Live At Robert Johnson (LARJ) is a German record label specialising in House and Techno music. The label was formed out of the acclaimed Robert Johnson night Club in Offenbach Am Main, Germany – that for 13 years has hosted nearly every big name in the Club scene: Andrew Weatherall, Roman Flugel, Ricardo Villalobos, Sven Väth, Laurent Garnier and many, many, many, many, many more. With the immense success of the club, LARJ was first established as a way of putting out mixtapes and live sets from particularly special nights and became the vehicle for carrying the experience of a Robert Johnson club night into the hands of those not able to attend. Over time, the label developed into an outlet for the intimate network of recording DJs that has built around the club.
Along with Ata Macias, who founded the club in 1999 and is a stalwart of the European club scene, Oliver Hafenbauer is the General Manager for Live At Robert Johnson and Musical Curator for both the club and the label. He spends a lot of time away from home, DJing across Europe. We met in a small Japanese restaurant in Frankfurt’s centre, where he learnt many things from me, such as Australia’s prohibitive alcohol laws, methods of demolition in China’s built-up areas, and the ultimate food challenge.
Frey: Do you have the Ramen challenge here?
In Sydney you can order up a mountain of cold ramen; if you can’t eat the whole thing you have to pay $50 but if you manage it all you get your picture on the wall.
Great idea. There’s another place, what was it called, Mikuni, they have all these starters, like uh everything. But they have a lot of strange stuff also. The sushi is also good but it’s way better at Sushi Moto. But I like the interior of the Mikuni. Turquoise mats and so on.
There’s a place in Sydney called Sushi Suma which is always really crowded and they play either jazz-fusion, you know, elevator music, or classical symphonies, but really loud. Really chilled out music but incredibly loud, so you can’t really hear anything else, it’s almost like a club.
Roman Flugel was in Sydney and Melbourne last weekend. Just two days, three gigs and back.
Then a whole day on a plane.
Horrible, because it’s so boring. Even if you take a sleeping pill, you sleep 8 hours and then wake up and think ‘Oh wow, maybe I’m near Australia’, but, not.
Especially because you’re quite tall as well. I always try to get the emergency seat.
I don’t know how to do it.
How attractive is Sydney to European DJs?
I don’t know, I’ve never been there. Most of them, when they are in Japan, promoters from Australia book them so they can share flights. A lot of DJs go to Australia.
I think part of it is that it’s so far away, so the promoters and clubs make such a big fuss out of them when they get there.
It’s so far away from the US and all these cultural hotspots, NYC, LA, Berlin.
We like to think that it’s a big creative place, on par with those other cities, but it’s really not.
Yeah, but it’s not quite the same, not so much as an art in itself. There is a pretty big house scene though, but it tends to be an older crowd. Ecstasy was kind of legal in the early nineties, so the people who are 45 -50
You were allowed to buy them in the shop?
It basically just wasn’t policed. It wasn’t state-run or anything, but it was a lot easier.
It’s a strange business. (Djing) We went to Oslo, and you go there, and the party starts at, maybe 12, and people come at 1, and the place closes at 3:30. So you go there, fly for a couple of hours, DJ for 1 and a half hours, and then you go back. It’s crazy.
What’s your ideal time for a DJ set?
Two hours, as a minimum, you can build up like a small arc. For 6 hours you can go more, you have parts that are maybe more disco-based, or deep house. You can go a bit more through your record collections.
Do you still get the same fee, no matter how long you play for?
Of course. But it’s not much fun for a DJ to play just for 1 and a half hour. And then everything is closed.
Well, in Australia, you can’t even buy alcohol (outside of a bar or club) after midnight,
That’s so weird.
Actually, there is a guy in Sydney who found a loophole in the law so he could sell alcohol as ‘gifts’ after midnight with a catering license.
We have the same here, it’s called the Mitternachts, the midnight kiosk, you can call people and they bring cigarettes, alcohol, and chips whatever.
