You'd be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at this. What about the somber pads and smooth kick drums we know and love? The kind of thing John Roberts, Efdemin and Pantha Du Prince, not to mention the founders themselves, do so well? But of course Lieske is right. Though most listeners home in on the melancholic deep house that has become the label's trademark, over the years Dial has offered up everything from left-field electronics to droning indie rock.
A few weeks earlier, at The Mathew Gallery in Berlin, Kersten and I had a similar conversation. The place was small and tucked away in an uncool part of the city. When I arrived, the door was unlocked and the room was empty, aside from a spiral of rocks on the floor and black-and-white photographs of grapes on the walls. After a moment, Kersten's unkempt mop popped out from behind a partition, completely horizontal. "Hi!! We're back here."
The narrow workspace where he sat was distinctly not an office—as I would be told more than once, Dial has no official headquarters. Sitting next to Kersten was Bianca Heuser, who works with him and Lieske on the label and the galleries. Conversation quickly turned to the non-existence of a Dial sound.
"From the very beginning we used to listen to, and also release, a lot of different things," Kersten said. "The label is not only focused on electronic music. From the very first compilation, Hamburgeins, there are these ambient tracks from Crossfade Entertainment, digital hardcore, even a kind of karaoke song," he said. "There's a, let's say, more experimental side of the label that gets overlooked—it's not written about in Wire or Pitchfork. For instance, I'm a big fan of Queens—End Times is one of my favorite records on the label." Queens is Scott Mou, a New York indie artist whose drifting guitar and mournful voice call to mind Grouper and Galaxie 500.
"We might even release a black metal record," Kersten said with a laugh. "If it's really cute black metal—why not?" As for Kersten, when he's not Lawrence, he plays in an avant-garde trio called Sky Walking, whose debut album came out last year on Rough Trade, the same indie powerhouse that's now home to Pantha Du Prince.
"It could turn into a spoken-word label, if that's where it needed to go," says Phillip Sollmann, AKA Efdemin, a Dial mainstay since the beginning. "There were years when they reissued punk stuff on vinyl. David had his spoken-word release, I had my ambient album. It just depends on what people are offering. To be honest, there have been some things over the years that I didn't understand at all. But that's part of it—it's challenging even the people who are closely involved."
Another thing you need to know about Dial is that, in the best way possible, it's totally unprofessional. Lieske and Kersten say the label is "not a big deal," and claim to put very little time into it. This is partly thanks to the fact that, since day one, they've had Kompakt looking after them. But it also reflects a passionate rejection of the conventional working lifestyle. When I asked Lieske how Dial actually works—who's responsible for what, how decisions are made, and so on—he became borderline indignant.
"This is what you have for questions?" he said. "Fine—you have a desk, telephone, laptop. You write emails to your distributor. Seriously, is this what you want to hear? It's so boring!"
He sighed and continued. "We've been doing this label for 15 years. We're working very informally. We don't have an office, we don't have any kind of hierarchies, we don't have any employees. We just don't care about that stuff, we only care about our music, and what our records look like, and if it's fun for us. That's the most important thing. We only do things that we enjoy, the rest we just totally don't care about."
After a moment, he added, "That's why I started to DJ: because I don't want to go to work."
"There was only one goal for Dial Records," Kersten told me, "which was that we shouldn't be a professional, A&R kind of label. When we started, it was just David and me, we both worked at some music companies—major industry stuff. And there we learned how not to run a label."
In lieu of conventional A&R, Dial draws from its group of friends. No one has ever appeared on the label without forging a long, lasting relationship with the core crew. As a result, Dial's catalog chronicles its founders' tastes and relationships—like "a diary," as Lieske put it.
"When people send us demos," Lieske said, "even if it's good music I'm always telling them, 'Hey, you don't want to work with us, because we're not professional! We're not gonna book your tour, we're not gonna write your sales reports, because we don't do that kind of stuff.' And that we can only say to our best friends. Because they know our work and they know exactly what they can get out of it."
