We spoke to Smallpeople, the dynamic production duo behind Smallville Records and record store based in Hamburg, Germany. Dionne aka Just von Ahlefeld and Julius Steinhoff established the store in 2005 with the help of fellow musician and friend Peter Kersten aka Lawrence, and have since developed their own brand of deep house, drawing from their admiration for subtle, evolving melodies. Having released records from Christopher Rau, Move D, Moomin, STL, Steven Tang and Benjamin Brunn, Smallville Records have attracted a loyal following of heads, turning, what started as and still is a neighbourhood hangout into one of house music’s most prominent imprints. In the interview we discover more about their musical origins, running the store and their plans for 2014.
Following the Smallville Records x Odd Fantastic ADE party, what have you been up to?
We were quite busy playing gigs all over the world within the last months. Amsterdam was an amazing Sunday daytime party with our friends, we just love that city. After that we went to Robert Johnson, that was the release party for Julius’ 12″ on Live At Robert Johnson and of course, Robert Johnson is always a DJs-dream. It’s just the perfect club, we adore it.
We also had a great party at Stattbad, Berlin on November 2nd together with our friends from Odd Fantastic and last weekend we were playing in Kiel on Friday and then went to Leipzig to play for our friends from the amazing Kann Label, they celebrated their 5th birthday and we had a blast. Friday we went to Cologne to play a Smallpeople all-nighter at Gewoelbe, we played for 8-9 hours – something that we really love to do.
Tell me about the mix you recorded for Inverted Audio? Particular records or a theme / mood?
A little different from other mixes we’ve done before, this one is more based on recent releases of 2013. It represents some of our favourite tracks of the first half of 2013 and music we keep in our bags most of the time.
Also as always we wanted to put the dramaturgy in that hour, of how a club night with Smallpeople would sound like. Plus, of course it’s a straight vinyl set.
How long have you been buying records for and where did this passion stem from?
Julius: I bought my Technics 1210 turntables in 1999, after I finished school and was earning money during my civilian service. So that’s when I started to buy records, started to mix and learnt how to play with 2 record players. My parents have always had regular turntables and a huge – and very interesting – record collection, which I was allowed to go through. I was into vinyl from a very early age, recording tapes for myself as well as friends.
I guess being surrounded by records during your childhood makes it easier to fall in love at a certain point…another point might be that I was playing the drums for a very long time during my childhood and youth – so mixing 2 grooves into a new groove always fascinated me and certainly made it easier for me.
At what point did you decide that music was the path for you?
Just (Dionne): I think it all started by hanging out on my twelve year old brother’s carpet as a small kid listening to the music he liked…that was Kate Bush, Supertramp and stuff like that.
My other two brothers were more into Boogie, Soul and RnB, so that inspired me more in the 90s along with Hip-Hop. I was also strongly involved in the Hardcore/Punk scene at that time, where I contributed in fanzines and shows.
I never really thought I would become a musician, just someone who tries, haha!
I learned how to play the guitar when I was around 19 and started some bands, which were a mixture of Hardcore and Jazz, but it never left the rehearsal room. I was then introduced to DJing through my girlfriend when I was around 22, but back then I was more into Indie Rock.
The reason I got into electronic music was mostly because of the NYC’s cabaret laws and a lot of my favourite artists from there started to form dance bands to protest against these laws.
Smallville Records seems to be very much a collaborative project, how did you meet and start working with Peter Kersten aka Lawrence on opening the store in Hamburg?
We met Pete through the Hamburg nightlife plus we had some friends in common, so it was quite natural that we got introduced and got to know each other.
Julius: I was hanging out a lot with Pete and Stella in 2004/ 2005, that was when we were talking about the possibility of opening a record store. Even DJ Koze was involved in the project at first, but then it was us 3 who were running the shop in 2005.
When Stella went to Berlin at some point, Just joined the Smallville family. Meanwhile Pete opened an art space together with Dave (Carsten Jost, from Dial), so with this project there was less time for him. So we took over and now we’re running both the shop and label together as Smallpeople.
Pete is still living in Hamburg though, he also still has his studio room with all his records in the back of Smallville and so it’s still all there within the Smallville family.
How did you come to meet and work with Stefan Marx? His artwork is part of the Smallville DNA and brand identity.
Stefan was also a friend from before we opened the store. We loved his drawings and his style, so he did a logo and some writings for us from the very first day. We all wanted him to be a part of it and he really wanted to be responsible for every little bit that you can think of.
Actually we only started to release records and organise Smallville parties about a year after we opened the store – so only around that time he realised, that there would be a lot of work in the future, haha.
We are really happy to have him and he is also very happy to be part of Smallville. He has complete artistic freedom to do whatever he likes and to display his art on record covers. We usually do full cover artwork. The cover is always void of information about the artist, it’s just a Stefan Marx piece of art.
What do you feel are the main concepts and ideologies behind the store and label?
There isn’t really an ideology or a concept, there was just the idea of having a record store and later a record label, from then on it developed naturally.
Instead of an ideology, there is a feeling that what we think everyone in our little family shares and this family grows slowly.
We just want to treat people right and want to be treated in the same way.
Customer loyalty is key to running a record store, can you tell us what you do to keep people interested in it?
Yeah its quite hard to keep people interested. In the beginning we tried to cover most aspects of dance music, including Techno, Minimal, Tech House and Experimental music, but later on we noticed that it’s easier to buy the stuff that we are really into.
What you also notice nowadays is, that through the Internet a lot of the customers are more informed than you are, haha. So we always try to get hold of all these limited and very limited and “Record Store Day” releases, which can be very frustrating, some of these labels don’t seem to have in mind that this is kind of a survival potion for us.