In celebration of the recent publication of ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, a retrospective on the 13-year of history of the club, the team has set out on a Europe-wide tour, taking the Robert Johnson experience to the rest of the continent. The night starts, when possible, with a meal catered by Club Michel; the restuarant located in the offices of Robert Johnson and hosted by either Ata or his partner, Sebastian Kahrs. There is also an accompanying LARJ newspaper, ‘El Barrio De Europa’, with interviews and essays by Robert Johnson staples such as Prins Thomas, John Roberts and Ricardo Villalobos, Ever the Easy Jet-setter, Oliver has so far performed on most of the nights.
So where are you going next after Rome?
Athens. It’s hard there, at the moment, because the economy crashed, people get really fucked up there, there are a lot of riots, a couple of Greek friends live in like Bahnhofsviertel (red-light district) They are going to change a lot of areas, now there are more drugs in the street, more criminals. More like what’s happening on the street (here).
All I can imagine is a few little buildings surrounded by ancient ruins, with old men sipping espresso and Ouzo outside a café.
You haven’t been to Greece?
No, I’ve only really been in Germany, Denmark and France.
Right, well this is more the first world, European style. But when you go to Greece or Italy, for example, it’s a bit more fucked up there.
We’ve been to a couple of cities now. Oslo, Zurich, Munich, Leipzig, Brussels. It’s been great. It’s also great with the newspaper, we send it one month before the gig and people see it in the cities, and go to places that they like.
And you’re working on a second newspaper, right?
Yeah, and we’re doing a photo-diary of the tour.
What would be in your personal tour photo-diary?
How often are you going on this tour?
It’s every weekend. Ata (Macias) and me, we are running the label and the club, the others like Gerd Jansen, Roman Flugel and Phillip and Chris from Arto Mwambe, that’s the team here. Then in England we have Ivan Smagghe and Massimilliano (Pagliara) from Berlin. Sometimes we meet there, for example in Paris, Massimiliano came from Berlin.
And when you go, you have dinner?
Not everywhere. If there is a kitchen we do it but if there is not a kitchen we cannot make it for so many people.
You can’t just bring a gas-stove along?
No (Laughs). We do Frankfurt traditional food, Handkaese mit Musik and stuff..
Is that the really thick slurpy cheese?
Yeah. And rhubarb crumble, it’s like cooked rhubarb and a crumble.
Yeah, and vanilla ice cream. So we need like just eggs and potatoes but we need big machines to cut all the herbs and so on.
As our food arrives (I had Miso Ramen, can’t remember what Oli had) and the conversation lulls for a moment, attention turns to the building outside the restaurant, and the completely different career path that Oli had planned for himself.
There are so many empty buildings in Frankfurt. When I was studying architecture, one of the professors told us that there are three or four million square metres of office space empty… it’s just, somebody builds it and they don’t find people that rent the place or buy space.
I heard that’s happening in China as well; a company will start building and then run out of money, then another company will buy the property, demolish the whole thing and start again. There was a crazy photo of a guy with a bulldozer, working his way down from the top of a building, just shoveling the rubble off the side. It pays really well because it’s insanely dangerous. Do you still do anything with architecture?
Yes, sometimes. We do competitions, with the friends I studied with. We meet in the evening and do a competition. There are different competitions you have like, idea competitions, where you just present a (hypothetical) building, but its not about actually building it, and the other side is a competition for people who want to build it. We mainly do the idea competitions.
Like theoretical, fantasy buildings?
Yeah, kind of.
Why did you drop architecture as a career?
I am a diploma engineer, and was working in an architecture office and DJing as a hobby and also at Robert Johnson and then Ata called me and asked me to do the bookings for Robert Johnson.
And how does your architecture… I always like to ask a really stupid question but I have forgotten what it was now. What is the worst question you’ve ever been asked? Aside from this one.
‘How does architecture influence your work as a label manager?’
Were you able to answer?
Yeah, I said ‘They are (both) about organising things’ (laughs)
Well, with minimal techno, I do think of geometric patterns and structures, I guess if you really wanted to you could make a link there.
