Over the last ten years, this German label became a cult favorite by releasing subtle, untitled 12-inches best suited to the "in-between" stages of the night. Will Lynch meets its main players, Lowtec and Even Tuell.
At the decks just then was Gunnar Wendel, AKA Kassem Mosse, who, it turned out, would be the only other Workshop artist on this radio showcase. Thanks to a combination of illness and travel mishaps, Willow, Ibrahim Alfa and the label's original founder, Lowtec, were not going to make it. Somehow this didn't seem surprising. Since it started ten years ago, Workshop has been an elusive operation, its records oblique and mostly untitled, its artists playing relatively rarely. Interviews with the key players are few and far between, and it's unusual for them to all be in the same place at the same time. This radio show, along with that night's party at Corsica Studios, was meant to be one such occasion. Everything was still on for the party, but the show would have to be an Even Tuell and Kassem Mosse special.
The situation was making Wendel tense. "I wasn't prepared to DJ much, I only have totally random music on this USB," he said, the words KASSEM_MOSSE_PRESS_SHOTS flying by on the CDJ as he scrolled. Soon, though, he found his groove, bobbing and weaving through spacey atmospheres and subtle rhythms, from Pearson Sound's "Raindrops" to Mark Ernestus's reworks of the Nigerian brass band Obadikah. Rollmann had a record ready, but Wendel asked if he could keep going with the low-key stuff for a bit. Rollmann threw up his palms in an exaggerated gesture. "In here, we have complete creative freedom!"
Darkness fell outside the shack. Passersby pressed their faces to the window, then jumped back when they saw the DJs just inches away. The door opened, letting in the scrape of skateboards, the smells from the square and, eventually, Nadine Moser, who books the Workshop guys and DJs as Resom. Then came Jimmy Asquith, the founder of Lobster Theremin and the host of that night's party at Corsica Studios, along with a few more friends and associates. The small crowd huddled in the booth's cozy glow. Rollmann played one of Workshop's most sought-after tracks: the untitled B2 from Workshop Special 02, a limited edition 12-inch by Even Tuell and Midnightopera. Wendel snickered for some reason, but Moser closed her eyes and grooved to it. "Such a hymn!"
When Kuhn showed up, straight from the airport, it was already time to leave. A busy evening lay ahead. First, Rollmann had a business meeting with a brand looking to collaborate on some tote bags—in addition to Workshop, he runs the clothing brand Airbag Craftworks. There was a quick soundcheck at Corsica Studios, then Rollmann and Kuhn broke off from the group to have dinner at Mamuśka, a Polish restaurant near the venue, which, though highly recommended, was a little on the boisterous side—packed and drunkenly loud, in that Friday-evening-in-London kind of way. Seeing them from across the room, no one would peg these bespectacled German 40-somethings for DJs playing the club down the road. They took their beers, sat in a corner, and harked back to Workshop's early days.
"A long, long way back in time…" Rollmann said, or more precisely, the early '90s. He'd had been into hip-hop, electro, mixtapes from his sister's boyfriends—"anything I could breakdance to." Kuhn was heavily into Joy Division and Depeche Mode. Then The Wall came down, and rave music swept in, with Leipzig as a regional hotspot for a scene that extended into the villages where they lived (and still live today).
"There was some great stuff in the countryside," Rollmann said, including a record shop housed in what used to be a chicken coop. "I was very, very impressed with the Leipzig scene in these early times. There was so much going on, it was a very active scene. Enthusiastic, high energy, but on an improvised level, the opposite of a commercially set up party."
"They had a lot of nice clubs, very, very good DJs," said Kuhn. "And the parties were often not so crowded, which was nice, actually."
"I remember some parties happening under a bridge in Connewitz," said Rollmann. "DJ Till was playing there, DJ Babn. The energy just came from people that were putting all their love and need for a nice celebration into these parties."
Most weekends, young people from the countryside would drive four or five hours to party in Berlin or Frankfurt, experiences that would feed into the scene back home. This kept them satisfied for a few years, but after a while an urge crept in. "At some point, we decided not only to consume but to put out there something of ourselves," Kuhn said.
"We were really young," said Rollmann. "18, 19. We were just searching for something different—special moments, special atmospheres. We experimented with everything that had to do with it. Planning parties, trying to bring people together who produced or played music that we loved. Being really proactive to create something that would make us happy, give us a feeling of, 'This is the right direction.'"
Kuhn cofounded R.A.N.D. Musik, a family of labels that included United States Of Mars, Science City, 3B and eventually his own Out To Lunch. He started making music with his friend Marvin Dash as Lowtec, which later became his solo project. From the beginning, Kuhn was creatively unhinged in a way you might not expect from someone so unassuming. Lowtec's first album, The Early Portrait, is a hall of mirrors that still sounds bold 20 years later. His solo records have always been unpredictable, some thick and heavy ("Elephant Running") others so wispy they're barely there (the "B2" on Workshop 06).
