ART:CAST #127 & INTERVIEW Finn Johannsen

Originally from northern Germany but now residing in Berlin Finn Johannsen has become a steady backbone of the electronic music scene in the capital, in Germany. With several involvements in various fields, i.g. as a booker, DJ, co-label head, Hard Wax employee or journalist, Finn has gained multiple experiences allowing him to gain and develop diverse perspectives and views on the scene, the business and beyond. As one part of the booker-team of Paloma, a Berlin institution for underground music and cultural affairs, and as the booker of Monarch Johannsen has gone through the ups and downs the pandemic has caused over the past two years – even when there have been probably more downsides rather than the opposite. However, the artist has not lost hope and speaks about the past, present and future of club(culture) and how he has overcome yet perceived the development of the scene and its players. Additionally, the Macro co-label head – the label that Johannsen runs with Stefan Goldmann, speaks about how he has remained passionate about music all those years, how he’s kept a sane mind over the pandemic and delivers the longest art:cast in history – or a travel through his records. If you expect a club-based set, then Johannsen has to disappoint you as he musically mostly refers to the golden era of HipHop, the 90s. 

Torture the Artist: Hello Finn, pleasure to speak to. What did you have for breakfast today and what does an ordinary day your life look like in these times?

Finn Johannsen: I made myself a sandwich with cheese and Salame Milano, with a bit of of French dressing. I did not start baking bread or similar. I am happy with what I can get at the supermarket, and I have plenty around. I am a nocturnal person, my daughter too. But as soon as she is asleep I often watch a movie or a series with my wife and when my wife is asleep as well, I head over to my study to work, listen to music or read. If I have no meetings scheduled the next day I do not have to get up that early so I mostly stay up late. Once I get up I fix myself a small breakfast, read the news and then start working again, correspondence or whatever else needs to be done. I try to have that finished until my wife and daughter come back from work and school, and then we have lunch. Then either work, homework and spending some time together. I did not get infected so far, but I am aware that it will happen eventually. I am not afraid of it and vaccinated, but I try to avoid it as good as I can because I do not want to spread it further. So apart from occasional meetings for work or with friends and getting necessary things for our household I am mostly staying in. I have read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 yet again, and I agree with its protagonist Yossarian that there are plenty of people out there conspiring to kill me, and I am determined to not let them. To stay fit I use a rowing machine on a daily basis.

To fight a pandemic of this scale is a group effort, and I am really tired at this point of those that do not want to act accordingly.

Torture the Artist: Speaking of “these times“, we are now almost two years in this pandemic, clubs open, clubs close, some have to close forever, some are able to survive, but nobody knows yet what price the scene, the clubs have to pay. How have you been keeping up with the ever-changing situation and how do you wish to be supported by the government in “these times“?

Finn Johannsen: It is of course very frustrating. We worked very hard to keep Paloma alive, and when we were allowed to open again it felt like a reward for all our efforts. Then after just a few weeks it was all over again, and it was a total letdown. I will not complain about the governmental support. It was kind of remarkable how chaotic it was organized though, and in many ways the pandemic also affected the previously indestructible myth of German efficiency very severely, but at least we had support, other countries were not as well off. Generally, I was not as optimistic as others about how the pandemic would progress, but I was very disappointed that this winter turned out to be even worse than the one before, especially because I feel that this situation could have been avoided by more timely and efficient measures. I was sure from the start of the pandemic that clubs would be way down the crisis management priority list, but I get angry when people not do their best to bring this to an end, and if it was only to show solidarity with others more affected by the situation. I was not exactly surprised that parts of our society would only care about their own good, but I was surprised to what extent. What optimism I had when the vaccinations began to roll out faded as soon as I realized that a good and necessary deal of the German population would refuse it. These days, I stick to the actual facts in the news that seem reliable and valid for how things will potentially develop, and I try to keep away from all the opinions flying around that do not help one bit to change this for the better. I do not want to discuss the pandemic anymore with people who mostly only display their own selfishness, or cowardice, or doubt, or fear. To fight a pandemic of this scale is a group effort, and I am really tired at this point of those that do not want to act accordingly. What effects all this will have is still speculation, as we are absolutely not through yet, but I am sure politics and the economies will eventually recover but there will remain a trauma, in terms of both physical and psychological conditions, and not anybody will be able to overcome it so soon. The price to pay? We all will pay a price. But better to pay a price than to die.

