Since founding the celebrated Tigersushi imprint in 1999, Joakim has been a key figure for collectors, enthusiasts and admirers on the fringes of electronic music, especially those possessing an appreciation of an altogether more off-kilter sensibility. Whether specialising in disco, house, pop, techno, experimental or even jazz, few DJs won’t have encountered and more than likely, utterly rinsed one of Joakim’s vast, varied library of remixes and edits. Stretching into seven solid pages on Discogs, breakthrough highlights include wise and wonderful reinterpretations of Robyn, Tiga and Metronomy. He’s also a feted singer, songwriter and producer in his own right, with five complete LPs since his debut on Versatile Records, Fantomes, back in 2003.
Although true DJ superstardom has evaded Joakim (possibly for the creative good), he’s been a staple in clubs for nearly two decades. Still, despite his atmosphere crafting prowess in the booth and in the studio, his new compilation’, ‘Play Harder’, is arguably his first 100% dance record. Collecting a dozen releases under his ‘Cray76’ moniker, previously all only available on vinyl and in many cases, out of stock, it pays tribute to his love of the more direct, rough and tumble house and techno associated with early club culture, and the fearless sounds of Detroit, New York and Chicago. It is, in his own words, a tribute to “emancipation through the abolition of social norms, catharsis through dancing, ecstasy through sounds, transcendence through repetition. It’s about being alone and together at the same time. About utopia and hedonism. About the body and the soul.”
Now based in New York, where he runs the Crowdspacer studio, an elaborate favourite of artists including Actress and Charlotte Gainsbourg, he caught up with the Phantasy Forum to discuss twisting codes, being accidentally ahead of the curve and coming to terms with the inherent melancholy of rave culture.
It’s been nice catching up with the compilation, I missed almost all of these on record!
That’s the point! It was vinyl only, 500 maximum pressing, but most of it sold out.
How do you feel about opening the digital Pandora’s box and releasing these on a wider scale? Is that just necessary now?
It depends on the project. But with this, I felt I had a lot of material, so I thought it was a good time. A lot of people don’t understand what I do, so I’m always fighting to make it more clear, even though I also have a tendency to make things less so…
I feel that one of the strengths of your career is that you always seem to have done your own thing, no?
Yes, and you can always do something new, but it can also be frustrating when people don’t pay attention as they don’t understand. There’s so much music nowadays, and all these simple, very marketable ideas breakthrough, and I’m doing the opposite of that. So I still need to find a way to make the music I make heard. Also, I’ve been DJing for maybe twenty years, and still people think of me more of a producer. I constantly have to re-state things, and so I’ve attempted to do that in the club world. I started DJing before I was producing music, and I’ve always loved making club music, but I never managed to do it under my own name.
As you’ve observed, this is actually your first ‘100% dance’ record, although it doesn’t feel like it to me.
Yes, well I’ve done a lot of remixes, but this is the first that’s totally original. I’m mostly known for the remixes. And whenever I’m doing an album as Joakim, even when I try, it’s never going to be fully dancefloor effective. So I’ve created some context and a playground to do that.
Some of your best-known remixes stood out as they reference other genres, scenes and ideas. A lot of people expand their taste and style as they get older, but you have always been true to your wider influences. And now, in your early forties, you’re finally making ‘pure’ house and techno records. Why do you think you’ve gravitate back to what you call “the essentials”?
I think that’s my general interest in dance music. In the rough, raw and even naive sound of that dance music. I don’t like when it’s too precious or overproduced. The idea behind Crowdspacer and Cray76 is to make things fast with hardware. Kind of like doing it like the way it was made back in the day, but with a sense of how dance music is made now and those dynamics. So it’s trying to build a bridge between modern and old-school house and techno.
I discovered it pretty late. I didn’t discover that kind of music in raves, it was more of a bedroom discovery. My brothers were going to raves, and they’re younger than me.
That’s an interesting twist! It’s usually the older brother with the cool, influential record collection…
It was French Touch, especially Motobass. I think that was the first house record where I thought that this is actually interesting music.
Maybe being a French teenager, the music seemed less exciting or even exotic to you than it did to the rest of the world? French Touch is very, you know, French.
No, it’s not that. In the nineties, house music was not as big of a scene as it is now. So, you would think it was just music for the club. It was not something you would just listen to, or you would, if you were going to raves. But I wasn’t a part of that culture, so I was more focused on experimental music. But then, I heard Motobass and it kind of blew my mind. And around the same time, I read a review in the French version of NME about Larry Heard, and I also discovered that. So I started buying a lot of French house records, and that brought me to Chicago. All these French Touch guys were obsessed with Chicago. And the first time I went out was to Rex Club in Paris, where Daft Punk were running the night, they had invited DJ Sneak. And I heard filter house, and it blew my mind.
I’d recommend anyone getting into house music even now to listen to ‘Teachers’ by Daft Punk, which is basically a reading list of amazing artists to check out. For me, as a fifteen year old, that was like a gift, along with ‘Losing My Edge’ by LCD Soundsystem a little later on. What else did you then get into?
I went back in time to the more eighties, earlyish Detroit house. I went to Detroit in 2001 and bought some very cool records. I went with I:Cube and Gilbert. They were playing at DMF, perhaps the first or second one, and you could see all these Detroit legends play to not many people, and I went to amazing record shops.
By that point, you had begun Tigersushi, a website that evolved into a record label. I think it has a very interesting history, as a sort of Discogs before Discogs. You’ve said you founded it to capitalise on the “potential of the internet for music.” Nearly twenty years later, and I think it’s fair to say that potential has been capitalised, and then some… Does the online landscape look anything like you might have imagined in 1999?
