Ata (“Robert Johnson”): “I think we do a good job and I love to come back there, every time”
The visit to Frankfurt and “Robert Johnson” is still on my bucket list. I can’t resist a club that even has a book published about it and is still running strong, not talking about everything else… For now Ata, the establisher of this living legend, is coming over to Vilnius – and is bringing his unique record collection with him. Before his gig at “Opium” we skyped about all things “Robert Johson” and other important items of Ata’s life. Here's a great b2b session of him and Gerd Janson to get you in the mood.
Hey Ata, how are you and how is Frankfurt?
Everything’s fine. I was in Lyon last week, everything’s good there as well. Our tour for the second ’Lifesaver' compilation will start soon.
Right after the gig in "Opium", right?
Yes, that’s right. We usually do an European tour with friends when we release a compilation. Just a couple of friends in each location, as we are well aware that a lot of European clubs don’t have big budgets. But of course in those who have bigger budgets more of us go and we have a lot of fun. By the way, my agent told me "Opium" is a cool club!
I sure hope so. How do you choose clubs for your tours? Do you like to visit the same places that you once played and liked?
Yes, sometimes. Magnet, my management, know that I am normally picky. I don’t like big clubs or places that are only dedicated to sell alcohol. I need good people, good soundsystem and a character. That’s more important for me than money or quantity of people. I have to decline a lot of offers because they are just not for me. I like small venues as there’s usually more intensity on the dancefloor.
Well, “Robert Johnson” is a small club too, right? Is it your favourite club in the world?
It’s 300-capacity, yeah. And it is my favourite club. It’s actually a problem. I have seen a lot of clubs and I’m always happy to come back home… Everything fits well there. The soundsystem, the balcony, the space, the wooden floor… I think we do a good job and I love to come back there, every time.
Do your travels inspire you to change or adapt something in the club?
No, never. Haha! From the beginning it’s well done. We had to change a DJ booth because it was too open before. It was too crazy! Everybody could touch you and the dancers were jumping and the needles were jumping too… That’s why made a proper DJ booth as it is today. You can dance in front of it but the needles don’t jump.
We also change some things once a year – we invite artists to arrange a new wallpaper or paint the walls, for example, right now it’s all white, as it was in the beginning. People like the changes as the atmosphere also changes a bit. And then again in one year…
What kind of clubs did you like before you opened “Robert Johnson”? Or maybe you didn’t like any and had to do one of your own..?
You’re right! In the beginning I was touring a lot in Europe and around, and I saw a lot of clubs and so many things in them I didn’t really like. The budget spent on the lights and not the sound, for example. There were only a few clubs I really liked. Rumba and The End in London, Lux in Lisbon – the latter is posh but I like the atmosphere, it’s really cool. I also like the small clubs in Japan or Switzerland… It used to be intense and family-like. But most of them are closed right now. Of course there are other clubs that I like or I think are ok, but not a single one can be compared to ours.
Tell me about your audience. How much of it is the regular crowd and how many are the techno tourists?
If you have a club in your own city for many years, you kind of don’t want to go there anymore, right? They come back after five years and still feel at home, so of course we love our local crowd. We do have a lot of techno tourists, but it’s fun. A lot of Italian or Dutch people, staying there and listening to Ricardo Villalobos – it’s good to have them on the dancefloor. It’s nothing like Berlin, of course, where you can’t hear German spoken at all. At “Robert Johnson”, the international audience is about 20-30%. If there’s a really big name, it can be up to 50%.
Talking about big names… About 10 years ago you started not announcing the lineups but instead posting the music of the artists that would play later that week or month. Then you switched back to the regular program announcements. What happened?
The problem was that everyone on the internet were guessing their own programmes and publishing them online. And they used to be wrong, most of the time. For example, people used to post a program with Magda on it, and I would be on the decks. People would come up to me and ask when she going to play, and she wasn’t! We of course couldn’t stop these imaginary programs, so we switched back.
In the end people always need to see the names before they pay the money, right?
Well, yes. But we have had a lot of good times with the underground house people, like Gerd Janson or Thomas Hammann. In their case, people were focused on the music. In the beginning we had amazing nights with them and 150 or 200 people, but after just sharing their mixes and not the names, 300 would show up.
So, it was great, in a way. But we had to change it because I’m not Magda! And once I was even Ali from Tiefschwarz. A guy came up to me and asked me whether I was Ali or Basti..! What..?
