Photo by Holger Wüst
Gerd Janson could be fairly described as dance music’s ultimate insider, but I suspect he’d prefer it if you just call him “Gerd.” Quick with a wry joke or a self-deprecating remark, Janson’s humble nature belies the immense respect he’s earned as an exceptional, road-tested DJ with residencies at Robert Johnson and Panorama Bar, a former journalist/critic for Spex and Groove magazines, the host of numerous Red Bull Music Academy lectures, and the sole owner/operator of Running Back — a rare record label whose richly diverse offerings are matched by their consistent quality. More recently he’s also stacked up producer credits as half of Tuff City Kids, bringing his keen A&R ear to the music he’s made with Phillip Lauer that’s been released on Ostgut off-shoot Unterton, Delsin, and Terre Des Pommes (not to mention all their remixes). Janson, who last spoke to LWE as part of a Talking Shop interview in 2010, kindly carved out some time to chat with us again from his home in Lorsch, not far from his hometown of Darmstadt or the regional hub, Frankfurt. He offered insights on his soft touch A&R style, how his DJ/critic side influences the music he’s making, and his personal connection with every Running Back reissue. Janson also mixed together LWE’s 199th exclusive podcast, nearly 90 minutes of musical bliss we’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
Download LWE Podcast 199: Gerd Janson (88:08)
01. Shan, “Awakening” [*]
02. Outboxx, “My Destination” [Idle Hands]
03. Boards Of Canada, “Nlogax” [Skam]
04. Todd Osborn, “Medium” [Running Back*]
05. Thomas Dybdahl, “But We Did” (Prins Thomas Diskomiks) [Virgin/EMI]
06. Axel Boman, “Anytime Is Fine” [Mule Musiq]
07. ESB, “On Cue” [Heart To Heart]
08. Gerry Read, “Been A Lot Of Places, Seen A Lot Of Faces” [Hoss]
09. Aztech Sol, “Brand New Soul” (Lowmoney Mix) [LowMoneyMusicLove]
10. Decius, “Gay Futures” [Moreaboutmusic]
11. Department of Dance, “I Love Sähkö” [Junkfood Records]
12. Vernon Felicity, “Static Character” [Clone Store Series]
13. DJ Daddio, “Why Waste My Time” [Distance]
14. Todd Osborn, “Itshoustrumental” [Running Back*]
15. Ada Kaleh, “Difuz” [Ada Kaleh Romania]
16. New Muzik, “Warp” (Ilo Edit) [Pleasure International Exports]
17. Flower S.E. Productions, “10 Minutes Of Waves” [Flower Records]
* denotes tracks which, at the time of publishing, are unreleased
Running back has been around for 12 years now, roughly. Is that right?
Gerd Janson: I think so. Yeah.
I’m curious, what mistakes have you made along the way that have been particularly instructive for how you run the label now?
I think the whole thing is a mistake. [laughs] But yeah, I don’t know, I feel like I’m still learning. I still do everything on my own, which is kind of an unfair thing, to myself and to the artists. So that’s the plan for this year, to get — not really to have an office because you’re running a label yourself. You know that although music and records still can make some money, it’s really hard to establish it as an enterprise that allows you to hire someone, and especially be responsible for that someone, as well, then and thinking, “OK, I have to pay a wage or whatever.” And maybe that someone is also dependent on you, so you start thinking about the economics even too much.
But so far I only thought that each record should just break even. Or the whole thing as such should just break even. But you start learning things like, “OK, how is this actually working with publishing, and what do you have to take into—” all these music, law, business things you actually don’t really think about when you start a label out of an urge to, “Yeah, I want to put music out I like and want to help people get stuff!” If you have these — is it “curatorial” thoughts? If you have something like that, you quickly notice that that can collide with the business side of it, you know? Even if it just comes down to actually calculate beforehand, if with that 180-gram vinyl and that kind of packaging and that kind of mastering costs that record can even break even. You know, that infamous “Blue Monday” floppy disk cover thing where they said they actually lost money with every record they sold? So yeah. To actually answer your question, I think I can’t singlehandedly point out one mistake where I in hindsight would say now, “OK, if I would have known this before, I would have made it.”
OK, so maybe a better way of phrasing it would be, if you could go back to your 2002 self, the plucky young man who started it with his friends, what advice would you give 2002 Gerd about running a label?
