming, all the accounting and so on. I’m a really bad guy with paperwork!

It’s just you running the label then?

Yes. I mean if you start bringing in other people, someone to do your office or whatever, then the costs rise and you have to sell more, and it can all get a bit out of control. I think even in the small world that we move in, there is something of the 1980s idea of the pop star: ‘Oh yes, I have this number one record, I’m getting remixed by so-and-so, now I need an agent,’ and so on. We mentioned Perlon earlier, and I think they are a good example of how to keep your integrity in some of this madness.

Yeah, I like the fact that they don’t have a website, no mp3s etc.

Yes, it’s very basic, very 90’s. You can still send them a letter, or handwritten fax. But my take on the whole mp3 thing is a little different. I think these days, you don’t really take record-buyers away, by having your stuff available digitally. They are so into records, they want to have the physical object, and so the mp3 only tides them over until they have it in their hands. On the other hand, a guy that plays with Serato or laptops, they might not want to make the effort to buy a record and then digitize it. So OK, I also like their hardcore approach to it, but then you can also get every Perlon record digitally, albeit not legally. The 20th century already made art reproducible, if that’s a word…

You mean like Walter Benjamin?

Yes exactly, I wasn’t sure of the title in English…

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

He has some very valid points, about ritualism, these kinds of things. But if you look at the bare facts, it was never as easy to get hold of music as it is today. It’s about making it available in a way so at least the artist gets a little bit out of it. I think it was Ricardo Villalobos who was talking about how his music is specifically made to be played from vinyl, on this soundsystem, in a certain situation. You can’t really make this decision any more. As soon as you release something, it is taken out of your hands. It’s a bit sad, but also you know before this Internet age people, I think especially in Great Britain, were really quick to bootleg things, if they were popular [and] as soon as they were out of print. I’m sure you are familiar with the situation with Theo Parrish’s Ugly Edits, and no year goes by without some Moodymann bootleg. Even Todd Terje gets bootlegged these days!

Of course there was the situation with Henrik Schwarz’s remix of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)”…

Yes, that’s the same thing. The label maybe decides not to release something, and then they get a mp3 from somewhere, perhaps even cut out of a live set, and they press it up.

It’s pretty crazy!

In a way, from one perspective, it’s kind of funny, you can look at it in a Jamaican, no-copyright way. ‘The music has to be heard on the streets’ [laughs]. It’s also really crazy, the way it paralyzes the artists, and the label.

Moving on, we’ve talked about Perlon a lot, and you say that setting up Running Back was quite a spontaneous decision, but are there any other labels that you admire?

Ron Trent and Chez Damier’s Prescription label was a really big influence, actually the reason I started buying vinyl. I was more of a club kid back then, but I liked the music so much I had to own it. Erm, Playhouse, one of the greatest electronic music labels of all time. The list is endless: Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm. And then all these little New Jersey labels that you love for their naïvety and roughness, and the same with the Chicago ones, Trax and the smaller ones. Labels like Warp that you have to pay your respects to. Labels I like now: too many to mention! I’m a big fan of what Prins Thomas has been doing with Full Pupp, Internasjonal. I like the Workshop or Wax approach where you are not sure who the artist is, although I guess the cat is out of the bag already. I like Ostgut [Ton] for the reason that it portrays what they are doing with their club. Underground Quality, Novel Sound. My friends from Innervisions who have been always very supportive. There is something to find in very contrasting sounds. The Smallville or Dial camp, the ethics and aesthetics of Innervisions or loners like Omar-S, who is just doing his own stuff. And then the Sex Tags Mania guys, they just don’t care about anything. I think it’s the same motivation I have, they want it on vinyl, so they put it out. They also have a great sense of humor, like the 909 bass drum record — it’s just one locked-groove of a straight Roland TR-909 kick drum, without anything else. [laughs] Things like that are great. A quintessential techno record!

As you see, the list is endless. The bottom line is, these days you have to respect anyone who puts the time, effort and money into putting out an actual physical record.

