Since leaving behind his day job as Ostgut Ton label manager in 2012, Nick Höppner has used his newfound freedom to spend more time in the studio and dedicate time to his own productions. His sophomore album Work is a testament to Höppner’s drive and need to push himself. Not afraid to be different, the record breaks away from his dancefloor focused debut LP Folk, expressing his interest for composite sounds and marrying together an assortment of musical genres that have influenced him over the years. With a few loose ideas in mind going into the studio Work came together over the course of a few months last year and represents Höppner’s boldest musical offering to date.
A veteran of the underground in Berlin and closely entwined with Panorama Bar since it opened its doors in 2004, our in depth conversation touches on how Höppner‘s new album came together, rediscovering the joys of studio collaboration, his passion for radio and desire to make a club banger. His infectious enthusiasm and love for music runs deep. For a man in his mid-forties, it feels as if he’s only just getting warmed up.
Congratulations on the new album, Work. How was the launch party at Panorama Bar?
It was really nice actually. I did the warm up to give the guests the spotlight, more or less, and I started at midnight and played a reggae set, which worked alright. I did it for about two hours and then I switched to slow house. People seemed to appreciate it and it was good fun.
Was the line up all your doing?
Not at all, I invited Fantastic Man, Gonno, Matthew Styles, and Leif. The rest, Fort Romeu, Konstantin and Virgina were booked by the club.
So you switched it up between artists you worked with and artists whose music you appreciate?
Exactly, I’ve really liked Fantastic Man’s stuff in recent years, the last 2 or 3 years maybe; I bought almost all of his records. It’s really meticulous but also very easy to play. Gonno, I’ve known for a long time already. I think since I did my last tour to Japan, while I was still doing the My My stuff with Lee Jones. We went to Tokyo in 2008 for the first time, and played a party with Gonno and a friend, who unfortunately passed away, he committed suicide a couple of years ago.
Then same for Leif, I really like his production and I’d never heard him DJ. I think I listened to a recording of one of his Freerotation sets from last year or the year before, which I enjoyed a lot but I booked him mainly on the back of his music. I really like his diversity.
On to the album, ‘Work’, it’s pretty impressive it’s your second in a little over two years. When did you start writing the record? Shortly after you finished Folk or was there a break in between?
There was a little break yes. I never really planned on doing a second album that quickly but then you know I was facing a DJ schedule that wouldn’t really fill up last year, as much as I wished it would, and instead of losing hair over it, I thought lets use the time and go to the studio more often.
I kind of made the decision last year in May, then it took until August before I really started working on it. I made this EP Box Drop before which I still had to get out of the way and somehow I really struggled with finishing it and only had that done sometime in the summer. I’d already started work on the album and the unfinished EP completely blocked me. Once that was out of the way, making the album was a fairly quick process; I think the core time was maybe two to three months.
Comparing the two albums and listening back to Folk it feels more of a straight up house and techno album, where as Work appears to cover loads of influences and genres that interest you. What pushed you to approach the album in a different direction and do you feel like you needed to start with a clean slate or was it something you’ve musically wanted to get out?
I didn’t really have a master plan. I made it without the dancefloor in mind, the idea was go to the studio and see what happens. I gave myself more freedom than with the first record. For the first album I really wanted the record to be about the dancefloor but with the second it doesn’t have to be about that all the time, anything is possible. Everyday I had a loose concept, stay below 100 BPM or use a breakbeat but that was it. It just happened that way actually. Don’t limit yourself and don’t over conceptualise it. That’s the result basically.
I find it interesting you talking about using a breakbeat, to break it up and I can see the album is almost split into two with the middle track ‘The Dark Segment’, acting as a pivot between the two sides. Do you think that’s a fair reflection?
I put it there on purpose but I didn’t make that track with it being the pivot in mind, it just happened that way. The thing is, although I cover a lot of ground it’s still quite coherent because I made it in a relatively short amount of time. I think the only track which has a longer history is ‘In My Mind’, which goes back a little further but the rest I made from scratch; starting last summer until the end of November.
In the studio, what’s your musical process? Are you someone who’s holed up there for 12 hours a day or do you try to break it up into more manageable sections and try not to become too bogged down?
For me what’s really crucial is routine. I’m not sitting at home waiting for the creative lightening to strike to then run off and go to the studio and make music. I drop off my kids at day care in the morning and then go to the studio. It’s a bit like a 9 to 5, although most of the time I’m not spending 8 or 9 hours in there, it’s more like 5 or 6. I feel it doesn’t really help much to sit around for longer.