That’s a good question. I was pretty naïve, which I still am in some parts, but yeah, I would maybe say don’t expect too much from the start. Just do what you like. Even though record labels often turn into being business cards of certain people or whatever, I would still say you should do it out of the, yeah, naïve urge of adding something to that vast pile of music. I would maybe just tell him to get proper mastering from the start. [laughs] Yeah.
That seems like good advice.
Yeah, although it was kind of OK. I knew, kind of, about mastering and mastering studios, but I didn’t really know about the esoteric differences you can run into. Or, actually, the real differences, you know, when you give something to a pressing plant and it will make a — it’s a different outcome. I didn’t even think about during the first for records, that there is a [time] limitation for a side, you know? So if you try to keep at 10 or 12 minutes, it will sound better, crisper, louder, than if you put on 18 minutes, you know? But that can also be a stylistic decision on purpose if you look at some STL records. No offense, but they’re sometimes 22 minutes, and it’s murky and muddy, but that can be part of the aesthetic as well. So it’s these little things. I don’t know if I would tell myself anything else, because you’ll learn by doing it, and it evolves and takes you somewhere. Yeah, so you have to make your own mistakes every time.
Absolutely. What would you say is the most satisfying part about running a record label?
This is another cliché, and I like to talk in clichés, maybe — but it’s still the day when the finished record arrives at your doorstep, and you look at it and it turned out the way you wanted it, or it didn’t turn out the way you wanted, but you can still think no one else except for the artist, the designer, and you know how it should have been. So people could still enjoy it like it is.
Right. That’s actually something I’ve experienced a lot: with manufacturing, you can never really tell what the finished product is going to be like. How do you not let that kind of stuff bother you? I have to imagine that after running a label for a while, you’ve sort of developed coping mechanisms for those sorts of things.
Yeah, I’ve never been a perfectionist.
That helps, so that’s the thing you have to keep in mind, you know? Because otherwise you can, of course, go crazy. If you marinate yourself in pain about the shade of blue you can use, or, like, “Oh, but I used this—” and sometimes, you know, you pick a Pantone color and then it still looks kind of different as you imagined it to be, and you just — yeah. That’s why I said only you, the artist, and the designer know what you had in mind. People who buy the record, they will like it or won’t, but they will not always have in their mind of what the different steps were to turn this record into a finished record, you know? Same goes for music, maybe. I don’t know how far you get into the process of, “Oh yeah, I really like this track, but could you change this and that around and then it would be 100 percent” thing on my side.
Do you find yourself doing that much?
Not as much as other people might do, but for instance, when I think it would be really nice to have both tracks on one side of vinyl or a four-track EP, I try to at least advise the people to, “Oh, make it 6:30 each, and then it will be louder and will sound better on vinyl.” You know, things like that. Or if someone did a very nice instrumental and I’m not very fond of the vocal, I might be, you know, like, “Oh, can you remove that?” But I try it, and it always has a bitter taste if you try to be that A&R person who decides about the artist’s vision or not. So I try to be constructive in my criticism, but not overstepping the boundaries, or my boundaries.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I kind of see Running Back as falling under the category of being a relationship label, where you kind of sign artists and records based on people you’ve met over in your travels, people you meet around you. Do you feel that’s sort of an accurate way of looking at Running Back?
Yeah, but not totally 100 percent because on rare occasions, I released stuff from people I’ve never met before or still haven’t met to this day. But I took the effort of listening to what they sent me, and I liked it enough, and then I thought it could be nice. I try not to be too dogmatic on whatever side of my life. So of course it’s always a nice thing if you don’t want to say a rude “no,” you can say, “Oh, I’m only releasing stuff from people I know.” And I know a lot of people, so that’s maybe also one thing that makes it seem like that. But I would say it’s maybe true to 95 percent. And most stuff still happens like that. It’s people I met somewhere I know, or they know someone that I know very well and that’s why they contact me.
Right. So would you say that you’re getting a lot of demos that you’re actually listening to these days?
I get demos every hour, almost. Like every other record label. I can’t really pinpoint what it needs to say in an email, but sometimes I at least react to it in a way that I listen to the SoundCloud link or whatever those people send. And it’s still funny, I guess you get the same ones: “Hi,” in broken English, you know, “when will you release it?” All these kind of funny questions. And that maybe also goes back to that relationship thing; that makes it just easier for me to deal with people and also to actually take the time and listen to something. Because I’m doing everything on my own, so I don’t have an A&R filter person to weed out through the obvious crap. Or not crap, but music that would never fit on — even with a kind of wide scope I try to use, but even wouldn’t fit in there, you know? Like, all kinds of crazy music. Sometimes when I’m alone in a hotel room and I can’t sleep and I think about this. I think, “Oh, shouldn’t you be like a real, sincere record label person and try to listen to everything.” Like, another romantic thought where you find that certain kind of thing by a 19-year-old producer from whatever far corner of this world. I think it’s just a time thing, and with all the other things I’m doing, it’s all colliding a little bit.
