A chat with John Osborn
In the late 1990s, John Osborn moved to Berlin in search of creative freedom and to escape London’s daily grind. The veteran DJ and producer arrived in the aftermath of the fall of the wall, when the city was heaving with electronic music and full of empty spaces in which creativity could thrive. From his first gig at WMF, on the bill alongside Dixon and Mitja Prinz, to his residency at Panorama Bar for Scuba’s famed SUB:STANCE parties, he quickly became a regular fixture in the local electronic music scene – and has remained there since.
Here, John tells us about his journey to Berlin, the evolution of his sound, and his current take on the clubbing ecosystem. In addition to the text interview, you can watch a video version below, produced by the talented Elsa Löwdin.
How did you first discover electronic music? Where did it all begin for you?
I suffered massive hay fever as a kid so I got very used to never going out during summer and spending all my time indoors. Obviously, when you spend a lot of time indoors you try and find things to do. As I was getting older and older, my interest in music grew and grew.
What were the first electronic albums that caught your attention?
It was a combination of two albums – Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, produced by Andrew Weatherall, and the first ever Underworld album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman – which basically ripped open my skull and said, ‘hi, this is electronic music’. Then around about that time some friends were going out in London. I think it was the end of summer so I could venture out again. I started going to a lot of Andrew Weatherall parties, pretty much became a massive fanboy of everything that he was doing. There was this big cyberpunk techno scene in the ‘90s and it was this feeling as though there was a revolution, a cultural change going on. I felt part of that and it was the first time in my life that I ever felt part of something. I started buying vinyl at the age of 16 and I knew that I wanted to go to college to get a student loan so I could buy my turnables. And that’s exactly what happened. In fact, I still owe the student loans company for those turntables.
When did you start to get more serious about music?
As soon as I got my turntables things got a whole lot more serious. I pretty much didn’t leave my apartment, my bedroom, in those three years while studying. I would spend all of my money and all of my time in record shops. I used those three years to learn that trade probably more than what I did to study art. I’m grateful because it’s given me something to fall back on and it takes the pressure off of music. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to rely on every single gig that comes my way to pay my rent. I’ve come close to that situation and it sucks.
What was the reason for your move to Berlin? Did you know what to expect?
The reason for the move to Berlin was a constant sense of dissatisfaction that things have got to be better than this in London. I knew nothing about Berlin. Absolutely nothing. I was a totally ignorant London boy. Then I had an opportunity to move to a flat in Prenzlauer Berg. This flat would probably cost €2500 now but I was paying maybe €200 then.
To live all I had to do was give out Haribo gummy bears every morning at traffic lights with a Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. I had enough money to pay my rent, buy a few tunes and buy some weed. And that was it. It was the first time in my life that I was able to just sit down and breathe and think.
What music were you playing around this time?
I was playing in lots of weird, arty underground spots. There was this one bar, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist anymore, called NBI, Neue Berliner Institut. Then I was DJing with vinyl and guitar effects pedals and minidisc players. Minidiscs, when they first came out, were totally insane for me. I was getting loads of stuff from the British Library, VHS films, and because it was all really old stuff it had some really cool sound bites. I found a collection of German adverts from the early ‘70s on VHS. The more weird stuff I could find on there the better and I just started recording the sounds off of it. Africola adverts and Mars adverts and stuff like that, all in German. So then I was playing sets which were all very dubby, downbeat, very trippy, certainly very ‘90s influenced. I was playing that with these weird advert samples over the top. It was electronic, definitely electronic, but not dance music in any way.
What was it that you liked about experimenting with the music in this way?
It was me combining my enjoyment for the music that I was playing and all of these weird sounds that I was hearing on the television, and how I could combine them using these pieces of technology that I could get my hands on. Working out how I could put this all together in some way that’s interesting, purely for the shits and giggles of it. That actually started to develop and probably got me to where I am today. I actually made a tape then, I gave out cassette tapes. There was a place in Berlin where you could take your one recording and they would make how many copies you wanted of that tape. So I saved up and got 100 of them. Giving out those tapes without any names meant I got chatting to people who were working at the old club of WMF. I think the first gig I ever had was at WMF with Mitja Prinz and Dixon, it was a Jazzanova night.
So things kind of took off for you from there?
Actually I took a break from electronic music for a while. I got really bored of what was going on within techno and ironically I see parallels with what’s happening in today’s scene. Around about 1999 through to 2002, something like that, techno just got faster and faster, and harder and harder. I was never interested in that; I was always more interested in music having some kind of soul and melody and emotion to it. So I got very disenchanted with it all. I was talking about this boredom with my friend Bastian and we formed a band. We started doing this sort of electronic-based punk music. And little did we know that this was also what a lot of people were feeling at the same time. There was Fischerspooner, Peaches, Gonzalez, Chicks on Speed – all of that was also happening in Berlin and we ended up being thrown in this pot. So I got lost into that whole world and I ended up being the lead singer of a band for awhile.
What was the name of the band?
Haha. Google it, I’m not telling you. I’m not hiding from it but I’m not making it easy (laughs).
But you made your way back to electronic music eventually?
Yeah I got lost into the whole band thing of being a frontman, and then I decided to quit about a week after we released our second album. Coincidentally, I went back to London and went out to a party and literally overnight rediscovered my love for house and techno music. The internet had also improved by then. Soundcloud existed. I recorded a mix and then I put the mix up somewhere and I think I linked to the mix on my RA profile. I then went out with (my wife) Jana, I think we went to Berghain, came home and I would always be scrolling on this blog called mnml ssgs and they would do this thing called Set Up! where they would collect sets from the past week or two weeks that they found online. I’m scrolling through this list of Marcel Fengler, Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock and then suddenly it said ‘John Osborn’. I was like, ‘hang on a minute, this is a bit weird’. That was basically the beginning of it all.
It’s funny how different things must have been then – these days there’s so much content out there that a good mix like that can easily just slip by unnoticed.
Absolutely yeah. God knows whether that mix would do anything today. But my relationship was cemented then with Chris Hobson from mnml ssgs, that then grew. I then played my first gig at the SUB:STANCE party (at Panorama Bar) and I recorded that set and gave it to Chris.
That particular mix is the one that has really swung things (for me). It was a SUB:STANCE party so I was allowed a little bit more scope in the sense that Panorama Bar is traditionally a house room. But you know, I was playing Skudge upstairs in Panorama Bar, but I was playing it slowed down and in a really dub-house style.
You mentioned earlier that you see some parallels between the early 2000s when you left techno to start the band, and what’s happening in the scene now. How so?
I see the similarities in the sense that people are starting to get harder and faster again. It’s becoming really obsessed about industrial, banging sounds. The thing that’s slightly different from before is that there’s a resurgence of EDM thrown into it. But the problem is that it becomes a thing, it becomes a fashion label. Therefore a lot of the music that’s getting produced sounds dishonest. There’s no honesty involved in it and that for me always smells really bad. I think the question is: what is going to come out and replace this? That will disappear, and what honest music will float to the surface again?
What is it like for you to be an artist outside of that particular sound?
I sort of feel like a person looking into a fishpond. I would probably say it’s nice to be out of it rather than inside it. Actually I’ve changed the way I consume music drastically. When I was initiating myself into music and learning my trade, I would read and consume everything about music. Now I make the point of doing the exact opposite. I do not read anything. I’ve removed myself entirely. I still get new music but I let music discover me more.
How do you see the Berlin club scene these days? What’s the current state of things?
Berlin is always going to be a special place because of the freedom it allows. But that freedom is slowly getting encroached upon. In 2000 or 2001, it was a wildly, wildly different place. And I use the word ‘wild’ with a reason – it was batshit crazy.
People go to Berghain now and think ‘wow what an insanely different place, what you can do in there’. That’s conservative today. 2018 Berghain compared to some of the clubs in 2002 is fucking conservative. The essence of that Berlin spirit is always still there. But it’s definitely still watered down from what it used to be.
In what other ways have you seen Berlin change?
When I first got here, I was exotic for an English person. There were not many other English-speaking people here in fact. The clubs were 80% full of German people and only German people. Now that’s totally changed. Two of the biggest gay parties in Berlin are run by Italians, for example. That changes things because they have different attitudes and they bring with them different vibes and different feelings. But it’s still based on this original foundation of this weird Berlin freedom.
How does this compare to somewhere like London, which is also a melting pot of different cultures?
Yes of course, we have many different cultures there, but in terms of club land it’s a really conservative place. In clubland, when you are restricted so much, where you come from is almost irrelevant because you can do only do the same as what the next person can do. Whereas in Berlin you have such a large amount of freedom that you can really express yourself and therefore your culture and where you come from. That can’t be done in London.
On the other hand, being restricted forces people to come up with very creative methods. Restriction is the mother of creativity. In terms of music that’s being made in London, that’s where the creative expression is being seen. When you think of things like dubstep for example, which was the fusion of dub reggae production techniques and drum and bass with some speed garage and garage influences behind it. They are, without a doubt, one-to-one representations of the cultural melting pot of London.
What impact do you think moving to Berlin and living here has had on your own music and the type of music you seek out?
Oh, massive. I still have my UK roots, my love of bass and my constant desire to always be a little bit weird, which I think is very inherently British. That British eccentricity. But then I’ve certainly taken on board the very cliche but very true German approach to creating techno and creating house music in a more rigid, formulaic way. That can also be positive as well because it allows you to understand the structure of house music. Then I can use my English weirdness and throw in some twists and turns.
I’m ploughing hard into the remixes for the label. It’s doing really well and I’m really enjoying it because I have complete control over it. I have a focus for each release, which is putting my own remix, my own musical touch into each package. I really enjoy the remix format because I am a DJ and the remix is essentially what I do with two turntables but I’m doing it with just parts of a track rather than two separate tracks themselves. I aim to have 10 releases out this year. At the end of this year, I hope not only to have put out 10 records, but to have also had 10 remixes from myself. So my output has more than exponentially grown.
At Patterns of Perception you’ll be playing in the lobby, which will showcase the housier side of techno. What can we expect from your set?
I will gauge that probably closer to the event itself. But I imagine it’s going to be a very chunky, very robust house set. Similar to my productions, with a lot of dreaminess but with a load of welly in there. As much as I love playing techno, it’s not my main comfortable area. My main comfortable area is essentially house music. So it would be house that leans into the techno world, but not fully. My latest top 10 chart might be something to go by.
You can catch John Osborn at Patterns of Perception Two Years on May 6.
Video interviewed filmed and produced by Elsa Löwdin.
Text interview by Zilka Grogan, Patterns of Perception.