Justus Köhncke - NBHAP

Artwork by Stefan Ibrahim

‘Sometimes the charming crooner, sometimes the shocking homosexual. JUSTUS KÖHNCKE manages both worlds: ballads and club smashers, bass drums and Babelsberg Symphonic Orchestra, words and sound, mania and depression.’

This pleasing words, written by the German, sadly young died music journalist legend Rocco Clein, were once declared in a booklet of something that can be called a little contemporary document now, namely a split CD sampler of the legendary Hamburg based label L’age D’or and its electronic sister Ladomat 2000. This pleasing words were also the first I ever read about this unobtrusive but highly considerable artist named JUSTUS KÖHNCKE and his contribution appeared to be a real gem between 35 tracks of ‘denying the mainstream# as the same leaflet proclaims.

That first contact was a deep dive into the full range of the label’s rooster, a range from art to pop and from electronica to rock, that taught me a lot about individuality in music. Back in the days JUSTUS KÖHNCKE was just one of many unique and fantastic artists who released music via the label. A label, full of diversity, fascinating characters, ran by fanatics, loved by house music and electronica DJs as well as the many fans of this couple of bands who later should be ascribed to a genre called Hamburger Schule (including bands like TOCOTRONIC, BLUMFELD and DIE STERNE). However, KÖHNCKE‘s song Ich versteck mich vor der Wirklichkeit (‘I’m hiding from reality’), a dark and pumping tune between acid and EBM, was one of the more favorable pieces on this sampler, even though it seemed to be far away from any radio or music television airplay attempt. That little beast was a very old one but by far and away not the oldest stuff and therefore just one little piece of a jigsaw in KÖHNCKE‘s work, I learned much later.

Back to present, that is more than ten years later, the days of Lado are numbered and most of its artists found a new home. In the meanwhile JUSTUS KÖHNCKE has never stopped to drop eclectic and exciting releases, some under different monikers, most of them via famous label KOMPAKT Records from Cologne. His last release named Justus Köhncke & The Wonderful Frequency Band is once again a prime example of indie like songwriting combined withn an experimental electronic sound building. Like no one else KÖHNCKE lets clear and engaging storytelling floating on the base of a uniquely emotional but highly functional producing of his own version of dance music. That lengthy relationship between KOMPAKT and KÖHNCKE once more shows the label’s open minded philosophy as well as the artist’s importance for an independent and vivid German electronic music scene.

One playground for such an independent music scene, namely Germany’s Immergut Festival eventually became the place to finally meet him. Between a hot and sweaty crowd of a FUTURE ISLANDS concert I was able to spot that lanky guy with a three day beard who was friendly enough to take me to the backstage after catching him in the masses. This just seen concert then became the starting point of our conversation and soon we find ourselves back in remembering great concert performances and especially great frontmen in pop music. Frequently said, FUTURE ISLANDS‘ Samuel T. Herring is definitely one of them. Who KÖHNCKE mentions while naming firstly one of his influences and secondly a pretty anecdote about his first concert is DAF’s Gabi Degaldo. With a glint in the eyes he describes meticulously the stage setup he sighted in the age of 15, consisting of a rack of 20 identically constructed tape decks that played DAF’s strict one-sequence-drum-loop-paroles, while both musicians afforded ‘the most strict and energetic live concept that ever existed.’ From this little lesson in 80’s subcultural history that I would love to expand, we switch to JUSTUS KÖHNCKE‘s very own and new born Wonderful Frequency Band, that decorates the cover art work of his actual longplayer.

‘Yes, as depicted on the cover, it’s my personal one-man band. Bass drum on the back, a synthesizer in my hand, a Kazoo and so on.’ And he adds: ‘The classical one-man band that mostly happens on laptop these days.’

What’s so special about it this time, to mention it in the title and cover of your album? Your music, under the moniker JUSTUS KÖHNCKE has never consisted of someone else than yourself, or has it?
Ah, that’s true, but this time, and influenced by the title song of the album, it’s more like an imaginary band. Like PRINCE AND THE REVOLUTION, but without musicians, you know.

Would you call it a conceptual album?
Oh no, that would be too extravagant. Also for the simple reason that so called conceptual albums, even the most eminent ones, often aren’t so much conceptual. The most important example and a fictive band as well is THE BEATLESSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which seemed to be so conceptual but was just a bunch of songs that were already written. Then they made a cover, the song about the ‘Lonely Hearts Club Band’, then they created a framework but it still were just a bunch of songs.

This moment at the latest reveals KÖHNCKE‘s love for citing and referencing a wide range of pop cultural aspects. With a journalism-like flair he browses through the past decades of music history, never being that annoying wise guy but always a connoisseur of the fine arts. All that lovely little details in mind make his soundscapes suddenly look like palimpsests of what he personally has experienced, watched and created through all the time of his work.

‘That’s where I came from, I’m old enough. The synthie pop of the 80s, like SOFT CELL, HUMAN LEAGUE, ABC, SCRITTI POLITTI was before all the other stuff like house and acid took place.’

Justus Köhncke - Photo by Steffen Jagenburg

Photo by Steffen Jagenburg

Among his very own music, varying from honest house music pieces to vocal loaded songs, KÖHNCKE has released several music in different projects. Started with famous set up WHIRPOOL PRODUCTIONS, whose biggest hit From Disco To Disco found a lot attention in the mainstream as well as in a subcultural crowd til one of his latest collaborations named Fainting by Numbers, which engages no one else than HOT CHIP‘s ALEXIS TAYLOR.

How important is it to name such projects in this case? Do you use it for an external need or is it a way to define your music and your projects for yourself as well?
Both I would say. I think names and titles, more than ever on instrumental pieces, where you have to find a way to name them, are really important. The same goes for me on visual arts. If there’s a picture that is, let’s say, okay, and then there’s a really good title for it, it becomes awesome. A picture named Untitled has to be really good to get attention. So, to answer your question, yes it is important. And at least as difficult as writing the music itself.

Keyword instrumental. Many of your songs are highly significant through your vocal parts…
The Wonderful Frequency Band contains again more singing, while my previous record was a more ‘clubbier’ one, what also had its very own reasons. This time I was really in the mood to build, little quirky, mainly German-language songs.

Do you distinguish your vocal containing pieces from the well defined techno or house records you released?
Okay, let’s be realistic. As soon as I sing on one of my own productions, it doesn’t suit most of the DJs anymore. Many DJs are kind of afraid of vocals, and especially a Berlin audience can be really hard regarding this. But ok, things look better these days, in the end house music was never as hot as now. But in my work, the relationship between sound and words is continually developing. I also have a bunch of friends and trustful musicians to whom I show some of my work before releasing it. My next release is a special edition of the album. Let’s call it a version with dubs and re-edits by myself. I got inspirited by one of my most favorite albums of all times, HUMAN LEAGUE’s longplayer Dare from 1981. And that concept was kind of my template. With Dare HUMAN LEAGUE produced a fully electronic pop record, and 9 months later they released Love And Dancing as THE LEAGUE UNLIMITED ORCHESTRA, which contained dub versions of the albums’ songs, which are absolutely beautiful down to the present day.

With another discussion about electronic music of the past days and a bunch of anecdotes from the time of his first famous project WHIRPOOL PRODUCTIONS our interview slowly morphs into a friendly talk. The producer surprises with understatement in every case, even when he gives insights on his work flow, his lyrics or some of the famous people he worked with. Finally he says slightly ironically about his career: ‘We don’t have another qualification, that’s why we still do it.’; followed by laughter.