But creating record after record of such elegant sadness isn't easy. Like his previous job as a gardener, Kersten is constantly pruning, constantly improving, constantly working towards a utopian ideal that can never be attained. Under his Sten alias, that element of work can more easily be heard: His new record under the moniker, The Essence, drives ceaselessly forward with grooves that reference his fondness for Detroit techno and melodies that can't help but make you feel wistful.
It plows the same field that Lawrence tracks do, of course, but this constancy is what makes Kersten stand out among his peers. You will rarely mistake his work for anyone else. We caught up with the DJ/producer in advance of his new record to chat about gardening, kalimbas and why he loves RA so much.
What kind of music were you listening to when you were growing up?
When I was young, I listened to the radio a lot, but as it was in the early '80s, it was actually pretty good. The Cure and early Depeche Mode were really quite an early influence for me. When I got older, I got more into the dark disco wave stuff like Joy Division. We listened to it at parties, because maybe an older brother had some of their stuff. We often listened to tapes of our older sisters and brothers. That's also how I came to house music. I heard my first house track in 1987, and it really hit me.
My sister was never really into music. We had a lot of good radio stations back in the early '80s, so I started to buy vinyl when I was 12. In 1984, I discovered electro when breakdance was up. My cousins and I were the worst breakdancers ever, but we had a nice record collection. It was the sibling of a friend of mine who turned me onto early Chicago house.
What was the first house track that you heard? Why did it hit you so hard?
It was "Can You Feel It" by Mr. Fingers (Larry Heard), which is still a favorite of mine. That strange minimal loop, with no song structure and the melancholic deepness. I had never heard anything like it before.
I read somewhere that you were into the church organ in your local church when you were growing up.
My parents were kind of religious—not hardcore religious—so we went to church and I really liked organ music when I was a child. That was really the instrument for me. I always played when I was five or six, at being an organist with my puppets or something. [laughs] I still like organ music very much, but it's definitely an early influence.
It seems like that sound has carried over into a lot of your work, that very hymnal feel.
Yeah, but I think that's because I experienced modern organ music much later. In the '90s I went to [Olivier] Messiaen concerts, and other modern classic people like him.
Are you listening to much modern classical?
Yes, quite a lot. I used to go to a lot of concerts, but now I mostly just listen on record. There's such a wide range—you always experience something new, and it's quite exciting, and also Hendrik [Weber, Pantha Du Prince] and Phillip [Sollmann, Efdemin] are also quite into modern classic, so we're always exchanging things.
What composers/musicians has Hendrik and Phillip turned you onto?
I was into Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Steve Reich, Messiaen—the very classic New Music—before I met Hendrik and Phillip. They brought me into the world of drones, as they were huge fans of La Monte Young. I really didn't get it at first—two tones of a sinewave held for ages? But after listening carefully for a long time it hit me, it's such wonderful music.
It seems like certainly with Phillip's record under his own name [Something Is Missing] that he was influenced by that kind of thing. Is there ever a chance that we could have a new moniker from you that would explore those same ideas?
I don't think so. I like it sound-wise, and also emotionally-wise, so much. And I sometimes also like conceptualists like John Cage and LaMonte Young, but the scene around it is too serious. And I would never want to start studying [laughs] the music that hard.
I don't want to get too conceptual. The music I do is so intuitive, and when I start producing music, it's really... I'm just diving into the sounds, and going with the flow. I never think, "Oh, I should now do a piece like this." [laughs]
When you're making music, do you sample at all?
It's very free. I do sample stuff from time to time. That's how I started producing music. My first record was based almost entirely on samples, more or less. I do use a lot of software synths as well, and, in the last few years I've gotten some instruments. I bought a vibraphone two years ago, which is a really pretty nice instrument. I haven't sampled it or recorded it that often yet, though. I also have a steel drum and some African kalimba instruments. It's fun to invest your money in nice instruments.
Who have you sampled?
Well, I really love to start a track with an obvious sample, whether it be experimental classic, folk, soul or hip-hop. I feel really connected to all the nice music I listen to in my living room with friends. But I won't tell you—the tracks would lose some of their magic then.
Where did you first hear the kalimba? Is that something you've used in your work at all yet?
I found the kalimba in an African music instrument shop in Vienna when Phillip was studying computer music there in 2002. He showed me this amazing shop and we spent hours trying out all the instruments. I first used it on The Night Will Last Forever.
Let's talk about Smallville. You currently run the record store with Julius [Steinhoff] and he runs the label?
Yeah, I mean, we both do the label and the shop together. But Julius really works a lot on the label, and also on our monthly parties. It's super nice. We've invited quite a lot of people from the States like Patrice Scott and Omar-S, and from London, and Manchester, and of course some German DJs. But we are kind of focused on Detroit-ish deep house at our parties.
