Somewhere between Techno & pop, underground and hip culture, Cologne and Saturn, Justus Köhncke has found his unique place and time within the volatile world of electronic music, and through decades, stuck to and defined it. How the German DJ/Producer made his way from Giessen, to Dusseldorf, and eventually, Cologne, fueled by decades of sensory stimulating music from different sects of Western culture, at varying levels of emotional investment, we can only imagine. One third of the 90’s house trio and hit wonder, Whirlpool Productions, the ex ‘Spex’, magazine Journalist and his musical career has been moved by many things, but undeniably, disco of all things. Living life knowing that the very thing which moves him will never really die, Köhncke has always created art in the premise of timelessness. Torture the Artists catches up with Justus Köhncke somewhere around his neighborhood just after the premiere of his remixes on Connaisseur, and trails after the artist’s tireless thoughts that though at times sit sparse and exhausting, justify why his art is simply honest, and intricately brilliant.
Torture the Artist: Hello Justus, where are you sitting at the moment? Walk up to the nearest window and tell us about your view and how relevant your location is at the moment?
Justus Köhncke: You are very curious… okay. I am looking out through the glassfront of a favorite place of mine nearby, watching life pass by on Kottbusser Damm and Maybachufer. The place is dog- and smokerfriendly which is a must for me when I leave my house. Plus I love to do ‘office’ work here, just like this interview.
Torture the Artist: Your remix for Shayde’s track ‘Obergeschoss’ is about to be released on Connaisseur, what made you decide to take on the remix duties?
Justus Köhncke: I found the track interesting enough, plus I take on almost every duty unless it is too shameless.
Torture the Artist: What story of yours does the remix tell?
Justus Köhncke: My story? The dub tells my story, if any.
I put on loads of Melodyne Mascara and tried to make him a twisted Disco Diva.
Torture the Artist: Aside from the remix you also delivered a dub version, did you come up with it because vocals can bore you after some time while a dub is more of a timeless track?
Justus Köhncke: A dub, without a doubt, is always more abstract, since the words get distilled to repeated snippets, and ‘timeless’, true. I felt like giving ‘Obergeschoss, this 90s ‘Nervous Records’ retro touch, simply inspired by the words ‘ich bin so nervös’. And of course, because I will always love the distinct sound of House Music from that era, such as 90s DJ Pierre or Relief Recs classics that stand the test of time so crazy well.
After having done the vocal club mix of ‘Obergeschoss‘ I felt a bit exhausted by it. If I get a song, a lyric to be treated remixwise I would never fire up my Ableton (and I apply Pro Tools always in the end, because Ableton Live defines lazy aesthetics too much, despite being a brilliant piece of gear, for the nerds out there), but perhaps slaughter the vocal and do something ‘functional’ for the disco. I respect a song somebody else has written intentionally and I take that and see where else I can take it. In ‘Obergeschoss” case, it was not too easy, well, because first of all the music did not really take me too far so I figured, let’s try treating it with something more disco – nothing surprising in my case. What else can I do with my lifetime disco curse? – plus I was puzzled by a writer who can put the lines ‘unprätentiös’ and’ich leg mich jetzt zum sterben hin’ into the same song. Phew. I put on loads of Melodyne Mascara and tried to make him a twisted Disco Diva… fun.
Torture the Artist: Generally speaking, what was the last track you listened to (intentionally or by happenstance) and how connected did you find yourself to the music?
Justus Köhncke: A bunch of places I hang out alone in the daytime have 80s oldie radios playing, and I am not talking hipster spots. I always wonder whether it’s because I am 50+ and have the tendency to end up in these kind of joints, or if I am just going with the flow, when all of a sudden ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, ‘Teardrops‘ (by Womack &Womack) or RAF‘s ‘Self Control‘ are on the the low volume speakers by chance and I get deeply moved. At one point, I was just listening casually and the radio station really played Joy Division alongside the very worst of the 80s (T‘Pau, ‘Black Velvet’, you name them). Recently I am again very much fascinated and in love with the radical Plastic Philly of Stock Aitken Waterman. Factory. And Hi-NRG. My upcoming contribution to the new KOMPAKT TOTAL compilation due out this summer will be a hommage to Patrick Cowley with updated lyrics about gay online dating, called ‘Mindless Sex Track’.