We priorized DJs that had no other income like a day job or similar, which was not a point before DJs had a regular income from playing out.

Torture the Artist: How does the uncertainty these days influence your booking behavior for the Paloma?

Finn Johannsen: Well, you make the best of what you can do, and you try to act responsibly. We had to cancel a lot of dates, and when we learnt that we can open again we tried to catch up with all those cancellations first, instead of starting from scratch with everything. But we were expecting to open sooner, and when we could not do that we had to postpone and reschedule whole monthly programs, a process that we are unfortunately in again right now. But we’ve been in constant crisis management mode since March 2020 and after all this time we would surely not give up now if we are not forced to do so. Of course, there is also always some level of uncertainty when you book for a club, and now that level was quite enormous, but we are a good team and we prevailed, so far. It is frustrating that we also had to cancel some gigs again for now, but we will try to make them happen at a later point, which will be a challenge too. Other than that you also have to adapt in ways that you were not used to before. For example we priorized DJs that had no other income like a day job or similar, which was not a point before DJs had a regular income from playing out. Or we were very strict to meet all the Corona restrictions at the door, and bookings fell through because the DJs did not have the necessary documents to enter the club, and other DJs were not fully vaccinated or not intending to get vaccinated at all. The majority of DJs understood and respected that we were so strict though, only a minority did not. This also applies to our audience. Most guests were glad that we did our best to make our club as safe as possible, and brought up the patience for all the according door proceedings.

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Torture the Artist: Following the question before, do you think that in general clubs’ bookings have or will change due to the pandemic and do you wish for a renaissance of the local DJs taking over club nights instead of international ones?

Finn Johannsen: There was a divide in DJ culture in terms of fees and gig count before the pandemic, and I have this theory that it will grow. There are top tier DJs that fly around the world and earn silly money, mid tier DJs that can live from DJing, but with a certain level of uncertainty, and low tier DJs that already needed other sources of income before to make a living, with way more uncertainty. Now the low tier DJs switched to other sources of income for good because they had to, more than before. Either they were just starting out to get a reputation, or they were satisfied with just playing out. Of course, the current situation is a blow, but they might be able to carry on, even if it requires to start all over again. The top tier DJs either have not interrupted their program anyway during the last two years, or they now benefit from the situation, because most bigger clubs are so in debt since closing that they probably play safe and book only headliners they think will guarantee a full capacity. In this case the mid tier DJs are worse off, because they are caught in the middle. They do not pull enough people to fill the bigger clubs and they are too costly for the smaller clubs. I really hope I am wrong, but as soon as the clubs could reopen last year, you could well observe this pattern. And this of course also applies to these hopes that the local scene will play a more vital role. Doors were open again, and you could often see that DJs were flown in again, the DJ middle class was kind of diminished and some local DJs did not get more than the function of a cheap filler. I do not really think that there will be a renaissance of local DJs. I suppose as soon as bookings can be regular again, most clubs will fall back to old habits, or even worse. Of course there are clubs like Paloma with a limited size and accordingly limited budget, and they will always book local talent because they cannot afford regular and costly travel logistics. But they do not determine the business, and they also might not be able to pay your rent.

Torture the Artist: When speaking of club culture in the northern hemispheres of Germany people speak of the “three Ps’ – meaning the Pudel club in Hamburg, Panoramabar and Paloma. In a nutshell, what unites these three nightlife institutions and ideally how can clubs cross-fertilize each other?