Between minimal techno and architecture?
Yeah, though it doesn’t really seem worth it.
Maybe when you’re a musician, but I am not a musician; I am organising things. And also doing music together with Chris form Arto Mwambe. But it’s like, it’s me, that’s the thing that links the two things together, it’s me that’s doing the management and also studied architecture, and before that I studied graphic design.
‘You’re eating Japanese food for lunch, how is that going to influence how you dress next Monday?’
How long does the tour go for?
Until the end of June.
And you go off every weekend?
No, it’s hard to travel, especially when you play two shows on one weekend. We go to Munich on Friday and then London.
By this point, I feel empowered by the hearty Miso broth, enough to risk showing my ignorance:
I find it quite hard to define house music. What are essentials of house music that you have to have?
I guess it’s the programming, how do I explain that, the difference between minimal house and techno? Techno can be slower also, doesn’t depend on the tempo, but it’s harder; minimal is more hard than house music. House music is always a bit softer and more melodic than techno. Doesn’t have to be in your face.
Like for the after-party?
Yes. Nobody feels anything any more and they just don’t want to go to sleep.
‘Abstract structures to hang yourself on’
Live at Robert Johnson is published through Kompakt.
How close is the relationship with them, they’re from Berlin?
No, Cologne. The guys who run Kompakt are close friends of Ata’s since the 90s so it was not a matter of who to choose as a publisher because they were such good friends. And their label roster is very good. Very professional.
How many records do you ship per month?
I don’t know (laughs). Because we sell the records at our online shop but Kompakt distribute to the whole world, they have this huge infrastructure so they sell our records to shops in the US or France or Germany.
Why the name Live At Robert Johnson? Did it used to be just a live release thing?
Yeah, exactly. In 2003 there was this idea to do these CD packages, they were empty with on the front a photo from Daniel Hermann, and on the backside there was the line-up for each month. When you go to the club with that package you get a CD for that. And this was a live recording from the club. There was no name on it. You had a couple of nice mixes, so everybody heard the mixes in the car, at home and so on. It was really nice and on the front there was stamped ‘Live At Robert Johnson’. The label properly started with compilations, the basic idea was to bring this Robert Johnson feeling, how a night starts and ends, to bring it. I mean, you can’t bring it 100% but you can try.
The flyer was the first time the name was dropped, but the actual label started January 2009, so it’s very young.
It’s just you running the label, mostly. Along with DJing, does it ever get too much?
I have a lot to do, yes. I can write emails all day long. Even when I go home, I write emails into the night. My main job is about organising and writing emails. (laughs) And listening to music. I listen to a lot of music, especially in the last month because we’ve done a couple of releases this year and we have our schedule until June; Roman Flugel will do a record in June but after that we have no idea who’s next. A couple of friends sent stuff and I asked a couple of people if they want to do a record and they send stuff. I’m listening to the music really carefully, every day a couple of times, to make sure that I like it, then I show it to Ata. If he likes it, and if its cool, we do it. Then I ask Michael (Satter) for the graphic design. Sometimes I ask Inga (Danysz) to do the video, when I think it should be a special promotion. Nowadays you have to give people the music for free, to listen to it, it’s kind of a special promotion, but in a good way. It’s good for us.
And what other releases are coming up?
New stuff from San Laurentino. There’s one guy who is called Portable. He was born in South Africa and living in Berlin at the moment. He’s doing stuff and singing on it. Really nice stuff. There’s a young guy from Darmstadt (south of Frankfurt) Named Benedikt Frey. He’s got some new stuff.
Do you get many submissions from people you don’t know personally.
Yes. And I listen to everything very carefully. For example San Laurentino sent his stuff to me and I was ‘Oh Wow’.
And you didn’t know him?
I had bought a record from him, from a US label called Mathematics and I really liked it so it was very nice to get his stuff sent. I never met San Laurentino. He’s living in Serbia.
You still haven’t met him?
