Cover Story: FJAAK
Cover Story: FJAAKApril 19, 2021
Katie Thomas speaks with the mischievous and somewhat misunderstood German techno duo FJAAK, who have rocketed to fame in recent years through their slapstick online persona and deep mastery of analog techno.
I’m about 10 minutes into a conversation over Zoom with Berlin duo FJAAK, aka Aaron Röbig and Felix Wagner. The former is talking about a new live show they’ve been preparing during lockdown, when the latter stops us abruptly to say, “Sorry, guys, I just want to say that I’m actually crying.” Sure enough, Felix’s eyes are brimming with tears. It turns out that one of FJAAK’s oldest friends has a release confirmed on a label he’s been shooting for for years. “It’ll be like Christmas and his birthday for him right now,” Felix says.
“As you can see, we are very emotional people,” he explains once the tears have passed. Emotional is a word that pops up regularly in this interview; Aaron and Felix are a sentimental pair whose decisions are, it’s fair to say, largely driven by heart over head. They are refreshingly in touch with their own emotions, and so in tune with one another they might be telepathic. They’re driven by the emotional connections they find in people and in music, and I get the feeling that lockdown could have played out very differently if they hadn’t had each other. “Aaron is my crowd right now,” Felix says gratefully.
FJAAK have been releasing music since 2012. They’ve since released two LPs — 2017’s self-titled on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown and 2018’s Havel on their own FJAAK imprint — and churned out EPs at an impressive rate. A blueprint of high-octane and unpretentious analogue techno, geared-up further by a penchant for massive drops, thumping breakbeats and bold synth lines that border on just the right side of cheesy, make for an electrifying live show. In 2019, I caught their raucous performance for myself in what was probably the perfect setting — at Melt! Festival’s Big Wheel stage, a 30-metre high, 20th-century iron mining structure that sent FJAAK’s banging industrial sonics ricocheting into the night sky.
When I ask “the FJAAKs,” as they’re sometimes called by those close to them, to describe each other, Aaron chooses words like “special,” “social” and “hyperactive,” affectionately describing Felix as “like a penguin who always needs other penguins around.” Felix opts for “sensitive,” “dreamy” and “fair.” “If he knows he’s not right, he would never try to be right,” Felix says about his bandmate, “whereas, you know, we work with a lot of people who like to reassure themselves that they’re the best.” Of the two, Aaron is quieter and more pensive, whereas Felix is excitable, impulsive, and very, very chatty (my transcribing tool tells me he did a whopping 73 percent of the talking in our 2.5 hour conversation).
Aaron and Felix have been friends since their school days, growing up in Spandau in west Berlin. Before they had any understanding of dance music or raving, FJAAK were hip hop heads. Their friend group would spend their days digging through the discographies of new rappers after hearing their features on other tunes, with Ohio group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony proving a firm favourite: “It’s important to celebrate yourself sometimes right?” Felix says. “Well if I’m celebrating myself, I’m going to do it to their song ‘The Weed Song.’” Perhaps this goes some way to explain the tongue in cheek “weed bro” aesthetic that FJAAK have adopted on social media.
In spite of this silly online persona, Aaron and Felix are hardware nerds who enjoy an intricate knowledge of their field; that is, the fields of synthesisers and drum machines. There’s a juxtaposition between watching the duo muck about on Instagram with giant spliffs, and hearing them talk through the contents of their studio and their studies in sound engineering. When I ask about how the FJAAKs think these two sides work together, Felix has an analogy at the ready: “I would compare us to a car,” he says. “You only see the outside of the car, which might be super stylish, but you don’t see the inside, even though people have been working on it for a long time.” There are two ways you could drive this car, he says: the first, it does the job and drives someone from A to B. The second? “You find an empty parking lot and you have some fun with your friends, doing donuts, pumping some Biggie and smoking some fat blunts in the back.”
FJAAK began as four, then they were three, and now they are two, and over the years they’ve been described as a “techno boyband.” When he and Felix take to the stage, it still feels like a band, Aaron says, because they each have their own parts to play and their sets are predominantly live. “We just try to reproduce the best energy we have,” Aaron says about FJAAK’s output. “We want to create music that feels like how we feel at our best.” For Felix, FJAAK conjures a more literal picture in his mind. “It’s a tiny, sweaty basement,” he says. “You can go outside, hang out with your friends in the sun and smoke a cigarette, and when you come back in, the mood hasn’t changed. We’re always going to be there.”
On the subject of sweaty basements, there’s one which holds a particularly special place in the FJAAK’s hearts. It’s special enough that the club has been featured in their Support Your Scene (SYS) series — a collection of FJAAK tracks named after and dedicated to the clubs that have hosted and supported them in their career, with 100 percent of the sales going directly to the clubs. The basement is City Club in Bavaria, and the first place Felix would go if all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted tomorrow. In that region of Germany, licencing rules stipulate that late night venues must close by 5AM, and City Club’s licence means it can reopen at 6AM. So there are often parties, FJAAK tells me, where the security asks you to leave at 5AM, you wait around on the street with the rest of the party people, and at 6AM you’re let back in for the after hours. Felix can’t see the intimate confines of a basement club opening again anytime soon, however. “The politicians are just thinking about different things,” he says.
