This feels like hallowed ground. The small inconspicuous room is walled with records. Gathering dust in one corner is a drum kit and a cello while a cluttered desk occupies the other side of the room. This is more like a storage unit than a music studio, but it’s here on the third floor of a pedestrian office building where it all started, a record label called Full Pupp.
Across the hallway, Lindstrøm has a studio and a few doors down Todd Terje used to occupy a room, and if these unassuming walls could talk, they’d narrate fifteen years of a story of a label, that brought the sound of Norwegian House music to the rest of the world, and continues to provide a platform for new Norwegian artists working in the electronic music dialect.
It’s here where I find Thomas Hermansen, the self-appointed Prins of this musical empire, sifting through some older records. He’s asked me to meet him here, even though he spends most of his time in his second studio. Moving his operations to the suburbs, closer to home a few years back, he uses the old studio as storage for a record collection that has spilled over into three different locations.
Some of the records he peruses I hear later that week in his set Jaeger, during a new residency he’s cultivated over the course of the pandemic. Like the rest of the world, he’s taken the opportunity to take stock and adapt to the situation. “I’m living in the now and actually embracing that once a month opportunity to put music together” he exclaims with a beaming smile.
He’s seized the opportunity to play some music from the fringes of this expansive record collection for a new monthly night at Jaeger, he’s aptly called Serenity Now! “Everything is set on pause a little,” he considered, “so it’s more a time for reflection, a time talking with other people and to be social.” For Thomas, the DJ it’s getting back to the start of a long career in the booth, where he cut his teeth in the local bars and hangouts of Oslo during the nineties.
“The stuff I do now at Jaeger is based on stuff I’ve done before,” he explains. “This goes back 25 years ago, where I would play in a social setting for people that are there to do other things but to dance. I really enjoy doing things that are in the cross-section of these two things, when you can get people to dance to low energy stuff, and even do little peaks where you do play some bangers.”
The night has him content with the current situation and “besides the financial thing and the fact that I miss playing Sundays at Panorama bar, I’m actually quite happy as things are.”
A small pile of records starts to gather at his feet while he’s reminiscing in some automatic selection that suggests he knows each record intimately; records that look as if they haven’t seen anything but cobwebs in a few years. The topic of the pandemic, much like the pandemic itself, lingers as we consider the eventual repercussions and the relevance of releasing and playing club music during this time.
Thomas even has his doubts about Full Pupp and the 15 year celebrations that started earlier this year with a lot of new releases featuring new or unreleased music from the unwavering stable of artists on the Full Pupp catalogue. “I wish we didn’t,” says Thomas more in humour than regret; “I wish we celebrated 16 years next year,” but what had been set in motion before the pandemic couldn’t easily be undone. 2020 had been a bumper year of releases for the label and Prins Thomas, whose own records included an album on Running Back (Træns) and a new album that saw Thomas reuniting with Lindstrøm for the long-awaited follow up to II, 11 years on from their last record.
It’s picking up a thread from the early 2000’s when Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas introduced a distinctly Nordic interpretation of House to the world. People called it Space Disco; sowing the seeds for a label called Tamburin, which eventually becomes Full Pupp; bringing music from Todd Terje, Diskjokke, Skatebård and Telephones to the world stage; shooting into new branches with names like Prins Thomas Music and Horisontal Mambo; and now in its fifteen year, gathering more steam with a new digital imprint (Full Pupp Ekspress) and a lot more music planned for the foreseeable future.
It all started here, in this stuffy little room where we slip into conversation with Prins Thomas.
Congratulations. 15 years is a long time for a label.
It feels like thirty. (laughs) At the same time, I don’t feel like the music has evolved much during that time. In a way time is irrelevant.
Do you feel that’s a positive thing?
That’s the nature of this kind of music. Contemporary dance music always picks up something along the way, but it somehow keeps going in circles. You always go back to the seventies, eighties and nineties to pick up inspiration, adding something new to the formula. And that’s fine; for the most part it’s music to get down to.