No, we just communicate with emails.
How can you be sure he exists?
It might just be some computer that just automatically generates it. Or, how can I be sure that ‘San Laurentino’ is not just Oliver Hafenbauer, under a pseudonym. “Oh yeah, he’s from.. Serbia. Nobody has met him or seen him, he just sends us his records, in a little black box”
Well, it’s possible.
I might start that rumour, get an angry e-mail from San Laurentino. Is there a specific genre set for LARJ?
Yeah, it’s about Dance music.
So if you can’t dance to it…
Just say one of your best friends made a folk album, which you really loved…
I don’t know, it depends. When it’s an album, it’s always different. Now we are releasing music from all our friends, Roman Flugel, The Citizens Band; you don’t earn a lot from selling these records so we are trying to combine it with the tour where we invite artists to play, and they get their fee. So we organise gigs for them as well. The records are like a portfolio for your sound, what you want to be, what you want to say, what you want people to listen to. But we can’t live just from that, it’s impossible.
Do you think it will get more difficult?
I think buying vinyl in a record shop, it reminds me of stamp-collectors, it’s such a small scene, you know. People don’t buy music in a record store; they go to iTunes and buy an album.
So if it wasn’t for DJ’s doggedly sticking to Vinyl, that might be it.
I can’t even remember the last time I bought a vinyl.
You don’t need to. If you don’t DJ its always better to have the album on your computer, because you sit there everyday in front of it doing whatever and listen to the music, so you don’t need the record. So that’s why we do the videos. We don’t send them to MTV, because nobody watches MTV. We upload it to YouTube and Vimeo because people are there. Everything changed, the music industry has to change.
Actually I do remember, the last record I bought, it was the last Portishead record. I bought the CD and liked it so much that I bought the vinyl, just to have it basically.
When you buy an album, for example the Portishead album, you have the CD and maybe a download code included, and a poster and t-shirt.
You have to offer more and more with it, yeah. I remember being really pleased by the special edition vinyl for Third that had a poster and special artwork and everything. I was really happy; I thought I had the best thing. Then a friend of mine had the super limited edition.
Like a triple-vinyl with remixes, download, special art, codes and even a USB flash drive shaped like the Portishead logo. I was pissed off. He was making fun of me, good-naturedly, but a couple of days later he lost the little cap off the Flash Drive and he accused me of taking it just to spite him. Which I probably would have done, if I’d thought of it.
Do you get many live acts playing in the club?
For now, just Unbreak My Heart are hosting a show at our club with High Places, and I am doing a couple of live shows in the next time, for example Oneohtrix Point Never – Pitchfork made them, like ‘one of the best albums last year’. You know them?
All new music for me goes in one ear and out the other.
Laurel Halo, Kwes or Sepalcure, which is kind of the same music that comes out of Dubstep thing. I try, but we can’t really do bands, with drums and stuff because it’s too small, so I want to do acts that are like for example Grimes, she’s got a synthesizer and a video animation behind her so this is an act that is interesting for Robert Johnson because the technical possibilities are better.
Are you happy you switched from architecture to music?
Sure. 100%. Have you ever been in an architecture office? You can have luck and be in a very nice team there, but most of the guys working there are boring, having their families, really not my world. I won’t hang around with these guys in my free time so, this is totally different. RJ are friends.
When I think of architecture I think of Gaudi and Frank Gehry, so I’m picturing the offices as being very creative places all the time. But most architects must not be designing the Guggenheim.
Both, you do both, when you do architecture and you have an office, you do the scribbling in the beginning of the planning, but the rest is, 90% of the work is horrible. Filling out paperwork and doing plans of every millimeter of stuff. Everything has to be planned 100%. You study architecture, and then you become a diploma engineer. Then you work two years in an architecture office. You do all the stages, you have to do everything and then you can subscribe to a club (union) and then you can call yourself an architect. And you have to do it. It’s not a free name; it’s like becoming a doctor.
Well I guess, like a doctor, you have at any one time maybe hundreds of peoples lives depending on how well you did your job.
