Finn Johannsen is a man of many trades. He’s a central figure behind the counter at Berlin’s world famous Hard Wax record store, a co-captain of the Macro label with Stefan Goldmann, an in-demand DJ in his own right and an occasional music writer. After contributing a recommendation of Soichi Terada’s recent retrospective on Rush Hour for the latest issue of our magazine, Johannsen has agreed to relaunch his column Rewind, which features conversations with musicians, designers, artists and writers about their favorite records. We’re the series’ third home; he started it on the German blog Sounds Like Me and continued it with the now-defunct De:Bug magazine. For the first edition of its third life, Johannsen talks to EB Radio mixer and much-lauded producer Call Super about My Answer, an EP that Charley’s Vault released in 2000.
How did you come across My Answer? Was it in a record store, or club?
A club: The End in London.
Why does this record mean so much to you? Is it a time capsule of a certain kind?
It is. Although it’s of its time in certain ways, I don’t really feel that it has aged. It was a record that I heard quite a few times before I had any idea who it was. I was usually too shy to ask DJs back then, and there were lots of tracks that you would hear and just know because you’d heard them before. Maybe one day you’d actually turn it up in a store, or meet someone in the club who could tell you, or it would be used on a mix, which is how I found out what this one was.
The thing I love so much is it creates a mood perfect for any time of the night or morning. It has the exact balance of menace, tension, joy and release needed for the perfect DJ tool. The mixdown is really nicely done, the way it ebbs, flows and kicks at certain points. I make a distinction between tracks that often get called “tools,” which to my ear are usually just drum tracks with a stab or a pad or something, and the really useful stuff, which has more going on and can take you up, down, reset, roll out, maintain—anything that you ask of it. This is one of those tracks.
I guess most people stay true to their formative years in the clubs of their youth. What made The End so special?
The club was very well designed. It was loosely based on Tunnel in New York, but with the crucial difference of placing the booth in the middle of the floor so the DJ was cocooned by the crowd, which was cocooned by the sound system. The fact that this setup existed in a tunnel created two opportunities. The first was that it was very easy to lose yourself at the back by the system without feeling disconnected. The second was that it created a particular atmosphere that meant certain DJs would be encouraged to have more fun. Obviously good DJs play to the setting they are in, while bad DJs do the same thing no matter where they are. Well, this was a space that coaxed the best out of people.
I went maybe twice a month on average for about two years, then less frequently for the next few years because I had relocated to Glasgow. In that time, I was surprised nearly every night at what had been played, or how it had been played. The YouTube video [below] of Jeff Mills performing there covers a little of that ground. You cannot understate the importance of having these experiences to draw on when you end up doing this for a living—your own constellation of places and people that inspired you. That’s what gives you your distinct voice and I feel massively grateful that that club incubated me.
Nigel Hayes was a productive artist during the heyday of The End, but at the time of My Answer his career was still beginning. Is he an exemplary producer for the club’s distinct sound? Did the club even have a distinct sound?
No, not at all, I’m sorry to say. I really know very little of anything else he has done. The few things I’ve heard haven’t been to my taste.
His collaborator in Charley’s Vault was Austin Bascom from Chicago, who already had a lot of credentials for his releases on seminal labels like Prescription and Guidance. My Answer has the breezy swing common to a lot of his productions, but it is probably not what you usually would associate with the sound of that city. Does local context even matter when artists travel and collaborate elsewhere? Was this even produced with a local target audience in mind?
For me the best artists from Chicago were never obsessed with a “Chicago” sound—for the most part that was left for European kids to mimic. Abacus is an archetype of that second wave who just kept pushing forward and doing their own thing. Green Velvet, Hieroglyphic Being, Paul Johnson, Glenn Underground—it seems to me that they all shared a simple engagement with doing things their own way with the technology they had access to instead of just remaking the Trax catalog. That versatility means sometimes you get very distinct sounds, or sounds that are hard to pin down. I don’t know if this was made with a local audience in mind; I really have no idea what was going in Chicago club-wise around the early ’00s.