Absolutely. Do you find yourself turning down demos from some of your established artists?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I mean do I have established artists?
Yeah, I’d say you have at least a couple. Mark E comes to mind as someone who’s been kind of a fixture of the label. I’m trying to think of who else would be. Maurice Fulton has been a part of the label for a while.
I would never say no to Maurice Fulton, you know? And because I’m such a fanboy, I would not say, “Hey, Maurice, take out that slapbass.” [laughs]
And I don’t think that would go so hot, either. I can’t imagine Maurice Fulton being open to that kind of constructive criticism.
Yeah, he’s been doing it long enough. He doesn’t need criticism. But I think there were some occasions where it didn’t fit time-wise, or people might see it as one of the — it’s even strange to say it — maybe one of the bigger labels in that kind of area. But I don’t think so. That’s why I said I don’t have a staff, except for the distribution company and the graphic designers, or the mastering engineer, I don’t have any people help me. So I can’t keep up with that what-a-record-label-used-to-do business of putting out a record every two weeks. I try to leave space between records, and sometimes because of various flaws in the pressing plant or with the mastering or whatever, then it sometimes can happen that there is not a record for one and half months, and then there are two very close to each other. And I’m trying to pace it, you know. That’s why I sometimes have to say, “No, not now.” And it also feels like a burden if you already know for the next one and half years what you’re going to release. It feels like it doesn’t leave any room for spontaneous decisions.
So would you say that you have a release schedule? Is your release schedule maybe more along the lines of something that’s planned out for a long time, or do you try to keep it pretty loose?
I try to keep it pretty loose, but sometimes it dictates itself by the amount of stuff I get from people that I like, and then I say, “OK, let’s do it,” but I’ll try to fit it in. And then you can still have surprises. This is maybe my stupid DJ brain, but I also try to think, “OK, don’t put out techno-ish records next to each other.” And stuff like that, where I think it should just follow a kind of, I don’t know, wave, rhythm.
Have you ever felt the need to make Running Back’s releases more consistent, besides the quality of them, as far as style goes?
No. No. Then I would be the wrong — that wouldn’t be me. The other part of my brain, the music journalist brain, maybe thinks I could run a (no offense intended) Chicago house record label, but what would be the point?
Have you felt the need to subdivide things into sublabels or anything like that? I mean obviously the discography suggests not, but—
I mean there are actually some kind of shadow sublabels separated by the catalog numbers. For instance, the Disco Nihilist releases always say “RBDN” for Disco Nihilist. But I think the excuse of a sublabel is usually there if you want to put out even more records, you know, without — the old Todd Terry trick, to use a lot of monikers — so people don’t have the feeling in a record shop back in the day, “Oh, I can’t buy four Todd Terry records now, although I like all four of them.” But one record needs to say Todd Terry and one record says just Unreleased Project, TNT, like that kind of stuff, you know? Of course I could start a Balearic, ambient sublabel thing of some sort, but I don’t know.
How do you feel about labels that go that route and end up subdividing to a great degree or at all?
Yeah, that’s the paradoxical thing about me, because I actually like it when other people do it. I would not say, “Oh, why don’t you put it all out under one umbrella,” but I just never really felt the need to do so, except for certain kinds of projects. If you still think about how you need to package more music for people to digest it more easily or to cater more to their tastes of “I only buy stamped white labels,” that can work. But if I do something like that, it’s more an aesthetic choice or a joke.
You’ve also started working with Edizioni Mondo out of Rome?
