This weeks exclusive mixtape and interview comes from Swedish born DJ and producer, plus proud co-record label owner of UFO Station Recordings, and Zodiac 44, Johanna Knutsson. For eight years Knutsson has been making dancefloors radiate and clubbers minds explode with her otherworldly, fun, techno infusions. Recently, KALTBLUT got to talk with this multi-talented Scandinavian lady of intrigue about why she decided to start her own label; what it means to be a female in the still largely male dominated world of djing, and her rather unusual route into the magic of techno music.
I worked on this mix for a really long time (I tend to put too much thought into things that should be fun but ends up in a stressful mess). I planned and prepared a bunch of records; but nothing came out reflecting what I wanted to get across to your readers that maybe never have heard of me or my music before. Then it happened all of a sudden; I was fckn furious when I recorded this mix (for different personal reasons) but in the end it was the best that could happen. Just letting go of all thoughts and letting the music take over, and in the end I had so much fun that Saturday afternoon by myself in my house that I managed to record it in one go finally. Enjoy!
KALTBLUT: How did you come up with the names for both of your record labels?
Johanna: So with one of the names, Zodiac 44, it was with my friend who I have the label with, Lucas, and he actually came up with that name, because we wanted to do a small release of all the star signs, so Zodiac signs.. And 44 was the area code in Rixdorf where we have our studio. And then ‘UFO station recordings’ came from when me and Hans (Hans Berg) set up in his studio in Rättvik. Mind you, this studio is just a tiny room but with so many machine’s and so many knobs, like, basically it looks like a spaceship from the inside that you can steer via all these machine’s. Plus, there is a lake really close by, and there is a conspiracy theory that there was a UFO station that crashed into this lake, and that since then there is a UFO station underneath this lake. And when Hans told me this story, I was like, haha… But there is actually a whole society that firmly believe this. So our label name is basically a play on that story.
KALTBLUT: What drove you to starting your own label?
Johanna: Being really tired of sending promos to labels, especially since Hans and I are really bad in the sense that neither of us has many contacts, and we don’t really know how this game works. We just do it because we think it’s really fun with music, so we decided it’s like having a business card but in the shape of having a record label. Instead of asking for someone’s permission and ok you get to distribute what you want. And now as a record label owner I think half of the time with the emails that you get sent, you read them but most of the time it’s really about how that person is writing to you. If it’s not correct then you won’t even listen to the promo, which is unfair… But now that I’m on the other side I totally understand why, yeah, it’s just nicer to do everything ourselves. Because then there is also no time pressure, and no one that can say, “hey, you have to release more music!” because we both have other jobs that involve music and we think we should be doing this because we like music and not because, oh we have to go and make an EP. As that takes all the fun out of it.
KALTBLUT: So from listening to some of your tracks, your music could be described as fun, spacey ethereal music. Would you agree with that, or not really?
Johanna: I’m so happy that you found it like that because that is exactly how I feel about it, and that’s a really great way to describe it. Sometimes I get asked this question of how would I describe my music, and I don’t know what to say, because I play techno, but techno for me isn’t what it is for another person. There’s so many different sub genres of it, and probably my techno isn’t techno enough for some people. It’s maybe a bit undefinable what I like, but the closest I can say is that for me it’s about the way a track is built up and the patterns that are made. For me, I want people when they are on the dance floor to turn around and look at each other and say, what the hell is going on?!? But in a positive way.
KALTBLUT: And so you are a DJ and a music producer… To the laymen out there how would you describe what you do?
Johanna: How would I describe what I do..? I would say that I am a DJ who had to learn how to make music in order to DJ better. Because you can’t just be a DJ anymore, you have to release your own stuff, or have a label, and you have to be like 10 things. That’s why I’m also happy to have met Hans because he has taught me, and he is a real producer, and I would say I am more like a copilot as he has been doing this for way longer than I have.
KALTBLUT: So take us through the process of what you do when you are coming up with a track…
Johanna: So basically, we work in Logic (which comes with hundreds and thousands of sounds on there). And what we do is if we look for a sound, like, a kick drum for example, and we find one we like then we can work on that sound to get our own take on it. Mostly, we are working with Hans’ actual modular synths or drum machines to make our tracks. But when I DJ I only play with already existing music pressed on vinyl records. And that’s essentially the difference between the two things that I do.
KALTBLUT: What attracted you to djing to begin with? And have you ever been in a band?
Johanna: I’ve never been in a band. But I was always into music, but as I came from a super tiny village called Tollarp with like, only 3,000 people, and I have older brothers – the oldest one was always into synth music, but he’s 16 years older than I am, so I was really little but that was like the only music I had to listen to, aside from the church. I went to sing choir for about 8 years, which was maybe a little bit too long… And the woman who played the organ in the church was my piano teacher for about 6 years. But I was never really interested in religion, so none of it really lasted very long for me. I would sing like prayers and stuff but I never really understood what was going on. I kinda liked going to church because of the music. And then when I applied for high school, I applied to a hairdresser school and a music school, and I got accepted into both of them. But I chose hairdressing in the end because I always wanted to have music as a hobby and leave it as something that is fun and not a job. Plus, I was never really that good at singing, or that good at piano. There were people that were much better than me. And then I didn’t really do anything with music for some time, I mean, I listened to it, but I was really focused on my job. Then when I got to be 23 I thought, I should do something with music now or it’s going to be too late. And then I went to Berlin and I found electronic music for the first time.. And I think it was only like, after 5 times in a club – because I was one of those people in the beginning that was really naive to DJing and what they actually do – that I then decided to try it for myself. I also used to cut hair with some electronic artists, and they were always telling me stories about how they travel etc, and it seemed like a really interesting way to meet people and experience stuff. And then once this interest in electronic/techno music was ignited in me, I don’t know, once you have it it just exploded.
