Interview with Noorden Founder Alex Ketzer
1. For those who don’t know Noorden, could you tell us a little bit about the story behind Noorden – how it began, the main principles and DIY ideals of the label.
The idea behind Noorden was born on a three-week trip to Norway in 2011 where I thought a lot about what a new music/label project should feel like in terms of an art collective. When Noorden was founded, it was more about the productive cooperation between people from different artistic backgrounds than about musical preferences.
We thought a lot about how to release music not only digitally and started building prototypes of QR-Code based releases that came with fanzine-like prints. In the end we tried cassettes and the people liked it. They have the best of two worlds: A physical release that looks good and the comfort of downloading the music to your computer or iPod. We always try to make limited editions with add-ons or special packagings for our releases because this makes them even more special and unique. I think, the people out there appreciate that.
The main principles of Noorden are very easy to explain: Having a good time with our artists and friends, releasing interesting music, that feels special to us, trying to build some kind of trademark, which stands for high-quality music paired with outstanding artworks, and last but not least getting in touch with people at our label events and seeing them dance to the music we play.
2. Tell us a little about your background and yourself.
I was born and raised in a very rural area of Germany, the »Hunsrueck« (a region of Rhineland-Palatinate), and grew up as a normal and average kid. My parents didn’t listen to Kraftwerk or anything similar, that could have inspired me in any ways. I first got in touch with electronic music in the age of 16 when some friends took me to a Drum’n’Bass party in the city where I went to school. I had never heard something like that before and I guess that was the moment I fell in love with electronic music. The day after, I went to my grandmother and asked her to lend me 1.000 D-Mark so I could buy my first turntables and a mixer. And that’s what she did. This is how I started to get into DJing Drum’n’Bass music.
A few months later, I met two guys at some strange party. They were as bored as me and we smoked cigarettes the whole night talking about music. This felt great, because those two were the first persons I met in my hometown, who shared my interests in art and music. We met regularly and had a great time together listening to our record-collections. The moment they played a Playhouse record was the second key-moment of electronic music in my life: Straight 4-to-the-floor-rhythms. I guess that was the point, where I decided I wanted to run a label someday.
After a longer break from DJing, I started buying records again in 2010 and since then I’m very interested in the electronic music scene, especially the DIY-cassette-scene, experimental electronica and artists/labels, that fly under the radar. For almost two years now I’ve been DJing on a more or less regular basis in my hometown Cologne, focusing rather on Noorden-events than on playing in better known clubs all over the country.
In my »regular life«, I work as a freelance art-director and graphic designer for several agencies and publishing houses as well as individual clients – mostly rooted in the educational, musical and/or cultural sector. Many things I’ve tried and learned through Noorden have also been helpful for one of my commercial jobs. So Noorden also is a kind of laboratory for me, where I can experiment and explore new ways of doing something.
3. Noorden has built a super interesting catalog marked by diversity. The label has been releasing a bit of everything, from ambient, to leftfield house to experimental and techno. I'd be curious about what doesn't fit within the Noorden catalog.
A few weeks ago we received a super interesting demo by Iuna Niva which started with the sentence: »There is a subtle string of anguished beauty which runs across several of your releases and mixtapes«. I think that expression nailed it.
For me it’s not the style that catches my attention, it’s the vibe, the mood, a certain touch of imperfection, a melody or just noise – and of course the artist him/herself, that I’m interested in.
I would say, there are two chapters in the history of Noorden: The first chapter (until late 2014) was more or less characterized by the sound of our core artists and the ones we met while working on the two »Rumble When Bumble« CDs. The second chapter sounds a bit more homogeneous and mature to me and I would say that our output since late 2014 is exactly my vision of the Noorden-sound.
But back to your question: Music that’s overproduced, too slick and without rough edges, or music by people I don’t want to spend time with, wouldn’t fit the Noorden catalog.
4. Noorden releases electronic(a) music through various formats (cassette, digital and vinyl). How do you usually decide on a release format?
We always like to start with a cassette-release to introduce our (even unknown) artists. It’s very easy to make a cassette within 4 to 6 weeks and the (financial) risk for the label is very low. In a next step, together with these »cassette-artists« we work on a vinyl-record. They send us demos over a longer period of time and we pick the tracks we really love and want to release on vinyl later. With this method, the 12-inches by The Marx Trukker (TwelveOne) and Caldera (TwelveTwo) were made and another one by Ikpathua is also scheduled for early 2017. It rather is a process – from cassette to vinyl – than a »cassette or vinyl« decision. Maybe we would focus more on vinyl, if we had the financial background for that, but on the other hand I really love tapes and maybe releasing on vinyl remains more special when you only make 2 or 3 vinyl-records a year.
