Gathered around a streetside table at a Friedrichshain café, Stangl and his Leisure System cohorts remember the incident fondly. "Who was playing?" asks Sam Barker, one of the outfit's co-founders. "Duran Duran Duran?"
"No," says Stangl, "it was last year, maybe Alex Smoke..."
Now they're all talking over each other. "Vladislav Delay?" "No, it was more recent than that—" "Kommune1?" "Tim Exile?" "No, no, I'm sure it was last year—" "Visionist?"
Then, very cautiously: "...Disclosure?"
Whoever it was, it's safe to say they weren't playing house, techno or even dance music necessarily—at least not as they're commonly understood. Since 2008, Leisure System has deliberately pushed the boundaries of what's musically appropriate in a club setting, challenging audiences with sounds that elude classification, often stemming from IDM and what Stangl reluctantly calls "the post-rave UK hardcore continuum." Since 2011, their label has continued this mission, championing music by square-pegs like Rob Clouth and Visionist, and perhaps most notably, reviving Dopplereffekt, Gerald Donald's mysterious post-Drexciya duo.
But as avant-garde as they may be, the Leisure System crew are ravers at heart. A cornerstone of the label is JETS, Machinedrum's giddy production duo with Jimmy Edgar. And they've always had a soft spot for Disclosure, who have played for them twice downstairs at Berghain (a fairly avant-garde notion in itself). In a 2011 interview with RA, Ned Beckett, who started Leisure System with Barker, described the mission this way: "We want to be like the friend you have that always comes to you with new and exciting music, knowing that you'll love it, even if you may never have considered listening to this kind of sound before."
Sitting at the head of a table surrounded by his partners, Beckett takes a slightly different tack. "We're not trying to fuck people off," he says. "With the parties I did before, it was always a bit, 'Well, if you don't like it, fuck you.' Leisure System is a bit more like, 'There's no reason why you shouldn't like this, give it a chance,' you know? Like, 'Come on, this is totally fine, don't be scared, stay a little longer.'"
"Not exactly tricking people," Stangl adds, "but making them willing to leave their comfort zone."
For Beckett, this offbeat curating style goes back a long way. "I started promoting nights when I was 18 at university," he says, "and from spending a lot of time at events and raves, I've always seen that there are these two different worlds. One I consider really exciting and inspiring, and one is kind of mind-numbingly boring. So really it's this motivation to bring the exciting, inspiring stuff into clubs because that's what I find fun."
Given this frame of mind, it's hard to imagine a better job for Beckett than the one he landed after university: promoting Nesh, Warp Records' monthly party in London. This is where he really honed a knack for, as he puts it, "bringing together disparate electronic music in clubs." Eventually he moved to Brighton, where he met Sam Barker. The two hit it off, personally and professionally, and together they launched Littlebig, a booking agency they both still run today. They also started a night called Overkill, which, by the sound of it, lived up to its name.
"There was all this screamy music around back then," Beckett says. "So we'd have, like, hardcore bands playing alongside breakcore acts."
"DJ Assault, Venetian Snares and some weird thrash grind grunge as well," Barker adds.
In 2007, Barker and Beckett moved to Berlin, and found the city's famous music scene far more homogenous than they'd expected. "I think we were a little surprised when we came here," Beckett says. "When you actually look at what's going on, it's a lot of weekend parties with very similar music. And we thought, 'OK, we'll just program something a bit different, we'll put Clark and Surgeon on the lineup, bla bla bla, that'll be that.' But actually, you start to realize that the Berlin scene is very much about... well, the scene. It's about groups of people, the venue, who else is going. It's like, 'I'm going to Berghain.' 'Who's playing?' 'I'm not sure.' 'What time are they playing?' 'I don't know. I think Marcel Dettmann's on at, like... in the morning.' Basically you go to these different places for different experiences, which was completely different to what we'd experienced in England."
Stangl is quick to add that experimental music has always had a home in Berlin, if not a consistent one. "At the height of Maria Am Ostbahnhof, the club that I started with, or the old WMF, you had parties where you'd have 2,500 people coming to see a breakcore night. That's declined over the years, but it's still there." He goes on: "It's not surprising that one of the first gigs in Europe for footwork or juke was in Berlin. There may have only been 400 people there, but that's still more than most likely anywhere else in the world at that time. Berlin maintains that vibrant, educated and open-minded audience, it just got a bit diluted because there are so many big clubs and so many people into electronic music now, so that crowd doesn't stick out as much."
