Johannes Debese, AKA Johnny D, is a part of this community—and perhaps its figurehead. With Oslo as his home label, further releases on 8bit, Safari Electronique and (soon) Cécille, the 28-year-old has managed to craft a unique sound that has captured the attention of DJs across the world. His loop-orientated music creates an impulsive rhythm section which eschews extraordinary effects in favour of simple percussive elements and vocal samples. It's a formula that saw his track, "Orbitalife," take over the RA charts and further soften the already flimsy stylistic boundaries between house and techno.
But that's not the only thing Johnny D is stuck in between. As a son of Eritrean parents, he neither has an Eritrean passport nor a German one. His status is that of resident alien, and it's often causes him issues at foreign airports—and is the reason that he's never played in the United Kingdom. Fortunately for RA's Philipp Cerfontaine, Cologne is in Germany—so there were no problems in sitting down with the producer to talk shop late last month in advance of his debut US performances and his upcoming appearance at Timewarp Holland.
How many people are you currently living with?
I'm all alone! [laughs] Wait, that's not right. I live together with my little daughter, but only on a weekly basis. I team up with my ex-girlfriend.
I'm asking because you were living together with Nekes, the man behind Oslo along with Federico Molinari.
Exactly! We shared a flat, but it was more kind of a living room open to everyone. There was a lot of coming and going. During this time, the idea for the Zoo Club emerged. It was our club night every Friday which was hosted by Nekes, Federico Molinari and Ray Okpara and myself. I'm sure you can imagine how the flat looked following those nights.
For sure! At some point the people even started ringing the bell, because they thought that we were always where the official afterparty would take place. Go figure! But it was a good time because we had the opportunity to get a taste of what it's like to organize events. You learn very quickly that it's quite tough booking someone, and there are lots of things that go along with it. Now that I'm on the other side—that it's me being booked—I see the whole thing from a different angle due to my experience.
You got to house and techno in a very roundabout way.
I started DJing when I was 13. At that time I was totally into drum & bass, but after several years I was really bored of the scene. Many of my friends around that time were listening to hip-hop, so I adjusted my style and started playing more and more of that. And by the end of the '90s I discovered house and techno, which I already knew but never really was interested in. You see, I've been through it all. For a short period I even played really hard techno, often in front of a horde of tattooed guys stripped to the waist.
That implies that at some point you could also leave behind the music you're currently producing.
Yes, that's possible. But I'm not sure. House and techno are the best dance music right now. I think I won't stop doing this kind of music abruptly. It's more likely that I'll go with the flow and change personally when the genre changes.
At what point did you move from spinning to producing music?
Actually, I've wanted to do music all of my life. When I went to primary school, I was already mixing music in my mind even though I didn't know how to. My first contact was a DJ set at Mayday I watched on television. It really impressed me, and my brother told me: "It isn't that difficult. All you need are two turntables." But even then I wanted to create my own music. When I was 16 I bought my first Atari. Afterwards I tried to save up money for new equipment but something always got in the way. In 2002 I had a little money which I got through my student loan and I said to myself: "Either you pay the rent for the last three months or you finally start producing before it's too late." I bought myself a PC and shortly after that I got thrown out of my flat. Producing music was so much fun to me that I wasn't keen on spinning all of a sudden. I could imagine a life without spinning, but not one without making music.
Now you're mostly booked as a live act.
Yes, although I happened to get there by chance. I started playing live for no particular reason in 2006. I had enough tracks so I tried it for the first time at our Mannheim party. It worked out perfectly. However I'm still not completely happy with it. I'd like to arrange the live act more extensively, but I just don't have the time at the moment. The ideas are in my mind, but I don't know how to realize them exactly. That's a good thing, though, because it keeps you working harder. There is so much I could do better.
What's one of these ideas?
I'd love to work together with real musicians. In a way, I'm imagining a live act with an orchestra. Of course, that would take a lot of money. That's why it hasn't been fulfilled yet.
In March your third record "Orbitalife" was released. Shortly afterwards it was found in nearly every DJ chart and played in clubs from London to Rimini. Since then the frequency of your bookings soared and remix requests have piled up. How did you personally experience this period?
I'm still in the middle of it. Since then time flew by but, of course, I'm very happy. Especially the fact that I'm able to earn money with the music. We made some money by organising the Zoo parties, sure, but it barely was enough to survive. Apart from that, the success has given me confidence. I wasn't sure for a long time if this was the right music I was doing. When the first record, "Manipulation," was released I still went to university. "Orbitalife" circulated through the hands of most DJs before it officially got released and from their reactions I noticed: "OK, this one really could bang in." But the bottom line is that I never expected something like this. Since then, I've been booked every weekend.
Well, a big disadvantage is I don't have time to make music. To be constantly on the go, sometimes four days non-stop, with a one-and-a-half year-old daughter waiting at home—that's tough. I'm going to take some time off next February and March. At the moment I'm realizing that I need to organise myself. The sudden success really took me by surprise.
What's your personal record of the year?
Uff, that's not easily answered. Actually I was completely focused on the live act, so I didn't get around listening to a lot of records. Furthermore I didn't have access to the internet for four months, which really was a complete catastrophe. I wasn't able to order records and I only made it to Freebase [a famous Frankfurt record store] once a month. Personally speaking "Orbitalife" is, of course, my record of the year. [laughs]
It's funny because "Orbitalife" was never intended to be released. It only served as a changeover in your live set.
That's right. It wasn't a track at all. I thought to myself: "Vocals! Vocals are what's missing," so I quickly recorded them by myself. Funnily enough people liked exactly this part of the live recording. So we decided to release the passage as a track. You see: It was anything but planned.
House music underwent a striking revival the last two years. Do you think your success stands in connection with the comeback?
For sure! "Orbitalife" was released at the peak of the house revival—which wasn't intended at all by the way. When we were doing the Zoo Club party, I also produced minimal tracks but at some point the whole monotone clatter was done for me. Everything sounded the same. I started missing the more house-y tunes when buying records, so I started producing in this direction. I have to admit that I'm a bit bored now by a lot of new house records. Too much has been copied from the past instead of taking only smaller elements of the old stuff in order to create something new with it.
When I say Amsterdam, what comes to your mind?
Hmh, a lot! [laughs] I really enjoy being there due to the many friendships I have with members of the Remote Area crew, like Lauhaus or Boris Werner. We get along very well and have a very similar philosophy sound-wise.
What does that mean?
The house-y basis of each track is what marks our sound. Everything can be enjoyed in a very laidback way, it doesn't contain excessive effects. I think this type of music is often way too prompting towards the crowd: "Now you have to dance! Now you have to scream!"
So you're pursuing a more subtle approach?
Yes, exactly. The ecstasy is provoked by the groovy beat, not by the use of any super effects. But, then again, who knows what it'll be like in two or three years? Maybe then nobody will want to hear this groove anymore.
Top photo credit: Oleg aka Xtraboy