There was another London-Chicago axis with Derrick Carter and Luke Solomon’s label Classic, which also released a lot of artists from both cities. Was there more exchange between those cities in contrast to others?
Classic had a residency at the club, and those two [Carter and Solomon] would often share much of the night. To be honest, I never found those nights to be quite as special, but comes down to my own taste and maybe the fact that they didn’t play as many different styles of music as Mills or [Laurent] Garnier did. One of the favorites at the club was Green Velvet, who was seen as embodying the spirit of the place. I remember him playing the nights that Layo Paskin and Bushwacka put on. Beyond that I don’t know if you can draw anything particularly special between the two cities, but maybe I’m missing something.
Who were the DJs who transported this sound most perfectly? Were they also from both Chicago and London, or did that not matter?
I don’t think it mattered. The person who hammered this track was Garnier, and he was one of the masters of that club. He had his sets down to an absolute point. They covered an awful lot of ground and followed a certain kind of formula which he could rearrange depending on every factor. It was never really about a particular sound for me.
These days, bouncing techno/house hybrid tracks are a bit frowned upon. Is this the usual longevity of club sounds, or did it decrease in reputation otherwise, however justified?
If you’re frowning on this kind of stuff, then to me, you’re doing something wrong. The fact that the rhythms bounce in a particular way misses the point. It’s just a great track. I’m not interested in music that exists solely as a reaction against other music. I want to always be able to fold anything I like into what I do, and I like things that recognize that as a positive attribute. Narrow fashions are to do with a level of self-consciousness that I don’t recall being such an issue then, unless you were into something like rock or whatever. It’s a quality that arises when defining oneself against something and, like I said, that has never interested me. I like fashion, which is totally expansive.
In the electronic scene, the people I was friends with just wanted really good tracks in whatever style. I first became aware of a self-conscious thing in dance music with minimal and certain elements of the dubstep scene, and then increasingly in recent years within the factions of techno and house that have become hung up on striving for authenticity and/or slaves to very particular aesthetics.
Are there current producers who manage to carry on with the qualities of My Answer, or is this more set in a certain period of time?
For me, the qualities of the track come from the people who made it just doing their own thing within a framework. There are lots of fantastic producers doing that now.
Maybe some people find your choice of Charley’s Vault surprising in comparison to your own productions. But are there traces of what you like about it in your music?
If you listen to some of my incidentals, certainly on something like Coup d’Etat, you may or may not discern a certain influence. I’m not sure but I certainly hope so!
British expat Mark Reeder has been sowing the historical seeds of synthpop and trance across national and political boundaries for over thirty years. An early associate of Factory Records, Reeder helped form FAC darkwavers Shark Vegas on the political fault line that was Wall-era Berlin. After producing various postpunk acts on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Reeder founded the groundbreaking trance label Masterminded For Success (MFS), releasing some of the most important electronic music of the early nineties. An avid remixer, Reeder has most recently reworked synthpop icons Depeche Mode and Anne Clark (among others) for his surround sound album Five Point One.
A as in AMIGA:
The state-run worker and farmer record label of Communist East Germany. Previously responsible for feeding that poor, under-privileged population with party-line fodder for forty years. Musical excitement was generated by a selection of working class smash hits, such as bird songs of the GDR, or numer- ous records by the NVA (National People’s Army). These shared the shelves with generally insipid imitations of western pop music. That said, some of their home grown attempts at rock and pop, like Muck, Silly, Puhdys, City, and Karat did have their own particular style and became cult in their own way. In the latter half of 1989, I was invited by AMIGA to produce an album for their first English singing indie band, Die Vision, in the Brunnenstraße Tonstudio. The band’s name revealed their obvious musical direction and I believe I was chosen not simply because of my connection to Factory Records but also for the fact that the Stasi wanted to test me and my production skills.
