finn johannsen & gram – process part 257
In early 2004, I was occupied with the confusing and chaotic last stages of leaving my cozy and beloved seaside hometown Kiel up north for the bright lights of Berlin. My girlfriend was already there for a while, and I was more than happy to live with her again, but at the same time I was very sad to leave my family and friends behind for what was very likely to be a move for many years and a future uncertain. One of those said friends was the one who operates under the Gram moniker, a likeminded soul with whom I shared a lot of cultural interests and lasting experiences, and with whom I wholeheartedly clashed heads over what we could not agree upon in many nights of smart conversations (and more often than not far less smart amounts of drinks and cigarettes).
As it became clear to the both of us that we would not see each other as much again for quite a while, we were toying with the idea of recording a mix together. Some kind of final joint venture for the time being, a testament to both our friendship and music we both loved. At that point we had a few discussions about digital mixing devices, Ableton and the likes were on the upswing, and he was dabbling in a few track productions on the computer and was more open to the idea than me, as I was pretty determined to not abandon my turntables for this kind of progress. But then I felt it would be a good opportunity to try something I had not tried before, particularly instead of criticizing a method I only knew in theory. So we soon agreed to embark on the endeavour of a digital mix that should at best use what seemed to be the ultimate advantage over a setup with two turntables, meaning the use of multiple tracks and the ability to insert more sounds than you could with two records playing at once (no, I’m no turntablist). The problem was that we had no Ableton or similarly advanced mixing software at hand. Among the programs Gram knew his way around was Cakewalk, which at the time was already vintage, to say the least. We soon realized that the only way for us to do it was to combine analogue hardware with it. The idea for the source material was quickly agreed upon. I had vivid memories of the Acid House glory days, and I was miffed about how revivalists were mostly only clinging to 303 sounds whenever the genre came back into the spotlight, whereas I always experienced Acid House as template for parties that incorporated diverse styles, and not only one. So basically we wanted to use landmark records of that era with a bit of stylistic leeway left and right and play them like we felt they should be played: energetic, raw, the archetypical aural rollercoaster ride. With this in mind I browsed my record collection for the basic tracklist and also for what should be the added value of the enterprise: a whole plethora of acapellas, samples, vocal snippets from records and movies, sound detours, intros and outros, all coming from different angles. We narrowed down the selection to how much we would need to match the typical CD length, and to how much elements we could inject into a track without drowning it, and then we chose a basic record and a basic tempo (Tyree’s “Acid Over”, which strangely then did not make it to the final tracklist later on) and I pre-mixed all in sync with it on two Technics MKs and we recorded each single track and snippet onto the computer afterwards. I don’t recall how many tracks of the program we could fill with all those recordings, but for me, who rarely used more than three channels on a mixer, it sure looked impressive. What also impressed me was the hours it already took to finish this first stage of the mix. And it was only preparation still.
When we then started to structure all the single components into a whole, it took way more time. For more than one month, we met several times a week and spent hours from early evening to early morning trying to work out the best sequence for our material that we felt we were capable of. I must add that I’m hardly a perfectionist and a studio boffin even less, but my collaborator was, and that fit like a glove with my enthusiasm for the idea and my many years of DJ experience. In fact, despite barely managing to complete more than one or two track sequences in several hours of work, it felt like we were already exploring the atoms of everything we used, and then splitting it into even smaller fractions, and it felt like a strange universe on its own. Frequently, we took a break, stepped back from the monitor and listened thoroughly to what we just did, and how it worked with what we did before, like a painter studied what ended up on the canvas (I’m not getting carried away). And it was like we’ve created a monster, too. Something that spiralled out of control. Something that seemed more out of reach in terms of finishing it with every little step we took. But then again, every small step, however long it took, seemed to lead to something we had not expected. New opportunities came to mind that led to the deletion of the ones not considered as good anymore. There were setbacks, detours, fresh and false starts, bad ideas. And there were leaps of faith, open sesames, sudden solutions, good ideas (I’m not getting carried away again). For the work on something as functional and purposeful as a recorded mix, it was pretty intense. When we finally stuck the outro to the last track, and gave the whole thing a final listening, we were surprised with how fresh and accomplished it sounded, and how little of all our efforts were apparent. We conceived artwork to complement the listening experience, and we were done with it. We were ultimately satisfied with the result. Of course anyone with enough skills could have come up with something equally or more engaging in realtime, thus sparing oneself the ridiculous amount of time we spent on it. But that was not the point. The point was to spend this ridiculous amount of time on it, together. Not caring if somebody would ever appreciate what and how we did it (and also secretly hoping somebody would). Not knowing if the dam we built would hold.
But it did. Time went by, and we are still very good friends, and still living in different cities. We never recorded something together again, but we sometimes speculate what it would have sounded like if we would have. I have never recorded a digital mix again, being too impatient and feeling too uncomfortable with anything else than two turntables. Gram, however, went on to record a few other fine mixes with the same dated setup (you can find them here). We both are still very proud of “Smileyville”. For us, it has stood the test of time, like the music it contains.
Words: Finn Johannsen. Download original CD Cover for ‘Smileyville’ here.
01. Armando – Confusion’s Revenge
02. Fast Eddie – Hip House
03. Phortune – Jiggerwatts
04. Phuture – Phuture Will Survive
05. Pierre’s Fantasy Club – Dream Girl (Wet Dream)
06. Ralphie Rosario – In the Night (Razz Mix)
07. Victor Romeo – You Can’t Fight My Love (‘The Razz’ Mix)
08. Armando – 151
09. Phuture – Acid Tracks
10. Mix Masters feat. M.C. Action – It’s About Time (Tyree Cooper Mix)
11. Mike ‘Hitman’ Wilson – Bango Acid
12. Cool House – Rock This Party Right (Martin’s Boogie Man Mix)
13. The Wee Papa Girl Rappers – Heat It Up (Detroit House Mix)
14. Jack Frost and the Circle Jerks – Cool & Dry
15. Jolly Roger – Acid Man (Original Version)
16. Children of the Night – It’s a Trip (Mike ‘Hitman’ Wilson’s Psychedelic Remix)
17. Nebula – Nebula 1
18. Bam Bam – Give It To Me (Original Version)
19. Pierre’s Phantasy Club – 20 Below
20. Phortune – String Free
21. Eon – Light Colour Sound (Club Mix)
22. Fast Eddie – Acid Thunder (Smooth Thunder)