For thirty years you can go to jail, if there is a mistake. Up to thirty years.
Have you seen the Gehry design for the building at the UTS in Sydney?
I hate Frank Gehry
I just hate it. The shape, the way he integrates public space..
I just realised I made you talk about architecture for another ten minutes, I need to stop doing that. How long have you been DJing?
What were you playing when you first started?
That seems a pretty far cry to House.
Not when you’re living in London. Like here, you don’t have a big Dub-Reggae scene. In London its totally different, maybe because of this colonial history, you have a lot of people from Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands, there you have a really strong scene, based on Dub Reggae, going through breakbeat, Dubstep, Ska, you know.
I notice in Sri Lanka, everyone goes nuts for reggae. Every second café is called “One Love” or “Marley” or “Nestor Coffee”. One place had that song Jamming, like an extended mix, that went the entire time we were there. Just like a twenty-minute minimal edit. Fucking nightmare.
So, from Dub-Reggae, through break beat, techno, electronica,
Before DJing I was buying music also. A couple years before I was like raving, listening to breakbeat, house and techno and I also bought records. I wasn’t DJing, but it was the only possibility to listen to this music; when you buy the records. There were no computers to download stuff somewhere. It was the beginning of the mid-90s, and I started to buy records and doing tapes; dub-reggae cassettes, for friends and I also sold them to record shops.
You were actually selling them? How many were you making?
I don’t know, 15 maybe.
What were they called?
Fingerprints, because I put my fingerprint on it.
That’s not a good idea, surely, if you’re in the reggae scene in London, to be giving away your fingerprints.
(Laughs) Yeah, so then I started to DJ more electronica, like chill-out, Boards of Canada, for example.
Warp Records is such a good label. It’s actually what I was thinking of before when I asked if you’d ever branch LARJ genres out.
I prefer the mid-nineties Warp, this bleepy, trippy electronica. I’ve been to Paris for the Pitchfork festival, we’ve seen Aphex Twin live, and he showed both phases; he started with this Mid-Nineties trip-hop stuff, which I really love, like these really repetitive stuff and he was going to these hardcore gabba drum and bass.
I don’t really like his live graphics, though. The videos are good but the live stuff is a bit much for me.
You need people showing the ugly side though, very important.
I read an interview of him, apparrently he used to put on the Windowlicker mask that Chris Cunningham had given him and climb into bed with his girlfriend wearing it.
There are not many (video) interviews with him. I just found one on YouTube. It’s with Simone (Angel) on MTV for dance music. She got a show, I don’t remember the name. MTV Dance, maybe? It was great because they showed all the underground stuff; you watched videos like Aphex Twin.
I always think of MTV as being so commercial, can’t imagine Aphex twin on there.
It was commercial also, back then, there was also Madonna and stuff but on the other hand you had all this underground stuff, it was great. But you don’t need it anymore because underground is based on blogs and stuff on the Internet, not on the TV, so you have no need to show it on the TV anymore.
That’s one thing I am really skeptical about, the word ‘Underground’, it seems to get thrown around too much, like a cheap badge of honour. Nowadays, I feel like as soon as I hear about something – given how easily accessible and spread-out everything is on the internet, you can hear about something referred to as underground online, but it can’t possibly be that, given that I am hearing about it in real time.
There is a good example of this. A label, these guys from Norway and now living in Berlin, it’s called Sex Tags Mania, and you can’t find their music on the internet. You can buy their records, yes, and listen to a snippet but there is no music from them on the Internet. They did a remix for us, a track by Massimilliano Pagliara, and they didn’t want to have it released digitally, so we just released the others (remixes) digitally, and this one on vinyl only. It’s kind of underground to release vinyl only and not to pop up on the Internet somewhere.
If I am on one side of the planet and I hear about something that is just starting to develop on the other side, and I’m not personally connected to it, then it can’t possibly be underground, or the word needs to be redefined. I think of some 40 people in one club in a small town, like Trip-Hop in Bristol, that doesn’t escape for years and then gradually becomes big.
