Amateur Nerds: Talking to Thomas URV about Ploink

Thomas Paulsen, better known by his URV patronymic, is making his way down a mountain somewhere in Volda when I call him up. “You’d laugh if you’d see how steep it is”, he says. I offer to call him back, the fear of a horrific fall looming as he pants down the receiver, but Thomas insists we continue while he climbs down a rope. A short while after our conversation, a photograph of Thomas pops up on my phone with the mountainside in the background. The Norwegian DJ and label owner is sporting an outlandish grin in a T-shirt with the name of his label Ploink emblazoned on the front.

Before Ploink, Thomas’ early career as a promoter has its roots in rave events “around the mountainside of Bergen and Voss.” Thomas remembers, “carrying speakers one by one up a mountain or into the woods”, the challenge of the terrain the least of their concern as a non-existent budget and the fear of their equipment being confiscated by the police were always looming in the background. “We were only seventeen years old so we weren’t allowed to do anything in clubs with a license.” They took the mountains, halls, warehouses, woods and some of the islands around Bergen like the “hippies and punks” that established Techno in the region before them. Those first events were promoted under the name VTOL towards the end on 1993, inspired by the likes of Uforia and Zone in Oslo and Logic in Bergen, Thomas and his partner Jørn brought Techno to a new Norwegian audience, often through illegal parties, where the chance of “losing money or equipment” was all too realistic.

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As the pair grew old enough to take their music to the licensed venues, Thomas and Jørn descended down the mountain with all their gear and would go on to establish what would eventually be known as Ploink around 1996. “We went through a few names before we settled on Ploink, and we trace the history of the club back to 1996, if for nothing else, than to be able to celebrate 20 years next year. ” It was during that phase that they started looking abroad, bringing artists like James Ruskin, Richie Hawtin and Surgeon to Norway – calling in the new millennium with the aggressive sound of Techno ringing through the peaceful mountain landscape. It’s quite an impressive list of artists, but Thomas is quick to dismiss the importance of the headliner suggesting, “anybody can book artists” if faced with the same situation. “In the beginning I did it just to get some playtime for myself.” It was a natural and typical progression of events for Thomas, one that’s old as time itself: “A DJ that can’t get any gigs starts promoting his own events.“

One of the first acts Ploink would bring to Norway would be DJ Hell, and while Thomas might be somewhat dismissive of the importance of the bookings for the events, bringing a DJ like Hell – a relatively underground personality – to your debut takes a lot of nerve and a lot of faith in what you are doing. The risks paid off and Ploink soon grew to unimaginable magnitudes, perhaps a little too fast for its young impresario, Thomas. “It grew way too quickly and I messed up with my economy.” As a result Thomas has some ambivalent feelings about those early events. “There’s a lot I would’ve done differently.”

The events went on regardless, and the impressive lists of artists visiting Ploink grew to feature the legends like Jeff Mills, Derrick May and Mathew Jonson, to name but a few. “For a long time it was just about getting people over and setting up the parties.” It came during a time that would see Bergen become the epicentre of much of electronic music in Norway, with the likes Bjørn Torske moving to the city, creating a close-knit scene of electronic musicians and aficionados. “It’s very easy to bump into people here that are into music.” It was an innocent time where email and the Internet meant the personal connection was essential in getting Norwegian Techno abroad. Similar to the metal or punk scene – who managed to reach out to an international audiences and labels through distributing demo tapes directly between fans and artists around the same time – the Norwegian Techno scene would find a way out through mixtapes “creating a strong foundation for the underground scene” and spreading their sound further. It’s in this landscape that Ploink came into prominence, and when Thomas reminisces on those early days there’s something irrevocably different from the scene today. He misses some of the personal touch of direct contact and looks back fondly on moments like booking DJ hell and Acid Scout via fax. ”I typed out the offers on the PC at the Bergen library and ran back to our office at record store, Primitive Records to send the fax to Disko B in Germany. I had to run back and forth like this to write replies and send them before the library would close.”

This experience comes from within a healthy era for Norwegian Techno, one in which the “arctic label” it received from over-zealous journalists did well in promoting the sound of artists like Biosphere and Mental Overdrive abroad and establishing a distinctly Norwegian sound for the genre, one that would often prompt adjectives like glacial and icy when describing the atmospheric and densely layered music. “Small shops like music Maestro in Oslo, Primitive records in Bergen or Geir Jensens Biophon from Tromsø was also integral in setting up the foundation of the Norwegian scene.“ With these various influences conspiring, Norwegian Techno had always had a unique standing in the world of electronic music and in Bergen especially, where a lot of these artists were based, it took on cultish admiration from the locals with Ploink taking on hallowed proportions for many music fans. “In Bergen, there are a lot of people that even feel that Ploink belongs to them.” Successful as it might have been however it took a toll on expenses and the excessive costs of the event series eventually ran the company into the ground, taking Thomas’ personal economy along with it. I get the sense that Thomas is reluctant to talk about this stage of Ploink and I veer from the topic to arrive at Ploink today, in which the name has taken on the connotations of a record label, a label that operates with the same incentive of those original innovators from Norway.