Mainly I get my work done in 5 or 6 hours and if I stay longer it becomes a bit more unfocused. But I have to go to the studio everyday for 5 or 6 hours, even if it’s a really slow and unproductive day, it’s part of the equation. Sometimes something happens right at the end of it and that sparks off the process during the next day. Even a bad day in the office/studio will be helpful somewhere or sometime; I strongly believe that. So just being there regularly, putting the time and effort in is the main secret.
In my own experience, the myth of the artist, there’s much less to it than people will try to make you believe. A lot of it can be achieved by work and by sticking to it and not giving up. That’s one of the reasons I chose that title because creation and art, a lot of the time, is down to proper work and continuity.
That actually segways onto my next question: Where does the album title stem from? I agree that there’s definitely a mythical aura around the idea of ‘magic in the studio’. Inspiration comes in many forms but these are small moments and you actually have to put the work in to make those moments come to life.
I’m not trying to say, it doesn’t work differently for other people. There are artists who sit at home all the time, reading, and then something happens, they might have an idea in their mind, rush off to the studio, once they realise this idea and then they are idle for the next couple of weeks, days or hours. But I think there are more people who work like I do. You go to your studio all the time or you go to the studio and paint a picture everyday. Five or six pictures might be rubbish but if you do one great picture per week or per month, it’s good enough. It will give you experience to become better and better, it will sharpen and expand your skill set by doing stuff that is not good enough.
What I also like is not exaggerating art. Sometimes at the beginning I felt intimidated by my peers who I thought were so much better than I was but the more you try to create yourself the more you realise how normal it kind of is. Hardly anyone is a genius. You write something and at the beginning it’s not very good but then you work on it and in the end it will be something good. It won’t re-invent the wheel or be a stroke of genius but it will be solid. I think that’s how a lot of art works anyway.
Definitely, these things don’t happen over night. On the record you have two other artists featuring on tracks with you as well as your EP with Gonno last year. Does your approach differ when working in the studio with other artists? Do you have to have them physically there?
All three collaborations you mentioned worked very differently. With Gonno for example, I don’t speak any Japanese, he doesn’t speak any German and his English is kind of rudimentary. So we just go to the studio and we start jamming and it’s very non-verbal but musically we kind of have a similar history and we like similar stuff, as DJs. There’s that connection. He just spent two weeks here in Berlin after he played my release party and we went to the studio a couple of times. It was no talking, just work. Collaborating always has this dynamic that you don’t want to waste your collaborators time. So I tend to be a lot more focused and efficient than on my own.
The ‘Clean Living’ track with Tram 78 is actually a really old friend of mine who I started the My My project around 2004. He was the third guy in My My, with Lee Jones, Karsten Klemann and myself. Karsten was in London for a long time and returned to Berlin a while ago. Last summer I got in touch with him again and he came by the studio and played me a lot of music. He also played me a track that I sampled a tiny bit of; it became the starting point of ‘Clean Living’. He provided the sample and sat in on the first session of the track. The track wouldn’t have existed without him so I made it a collaboration. Although I did the footwork, he inspired it, brought his perspective and vibe into the first session and the track was finished fairly quickly soon after.
And with the third one, Randweg, it’s two guys. I went to the studio with Andi and he brought both his clarinets, he has both a B clarinet and a bass clarinet. We set up three different microphones and hooked up the clarinets and he improvised over the track. We did three or four takes so I had a lot of source material. Meanwhile, David recorded his guitar tracks and sent them. Once I had those tracks I finished the track on my own, so they were more like session musicians. Of course they’ve written the track as well but I chose and picked the right kind of sections and made the final arrangement and mix down.
It’s a really interesting track, nothing like I’ve ever heard you produce before. Using live instrumentation for a start and it’s almost like an Indie pop track.
I totally agree and that’s down to the fact that Andi and me both have that kind of influence. He’s a little younger than me but we both like the same kind of Indie and post-rock kind of stuff from Chicago. That’s why this influence became so clear because I always had it in mind and it’s what connects us.
I’m quite intrigued by the track titles from the album. Are there any stories behind them? ‘Clean Living’ for example, you said you made it with Karsten from My My. Is that a sign of how times have changed from when you first started working together?
Absolutely. We both are recovering addicts and when we first met we were still plain addicts and spent a lot of time wasted in Berlin clubs, after-hours and in our studio. Then we lost sight of each other and met again after a long break, both sober this time. So it was an obvious choice for a track title because that is what we mainly have in common these days.