Yeah, that’s maybe the closest thing that comes to a sublabel that I ever did, or like a visible sublabel. But it doesn’t really feel like my label, and I don’t want to take too much credit for it. I’m just more on the maybe manufacturing side of it. I really like the stuff they’re doing. It’s very cinematic, “Balearic” if you want to, kind of Italian romantic beach music. The guy behind that, Francesco de Bellis, from Jollymusic fame. I always mix up all those Final Frontier projects. Raiders of the Lost Arp is Mario Pierro, who also did Mondo number two as ROTLA, that actually is the abbreviation for Raiders of the Lost Arp. And he was with Francesco in Jollymusic, and together with Marco Passarani, they were all Pigna People, of course. Like all that kind of sound of Rome that came from a love of techno, but it evolved into IDM and future-boogie music. And during one of my visits in Rome at their old studio, Marco Passarani told me, “Hey, Francesco has this stuff. Talk to him,” and Francesco showed me all these things, and I really like them and I thought, “OK, I’ll help you with it,” because he was not in the position or mindset to do it all on his own. So I don’t really take any artistic choices with it. I’m not saying, “Oh, we should put out this record.” I just help doing it.
That must be kind of nice, at least, to not have those decisions on your plate, every once in a while.
Yeah. And I mean so far it’s working, and I don’t expect a strange gabba record coming from them soon, so we won’t run into any problems there. So far it’s vinyl only and 180-gram vinyl, and cohesive artwork. I think I just got the artwork for number three two days ago. And it’s also very topical. You know, different mood beach topics. So the number three’s about the sand dunes. Yeah, but I hope people like that kind of stuff.
I wonder, how important is it for you to court the press? Like to try and curry their favor for your releases?
You mean in a kind of promotional way, or in a way already before the release, that I would think, “Oh, the journalists of this world, they will really like this one”?
More from a promotional angle, I guess.
I guess that’s also a paradox, again, because when I was still working as a music journalist on an almost weekly or daily basis, I of course was always very glad for the FATdrops and SoundClouds of this world. But with the label, I always did it very shy, coy. To just have a little email address folder for people on the DJ and on the music journalist side. Where I think, “OK, they could enjoy the stuff,” so I sent it just out without any real promotional efforts, except for to send someone a link and the artwork maybe, you now?
I ask because there’s a major industry around doing that sort of thing to a more intense degree, trying to get your records in front of people. To some degree, you’ve already established yourself and don’t need to push as hard. But I imagine that that wasn’t always the case.
I remember the naïve thinking when I started was, “Oh, people should just like the thing for what it is, and if they want to write something about it, they should because they really like it and not because it’s on the pile of records on their desk.” So in a way, I still think like that. There’s a constant firing, a gatling gun of promo releases. Between all the demo emails, I have all the promo emails, and you kind of have to weed through it. And I think a lot of it is still decided by accident, chance actually in the record shops, if something stands out.
You still have all these new people who at one point in time just appear, and then a year later they’re a given and a big name. There’s still some kind of very basic democratic thing in the music business when we talk about this independent electronic music, dance music, or whatever. I’m still in need for a good phrase to actually describe that kind of world we’re in, you know? You can use all the promo ammunition in the world, it still can miss the target. What you’re trying to bring across doesn’t really hit one nail on the head. So I think it’s still OK for people to discover the records in the shops. But of course you have to keep a certain minimum level of letting people know that something is out. But if your question was if I believe in all that promo industry… if a label would really make a lot of money, I would be happy to share some of it with all those promo agencies, but I think it’s not really needed. Unless you can afford it.
So obviously, you used to be a journalist yourself, and I wonder, do you ever miss it?
Efdemin told me years ago, because he used to be a journalist for a little while, that in his opinion it felt like a release to not need to be on top of the newest and latest things. “What’s new? what’s hot? what’s the next big thing? Oh, that’s there. What is this?” So yeah, you could care less about it. I mean I still try to have an ear to the street about new things and stuff. I don’t really miss writing reviews, although there was a fun part about it. And I don’t really miss doing interviews. I did it for such a long time, when I think the first time I did something I was 17 or 18, 19.
No offense to the elderlies, but I think this whole music journalist thing also needs fresh blood and young people who are really enamored with all of this and still are interested in the answers and not only the questions, you know? At one point it also was a strange combination of time and also the relationships. You feel bad about saying something not so positive about a record if you know the people, and on the other side, people think, “Oh, he just picks up that record because that guy also made a record on his label,” and at one point it was just complicated, you know? Like, “No, I can’t write anything about this. This guy will do a record on my label,” so I just decided to be done with it.
Yeah, that balancing act is definitely tough. I’m sort of running into it now and then. How do you manage this balance of being a label guy, being a DJ, taking care of A&R, doing all these other things that you sort of juggle? What allows you to keep those things in some form of balance that you’re not pulling out your hair?
