Phones off for ItaloJohnson
There comes a point towards the end of our time with ItaloJohnson when we’re wondering how to refer to the mysterious crew’s individual members in the write-up. Real names are obviously out of the question, and we’re going to need something a little snappier than ‘the one in the cap, the serious one with the cheekbones, and the slightly undernourished one’. “How about first initials?” suggests Cap. This gets a raised eyebrow from Cheekbones, but Hungry seems cool with it. After some deliberation, they give the go ahead.
So, with that, meet R, J and M, who as DJs, producers and as a label go collectively by the name of ItaloJohnson. The trio are in Bristol to open for DJ Koze at the Arnolfini gallery, having just recovered from Good Friday celebrations which saw them attend a fondue party that ‘got out of hand’.
March saw the release of ITJ09, almost a year on from ITJ08. All three agree it’s the best they’ve put out so far. Online, it’s accompanied by a typically flippant press release, composed entirely of underground dance music clichés like claims of the record’s super-limited run of 103 copies (“We should have made that 303,” mutters M), offered up by three Germans raised on Detroit and Chicago classics from the day they were born.
“After receiving an 808 for his 10th birthday,” it says, “One member of the faceless trio was rumoured to have ghostwritten basslines for some of techno’s finest during the early 1990s.”
It’s here you can see ItaloJohnson’s wicked sense of humour in full effect – one that doesn’t allow for effective pigeonholing. Sure, the anonymity is undoubtedly a response, in part, to the internet, but it works both ways – they’re nobody’s poster-boys.
“The whole press release is a joke,” begins R. “We don’t want to be associated with these fanatics in Berlin, this vinyl connoisseur crowd. Look at prices on Discogs and you can see it’s gotten completely out of hand. We would never limit any of our records. Whenever I hear someone’s really limiting a vinyl, I think ‘well, maybe it wouldn’t sell anyway. If they really wanted to sell shit, they would press more.’”
J launches into a tirade about his strict vinyl shopping policy – no more than €20, under any circumstances. “And whenever I break that rule,” he quickly adds, “the record is repressed within three weeks. Every time.” The last time this happened, he’d been in the UK where he’d stumbled across a relatively cheap copy of a record he only goes so far as to identify as “a great house track,” one he’d been chasing for years. Worried he’d never get another opportunity, he blew the bank and paid €30. Two weeks later it was repressed, and widely available once again for a fraction of the price.
This gets a big laugh from M. “But you’ve got the original pressing!” he tells him, “you’ve got the REAL THING man!”
“Which doesn’t matter at all,” comes the weary response. “It’s exactly the same music. The only difference is that on my old record, the tracks are all worn out.”
“What happens in the club should stay in the club. People do crazy things at the rave”
But what about when the vinyl-only ItaloJohnson pander to the clichés themselves? It’s here we start running into the inevitable tensions that running a purposely low-key operation brings about. M rolls his eyes. “A lot of people,” he starts, “have said, ‘this is ridiculous. They say they’re anonymous, but here they are at this interview, here they are on this podcast.’ It’s something everyone likes to squeeze.”
If anything though, the trio seem to relish these tensions, which force them to evolve in novel ways. At one point for example, R derails things to make an official announcement – after ITJ10, the hand-stamps that have accompanied every release so far are finished. What’s in store for ITJ11 isn’t clear, but as far as they’re concerned, getting the records hand-stamped by virgins in a Neukölln basement joins the long list of tropes they’re keen to shun. “Just so we’re clear though,” interrupts J, “up until now, all of our records have definitely been hand-stamped by virgins in Berlin. Let there be no doubt about that.”
Guiding the three is an underlying imperative to make decisions for the right reasons. If you’re setting up a label and releasing records, then hand-stamping is a cheap and attractive alternative for a group of young men with no money and no designer friends. It’s practical, “and plus”, adds R, “we’re just lazy.”
It’s the same story when we talk about the vinyl-only policy, or to look at it another way, the total lack of digital content. Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud – these things need a continuous stream of new content if you want to keep them alive, which with an average of two releases a year just isn’t an option for ItaloJohnson.
“I’m never keen on quoting,” begins R, “but Dixon said something years back that’s still absolutely the truth, something that works so well for us. He said he wanted to just put out a few records, and let them breathe. It’s far better when you can see how a person’s evolved, and if you’re seeing them all the time, you won’t notice.”
In other words, we’re not talking knee-jerk reactionism here. ItaloJohnson aren’t going to war with the net, nor are they at odds with anyone who relies on it – they just happened to have found a method that works well for them, that relies on a sociality that the net has effectively negated over the years.
J, for example, recalls attending techno raves that – without the money or resources to reach out to big names – ran open deck policies. R misses being a young dude having to work grumpy record store clerks in search of that one, elusive track on a mixtape (“It’s not a good record shop if the staff aren’t grumpy,” J comments. “If they’re friendly then it’s time to leave”). M laments the days when people’s heads were more in the party and less on their Instagrams.
This last point triggers some particularly lively discussion around the growing popularity of no-photo policies. “It’s something we see more and more of,” says M, grinning. “It’s a great trend!” “It’s that intimacy though,” suggests R. “What happens in the club should stay in the club. People do crazy things at the rave, and they can come out more when they know they’re not being filmed.”
“Far better for them if there’s no proof,” concludes J with a smirk.
Ultimately, it’s a sociality that, while inclusive, does depend on a commitment to partying – a sociality that R, J and M would hope they embody some of the spirit of, both through their releases, and in their live sets. Paradoxical though it may sound, putting the music first can downplay the importance attached to the DJ. You don’t go to see ItaloJohnson play – you go to party with them, and that’s exactly how they like it.
ITJ09 is out now via ItaloJohnson