From grunge kid to life after running Ostgut Ton: In Conversation with Nick Höppner

Sitting in the Ostgut offices, above the illustrious Berghain, Nick Höppner recalls when he would come into work at the label to find the party still going on in the bowels of the building beneath. We wanted to get to grips with why he left the position at the top of Ostgut Ton, where it all started musically and what producing a debut album at the age of 42 feels like.

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The first thing to note is the ease with which conversation flows with Nick Höppner. His warm nature and lack of pretence is a welcome surprise given the extent of his past endeavours. We start with where his love of music sprang from. His dad was a soldier and had a little collection of marching music, which he “didn’t really get at all.” His mother had some Motown compilations and the first Boney M record, some Cat Stevens and Neil Diamond, “and that was about it”. The radio was usually on, and his mother had a few favourite songs, but it’s clear that his real interest in music didn’t start at home.

Growing up in a small, “super middle-of-the-road” German town by the sea, there was no underground music scene to immerse himself in, only the occasional hard rock or metal gig. From about fifteen, Höppner went through the usual teenage phases of the time, swinging back and forth through punk to goth, with a little help from The Cure and Joy Division. It was listening to a German radio station that replayed John Peel’s shows, that had the greatest effect on him though, where he “started to discover a lot of interesting music.” Even the Top 40 show, which shared the fortnightly rotation with Peel, unearthed leftfield hits like ‘Stakker Humanoid‘ – “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”

As a “proper indie, grunge kid” in his late teens, Höppner was spending more time in Hamburg, the nearest big city, discovering hip-hop and listening to LPs like Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. At home, his friends weren’t all that into the music he listened to, making his time in Hamburg was hugely influential and allowed him to check out the music in clubs and dive in a little deeper.

His forays into DJing were rather shaky at first, using a consumer CD player and a very slightly pitchable record player. On trying to make a beat-matched mix, going one way he could just about manage it, “but on the way back I’d have to wait for a breakdown” in order to get a good result. Around the same time, Egalbar in Hamburg gave him and two friends the chance to play out for the first time. “We were paid in booze and we got hideously drunk together and played each other our favourite music.”

Fast-forward five or six years, to 2001, and Höppner had moved to Berlin as editor of Groove Magazine. He speaks of that time being a “music industry concentration process” with mass migration towards Berlin. One of his co-workers, Thilo, was also involved in the old Ostgut club, advising the management on bookings. Seeing Höppner play at a Groove event in the garden of the old Ostgut, one of the owners invited him back a month later, then offered him a residency.

Our conversation then turned to the beginnings of the Ostgut Ton label, of which Höppner spoke very warmly. With the plan originally being for them to only release mix CDs, after Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann approached the new club’s owners with their track ‘Dawning‘, that became the first 12”. “I didn’t have any training in how to run a business” but fortunately it wasn’t the main income for anyone involved and Höppner had the time to learn on the job; something that he is grateful for today.

It struck me that the aesthetic of the club, the label and its flyers were extremely linked, and it was perhaps this point that led on to Höppner suggesting that something “connects” all the O-Ton releases. It does seem that design is a really integral part – with Höppner’s debut album Folk being no exception. The artwork is made by Frank Bubenzer, a friend of his wife, using a technique called “Photoshop For The Poor,” where several copies of the same magazine or picture are used and human beings are notably absent.

the artwork for Höppner's album - Folk

Album artwork for Folk LP

Starting the album was a natural step for Höppner as he left the top job at O-Ton to focus on his newborn twins. It was only once he had left that he realised quite how much pressure it put on him, and that parting ways was the right decision. This free time now is filled with time in the studio, which he shares with “gear sluts” Andy Baumecker and Sam Barker, (a.k.a Barker & Baumecker). By contrast Höppner is far less “hardware focused”. “I write my music in the box and I use Ableton. It is essential for what I do.” Two synths that he is most fond of, which also feature heavily on Folk, are the Oberheim Matrix 100 (a 19-inch rack with 1,000 presets) and the Yamaha DX200, alongside the “essential” Roland RE-201 Space Echo.

So why has it taken him until 42 to release a debut album, when some of his peers almost half his age are attempting the same? It seems that the incentive was never there until recently. Somewhat surprising for such a long and distinguished career in music, it didn’t come together through collecting material over the years. Rather, he started with a blank canvas once he decided to take the plunge. The catalyst was the birth of his twins, with his father’s death stoking the creative process. Höppner wanted that goal and a deadline, liking the process to fishing: “you have to be there, throw your rod in the water and wait for ideas to bite.” With time to work on an album presenting itself, and “only 24 hours in the day,” this was the earliest that an album was even conceived.

The road to its release was a little longer than anticipated however, having finished the tracks before Christmas of 2014. The mixouts were done by Matthew Styles and it was mastered in early November, only to be delayed by the perennial, major label-induced pressing plant delays. Returning to the studio following the album’s completion wasn’t made any easier by a mission to quit smoking around the same time. “I never smoked in the studio, but I frequently went outside for a cigarette and I could still listen to the loop from inside the studio. Sometimes I would stay there for an hour and listen and contemplate the loop or the track I’d been working on.” So, returning to make a track for Berghain‘s 10-year anniversary is, Höppner admits, “a must” whether he’s smoking or not.

Turning the mirror on Folk, Höppner acknowledged it was one of his goals to make a “functional” album, allowing for the tracks to work at home or on the dancefloor.  The perfect Höppner track is one that gets that balance right, that “keeps you moving but doesn’t slap you in the face with ‘look at this, here are my synths!'”

Talking of current projects and the future, Höppner was, for the first time in our conversation, a little more unsure. “In the past, I always looked at jazz and soul as ‘old people music’ and ‘connoisseur music’. I never really liked that snobby element. Knowing about every fucking 7-inch and scratching the labels off, not showing what you’re mixing – I always hated that!” Höppner explained that he is currently trying to “close the gaps” in his jazz collection; no doubt shunning the snobbier approach in the same way that has characterised his conduct and approach thus far.

Before we said our goodbyes, I wanted to ask about his view on b2b DJing, which is becoming evermore popular as a tool for DJs and promoters to express their vision and style. “I enjoy it if I think the DJ that I’ll do it with is pretty flexible”, he smiles. But he’s only been listed to play b2b a handful of times. “I only did it properly once, last summer for Stop Making Sense with Gerd Janson. I just had to be a very sensitive and flexible DJ, so even if I was ego-tripping, I knew he would balance that.” On the other hand, he wouldn’t play out b2b with good friend, and Ostgut brother in arms, Ryan Elliott. “His approach to DJing is so different. I’m into long blends and letting the track speak for itself, but he never lets the track play for longer than a couple of minutes. Together we wouldn’t provide a good experience for the crowd,” he shrugs.

After a glittering career that most techno enthusiasts would envy, there are many things that could taint Höppner’s attitude and approach, making him aloof and disinterested in the smaller cogs that continue to turn around him. Quite the contrary, though. He seems a very grounded, worldly man, who had the self-awareness to leave the world’s leading techno label and the patience to wait til his fifth decade to release his debut album. It is a testament to why Höppner is as popular and relevant as he has ever been, and this really is a new beginning for him.

Folk LP is out now on Ostgut Ton. Stream the album in full from the Ostgut Soundcloud and buy from their website

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