I actually don’t know. I am pulling out my hair, and I feel like being in a downward spiral with all of it and I just keep on going. And other times I just think, “Oh, it’s all part of one thing, and you just find an hour here to do this and an hour there to do the other thing,” and yeah. I’ll see where it goes. I mean I’m considering to get some sort of help for the label that will make it easier. I mean that’s also a thing: if you DJ a lot, then you try to run a label and then you have to write reviews, I mean you need some days without any kind of musical pollution in your ears, just to get actually into that mindspace of wanting to listen to something, not having to listen to something, you know? That can be problematic.
Do you have any sounding boards or someone who you would bounce things off when you’re making a decision about whether or not to release something?
Sometimes I show things — if I get them fresh on my computer and I’m new someone like Phillip Lauer or my DJ mentor, Thomas Hammann, sometimes I show them stuff, and I’m curious to hear their opinion. But I also know them very well when it comes to their tastes, so I know stuff that I really like that’s not for them, maybe. So I wouldn’t let their opinion cloud mine, if you know what I mean. I’m interested in hearing opinions, or also, of course, if someone like Kristian [Beyer] from Âme or Dixon likes something I showed them, I take that into consideration. But I don’t have a sound board in that way that there is a third person or a certain group of persons I send everything and if I get the thumbs up, it’s a thumbs up for me.
I guess maybe the real question here is, do you ever feel like you’re sort of going back and forth with yourself about tracks, or do you feel certain about everything you’ve done?
Of course I like every record I put out, for one reason or the other, but I would be very big-headed to think with every record, “Yeah, this is the next Todd Terje “Ragysh” record.” Of course. But I think that comes from just being for half of my life — or even more than half of my life now, yeah I’m afraid so — being a record collector, as well, you know? I remember I had times where even if I liked the record, I didn’t want to buy it because it was on label X and the guy who runs label X said thing Y about something that I don’t like, you know? So these kind of strange things. When I started, you didn’t go to Beatport and just buy B1 because you don’t like the other three tracks. So if you liked just one track on a record, you had to think, “Oh does this one track justify now to spend that almost 20 Deutschmark to buy a 12-inch.” At one point I just decided, “Fuck it, if I like it I buy it. No matter if I don’t like the other three tracks.” And that kind of goes also for the label. It’s more like you do something, and then you see what the echo will be, you know? This is also not meaning that I’m blindfolded and just throwing stuff on the wall and see what sticks. It’s just a level of insecurity I have in a lot of things in my life, so it also goes for music.
Right. There was a period of time when Running Back was doing more reissues. Is that something that still interests you?
Maybe before I answer that question, I buy a lot of reissues myself, even of stuff that I have the original record on the shelf because I think it’s just, you know, the DJ brain again. “Oh yeah, it’s a play copy, safe copy,” or whatever when you buy it. Or you applaud the effort that someone put it out again. And I think with that still — it seems to me, at least growing interest in the history of house and techno music and the diversification of all those little subgenres. By now, if you want to, you can be a northern soul DJ and you just DJ with the reissued. I mean, they have a little bit of another story because for northern soul DJs, I believe it’s frowned upon if you use a reissue or a compilation – you have to have the original 7″. But you could be some sort of revival DJ by now if you want to. Discogs plays a big part in making all those records available able. I remember a time when we were flying to London to go to all the music and video exchange stores to buy second-hand house records because you couldn’t get them over here, or you would have to wait. That was a time before the Internet of course, but you would have to wait for a record fair and your luck in all that.
Saying that, there is a reason to reissue things, but by now I have the feeling it’s a strange mixture of, “Who hasn’t re-released this? Ah, let me re-release it!” while looking up on Discogs, “Oh wow, it’s a EUR80 record. Yeah, I’ll have to put it out.” So it feels a bit random at points. And then things are being made into classics that never actually were classics? I really like that Morgan Geist-coined phrase, unclassics. Which can have their own charm if it’s a personal classic or unclassic. Which leads me back to answer your question: When I reissued something, there was some personal thing to it.
For instance, the Prescription, Heaven On Earth record, was always one of my personal favorites. And the cover is actually made from a promo release of it I bought at a distribution company that went out of business and they sold their warehouse stock and I found that record there. With the photocopied artwork — you know how promo copies used to look, with photocopy, “This is what the record will look like when it’s finished.” I put it on a closed cover with tape, so I basically built my own promo cover with it. I got the chance to re-release and so this was the basis for the cover. Or the Don Disco record I re-released, or the sound effect record from Japan where the guy said, “Can you put it out? We’re out of copies,” when I asked to buy a copy from them. So it always something like that, not like, let me put out another thing that’s in demand.
