For ItaloJohnson, Anonymity Is More Than a Gimmick
Ahead of their debut US show, the reclusive DJ trio agreed to a rare interview and deliver a scorching mix.
A quick Google Image search for the secretive trio ItaloJohnson will reveal three male DJs hiding their faces from the camera in every shot. Often, anonymous DJs (see: Marshmello) feel like a parody of masked underground legends like DJ Stingray, but ItaloJohnson don't quite fit the "gimmick" stereotype. The Berlin-based act don't wear masks, for starters, and don't have any social media to connect with their fans. Maintaining an air of mystery at all times, they let their finely-tuned tracks speak for themselves.
Since their first stamped 12", ITJ01 in 2010, the trio have made bubbling acid, deep and dubby chords, and minimal, techy beats into raw and emotive weapons. True to form, they leave their records untitled (save a catalog number), and tracks are only identifiable by the space between the grooves, or playful descriptions on their website: "The A-side is what it is," for example. They also don't officially release music online, although YouTube bootleggers have ripped their catalog for your streaming pleasure. The only way to identify their records is by squinting at a little handstamp in colored ink, or the catalog number in the record's runout. The rest is meant to be sorted out the dancefloor.
Now with their 11th release, ItaloJohnson have commissioned fresh interpretations of one of their classic tracks from 2013, "07A1"—a simple looping breakbeat with a brief but catchy vocal sample. They asked Jimmy Edgar and Robert Hood's Floorplan for a double dose of remixes, and this new release, cataloged as ITJRMX01, is the first time that ItaloJohnson have released anything on their label that wasn't done strictly by them.
On the A-side, Floorplan highlighted the vocal sample from the original. With a simple three-chord melody, it's lean and refined, and the techy groove packs a big punch. On the flip, Edgar dials up the drama with a tight looping bassline and towering drum fills. Working with Robert Hood and Jimmy Edgar was a no-brainer for the trio, Hood's minimal morphing trips and Edgar's shimmering, futuristic house were blueprints for ItaloJohnson's tight, no-frills techno.
Along with an exclusive mix featuring tracks from minimal pioneers like Daniel Bell, Ricardo Villalobos, and of course Robert Hood, two of ItaloJohnson's three members "R" and "M" gave us a rare glimpse into their heads during a Skype interview from their Berlin HQ. We talked about how to put out records without going broke, the pros and cons of "tool tracks," and the smoothest way to ask a DJ for guestlist.
THUMP: What's your approach towards making white label records and maintaining your anonymity as DJs?
M: This was kind of quite a natural development where we wanted to have the music out on vinyl with no bullshit, and it was like OK, how can we keep this kind of family feel and just be responsible for ourselves?
R: The only business aspect was that we were trying to sell as many records as possible so we're not paying on top of it. The feedback back then was not supposed to [be about getting] gigs or anything like that. So we pushed just put out white labels and stamp them ourselves. That worked really well for us. It still does.
Why do you leave all of your tracks untitled?
R: Because we're three people and have a really hard time to agreeing on one thing. It's almost like we're three brothers who are constantly ripping on each other and dragging in a different direction. So we decided not to have titles so we don't have to fight over them. That was the initial idea. It's functional in order to keep our relationship alive.
DJing has always had a certain tension.—ItaloJohnson
Is there ever any tension when the three of you play a set together? How do you work it out?
R: It's really simple. Either we're trying to be a bit democratic and reasonable about it, if two people are on one page and the other one isn't, then that person…
M: Needs to be forced. DJing has always had a certain tension.
R: Our style and how it works with each other is changing all the time. Sometimes it's more "tool" oriented, and a little bit deeper, and loopier and more repetitive, where music is like flowing into each other. Sometimes some of us have phases where are more track or song oriented.
The descriptor "tool tracks" gets thrown around a lot for a lot of loopier music that's really good and begging to be mixed, but not necessarily listened to on it's own. As your productions fit into that category, I wonder what you guys think of the idea of a tool track—is that positive, negative? And what does that distinction mean to you?
R: I think a tool track is something absolutely positive. I have no negative association with it. A tool track is not necessarily easy to mix, or it sounds good with something else. For me, a tool is also a track that creates tension because it's really minimal, repetitive and stripped down—you're waiting for something to happen. But you have to use this ingredient really wisely. And it should always be spontaneous.
How did you link up with Robert Hood for the Floorplan remix?
R: We made a list of remixers that we would like to have, and we wanted Robert Hood. Luckily, he knew about us, and it was really easily to set up. It's really a true-school Floorplan track. And it's so well-produced it almost has this really big radio mix down. It sounds good on every single sound system.
Why was he somebody that you had on your list?
R: His music from back then, and still, especially Robert Hood stuff, is really basic. And that has a really big influence on our music. Same with Daniel Bell/DBX or Baby Ford. All these people who make this trippy, stripped down music—this is where the three of us were originally coming from. But there were also many other people doing sound in this manner: stripped down, trippy, I wouldn't even say repetitive… trippiness, that's what it's all about.
You once said that 2016's ITJ10 was going to be your last one in this series. Why did you decide to keep going with it?
R: Yeah that's true. That was two years ago. But we said that ITJ10 was not the last in the series, but the last one that we're going to be stamping ourselves. It got a little bit out of hand with the stamping, because everyone is doing it, and it didn't feel special to us anymore. We decided to keep on doing it because it's cheaper. And we're kind of bailing on the plan to stop it.
M: A stamp is a stamp and a stamp is cool. And for that, I would keep stamping every fucking record.
R: I'm happy that we decided to keep doing it. That's more like an emotional decision in the end. We have ITJ11 coming out this year, and we have to come up with how to find new colors, because we ran out of colors. We want to have one remix EP out every year, next to our regular releases, and we hope this is going to work out. The philosophy behind that is that our music is definitely predestined to be remixed, so why not have other people turn on our source material?
My last question is an important one that I'm always curious to ask about: What's the best way to ask someone to put you on their guest list?
R: People are actually making asses out of themselves trying to get on a guest list, but I had someone asking me today, and he did it in the most charming way. He wrote in German, but I'll translate. It's for a party on Saturday that I'm promoting: "Do you still have guest list for the party on Saturday? If not, I'm coming anyways." That's the way to ask. Say "I'm coming anyways."
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ItaloJohnson will play their US debut with Daniel Bell at Schimanski in Brooklyn on May 5. Details here.
ItaloJohnson THUMP Mix Tracklist
01. Baby Ford & The Ifach Collective - 24hr
02. DBX - Baby Judy
03. DXC - Qua Dem
04. Stereo MC's - Good Feeling (Mr G's Turn On Dub) 05. Emmanuel Top - Say It Loud
06. Lost City Of Atlantis - The Maze
07. Ricardo Villalobos - Logohitz
08. Johnny Fiasco - Jack Da Bass
09. Baby Ford & The Ifach Collective - Ambo (Greenwich Dawn Mix) 10. ItaloJohnson - 07A1 (Floorplan Remix)
11. Cari Lekebusch - Return To Base 1
12. Jeroen Search - Metta
13. Robert Hood - Realm 1
14. Rhythim Is Rhythim - The Dance (Living Room Mix)