You’ve used the same artist for the album artwork as you did for Folk but it’s a very different visual piece.
The technique is kind of the same but the content is different. In the Folk artwork he took ads from magazines and then dehumanised them, cutting out the human beings from the ads. He gets ten or twenty copies of the same magazine and always takes the same ad, cutting them into small pieces, taking out the humans and putting the scene back together so it’s just that empty space.
It’s the same technique for this one but this time he’s not putting it back together. He’s just taking lots of different ads for banks. The title of this artwork is ‘Bankentsunami’, it’s like ‘Bank Tsunami’ and it’s inspired by the financial breakdown in 2008. So he’s cutting up bank advertisements from magazines and he puts them together as a kind of vortex.
Was your eye drawn to his work or did someone recommend his art?
For the Folk album it was actually a recommendation from my wife because although he studied fine art and still works as an artist he’s not making enough money from it, so he also works as a sound engineer for film productions. My wife once worked for a film, assisting the director and that’s how she got in touch with Frank. I really relate to his collage technique, I saw a link between his kind of sampling and mine. The motif of travelling, the dark window etc, it ticked a lot of my boxes. I really found it fitting.
Also, what I liked, at least for my album, was that it appears rather independently from the normal Ostgut Ton aesthetics. I want the albums to stand for themselves and not as part of that Ostgut continuum with black and white pictures. Then for continuities sake I looked at other artworks from Frank, found that one and immediately knew it should be the cover of my next album.
Obviously you’re a life long music lover, who’s embraced a variety of genres and your career has touched many bases within the industry. Do you view making an album as the ultimate goal; Do you think you’ll continue to release your music in that format?
Yes. As a format it’s kind of obsolete but at the same time I’m from a generation where it’s not obsolete. I appreciate the album format and I think it suits me as well. I’m not the most perfect 12-inch guy, who can churn out three or four 12 inches per year. I still struggle to come up with really on point club tracks, I think making club tracks is very difficult and I really admire people who can do it. It takes a lot of restraint to yield a huge result with only a few means. It’s not easy. It’s still on my bucket list. I want to make a big club track but I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever do it. Maybe I’ll have to look at things that will make it easier. Maybe I have to come up with a fantasy.
Someone just told me or maybe he said it in an interview; Objekt had a fantasy for his latest 12 inch of a retro futurist club space where the track he was just working on would be the biggest hit and helped him to come up with, by his standards, something pretty straight forward and playable and not too intricate. Maybe that’s something I have to consider for myself. Conceptualise and visualise circumstances for a club track. And also, sometimes Berghain and Panorama Bar are looming a bit too large. Sometimes I feel it’s hard to break free from that shadow. When I’m in the studio I want to make a separation, my DJing is different from my work in the studio. I look at it as two different things and I look at it as, at least my work in the studio benefits from it. I may never come up with a club banger but in the long run I come up with more interesting music in general.
On the flip-side having done the track with Randweg, do you think there’s a possibility you’d go down that route and experiment with more live instrumentation?
I’ve got into collaborating again. I really enjoy the process of making music with other people but it’s also hard to find the right match. A lot of people I’d like to work with are either too busy or already involved with too many projects. It’s not easy to find the right person, there has to be a certain chemistry otherwise it doesn’t really make sense. It sounds really strange for a 44 year-old guy to say that but in terms of making music, and even with my DJing, I feel like I’m just beginning.
Of course I’m old, I’m twice the age of people coming to my shows but I started late with everything. I did so much other stuff before I took my work in the studio and DJing seriously. Until 5 years ago I always had a day job on the side, it’s not been long since I’ve been able to focus on making music and DJing only. It’s a bit of a schizophrenic situation but I think I’m only at the beginning.
Exactly, you’re only 5 years old.
In terms of making music yeah. Well that’s not strictly true; my first solo track came out in 2004. But with the ambition and time I’m putting in, it’s a fairly new thing.
I was listening to your recent NTS residency. How have you found those radio shows? I was interested to hear you say that you opened Panorama Bar for the album launch party with a reggae set because one of the shows is all reggae and dub.
Radio for me is the most important medium still. I love listening to the radio. The day-to-day radio I listen to is talk radio, German state radio, mostly politics and culture but it’s on all the time. When I get up and brew a coffee in the morning I listen to the news and it’s on constantly. That’s how I inform myself.