I also wanted to talk to you about your involvement with Robert Johnson club. You had the mix CD with them out a couple of months ago?

Yes, I’ve been playing there for, all-in-all, nine years now. They had their 10 year anniversary this summer, and I think more or less one year after that I had the honor and privilege of becoming a resident there. Actually, this was due to Thomas Hammann, who is one of my all-time favorite DJs and friends. He got asked to do a night there and took me along too. So we have been doing this night now for nine years, mostly pretty low-key, sometimes with guests like Soundstream live, or Mark E or Maurice Fulton. To me, and this always sounds a little stupid if you play somewhere, ‘Oh, this is the best club in the world,’ but to me it comes pretty close to an ideal room for the kind of music that I like in a club. Not too small, not too big, quite open and it has a balcony, so you can always flee the scene if you so wish! You can pack in 800 people if you so wish, but also have a fun time with just 200, because the bar is movable. They always keep the balance between really known people, or more underground people. The fact that people like Ricardo still want to play there tells you something; of course the big names can’t get the same amount of money there as they can at the bigger clubs, but they still come. It’s just so much fun playing there. There are certain records that you play there, and then you play somewhere else, and it’s just not the same. Of course this is formulaic resident DJ stuff that they say about their own clubs! [laughs]

Another big honor was to mix the fourth CD in the Live At Robert Johnson series with Thomas. It’s a little snapshot of what we’ve doing there over the years. It’s all our favorite house music. It’s really hard to do a CD without doing it on a laptop, and still have all the stuff in there that you want to include, as your DJ business card. Whatever, it’s a mix! It was a big relief to finish it, I find it such a pain in the ass! I hate doing DJ mixtapes!

Yeah, I read that RA interview where you said you had to keep re-recording your RA mix.

Yes, I like to do it with record players, or maybe a CD player, rather than these music programs, where you can just perfectly sequence it. I’m a pretty laissez-faire guy, I like mistakes usually, but if I do it myself then I hate them [laughs]. It can make you go crazy! Some of the commercially released mixes are very sterile, if I may say so, because they are using these programs, and all has to be perfect. Then there are these other restrictions, like you have to get everything licensed. It’s a lot of work.

I guess this follows on a bit, and I know you’re a big record buyer. I read, I think on the Innervisions blog, where they were describing you as their “favorite truffle-pig,” so digging up new, or old records that no-one else has heard of! You also curated a record for Sonar Kollektiv a couple of years back, Computer Incarnations for World Peace, is that right?

Yes, together with Alex from Jazzanova for the first one, and then the second one I did on my own. The second was trying to pick some stuff that was influenced by the music on the first CD, so Brennan Green, Daniel Wang and Maurice Fulton. Actually I would give the guys from the famous web forum the badge of being great truffle-pigs! You have people like Mark 7 or the guys from Pure Pleasure who are massive record collectors if you talk about this old 80’s stuff, or disco and Balearic music. Everything that goes beyond the usual house and techno stuff, they are amazing at finding strange records.

I also wanted to ask you about your interest in hip-hop. I noticed some of your pseudonyms such as DJ Pink Alert or Tuff City Kids are very apparent rap references.

Uh, the Pink Alert thing came about because I was wearing a pink polo shirt, and someone asked me, ‘Hey, what’s your DJ name?’, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s Kool DJ Pink Alert because I was just talking about Kool DJ Red Alert with someone else earlier. Of course it’s a funny name, and Morgan Geist once said to me it sounds like a pale guy having an erection [laughs].

Tuff City Kids, well of course I love the label Tuff City, and great artwork and so on, but actually this was from a tag in this club I used to play at in Mannheim. I always wanted to take a picture, and when I started doing remixes with Philip Lauer, I decided we should use this name. But, yes, hip-hop is one of my favorite genres, A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, all the “golden-age” or “daisy” era stuff. Of course the earlier stuff also, Tuff City. Also when Stone’s Throw or Rawkus appeared on the scene, maybe this is the last time it really hit me hard. I still follow it, but I’m not so keen on a lot of it now. There are still great people doing great things, but not so much that I want to spend money on. It feels like everybody is still trying to redo J Dilla or mimic Flying Lotus now. Even the top 40 American stuff has somehow lost its momentum a little. Maybe it’s just me! On a positive note, I enjoy this guy Onra.