Sometimes it’s funny when we buy records for the store, we mostly have some of our customers in mind that would like the release.
How do you go about searching for new artists?
We don’t really. There is already a great bunch of people around us and of course the family is growing naturally. We get to know a lot of nice people that are making the best music around, so it only happens rarely that we ask someone we are fans of to release something – like it happened with STL and Steven Tang.
How have you seen your lives as DJ’s and producers develop since running the store?
Well, both of us played smaller gigs in Hamburg before we started with Smallville, but of course a lot of what has happened in our DJ and producer career until now, has happened due to Smallville. Not only because of the name, but also because it just led the way music wise and we just grew with it I guess.
If someone would have told us this in 2005, that in 8 years from now, we will have been to all these crazy places and clubs all around the world – I am sure we wouldn’t have believed them.
How did the two of you meet and start producing music together?
Just: Ahh that was 9 years ago, maybe when I was kicking out some indie jams in a local bar, where Julius came by with our friend Pete (Lawrence) that I knew for some time then.
A couple of years later when I was already helping out a lot in the store, we were discussing Julius’s side project and he was working on a hand built synthesizer, it’s called the “Analog Intruder” and it’s one hell of a machine!
He invited me to come over and do some fine-tuning and that ended up in producing our first tracks together, which were released on Smallville and Dial’s sub label Laid. We never planned to make music together, but I guess it worked out well.
Can you take us through your production setup, how do you go about handling the workload and developing your ideas? Do you have a specific process?
Nope, there is no real process to be honest. We just meet in the studio, open a beer and start to mess around with the machines to see where it leads us…having a lot of hardware is not an essential thing for us, as we started with only computers at first – but meanwhile we feel that it definitely influenced our way to do music and probably our sound as well. There are just more things happening, that you can’t think of before and that lead you to something that you love a lot in the end.
What labels and artists have helped influence your work as producers and label owners over the years?
Both of us most probably had our real initiative moments at one of the legendary “changing weather” nights, which were hosted monthly in the Golden Pudel Club for over ten years by Lawrence and Carsten Jost. The whole venue is pretty inspiring because you are free to play whatever you want to. You can learn a lot by just watching other DJs. So you could say the Dial factor is very important to us – but we developed our own style which might be inspired by labels like Prescription, Moods & Grooves and FXHE.
You have past releases on Underground Quality and Gerd Janson’s label Running Back, why did you decide to release on alternate labels? Do you feel a sense of loyalty to a label is integral to an artist?
Well we never had a master plan with our releases. We very rarely send out tracks to other people and record labels – it also happens through friendship. We’ve known Jus-Ed and Gerd for quite a while before we released music on their labels.
We sent Jus-Ed some tracks to play on his radio show, as he offered us when he visited us in Hamburg. He loved the tracks and directly signed them for a record on Underground Quality.
We only intended to get feedback from Gerd of Running Back. He played our demos out and loved them and insisted on releasing them.. and as you can imagine, Running Back and Underground Quality are two labels that we have always been big fans of. We’re really proud and happy to release records on these labels as well as the others.
Would you ever want to get a band involved with your music?
A band that plays 3 chords and some strings?…Ah no plans like this right now.
What gigs do you have coming up?
Next up is the second tour to Australia this year, this time we’re playing in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and the Subsonic Festival. We’re really looking forward to going back to Australia!
After that there are gigs at IBOAT, Bordeaux (14/12), Plan B, London (21/12), The Golden Pudel in Hamburg (24/12), Chesters in Berlin (28/12) and then we go to Amsterdam to play Trouw on new years day. We cannot wait!
You guys are settled in Hamburg, do you feel being located there has been fundamental to Smallville’s success?
It was probably easier to get a name, but as Hamburg is more of a rock and commercial house/electronic city you have to put more effort to keep people interested.
In the 80s there was the famous Front Club, with residents such as Boris Dlugosch and Klaus Stockhausen, it was probably one of the first German locations to play Acid and Deep House.
Can you tell us a little more about the Hamburg artistic scene in general? Where are your favourite places to play and hang out?
Our favourite place is the Golden Pudel Club at the Harbor side, this is where we learned most of our skills and where everyone seems to be really passionate about what they’re doing. Most of the staff behind the bar, the door or the artwork designers are also DJs or label owners. This is also where we do our monthly parties, often with guests and sometimes just Smallpeople all night long.
As Hamburg is now the richest and most expensive city in Germany you can literally see how the gentrification processes draw away some of the creative people to cities like Berlin or Leipzig, so it sometimes feels like there is no new blood coming in the music production scene. There are a lot of talented young DJs that really want play out, but it seems no one wants to start their own label or do a new club.
We have plenty of other nice locations like the Uebel und Gefaehrlich where we did our first parties. Besides that there are clubs like Golem and Ego, but what’s missing is a real club made for underground dance music, where you can have bookings from overseas and where people come to listen and not only to get wasted.
Also not that long ago, Mojo Club opened again in Hamburg – it used to be famous for things like Acid Jazz but had to close 10 years ago, as the building had to go. It’s now been rebuilt with an amazing sound system, we’ve been there to listen to Osunlade a few weeks ago, which was great.
What have you got planned for Smallpeople and Smallville 2014?
The next big thing is an album by STL, which will be released in January/ February 2014. After that there will be an album from Julius.
12″ wise we do have Christopher Rau and Smallpeople in the pipeline, plus some more projects that we don’t want to talk about yet, as we just don’t know when they’re done, haha.