Prins Thomas: Catching lightning in a bottle
A mere 20-minute journey by train from Oslo’s central station and the city’s grey, urbanite landscape opens up to a suburban winter wonderland where a few feet of brilliant white snow cloaks the suburban setting of Asker. Reflecting the sun’s rays in a luminescent bright light, against a backdrop of fir trees and and young pupils making their way to school, pairs of ice skates strapped to their person, a more picture perfect moment of a Norwegian winter you could hardly paint… that is until you look out the window of Prins Thomas’ duplex window. From this vantage point the Oslo fjord lies under a thin layer of fog just beyond a mountainous range that hugs the coastline, and Norwegian nature poseurs in one of the most spectacular views of the region I have ever seen. “We bought the place on a cloudy day”, says Thomas, with a rye smile as we rolls back the blinds to reveal more of the Norwegian landscape “so we didn’t even know that view existed until we moved in”.
Standing in the living room of Thomas Moen Hermansen – the Prins by name and by standing in Norwegian electronic music – is a surreal experience. A cozy, home environment with the distinct footprint of children at play, there is no mistaking it as anything other than the home of a working recording artist and DJ. Instruments, records, children’s toys and books live side-by-side across two floors, where the noticeable absence of a television suggests that there is enough here to keep Thomas busy during an average day without the distraction of a visual stimulus. Thomas looks as comfortable here as he does at a pair of decks. He is in the process of moving his secondary studio, the one where he keeps the bulk of his records, closer to home, enjoying the process of finally settling into his surroundings after years of travelling and moving around. “I finally have a place I can call home, not just a crash pad”, says Thomas as he puts his feet up on a chair. It’s an environment that makes quite the contrast to the club spaces, festival fields, DJ booths and swarming crowds we’ve watched Prins Thomas come to dominate club music and DJing in our lifetime, but just like those situations, he is incredibly comfortable in his surroundings, adopting the the role of father and homemaker just as easily as he has commanded the role of DJ and electronic music figurehead.
In his living space, we are surrounded by more records and cds from the likes of “The Beach Boys, Pat Metheny, Neil Young and Elvis ”, pieces that never leave this allotted space. ”I try to put aside records that I really want to spend more time with” he says of the records aligning a shelf across one corner of the floor and grabs Babe,Terror’s recent release on Phantasy Sound, “Ancient M’ocean” as the musical backdrop for our conversation. I stole Thomas away from a studio session, where he is currently refining an album from 60-odd musical sketches made on planes while travelling to and from shows. These pieces will eventually make an album, but one that’s still some way from being finished, with his next album V only just moving into the final stages of production, while he establishes a new label for this project. “Prins Thomas music will cater to all your Prins Thomas needs” he elucidates through a broad smile ”and be an outlet for me to just bring out everything I have.” The label came into existence on something of a technicality, when Thomas realised he had already asked a couple of international producers to remix some tracks from the new album. Instead of destroying the Full Pupp “Norwegian-only” legacy or letting those remixers down, he found a compromise in Prins Thomas Music, an exclusive vehicle “for all your Prins Thomas needs” as he so eloquently put it, with a slightly more flexible ideology, where Thomas could explore the depth of his creativity even further.
“V” will follow “Principe Del Norte” the fourth LP from Prins Thomas, a concept ambient album that came out last year under the Smalltown Supersound banner. “I wanted to call the ambient album IV”, explains Thomas on the inconsistency of album names “and then Joakim (Haugland) insisted I find a title to do it differently from what I usually do, to try and make it stand out.” Initially slotted to be released under the pseudonym to stay loyal to Full Pupp ethos, the label that begins and ends with Prins Thomas, Thomas abandoned the idea, preferring rather to “stand by everything” he produces. “If this record broadens people’s perspective of what kind of music I make”, he says of Principe Del Norte, “it can only be a good thing.” V, however sees Prins Thomas return to the continuation of his work in the studio from the last chapter, III. “My idea is that my albums are just a documentation of what I do in the studio. There is no agenda, no master plan. I make music, and when I find a batch of music that fits together (sometimes not even particularly well) I put out.” He considers his recorded work an “audio diary” a mere reflection of a creative period. “The records I make starts with when the last one was done, and then it’s just about what I’m able to make listenable in that short period.”
With one album following close on the heels of another; a future LP already in the works; the excellent Paradise Goulash mix album still quite fresh in our memory; and a continuous string of remixes that appear to have no end in sight, Prins Thomas seems to have hit something of a creative stride, or is this just what it’s usually like for the Norwegian artist? “I don’t know why, but I feel that when you’re inspired you just have to keep on working – catch the lightning in a bottle. When I sit down to make something it usually turns into something. It feels like I’m dying of some sickness and need to make as much as possible before I leave the planet.”
It’s an idea that I find also informs Thomas’ approach to listening to music, when later during our conversation he remarks: “I’ve got limited time on this earth and I need to absorb everything I can.” From Neil Young to Jeff Mills, Thomas’ record collection is a living entity which is a direct result of the DJ’s pursuit to try everything at least once. “It’s better to buy (records) all the time than to miss stuff”, he explains. A consummate consumer of music, Prins Thomas would rather get a record, only to let it sit for a while, instead of missing out. “Sometimes a lot of the new stuff I buy, will be old stuff when I play them.” I imagine that puts Thomas at an advantage to some other DJs who are always looking for that next hype thing, but he is more critical of the execution than the methods. “Rubbish is rubbish no matter how genius you are in putting them together”, he says and perhaps giving the music the time it deserves to mature before incorporating it in a Prins Thomas set is indicative of the DJ’s intrinsic artististic voice. “To me it’s more fun to find your own stuff rather than playing the same ten new records that every other DJ is playing.” It’s this particular aspect to Prins Thomas and his sets that has made him the critically acclaimed phenomenon that he is today, captivating audiences from Norway to Japan, with mixes that are individual and eclectic, often wavering on the orthodox, and never afraid to even give the obvious choice its dues. “If there’s something I should worry about, it is that I’m playing way too obvious things sometimes”, he says with a dry chuckle.
A Prins Thomas selection is always a rarefied experience, something crafted from a unique disposition that has been there since a young Thomas first met the older Pål Strangefruit who saw something special in his younger Hamar neighbour. “He was one of the older kids that took my passion seriously” remembers Thomas of his pre-teens. Strangefruit had given Thomas his first glance at putting two records together, making his younger nine-year old friend mixtapes from a selection of records, but he’d also handed something down to the young Thomas that has informed his eclectic tastes ever since. “I think we bought a lot of the same stuff from the same bins”, reminisces Thomas as he tries to unpack his musical education. “We had this import store on the west coast who would just dump all these records further up the country and (in Hamar), we used to get stuck with these records that nobody else wanted. The options at the time were stuff like the Thompson Twins with a Shep Pettibone remix or something, and then for like 5 or 10 kroner you could get Gunchback Boogie Band or D Train – all these really cool boogie things.” Stuff that’s really sought after today? “Some of them are, but to the people collecting Disco they are established classics. Today it seems that everybody is playing records that everybody else has, which to me only begs the question, how good could it be.”
Thomas has always tried to avoid this digging mentality, preferring to remove the blinkers that often come with some obsessive compulsive digging while looking for that rare one-off record. Thomas opts for eccentric, rather than the established, and it opened up a world where few wondered. As a child when he would spend weekends visiting his father in Moss, he would use the train journey as a convenient excuse to hop off at Oslo and run through the Karl Johann shopping street in search of the stuff records other people might have passed over. “The really cool stuff I had to get in Oslo, because I wasn’t on the top of the food chain when I started buying records.” Second hand record stores became a popular haunt for the teenager, which followed Thomas into his twenties when he took up DJing in a more professional capacity in Oslo.“During that time it was me digging for second hand stuff in Oslo all by myself. People were playing new House and Techno so when I moved to Oslo, I would go nuts in these second hand stores. You would get Arthur Russell for 10kr and I probably bought like 10 copies of Macho City by Steve Miller band and sold them off to other people later. People just weren’t buying it back then.” He would opt for a more eclectic approach always, “mainly playing old stuff” where others preferred to play the latest Techno or House craze from the states or the UK. “At the time I was more interested in the stuff James Lowell was doing than Jeff Mills.” Disco was not yet a thing in Oslo then, but by the time Thomas released his first record with Lindstrøm a few years later it had become a thing, an unstoppable thing.
Thomas quickly felt however that he was being neatly squared away in a Disco box, being booked for gigs with other DJ’s loosely based around that genre, and it’s here when a significant change in approach happened that perhaps informs more of Prins Thomas the DJ than anything else today. “That’s the first time I felt damn, I’m stuck if I don’t escape this.” Thomas, conspired with Lindstrøm to “sabotage” the Disco tag forced on them with a sophomore album that sounded very different to the first and at the same time he adopted a new unconventional DJ philosophy. I decided to travel less against the advice of my agent and other DJs. I thought I’d rather do that and keep enjoying this than be on the road all the time in that black hole that sucks you in, especially if I’m gonna get labelled as being Nu-Disco.”
Thomas interjects with some laughter as he says this with the confidence of 20/20 hindsight. Nu-Disco’s fate sealed in the dead-end of trends and fads, managed to spare Prins Thomas the indignity of getting stuck in the same rut, precisely for his eclectic approach to music and DJing and going against the grain of DJs that established a fortified template. At a time when he felt he might have “been stuck in the Disco loop”, too “focussed on the sound being organic” he realised that he’d “rather be less successful to be able to move between different things”. Playing on an international stage where things can become routine quite quickly, “the artwork suffers when people get too professional and to comfortable with it.” Thomas has avoided this by “always bringing something else, starting with something else” and “taking risks”, forever operating in the context of the mix. “When I DJ I usually think of the end result –The feeling people have when they leave the club.” With that in mind what makes a good record for Prins Thomas? “It’s got make itself useful in a story. There would be records that might not be of any use to another person, but for me would be the main record.” This is where Prins Thomas reigns supreme and many other high-profile DJs falter, finding that record that might not even work at that time, but when it does (and it usually does) it pays off quite handsomely. It brings a dynamism to every Prins Thomas set that resets the tone every so often and surprises the dancer, keeping him/her on his feet just when things might become too formulaic. Records “jump out and scream, play me!” and Thomas complies even if it might be the “obvious” thing, and yet it all comes from some very abstract idea, a feeling rather than a conscious effort. “I don’t really think too much about it anymore, because there’s so much music out there, anything can be bypassed.” he uses and example by way of explanation: “I’ve been playing ‘erotic city’ by Prince since 1985 every 5th gig at least. For me it’s a great record and there’s very little chance that any other DJ will play it that night since it’s one of the lesser known Prince tracks”.
Tracks like that however are not to be found amongst the collection in his living room where there’s a more of a reserved approach to his collecting. It’s here amongst the 2000-odd records that you’ll find Thomas’ more intimate listening moments, the records that don’t have any place in the club environment, segregated by a floor from the records that go into Thomas’ bag week in and week out. Yet like Thomas the home-body and father can’t really exist without the touring DJ, or the label owner can’t really exist without producer, Thomas is very much the sum of all these diversified parts conspiring in the one of a kind personality, that personifies his Dj mixes. “To me it feels like there’s a synergy effect to everything I do”, he says when we talk about Full-Pupp and his role as facilitator for new Norwegian club music. Thomas needs all these different aspects to be the larger than life character (to paraphrase Gerd Janson) that he is.“I wouldn’t feel comfortable concentrating on just one of these things and just doing that. It feels like someone is taking half of your crayons away. Sometimes even the most boring task could help something creative come along. All these different things, they all contribute to make me… at least happier.“