Torture the Artist: You’ve been in the scene for a while, and have surfed through the shifting tides of the genre – and its various manifestations – for a few decades now it seems. How do you feel about the vibe now, is it becoming increasingly relevant to you as an artist? Name a track from recently which moved you in a special way.
Justus Köhncke: In terms of club music I am always happy if something new touches me, and I do take the time to listen through the endless amount of digital promos you get these days. Though I avoid being the grumpy old man (that I kind of am already, to be honest) most of the time, it just doesn’t cut it for me. The simple fact that House Music obviously will never die still makes me hopeful, seeing and hearing young people trying to interpret the story and attempting to resound it further and further.
Luckily, whenever I begin to lose my faith in music altogether, it just takes some Carpenters, Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Bach, Velvet Underground, George Michael or DJ Pierre, Abba to believe again. Ah, and Believe (by Cher), of course, because of the tech. And the song is not too bad either. I’m not even joking.
Torture the Artist: Tell us a little bit about your hometown. Where did you grow up and how did your childhood lead you up to sign up to a lifelong commitment to music?
Justus Köhncke: I grew up near Giessen, Mittelhessen, and my parents raised me with a very decent record collection including The Velvet Underground, all the late Beatles, and Bach. So I was blessed a bit. I initially left Giessen at 20, for Düsseldorf and later ventured out to Cologne, where I eventually settled for good.
I never planned to be an ‘artist’. In fact before I made music I used to write about it.
Torture the Artist: Did you ever aspire to become anything else besides an artist? Did you have a hidden talent which could’ve led you to an entirely different career path?
Justus Köhncke: I never planned to be an ‘artist’. In fact before I made music I used to write about it. My first published text was an interview with film music composer Peter Thomas (of ‘Raumpatrouille’ fame) 1986 in ‘Spex’ music magazine. At that time, Raumpatrouille was working with Rick Rubin who was making his bereakthrough around then. Run DMC was on the cover of that particular issue too which was quite iconic.
Oftentimes these days being a music writer meant promo records and free entrance to concerts. Well, I was actually a computer nerd and graphics designer and could easily secure a career in this promising business. Back then, I had a well-paid job in Cologne doing that. But then the first record (On Vinyl! To Touch!!!) was released, ‘Fly Hi / Gimme‘ by Whirlpool in 1992, and I stupidly threw it all away in favour of tripping on E to Wild Pitch and Paradise Garage house music at the Whirlpool parties and going on twiddeling with music in various social setups.
Torture the Artist: When did you start getting into music production? How did you begin your first project? Were your parents always supportive of your aspirations or did you have to struggle to stand out on your own?
Justus Köhncke: I started in the early 80s with cassette tape dubbing, my DM 10 punk fake Stratocaster guitar and a synth from school. Had a drum machine for Christmas at age 16, loving The Human League and ABC. When I earned my own money I bought equipment in the late 80s, like a simple expensive sampler and some MIDI gear because I had an Atari ST anyway. I had the first version of Cubase, the sequencer, because I wrote a review for ‘Happy Computer’ in 1989. Then my first band was founded with my old Giessen friend Jan Schüler, in Düsseldorf. He studied Arts at the Düsseldorf Academy and is the most diehard Amanda Lear fan on the planet. We founded ‘Blood And Honey’ and the concept was to do only Amanda Lear songs, him singing – but no impersonation or drag! – and me doing the music. We played live three times, once at the academy, which was well actually well-received but never released or so. Then Jan dissolved the band and I moved to Cologne for the new job. We were also very fond of and inspired by DER PLAN from Düsseldorf, where I recorded the unfortunately lost playbacks at the ATA TAK studio. Of courseI did not ‘play’ on stage, but had a Revox behind me playing the playbacks with Jan singing, and plastic guitars and cardboard paintings by Jan for posing and costumes and Lukas Duwenhögger dressed as a Rabbi to announce us and all that. The fact that ‘authentic’ is so big again in all spheres of pop music, from ‘underground’ up to Ed Sheeran depresses me. God bless Grace Jones.
Torture the Artist: Growing up in Germany, who were your musical idols? Who inspired you to take the chance to make it into the volatile music business?
Justus Köhncke: Too much to tell, and the music business was always a mixture of disgust and fascination. What I learned at some point is that the people you meet in the industry tend to get cooler and less stupid the higher they are in the hierarchy, but that impression is now like 20 years old so I do not really know these days since I‘m not in it.
Torture the Artist: How long did it take you to find that ‘break’? Was there a particular year in your career which really made it happen?