Sollmann considers Dial "more of a platform" than a label per se. A group of friends have access to this platform, and if they want to use it, it's up to them to take care of the legwork. "When I wanted to push my productions more, when I wanted to make sure my music got a nice reception, I got myself more involved," he says.
This approach also worked for Hendrik Weber, whose records as Pantha Du Prince were among Dial's biggest hits. "Pantha wanted to become a star," Lieske said. "He said, 'OK, I'll do my records but I'm doing everything myself.' Giving the artist access to your system—this is the best scenario. If you want to get your record to everyone then go out and give it to them, because we're not going to beg. But you're free to do whatever you want: if you want to keep it really low key you can do that. But if you want to make it really big, you can do that, too. It's up to you."
Dial's sound and philosophy are both a product of Hamburg, where its principal members met in the late '90s. "I think that Hamburg is kind of a melancholic city," said Lieske. "It rains a lot, it's by the water—it made an impression on our general moods. We were dreamy and melancholic, but also like, angry in a way. Not really agreeing or being interested in what was happening around us."
Kersten and Lieske first met at an outdoor party called Sausage And Music—Kersten had organized it, Lieske was playing. They found they both shared a certain ambivalence about club music, or at least, where club music had ended up. "House was no longer underground in the late '90s," Kersten said. "We wanted to kind of bring it underground again, or at least get to listen to it in places we actually liked, rather than posh places."
"There was a lot of music going on in Hamburg, but there was something missing, which we brought to the city," Lieske told me. "And that's underground house music. It was much weirder, and much slower, and much more unhappy than the music that was popular at the time."
"In a way it was completely not techno, and that's what I liked," said Sollmann. "It was the same as Hendrik and me, we were into punk, drum & bass, all that shit at the same time, and were looking for people that felt the same. David and Peter were the main ones doing that in Hamburg."
This techno-not-techno angle gave Kersten and Lieske an angle at The Golden Pudel. At that point the small and grubby club had only one turntable and never hosted dance music events, which it's proprietors considered too bourgeois. "Ralf, the owner, his night Music For Our Children was all breakbeat, trip-hop, stuff from London, which was very cool back then," said Kersten. "They only knew house music from the posh end and they didn't like it. But we were like, 'C'mon, we're DJs, we wanna play…' And then at some point they got really into it, because of course historically house music was never fancy or posh."
And thus began Changing Weather, The Golden Pudel's first house night, which happened every Saturday for years with resident DJs Lawrence and Carsten Jost. Surrounded by anti-fascist flags in the club's rickety DJ booth—now complete with two turntables—Lieske and Kersten played all night, every Saturday, for years.
"It was not the typical crowd you meet in a club these days," says Sollmann. "It was very diverse, mostly people that had no contact with electronic music or techno but were totally absorbed, because it came from a different perspective. DJ-wise, I learned a lot from those nights. They were very, very good."
"It's intense to play at the same club every weekend," said Liekse. "You have to be inventive, you really have to know your shit. And at the time there really weren't even that many records we were interested in, so we had to research music for our own night. People would come by—Pantha, Efdemin—and they would be like, 'I just made this track, let's listen to it now!' And we'd be like 'Yeah let's just put it on.' And that was of course really important for the record label."
Riding the momentum of Changing Weather, Kersten and Lieske launched Dial with Paul Kominek, AKA Pawel, who dropped out after a year or so. The first record was Hamburgereins, a compilation co-released by another Hamburg institution, Ladomat 2000. Next was Lieske's shadowy debut album, You Don't Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows. And from there began the flood of 12-inches that earned Dial its reputation, first from the core artists—Lawrence, Efdemin, Pantha Du Prince, Pawel—and later from the likes of John Roberts and Roman Flügel.
Soon Kersten and Lieske were getting offers for other gigs around Europe. Most weekends they'd play another city on Friday, then come home to play the Pudel on Saturday. The two of them lived together in a number of apartments around Hamburg, and did very little aside from DJ and put out records.
"Pete and I were playing all the time, and in between just hanging out, literally just looking out the window," Lieske said. "Sometimes I would make music, but for, like, 20 minutes, tops. And then play video games. There was this lethargy that made it really joyful. It was like, 'OK, I played twice this weekend, now I'm definitely not doing anything until Wednesday.'"