Initially, the band wanted me to make them sound like Joy Division, but I just wanted them to sound like no other GDR band. Either way, it was a very rare opportunity for me to be allowed into this fascinating Frankenstein’s monster of a recording studio. More or less every piece of equipment in the place was self-made or had been cobbled together from bits and pieces. There were other difficulties to test your nerves too, such as regular power surges or drop-outs. These caused the multitrack tape recorder to instantly jump-switch all channels on to record mode, erasing any previously recorded tracks. As it was a communist country, I also had to work in shifts. One day I would have to start at 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., the next at 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. I discovered some of the other producers of marching music all wanted the early shifts, and so I easily managed to talk them into giving me their late shifts so I could work through the night. A few weeks after I had completed a couple of demo mixes, I was told the album had over thirty thousand pre-orders. The head AMIGA A&R even drove me around Pankow in East Berlin one night in his Trabi, optimistically showing me around grand old houses that I could possibly buy with the money I was going to be earning from the projected record sales. It was all quite bizarre, because in the West I lived in a shoddy little flat in Kreuzberg. During the making of this album, the German Democratic Republic really started falling apart. We finally finished recording the last track for Torture on November 2, 1989. The next week the Berlin Wall fell and with it, I unknowingly became the first and only Englishman ever to have had the privilege of making an album in East Berlin and, at the same time, the last album of the GDR.
B as in Bats:
Sonic wonders. Incredible creatures and captivating and thrilling to watch. I always get excited when I see a bat, swerving and moving at super high speed. As a kid, I loved the camp sixties Batman TV series and I still do. I’m also into the thirties Dracula films with Bela Lugosi and Hammer Film’s sixties version with Christopher Lee.
C as in Curtis, Ian:
I remember Ian as a witty, temperamental and sarcastic young man and a relentless chain smoker. Personally, I think he was the best lyricist of his era in the best band of the era, and I feel very proud to have known him. We shared not only a common interest in music, but also in history, mystery and World War II. His death was devastating. At the time, I felt cheated of the great music I was now never going to hear. It was only when Anton Corbijn started his Joy Division project that I was forced to reconsider things and show my own few photos of Ian that I had kept hidden for so many years.
D as in Die Unbekannten:
Thrown together in June 1981 for a German Unity concert in legendary Berlin club SO36. I had previously performed with Adrian Wright from The Human League and future Bad Seeds and Die Haut drummer Thomas Wydler at the mammoth last night of the Exxcess Club, and I was asked if I would be willing to play again. I called my friend Alistair Gray to see if he could sing, and he instantly crooned “Strangers in the Night” in the telephone and I said, “Great! We have a gig next week, come round and I will show you how to play bass.” We hurried out a couple of tunes and even wrote one of the songs in the bar across the road while waiting for the sound check. When the show started, I nervously hit the wrong button on our MFB drum machine and the whole thing just fell apart. The debut gig was a complete disaster. We weren’t anything like avantgarde, just incompetent. For our second EP, Dangerous Moonlight, Adrian gave us a prototype Roland 606 to test for him, and test it we did. We immediately ran into the studio and used it to record “Don’t Tell Me Stories” long before the drum machine was even allowed to be available in the shops. Although we wanted to mix dance and soul with synths, our sound was always very depressive and people would tell us how they cried lis- tening to our music. Was it really that bad? We called it depridisco. People today call it darkwave. Apparently, Die Unbekannten have since become known as darkwave pioneers and godfa- thers of goth. In 1984 we decided to change our sound, style and our band name to Shark Vegas, after Bernard Sumner asked us to go on tour with New Order.
E as in England:
E for England. Probably one of the best nineties catchphrases. There will always be one. Yes, it is a lovely country with many beautiful places and so much creativity, but in the seventies I couldn’t wait to leave it. England is sadly becoming more and more like the place George Orwell wrote about in 1984. CCTV is everywhere and they will soon be flying about on little remote controlled drones. Then everyone will be monitored.