You're trying to build a consistent sound to the night. That's interesting, because for a while I thought that you were doing that with Dial, as well, but then there are these oddballs like the Sollmann record and a couple of others. Is there a conscious thought to release things that people wouldn't expect?
I think we've always had strange records, or at least strange tracks on Dial. I think it's on Dial 6 that we have a karaoke version of "How Deep Is Your Love"? It's the 14 year-old cousin of a Korean friend of ours just singing over the original version. Dial is really this small family around Hendrik, Phillip, Carsten Jost and me and we are listening to such a wide range of music. We never wanted to have a straight house label or something like that.
What is the Dial release that you're most proud of putting out?
The first Dominique album, Speak to Me enchanted people so much. We didn't sell a lot of copies, but the people who got it will love it forever. I am still so happy we put it out.
Not Your Average House Label
Five records that prove that Dial is much more than just moody house.
Cross Fade Enter Tainment – "Break It Down" (2001)
A 14 year-old Korean sings over the original version of The Bee Gees classic "How Deep Is Your Love."
Glühen 4 - Das Schweigen der Sirenen (2004)
Hendrik Weber's experimental side gets a workout on this glitchy, abstract (and beatless) wonder of a record.
JaKönigJa - Ebba (2005)
Ebba Durstewitz and Jakobus Siebels's work is indie rock, but not like you've ever heard it before.
Dominique - Speak to Me (2005)
Peter Kersten counts this lounge-y downtempo record as one of his favorite Dial releases to date.
Phillip Sollmann - Something Is Missing (2006)
Efdemin's first solo work under his birth name is a sound installation of droning ambience.
It was really never planned not to give interviews, but at the same time, we were never very interested in it either. The thing is, we are really not good with promotion and stuff like this. At the time that we heard that Dial was voted as the #1 label on Resident Advisor last year, half of us were, "Wow, that's so great" and the others were like, "Yeah, OK, what's that?" We are really so bad at promotion. I mean, I really appreciate Resident Advisor so much now, but I was not really not into it. But now I am. Now I am. [laughs]
Why was that?
I don't spend a lot of time on the internet, so I really don't know what is sophisticated, and what is really nice. It took us a really long time to release our stuff on Beatport as well. It's just that we're just doing a few things and sometimes we're not so motivated...
So, it's just laziness that people couldn't get Dial releases on Beatport for a long time. [laughs]
Yeah. But I wouldn't call it laziness, because I'm running a record shop, doing all these nights, running two record labels, being a DJ and a live act, etc. But maybe sometimes we aren't as focused on the important things, I don't know. [laughs]
Do you download music from Beatport and other places now? Are you an all-vinyl DJ?
I am still a 100% vinyl DJ. Sometimes I'll play a track from a CD, like the latest Efdemin remix or brand new mastered stuff, but I feel so much more comfortable with vinyl.
That's fair. I read that you used to be a gardener.
After high school, I really didn't know what to do. All of my friends were studying things that weren't that interesting to me, and I thought, "Wow, how nice would it be just to be a gardener?" It was a super experience. I did it for a couple years, and then I just quit.
Why did you decide to quit?
I'm not sure. At the time, I wanted to study afterwards, how to do garden architecture, so that was the main reason. But I also wanted to do some hard work. It wasn't dealing with plans, it was more actually building things. Hendrik Weber was the same way. He used to be a carpenter.
Were you making music all during this time?
Not on my own. I used to go out every weekend, but I was only collecting records and DJing at little parties and stuff. I started producing music on my own a bit later.
When did you first start making music by yourself?
That was in 1998, a few months before we decided to create Dial. At that time, everything just sort of came together. Before that, I was DJing a lot with people like Dixon. We both spun deep house.
What did Dixon teach you about DJing?
When we met first in 1994, I learned a lot from him because the records he played were so different from those that you could find in Hamburg at that time. Dixon got me into the deepest house sound—he played me the first Moodymann single.
What's up next?
I'm going on tour, and I really want to start to work on the next Lawrence album as well.
Have you not done anything on that yet? Is there nothing recorded?
Everything I'm really satisfied with right now will be released on 12-inches. I always play some tracks to Phillip and David, and they say, "Oh no, we have to put it out." So Dial 43 will be another Lawrence thing. And we have a new artist on Dial named John Roberts. He's from New York, a really young, super nice, deep house artist. He met Romy, our lovely booker, in New York City and she brought a CD back with her. David [Carsten Jost], Henrik, Phillip and I were so amazed that we all thought, "We have to put this out." He just moved to Berlin and did his first live performances at the Golden Pudel Club and Panorama Bar. And, of course, Phillipp and Hendrik are working on new things as well. There's a lot to do.