While Kuhn was getting his feet wet as a producer and a label manager, he was also studying to be an engineer—the first Lowtec records came out while he was in university. Rollmann, meanwhile, was getting Airbag Craftworks off the ground. The brand's first product was a DJ bag made from discarded air mattresses.
"In Germany, people throw away their old furniture twice a year," Kuhn explained. "They just put it on the sidewalk in front of their house. People walk around looking for whatever they need—metal, wood. For Paul David it was air mattresses, which were everywhere in the middle of the '90s. Today you couldn't do it."
Over the years Airbag Craftworks expanded into a clothing brand, responsible for Workshop's iconic T-shirts, as well as minor-classic prints like "vinyl kills the mp3 industry" and "good music I dance. no good music I not dance." But DJ bags remain at the center of its business, thanks to the elegantly minimalist Chateau Vinyl.
As they forged what turned out to be lifelong careers, Kuhn and Rollmann each kept a foot in the music world, and talked about one day doing a label together. Soon, an opportunity presented itself.
"Over time the labels on R.A.N.D. disappeared slowly," Kuhn said. "I thought it would be nice to have just one label which I could support 100%." He began Workshop as a casual side project. The first EP nicely set the tone: three cuts of peppy, tripped-out house, all untitled, all from Lowtec, with a rubber stamp showing what looks like the man on a New York City WALK signal. He had no way of distributing the record, which he'd pressed himself, so he got in touch with Hard Wax.
"I asked Torsten [the shop's buyer] if he'd like to distribute a new label, and he said, 'No, it's not possible, we don't really take new labels into our distribution, it's a small circle.' So I said, 'OK, I'll send you the tracks anyway, just so you have them.' I sent him the tracks and he wrote back a short email that said only, 'I will take 300.' It sold out very quickly, I ordered the next 300, and the next and the next and the next. And so it started, kind of by accident, really."
Rollmann teamed up with Kuhn a little later. Together, they drew up a loose blueprint for Workshop. "I remember we said, 'Each record should have one dance hit, something you want to play in a club,'" said Rollmann. "But maybe that means something unusual for us. I think we've both experienced very different kinds of club or rave situations. For instance, I remember at this Frankfurt club called XS, Claude Young was playing these really powerful deep house jams, there were maybe 50 or 60 people on the dance floor, and they were all pogoing, jumping around like crazy monkeys."
"Even just two weeks ago," said Kuhn, "I played with DJ Sprinkles, and she hypnotized the crowd over three hours with her own tunes at a super slow speed, very moody. It was amazing."
For these two, so-called "club tracks" will be inspired more by offbeat scenarios like these than by, say, the dance floor at a club like fabric or Panorama Bar. "Even with our party tracks," Rollmann said, "We're not just pulling out peak-time tunes. What we like most is really nice warm-up music, closing music, and something to fill the many in-between situations. There are so many different things that can happen, so many different levels a night might reach. Those in-between moments are really the most interesting."
Take, for instance, Workshop 02. The EP came from David Moufang, AKA Move D, whom Kuhn had known for years. In the '90s, Moufang had worked at Source Records, which put out Lowtec's first two albums. On Workshop 02, Moufang teamed up with one of his usual collaborators, Thomas Meinecke, who used the name DJ Laté. The pair delivered two oddball club grooves, plus what remains one of Workshop's finest tracks: "Computer Flop," a kind of quiet-storm house track that would be at home nowhere else.
The next record came from Gunnar Wendel, whom Kuhn had met around ten years earlier at one of the bridge parties in Connewitz, but had never really known until he'd sent in a demo for one of the Airbag Craftworks compilations. Workshop 03, Wendel's first solo record, expanded the dark side of the label's sound with three cuts of murky, post-apocalyptic house—two below 110 BPM, and one, the scuffed up, breaky "dance hit," abruptly dissolving into ambience about halfway through.
The Workshop sound expanded organically, encompassing LPs by Moufang's side projects (Reagenz and Magic Mountain High) and, at its most eclectic, a mini-compilation that connected the dots between catchy vocal house and a distorted cover of the reggae classic "Somebodies Baby," both by then little-known artists (Willow and Tapes). Every record was stamped, shipped and quickly snapped up by an ever-growing base of devoted followers.
All the while, Kuhn and Rollmann kept an easy pace. They never hunted for music, things came to them through friends and friends of friends. New releases came once or twice a year. "We had an idea of how many records was healthy to put out," Rollmann said. "I think every record needs its space." But it also had to do with something more concrete: Kuhn and Rollmann still had their day jobs, something neither of them intended to change.
"There are a few points here," Kuhn said at Mamuśka, leaning in closer as a group across the room launched into a rousing chorus of "happy birthday." "The first is, I love my job. I'm an engineer for an automotive development company. I have a normal life, a fully packed week."
"This beer is really affecting me," Rollmann burst in, pushing his pint across the table. "I can't drink it!"