Justus Köhncke: All the years. In terms of my ‘solo career’, releasing under my own name, I‘d say 2002 when ‘Was Ist Musik’ was released. But 1999‘s ‘Spiralen Der Erinnerung‘ was also an important good self-made antidote to the Whirlpool madness happening because of the superhit.
Torture the Artist: Living as an ‘artist’ has its dark moments as well. Was there a particular episode in your life when you felt least inspired? How did you stop yourself from giving up and how did you pick the momentum back up and kept the ball rolling?
Justus Köhncke: All. the. Time.
Torture the Artist: Teaming up with D. Clark and Hans Nieswandt on Whirlpool Productions was a crucial point in your career, and overall, the collaboration made an impression on house music back then and through the years. Do you often regret the trio’s need to part ways or did you always feel it was a necessary move for each member? Did the disengagement push you harder to pursue your own artistic sound or did it take some time for you to find your own path?
Justus Köhncke: We never parted ways. We just do not release. We play WPP sound system gigs if the circumstances are elegant enough.
Torture the Artist: We all know your artistic capabilities are extraordinary, and through the years, beyond versatile. Is there a particular artist you admire whose method and madness you just can’t seem to figure out? Anyone from the current scene whose production and style you find unique and won’t even try to figure out?
Justus Köhncke: Missy Elliott.
Shall I undress now and Insta it?
Torture the Artist: Looking back to all your productions, which track do you feel most distant from? Alternatively, which track makes you feel ‘at home’?
Justus Köhncke: Shall I undress now and Insta it?
Ok, I‘m still very down with my rendition of Macca‘s ‘Let Em In‘ from 1998. And nothing of my music ever feels distant from me. Not a single forgotten remix. I cannot be functional unfortunately. I cannot use music I do not really love when I DJ, so the choice gets small, and unless i release anything I do not feel I stay silent rather.
Torture the Artist: Techno or house? Vocals or instrumental? Boxers or brief?
Justus Köhncke: Brief boxers undressed, show me what YOU got.
The business is as much of a Haifischbecken as it has always been.
Torture the Artist: You worked with Kompakt back in its earliest days, when the cuthroat electronic purlieus were equally impassioned as they were unpredictable, did you always imagine how influential the label will eventually become? How do you feel about partaking in its very, as well as in strengthening, its foundations?
Justus Köhncke: Dealing with success and fame without losing your mind is a rare virtue, and Kompakt is and has always been very good at that. Maybe that is why they still exist in this world, very much due to Michael Mayer. And that‘s why I stick with them for releases. The business is as much of a Haifischbecken as it has always been.
Torture the Artist: What are your thoughts on DJing? As an artist with primary focus on production, do you ever feel the need to spend a little bit more time on the road, or would you prefer to sit in the studio anytime?
Justus Köhncke: Always loved both, but as opposed to all the ‘Star-DJs’ needing ‘artist release’ (and paying ‘ghostproducers’) the studio is my main obsession.
Torture the Artist: Describe one of the most impactful sets in your life, as a spectator. Who was playing, where was the set and what was the first track you made since that occasion?
Justus Köhncke: That must have been The Cramps 1986 in Frankfurt, and I do not see traces of that in my music. Or can you spot them?
Torture the Artist: Of all your productions and remixes, which is your favorite? Pick an original track you feel could use a reinterpretation and tell us who you would choose to do the honor?
Justus Köhncke: I always wanted to have a Kerri Chandler remix of… hmm, whatever! Anything, really. Seufz. It’s just too expensive, but yes, a remix by him would be ideal.
Torture the Artist: If you were given a chance to teleport to a different city and/or dimension for a week, where/when would you choose to go? Is there something that would stop you from living there forever?
Justus Köhncke: Saturn. Meeting Sun Ra. Not sure why I wouldn’t choose to stay there forever, but I’m curious to find out. When I get there. <winks>
Torture the Artist: What are you busy with at the moment? Should we expect a Justus Kohncke album in the near future?
Justus Köhncke: As above, so you see a bit of neo-HI NRG.
‘Fainting By Numbers’, my Duo with Alexis Taylor have a projects in the pipe, which may involve ‘A Different Corner’ (by George Michael) and an EP this year, who knows. Perhaps a conceptual album about somebody else and a stage piece. There may be a JK album in the making, but that might take another year. Slow is the new NexT.
Interview by Marie J Floro