When we started Tigersushi, we were just too early. What we wanted to do was basically, Spotify meets Discogs. And that’s what’s happening now. But even in 2000, we already wanted to do streaming, subscription and recommending connections between artists and records with algorithms. But back then, nobody wanted to do anything like that, nor did artists. Because it was Napster’s time.
Whereas now, people have worked out a way to monetise this stuff.
Kind of, but too late. When we went to see labels and bands and explained what we wanted to do, they all said no. Then years later, Apple did the business, and for me, it was just waiting for someone to do that business.
Was it frustrating at the time?
Yes, as we were just hitting a wall. So then we changed the angle, and Tigersushi became about radio and reviewing records, and then it became a label.
Have you got any ideas at the moment that I might be able to steal from you for future use?
(Laughs.) Ha, no, I’ve only been there once.
Another very good idea you did have was founding the Crowdspacer studio in New York, where you’ve worked with a really impressive range of very individual artists, from Actress to Charlotte Gainsbourg. What’s your role in the studio with those artists?
It depends. I’m not there most of the time. I have an assistant, and I might hang out producing stuff, but these days I’m doing a lot of mixing. You can do anything in the studio, from mixing to recording a band. I’m lucky to have so many nice, interesting people pass through.
After many years of petition and protest, New York’s government have just lifted the infamous ‘cabaret law’. Have you been able to see the effect of that yet?
Not really, because nobody cared. It was more of a symbolic thing. It would be a reason for the police if they really wanted to take a venue down, they could use that law, but I hadn’t heard of anyone getting in trouble for it for years. New York is very active at the moment. So many places have opened.
As well as running the studio, you’re still DJing.This record, at least, feels like something of a love letter to that culture and its evolution? Is it important for you to keep a foot in club and dance culture.
Yes! And I should do it more. Especially in New York. Everything happens when you go out and meet people. Suddenly there are ideas. I think the way people go out has changed a little bit. At least in New York and Paris, there’s not just one place that captures one scene. Now people can jump from one club to another, like ala carte! There’s so much more choice. I really love DJing, and clubs are a really inspiring and important place for me, and not just on a musical level. I always have ideas when I go to a club and listen to a good DJ. The level of the sound, the way the music interacts with the people, it’s so inspiring.
The title of the compilation is ‘Play Harder’. The DJ and producer Midland has just had a bunch of shirts printed up with that phrase on it, as a kind of takedown of people passive-aggressively shouting it towards him in the DJ booth over the years. I was wondering if this had similar origins?
Ah, really? Yes, it’s totally about that, it’s a pun, it’s a joke. And also, the artwork, which is paper. If those guys don’t hear that, they’ll hand you some paper with ‘Play Harder’ written on it, or something like that.
I suppose one of your bigger hits was ‘Forever Young’, from your 2011 record. I liked that at the time, but it resonates with me more and more as the years pass. There’s a kind of optimistic melancholy about it, and it struck me that your music has always had an interesting in the inevitable march of time…
Yes, it’s something I’ve been conscious of and worrying about since I was six years old. I have always been afraid of losing something. Integrity, passion… And when I was in my twenties, I thought people in their forties were cynical, boring people. And that’s what ‘Forever Young’ is about; Giving up and leading the boring life. So it’s something I always remind myself not to forget. What’s important to you, and how you can be the best person to yourself.
It’s difficult, especially when you’re so involved in culture, some of which inevitably begins to pass you by or you suddenly struggle to relate to. I really overuse that Harvey quote, “The good times are now.”
I think about this a lot. Knowing who you are. When you’re a DJ, and you’re at this kind of distance, it’s very melancholic. Maybe not for everyone, but that’s how I feel. There’s no melancholia where there’s no happiness or memory.
One of the tracks samples and references the contemporary dance theorist, Merce Cunningham. He talks about the freedom and the emotion of dance. Are you a fan of dance in the more classical context, and do you think you can apply his approach to our world?
No, I’m not too familiar with it. I’m familiar with classical music, and modern classical, minimalism and stuff. But I can’t say I’m a specialist, it’s just when I went looking for a name, I found this title he had for his piece, ‘Crowdspacer’, in the nineties. And for many reasons, that name resonated with me. The space in the club, the space between people and the idea of something computer generated. So I started to learn more about him, looked into his choreography and listened to interviews with him. And the sample from the lecture I used for Merce was interesting in a dance and club context. He’s not talking about that at all, but you can still find meaning in it, especially in the quote I’ve used a lot now: “Dancing is a visible action of life.” I think it’s super good, and why clubs are so important. They are a visible place.
If we assume that the personal is political, do you think clubbing and its associated hedonism is a political act. Or can it be?
In a way, it is somehow an act that is disconnected from everything, which is very rare. There’s not many places you can go or acts you can participate it that are that disconnected. I mean, clubs are big business now, but there’s still a part of it that doesn’t make sense. In an ideal world it’s a place of neutrality, with no social boundaries and pure joy. And that is very political. Experiencing things with that pure joy and being in control of your body.
You’ve said you like ‘twisting codes’. In the studio, and in your head, is your approach visceral, or more academic?
I always have a more visceral approach, but I admire producers like Barnt. For me, that is a super-academic approach to dance music. Focusing on one element of how dance music is made and then exploiting it to the maximum. And I don’t have enough focus, I need to play around with my machines, so it’s something more visceral. But, at the end of the day, we need to twist it a little bit. When you make club music, there are definitely rules. And it’s something I like about it. It’s so codified, but when you’re DJing for a crowd, it’s super interesting. And that’s why I’ve been doing it for twenty years. But to come back to your question, do I like deconstructed things? I really like Total Freedom, but that’s not house or techno, even if it’s still club music.
John Thorp, March 2018.
John Thorp, March 2018.