Not watching, Listening – An interview with G-Ha

Geir Aspenes was flicking through some records at Filter Musikk in Oslo when I bumped to him earlier in the summer. Somewhat dejected, he had felt slightly disenfranchised with the state of new electronic music that he’d been exposed to at that time through his usual digital channels and had turned back to the format that started it all for him in the hope of finding some inspiration. “That was one of those periods, in which I was really frustrated and could find anything” and it was “really hard to find new music” for the veteran Oslo DJ.

Little more than two months on and the situation is vastly different. I found Geir on spectacular form playing to a packed courtyard the night after our interview, the speakers flexing under the strain of the energy of the set and the crowd bulging at the seams of our courtyard. Geir’s musical interests “comes and goes in periods”, like most people, this writer included, but where few of us would ever face the intimidating task of playing to our musical selections out to a wanting crowd, Geir’s ability is unmatched. Even during a period where he might not find the tracks that speak to him, he is still able to pull a set out of the bag, that makes most of us, even the DJs go; “ok Geir we submit to your power”.

Geir Aspenes is of course, Jæger- and Sunkissed resident G-Ha, a DJ whose distinctive style in the booth has earned him a reputation as one of Oslo’s pre-eminent selectors. Rune Lindbæk once substantiated this claim during an interview  for me, in which he praised the younger G-Ha, admitting he would often turn to Geir for new music in his own sets. With a noted musical personality like Rune Lindbæk looking over your shoulder, it’s safe to assume G-Ha is no mere facilitator.

A prominent Norwegian DJ, Geir’s reputation precedes him and has found him occupy booths in Fabric, Panorama Bar and Renata as well as play festivals like Malmö’s Backyard sessions and Reworks in Greece. With duties as both G-Ha and one half of G-Ha & Olanskii, Geir can play up to three to four nights a week. It’s an intense schedule in which Geir is always in the throes of a balancing act between the contemporary and the enduring while at the same time merging it all through his distinct and very prominent DJ persona that defines him. And what sound defines that persona? “I still don’t really know” answers Geir in his usual modest, soft-spoken way over a beer, but if one thing is certain over the last two years I’ve come to know Geir and his DJ style is that no-one sounds like G-Ha.

Over the course of twenty-odd years Geir has refined a style in the booth all his own and like most of his contemporaries, his DJ history begins at the local youth club. In Geir’s case this was the Holmlia youth club, where he learnt the tools of his craft alongside Full Pupp’s Omar V. “This was before House music” and Geir was digging through a “box of seven inches with things like Kool & the Gang”. He eventually amassed a haul of break-beat seven inches that took him from Holmlia and his youth club to Oslo and a “club”, whose name history has forgotten, to play his first professional gigs. He soon moved on to Marilyn, a venue that used sit where Jæger sits today, and as House started sneaking into his playlist, Geir’s sets were deemed too progressive for that archaic institution. “I got fired, because I played too much House music” says Geir unable to contain his amusement at the memory. It’s no surprise that Marilyn “closed shortly after that” and Geir would move on to the next step of his career, one that would propel him into the Oslo scene and garner the attention of an international audience. House music’s dominance in Oslo was too big to contain and Geir became one of its leading champions.

This was around 1996, and with no venues in the city to cater for the new sound of House, the then newly established Skansen would quickly filled “a gap in Oslo” and Geir would make up an integral part of its appeal. Initially intended to be the first Internet cafe in the city, the computers “never even had a chance to move in” as an opening party proved just too good for Skansen not to completely change its objectives. At the same time, “Deep House started to become more established, so the music was more diverse, more progressive” and Geir’s sound started to evolve and became a fundamental part of Skansen’s music policy alongside key players like Olle Løstegaard (Olle Abstract) who would bring Idjut Boys amongst others to the venue and the world’s attention.

Geir would harness what the sound of Skansen and his tastes into one of the most distinctive DJ sounds we’ve heard in the city. “I just kind of play what I like and I still have some difficulties explaining what I like”, says Geir when I probe him for an eloquent explanation of what his sound might be. Geir’s extensive experience, means he can pick up on a record immediately, knowing instinctively if it’s a sound he is going to like through the opening bars of a track. He might not be able to put it into words, but for this listener a G-Ha’s sound is born out of a nebulous emptiness through which ephemeral moments puncture functional tracks with some emotive dalliance with the dance floor.

Able to call on a diverse range of musical styles in the House echelon, from Micro-House to Nu-Disco, Geir finds intricate ways in crossing that bridge between one musical moment to the next, with each track surrendering to the DJ, rather than the other way around. In the way he narrates an evening whether it be the start of a night or peak time, he’s able to play with his audience like a set of marionette puppets, orchestrating their movements from an instinctive impulse he’s been harnessing since the days of Skansen.

Skansen had quickly garnered a reputation that exceeded the city and country borders for the five years of its existence and with Geir being so vital to its allure, when the time came to close its doors, Geir was approached to mix the official mix CD, “Skansen Music” for Glasgow Underground. It’s a mix CD that stands the test of time and seals the legend that publications like Mixmag and labels like Glasgow Underground caught on in a very neat record. After Skansen “it was a really quiet period in Oslo” for nightlife suggest Geir, but still it wouldn’t be long before Geir would enter the next phase of his career, and like Skansen this too would become an Oslo institution.

It was called Sunkissed. The brainchild of Ola Smith Simonsen (aka Olanskii), who had been “involved there at the end of Skansen”, Sunkissed was an answer to the dogmatic approach to House music. “Ola had came from doing more student parties in London which were more diverse in music” and brought that diversity to Oslo, joining forces with Geir, who had amassed a dedicated following already in a music policy that would span the width and breadth of House music’s transient descriptions. “When we started to play together it was the era of Headman and Gomma records”, recalls Geir. Feigning any “particular direction” in their bookings and their sets, Sunkissed would play host to everybody from Alter Ego, to Robert Hood, Kenny Larkin and it’s still going strong with bookings like Moxie and DJ Seinfeld today. It’s an approach that has served them well all these years and today they’re still a leading light on Oslo’s electronic music scene and nightlife.

In Ola, Geir also found a kindred spirit in the booth and the pair formed a formidable DJ force in the duo G-Ha & Olanskii, one that would also form the crux of Ola’s next adventure… Jæger. “Jæger is the heart of Oslo” for Geir. “I think I’m really spoilt. I’ve been doing it for so long and there are so many good DJ and promoters around and I’m really fortunate to be able to do it week in and week out.” Alongside his partner in crime Olanskii, Jæger’s Friday residency Frædag is something of an extension of Sunkissed without being that obvious, bringing guests from Carl Craig to Vril to the city every week, while G-Ha & Olanskii soundtrack the night around these guests.

They rarely get a chance to play back to back as often as they did in the past, making it very special when they do indeed get a chance to do so. Geir mentions a recent event in Malmö where hey had the chance again to wear the G-Ha & Olanskii badge, and even though the early crowd had been thin on the ground, “it went really well.” As a duo they easily slip back into old habits as a single entity and as Geir says; “even though we had period where we play different kinds of music, we compliment each other.”

Whether playing as G-Ha or G-Ha & Olanskii, Geir’s skill in the booth is unwavering and he can adopt various approaches. At Jæger, during the winter months he looks “forward to the summer” when he’s able to play the peak time hours in the courtyard to a full floor, but then again as the end of the summer draws near, he looks “forward to playing the early set in the basement” again so he can catch a glimpse of some of the visiting DJ dignitaries. “Not watching, listening to” he insists. I’m surprised to find Geir enjoys hearing new DJs, and he lists Leon Vynehall and Ben UFO as some “very inspiring” DJs today.

It’s curious since Geir is from a time of the DJ as faceless facilitator, and a time an audience would focus all their intentions on the dance floor and the party. Names like Leon Vynehall and Ben UFO are DJs that travel the world as DJ personalities that people go to “see”. There is no sense of a “party” happening and rather like going to see your favourite band in concert, we go to see DJs today. “It’s like watching music”, explains Geir about the state of the situation. “There so much more focus on the personality in the booth than the music.”

As a DJ whose only focus has ever been the music and whose loyalty is solely directed at the dance floor, it’s a scene that is an entire world away for Geir. It’s something that extends from Oslo to the rest of Europe too, and even to a place like Panorama Bar. “When you play Panorama Bar, and you see people eyeballing you” Geir, the DJ is not able to process that into anything other than an awkward hello. What used to be “about the dancing” has morphed into hype and hubris, and Geir prefers the anonymity of the past.  

It’s part of the reason he likes playing Reworks festival, the next stop on his summer calendar. “I guess the general clubber might not have heard of me there ” says Geir, but featuring on the line-up for the second consecutive year at Reworks, its clear Greek audiences too now know the appeal of Oslo’s best kept secret by now. Last year Geir was the anonymous guest at closing party, playing with David August and has fond memories playing in the “35 degree heat” overlooking the city of Thessaloniki from the rooftop venue. He is looking forward to his next visit and in the weeks leading up to the festival he has certainly found a groove in the booth and even though Geir might have been frustrated with current selections, there is no audible sign of it in his sets.

From those early years in Skansen to the diverse approach of Sunkissed and finding a home at Jæger, Geir Aspenes legacy is enshrined in Oslo nightlife and he wears that badge of honour with a sense of humility and sincerity that escapes much of a younger generation. He might be a veteran of the field today, but like Prins Thomas, Pål Strangefruit and Bjørn Torske Norway’s electronic music scene has to doff its cap at G-Ha for his unwavering presence in club culture in the region and his determined resolve keeping it exciting and relevant.

* G-Ha & Olanskii play every Friday at Jæger and G-Ha plays Reworks Warehouse stage on the 16th of September.