Haha! Well, I think it was a good international marketing tool because many people around the world found out about “Robert Johnson” when they read the news about you not publishing the lineups.
Ah, you say it was marketing? Good! But we have always been trying to do something new. As I told you before, every year we think of some kind of innovation. One year, for example, we had this program where clubbers would get a CD without a name on it, just a mix, and it was also fantastic. Then we did posters that people could take home with them, because we think we should give something back, like a response from us.
Let’s go back many years. Did you imagine it would be your lifelong occupation when you started your DJ career?
No. I like the idea to play music and I was always hunting for records, then I had a record shop called Delirium, and we had a label, also other things… But I never thought it would go on for so long.
I do have to do something different. It’s crazy to be 45 years old and to stay in the club with 20 year olds. It’s ok for now, but when I’m 50, like Sven Väth, I’m not sure I will like it. There are many other things to do, at least paralelly. I cook and I do interior design. I love the music, of course!
How did you start doing other things?
I had a big party with my friends, it was my birthday and I cooked for them and everybody was invited. I loved it and I understood I wanted to do more of that! It’s very similar to playing records. You take care of people, either with music or with food. It’s fantastic to see people coming together, communicating and having a good time. It’s even better than the club, sometimes, as it’s so loud on the dancefloor! You have to scream all the time. I prefer dancing and listening to music, not speaking in the club.
Do you still have some music that you also played in the beginning of your DJ career?
Yeah! Some italo disco and some other special things from the beginning of electronic music. Some 15 or 20 songs are always with me. Do you know ‘Spacer Woman’ by Charlie?
Of course…
This is one of my #1’s. I am never tired of it. I listen to it a lot! Also ‘Supernature’ by Cerrone, lots of disco stuff… I have to see that the dancefloor is ready to get some Italo sound, I can’t just throw it in, you know.
What are your other #1’s?
Well, I always like Kraftwerk. ‘Neon Light’, for example. This and ‘Libertango’ by Grace Jones. This is my other side. This is my enthusiasm for a special feeling in music, more romantic than happy.
Are you a better DJ now than 20 years ago?
Yes, of course.
What do you think about young people starting their careers right now? Is it a good time to become a DJ now?
It’s a hard time for DJs. It’s not even a good idea. Right now, you have to be a proper producer in order to have a chance as a DJ, too. People listen to tracks. I know a lot of great DJs, nerds of mixing, that have no bookings. It’s only about producing. It’s extremely hard to get bookings otherwise.
Do you like producing?
I like producing, sure, but I don’t like the computer. The way people sit in front of it and put stuff together… It’s not my cup of tea. I like machines and I love to make mixdowns on big mixing consoles… It’s not so easy as you need a lot of time for that. I only know a few producers that still do it. One of the best is Ricardo, of course. It’s the only way I would love to do a record session and cut a track afterwards. This is the oldschool way. But I don’t have time… The record label, the DJ career, the club and all the other things – I can’t do everything!
Is it hard to find a good team that you can trust and transfer some of your responsibilities to?
At “Robert Johnson”, it has always been a family business of sorts. Friends would bring friends and the team is really democratic. Every 6 weeks we have a meeting together where we discuss everything. It’s important that the people that work for you would get a good feeling. We go to concerts together and have dinner very often… As I’ve said before, you have to give back and then you get back.
How did you start your three labels, “Klang Elektronik”, “Ongaku” and “Playhouse”?
By that time Heiko Schäfer and me already had the recordshop, Delirium. Two guys came to us and gave us a tape. We listened to it and loved it. It was so, so good! We wanted other people to hear it. We started wandering what to do with it. There was never a plan to start a label – it just came to us. The two guys were ‘Acid Jesus’, or Jörn Elling Wuttke and Roman Flügel. Then other people started coming in – Ricardo and Isolée… More and more music was made and released.
What is the purpose of the “Live at Robert Johnson” label?
It’s concentrated on the people that live here. We wanted to give them a platform. Just a couple came from the outside. All of the others are the ones who reside here. Part of our family, really. And that’s the most important thing. You can’t have a proper communication via email. You have to spend time together.
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Could there be a better way to end the article than the legendary poster from the 13th birthday of “Robert Johnson”..? Nope.
D.D. 2004 - 2016
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