So how many records do you have?

Oh, I stopped counting, and this is always a bad sign when someone says this! I have too much, too many. In my old flat, I even had them placed in the kitchen. My girlfriend said that it’s somehow enough now, so I can’t have them in the bathroom or in the bedroom, that’s sanctioned! And nothing is in order! I liked ordered collections, and I’ll go to someone’s house, and it will be ordered, and I can go alphabetical from The Go-Betweens to Drexciya and I know exactly what’s in-between, but I never managed to do it myself.

Wrapping things up, what’s the plans for Running Back in future, and for Gerd Janson? You’ve done a couple of remixes as Tuff City Kids, but do you want to go into production, or?

Well, I respect some producers as a fan who have, to borrow Theo Parrish’s phrase, a “sound signature,” you know that when you hear them, that it is them. I’m not sure I have that in me. Remixes are a different matter, because you can hear them as a DJ and think, yes, this would be really good if I added this. Or maybe you just think it would be good [laughs]. I’ve bought some equipment, but it’s also a time thing. I don’t know. I just bought a MPC-60, there’s the hip-hop thing again! We’ll see.

And for Running Back?

A lot of stuff is in the making, as we speak. There will be another Mark E thing, hopefully another Radio Slave record, a few other bits and pieces. There is one by this South African guy RezKar including a John Daly remix that has just been released. I try to make sense of things in the sequence that they are released — to speak bluntly, not to put out two Radio Slave records next to each other. Different stuff, to keep it interesting. There will also be the first album on Running Back now by a fine woman called Mim Suleiman. She is originally from Zanzibar, lives in Sheffield now, sings in her native tongue Swahili and you have to guess who the producer is. I am quite thrilled to see people’s reactions on this. Then there will be a Databoy 78 record with a remix by the fine Swiss beats boy Lexx, a project by Marco Passarani and some more fun things! Maybe stuff will happen, maybe not. To answer your question earlier, this might be one of the fun things about running a record label, if you don’t have a business plan!

yael bee  on April 9, 2010 at 11:43 AM
The Skylax team is honored to welcome Mister Janson along with Dj Sprinkles next week in Paris. We love&respect Running Back.

Nitzan/ Fine Art  on April 9, 2010 at 1:18 PM

Wonderful interview. Much respect to RB

Winkles  on April 9, 2010 at 4:10 PM

Much respect

Daniel Geriti  on April 9, 2010 at 11:31 PM

Good interview, seems like a very cool guy. I agree with some of his words and opinions and some not, but overall well said. One perspective for argument sake is his opinion on dub-techno could also be said of deep-house, ambient, dub, minimal, techno, etc. No need to debate if there is any need for deep-house after Chez Damier, Ron Trent, Larry Heard, Saunderson, Knuckles, Theo, KDJ, etc. and yet some people buy and release new deep-house music just like this label. As an avid music buyer (of all genre’s) this perspective wasn’t mutually shared, I buy anything I like regardless of who did what and when. I think there is a need for any type of music as long as there is a listener who appreciates it on the other end.

Mr Kaizen  on April 10, 2010 at 7:40 PM

great interview, some interesting bits

get those records organized Mr. Janson!

Casper C  on April 12, 2010 at 8:26 AM

Mim Suleiman, based in Sheffield, and we need to guess the producer? Surely it’s Maurice!!??

mano  on April 12, 2010 at 2:24 PM

nice one, amazing label!

ben v  on April 12, 2010 at 2:42 PM

good to read indepth discussion from Gerd. a top guy with excellent taste in knitwear.

forphucksake  on May 10, 2010 at 4:16 PM

I came sniffing around for a Talking Shopcast.
Was indeed an enjoyable read.


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