F as in Five Point One:
Multichannel surround sound. I love it. I have always been fascinated by the idea of three dimensional wrap-around sound. It is the natural way we hear. Many audio purists think it’s rubbish or just a momentary fashion trend, but people said that originally about stereo, too. I decided to make my Five Point One remix album in 5.1 not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
G as in German Democratic Republic:
It was like Disneyland for me—a parallel world on the other side of the Berlin Wall that smelled of two-stroke engines, coal and cabbage. Forbidden and unknown. Very similar in many aspects to the West but also entirely different. A strange mir- ror world. It reminded me of my early childhood in many ways and things I was familiar with from my parents’ generation, like aluminum spoons or enamel plates. No one could tell me anything about it though and being a curious kind of fellow, I wanted to know more about it . . . much, much more. I wanted to delve deep into their underground music scene. I was hooked with my first visit there a few days after arriving in Berlin in 1978. It was a bit like being beamed down into a scene from Star Trek that was like The Great Escape. But it was also a fucking serious place and you felt one wrong move could have you on a cattle car on the way to a Siberian salt mine. My first encounter with a punky looking kid formed the basis for a Stasi file on me. In good faith I asked him about the East Berlin underground scene. I meant the musical underground of course, but to the East Germans it meant political underground. He said there wasn’t one. We exchanged addresses and I heard nothing for months. Then I got a card inviting me over for a meeting at the Palast der Republik, the East German parliament. I was being vetted by a small group of people who were devotees of the sort of subcultural music that was considered dan- gerous in the GDR. Who was I? What did I want? Who did I work for? These were the questions the KGB were asking the Stasi and the same questions were probably being asked by these kids too. After years of monitoring my activities and especially after I had helped to organize the first secret Toten Hosen gig in East Berlin in 1982—disguised as a blues mass church service—the Stasi classified me as a subversive element out to corrupt their youth. I knew music was a weapon the authorities couldn’t really deal with, as it was constantly changing and we could always be one step ahead. Beyond East Berlin, the GDR was shabby, quaint, naive and innocent. It was an exhilarating thrill to travel about in forbidden places and do things you shouldn’t. I also liked the fact that it was untouched by gory advertising.
H as in Hard Wax:
Elite and exclusive Berlin record store. Ideal hunting ground for techno and house DJs. As I am not a DJ,I never belonged to that particular club. They probably still hate me for making trance records anyway.
I as in Intershop:
The most alluring and fraudulent supermarket chain in East Germany. Designed to glean hard western currency from the population of both East and West, it also enticed Westerners to break the law. In Berlin, Westerners could go to the Intershop, which was a prefab shed-like construction directly on the platform of Friedrichstraße underground station. This part of the station was the transfer point between the S- & U-Bahn systems into the West of the city and therefore inaccessible to East Germans. Here you could buy very cheap, duty free alcohol and name brand cigarettes. But there was a catch: Because the GDR was not an officially recognized country, the usual duty free rules didn’t apply. So people were compelled to smuggle stuff back into West Berlin. You would see scores of people frantically sticking cigarettes in their socks and down their underpants in a feeble attempt not to pay tax duty if collared by the West Berlin customs, who would be lying in wait for anyone coming from East Berlin.
J as in Japan:
Great eighties art rock band—like an eighties version of Roxy Music. I always thought Gentlemen Take Polaroids was a very cool album. They had fashion mag style, big hair and shoulder pads. Towards their end they started to become a bit too bland and much too muso for my taste. It was like they were trying too hard to outdo themselves.
K as in Kraftwerk:
Being a fan of electronic music from an early age, I tried to get my hands on anything made with a synthesizer. In the seventies much of it was a noodling kind of synth music like Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream, and even the original version of Kraftwerk was very experimental. Then they had a hit with “Autobahn”. That changed everything and paved the way for electronic disco and the rest. I still think Die Mensch- Maschine and Computerwelt albums are probably the most futuristic sounding records, even today. Timeless masterpieces.