Just like the rest of us, lockdown has presented challenges for FJAAK, not least in the flaws of the government policies put in place to support German artists. But the duo seem optimistic, always trying to see the good through the bad. It’s the first time in years that they’ve had a long period to dedicate to studio time, which Aaron says has allowed him to work on ideas that had long-since been stuck in his head. Plus, he says, they could really start digging again. “We’ve had time for every single release, every EP,” he says. “I feel as though we’ve got a fresh take on what’s been happening in music.” They’ve also been thinking a lot about how to raise the bar in their shows, working with Pioneer on a new hybrid set they can’t wait to play out.
And it all started with a freebie on a cereal box, in the form of a demo of some basic production software. One of Aaron and Felix’s oldest friends, who now releases on their label SPANDAU20 (named after an old Spandau postal code), Claus Schöning was one of FJAAK’s most valuable instigators. Recording vocals in his makeshift hip hop booth, friends would rap over beats they found on the Internet. Except, Felix says, “it was lame to rap over somebody else’s beats.” So they started playing around with free software and free samples before quickly running out of steam. “It got boring as soon as we started,” Felix explains, “so we started to learn about how our heroes made their music, and then it was like, wow, so this is a synthesiser.”
“We discovered the word analogue,” Aaron says, “and that changed everything for us.” It didn’t take the FJAAKs long to realise that they got more excitement out of manipulating machines than they did clicking a mouse. “There was no day, there was no night, there was no computer,” Felix says. They bought old synths, drum machines and samplers whenever they could afford it, palming bits of hardware off friends and hunting for bargains. Often, they got so absorbed in their jam sessions that they would forget to press record, the excitement and simultaneous frustration of which Felix demonstrates in a flurry of expletives.
When they did remember to press record before inspiration struck, that often wouldn’t do the trick either, as FJAAK had ended up with a broken Akai MPC that had a life of its own, and had a tendency to delete their tracks. So they started writing everything down in a notebook. “A snare from this record here, 35-minutes into this record by The Doors, this chord on a Korg synthesiser pitched like this.” Eventually Aaron and Felix softened to the benefits of computers and production software, in particular Ableton. Now their favourite toys in the studio include anything made by Moog, Elektron or Akai, and, of course, the Roland TB-303, of which they have an original and a clone with a load of modifications. “We fucking love acid,” Felix says, on behalf of everyone ever.
Later, studying sound engineering at university, FJAAK shared their studio time. They produced jazz trios, metal bands, big percussion sections and scores for documentaries. It was an eye-opening experience for them, Aaron explains. “There are billions of ways to make nice music, and that’s the best thing I’ve learned.”
Sometimes though, Aaron feels that all their learning might be prohibitive, that perhaps the best ideas come from a place of pure creativity over technical skill. “I think in the beginning our concepts were sometimes better than they are today,” he explains. “You don’t try to fit something to an idea, because you have no idea! That part was so special, starting out with everything in front of you.” Given the choice, Aaron thinks he would go back and discover it all again, whereas Felix is not so sure. Ever the optimist he says, “I’m just really enjoying right now, I’m even enjoying this fucking lockdown!” But it doesn’t take much for him to dip his toes into the memory pool, thinking about his first experience of a proper party.
“I was frozen in front of the DJ,” he recalls. “There was no light, it was just him, the cigarette in his mouth and these two records. I was watching him mix, trying to understand what he was doing.” That night was transformative for Felix; one of those moments of community and connection many fans have likely felt on the dance floor at some point. In the spirit of a raver who hasn’t been able to rave for a long time, Felix gets emotional: “I started to dance and I felt connected. The kick drum came in and I was smiling at random people and I just thought, we’re here right now, this is the magic part. Because there’s nothing intelligent about it, you know? There’s no great science. The music just moves us together. And we like to be together. It’s fucking cool.”
Before they were making a regular appearance at Berghain and playing festivals like Movement Detroit, Awakenings and Melt!, FJAAK cut their teeth throwing parties in Spandau. Unlike in other parts of Berlin like Neukölln or Kreuzberg, “where you wouldn’t be able to count the promoters or the people that love techno,” Spandau is quite the opposite. “Musically, we’re like aliens in this district,” Felix explains. And so, in the absence of a decent club, they hosted their parties in the forest. The parties were so successful that Berghain’s booker came down, and FJAAK got their first Panorama Bar booking before they were even old enough to be in the club. Eventually the forest raves began to get out of hand, attracting over 1000 people before being shut down by the police. At that point, as the FJAAKs started thinking about what to do next, their bookings started picking up.