So does it still feel like a celebration at fifteen or is it just another year for you at this point?
This is one of the things I’ve been thinking about; opening up to new ideas. Being inspired by working in a different manner. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a yearly round-up of stuff. There’s also the possibility of tracks doing well, to combine them on vinyl. So maybe now we’ll celebrate every year.
Full Pupp, although it’s been claimed by Space Disco, has had Techno, House and Electro records on there. Do you feel it has been able to shake the stigma of Space Disco today and live beyond such constricting parameters?
As inspiration it’s always going to be there, but not necessarily more than House music in general. The canon of hits or the things that everybody likes; the Detroit origins or the New York origins, all these things are part of it. The Disco thing is there maybe more as an approach to making music, where I think a lot of the artists on Full Pupp are good at producing more loose, not so genre-strict music.
Would you say that’s the sonic philosophy behind Full Pupp; this fusion of all these styles in contemporary dance music?
I don’t know if I actually have a philosophy or strategy at all. It’s never about the last record, it’s about all the records compiled together, whether it’s my label’s body of work or my own body of work. It’s probably the most frustrating thing about having a label, when you get that question; “what is it(?)”… I tend to say… “Just listen.” (laughs)
I understand there is a romantic idea behind it, because now there’s all this music coming and you need these genres and tags to help people find this music. I’m still thinking with my old brain, when there weren’t enough records in a genre to keep things interesting.
You’re talking about the early nineties?
Even in the mid eighties when I was getting into this, I was buying regular pop records with dub versions on the B-side. Even the shitty stuff. You would have Whitney Houston’s I wanna dance with somebody, the dub version and you would play it next to Beastie Boys.
Now it’s relatively easy to get lost in a wormhole. You could listen to one specific type of techno with the same mood on every record, making the job easier for you as a DJ, but generally it’s boring for anybody else.
What was the pretext for starting the label all those years ago?
I had friends of mine making great records, and I felt it was stupid for everybody to send their demos abroad, and give their stuff to English labels. At the time, there weren’t any Norwegian labels making House music, everybody was sending their stuff to English labels and everybody believed that was the only way to do it. I’m not saying it was the first electronic music label; there were others, but not doing the kind of music we were doing.
This would have been around 2004-5 and the start of MP3s and what would become the digital revolution in this music. Was there any sense trepidation releasing records in the physical format during that time?
Well the funny thing is, two of our first records, Todd Terje’s first two records and my debut 12”, they sold quite well in the beginning. We even had a long period where we didn’t sell digitally.
That’s changed now with Full Pupp ekspress. It’s uncanny, but in a way we’re finding ourselves in a similar situation today after what was a little peak for vinyl’s resurgence for a few years. What’s the difference from that era too now for you to start the digital imprint?
The easiest comparison; in the beginning we would sell 2000 copies of a completely unknown artist on Full Pupp. Now we’re selling 300 copies of my records on Full Pupp. We’re very close to the point where just barely breaking even is a positive thing.
I have to say, for me it was a bummer even thinking about going digital. I’ve said many times that if I have to release stuff just digitally, it’s not a label anymore and I’m quitting. But starting on the process of planning the first releases, it felt really fresh to not work with constrictions of 12”, maximum 12 minutes.
It’s opened up a new way of thinking; putting the format aside.We’re still planning releases for Full Pupp on vinyl, so it’s not like we’re done with vinyl. Opening this door, is opening new possibilities.
What changed in your thought process to even consider the digital format?
Less frustration of having to wait out the period of releasing a record. In the beginning it was about getting the music finished and tidy enough to fit on a record. By the time the record is out your sick and tired of it and your excitement is elsewhere.
Having a quicker process from when the music is done to when it comes out. I don’t have to be as aware; are we going to get this funded by selling enough records.
So it comes down to the economy of the label? You wouldn’t be able to justify going on exclusively in the physical format, eventually you and word and sound would run out of money.