Finn Johannsen: I must say that I have not heard of these three P’s in unison before, but I think it is rather flattering. Pudel and Paloma sure are comparable in some ways. Both have a hub function in their local scenes and support a local network and fresh talents, and their musical agenda is similar in terms of quality and content, the size is similar as well, as is the attitude, and both share the same graphic designer, the wonderful Alex Solman. Panoramabar sure is a different and bigger thing, and a whole other status, but I think what unites all three clubs is that they are all very special places. I had memorable nights in all three both as a DJ and as a guest and that is probably the most common denominator. The best way to use similarities is of course to work together, which we do, particularly with Pudel, with which we have regular exchange. But we do not only invite DJs from the Pudel network to Paloma, we also have nights with Panoramabar DJs, regular ones and residents. I have a whole lot of respect for both clubs, each in their own way, and I think we can all benefit from each other, and we do.

My preferred field of working is always the one that helps me to achieve that best.

Torture the Artist: Let’s leave the club topic behind a bit. When speaking of you and looking at your vita the word versatile is basically inevitable. You DJ, you run the label Macro with Stefan Goldmann, you do the bookings for the Paloma and Monarch clubs, you used to write for various magazines and you worked at famous record store Hard Wax. How have all these different approaches to music helped you to overcome the past months and what’s your preferred field of working?

Finn Johannsen: Well, music is just really very important to me. I listen to music every day, and even more over the last months than usual, which really helped me to stay sane. Everything I do for a living is connected with music, and as you mentioned I do and did a lot of different things. Music just makes me happy, and what makes me even happier is when I am able to spread music that I think is worth more attention than just mine. My preferred field of working is always the one that helps me to achieve that best. DJing was the first and is still vital in that aspect, the label allows me to explore ideas other than just my own, as does the booking. I do not write as much anymore as I did in the past, but if it is a good topic and I can find the time I still enjoy it. I could also support a lot of music at Hard Wax for some years, but I took up booking while I was still working at the store, and I had never done booking before, just getting booked myself, and at some point I realized that I could  provide said support more efficiently with the booking, so I decided to leave. But it is all kind of in flux, and always has been. I have been fortunate about opening doors, so there might be another step in the future. But I am really very happy with what I am doing right now.

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Torture the Artist: What two other attributes suit your character and how do they support the before mentioned field of working?

Finn Johannsen: I would say I am curious. I can be very enthusiastic, but I also lose interest quite quickly. I can be quite thorough if I am interested enough. I do not like routine. All of these proved to be quite helpful in terms of creativity.

I am often suspected of being a nerd, my glasses do not help there, but I do not really feel like one.

Torture the Artist: Coming back to your versatile being, musically you are also quite versatile. Firstly, would you say that musical versatility is something that comes with age as at some point people stop being as stubborn or nerdy? Secondly, what does the first thing you pay attention to when listening to new music and add to your “playlist“?

Finn Johannsen: Hm, I am often suspected of being a nerd, my glasses do not help there, but I do not really feel like one. Of course I am aware that I know way more about music than the average listener, but for me that is a natural process. I just listen to so much music that it would be plain weird if I would not gather some knowledge about it. And I like to learn about the context of what I am hearing, and I can save the information in my memory, which is the same with literature or movies. The versatility sure is a result of both my wide interests, and my longterm occupation with being out to discover. As anybody else, I have some preferences, you can identify them all if you follow me, but I could never stop with what I already knew and then just maintain it. Basically I am open to anything in terms of creativity, if I investigate it and it is not for me I just move on to the next, but so far I’ve never felt like stopping. Maybe that is the stubbornness you were suggesting, in my case. What I pay attention to first while at it is probably ideas, and an artistic signature. Mostly I am hoping for something completely new to me, sometimes I am content with a fresh approach to things I already know and like.

Torture the Artist: Have you noticed a change in taste over the pandemic due to the fact that clubs were closed or open for not so long?