As is the case with many of the DJs, the hallowed halls of Berghain are the pinnacle of FJAAK’s achievements. “It’s a mental feeling,” Felix says, “playing Berghain closing sets for ten hours plus.” Their parents have been down to see them play; Felix’s mum popping her head up by the booth around 7AM, and Felix’s dad getting into his groove a few hours prior. This was huge for a man who, Felix says, took five years to accept a kick drum.
FJAAK love bolstering their friends whenever they have the chance. It’s why you’ll find many of their friends releasing music on SPANDAU20 (Nikk, Fadi Mohem, Balas, Schöning, Rifts, J.Manuel, Dajusch) and contributing to their stellar mixtape series (so far featuring the likes of Skee Mask, Miss Kittin, DJ Stingray, DJ Rush and Steffi), and why you’ll often find those same names appearing on lineups with them. “We’re always trying to convince the booker to book a [relatively] unknown or underground artist,” Felix says. “It’s so important. We didn’t have that support and it was hard, so we want to make sure we do it for others.” Many of the artists that now appear on SPANDAU20 are the people that were helping put on those open air parties, carrying beers through the woods. “It’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back everybody,” laughs Aaron.
SYS is an ode to the clubs that have supported FJAAK over the years. The first and second SYS EPs have donated money to OHM Berlin, Lehmann Club in Stuttgart, City Club and PAL, and then Tblisi’s Bassiani, Dublin’s District 8, Washington DC’s Flash, and New York City’s Basement, respectively. Each track is a homage to the club it is named after, and showcases FJAAK at their best — exhilarating and playful techno with distinct UK rave signifiers and breaksy rhythms.
“Clubs are one of the main reasons why we do what we do,” Aaron says. “They are the base of our being, so we wanted to give something back.” In a time when the electronic music community needs support more than ever, Felix and Aaron want to impress how important it is to help however you can. If you want clubs to go back to when the pandemic is over, then you need to do your bit. FJAAK’s advice? Donate, buy the venue’s merch, buy the SYS records, and, if you can afford it, don’t ask for a refund for your ticket if a party has had to be postponed.
Much of the talk around how dance music will emerge from the pandemic has centred around support for local scenes, and how local artists should be offered more of the opportunities they so deserve while travel remains restricted. “Locals are so important,” Felix says, “they have their own crowds, they have the people that they influence, they buy music and they show that music to new people.” Contrary to the artists that have been criticised for playing “plague raves” this year, FJAAK are adamant that artists have to set an example. “We don’t want to be the scene that’s responsible for rising numbers,” they say, “We all have the responsibility to go through this pandemic safely, and the more responsible we do it, the more clubs and culture will survive.” FJAAK made a clear statement when they dropped “Stay The F*** Home Inside” on 30th April 2020.
“Music is the right place to make a good example of how things should be,” Aaron says, as talk moves to equality and diversity in dance music. Growing up in Berlin, FJAAK say they have been witness to racism at its very worst ever since they were small. With an activist mother who Felix describes as “living to make the world a better place,” Felix would consider himself and Aaron to be activists too. “Everybody was talking about Black Lives Matter when George Floyd was killed,” Felix says, “but we need to keep talking about it, not just for a few months. Everybody has to work on this and if you don’t, you’re against us and slowing the change.”
Ever since they started getting booked to play gigs, FJAAK say they and their agent have paid close attention to the lineups they are requested for, not wanting to contribute to “penis parties” nor parties that are entirely whitewashed. “We need to have more of these people [of all gender, sexuality, race and culture] being able to get into the space, and to do that we have to make space.” They ensure that their mixtape series is a platform to a diverse group of artists, and they are always looking to discover up-and-coming artists to expose their music to a wider audience. Ultimately, they think any promoter who claims they are unable to book a lineup that is both diverse and fitting for the party musically is lazy, and contributing to a broken system that urgently needs to be fixed. “You can book someone from a minority group because you love their art,” Aaron says. “You have to do it because of the art, otherwise the art is not there anymore.”
And the best thing you can gain for your own art, Aaron says, is human response. “If somebody plays your music, it means a lot,” Felix agrees. “If I see somebody in their backyard pumping our tracks to two friends, I’m like, thank you!” In a year of livestreams and playing alone in a room to a camera, human response has been scarce, and the FJAAKs cannot wait to be in front of a crowd again.
But Felix is most looking forward to the moment they can play the SYS tracks in the clubs they’ve been produced for, for the first time. “That will be a magical moment,” he says, a starry-eyed look on his face. Aaron will be going straight to Berghain closing, for the marathon party we are all craving after this weird, difficult time. Felix pauses for a moment before he captures our return to the dance floor in a perfect one-liner: “It will be like bathing in gold.”
Katie Thomas is a freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter.