Claas Brieler is one of the founding members of iconic Berlin collective, Jazzanova, who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. Their open-minded attitude is reflected in the output of their label Sonar Kolletiv, which has released music ranging from post-punk hero Jah Wooble, revered German house duo Âme and one of disco most cultish acts, Daniel Grau. We spoke to Brieler about a life spent with records, the difficulties of digging in the Internet age and the changing face of Berlin culture. His extensive answers are accompanied by some exclusive photos of his home collection (by Marc Räder) and a 100 minute, vinyl-only mix of “selections and connections” from across his vast collection that recalls the spirit of the 60s without being stuck in the past.
Jazzanova play Soul City at The Jazz Café on 19th May.
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
At my family home we had records, plus one day my mother took me to a record store, where I would get my first Beatles LP. My parents’ collection wasn’t a “collection“ but random records and I’ve been curious.
My outstanding favourite from these records was and has always been The Supremes’ Reflections album. Whenever I get to hear the intro sounds of the title track it really pushes my associations. ‘Up, Up and Away’ has probably been my favourite as a child, but I really love the entire album, because back then I also used to listen track by track to the entire album. Nowadays I know we had the dutch pressing of this album at home, that cover I’ll always remember. The Sound of the record for me is outstanding, still today!
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
I first listened to records from my parents’ record box, but tapes were present too. In my childhood we soon started to buy music on vinyl. At the age of 15 most of us had records. We would spend our monthly pocket money for records. Records were a great present for birthday parties. We even played a lot of 7 inches at parties in my early schooldays. Of course we had no collections, but back then music didn’t happen via bytes, it all happened on vinyl and tapes for us. I didn’t have another choice. Vinyl was the format for our music, and tapes made it possible to copy them or to carry music on your Walkman. I can’t say if I would be interested in vinyl if I grew up with MP3?
This was until the mid to late 80s, when the CD took over and a new discussion started. This now old discussion CD vs. vinyl has been finally overcome today, and vinyl still is a quality format! But all formats and carriers for music are right, I just sticked to vinyl all the time, that’s it. I never got used to any other format and there were plenty of cheap vinyl records left during CD and early Internet years. So I just carried on getting my music on vinyl, while my friends laughed at me showing their MP3 player with all the content and more in quantity that I have on vinyl. But it never has been that for me. Nowadays I catch my old friends with their various computers just having changed the same old datas from one hard disk to another. On vinyl my instinct to discover music stays vivid. I just love to see and touch these grooves. And the first moment you put the needle on a new promising record is simply incomparable.
Where do you store all your records and how do you file them?
Most of them at home, but I have a lot in Hamburg and some other places. The system to file records is of course individual. I seperated old and new music. Then into styles, within that into artists, labels, sub-genre, etc. I can never keep it strictly together like that, because it is moving, I’m working with it, I pull out records and put them back a minute later into another section, the system is also associative. For example I have a section for now and you’ll find new and old records there (-: In jazz, hip-hop or in techno I find my records quick, but I also have many cross-genre sounds that make it difficult sometimes where to file..
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
I go to all places that possibly have records for sale. On a fleamarket today I will maybe rush, because it became hard to find something there, as everybody seems to be into diggin records today. In earlier years I spent a lot of time on fleamarkets starting there when the gigs ended. A dirty wasted store will call my attention, a new store with a strong new selection will nowadys have my full interest. It is because diggin old records really has become hard. Wherever I am in this world, however far, forgotten and dusty the place is where I am digging, since at least 5 years all people will tell you about this and that price of the record in the mysterious Internet! It is really turning me down having been diggin for hours in the most filthy place and then the owner pulls out a half broken handy, but surprise surprise, there is an internet connection and it shows some heavy pricing for the records in your hands. The Internet is good and bad at the same time. More accessuble information but massively increasing prices. On the other hand side, why shouldn’t a rare record be expensive?!
Before it took many years and efforts to get all the informations on records you would search for then. Nowadays its all there, only one klick away. That’s great of course, but when it comes to old records, they simply disappeared since then, or they appear as antiques that everybody considers valuable. And when it comes to diggin, possibly many never experienced these rotten places with quantities of forgotten records, they just buy old records via klick or only get to know record stores with prepared selections. I buy on the Internet too, but still I can’t pass by any place that possibly has records for sale. I will go in, check the vibe, and the only question is, how long will I stay.
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
I get help everywhere and I need it! There is so much music out there, it’s simply impossible to make it on your own. If you are dedicated to a certain style, okay, then at some point you might know a lot about it. But then again, all the vinyl people I met, especially purists, that where dedicated to one genre all had many different records. Overall it is too diverse, there is many genre-crossings records, artists that reached different audiences and so on. So help is needed and influences necessary, and I get that from my trusted record stores, like Oye Records in Berlin, or my friend Andres Astorga DJ Trujillo who puts on this great unresistable track while we are DJing, or my friend Daniel Breuer introducing me to this strange german wave record, while we are browsing a collection for sale. It is very much about all this, by means influences, learning, discovery and you can’t do that without like-minded friends, teachers and communication!
If you like to meet an authentic Berlin record store owner, then go to Platten Pedro. He I would call a colourful character! There is many unsung heros in the vinyl world. Many collectors, many diggers, that never go to public with their records, but in fact they do possess these records that are en vogue and often these quiet people had them before some DJ that claims a discovery.
DJs and producers often talk about a number of records that never leave their bag. Do you have any records like this?
Only few records possibly stay for periods of 1-2 years in my box. Some electronic records do, still I often don’t play them, its just good to have them there. But records often come back after some years, so I put them into the box again, like my D&B records recently.
Is there a record (or records), which you’ve wanted to own but cannot afford or find in print anymore?
Aiiiijjjjhhhhh many many many…
You can buy records for a price, but I guess everybody is workin with his or her budget for spendings on records. Within that budget you value the records you would like to have, because it is of course many, too many at the same time. But thats the thing. Wouldn’t be the same, if one could buy all records at once. It is a process, it takes time, you go into the record thing, you discover, today you don’t buy this record for €15 10 years later you buy the same record for €150.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
Alone and together with my friends of course. In earlier years I have been on my own many times, changing this or that route, just to find another option for diggin records. I also found many other things on these explorations. One day I understood the saying “there is a always a record left for you“.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting process, with some many different genres and formats. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after? Is it about patience, diligence and a bit of luck or are you more methodical when you enter a record shop?
That’s a really difficult question. First of all I’m curious when I enter a record place. In earlier years I would go straight to my soul, jazz and hip-hop sections, therefore I missed things I look for today. Today I enter a record store with some experience, so I soon know if I should stay or not. If I stay, I will try to get the spirit of the place and maybe find bridges to my musical preferences. Today it is even more about discovering for me, I’m not searching for exclusives, but I search for it again and again. Of course you have to spend time on it. Sometimes you enter a place and find a killer within minutes, sometimes you spent hours and find nothing. You can’t catch fish, if you don’t go to the water.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging, esp. if you’re not familiar with something you pick up?
Covers are very important for me. The pure vinyl is only black grooves. The centre labels and a cover give the record a face. How a cover is made tells me about the people behind the music and the music itself. I bought records I couldn’t listen to in that situation, just because the cover promised something. But I left out rare records with great covers for cheap, when I had the chance to listen but didn’t like them enough then. Some of these of course I would like to own today.
Thanks for recording this mix for us. Where and how did you record it and what was the idea behind it?
I am working on mixes a lot of time, but I rarely publish them. Over the last years I have started to record tracks for mixes into Ableton, and that’s also how I recorded this one. Live mixes I do all the time in the club, but the live DJ situation suffers or benefits from the atmosphere of the gig. Mixing private and putting together a mix for listing is a completely different thing – more soundscape, less superficial beat. The experience from the club and live situation helps to select. The selection is varying, but still I would call it a Jazzmix.
I choose this concept of forming my personal genre chapters, and so I do with all the mixes that I’m preparing. The range is wide, so this mix you could devide in fusion, hardbop, world music elements and even techno. A soul mix, a house mix an ambient mix and some more I’m working on, and will release these on my Soundcloud during the summer. All tracks from this selection I have played in clubs, but many only 20 years ago, because I’ve mostly DJ electronic for some years.
The mix also includes some 1960’s feeling, very important for me. But I worry, the common reception for sounds measured in circles of time and decades, will now leave the 60s behind. 70s, but mostly 80s and lately 90s is the sound of today, when it comes to old records, but the 60s are so unbelievable pure, so direct, so true! Many of my 60’s records belong to the core of my musical world. Recording technics and everything else too changed since the 60s, but the sound of these records delivers more to me, more textures, or maybe it is more feeling?
To keep the mix contemporary but at the same time putting in elements of the 60s was the challenge for me. Of course I placed some rare vinyls that are hard to track down, or very little known, because it is a mix for diggers, right (-: But it isn’t about the super rare records all the time. The majority of real quality music has been issued on records that sold more copies, enough in quantities to get these records even today for not too expensive prices.
The mix consists of selections and connections. I decided in favour of listening pleasure, and a story to be told in this time frame. So I also choose some real classics, and a rare record needed to go, when a more common record made the better connection.
The more I go into music, the less I’m able to mix tracks. In the club I can do it, but in private, it becomes a real task. My conclusion is, that no track is mixable (beside electronic beat things). Each track stands on its own. To connect tracks is really difficult I think. Once harmonies come in, or tracks are from different ages, then it already becomes hard to mix them. And when I look very close at a tune I really like, then I would need to say, it can only be played alone, from beginning to end and afterwards I need a break before the next one. So I try to mix tracks that call and release me as a listener. The essence of mixing has been explored too little until today from my point of view. There is a lot of headroom and a lot to find out about it, and that’s what I really like to do.
We asked you to keep the tracklist secret to get listeners to dig deep for their IDs, but are there any standouts from the mix you’d like to shout out?
I finished the mix yesterday and today I’m somehow happy, that one of the last tunes I included is ‘Do you Believe’ by Billy Harper. It is a real heavyweight for me! My friend Trujillo helped me today and he said, that ‘Eden Celebration’ has been used by Jamie Tiller. Sorry for that, I didn’t check that before. Jamie and I know each other, hope he will forgive me. Also Eden Celebration is a personal classic for me. I bought two copies in the 90s – one to play out, and the other one for home. The home copy is recorded (-: I often did so with tunes I like to DJ, because DJing doesn’t really make the records better. When I found another copy of these records for cheap I bought it, and today I sometimes do so with new records that I really like.
A record I only found some time ago to my shame is ‘Palmen am Meer’. I live in Berlin and the label Amiga has allways been of interest for us. In the 90s I did the compilation Formation 60, including jazz tunes from the German Democratic Republic and their state owned label Amiga, but this record I didn’t know then. Maybe I’ve seen it back then, maybe I didn’t recognise it, maybe I had a different taste then? This is an interesting record and a wonderful tune that totally catches me today!
London and its music, culture and nightlife has changed irrevocably over the last decade; gentrification, huge rent rises, mass club closures. From someone who has lived in Berlin for a significant period, has the city endured similar changes, and if so, how has this effect it’s nightlife and culture?
Yes, Berlin goes through all this too. I came to West Berlin as a child, to visit my family here and I’ve lived here since 1992. Until around 2005 the changes weren’t so obvious. Since then it feels different. Berlin has a new look, it is more commercial compared to the subversive image and cultural output of this city that I’ve grown up with. Today it is chic to live here, most prominent beats are 120bpm. It became an investor’s playground, but at the same time, it’s maybe only on track again as capitol city.
Berlin still is an outstanding place for me, somehow it can’t be a German city. The changes are massive, but there is strong spirits here, I would tell it some kind of freedom we have here, plus so many new things. There certainly was a lot of free space in Berlin after the wall. Not so much in West-Berlin, but in East Berlin and everywhere in-between we had entire streets empty. 20 years of construction sites all over the city and simply more people here eliminated these free spaces step by step. This club needed to close down after 20 years because of new neighbours, for that place you can’t pay the constantly increasing rent anymore.
Yes, I have often been sad about the changes, I cry my tears for places that do only exist in memories now. But sometimes it also feels as if each and every generation just has to go through this; the loss, the manifestation of change. Then it is good to look around, because a new generation might have opened a nice place just around your corner. Many years ago a DJ friend of mine said to me “I’m not worrying that my school mates and friends don’t go out anymore. They are occupied with work, family or whatever. I’m happy, that there is a new generation here dancing to my music.“
My friend Nuwella said today “people who love music will always find each other“. That works, and last friday we had a great night somewhere in Wedding, Markus Tone from Wedding Soul and me DJing in a place I’ve never been to. A great concert by Nanghiti and her band, and a wonderful warm atmosphere with all people that were there. I live here in Berlin and played so many different clubs and locations over the years that don’t exist anymore, but as long as new places open up with people that are enthusiastic about their music, I will go out there and play my records.
With names like Yuseef Kammal and Kamasi Washington their has been a real jazz revival amongst young people, especially in the U.S and the U.K. Often characterized as a techno city, are the younger generation of Berliners into jazz and are their any upcoming German Jazz artists which demanded our attention?
Yes, jazz is strong again in Berlin. Many jazz venues in the city, a new jazz festival and many musicians that live here. The traditional jazz venues mostly located in West Berlin still exist, and many more underground places have been set up by musicians and young jazz heads. If you compare in quantity Berlin will be more an electronic city – records, clubs and producers. Still I wouldn’t call it a techno city, because soul is everywhere on the streets here. When I started to DJ in Berlin, we really were only a few, and the much more prominent techno DJs were smiling at us in our small yesterday clubs. Today all kinds of music are needed here, I can mix techno and jazz and the more crazy you go, the better.
Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2017 and beyond?
Fortunately there is some 2017 still remaining, because it is an intense year for me and I have many plans. Music productions with various projects are in the pipeline. I will release new labels and I’m inspired by a bigger project that I can’t whistle blow yet. With Jazzanova we celebrate our 20th anniversary, The Remix compilation (2006-2016) has just been released, and a new album will follow next year.
There is so many aspects in life, so many opportunities and roads to travel. I’m lucky with my experiences and I had the chance to learn about different things. Music has caught me from an early age on, then later it became my work and life setting. Music is influencing me so strong, that many years ago I would say jazz ruined my life! I will simply carry on, because as I see it know, there is hardly enough time in our lifes to really understand things and to listen to all the tunes that you would like to listen to.