Barker and Beckett decided to put on nights that, intentionally or not, would test just how much of an appetite Berlin's club scene had for un-clubby electronic music. They made their first attempt, quite wisely, with Autechre, who are on LittleBig's roster.
"We were like, 'OK, so Berghain's the best club in town, let's go speak to them,'" says Beckett. "And it turned out that Andy Baumecker"—the club's booker at the time, and Barker's future production partner—"and a few of the others were huge fans of Warp, huge fans of UK electronic music. So we're like, 'Holy shit, here's a really good connection.'"
"At that point Berghain hadn't actually put on anything like that," Barker says. "There had never been a midweek concert for example, it was just: Friday Panorama Bar, Saturday Berghain and Panorama Bar, house, techno."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Autechre's Berghain debut was an absolute smash. "It was packed, it was sold out well in advance and it was just an amazing show," says Beckett. "I think it allowed Andy [Baumecker] to see that it could work, that there was an audience for experimental electronic music in Berlin. And off the back of that we suggested to him, 'Well why don't you let us do the odd Friday night, when Berghain normally isn't open?' And that's how we got started."
"I was in the audience," says Stangl, who hadn't yet joined forces with Barker and Beckett. "I was being the fanboy who was just... who was just jizzing."
Barker: "Sorry, you were jizzing?"
"Well of course! Come on, this is like, one of the most essential nights in a decade of electronic music in Berlin."
Stangl isn't wrong about that. The Autechre show was a turning point not only for Beckett and Barker, but also for Berghain and arguably Berlin's music scene in general. "It felt like a really important moment," says Beckett. "Because I think, for people programming a club like Berghain, the problem is, how do you program experimental music in amongst house and techno? But then you do a show like that and you see that you don't need to bother about techno, you don't need to worry about 4/4, you don't even need to worry about people dancing. You just present the music and let people do what they want. So everyone was inspired by that and that was the start of Leisure System as a club night."
It was the start of another club night, too. Another fanboy at the Autechre concert was Paul Rose, better known as Scuba. Seeing the club go off to non-4/4 music, he wondered if dubstep could work at Berghain—a radical notion at the time. And thus was born Sub:stance, a quarterly event at Berghain. For Leisure System, this presented an interesting challenge: in 2008, dubstep could have been the bread-and-butter of an eccentric club night like theirs, but now it was off-limits. And so they went even weirder than expected.
Programming the night was a challenge, but one Beckett and Barker were well positioned to take on. With the LittleBig roster at their disposal, they could fill their lineups with some of the best leftield electronic acts going. Luckily, Berghain was always accommodating. "That was a bit surprising," Beckett says. "We'd be like, 'Well, we've got Venetian Snares on tour...' and they'd say, 'Brilliant!' And we'd say, 'Yeah, but you're going to have Panorama Bar running at the same time. You're going to have people there for the Perlon night coming downstairs and seeing...' and they're like, 'Yes! Brilliant! That's exactly what we want.' And we were like, 'Fuck, really? Alright.'"
Beckett takes a moment to picture the scene. "Some of the most memorable moments for me were seeing all the Panorama Bar house people standing on the balcony and just staring down at our party. But you know, that's great. Because everyone is going to go home and be like, 'Fuck, it was really weird tonight. What the hell was that?'"
Leisure System had a wobbly start, with light attendance at the first party—unsurprising, perhaps, for such a deliberately challenging night. But it soon picked up momentum and eventually became a staple of Berlin's party calendar. Despite the risks of booking experimental music in clubs, Leisure System had something very important going for them: they were filling one of the few gaps left in an oversaturated market. From the off, Leisure System represented something you couldn't get elsewhere in Berlin.
After three years of parties, the decision to start a label came naturally. "I think it was just a lot of people thinking the same thing at the same time," says Beckett. "We had a lot of tracks we thought were really good—Eprom, Pixelord, loads of demos. And I remember Michail was talking about starting a label, and I thought it would make more sense to combine efforts—to bring a few different people together and say, 'Look, we're all busy, this will be more interesting if we do it as a group.'"