That lasted until about 2005, when Lieske moved to Berlin. Since then, Dial's core crew has spread out around Europe and the world, and the label itself has expanded, too. In 2007, Pantha Du Prince's This Bliss and Efdemin's self-titled album brought Dial to a new level, both presenting a beautifully delicate and emotive sound that secured the label as one electronic music's best (it was RA's favorite of that year). Next came John Roberts, the first outsider to join this insular family.
"This was through a very good friend, Romy, she was our booker back then," Kersten told me. "She came back from New York one day with the demo by John and she was like, 'Ahh, I met this super cute boy, he's a really awesome guy and has this really, really great music, just have a listen.' Hendrik and David and I listened one night, like really late at night. Obviously we loved it, and we ended up writing John a super freaky email. So then we met John and became friends."
"I really wanted to keep that letter and get it framed," Roberts told me. "It sounds funny, but it was a life-changing thing for me. It was also one of the nicest letters anyone has ever written me. And when we all met in person, we had a lot of similarities psychologically. It led to some amazing friendships over time. I'm not sure how they were able to gather that through my music but I'm glad they gave it a try."
Most additions to the Dial family have gone like this. Queens, for instance, invited Lieske and Kersten to New York one year after Movement in Detroit. Lieske recently told the story to Inverted Audio: "I was already really down and grumpy. I think Scott thought I was a total bitch and whenever this happens it's usually just because I'm hungry, so Scott took me to a diner and got me a big burger. I ended up changing my flight and staying at his place for three weeks, even though I was meant to be there for a single night."
The two spent a lot of time listening to black metal, and Mou showed Lieske some music he'd made with Panda Bear under the name Jane. "I invited him right then to produce for Dial. It took him almost ten years to finish but the record is amazing and I am so proud and happy to release it."
The latest addition to the family is DJ Richard, whose debut album is coming out on Dial near the end of 2015. As Heuser told me in Berlin, he, too, came into the fold serendipitously. "I met him when I was in New York, like three years ago, then he moved to Berlin" she said. "When he and Peter [Kersten] met, it was just clear. Everyone immediately got along so well, there were so many mutual interests there, it was just obvious he would have to do something on Dial. And he's a fan of the label so he was pretty excited about it."
The occasional influx of new family members is part of what gives Dial it's longevity. "If you listen to the label now, it has a new twist—David brought in a lot of new people he met in the States," says Sollmann. "And Bianca is younger than all of us, she brings a different perspective. I'm very thankful for that, it keeps the label from getting stale. No offense to me!"
Ironic as it may seem, Dial's distaste for conventional business practice is also part of what keeps it alive. With no deadlines or expectations, no one gets stressed, no one gets burnt out. "We only do things because we want to do them, because we're excited about them," Lieske said. "That's also why we all work together in such a nice way: nobody gets forced to do anything. We never schedule records, we never have a plan. If somebody has a record for us, they'll be like, 'Hey, I have this record, I wanna release it.' But we never sit down and say, 'Efdemin, November 2016,' because that doesn't make any sense. That just puts pressure on us, the artists and it puts pressure on everyone."
"It's just always been really easy, never felt business-y in any way, and that's probably why we've kept working together for so long," Roberts said. "Before I started talking with them, a few other labels had approached me and they were always saying things like, 'Oh we really like this song, but maybe you can cut off the first minute, we don't like this one sound,' and I always immediately thought, 'Ugh, that's not a good feeling, I spent a lot of time with this and did it this way for a reason.' The guys from Dial have never questioned anything. For them you're presenting something that's an extension of yourself, and they're happy to release it in that form. For an artist, that's really, really important."
It's easy to imagine Dial carrying on like this for years—releasing music when they have something they love, hanging back the rest of the time, only doing whatever feels 100% natural. Kersten describes Dial as coming "in waves," which rings true. "It fades out and comes back," as Sollmann put it. "Same with the group of friends—for a period you see them all the time, then you don't see them for a while. It comes and goes naturally. And that's why it lasts."