Finn Johannsen: My listening behaviour patterns kind of strengthened. Even before the pandemic I listened to less club music, because it was all around me anyway. That kind of music did not quite solely become a commitment connected to work, but it was heading there. I began to reserve my time off work for other music, sounds that do not have to fulfill a purpose of being useful with what I am doing for a living. Apart from checking music styles I had not explored before I am also always willing to revise verdicts I made on some point about music I checked earlier on, or even whole genres. Sometimes you are not in the mood to get it, sometimes you are just ignorant, sometimes it does not feel right at the time. And taste should not be too static, else you just miss out on things. I do not mind if music clicks with a delay of even years, if it does click. What I also had to notice is that the older you get the more you look to your past. I revisited some music of my youth, and it still clicked too.

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Torture the Artist: What have been your three favorite musical findings over the past weeks?

Finn Johannsen: Firstly German trap or drill music is much smarter than I thought. Secondly I may read as many books about Krautrock as I can get a hold of, but I will never like the bulk of it more. Lastly I will probably never have the patience for ambient music.

Torture the Artist: What has kept your relationship with electronic music passionate and what was one of the tracks that made you fall for it in the first place?

Finn Johannsen: I love how much music that was created years ago still sounds like the future, and is still being processed. I am convinced at some point it will all implode and make way for something completely unheard of, and I am looking very much forward to completely not getting it. But I will sure try to. As for love at first listening probably I Feel Love by Donna Summer or Das Model by Kraftwerk, off the radio as a kid. Boring as it may be, I am old enough to claim that, though it probably was Popcorn by Hot Butter. Honourable mention: LFO. I used to claim in several heated debates that LFO was the first electronic music that really sounded like the future. I still stand by that.

Torture the Artist: What’s a musical extravaganza you’d pay for if money was not a thing?

Finn Johannsen: It might be more an availability issue than money, but I would love to dance to Klaus Stockhausen at least one more time, all night long. Paloma would be a fine place for that, but any place would do. He is still the best DJ I have ever heard, and I’ve heard many.

You will find depraved characters everywhere you go.

Torture the Artist: Speaking of money, a lot of renowned artists played at the MDLBeast Soundstorm festival in Saudi Arabia a few weeks back. Does money deprave some people’s character that they play for controversial governments or is this simply the price the scene has to pay due to the pandemic development over the past months/ years? What is your opinion on that topic?

Finn Johannsen: I think it is problematic to single out that event as an indicator for all what is wrong in club culture. Of course, that festival was quite questionable, but then again so many events are, if you take a closer look. The more money is flying around the more it is likely that the source of the money is questionable. But it is a business. As long as there is a market for it, it will keep happening, and it happened before so many times, out in the open as with that festival, or not. I was surprised by a few names on the lineup, but I think on a certain level there are just some skeletons in the closet everywhere. Not that there are necessarily no or less skeletons on a lower level. I must admit that it does not bother me too much, it is like a parallel universe for me. I know some people from earlier on who achieved that status, and they made their decision for success, and now they have a business to run and the according obligations, and others may need more and more money because they also spend a lot of it, for whatever. Of course, this kind of circuit is decadent and the money is obscene, but there are so many alternative ways of doing events. If you feel this is depraved, you may support the other, or do your own. But you will find depraved characters everywhere you go.

Torture the Artist: Which of your morals could you never throw overboard or are non-negotiable?

Finn Johannsen: I am no saint, and I made my mistakes. But I try to neither hide nor repeat them. But I am really allergic to hypocrisy, especially if it is a strategy.

Torture the Artist: After so many years in the scene/ business what piece of advice would give to your younger self?

Finn Johannsen: Do what you really want to do, but do never behave like an idiot.

Torture the Artist: What’s a superpower you wish you had and how would you use it?

Finn Johannsen: I would love to be able to make everything that is fun healthy. I would use it all the time, everywhere, and for everybody.

Words by Holger Breuer

Cover picture by Alex Solman

Picture 2 & 3 by Alex Solman

Picture 1 by Harthorst

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