If comic books have taught me anything of value, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility. Oliver Hafenbauer bears the title of music director for Robert Johnson, the Frankfurt club widely reputed as one of the world’s best, as well as its white hot in-house label, Live At Robert Johnson. Yet I don’t get the feeling he’s particularly troubled by the awesome power he wields. An Offenbach native with long roots in Frankfurt’s clubbing scene, including a DJing residency at Robert Johnson, Hafenbauer lets his experiences and the impeccable taste accrued through them be his guide in putting together unforgettable line-ups for the club and quickly treasured records for the label. Of course, it helps having house music sage Ata behind him, as well as a Frankfurt-based family including Roman Flügel, Phillip Lauer, and Christian Beißwenger (the latter two of Arto Mwambe fame) on LARJ’s roster. But above all, Hafenbauer keeps it simple and avoids over thinking, an approach which has done quite well for him so far. LWE got in touch to discuss his role within Robert Johnson, his B.H.F.V. project with Beißwenger, and a forthcoming solo imprint. He also mixed together LWE’s 138th exclusive podcast, a joyful and varied hour of dance music which embodies the good spirits of the club in which it was recorded. Guess which one.
01. October & Borai, “Didn’t Mean To” [Apple Pips]
02. Cobblestone Jazz, “Across The Nation” [Wagon Repair]
03. Acid Jesus, Hibernation Drive [Klang Elektronik]
04. GAK, “GAK 4” [Warp Records]
05. Lawrence, “Creator” (Final Call) [Dial]
06. Roman Flügel, “O.T.H.” [Live At Robert Johnson]
07. 808 Mate, “Retina Dreams” [Workshop]
08. Joy Orbison, “Ladywell” [Doldrums]
09. Kornél Kovács, “Baby Step” [Studio Barnhus]
10. Zoovox, “Transistor Madness” [Lectric Sands Records]
11. Lauer, “Highdimes” [Running Back]
How did you get into house/techno, DJing and finally become the music director at Robert Johnson?
Oliver Hafenbauer: Before I was into electronic music I listened to all sorts of stuff, hip hop, punk, roots- and dub-reggae. In the early 90s I discovered electronic music and was fascinated by it. A good friend of mine introduced me to the stuff by Warp Records and from then on I started buying records. I was 15 years old and everything was new to me. Some friends and I went to Delirium, the record store in Frankfurt in the 90s, because they had flyers for parties and magazines about club culture. We secretly sneaked out of our homes at night to party at different clubs in Frankfurt like XS, Omen or Dorian Gray. One day Ata, Heiko MSO and ND Baumecker started the Wild Pitch Club and I fell in love with house music. In the late 90s I was bored by the club scene and didn’t go out a lot. Then finally Robert Johnson opened in 1999 and it was so refreshing to be there.
One day Ata called and asked me if I’d like to do the music direction for the club and label, that was around 2008/2009. At this time I just finished my studies in architecture, but music was always my passion. I was DJing a lot in Frankfurt and already had a residency at Robert Johnson since 2005.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to represent the “sound” of Robert Johnson or even Frankfurt in your A&R efforts?
I don’t spent so much time on thinking about a particular sound that fits into the space or the concept of Robert Johnson in the first place. I focus on intelligent and modern dance music which would be suitable for any other good club just as good as it is for Robert Johnson.
Many of Live At Robert Johnson’s releases have been by a core group of Frankfurt producers who are close to the club and yourself personally. Is that the direction you would like it to follow, or do you plan to court more outside artists?
We are working with a permanent group of residents in the club. Together with our residents we choose and invite a diverse range of artists to play at Robert Johnson. Likewise we run the label, where we have a constant team of artists but also work on releases by external musicians to whose music we feel related to.
Frankfurt has seen a number of waves of talented DJs/producers who have gone on to wide acclaim, from Sven Väth and Ricardo Villalobos to the Playhouse crew, and now the Live At Robert Johnson home team. Are there any producers from Frankfurt you see as the next generation?
Yes, definitely. There’s a new, strong and quite sophisticated generation of young DJs and producers here in Frankfurt. The sound takes many directions, from a modern, more abstract style to old-school house music. I try to support the next generation as far as possible.
What are some of your favorite labels of all time? What about of the last few years? What values bridge both those groups?
My favorite labels are Warp for being THE pioneers of electronic dance music in the 90s. R&S for the past times but also for their strong A&R these days. Dial for keeping a constant high quality and Sex Tags Mania for their weirdness and the best and continuous artwork.
I understand you’re considering your own label aside from Live At Robert Johnson. Can you talk about why it’s important for you to have your own project? Is there a certain sound you’re looking to represent with its releases?
Live At Robert Johnson is a label for dance music. The idea behind my new project is to release more experimental music, club music in the broadest sense but with a lot more options. I’ll try to cross frontiers and try out something new with it. The project is called DAS ORAKEL, it’s the German word for “the oracle.”
What are your thoughts on what seems to be an inexorable rise in the number of record labels that are starting up in recent times?
Generally, I don’t have a problem with it; I am very curious and like to listen to all sorts of new releases. But even though, the selection of new stuff is bigger than ever before, I do not spend more money on buying music whatsoever.
Tell us about how your B.H.F.V project with Christian Beißwenger came into being. Is the music you’ve made together indicative of your musical tastes, particularly in electro? Are you working on more?
In the beginning we tried to create extraterrestrial house music. Neither of us guessed we will end up doing electro. We will be working on new material in the near future. Chris just recently sold a whole bunch of his equipment and invested in a modular synth instead. He’s experimenting with it a lot and I’m really excited how it will influence the whole B.H.F.V sound. There’s a couple of ideas for further productions. I could imagine to be working on an album format for B.H.F.V.
The mythology of the famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson was that he made a Faustian bargain to gain incredible guitar playing skills. If you could make a deal with the devil, what would you ask for?
I would never make a deal with the devil. There must be a catch in it. I’d rather not make any compromises and take the stony path.