The Salzburg DJ and producer BERNHARD WEISS has been breaking up the boundaries between house, hip-hop and drum’n’bass as DEMUJA for over ten years. From his studio he sends streams out into the world, releasing his tracks on international labels like NERVOUS RECORDS or MADHOUSE. Meanwhile BERNHARD WEISS, whom everybody only calls BERNI, plays over 75 gigs a year – in New York, Paris or Tbilisi. His second album “Atlantic Avenue” will be released at the end of March. In an interview with Christoph Benkeser, he talks about his background as a breakdancer, what he associates with old VHS tapes and why he rarely DJs in Austria.
You played drums in your youth, were part of the breakdance scene – how did you get into House?
Berni: My father is a drummer, he introduced me to music early on and gave me lessons. Later I went to music school and played in percussion ensembles. I only started breakdancing when I came to the HTL Salzburg for Art & Design. At that time I stopped playing drums to focus on dancing. My crew and I went to a battle every week. That was a lot of work, but it was worth it: we were Austrian Breakdance Champions twice. And: In one of the battles I got in touch with the housedance scene by chance. At an afterparty a DJ played this music which was completely new to me. I soon started to dance house myself and became more and more involved with the music.
When did you start producing yourself?
Berni: In my youth I tried out a lot of things and acted as a DJ. At some point that was not enough for me. So I started to make beats myself – in the beginning more drum’n’bass and hip-hop, later on house was added.
“I HAD TO MAKE A CHOICE: QUIT MY JOB OR CUT DOWN ON MUSIC”
You have been internationally active as a producer and DJ for years. When did you realize that you could pursue a career in music?
Berni: Since I started producing 12 years ago, I wanted to live from my music. I knew that I could achieve that. But I also knew that I need to concentrate on it. That’s why I put all my experience as a breakdancer, i.e. training without exceptions and compromises, into the music. That means: producing every day, before or after training, school or work – and constantly getting better. When I realized that a career could work out, I reduced my job as a graphic designer to a part-time activity in order to spend even more time dancing and making music. Four years ago, I was booked for so many gigs that part-time work and deejaying were no longer compatible. I had to make a decision: Quit my job or cut down on music.
We are hearing the decision today – on YouTube you regularly stream jams from your studio. How do you approach your production?
Berni: When I’m not travelling, I get up at 8.30 am and sit in the studio at 9 am. Earlier than that doesn’t work, that’s the deal with the neighborhood [laughs]. But I don’t have a structured working process, therefore many of my tracks sound very different. I used to work with samples a lot, but now I want to get away from that – also to create more originality. Depending on what I did the day before or what inspirations I got from the weekend, I’ll look for a mood I want to produce and play around. Sometimes with an analogue hardware, sometimes only with Logic. In that way I try with every track to discover something new for me. It can be quite banal – a different reverb effect on a synthesizer or a 707 instead of the Roland 909-Kick.
At the end of March 2020 you will release your second album “Atlantic Avenue”. A record on which you go from classic deep house to hip hop and drum’n’bass to soul elements. How do all these styles come together for you?
Berni: The record has become a long one – you can try out a lot on 16 tracks. A pure house album would have been boring. “Atlantic Avenue” is about a journey. Originally the name was “Atlantic Avenue – a journey de la muja”, on which I wanted to show more of myself as an artist. I shortened the name, the idea stayed. I’m showing my influences, but also question myself: where am I, where do I want to go?
On “On The Road” you worked together with the Viennese singer Elena Shirin. How do you approach such collaborations?
Berni: I am always looking for good singers. But I met Elena by chance, a friend recommended her to me. One thing led to another, after a few months “On The Road” was finished. As chance would have it, I was on an American tour at the time and she was on the West Coast. We arranged a meeting in Los Angeles, checked out a GoPro and rode our bikes through the city. You can see the result in the video.
There were already collaborations on your last record.
Berni: I like working with other artists. On my last album I got together with the US rapper Anti Lilly [“Can’t Defeat”; note], on the EP “Classic Warrior” from 2018 with the Berlin songwriter Albert Vogt. I get a lot from these collaborations, because I’m always positively surprised – even if the collaboration only takes place online. Most of the time I have a melody in my head, but I’m giving the artists absolute freedom. So I don’t tell them what I expect from the track, because I don’t want to impose any restrictions. After a few days I get a demo recording without knowing what the person has done. I love this moment!
What kind of aesthetics do you associate with the sound you produce? Do you have pictures in your head when you produce?
Berni: My sound is strongly inspired by music from the 90s, I try to capture that nostalgic feeling. To enhance the “rawness”, I like to use old VHS recordings in music videos. This fits the music. There’s a noise here, a scratch there – that adds to the whole thing something lively. In today’s electronic music, the soul feeling is too often lost for me, because the productions sound too clean. But especially the rawness – if for example a track is not perfectly mixed – is exciting for me.