I’m not saying everything is not selling, I’m saying there’s far more records not selling enough. It takes too long to recoup the money from the sales. At some point you have to take into account that they have to destroy the records.
It’s a good testing ground to see what could sell on vinyl.
Yes. That is also part of the plan, that Full Pupp isn’t just a digital label, we still have the possibility of doing anything or everything on vinyl.
Do you think it will change your approach to A&R for Full Pupp?
I think it already did. There was stuff I was going to put out on vinyl that is now only digital, but it gives me more room to move. I can take chances on tracks that wouldn’t be one of the four on vinyl.
Which seems right in today’s landscape. You can’t expect to make any money releasing a physical record, even if you release it on your own label, it is just going to cost you money.
I think the safest bet is that if you really want to make some money, is to make some music that people would want to pay for, and fund it yourself.
Then you would need to play to the common denominator, surely?
Not exactly, but then it’s going to have to be something that more than fifty other people in the world wants. And I think there are too many people making music for fifty other people. I might do it myself, but at least I’ve cheated my way into having a further reach (laughs). So when I make a track that’s probably only meant for 100 other people, there’s maybe 2000 other people, listening to it.
Does that have to do with your success as a DJ in reaching these people?
I think it’s a mixture, being a recording artist over time, and those first releases with Lindstrøm and having my name out there as a DJ and doing remixes. At different times it seems that it’s hard escaping my name no matter what kind of music you’re listening to.
Do you think Full Pupp could exist without Prins Thomas?
Of course, if somebody wants to buy it, I’d be happy to sell it. (laughs) An important fact about all this is; the only reason there is a Prins Thomas music label is because I was thinking of pulling the plug on Full Pupp. At the time I was really getting fed up with not living up to people’s expectations, when it came to sales and how slow things were going. Now I think it’s like this for everybody.
More importantly is that for the last year Ivaylo (Kolev) has been helping out running it so we can actually call it a record label, because for fourteen years it wasn’t… it was just an imprint.
I’ve noticed, besides remixes, your own music is mainly coming out via these like International or the Prins Thomas music label. Have you distanced your own music further away from Full Pupp in recent years?
Setting up Prins Thomas music was definitely a way of getting my stuff out of the way, so I wouldn’t clog up the catalogue with my own releases. When I put a record out, it has a bit more spread and coverage, which means the label is probably working longer and harder with it. Those are the times when we can hire external PR and stuff like this, because there will be some revenue. It only took two people to point the finger, saying “when is my record coming out, now that your record is out.”
But for the last year, I’ve been a lot more involved with the label, and trying to keep up with Ivaylo’s schedule. Because now we actually have a schedule. Getting more involved means that I see more things that need to be done, so I’m much more part of the process.
As far as I know, you have always had a very hands on approach to the artists on the label, from the point of creation. Is that an integral part of the approach to the label?
It’s a bunch of different approaches, in terms of what the artist wants and what I want to hear. How I perceive what I’ve been sent. If I feel that the message is not coming across in the way the artist solved it, I have to give my own take on it, either by helping out mixing down, arranging or speaking to the person. But sometimes I stay away if I feel there’s something that has a strong identity already, I don’t want to interfere with that.
But that in itself is something of the sonic identity that courses through Full Pupp?
Yes, but that’s just down to my taste. And it’s already been filtered, not everybody sends me music. I do get a lot of music, that I don’t see a part of any of the labels that I do. And there’s things that don’t live up to expectations.; since starting the label, I’ve always wanted to put out a great rock record, but nobody has sent me a great rock record.
Have you received any rock records?
Yes, there have been some. But not anything that I think works as a record.
But you’ve started some other labels, that you accommodate things that don’t always fit the Full Pupp sound.
Yeah but there are enough labels now. (laughs)
Where do you see it all five years from now?
I have no idea whether I’ll be doing the label in another five years, I probably will, because I’m a slow quitter… who knows…