In Conversation: Oliver Hafenbauer (Robert Johnson) and Jordan Gross (Oval Space)
Nightclubs are a complicated business. Each reflects the tastes and attitudes of their respective cities, communities and audiences, possessing the delicate power to illuminate or alienate scenes completely. No two are the same, but Robert Johnson, located on an oddly picturesque industrial riverside in Offenbach, just outside of Frankfurt, shares a few factors in common with Bethnal Green’s Oval Space. Both sit outside typically party friendly areas, in the shadow of industry. Both encompass more than revelry (Oval Space runs a cafe and creative co-working space, while Robert Johnson also operates a celebrated supper club as a prelude to parties).
On Friday 26th May, the two meet for Oval Space x Live At Robert Johnson with Roman Flügel, Massimiliano Pagliara and Ata. Before that however, Die Orakel, the offbeat, utterly brilliant label run by Robert Johnson’s musical director, Oliver Hafenbauer will be taking over The Pickle Factory for a London showcase this Saturday 29th April.
Hafenbauer, a hugely knowledgeable and formidable DJ, is joined by Kassem Mosse’s compelling live set for a versatile and unpredictable evening of music. Ahead of the party, Hafenbauer got together with Oval Space director, Jordan Gross, for a refreshingly honest back and forth in regards to keeping the wheels spinning on the more experimental side of the nightlife industry, the rebirth of the resident DJ and the unbridled passion of clubbers willing to hop in a cab.
At least in the UK, there’s been much talk (and the odd statistic) in the last few years about the current generation of clubbers taking more interest in self care and streaming Netflix than going out to clubs like your own. How do we get these kids back in the club? And do we even need to? Or has the act of clubbing inadvertently become something countercultural once again?
Oliver: Perhaps the times of clubs are past. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone about to open a new club to do program each and every Friday and Saturday - nobody has the patience to build up a community of resident DJs and clubbers over years; sporadic parties or club nights that function like events simply work better nowadays. I can imagine that this is partly due to the fact that a lot of different media channels are used to reach guests - such as social media, newsletters, websites and print. It’s more difficult to promote a “normal” club night. But there are good solutions for all matters. What I have been doing for years now with the program of Robert Johnson is to support the young music scene in Frankfurt and Offenbach. They have resident nights that feature international guests but also nights without any. It all works like a traditional football club: we support young talent and in doing so guarantee that there are always new generations of clubbers and artists coming to the club.
Jordan: There are many things you can spend your money on in life. The issue is that currently people aren’t necessarily supporting underground music, so much as their attention is being hoovered up by huge festivals or commercial techno raves. So recent years have seen the advent of things like Printworks, Tobacco Docks - events on a macro-scale. Printworks is selling 4000 tickets each weekend, so that has had an impact on us. We’re seeing how electronic music and artists we’ve booked are drifting into a mainstream malaise. Global music companies are getting hold of these acts and locking them into festivals and out of clubs. We opened The Pickle Factory eighteen months ago, which is actually going really well and selling out most weekends with pretty underground stuff. It’s not perfect, but on our second go round, I really think we nailed most things in there, and the small capacity and intimacy really help. But one thing that’s worth saying is that it doesn’t make any money yet. I’m hopeful that it might! But for small capacity clubs, it really is a labour of love, and we wouldn’t be able to do it without Oval Space.
I wouldn’t recommend to anyone about to open a new club to do program each and every Friday and Saturday. Nobody has the patience to build up a community of resident DJs and clubbers over years; sporadic parties or club nights simply work better nowadays - Oliver Hafenbauer
Both Robert Johnson and Oval Space / The Pickle Factory exist slightly off the beaten track. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being relative outta towners?
Jordan: The advantages are that people are coming for a reason, and usually that’s the music, and hopefully a sense of connection to the music and community. The disadvantage is, there’s no walk up, which I personally think can be a good thing. For example, XOYO and Village Underground are in Central Shoreditch, and so they benefit from randoms walk ups, where people walk in and go in after a few drinks.
Oliver: Yes, it’s a bit like going on vacation to an island. You make the effort to go there, you travel and you commit to stay for a while - even if you don’t like the first track (but perhaps you will the next one). The guests that come to us are really there for the Robert Johnson experience. Walk-in customers are actually only good for restaurants and bars. However, the disadvantage is that the people really have to come up with the motivation, get into a cab, hop on a bike or make their way using public transportation.
Residents have always played a key role at Robert Johnson, and Oval Space/Pickle’s move towards visiting residents such as Jane Fitz and DJ Nobu has been very successful. The advantages of a resident are pretty well established from a clubber’s perspective, but from the club’s perspective, what are the benefits of a regular set of ears in the booth?
Oliver: Residents are the backbone of the club. Without them Robert Johnson wouldn’t have had been open for 18 years. They form the “sound” and the community of the club. One of our goals is to be at a point in a few years to invite as few international artists as possible. I am devastated about the developments in the market. It becomes more and more prohibitively expensive. It’s a bubble, similar to the housing bubble a few years ago. The agents are spoiled by the high fees that are paid in cities like Amsterdam or London – where thousands of people go out to party and a huge infrastructure for Techno and House is in place.
Jordan: Yes, although residents are so important here as well. They bring their own crowd, which is great, and they encourage other DJs on the circuit to visit the club. Most of the good clubs in history have been built on fantastic residents in one way or another. We’ve been very fortunate to have the likes of Jane Fitz, Fred P and DJ Nobu wanting to call our venues home, which is such a compliment. Jane is beginning one of her four dates this year, and she’s opening with an hour long Gong Bath, which is something that would usually be reserved for a Yoga studio. It’s really important to be do those experiments and push those boundaries, because we can, because it’s crucial.
Residents are the backbone of the club. Without them Robert Johnson wouldn’t have had been open for 18 years. They form the “sound” and the community of the club. One of our goals is to be at a point in a few years to invite as few international artists as possible - Oliver Hafenbauer
Jordan, if I were feeling glib, my response would be that I feel like i know at least twenty people on Twitter who’d be up for that. But do you think there’s actually a wider audience for that kind of sound or idea than you’d initially expect?
I think the audience has shrunk a bit in response to huge parties, but the flip of that is The Pickle Factory is only a small club compared to the population of the city. We only need 200 people to show up for a really good party, and even at 1000 people, Oval Space is quite niche in the context of London and people who go out to Pizza Express for dinner.
Oliver, Die Orakel’s direction openly leans towards the weirder end of electronic music, with a club edge. You probably listen to more outright 4/4 dance music than most, as both a resident, booker and touring DJ. Does the impetus for the label spring out of a kind of restlessness to smudge the edges of what people expect on a dancefloor?
Oliver: I grew up in the 90s with the music of Warp and Jeff Mills. For me electronic music is not only dance music but it covers all genres. It’s a logical consequence to render what I have learned and experienced over the years with Die Orakel. It’s an exciting field to be bouncing back and forth between bulky tracks and pure club tunes.
The issue is that currently people aren’t necessarily supporting underground music, so much as their attention is being hoovered up by huge festivals or commercial techno raves - Jordan Gross
Finally, you both have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, and I expect you both encompass something of a perfectionist’s streak to run a club at the calibre of both RJ and OS. Dancers and DJs look to you to lead the way by example, but who are your personal confidants and influences? Who can convince you to turn the smoke machine on or off?
Oliver: I have to admit I don’t feel much pressure. Before I started working at RJ I completed my architecture studies. I think any architect has more pressure and responsibility than I do. I have been doing the programming and the label management at Robert Johnson for more than nine years now and it’s still a lot of fun. I still have the same ambition to deliver and do a good job as I have had since the very beginning. But, I would never be at this point if it weren’t for people like Ata, Roman Flügel, Ricardo Villalobos, Zip or Gerd Janson, all of whom have done such a great job in the first place. They moulded the Frankfurt scene and the club into what it is today. This year we celebrate the 18th birthday of RJ. That’s a really long time. The generation today has grown up with Robert Johnson. Just thinking about this is kind of crazy. I am excited about the next generation. We have many serious artists growing up here, great producers and DJs. I am really curious as to what the future will bring!
Jordan: On a purely personal level, I went to Robert Johnson for the first time a few years ago and had dinner with Oliver and everyone else in the club beforehand, which I found very inspiring. I’ve always found Panorama Bar and Berghain very inspiring, and Watergate, at least in it’s heyday, the parties downstairs on the river. Jane Fitz has been an inspiration too, having been plugging away for so long and finally beginning to gain the recognition she deserves. We have Laurent Garnier here once a year, and he’s always so charming, and he always brings it.
Oliver Hafenbauer plays at The Pickle Factory on Saturday 29th April alongside Kassem Mosse