You can always use the argument, if it’s done right the original artist gets some bucks back from it 20 years later, I’m all in for it. But it feels a bit like a rat race already. On the one hand you have all these bootlegs. And as a bootlegger, there’s a morality in the immorality of it, meaning that, make it look like a bootleg. Don’t make it look like the original release to confuse people on Discogs, and then you get a copy with a photocopied cover that doesn’t sound half as good as the original. And then you have people like Rush Hour, who are doing a great job of putting out records again that were in demand or are in demand now. As I’m just one guy, I need something to justify the effort of doing another reissue rather than, someone used this on a compilation, it’s in demand, let’s put it out before someone else puts it out.
I know you have no qualms with doing remixes yourself as Tuff City Kids and such, but I noticed looking back through the Running Back catalog that there aren’t too many of them, some here, some there. What makes you decide to get remixes for a record.
One reason, and maybe this is the first reason, if the artist himself wants a certain person to remix his or her record, then I would always say, “Let’s ask him/her.” Then another reason could be, it’s always someone I wanted to work with but it wouldn’t make sense to put out a record on its own because the person is bound to his or her own label. These are the two reasons, and sometimes people ask me to remix something and if I like their work, I will consider that. The reason why I don’t commission a lot of remixes in the first place — you know, there are labels that commission a remix on every record — is that I think it’s a time thing. You can never be sure what you get when you ask someone to remix a record. And if you have a certain thing in mind you have to ask people to get back to it and edit it. It just adds to the pile of things to do. So that’s maybe why I’m shy about it. From an economical reason, I think it’s pretty smart to have a lot of remixes on your label. Because usually a remix deal is a buyout deal and you can use it as long as you want. Heh, sounding like the bad business man I am now. It’s really a paradox right, because I almost do another remix with Phillip every week. [laughs]
I was actually going to ask about that. It seems Tuff City Kids are becoming in a way the default remixers or editors on a number of Running Back releases. Is that something you see continuing or is it more a circumstance of what you have right now?
One thing, the Hugh Mane record, where it had that one beat track that just needed an edit, so we did it real quickly ourselves. So it’s more if something like that comes along, where I’m not working on it on my own. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a full fledged producer, so it’s almost every time easier and funnier with Phillip to do things. And now the other thing that comes is a bit by accident, that Victor Shan record who did a record on Running Back under his last name, Chord Memories. He literally lives up the street, so I can walk their now. He made this record for The Healing Company, “How You Want It,” and I liked it but I never grew fond of the vocal. So I asked him, can you just give me an instrumental for me to DJ. He did that for me and it always worked fine for me. At one point he or I mentioned that to the label owners or I mentioned it to him, he should put it out again with the instrumental. To cut a long story short, he wanted to do it and we got asked to remix it because I played it so much, he made a different warehouse version as Shan. The Healing Company are a vinyl-only, so I will put it out digitally because I have the means and they take the record.
Do you see yourself doing more Tuff City Kids edits or remixes to accompany your records?
Not intentionally. Because it feels even stranger. I would also not really want to do a Tuff City Kids record on Running Back. And it’s — I’m using the word paradox far too much! On the one hand if you do something people suspect that you like what you do and you like the outcome. And even though I think that holds true to a certain degree, if I do something myself I want to do it for other people. I don’t want to be the guy who takes responsibility for everything. Even to have a Tuff City Kids edit or a remix under my own umbrella of Running Back feels a bit strange to me. I know it’s kind of weird.
You’re certainly not the first person to say something like that, especially about not wanting to release on your own label. It seems like a lot of other people enjoy a certain validation from having someone else put out as opposed to being like, “Well, I guess this one’s on me.”
Yeah, that’s true. If you have established a certain kind of machinery, like my label, it wouldn’t be complicated to have RB-TCK and then put a Tuff City Kids 12″ every month on a sub-label, but I don’t know. But I want to have it for other people. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense for someone like Sound Stream to have his own sense — that makes perfect sense. Or like Todd Terje, that really makes sense. But especially those two guys, they are very conscious of their quality control when it comes to their output. They don’t put out everything they do all the time, which is the fault I think of Tuff City Kids [laughs] and a lot of other people who don’t have another quality control department to tell them, “OK, this is nice, but maybe no one needs it.” I try to see what we’re doing at the moment as the special people’s kind of version of Masters At Work, doing a remix every week.
