Label focus – Mike Paradinas on 25 years of Planet Mu

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WHAT’S THE NAME OF YOUR LABEL, AND WHO RUNS IT?
Planet Mu. I run it but there are other people who run it with me, mainly Thomas Quaye, who is the label manager, he sorts out things like accounting and dealing with distributors and shipping, all that sort of stuff. There’s a publishing company that’s run by Gavin Burness and Marcus Scott does the press.

WHEN & WHY DID THE LABEL START?
Well, it depends where you take it from 25 years ago it started through Virgin, 22 years ago it started independently. Through Virgin we still had quite a few releases, mainly of mine, and then the Mealtime compilation. They were all on the Planet Mu imprint on Hut through Virgin. Yeah, Mealtime had people like Jega, AFX , Plaid, Mould, Animals On Wheels, stuff like that.
Why did it start? Well, I thought I needed an exit strategy for when I became shit at writing music. This was it. I was thinking, for a start, I can’t do music forever, but I could make a percentage off other people’s music if I released it. I thought I would probably be quite good at that.

Some of the first stuff I was getting together as a business plan never came out. One of the things I had was the Boards of Canada album which eventually ended up coming out on Warp via Skam. I was trying to sign that. In the end they rang up and said ‘Warp have offered us some money so we’re going to do it with Skam and Warp.’ It was a good label so I couldn’t compete.

I was going to do an EP with Like A Tim, from Djax-Up-Beats, but that came out on Rephlex in the end. Originally it was just an imprint of Hut/Virgin, and because it was going through Vital, independent distribution, they said I could have my own imprint name, which was Planet Mu, and then a couple of years later in 1997, I said to Dave Boyd the guy in charge at Hut, could I do this compilation, could I release other acts on it, and he seemed quite interested and we got Mealtime together.

Unfortunately, I think the way everything was run at Virgin meant that too much money was spent on it, the legal team had to be paid, they used to most expensive mastering studio – which they own, obviously – so I thought it might be better if I did this sort of thing myself on a shoestring. So I went independent and it’s a good thing I did because I got dropped a couple of year later.

GIVE US A BRIEF SUMMARY OF WHAT YOU’VE RELEASED SINCE THEN….
We’re up to 400 and something releases now.

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WHAT QUALITIES ARE YOU LOOKING FOR IN THE MUSIC YOU RELEASE?
It’s the excitement you get when you hear something and you think ‘I want to hear that again’ or ‘what was going on there?’ The shock of the new. I remember the first time I went into a record shop, Boogie Times in Romford, and heard some early jungle. I was used to hardcore and slightly slower stuff. They were playing these white labels they had behind the counter, Krome & Time I think it was. I want to hear excitement like that. Not every release has to be like that, obviously. Sometimes it can be good craftmanship, something really catchy. Lately we’ve been releasing less stuff with vocals. It doesn’t tend to do well on Planet Mu. The audience we’ve got wants to hear instrumental electronic music.

WHAT KIND OF VISUAL IDENTITY DOES THE LABEL HAVE (ARTWORK, VIDEOS ETC) ?
The original logo was part of the µ-Ziq logo on my first release on Rephlex and that was designed by Grant Wilson-Claridge (who ran Rephlex with Aphex Twin). I asked him an he very kindly said I could use that as a logo. Visual identity is getting more and more important with the fact people are hearing music for the first time on places like Instagram and TikTok now. Sometimes the artist has a good idea of what they want. Sometimes I get free reign to go from scratch but usually they have an idea or an image or a photo they want to use.

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WHAT’S BEEN YOUR BIGGEST SELLING RELEASE TO DATE? TELL US A BIT ABOUT IT AND WHY YOU THINK IT WAS SO POPULAR.
At the moment we’ve got this John Frusciante album (Maya) on Timesig, we started up this Venetian Snares sub-label Timesig and that is doing really well at the moment.

Releases by Ital Tek , Jlin and Keudo have all done well in recent years.

NAME ONE RELEASE THAT YOU THINK DESERVED TO GET MORE ATTENTION THAN IT DID
Something like Mr Mitch’s first and second albums – that actually got loads of attention in the press but sold pitifully. It’s always disappointing when something you really love doesn’t do very well,, especially when you’ve spent a lot of money on it. It’s a guessing game really. You have to change the way you work every year, every six months sometimes because things change so fast in the industry.

IF YOU COULD SIGN ANY ARTIST, ALIVE OR DEAD, WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
The only thing that springs to mind is a proper Aphex box set of all the old cassette stuff. Aphex Twin was obviously a huge influence on my music. I have about five or six tracks on MP3 that weren’t on that Soundcloud dump, and I remember hearing ones back in the day that still haven’t appeared. When I was at his house I remember him writing stuff – a lot appeared in the dump but some I remember didn’t.

WHICH OTHER LABELS DO YOU ADMIRE AND WHY?
At the beginning it was a lot of the Detroit labels like Transmat and Planet E, which was a big inspiration behind our name. Other labels like obviously Rephlex too, 4AD, those ones inspired me.

WHAT CAN WE LOOK TO FROM YOUR LABEL NEXT?
Next year we’ve got albums from RP Boo, another EP from Rian Treanor, another album from Ripatti and releases from Meemo Comma, Basic Rhythm, Jana Rush and Bogdan Raczynski. There’s also a new album from (Mike’s jazz-funk slanted alter ego) Jake Slazenger – that’s not on Planet Mu, I’m just doing that myself on Bandcamp. It’s a long time since I’ve done anything under that name and people have often asked if I’m going to do anything more. That’s mainly stuff from ‘94-‘98 but I have been working on new stuff on and off, so there may be another µ-Ziq release, a few labels have asked for stuff but I might just do it on Planet Mu/ In August I started writing some tracks. It started off really well, I did some good tracks and then it just got worse and worse! I’ll try again!

* Planet Mu’s next releases are Rian Treanor’s ‘Obstacle Scattering’ 12″ on February 19 and Meemo Comma’s Neon Genesis: Soul Into Matter album, scheduled for March 19.

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Johanna Knutsson interview

To coincide with our International Women’s Day celebrations, we hit up the Berlin-based producer to talk about creative inspiration in the studio.

press pic (credit Fredrik Altinell)

Johanna Knutsson’s approach to studio life is unusual by the standards of most producers. Not only does the Berlin-based artist favour a remote location nearly an hour away from her home, but the studio she rents in the unfashionable Marzahn district is also a light and calming environment, with the walls painted pale pink and her friend’s French bulldog, Pepper, snoozing by her feet on the turquoise carpet.

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Having grown up in the small town of Tollarp in southern Sweden, the 35-year-old producer and DJ relocated to the German capital around a decade ago, forging a reputation as a distinctive voice in techno before branching out into ambient territory. As a label boss, she operates Zodiac 44 with Luca Lozano and UFO Station Recordings with Hans Berg. As a live performer, she’s also a member of her fellow Swede Sebastian Mullaert’s Circle Of Live collective, alongside a rotating cast of collaborators including Dorisburg and Mathew Jonson.

To coincide with our International Women’s Day celebrations, we hit her up to talk about creative inspiration in the studio, favourite gear and how she balances the harder and softer sides of her musical output.

Juno: Hi Johanna. To start, can you tell us a bit about where your studio is, how long you’ve been there and how you’d describe the setup?

Johanna Knutsson: I have my studio out in Marzahn [on the north-east side of Berlin], 40-50 minutes away from my house. I’ve been out here for about two years now, and even if I’d prefer something closer to my home, I’m really happy with the cheap rent and the fact that once I’m in the studio I tend to stay for at least seven or eight hours a day.

My setup is small, which is not by choice but for economic reasons. I’m always browsing and making sure I buy the right things instead of all of the things. I am always saving money for more synths and drum machines. I have a huge list of things I want to buy as soon as I have the money!

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As a producer, are you the kind of person who’s inspired by gear in its own right? Does a new synth or drum machine inspire you, or are they just tools?

It’s always fun with a new machine to learn, but the [main] synth I have – a Nord Lead – has been such a helpful and inspiring tool for me. She – it’s a she – has really opened my eyes to exactly how much you can do with sounds, and how a small turn on a knob can develop the whole vibe of a sound. I am never going to get rid of her, no matter how many more synths I buy.

Looking at your studio, the first thing that stands out is the aesthetic. How much does that matter to you?

I realise that an all-pink studio with plants and cute knick-knacks isn’t the first thing one imagines when talking about techno production, but it helps me a lot to feel comfortable and being in an environment that I’ve created for myself and my personality. I can of course sit in other studios and collaborate, but when I open the door to my own studio, I’ve never once not smiled or felt an incredible peace. It’s like my hideaway where I can create exactly whatever I want and be free.

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Do you like to keep the same studio setup or change things up? Are there any particular pieces of equipment that are completely essential to the way you work?

Like I said before, my Nord Lead is the heart of the studio body. I change things up more in terms of pedals, filters and effects, or use my Korg Volca for bass instead of the Nord. I also love my [Roland] RE-20 Space Echo, it’s such a keeper.

Do you mainly work with synths, not samples?

I just started working with samples. Up until now I’ve always made every little sound myself but learned that there are millions of samples out there already, that I can mess up and turn into my own. For this I use my [Ableton] Push a lot. It’s much nicer than staring into my computer screen. My relationship with MIDI is a love/hate type of relationship, but at the moment we’re good together.

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What made you want to start using samples as well as creating your own sounds?

It came up when I was on tour with Circle Of Live in August last year, because I didn’t have my whole studio setup with me but wanted to work on music in the hotel room. I got really into Splice, where I found a lot of cool samples.

The two strands of your musical output, generally speaking, are techno and ambient. Do they represent different parts of your own personality and creative approach, or does it all come from the same place?

Yeah, this is something I ask myself as well sometimes. I understand that those genres are on very different ends of a spectrum, and even if I sometimes think that it’s easy for me to make both I really need different mindsets to create any one of them. I have to psyche myself up or down on the way to the studio depending on what I plan to make that day. There are days where I go in planning to finish some ambient stuff, for example, but can’t stop making dance music, or the other way around. [I] gotta do what feels right that day. My whole output is driven by my emotions, and I completely trust them.

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Does that mean that you begin working on music with set ideas about what you want to achieve? Do you have a plan in mind before you go into the studio, or do you start playing and see what happens?

Yeah, I do go in thinking about what needs to be started or finished, and give that a go. Most of the time it works, but some days are darker than others and then I’m incapable of forcing myself to create something ‘functional’, and have to channel that into the music. It works for me, though. I’ve learned to not force anything.

I think you said once that you don’t listen to techno when you’re making dinner, but what about being inspired by other music? Are you inspired more by music in similar styles to what you make, or music from other styles and genres?

Well, I’ve changed a little. I just have to listen to it in my headphones, then I can listen to anything anywhere and anytime! It’s when dance music is filling up a room that isn’t a club, that’s when it annoys me. Techno needs to be loud, not half-assed in some weak speakers. Most days I just listen to my friends mixtapes. I’m lucky to have the most talented friends, no matter what music they make.

I’m really inspired by 70s stoner rock, and new space rock or adventure rock. Check out Hällas and you’ll know what I mean. I think it’s because they also love their echoes and reverbs, which is a huge thing in my productions. It’s the most fun type of concerts to go to as well. Sunn O))), for example. Hell of a show.

Do you find it easy to balance the creative side of studio production and live performances with what I guess we could call the admin side of running your labels, and so on?

I don’t run any of the labels on my own, fortunately. I think it’s so helpful to work with friends and go over things together. I would put out way more music if it was just me; I’m too eager and excited, and not very business-minded or patient. I’m very thankful for my label partners Lucas Hunter, Michael Ho and Hans Berg.

I want to finish with a really broad question. What do you find most satisfying about music technology and what do you find most frustrating?

The most satisfying thing about it has been to realise that even when you’re using your equipment ‘wrong’ you can discover and create something beautiful almost by mistake. It’s never-ending really, and it never gets boring to work on sounds and notes.

The most frustrating – for me, at least – has been to figure out ways to save your work. The first time I experimented with using external hard drives I lost three months of album work, so I learned the hard way. Other unsatisfying [aspects] don’t have to do with music but with the technical side of things. I am definitely not a computer geek even if I really wish I was.

If anyone reading this would like to spend a day with me, helping me create a system for automatic saving and efficient computer backup, get in touch please.

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