My earliest really serious musical discoveries, outside of my circle of friends, was from the radio. I was listening to a radio station in my hometown, which was based in Bremen, the next biggest city. The radio station was called Radio Bremen 4. They syndicated John Peel and the UK Indie Top 40 in turns, biweekly. One week on a Sunday night was the John Peel show and the other week was the UK Indie Top 40. I listened to them religiously every Sunday night and that’s where I discovered stuff and made a lot of discoveries that have stayed with me until now. Where I listened to early rave stuff, Stakker Humanoid or Chicago House, really early House, late 80s, Acid House, early Breakbeat and so on.
I really love putting together those shows, although it’s a lot of work, 8 hours of music, I’m not doing any talking. At the same time it’s not quite a podcast, you can look at it a bit more loosely, it doesn’t have to be so tight, it’s more of a mixtape kind of vibe. You can let a track play, if you have a 13-minute track you can let it play in all its glory. I really like the format and I hope I can do something more regularly soon.
NTS is huge in the UK and globally and in recent years we’ve seen a renaissance of radio, with new online stations popping up. Do you think radio and online radio is something that’s growing?
I’m of a generation who when I think of radio, I think of terrestrial radio. That for me is the real radio. Which is a stupid thing to say because NTS has a huge reach, probably a lot more than a couple of the remaining terrestrial stations. There’s something about the radio waves travelling through the air, hitting an antenna and being transformed into music again. It’s a nostalgic fascination.
Why do you still think it’s so popular?
I don’t even know if it is still so popular. There’s just something to it. Radio is quite a credible medium. People trust the radio a lot more than the TV or the Internet, maybe because it doesn’t have the visual component or is manipulated in a certain way. There’s one less dimension to be manipulated and as a format it is more demanding for the listener. It’s easier to question and grasp what you’re actually listening to and thus making up your mind. I think it’s a mix of both, it doesn’t have the visual component and people, I don’t mean this in a negative way, have a blind trust you know. If you choose the right station you can be sure to be entertained and informed well.
With your studio commitments and the album how do you keep on top of your DJing? What does your weekly schedule look like?
This year’s been a bit different. I got really sick a couple of months ago and I had a few not so nice, private things going on, which have been really demanding, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio this year at all.
My usual routine would be to go to the studio on Monday, spend Monday through to Thursday in the studio. On a Wednesday night at home, look through new releases online and in a couple of record shops. Then make a selection. I dig and buy most of my vinyl online these days but then I also place an order with different record shops here in Berlin. Then I make a round on Thursday to pick up my records. Then I go home and I look through promos and I buy digital music as well. Then I rip the vinyl I’ve bought if it’s stuff you can only buy on vinyl.
Mainly the Thursday is reserved to organising what I’ve just found promo wise, what I’ve bought digitally or in the shop, put it on my stick and during that process I already get ideas of what works well together and what my sets might look like or sound like for the weekend.
Are there any artists that interest you at the moment? There’s so much new music how do you manage to keep on top of it?
You can’t be on top of ‘it’. What is ‘it’? You can’t even remain on top of one genre because there’s so much music out there. I think what’s important, and becoming more so, is that you have a personal voice. Even though I might be quite a diverse DJ. I think there’s still something that connects the different genres of music I’m playing. I think that’s what is important these days and that’s also, a reason for why there’s so much hype around crate diggers, selectors and DJ’s DJs because they’re the epitome for having a personal voice while DJing. I’m not trying to stay on top of shit. That’s impossible, I’m constantly trying to find good music. New and old. That’s all I can do. I have my idea of what I like and what I want to present and I’m trying to stick to it and that’s all there is to it.
Work marks a decade for you releasing on Ostgut and your association with the label and club goes back even longer. From your visit to the old Ostgut and Panorama Bar did you ever envisage it being such a major part of your life? Does its longevity surprise you? Which in today’s climate is rare.
When I went to the old Ostgut and Panorama Bar I had no idea what this might lead up to. But what it gave me was a chance. It gave me more confidence to pursue a career in music. Be it behind a desk or behind a DJ booth. It was still open for me. That’s what I did anyway, behind a desk managing a label and behind a DJ booth both at the same time. It showed me a career, quote unquote, was possible in music, which was something I didn’t really consider before I moved to Berlin.
Work is out now via Ostgut Ton. Order it here.
Nick Höppner plays Nightcap held at Yamamori Tengu, Dublin on July 7. More details here.
Words: Fred Le Fanu
Images: Katja Ruge