Back in 2008 Johanna Knutsson made a conscious decision to leave an established profession behind to follow what she thought would be a mere temporary indulgence.Taking a year sabbatical from a successful career as a hairstylist at the age of twenty four, she left her home town and made the journey due south to Berlin. She had fallen in love with the city through the sound of electronic music earlier that year, and felt that she simply had to immerse herself in the music and the culture, to see if it could lead anywhere. Nine years on and she is one of Sweden’s most distinguished DJ exports, runs two successful labels and has made her own contributions to the dance floor both as a solo artist and as part of the eponymous and obvious Johanna Knutsson & Hans Berg.
Spending her time between DJing every weekend, the studio, and the office, Johanna Knutsson has established an earnest career out of what she thought would be little more than an inconsequential “hobby”. Still, she manages to find some time in her very full schedule on a Monday to field some questions from us, preceding her appearance at Into the Episode (Jæger). We catch her while she’s “unpacking (her) record bag” and dealing with the administrative side of her labels UFO Station (which she runs with Hans Berg) and Zodiac (which she runs with Luca Lozano). It’s early for a Monday following a weekend of gigs for the DJ, and Johanna says: “Saturday to Sunday hasn’t had an effect on me till this morning”, without audibly conveying any sense of it.
Nine years might not seem a long time in the career of a DJ considering the lifetime of musical knowledge it requires today, but in that time Johanna Knutsson has established herself as a formidable DJ, bringing an idiosyncratic sound to the booth through the more eccentric corners of the dance floor. Playing on the dichotomy between the functional and the unconventional Johanna’s sets are bold and adventurous, but also engaging. There’s a kind of spacey theme to her style in the booth, hovering around the twilight zone of House and Techno, drawing the listener in through the peculiar and persuading the body toward the intuitive. Her early solo productions through Luca Lozano’s Klasse recordings were tentative steps towards the same sonic proportions, but it would be alongside Hans Berg that she was able to realise them completely. Their music epitomises the UFO station recordings name as music made to reach the outer regions of the Techno and House universe.
In the expanse of this career, Johanna Knutsson has established herself as an acclaimed figure in the DJ and electronic music community in Berlin, holding her own amongst her more established peers. She took to DJing instinctively and has made a lasting impression wherever she’s gone, both in the booth and in the record bags of other DJs. We take up her story in the midst of this life-altering decision, where everything is still new and fresh…
When and how did you make the move from Mälmo to Berlin to embark on a career in Djing.
It was pretty late in life. I was about twenty four before I got in contact with this type of electronic music. When I found it I realised I’d found what I’d been missing musically. It became an incredibly intense obsession, and that’s why I moved to Berlin, to get closer to the music.
Usually I find new hobbies or interest and I really get into them for a few months and then something else comes along, but this is the only interest that stayed with me, because you couldn’t possibly learn it that quickly.
Was there a previous obsession in terms of playing an instrument or a genre of music?
No, not really. I’ve always been into music in one form or another and went through a lot of genres in my life, mostly hovering around Rock, especially seventies stoner Rock, which doesn’t have any relationship to what I’m listening to now. (Laughs) I still enjoy it, but there was no smooth transition into Techno. When I got in touch with this new music, I realised I couldn’t be in Sweden, because I was working seven days a week at my previous job. I decided then that if I want to do something new I might as well get started. I took a sabbatical year from my job as a hairdresser to go and live somewhere else for a year… and that turned into nine years.
At what point did you know that DJing was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Somewhere I still have this plan that when everything stops working out, I can still do this hairdressing gig, so I keep that in the back of my mind. But I did know from the beginning, that this is what I wanted to do. When I signed my first rental contract, I thought: “why would I go back where everything is four times more expensive”. It felt like everything was falling into place.
As a DJ that’s only been involved in electronic music for a relatively short period of time (in terms of the extensive history of this music), do you find yourself constantly having to catalogue the history of it while going forward too?
Yes, and I think that’s what keeps it interesting. The first year when I started building my record collection, going to record stores, and finding new music and going out dancing to hear DJs, that was the most interesting time for me. Everything was so new, and you have so much passion and so much energy. After that first year I realised I had put so much time and effort into this and I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s so overwhelming and I had to take a step back and tell myself:” I don’t need to figure everything out right now”. It’s much more interesting now, when I find that one really cool track on a record in a sales bin with three other tracks that are not anything special.
We’re talking about nine years ago to this point. DJing has this timelessness to it, but you probably have to keep on top of it constantly.
I know there’s so much new stuff coming out all the time, and it’s really hard to grasp. You can get lost in what other people are doing and trends, because you try to adapt, involuntarily. I really like going out dancing, but I’m very unaware of who’s super popular right now.
And I buy a lot of old music, so I feel that I often miss out on trends. For me, it might be good thing, because something might be trendy that you love, but if that phase is over will you stop loving your music then?
How do you usually stumble across tracks. Is it a artist, a label, or just a cover?
I’m not sure if this is something good to go public with, but I have such a bad memory, so I have a really hard time to recall artist names or labels or histories. My partner for instance could relay an entire history of a release just by looking at it, while I’ll go: “I just picked it up because the cover looked cool”. So I often have to listen to a lot of crap music, but sometimes I’ll stumble across something other people might not think to look at.
You got into production pretty early on too, and I read in another interview, it was because you were advised to do so. I also read that you felt more comfortable working with a production partner Hans Berg, later on. What is your relationship with those first two releases?
Those first releases were so early, at a time I couldn’t really express what I wanted it to sound like. It was impossible for me to get it to sound like it was in my head, because I just didn’t know how. Hans has a much wider knowledge of production, because this has been a career for him all along. So it’s a real advantage to be working with him, because we can create much faster together, to get to the end result.
So looking back on those first two releases, knowing what you know now, would you still release them?
I know a lot of people enjoyed them and there was a good reception, so I don’t regret making them, but I wouldn’t do it again, no. That’s also because I’ve changed musically quite a lot.
Do you find your productions need to be an extension as your sound as a DJ?
That’s how it feels now, yes. I feel that the productions we put out now is much more similar to the sound both Hans and I have when we perform. It’s also similar to the music I buy. I don’t have any trouble playing my own tracks now, and I don’t think I ever played those first releases.
So for me personally, yes, I feel like it should be an extension of what I play. It doesn’t have to be like that though, because I’m starting a new ambient solo project, and unless I’m booked for an ambient set I wouldn’t play any of those tracks.
Ambient music really? It definitely feels like the genre is coming into prominence again, at least in the recorded format. Do you think it’s a trend?
I’ve noticed, or read about it too, but I’ve bought ambient music since the beginning, because they were just beautiful pieces of music. Having a project of my own, was more of an idea, after I made a mixtape of ambient music. I’ve done radio shows too focussing on only ambient music. Perhaps it’s an age thing. I feel it’s very comforting to listen to electronic music when it’s not dance music as well.
Yes, we can’t be listening to pounding kicks all the time.
I would be so annoyed. (Laughs)
Yeah me too. That’s why I miss the chill-out room in clubs.
Exactly, what happened to those? Why is that not cool anymore? I feel like I wouldn’t go home a lot of the times, if there were a chill-out room. Maybe you find yourself in a situation where you didn’t want to go home, but you also couldn’t be in the club anymore, then you could hang out in the chill-out room, and find some new energy and then go back.
Back to the main room though, and specifically your DJ sets. I would describe them as spacey for lack of better simile. How would you describe them?
I always find it very hard to describe what my sound is because I don’t know myself. It follows my mood, but spacey is a good description. I’ve said this before, and this is not to offend anybody, but when I’m out dancing and it gets too generic for me it tends to lose me. I want to be like: “what’s the hell is this!”. That’s what I want a set to be, I want it to not make sense. It doesn’t always have to be fun, but it’s good if it’s strange or weird. It’s cool to space out, but the music shouldn’t just be about dancing, it should surprise and make you feel something.
You split your time between DJing producing and two labels UFO station and Zodiac and I wanted to ask you a bit about Zodiac, because it’s an interesting concept. There’s six out and you’re definitely cutting it off at twelve, representing each sign of the Zodiac. Is that right?
Number seven is coming now, but yes, we’ll definitely cut it off at twelve, then we’ll probably start a new project.
Do you have the other six artists lined up, or do you take it like it comes?
We take it as it comes. There’s no stress with this label, we’ve had one to two releases per year. For the last release there’s gonna be a bit of a secret, but it will be fun.
Do you find running a label has any sort of correlation to being a DJ today?
I see it almost as a business card. Running a label is way to present yourself in a more professional way, unlike a performer. It’s also a way we can give something back to the artists that we play out. We release tracks from artists that we enjoy; that’s how we find them. It’s music that we would play ourselves.
Do you think that having a label, is the same as being a producer, something you need as an extra piece of the puzzle to sell yourself as a DJ?
Sometimes when everything is going well I really love it, but sometimes stuff doesn’t go as planned and then I wish i was just DJing. When someone writes me a strongly worded email, I take it really personally, then it’s a bit boring having to deal with these things. If I knew I could be DJing without producing or running labels then I would’ve just stuck to Djing. Now that it’s gone this far it also brings a lot of joy. I’ve grown a lot doing this.
I think that’s an excellent place to leave it. Thank you Johanna. I’ll let you get back to the labels now and unpacking your record bag. We look forward to having you here.
I’m really looking forward to it. So many of my friends have played there and I’ve heard so many good things, see you on Friday.