It seems like in the last 18 months or so Tuff City Kids have put out a bunch more original releases after primarily doing remixes. Is this something you and Phillip [Lauer] are taking more seriously?
I don’t know if the word seriously ever comes up when I’m together with Phillip. I think because we’re doing so much, we meet every week to spend some hours in the studio. It’s just so much stuff coming up that we end up having original productions as well, or stuff that if you strip away all the parts of the intended remix it’s an original track that never got used. People ask for record, so there’s not really a sort of career planning happening with it, it just happens as we go along. Speaking of which, we have to do an album kind of soon.
[laughs] Yeah. But we haven’t really started yet. The next original productions that are coming out is a record for Prins Thomas’s Internasjonal label called Parallel Forest EP which is actually more our deranged vision of a Border Community record maybe. Then we did a track for Ryan Elliot’s Panorama Bar mix CD.
Can you say who the album is for or is this something that only exists in your heads right now?
We never produce into the blue, we always have to have a mission. Permanent Vacation, surprise surprise, they asked us for an album. But like I said there’s nothing really done yet, so maybe it will be a big mistake. [laughs]
That’s interesting. I know you have a relationship with Permanent Vacation, but I wouldn’t have guessed the album would be for them. But then, I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed you would have released on Unterton or Delsin. Seems like these things happen very organically.
So as you see, that’s the big topic of my life, that it’s all really unpredictable and weird and all over the place. And yeah, all these things happened in a way by accident. The Unterton record, it was just Nick Höppner asked for a track for his Panorama Bar mix. We gave him some stuff and he liked it but it didn’t end up on the mix, so he wanted to have a 12″ with it.
I want to describe Phillip as more the engineer type–
I don’t know if that guy can be called an engineer! [laughter all around] He’s the musician.
So what’s your production process like when you’re in the studio?
He has some sort of musical education so it wouldn’t make sense to have me sitting there for eight hours trying to figure out a basic piano melody on MIDI, you know. So that is most of the time his part but I’m really good with the filters. And I do a lot of arrangement stuff. And of course, some one has to take care of all the emailing and mobile phone typing and coffee making. But actually, he’s usually making the coffee and the food because we always meet at his house. Even more jobs to do! To be a bit more sincere with it, I think it just goes really quick if you’re two people and you’re not too vain and you try to listen to the other one, sometimes. Then it goes quicker than just marinating in your own sauce.
Phillip’s music is always super melodic and there’s always a bunch happening. Do you find yourself as sort of his editor?
Yeah, I hope so. The main phrase is, “Stop noodling!” I really like what he’s doing because he’s the piano man, the melody man. But of course, I like things sometimes more plain. That’s maybe the thing, I tell him, “Oh, that’s enough now.”
It seems like that’s often the hardest part, doing enough without doing too much.
I think a lot of people who put too much stuff into their music, they either can do it and it never feels overloaded or they do it out of — I wouldn’t even say insecurity, but they are bored with simple tracks when they do it themselves and they try to put more on top. I try to think, it’s enough if you strip it back. But of course if you do stuff with just little elements it has to be stronger than stuff with lots of elements that keep your ears hanging on to the next thing happening. Like a fast-paced video clip, where you are just overwhelmed by the output and you look all the time instead of concentrating on one thing. Not saying that we’re able to do one thing or the other really well. [laughs]
I wonder how your experience as a journalist, a DJ, and a label owner combined has shaped the kind of music you end up making? I know that, since you’ve been doing all these things for so long, it can be difficult to pick out individual threads, but I guess I’m thinking in the general sense of, OK, I’d want to make this instead of that.
That’s what always keep me from making music myself all these years. I think that I have — in my head at least — this vast reference system. I’m not saying I’ve heard it all before, but I’ve heard a lot of things before. So often stuff reminds me of old records or a certain feeling, then of course it’s hard to be naive even if you want to be. Because even your naïve things remind you of some other naïve music you’ve heard before. Someone told me recently over a dinner table that he thinks the stuff we’re doing together has a clear reference to something, but I think it’s never really on purpose, it just turns out to be like that, and then afterwards it maybe reminds us of something. It’s not that we start the remix or something with the clear intention to — except for that Border Community record gone wrong [laughs] — “Oh, let’s do a techno that sounds like Jeff Mills!” Maybe after we did it I think, “This one sound sounds like Jeff Mills.” But because we’re so confused it never really turns into — what would you call someone who repaints art and tries to make it seem legit?
