Retro Fetishism: Gerd Janson's Tech-House Ode to Thomas Pynchon

Ahead of his date at The Warehouse Project this month, Running Back boss Gerd Janson talks Tuff City Kids, American culture, and cutting off his own hands

Feature by Daniel Jones | 03 Dec 2013
  • Gerd Janson

Gerd Janson must get up very early in the morning. How else can a guy simultaneously run one of the most consistent labels on the planet and hold down a residency at revered Frankfurt hotspot Robert Johnson, let alone continue to produce muscular house hammers as one half of Tuff City Kids? Not only that, he still finds time to pen in-depth discussions for prominent German mags like Spex and Groove, and to lend his encyclopaedic dance music knowledge to the Red Bull Music Academy every now and then. It's a mystery how this rangy approach does nothing to diminish the calibre of his output. We hate to speculate but there's a definite chance that he's keeping an identical twin on the d-low. There could even be a third Janson involved.

For somebody who remains active in so many elements of the industry, it’s quite strange to hear how quick the boss of Running Back is to downplay his musical credentials. "I'm not a musician," Janson says, speaking on the blower from his home in Lorsch. "I can't read or write music. Maybe I'm a nerd who isn't too nerdy. The people and artists who I hold in high regard have a definite musical ear; they can play an instrument, or they know chords and scales. I can only tell you what I like and what I don't like. A lot of DJs over-emphasise their importance or skill, when, in truth, anybody can do it. There should still be a hierarchy in that sense, especially when you look at people like Maurice Fulton or Morgan Geist. They're the type of guys who make you take a step back and really check yourself."

Despite Janson's confessed lack of musicality, Tuff City Kids – his project with good friend Phillip Lauer – have been flourishing in the studio. Recent EP Roby Tease sees the duo test their peak-time powers for Delsin with three tracks of bracing techno. "We started working together in 2008 following a remix request from Sonar Kollektiv," he recalls. "One thing led to another and, looking back, the original 12″s that we've put out in the past two years are by-products from our time in the studio when we were making all those edits. Moving forwards, we have started making stuff completely from scratch.

"There's no question that, musically, Phillip is one hundred times more talented than I am, but we do have a good understanding. Basically, it's nice to sit behind him sipping coffee while he does most of the work! No, we do have a back-and-forth relationship, but I would say my skill is in arrangement. I have to keep his noodling in check, too; that's my other purpose," he chuckles.

Given Janson's natural modesty and easy-going mentality, it comes as no surprise that the majority of his collaborations frequently come to fruition. After all, it was teaming up with another old pal and "DJ mentor" Thomas Hammann that led to the acclaimed Liquid parties at Robert Johnson. "The ethos was always about not taking myself too seriously; that's the bottom line with any of my projects. I don't want to be a clown but I can appreciate a good joke. Thomas actually got approached by Ata – the first captain of the good ship Robert Johnson – and asked me to come along with him. We've been part of the family ever since."

Over the past 15 years, the converted rowing club, located in a no-frills suburb of Frankfurt, has steadily built a reputation as one of Western Europe's most intimate venues. "The club itself is a lot like pasta," he says. "The recipe is so simple and so tasty that when it's done right you can't ask for more. Of course, some people have different tastes and expect fireworks and bikinis from a night out. All Robert Johnson needs is a decent sound system, a wooden floor and a balcony to watch the sunrise. There's not a mechanical bull in sight."

It was actually Hammann – also an avid American footballer – who proposed the name Running Back in the formative days of the label. "I wanted to call it Penguin Records," reveals Janson, his voice carrying a slight tinge of disappointment, "but the book company proved to be an obstacle. I liked the idea of Running Back; it satisfies whatever kind of retro fetishism is the order of the day. American literature is a personal passion of mine, particularly authors like Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

"Whatever artistic path you choose to go down, whatever you create, you are always being influenced by other arts and cultures that you identify with. I don't expect people to go back and seek out all the references. It's not always a conscious process. I don't necessarily sit down to write a tech-house ode to Thomas Pynchon but often a name or phrase from one of his books appears in my mind and I will end up using that as an inspiration for a track, not fully realising until afterwards."

Of all his numerous creative endeavours, Running Back is certainly Janson's most fully-fledged brainchild. The imprint was initially intended as a vehicle for co-founder Thorsten Scheu's throwback Jersey-style alias, Second Life. Sporadic local releases followed until Scheu decided to throw in the towel, forcing Janson to reach out beyond his corner of Southwest Germany. "The first Mark E record was vital because it was the first time I worked with somebody outside of the Frankfurt-Heidelberg area. Following that, RB012 with Matt (Radio Slave) was the first time I really experienced selling a record. That's something you can never truly prepare for. I don't want to use the term 'hit' but it proved to be another massive step in the label's direction."

Since 2006, Running Back has rapidly compiled a roster of substantial quality, providing a stable excursion for a long list of heavyweight producers: Theo Parrish, Smallpeople, Move D and Todd Terje have all donated EPs to the cause thus far. The forthcoming Tiger & Woods LP will be the latest addition to the catalogue. "My instinct tells me to reach RB100 then stop," says Janson. "I'll always try to diversify but there will always be a club element to our music. Never say never, but I'd never release a noise record. When you're running an independent label you have every right to be selfish in that respect. Go with your gut as much as possible."

Ahead of his date at The Warehouse Project this month under the Bugged Out! banner, Janson is also keen to detail his fondness for Manchester's musical history. "The city has always been a destination of longing for club enthusiasts, right from the early Factory days, to the Electric Chair parties, to now. The Smiths were a big part of my teenage years too. I'll have to see what room Warehouse stick me in, but I imagine I won't be playing so much disco, B-sides and rarities. Although I can't stop myself from pulling the Justin Van Der Volgen edit of Alexander Robotnick's Undicidisco out of my bag right now. I might have to" – he pauses to formulate the right phrase – "cut my own hands off."

We sincerely hope that Gerd has all of his limbs attached when he touches down on Mancunian soil on 6 December. In the meantime, why not whack on his supreme Nachtdigital set, flick on your bedside strobe and give Gravity's Rainbow a go. 

Gerd Janson plays The Warehouse Project, Manchester, 6 Dec, and Plastic People, London, 3 Jan