Dodging cliché, nostalgia and pretension with
If there’s one thing that makes Gerd Janson such a pleasure to talk to, it’s his acute appreciation of his profession’s clichés – not least because as a former music writer himself, he understands the importance of avoiding their use. Club culture relies on these tropes and stock expressions to fill pages. Try Googling Janson himself, and see how many pieces referring to the ‘DJ’s DJ’ you can spot.
He rattles off a few more over the course of our time together. “There’s ‘reading the crowd’,” he groans. “I mean come on. Who can ‘read’ a crowd? And then when someone can’t ‘read the crowd’, there’s certain ways of saying that nicely – that what someone did was ‘daring’, or ‘out there’, or ‘challenging’.” Later on, when asked who his favourite younger DJ of the moment is, he unpacks a contemporary example.
“It’s such a cliché to say Ben UFO right? Even if he is faking his age!”
However, there’s one cliché that presents a little difficulty, and it’s a classic: the underlying suspicion that all of this shit — that is, the clubbing, the DJing, the music — all of it was so much better when we were kids. The difficulty arises from the fact that, in one sense, it’s true. Not because of a drop in quality or a shift in the culture, but simply because we were younger. “It’s the oldest idea ever. Everything was fresh to me. Obviously it’s never going to be as good as the first time.”
Indeed, there is a refreshing sense of weariness about the Running Back boss, one that’s loath to romanticise the work involved. There’s the ceaseless travelling for example. Janson dislikes pretty much everything about travelling. The nights away from your own bed. The sleep deprivation. The having-to-be on airplanes with people who don’t know how to behave.
“People ask you where you’re going this weekend. You name three different cities and they think ‘Oh wow!’, but then you’re tired when you arrive, you get an hour to sleep after dinner, then you’re gigging, then you’ve got another hour to sleep, and then it’s back to the airport.
“I think there’s a general feeling this could all be over tomorrow”, he ventures, “so yeah, you’ve gotta try and grab as many buns from the buffet as you can, before it closes down!”
Janson’s coping strategies include regular weekends at home, the aim being to preserve a social life outside the club. Lately however, he’s committed himself to a reduction in workload, although perhaps a better word would be narrowing. He’s well known for once belonging to that curious breed, the DJ-journalist, but after years of writing for the likes of Groove and Spex in Germany, he’s since put down his pen, in part so he can honour his label commitments.
“Unless you’re talking about some guy getting a bad pill in his Red Stripe, or a DJ getting sacked for whatever reason, all music journalism boils down to opinion and personal taste. Of course, I tried to write objectively, to explain why this is better than that, but the label meant that there was this menu available that people could look at and say, ‘hey! Look at the crap he’s doing! What’s this guy talking about?’” Ultimately, the writing and the label activity became incompatible.
In any case, he reflects, his work is more or less done. Janson has spoken to everyone he felt was worth speaking to. “Everyone except Tony Humphries,” he adds. “He’s the last obsession I have as a music writer, but that’s really a fanboy thing as I enjoyed his old radio shows so much.
“My inkpot was empty” he continues. “For years at Groove, I was the guy who reviewed every Theo Parrish record. At some point I realised I’d said everything I had to say. It was time to let someone else have a go. I suppose I got kind of weary.” Along with the writing, Janson has also left behind his academic pursuits, which revolved around American studies.
"There's a general feeling this could all be over tomorrow. You gotta grab as many buns from the buffet as you can, before it closes down"
Naturally the interest and influence remain – there’s his Philip Roth obsession for example. “He may not be the most intellectual or stimulating writer in the world,” he starts, “but it’s the way he sucks you in, even when writing on boring topics, like relationships. It’s the syntax that’s so impressive. Every time I read something of his I’ll think, ‘you will never in your life be able to write a sentence like that’.”
Even here however, Janson’s keen to pick apart potential clichés, in this case one that’s particular to him – his oft-praised diversity. Over the course of his career, we’ve seen Janson play the role of DJ, label owner, producer, journalist, academic, RBMA curator and record store dude.
“I always think it’s strange when someone who makes a living playing records starts talking about what a great painter, or writer, or chef they are” (although in the case of chef, he adds, Ata — who runs the famous Robert Johnson club in Frankfurt — is the honourable exception). “If they’re hobbies, then that’s great, but I think there’s a certain vanity that comes with the years of DJing. You start believing that everyone’s interested. You’re talking about literature, politics, gender and stuff to people who aren’t really that interested – all they wanna hear about is the new Radio Slave record.”
Even now however, with the full weight of his creative energies behind the label and his DJing, the disco house king retains a modesty that pays particular kudos to those who came before him. “I consider myself to be learning still,” he admits. “I’m still a kid. Almost all the people I enjoyed going out to see play when I was a kid still. Occasionally I’ll get to DJ with them, so ￼￼￼in some ways I’m still the apprentice.”
The work-rate is still looking fierce, with lots incoming on Running Back. Most intriguing of all is a collection of ‘bonus- beats’, featuring contributions from Radio Slave, IQ, Disco Nightlight, and newcomer Blank Spanner.
“This is a record I’ve wanted to do for five years now,” enthuses Janson. “Before people were able to loop on CDJs, bonus-beats were the name for records specifically made for DJs which you could use to make transitions more easily. So lots of records were made with a dub, an instrumental and a bonus beat. You’d have to buy two copies to prolong it.”
He reels some more releases off the top of his head. A playful, big room affair from KiNK full of “catchy melodies and upbeat moments.” Something from rising Norwegian act Telephones. A new record from Fort Romeau. A reggae-disco offering, on which he doesn’t elaborate.
“Maybe I need a sub-label. Running Gag, I’ll call it.”
At this point, the man who minutes earlier sounded very much like a DJ complaining is sounding very excited indeed. Gerd Janson is vibing, and with such a busy year ahead, it’s easy to see why.
“It’s like DJ Harvey once said — the good times are now. Always, now. Every weekend there’s younger kids walking into Panorama Bar for the first time, who am I to tell them it used to be better? Even when I’m tired and beat up, I think it’s a blessed lifestyle I’m able to lead.”
Catch Gerd Janson alongside Todd Terje and Greg Wilson at Freeze’s 10th Anniversary show at The Bombed Out Church, Liverpool on 13 June, and the final ever Garden Festival, Tisno, Croatia, 1 – 8 July