Oh, um, an art bootlegger or copyist?
I think we’re art bootleggers who don’t really know we’re bootlegging, until it’s too late.
You’ve been interviewed about Running Back probably a couple dozen times. What’s one thing you always wished someone would ask you about you or the label that no one has?
That’s the hardest question I’ve ever been asked! [laughs] It’s a strange thing. As I told you in the beginning, it’s really hard for me to be interviewed, not because I think, “Ah, I’ve been an interviewer myself for such a long time and I would have the better questions” or anything like that. I just feel really uncomfortable to make any sense if I give an answer. So I prefer to be quiet, so I can’t give you an answer.
That’s fair. I like asking that because I often feel there’s some aspect which the person really loves about their label but it never gets brought up. Like people could go on and on about mastering engineers, for example.
We can talk about mastering engineers forever, if you want? [laughs] You’re right, one nice thing and something that’s also astonishing to me is that people still, even in this day and age when everything seems to be so clear and on the table and everything can be researched and every story has been told, still people make up their own stories in their mind with certain records. It’s one of the first Running Back records, Prosumer’s Brownstone EP, and we did an inside out cover where it was orange on the outside and cardboard on the outside. A guy came up to me at Robert Johnson and said, “Ahh, really nice that you used the kind of Playhouse cover, it’s from that time when they were doing all those great records and now they are not as great as they used to be.” Those are people’s thoughts and connections and I was like, “Huh?” I knew exactly which sleeves he meant, but when I decided to do these inside out sleeves I never thought about Playhouse. So it wasn’t an ironic take on it, it was just because you could do it.
This would actually be a nice question: If Playhouse was a kind of influence when I started Running Back.
And your answer would be?
My answer would have been, when I started it, it wasn’t, not at all. Although I have a lot of Playhouse records, when I started Running Back it was a time, Playhouse was such a huge thing so I would have never said, Oh, I’m doing something like it. If it was anything, it was maybe like an antagonist trying to release more house-y house music than house records themselves. If I look back on it now, I think the aesthetic and ethics of Playhouse had more of an influence on me than I might have thought myself. If you look back at it — and I think that chapter is kind of closed now, and they had one or two sub-labels like Ongaku and Klang — they were all over the place also. So maybe it’s a Frankfurt discotheque mentality that is deeply inside me and I didn’t know it.
What labels would you say you have the most records from or you’re a completist of?
The easiest answer would be Strictly Rhythm, just because of the vast amount of stuff they’ve put out. And the other easy answer would be Basic Channel/Maurizio/Main Street, because they stopped after a while. I always cite them as an influence for labels who have a very specific vision of a certain sound and they always knew when it’s time to stop, or even unintentionally. It makes it like a TV series, like “True Detective.” It’s nice that it’s over after eight episodes instead of going on until season 11 and you’re just like, “Oh god.”
So how do you think people know when it’s time to end a record label? Or perhaps a trigger for someone to say, this is done?
Yeah, catalog number 100 is a good one. [laughs] I don’t know. There are maybe as many reasons to stop a record label as there are for you to start one. Either you lost touch with the music you put out; you are somewhere else in your life; the label isn’t selling records anymore. I’m thinking of this a lot, like, when should I stop? When is it enough? When do you start to bore people? I guess you wake up one day and you think, now it’s enough. And you put an end to it. I hope I won’t overdo it. But then you can ask, when does a DJ have to stop? When are you too old to entertain the kids?
What’s coming up from you and Running Back in the next year or so?
Just a quick rundown: Records by Genius of Time, records by Todd Osborn, one is a beat record. Hopefully another Radio Slave record, some stuff by Tiger & Woods, a record by a guy from Berlin who goes by Thomalla, he was running a label called Krakatau which had a Lake People record and he is bringing glitch house-not-house back. A record by Octo Octa, what else… some more stuff by Roman Flügel. If I can get him to do one, a disco record by Mr. G. It’s all in the making, partly finished, partly has to be mastered. Oh, and speaking of reissues, there is one! Going back to Todd Osborn, it’s a TNT reissue record with a previously unreleased beat track and two slightly edited tracks from records they did before. But that’s also personal. I’ve been begging for this beat track for years now, and the other two will finish it off.