L as in Leisure Time:
As a kid, I used to make model aircraft. It was very therapeutic and I would get high on the fumes from the glue and paint.
M as in Manchester:
I have a love/hate relationship with Manchester. I love the surrounding countryside and imperial buildings from an age when Britain was a thriving industrial Empire. This grimy city is my birthplace though and the place that undoubtedly shaped my musical tastes and probably everything else. I grew up on the outskirts, in a council house. Proper working class. My dad had been in the Merchant Navy but left in the sixties to work for Manchester Liners and my mum had previously built the wing tips of Lancaster bombers that went off to bomb Germany during the war. Prospects in the early seventies didn’t look good. Factories were closing and it seemed everyone was being made redundant. I was thankfully spared a lifetime of grueling hard labor as new skills were required. I studied advertising design when it was literally cut and paste and you would constantly be on the lookout for E’s on a sheet of Letraset. I tried working in a few agencies, but it just wasn’t me, so I went to work in our local little Virgin Record store in Lever Street. Here, I honed my knowledge of music and I met most of the local musicians, as well as all the Factory people—Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton, Peter Saville, Kevin Cummins and many others. After the first wave of punk rock had washed over, I decided to leave Manchester in the late 1970’s to go and live in Berlin. Back then the city offered no future and I didn’t want to spend it in a dole queue. I still think that most artists from Manchester just want to make it so they can leave the place.
N as in Nihilism:
I find many young people, especially in the UK, have quite a nihilistic attitude towards figures of authority. Being right wing or binge drinking and collecting ASBOs [Anti- social Behaviour Orders] are their weapons. It’s a bit sad that this is all they can think of really.
O as in Ostblock:
Music played a very important role throughout the Eastern Bloc. The people I met would religiously listen to John Peel’s BBC World Service broadcasts and their knowledge of Western indie music through his show was astounding. It certainly drove them to plot the demise of their dictators. One exception to all the Eastern Bloc countries was Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania. Now that was really a living hell. No food, no fun, no electricity. In contrast, I visited Czechoslovakia within the first few weeks of arriving in Berlin. I was so impressed by its untainted beauty. I stayed with a very old lady, who let me rent a room in her ancient art-deco house for twenty deutschmark a night. I was unpacking my bag and she came in to bring me a towel. On my bed was a banana from my travel provisions. She stopped and just stared at it. I said to her that she could have it and she almost burst into tears. She said she hadn’t tasted a banana for many years, as whenever they were available, she was too old and slow to stand and queue for one. She slowly peeled it and took a delicate and savoring bite. It was so sad, I just wished I had brought a bunch. Through my travels, I got to know some very interesting people in Prague who were involved in highly dangerous anti-state activities, such as Jáchym Topol who produced the self-made and radical periodical Revolver Revue, or Saša Vondra, the spokesman for the dissident Charter 77 movement. Saša was constantly in and out of prison. He is now the minister of defence.
P as in Post-Capitalism:
Coming our way very soon.
Q as in Quo Vadis, Trance?
Not really going anywhere, except the USA. Finally they have embraced it and will surely put the final nail in its coffin too. In reality, trance as a musical genre has become repetitive, tepid and tedious. It is certainly a million miles away from what I had envisioned it to be.
R as in Running Gag:
One of the things we British love is a continuously evolving joke. My recent, purposely botched introduction for the encore of New Order as Joy Divsion (and not Joy Division) was a running gag dating back to a poster for the first New Order Berlin concert in 1981, where the printer who set the type misspelled the band’s previous name.
