John Roberts – Investigating Naivety and Anxieties
John Roberts released Glass Eights, his debut LP, on Dial Records last autumn. Probably due to it’s hybrid sound that is not too far away from DJ Nate’s neo-ghetto house stylings, the record was praised from all sides: Techno veterans as well as dub-steppers, Panorama Bar patrons as well as hip-hop aficionados.
Perhaps then it was no surprise to see Roberts’ name on a flyer, advertising a club night in Lucerne. The central-Swiss city is mainly known for being a hotspot for Asian tourists as well as being the setting for most of Bollywood’s honeymoon-scenes and maybe also for having the oldest art school in Switzerland. But thanks to indefatigable bookers like Südpol, Korsett Kollektiv and zoorotor, Lucerne has also built up a reputation for hosting boundary-pushing contemporary acts like Mount Kimbie, Kompakt novices Walls, soul / bass music producer Jamie Woon or the prog-step visionaries of Hype Williams (who unfortunately terminated their set after 30 minutes after being asked to play “some party music”).
Electronic Beats met John Roberts at Treibhaus in Lucerne to talk about influencing records, sharing introverted feelings with a party crowed as well as being part of the Dial posse.
Hello – could you please introduce yourself briefly?
My name is John Roberts. Originally, I am from Cleveland, Ohio. I have been living in Berlin for almost the last three years and I try to make nice records for Dial primarily.
How did you get into music?
When I was five years old I started playing the violin. It was really intense: three days a week packed with private and group lessons, orchestra and theory classes. When I was fifteen I got rebellious against my parents. As a result of that, I started playing the drums, then the guitar and finally I begun messing around with samplers and stuff like that.
How did you get in touch with electronic music?
It was a totally random occurrence. There is a used records store outside Cleveland called Record Exchange. In there I picked up a CD because the cover looked interesting. It was Smarties, an early 90s UK hardcore group. On the back of the record it said something like ‘Thanks to all the raver’ and I was wondering what is a raver. I investigated a little bit and found out that Cleveland and Pittsburgh had a rave scene. Well, I started sneaking out going to those parties.
When did you start making music?
I was DJ’ing first. When I was a teenager I started buying records from Juno in the UK. They would take super long time to arrive and therefore, it was an amazing gift to get them in the mail. One day, I tried to figure out how these tracks were made. I started fiddling around with cheap computer programmes and old guitar effect processers.
Do you remember the first time you were happy with something you created?
Eeerrmm… (laughing bashfully) that didn’t come for a really long time actually… until I was 20 maybe. I started to take making music a little more seriously when I heard Jimmy Edgar’s Bounce, Make, Model. I remember being really obsessed with it. When I was investigating Jimmy, I found out that he was my age. This was really motivating because I though that what he was doing is something totally possible for me. I started producing sort of bizarre hip-hop tracks I liked at that period. So probably one of those was the first one I actually liked.
Talking about influential records, what was besides Bounce, Make, Model was groundbreaking for you?
Basically all of the Dance Mania records that I bought were really inspiring to me. They sounded so bad, but in a really amazing way. There was a certain naivety in the way they were produced: terrible pressing, totally incorrect levels and distorting noises. But in the end, they sounded really energetic.
There was also a time I was really obsessed with the whole Kompakt sound, especially with Superpitcher’s mix CD [Today]. Actually, around that time I first heard of Dial Records. That’s why to me Dial’s music somehow is linked to Kompakt.
What about more recent releases?
I am kind of stuck in the past with that thing. I am really bad about following contemporary house and electronic music. Any records that I am buying these days are old Dance Mania records, every once in a while also some Chicago and New York house from the early 90s. It’s funny: there is such a weird market for this kind of vinyl. The worse and more naïve the record is, the more collectors are willing to pay.
So you are not getting inspired by contemporary music. What’s your main source of inspiration then?
Hmm, I guess just personal problems, anxieties, maybe depressions. With music I try to overcome that in some way. Obviously the place where you live also has an influence. When I was living in New York, I constantly was hearing hip-hop and R&B on the street. It was always sunny and everyone is really energetic and working super hard. Berlin is kind of the opposite world: dark and grey and everyone’s moving slowly and kind of fawning. Plus the city’s soundscape is defined by club-related music. It also depends on by whom you are surrounded. In New York I was living with my friend Eliot Lipp . He was really inspirational.
You used to study applied and fine arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. Do the studies have an influence on how you are producing music?
I think a little bit. The ideas I had about fine arts are the same ideas I have about music. Which is actuating an assortment of things you really like and finding a way to combine and use them to create your own aesthetics…
…and in terms of translating abstract ideas or feelings into something tangible?
My music is definitely introverted. It’s always been very private for me and I’ve always done it in a closed room with none else around. There are definitely some feelings coming from that, but I never would go and say ‘here is an idea I want to capture’.
Before you were saying that anxieties and depressions are influencing your music. How does it feel to share fragile impressions like that with a crowd at a club?
When the album got released I really felt vulnerable. Sharing it with other people felt weird – like someone is reading your diary. Since a club crowd wants something extroverted it was even weirder to play the album live. But the performances get better and better because there is more understanding now.
The Dial posse consists of a bunch of friends, that are in their thirties, that know each other for ten years – and that all are German. How did you, an American twentysomething, manage to get into this exclusive circle?
Again, it was a totally random occurrence. I was visiting some friends in Berlin and before that I had created a MySpace profile, where I uploaded some songs I made. Romy Zips, Dial’s booking agent at that time, checked it out and wrote me a message, that I happened to check when I was in Berlin. I thought that she was cute and because she was living in Berlin I asked her out for a coffee. When we met she was telling me that she had a boyfriend who lived in the US and she was working with Dial et cetera. Next time we met was when she went to visit her boyfriend in New York, where I was living back then. We grew friends and one day Romy gave all of the Dial guys a CD with some tracks that I e-mailed her. They then wrote me a really amazing letter, asking me to be a part of the label. It really came at the perfect moment because I couldn’t find a label that seemed to fit correctly. I already had given up on it…
There is this Sten record with the anti-fascist flag on the back… Is Dial’s political aspect of importance to you too?
Actually, that’s my favourite record in the Dial back catalogue. But for me it’s more about music. My political stand is always kind of being completely hands-off because I think it’s really depressing.
Was that a problem for the guys?
No. I think the high level of political involvement was in the earlier days.
You are releasing your music on Dial Records and you have a residency at Panorama Bar. In other words: You are part of the contemporary rave elite. What are your plans the future?
I have been working on a book of photographs that I have taken over the period I was making the album, images that in some way have been influential. I keep going back and forth though, deciding whether it would be a totally stupid project or not…
I am also working on a travel magazine with Pawel [Dial co-founder Paul Kominek]. It has interviews with artists, filmmakers and writers, and also reviews of hotels in different destinations. After travelling Japan we did a story about Ryokan [traditional Japanese hotels] for example. It’s really fun and an amazing side project with having music as your profession, where you are travelling anyway. And it is a nice little break from producing music. I was kind of tired out after I have been working on the album for so long…
Published March 25, 2011.