"The second point," Kuhn said, "is I don't want to make a living from music, because then I have to travel every weekend to play in clubs, which I don't want. I only want to play with my friends, at parties or in clubs that I like. If I needed the money from gigs, I'd have to play all year. That could work, but I'd say 70% of the time it wouldn't really work. Musically, we're in a very narrow niche, there are not that many events that are right for us. And if we were using the label to help us get gigs, that would affect what we put out on the label. For instance, we might not put out a record like Willow, where only one of the tracks definitely works in the club."
"It's also a very nice balancing act," Rollmann said. "My daytime design job forces me to be focused, it can be very technical. Then, for a change, to be able to have a totally musical weekend, meeting old friends, traveling to fascinating places, having this huge inspiration. You bring that energy to your everyday life. It's very inspiring—the music, the traveling."
"I think for both of us the music is something very precious, very positive," said Kuhn. "We've never reached a state where it's annoying or we're thinking, 'Oh God, not again.' I'd rather cancel the whole thing than force ourselves to do it. The way we work is kind of securing us from an unhealthy acceleration." Or, in common parlance, from burning out.
Rollmann thought for a moment. "For me, I just need to be able to think, 'This is music that I honestly love, that I really like.' You have to be a fan, you know? A music fan. We were fans in the '90s, and today we are still, very simply, fans of this music."
Kuhn took on a sentimental air. "I order records from Hard Wax," he said, "and sometimes they put some extra records in there for me as a recommendation. When I get the package, it's such a nice moment to open it."
"Like 20 years ago."
"Exactly the same feeling, that warmth of putting on a new record, it's still a big thrill. And then I think, for our selection, if it's producing music, or DJing, we are still on this search that I mentioned before, searching for a certain sound, for certain resonances. When we play our music or produce our music, we're still on the search for this beautiful sound. You feel something, it's kind of a situation of being touched by something that you can't express in words."
"You can't define it," said Kuhn. "No one can."
"At the same time, we are trying to filter away all the ugly resonances, the sounds and effects that very often occur in fast-food records. Super-functional party tracks—sometimes you can enjoy this type of arrangement, sometimes you want more of a ravey sound. But there are some frequencies or sounds that we just can't accept, that we don't feel comfortable with. We don't play it; we don't buy it."
"We'd never take a record to the club that we're not 100% behind," said Kuhn.
Rollmann winced. "Let's say 99%."
This largely explains Workshop's je ne sais quoi. Most labels, good and bad, are on some level accessories to their artists' careers, their releases guided by an element of industry-minded strategy, most often as a publicity vehicle that can lead to more gigs. With Workshop, none of that comes into play. Its founders rely on it for nothing, which allows them to do anything. They release whatever they like, with no regard to how it's received or what effect it might have on their own careers, which, in any case, they don't think of as careers. As a bonus, this low-stakes approach has left their tastes untainted by the demands of the music industry, which they've only ever been on the outskirts of anyway.
There is, of course, a downside to championing a sound that, to use Kuhn's estimate, only works at about 30% of potential gigs. The night at Corsica bore this out somewhat. The main room opened with Lock Eyes, a DJ unrelated to Workshop, who, from the off, played as if the room were full, leaving Lowtec to deliver a live set that felt uncharacteristically fast and thumping. In the second room, Rollmann unfurled a lovely set of understated groovers while people slowly trickled in. But the crowd was young and drunk, and in a quiet moment someone shouted out, "YOU'RE PUTTING ME TO SLEEP!" (Soon he kicked things up a notch with Soundstream's "Live Goes On," earning a round of cheers and at least one Shazam.) Following him was Ibrahim Alfa, who mostly cleared the room with a set that was, for many, too raw and too fast for the occasion. The party eventually found its footing—Willow, Resom and Kassem Mosse all played with gusto for energized dance floors—but it was hard not to think that, even for a party firmly on the cool side of the gig spectrum, Workshop's vibe had proven elusive.
When the lights went on, though, it was all smiles among the loyal crew who'd stayed till the end. People shuffled around, unsure of what to do next. Kuhn, Rollmann and Wendel stood in the back of the room while Moser packed her records. Later that morning they'd fly to Bristol, where Lowtec and Kassem Mosse would play live together for the first time, a gig Moser told me about weeks later.
"It was out of this world," she said. "There were only maybe 80 people because the room was simply too small, but it was one of the moments when I felt so happy and thankful about the music they can create... I'm in love with the label, and I hope that they will never change their attitude!" She's not alone.
Lowtec delivers the sound of Workshop with a mix of unreleased tracks and recent favorites, plus a couple field recordings for good measure.
Interlude - unreleased
David Moufang & Thomas Meinecke - Houston - Forthcoming on Ominira
Willow - A1 - Workshop
Interlude - Forthcoming on Workshop
Field Recording Manchester Cab
Kassem Mosse - Forthcoming on Out To Lunch
Field Recording Melbourne Traffic Lights
D Man - Cream Test - Unreleased
D Man - Trail - Unreleased
Ibrahim Alfa - We Can Never Go Home... - Workshop
Intermezzo - Unreleased
Positronic Dreams - Forthcoming on Workshop
Km And Lt - Jam - Unreleased
Even Tuell - They Call Me Raver - Unreleased