“Our main objective is to get Norwegian Techno out of the country.” Vakum’s Knot EP is the eighth release form the burgeoning label, and came out a few days before Thomas made the ascent up the mountain, marking just over a year of the label. The label’s history stretches much further back than a year though, and it starts with two friends, two friends that bonded over a love for music on top of a mountain, where else? “The whole school was on a mountain trip. I could hear this girl from another class talk about The Prodigy and I ran up to her saying – did you say, Techno?” Thomas laughs as he shares this anecdote of the significant meeting between him and Elisabeth Nesheim (Miss Mostly). They’ve “been like siblings” ever since, that epochal moment they bonded over music on top of mountain, both carving out impressive career as DJs from there. “She’s an amazing DJ. She’s quite fierce, quite hard.” Their shared vision of a label had been years in the making, and in the spring of 2014 everything conspired and the time was right to launch Ploink, the label, with an EP dedicated to the very town that they owe their whole existence to, Bergen. The Bergen EP, which featured Vakum, Nordenstam, Christian tilt and Thomas on production duties was an ode to their hometown and its mountains, with the inaugural EP’s cover adorned with “a picture of the town from one of the mountains”. It sold 150 copies in Bergen alone, with the same fans that coveted the events, now laying claim to their label.

But it’s never really been about the sales for Thomas or Elisabeth, who both have independent professional lives, but rather more about the passion for the music and the people that make it. “The whole project is doing what we want to do, releasing the music that we want to release, and stay 100% independent.” They’ve reached nearly 40 producers already in their search for music to release, “forty producers from Norway that make the kind of Techno we want to release!” Thomas sounds incredibly excited when he relays this fact to me, and his boyish enthusiasm is infectious. “There’s so many good producers stuck in their bedroom making track after track. There’s just so much music out there.” So far there’s been eight releases with the label giving out six a year, but each one has been Techno of the highest standard, bringing that Norwegian tradition to a new generation of music fans. Thomas paints a fairly broad brush when he talks about Techno, but through every release of the label you’ll find something that is unique to the genre, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but its there and it probably has much to do with the fact that Thomas and Elisabeth are “musically set” in what they want to achieve with the label, even if they are self-proclaimed “amateur nerds”. “We’ve only been doing this for one year and we are learning as we go.“

Much of the distinction lies with their artwork, which is striking and immediately pops out at you from a record box. It has been heavily influenced by Thomas’ early teens, when as an aspiring DJ, Thomas found the most impact from KLF’s imagery with their hidden codes and mythology. “It’s been a huge influence on how Elisabeth and I work today. We put in a lot of nerdy codes that only we know how to solve and if you look closer, you’ll find at least one KLF reference on each release.” More than anything the visual element of the label is also “playtime” for Thomas and Elisabeth, and they take pride in the way they represent their artists for a bigger audience abroad. “It needs to be something that we think is beautiful in its own way and try and surprise people. Elisabeth and I call it art, but it’s also about packaging a product we want to sell and that can help to advance the artists’ careers.” There seems to be a selfless ideology behind Ploink, an ideology that gives each and every artist complete freedom in expression.

A couple of days after my telephone call with Thomas, I meet up with Robin Crafoord, one half of Trulz and Robin, whose KSMISK alias will adorn the next Ploink release. He plays me the two Techno tracks that make up the two sides of the release, two meditative Techno tracks that take on epic proportions through their excessive proportions. It left Thomas literally speechless when he tried to describe it to me over the phone and in their presence its obvious why. Once again there is something instinctively Norwegian about them in the way they open up through the immersive layers instead of taking the oppressive dimensions of their European counterparts, while maintaining some of that sinister appeal that should be inherent in Techno. It’s something that you find across all the releases from Kahuun to Vakum and it’s something they try and bring across with each showcase that follows a release. It’s the only time Ploink assumes its role as a promoter today, and the emphasis has turned to focussing solely on Norwegian artists in this regard. “What we do now is we do the releases and we do the release parties for the releases.”

Thomas has to ask a man for directions as we reach the end of our time together. I ask if he’s still going the right way. “I’m going the right way and as he put it, I can go anywhere from here. All roads lead to Volda apparently.” Thomas carries on, telling me more about the future releases, including three releases with 12 artists during the beginning of 2016 to celebrate twenty years of Ploink. They’ve had some luck with their vinyl pressing plant and being with them before the vinyl hype, means they are not as frequently affected by incredible delays, like much of the rest of the industry. Thomas is also not discounting a future international act signing to the label. “I’m sure we will at some point” but for him the focus will always be on getting “Norwegian Techno out of the country.” Ploink might have come along way from their origins hosting illegal parties on top of a mountain, but in some ways that element is something they’ve continually carried through with them all a long. Thomas might finally be down the mountain, but Ploink has only reached its crest and who knows where the label will take them next.

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