“CLUB-BANGERS OR CHART HITS MAY HAPPEN, BUT I DON’T THINK I HAVE MANY CLUB-BANGERS.”
Do you keep an eye on the dance floor when you areproducing?
Berni: No, I don’t think about the dancefloor when I’m making music, in fact quite the opposite. Club bangers or chart hits can happen, but I don’t think I have many “club bangers”.
If one thinks about electronic music, one doesn’t necessarily have Salzburg in one’s mind. Many would rather associate classical music with the city. Have you ever thought about moving away from Salzburg for your career?
Berni: I often think about it, but mainly because of travelling. Salzburg has a small airport, I have to take the train to Vienna or Munich every weekend to fly from there. That is exhausting. But: My family lives in Salzburg, I have many friends here. And the quality of life is amazing – so I’m stuck [laughs]. Besides, and this is a huge advantage for me, nothing is happening during the week in Salzburg in electronic music. I can chill out from weekend gigs and produce peacefully. But of course, it would have advantages if I lived in Berlin or London. Networking would be easier. After all, personal contact is more important than 50 sent e-mails – even if one could almost forget that in our current situation.
The cultural activities at home and abroad are coming to a standstill because of the coronavirus. Clubs close temporarily, events are cancelled. What effects do these cancellations have on you?
Berni: All my gigs in March and April are cancelled or postponed. This is a big financial loss which many musicians and promoters have to accept. But: health comes first. These are the right measures, otherwise everything would drag on even longer. I really do hope that society will change it’s views after all this – and set different priorities in the future.
House is associated – at least in its origins – with certain cities. Does this association exist for you, or has it become obsolete in times of global networking?
Berni: Of course there are cities in which house is better known. In Paris, London and Brussels a lot is happening right now. But the internet has made a lot possible – cool parties can be found in smaller cities too. And sometimes the hottest parties take place in cities like Tbilisi, where you wouldn’t think that would happen.
“YOU CAN MAKE MONEY WITH A CROWD, BUT YOU CAN’T BUILD A SCENE.”
Is there such a thing as a Salzburg house sound?
Berni: I haven’t been hanging out in Salzburg for a long time, so it’s hard for me to judge at the moment. There are some motivated crews like Freakadelle, TRIPS or Soda Club that organize parties. But when I compare the situation with other cities the size of Salzburg, there’s not that much happening here. On the contrary: Salzburg has a large proportion of “rich kids” who like to drink champagne in clubs and show off what they have. You can make money with such a crowd, but you can’t build a scene.
You have releases on labels like Madhouse Records of Kerri Chandler or on Jamie Odell’s Freerange Records. Your songs have over five million hits on OOUKFunky alone, a YouTube channel for House. How do you explain your success?
Berni: I was able to release one of my first EPs on the legendary label Nervous Records from New York City. That was a privilege because I didn’t have a big name. They appreciated my music – and not my popularity. This is rare today and has given me a lot in terms of reference, because it increased the chances that other labels would listen to my demos. The lo-fi scene which exploded worldwide three years ago, has also given house more attention. Luck played a part in that. But if you’re lucky, you have to be able to deliver. In addition, globalization doesn’t necessarily mean that you need big labels to reach a lot of people. YouTube and other social media platforms are becoming more important. My background as graphic designer and video producer gives me an additional advantage. I can do everything from artwork to music videos myself, thus communicate my “message” without any detours. That’s why I recommend everyone to learn the basics of Photoshop and Premiere – it pays off.
“I WAS SICK OF SENDING DEMOS TO LABELS AND BEIING REFUSED AFTER WEEKS OF WAITING.”
You founded your own label MUJA in 2017. How did that come about?
Berni: I was tired of sending demos to labels and being refused after weeks of waiting. Besides, many labels only want to release one genre. This thinking-in-a-box never appealed to me. MUJA was born from the idea to create a platform for me and my music. A label where I can do what I want – musically, graphically, aesthetically.
Last year you played over 75 gigs, from New York to Montreal, Barcelona, Glasgow, Berlin, South Korea and Australia – but only one in Austria. Can you explain the reasons why local promoters are booking you so scarcely?
Berni: Parov Stelar once roughly said that you first have to be successful abroad to be recognized in Austria. I see this in a similar way. To be a successful Austrian DJ in Austria is difficult – in a niche like house all the more so. I’m not the best at networking, I’ve never been a fan of “You book me – I’ll book you” type actions. But at the moment it’s not feasible for me to play in Austria more often anyway – even though I’d love to do that!
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld