Johanna Knuttson and Karen Gwyer have followed similar trajectories despite being born some 4000 miles apart. Both made their respective debuts around the turn of the decade, decided move to Berlin to pursue musical endeavours and happen to be fairly fluid in their approach to genre. Both are truly singular talents in their own right too.
Gwyer might be something of an outsider in techno circles, but full of drama, her cinematic, hardware-driven approach often manifests in moments of pure electronic transcendence. Knutsson on the other hand has confounded expectations, effortlessly oscillating between pastoral ambient meditations and functional dance cuts – she’s also a resident for Berlin party-come-label Oscillate, whose third release just so happened to materialise as a split EP from the duo. Having premiered one of her tracks back in June, we asked Gwyer to draft up a few questions for her labelmate, and vice versa.
Johanna Knutsson: How does the day before (and leading up to the performance) look for you? Both emotionally and logistically (planning and preparing etc).
Karen Gwyer: I’m often in a mild state of panic. Not as in “I’m simply not going to be able to do this,” but more like, “Right, what are the five hundred things I have to worry about and remember to get myself from my house right now to the end of my set?” An endless string of disaster scenarios plays in the back of my head from door to door, which I know is all bollocks. But still. Travelling with gear is hard. I haven’t yet found a way to avoid hurting my back, all the picking up and putting the bags down. Then, going through security involves going to a special happy place in my mind, it’s so bloody stressful. I try to stay as calm as possible, but airports are clearly designed to break us.
On to flying… Oh, I hate flying. I have a terrible phobia of taking off, and until the plane is up at cruising altitude, I maniacally hammer away at my solitaire app, cocking my head to the side like an excitable bird to disrupt my equilibrium (Tip – this really works). Once airborne, I go through all the lousy bits of my previous sets in my head, and set myself little instructions on how to make the next performance better. Then there’s getting to the venue, trying to decompress in a van load of intimidating people. It’s pretty bonkers, the amount of emotional taxation I put myself through. But hey, it’s really incredible to play your own music in front of a euphoric crowd, isn’t it?! Not much beats it!
JK: If I was a promoter and you were to play for my night that I put on, what could I do to make sure you had a pleasant experience as an artist? Can be both big and small things (that some promoters tend to ignore or forget am I right?)
KG: As you may have gathered, by the time I get to the venue, I’m often pretty drained and apprehensive. I always make it a point to be polite and professional, though, and the best gigs are the ones where that approach is reciprocated. For me, it’s the little things that matter, and just feeling like they genuinely want me to be there makes all the difference. The key things to offer are 1. basic information, 2. support, and 3. a drink. Easy! Occasionally, these things aren’t on offer, and those are the experiences that sustain my pre-show dread. It’s really gutting to arrive in a situation where all signs point to the fact that my presence is of little consequence to them. That’s an awful, lonely feeling, not because of a dented ego, but because I’m putting myself and my own music out there on the line, and it takes bloody courage, right?
JK: From the chats you and I have had before this, we both seem to have similar personalities in some ways. I reckon neither of us are thriving when we get too much attention or have are expected to be in a certain way as an artist. Isn’t it funny that we are still in this line of work, where we are put out there to be judged/praised/hated or loved for everyone to take a part of it?
KG: Ooooo! I’m really going to have to choose my words carefully on this one, because as we both know, these interviews are actually etched in stone.
Right, so where to start? How about with online abuse. We’ve had the Jurassic Period, the Triassic Period, the Cretaceous, and now we’re clearly in the Contemptuous Period. How the hell did we get to this? How did so many people become seduced by the notion that their own take on every damn subject relating to tunes in clubs needed to be not only aired but definitively heard and responded to by the artist in question? Clearly there’s an easy dopamine rush to be had by publicly slagging people off, particularly when you live without any fear of needing to prove your own competence and/or knowledge in the same field, and especially when you believe that you are firmly in the right. Unfortunately I don’t feel any desire to routinely direct attention towards which bathroom in which city I happen to be incredibly lucky enough to be huffing piss in, but luckily, by default, I reckon I appear pretty much off the social media grid as a result. It’s plain to see that not engaging works pretty well to minimise everyday abuse. Until, perhaps, I’m accused of “staying silent,” which is its own can of monstrous, flesh-eating worms, that of course I worry about.
So we’re here and this is the situation we’re in. The dilemma involves trying to figure out whether or not my avoidance of this bullshit equates to a modus operandi built around avoidance. I’m staunchly against the idea that anyone should be making any decisions based on the fear of judgement or exposure. As long as we’re not out there being complete assholes, we all have every right to make whatever damn music we want, play it where we decide to, and participate in the occasional Against The Clock feature or similar. But based on appalling past reactions to some of our and our peers’ appearances and surfacings across the internet, I’ve definitely refrained from taking a few opportunities and reaching out to people that I would genuinely like to reach out to because I have no interest in being shamed online by the every-critic. I’m more wary now of attention of any kind, even positive.
I press on, though, not just because the thought of going back to the degradation of the advertising industry fills me with horror, but also because there’s actually no need to justify my presence and my work, is there? If it’s valuable to me to do it, then it’s worth doing. For myself. I repeat that ad infinitum to keep positive. Also, while it sometimes feels like I’m upstream without a paddle (and standing before a firing line) saying “Uh, sure, ok, I guess I’ll have a go, then,” I’m determined to advance the expectation that women should without question be equally and respectfully represented in every corner of this industry.
KG: How do YOU reconcile your choice to be active in the field of electronic music with the mob’s insistence that artists must be willing to “defend” themselves? What do you make of that frequently seen assertion?
JK: I am gonna be honest, I try to avoid thinking too much about these things and just continue doing it for the sake of loving music and everything about it (the studio, listening, performing). I’ve had too many sleepless nights already about what people think, and in the end it doesn’t matter actually because my intention was never to be famous. Sometimes I imagine myself just outside this bubble called “the scene” look in on it and be like… “what is going on in there actually?” I don’t really understand the surrounding bits like social media, PR and who to not be/to be associated with. I got into music because it sparks something in me and that’s why I continue.
KG: What’s your take on formats that invite artists to perform in seemingly safe and sometimes intimate spaces, which are then viewed by vast audiences online? These platforms have been around for a while now, but are they a good way of normalising the presence of still way under-represented groups of DJs and producers when we’ve seen some of our finest non-white-male peers, for example, grappling with shockingly disrespectful commentary that clearly causes them harm? Have you felt a sense of pressure or obligation to go ahead and risk your dignity and confidence in part to try to move things forward?
JK: You explained the problematic situation so well with these sentences! It’s important to show how different artists work; that there’s not just one correct way to work on your music or art or whatever it may be. Totally humiliating some times but a short video or even a one hour long performance – it’s not real life, which we should try to remember. It’s a glimpse into one’s work space or showing some work flow, and why not be true and transparent about it?
I’ve had tons of days in the studio getting nowhere and then certain days I finish a track from scratch in 12 hours. Not all of us can compress that into a 10-minute video, and I won’t be bullied into thinking that what I am doing is “the wrong way.”
All artists started off somewhere and worked their way up, but are we then not allowed to show the journey up to that point, but only the perfected end result? That’s absurd, and intimidating for people (as it was for myself) who are interested in making music but don’t know where or how to start.
I’m not my best in front of the camera or microphone, but that’s ok because I have still been able to finish several releases and performed DJ-sets/live-sets for years which in the end is what our job is. The amount of disrespect online is also why it’s important to not stop putting ourselves out there. I’d be disappointing myself by saying no to things that could be fun or educational on a personal level.
And most of the time the content isn’t the problem. There will always be someone having a bad day and taking it out online instead of moving on with their day and not worrying about what other people are doing or not doing, right?
JK: How come you said yes to doing this EP for Oscillate (and with me!)? And how do you go about choosing which labels you say yes to?
KG: For the past handful of years, I’ve worked mostly with labels and people who I have some history with, or at least a common thread. I like folks who are slightly outside the fray, maybe a little mad, easy to have a laugh with, are good with their book keeping, and are pretty happy to let me do my thing. I find the idea of sending out demos really frightening, so I somehow manage to avoid that by focusing on connections with people I’ve made out and about. Not that I’m a networker, because that’s one thing I really don’t excel at. But things fall into place, and I suppose it helps that I do like working with smaller labels.
I jumped at the chance to do this EP with you partly because I had already played a brilliant night for Kate and Mato at Oscillate here in Berlin, and they were lovely, and I knew they had a young label, but also because of that one goofy evening last summer… I already knew you were a sick producer and DJ, and I respected you for going about your business very much on your own terms. We spotted each other at an industry event that was, how shall we put it, one of those things that you need SO much white wine to get through. That was a right laugh. And you ended up solving one of the hairiest problems in my life, so of course I said yes to the record! (Johanna this made me super happy since I was totally starstruck by you when we met, therefore I drank for the first time in months, haha. It was a great interaction in the end, worth that epic hangover)
KG: How come you said yes to doing this EP for Oscillate (and with me!)? And how do you go about choosing which labels you say yes to?
JK: Same reason as you actually! Kate and Mato asked me to join Oscillate club nights as their resident after my second closing set there, and then they asked me to send some music for a release. Which is huge since I still hadn’t released a solo techno EP yet, and having their trust could only create good things. It was so much fun to make music for them and when they told me that you wanted to do music for this EP as well I freaked out of joy!
I’d say yes to labels if I have any sort of connection with them or if it’s a label I’ve kept an eye on before, since I usually take a little time to make tracks, and it doesn’t make any sense to share them all over the place.
Oscillate Tracks 003 is out now – buy it here.