5. What attracted you to vinyl as a record label owner? And tell us more about how artwork is important to Noorden's identity as a record label.
For me vinyl is the medium. OK, cassettes are great as well, but vinyl can (these days) be played by a much broader audience and especially by DJs who normally don’t DJ with cassettes…
Also the quality standard is a bit higher, when releasing on vinyl. The music really has to be special and worth spending all your money for the production. The artwork can also be larger than for a cassette and you can play with colored vinyl that fits the artwork’s core-color. It’s also possible to experiment with special packagings and inlays – just to name a few benefits.
As I’m a graphic designer, the artwork is very important to me and, by extension, for the identity of Noorden. It’s a little playground, where I can be creative in the way I want without any restrictions. Since the style of our releases is somewhat diverse, it’s even more important to have a kind of red-line in the artwork that gives the Noorden catalog a coherent »look and feel«.
For our vinyl-releases we work together with photographers or artists and give them the opportunity to decorate the complete release from sleeve to the label-sticker with their artwork. In this way, each release has a unique style but also a red-line because of the concept and the typical Noorden-typography on the inlay’s flip-side.
6. How much influence does Cologne have on Noorden’s sound — would you say there’s something distinctively Cologne about the label?
If there is something typical »Kölsch« (»Colognian«) about Noorden, that’s rather ourselves and our lifestyle dedicated to the »kölsche Grundgesetz« (»Colognian« constitution): »Whatever will be, will be / It has always worked out / Whatever is gone, is gone« – just to give a short impression what this is all about.
Maybe you can feel the Cologne-vibe best at our events/parties, for example NOORDEN KLUB, where the DJ-sets – especially those by Martin Schmitz, who’s a real »Kölsche Jung« (that means, he was raised in Cologne) – always convey that typical Cologne-vibe between the lines. Also, our parties are not too posh but rather down-to-earth and open-minded, just like most people living in Cologne.
7. What are the things that you look for when searching for new artists?
Usually, I don’t scan Soundcloud or other sources for unreleased gems. I rather wait for my friends’ output or some nice demos. On the one hand, I love to feature music from people I know and on the other hand I’m very curious about music by new and unknown artists, who would like to work with Noorden because they think their music would fit our catalog. To give some examples: Caldera is a friend of my girlfriend’s little brother, who brought us together, Bool, Martin Schmitz, Neozaïre and The Marx Trukker and are good friends of mine, tnc6 is a friend of Felix, who’s running our sub-label LL.M., Ikpathua was discovered on Soundcloud when his track »Tape Paranoia« was played in the »suggested tracks« playlist and the releases by Evitceles and Inua Niva (who will be our next cassette) were demos that came in and that we are really really happy about.
8. What’s a typical day like as a record label owner?
I’d say there rather are typical jobs than typical days as I run the label besides my regular day job. However, first of all, you have to keep watch for great tracks to release and then form them into a nice and harmonious cassette or vinyl-record. Then you need to care about the artwork, what – in most cases – is the easiest part for me as a graphic designer. Before the release is ready to hit the streets, it’s production time which can be very meditative (e.g. when folding 50–150 inlays and assembling the cassettes), highly frustrating (when a design-concepts works great on the computer, but not on the real physical product), or very much fun (when you stamp a white-label-record together with a bunch of friends and some beers). Then, when you hold the final product in your hands and think »Ok, lil’ cassette-buddy – time to leave and conquer the world«, it’s time to do some promotion, chat with record shops, prepare the shipping. And in the end you can hopefully split the earnings with the artist (if there are any). The icing on the cake is getting lovely feedback from fans, in magazine-/blog-reviews, or record-shops. Then you know that it’s worth everything.
9. What has been the most challenging aspect of running a record label?
I think creating a fanbase, generating plays, trigger sales and get bookings is always a bit difficult when you run a small label like Noorden. We don’t want to invest money in PR-agencies that care for press-coverage or curry favor with picky editors only for a small review and, like in most cases, without even getting any response.
My philosophy is to let things flow, concentrate on the most important things – music and the people behind it or better: the people and the music behind them – and make one step after the other. It’s a lot nicer to gain laurels because of your releases than to be famous because you featured a well-known artist on your label or paid someone that has contacts to »important« people in the jungle out there.
10. What’s the most rewarding aspect of running Noorden?
The three most rewarding aspects of running Noorden are as follows: When the artist is happy with the final release (sound, artwork, and packaging). When we get great feedback by fans, record shops, or magazines & blogs. And when new artists get in touch with us, because they like what we’re doing. Not to forget: When you listen to a mix by an artist, whom you’ve been a fan of for a long time, and discover tracks, that have been released by your own label – or even better when you’re in a club and a DJ you like or even admire plays your artist’s tracks. Unforgettable!