I mean, ‘what’s underground’, what is a hipster? There’s a book about this history about this phenomena and the word itself.
I think I read an article, promoting that book. I find the conversation about it so boring.
It’s boring on one hand and on the other hand it’s part of our lives. People call you a hipster. So what makes you that? Why do you people call other people the hipster.
Well, I know that one of the hallmarks of the cliché American Hipster is drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, some workers beer or something; I guess that makes sense in the States. But I noticed occasionally that it would get referenced in Sydney, where PBR doesn’t exist, by people describing some local ‘hipster’; “Yeah, he’s the kind of guy that drinks PBR on his fixed gear bike” – where? Where is he getting this beer? I’d like to try it.
(Laughs) I’ve never heard of it.
Just as the bill is being served, and brows mopped from all the chilli sauce, I manage to bring the conversation back to the subject at hand. Well, sort of. And only for a minute. Oli is soon to move from Bahnhofsviertel (think Kings Cross), to Nordend (Paddington).
It’s amazing here, the hours of partying are so different in Australia, we start at around sundown and then end at 2 or 3 in the morning, whereas people here, and in Berlin especially, will be only leaving the house and starting the night at 2am or something, almost every night of the week. Are you kidding me? How do you go to work? How do you do anything?
(Laughs) They don’t work, you can easily get lost there, doing nothing and just partying, that’s the hard thing about Berlin. You need to have a job there.
Do you prefer Frankfurt or Berlin?
Frankfurt, definitely. I like it here, because of all my friends. I have a lot of friends in Berlin too but I prefer it because it’s too big in Berlin, there are too many people doing the same stuff. The competition is much more hard here. In German there is a saying; ‘Alle angeln im selben Teich’ which means ‘everybody is fishing in the same lake’.
We have a saying ‘A finger in many pies’ which is a similar sentiment, but it’s a kind of disgusting metaphor. Who puts their finger in pies?
But (Berlin) is kind of a hotspot, along with London, there is something happening, there are a lot of musicians, fashion people, art people, maybe too much. But it’s still a place where rent is cheap and food is really cheap.
It’s crazy for a European capital city.
And the rent too. Here in Frankfurt our rent is 1000eu a month, but it’s a good place to live. I have a tree in front of my flat, and a little garden where I can sit, and watch into the zoo. That’s really cool.
Until one of the tigers escapes.
No tigers, it’s just birds.
What, Frankfurt Zoo can’t afford any actual animals?
No, they have tigers, lions, apes and gorillas. But it’s something different to the Bahnofsviertel, where you hear different animals (junkies). They really are loud animals there.
It’s amazing how easy to tune it out is though. We always sleep with the windows open but I notice that if we’ve only just opened it drives me insane for five minutes. It’s always the same dude yelling for three straight hours. What the fuck is he yelling about?
When I walked on Saturday, to the flea market, and on the way back, and someone was pushing H into his arm, you see the needle and stuff, right on the street. He can go inside and do that. They can smoke crack inside, they don’t have to do it on the street. [It should be pointed out here that Frankfurt has a very extensive safe-injection/smoking program, so when Oli says that they can 'do it inside', that is indeed true.]
But then you walk only a few more corners down, and suddenly you’re in the financial district where everything is nice and clean and peaceful. It seems weird that they just don’t move from that corner. Surely they get bored of sitting on that one corner.
Yes, Frankfurt is kind of small.
The interview is over now, Oli clearly has to go back to work. We had an interesting conversation about elevator design on the way back to our respective offices, but that will stay just between us.
So, thank you for lunch, what are you doing this afternoon?
Today I do a couple of contracts, and then I have to go fix up my new flat. And I don’t have a lot of time. I’m thinking about a lot of stuff because I have so much to do, and the tour. So stressed.
Well if it makes you feel any better, I am going to go home after this and watch Star Trek.
I’m not joking, that is actually all I’m going to do today.