S as in Sumner, Bernard:
Bernard is an old friend. He is very funny and is constantly playing jokes or trying his best to cause embarrassment. Our interests go far beyond music. In his last Electronic Beats interview, he mentioned his Transcendent 2000 synth that he built by hand from a kit. He gave me that synth back in the eighties and I still have it, unfortunately it doesn’t work anymore.
T as in Tresor:
When Dimitri Hegemann told me about finding a new club location in a Tresor, a safe, deep underground in the basement of a former department store, I instantly imagined it to be like something from a James Bond film. A huge shiny, chrome and steel vault, with a three-meter thick door, gleaming and immacu- late. Instead, what I saw upon my first visit was a rusty and grubby room with bars and a wall of decrepit safety deposit boxes. The place had a very musty smell and soon rumours were going around that if you went there you would inhale some kind of life threatening fungus. It didn’t stop anyone from going. The sound and location was just perfect for techno. When Dimitri decided to release the club’s first compilation, I helped by licensing eleven tracks to him from my MFS artists.
U as in Uniforms:
Uniforms are practical and I have a passion for them. Since I was a small child I have always worn a uniform of one kind or another. I like the fact that they are usually well designed, are made of good quality material and they are hardwearing. And I especially like the idea that I can take something that has been created for an entirely different purpose and use it for my own.
V as in Van Dyk, Paul:
As my label was started in East Berlin in the ruins of AMIGA, my original idea for MFS was to release top techno tunes made mainly by young East Germans. Unfortunately, a year after the fall of the Wall, most of them still didn’t have the money or the equipment to make their own music. Then one day, Cosmic Baby told me about a young East German DJ he’d seen called Paul van Dyk. Apparently, they had the same musical vision. I suggested they work together. Paul also had a dream. He was ambitious and wanted to become a professional DJ. I helped him to realize that dream. I certainly believed in him one hundred percent when no one else did. I guided him and invested everything I had in his career. With that I don’t just mean money, but more valuable things like my credibility, creativity, time and energy. All I expected was loyalty in return. Sadly, I got nothing.
W as in Wasted German Youth:
There are plenty of those about and not only in Germany. Just go to any club on any week- end and you will see hoards of them, not just the t-shirts. The consumption of drugs and alcohol has always led to some people getting totally wasted. I’ve been there myself on many occasions in the past. This doesn’t mean the zombification of Germany is imminent, or that the kids are throwing their lives away. Getting wasted is just a release, a way of escape.
X as in XTC:
Great feeling, great band and a great drug when it was new. Now people have no idea what is being offered to them under the guise.
Y as in Young Blood:
Thankfully, something art and music will always have. There will always be a young, frustrated person out there, eager and willing to voice their opinion and share their vision and creativity with us.
Z as in ZONG:
With that, we’re back to the beginning. What happened to AMIGA after the wall came down? They immediately changed their name to . . . ZONG. 1990 was a time of upheaval. Everything that was associated with the for- mer communist regime was being purged. It was so frustrating. I knew the guys left to run the rem- nants of AMIGA were so eager to show that things had changed, but they really had no idea about marketing or creating a name. Horrified, I pleaded with them to keep AMIGA but they were so determined to throw off the shackles of the past. I tried to explain that if they were to have something new, they at least needed a name that was vibrant—one that would attract attention or cause controversy. I suggested they call their new moniker ZONY, as East Germans were also known as “Zonies” coming from the Soviet Zone. But it was no use. They didn’t find my parody at all amusing. I even went so far as to design a logo for ZONY that ever so slightly resembled the Sony logo in the vague hope they would see the pun. The ZONG logo, a hideous, bold white italic “Z” on a cold pink background, was doomed to stay. Needless to say, I had to bite the bullet as the Die Vision album also became one of the first ZONG releases. I eventually decided to take revenge and show them what I meant, so I created my own record label Masterminded For Success, knowing that it would be abbreviated to reveal the initials of the dreaded East German secret service [Ministerium für Staatssicherheit]. That certainly attracted attention and caused controversy. ~
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com.