To launch the label, Beckett and Barker teamed up with Stangl and Peter Dahlgren, a former breakcore artist who'd made a name for himself in Denmark under the name puzzleweasle. Later on they took on Aaron Gonsher, an American expat fresh out of NYU, as label manager. Like the party, the label would champion leftfield artists without a firm foothold in the clubbing world. Some have been relatively high-profile, such as JETS and Dopplereffekt. But for the most part Leisure System want to break completely new artists, especially ones they feel wouldn't find a home anywhere else—to "stick up for music that's been sidelined and misunderstood," as Beckett puts it. To this end, they resolved to do something fairly radical: listen to every single demo they receive.
"Not many labels listen to random demos these days," says Barker. "Which makes it even more important for labels like us to hear them. We try and give feedback to most people that send us stuff. Even if it's just 'No.' Or, you know, 'We weren't so into it.'"
Gonsher starts looking a little sheepish. "Does this mean I'll have to wade through thousands of SoundCloud messages the day after this feature runs?"
"Yep!" says Barker.
"But this is for me personally the most important thing," says Stangl. "It's like when you would go to the record store and discover something completely by accident, this romantic notion of finding that one act that just blows you away, even when you're already so in the know. This is the reason I listen to every SoundCloud link and every WeTransfer file we get, because I'm still looking for that moment.
"It happened with Eprom actually," he goes on. "You remember? On New Year's Eve in 2010 or 2011, all of us were together, Silverman was DJing, and he played this tune from Eprom and we just went apeshit until they basically threw us out. It was this moment, like, 'Holy shit, this is exactly the kind of music that we want to release!'" Eprom's Feldspar was Leisure System's second release, in November of 2011.
From the response their records have gotten so far, Leisure System's label seems to fill a gap in the same way their party does. "It's funny," says Stangl, "when we saw the feedback we got so far for Rob Clouth, a lot of people were like, 'Oh my god, this is the best thing ever, so much attention to detail!’—kind of as if this was the first time they'd heard such music. The thing is, we're all in our 30s—except for Aaron—and when we grew up, what's now called IDM was the most exciting thing around. When you listen to Rob Clouth, it may not be classic pots-and-pans IDM, but its production style is very experimental, a bit like what you'd find on Mille Plateaux or City Centre Offices."
Barker adds: "It seems like all these things that got us excited as kids have completely sailed by and now there's a generation that never got into that."
Looking forward, Barker can see Leisure System's range of operations continuing to expand. "I don't even particularly view Leisure System as a traditional label anyway," he says. "I could totally imagine in, say, three or four years, that it would be sort of a fluid management company that's savvy in introducing artists in new ways, whatever those may be."
It's tempting to see Leisure System as a force of good in electronic music, one devoted to supporting brilliant misfits with the understanding that if they don't, nobody else will. "Again and again, we've seen this music sidelined in favour of something that's easier to understand and more commercially viable," says Beckett. "And that's a decision labels and promoters have to make, because you only see this stuff work quite rarely. So there's definitely an element of sticking up for this music, making a stand and being like, 'No, these acts are good, we need more of this stuff, they should be playing clubs just as much as that DJ and that DJ, because they are really fucking good.'"
The demo-listening process is essential to this egalitarian philosophy, and it seems to have a sacred place within the Leisure System operation. "We all have other jobs in the music industry, we have hectic lives," says Dahlgren. "We listen to stuff in the office all day, but it's so important to hear music in a different situation, to come out of that space, you know, just sit down and really hear it."
"Basically we all get really stoned and drink loads of whiskey and listen to music," Beckett says.
"And don't forget the coke," Dahlgren says, laughing.
Beckett: "There are prostitutes, too, of course."
Barker: "That's how Michail got the job, actually. We ordered a Russian callboy and got Michail. And he stuck around."
So what do they look for in the demos? "There's definitely a buzz in thinking, 'I really can't imagine any other label where this would fit,'" says Beckett. "There are some acts where we just passionately believe that we are the right place for them because they wouldn't fit anywhere else."
"That's when everything collides, so to speak," says Dahlgren. "But then there's a lot of times when it's kind of halfway there. That's when the discussion starts. But there are definitely those magic moments where we just know straight away. Everyone's sitting there thinking, 'This is good.' There's no talk."
Filesize: 177.5 MB
"Throughout Friday, the artists presented in this mix will reveal their involvement by posting the hashtag code #LSRLSD1 followed by #ID[track number] on their social networks. When the data becomes available, you can use this tag system to find the profiles of the artists you're interested in. (For example, to find the ID for track 7, simply search #LSRLSD1 #ID7.)" -Sam Barker