KALTBLUT: What’s the difference between the club scene in Swedish and Berlin?
Johanna: Well, in Sweden we didn’t really have a scene that I knew of when I was a teenager… There was a techno club scene in the 90s but I was too young then and I missed out. So I was always going to concerts and stuff. But the first time I heard techo I was like fck, I’ve never heard anything like this before. In Sweden, this is 10 years ago now, I had no input into the scene, I didn’t know anyone in the scene at all, and I’d never heard of this techno stuff before. Maybe there were some really good clubs but I just didn’t know about them. And then when I finally discovered it and looked around more, I realized that I had missed out on so much. I mean, I lived right next door to Copenhagen and missed out on so many cool things because I just wasn’t interested. And then when I went to my first real club, I was like, I’ve never heard of this type of house, or this type of techno. I’ve only heard the bullshit that they play on radio. And then I got really into looking up music, and then one of my clients said to me, you know the way you talk about music you should try DJing… and I was like ok… What is DJing? (laughs) But, so, then I did it. And I actually made my own club night in Sweden as well, and I spent two years living back and forth between Berlin and Sweden.
KALTBLUT: What’s your favourite thing about being in front of a crowd while you’re djing?
Johanna: Oh, there’s nothing… (laughs) My favourite thing to do, really, is to make mixtapes or play on the radio, that’s how I like to share my music. I’m almost more happy if someone writes to me and says, I listened to your mix, and this and that is what I thought about it. Then when someone comes up to me in a club and says, “it’s so cool that you DJ…” This is a bit of a tough thing to say, but… I want to be good at mixing music. I don’t care so much about being a good performer in any other sense. If I would want to be a good performer, I would be in a band. I’m pretty uncomfortable on stage. I even threw up one time before I went on stage, and I have had blackouts because it was just too intense and I couldn’t really deal with it. And I have to say, as a woman I’ve noticed, if you do something bad, like you make a really big mistake while you’re up there DJing, it isn’t just you personally who made a mistake but you just let down all of your fellow sisters. But if a guy gets drunk, and has a poor performance, it’s just like, “oh poor guy he’s so drunk”, or haha “funny he’s so drunk”. And that’s just him personally, it’s not the whole brotherhood.
KALTBLUT: That’s an interesting point that you bring up, because my next question is about the DJ scene being quite male dominated and why you think that is?
Johanna: I don’t know, I think maybe that’s just a symptom of the bigger picture of how it still is in the world with male and female equality. And I also think that I have been lucky in some sense, cos with some of my male colleagues, I don’t think they ever thought that it would actually happen for me, that I would make it or just even continue on with DJing. So in the beginning they were very supportive of me. And now, they are still supportive but it’s much more silent way… Like, I can’t be booked somewhere because I am good, but rather it’s maybe because I know the right people? And I never do… I never know the right people. I never know anyone.
KALTBLUT: Wow, ok, so having said that is there anyone out there right now who is specifically pro booking female DJ’s?
Johanna: Well there’s this party at ://aboutblank called Mint for example. They always work with women, specifically. And I think in general it’s starting to become more equal because people will be called out on it if they are not booking gender equally. Because there is definitely not a lack of female DJ’s out there.
KALTBLUT: How hard was it then establishing yourself in the scene?
Johanna: Well it took 8 years to get where I am now. And I’ve had a lot of jobs and passions in the meantime but this is the only hobby that stuck for more than 3 months (laughs).
KALTBLUT: How did you make your start/where was your first show etc?
Johanna: I used to play at this bar with my friend. And after I had lived here in Berlin for about 3 months I went to this flea market and they had a DJ there. I asked this girl who was arranging the whole thing whether I could cut hair there the next time. She said yes and so I did. After that I became friends with her and she asked me what else do I do? I told her that I was DJing, or just learning how to DJ more. So she booked me and said that I could play at the next party that they have. So I did that, and when I was there her husband Lucas was there and we became really good friends, and she is actually a booking agent and ran this flea market on the side back then. Meeting her really has helped me a lot. I mean, I would still be playing for free forever if I hadn’t have met her.
KALTBLUT: How many records do you own?
Johanna: Maybe 2 or 3 thousand.
KALTBLUT: DJ sets at clubs can be quite long, how much of what you will play during your sets is pre-planned and how much is spontaneous?
Johanna: I always have at least the first 3 records planned. In general, I always have those 3 planned out for safety, but then I don’t necessarily always play everything that I’ve planned after that. Basically, what I do is I break it down into hours, so things that I think I should maybe play in the first hour, and then stuff that I think I should play in the second hour. But that usually never works out, but then at least I have that there, and it’s more like a security for myself so that I don’t blackout like I did that one time.
KALTBLUT: Do you have a theme in mind when you are making a set?
Johanna: Yeah, sort of… It’s more like an introduction of myself. In Sweden when I play the DJ sets are usually an hour and half or two hours, then there is no time to mess around. You can’t expect to have people standing around for 10 minutes listening to something with no beat, for example. Also, what I play will depend a bit on who was on before me. So, if the set before me was really pounding, then I will take it down a notch. But in Sweden because the sets are shorter, there is no time to take it down, I will rather just continue on from where the DJ before me left off. When people are drunk they wanna dance. But it will completely depend on the show and what type of show it is. In general, for me, I think it takes a lot of planning in order to be spontaneous.
KALTBLUT: Have you ever played one of your own tracks or records in a dj set?
Johanna: Yes, I’ve definitely sneaked it in before to see if anyone would notice or realise. But I notice that it usually works really well within the set, and that makes me feel a lot better about what we’re making musically. I mean, Hans and I know that what we make is good, but when no one is replying to your emails, but then you see a whole dance floor of people dancing and reacting to your homemade track, that’s really comforting.