Cover Story: Objekt

Cover Story: Objekt

Michael Lawson sits down for a rare interview with musical polymath Objekt. The conversation touches on production processes, his new Objekt #5 EP, and how the club scene can successfully navigate the challenging post-lockdown terrain.

“At this point I’ve heard it compared to a wide array of metal bands, but I wasn’t really coming at it from a rock music angle per se. It was more this feeling of dread and bass weight that I was trying to draw from.” Beatportal is touching base with Objekt, and the discussion has quickly turned to the Berlin-based DJ and producer’s new EP, Objekt #5. A YouTube comment describing lead track “Bad Apples” as a “headbanger” is a particular source of amusement.

“Even if it wasn’t a conscious reference point, I definitely listened to a lot of guitar music growing up, so it would’ve been somewhere in my head for sure,” he continues. “You don’t write a really scuzzy, 16th note, distorted bass guitar riff and stick it over a dancehall beat without drawing some connection to rock music.”

Like much of his output over the years, Objekt #5 is neither one thing nor the other: a daring mesh of disparate stylistic tropes that still winds up sounding unmistakably like an Objekt record. Tapping into a sound that is as buoyant as it is experimental, it’s the work of an artist who has spent the last decade pushing the boundaries of what constitutes club music.

Real name TJ Hertz, Objekt’s story begins in Solihull, the West Midlands market town that his family relocated to when he was 11 years old. He was born in Japan to a British-American father and Filipino mother, before spending his earliest years living in Belgium, but it was leafy Solihull where his musical passions were truly ignited. Here he allowed himself to become immersed in the world of live music, and recalls his role as drummer in an array of different bands.

“I used to play lots of different music with lots of different people. I guess the band I spent the most time in was kind of grungy, slightly glammy. Maybe like Queens of the Stone Age meets XTC. I also played in jazz bands, played bass and guitar — albeit not as well. That was just what I did from the ages of like 15 to 19.”

Hertz further indulged these musical passions during his time at Oxford University. At one stage he remembers being at band practice three or four nights a week, something that ultimately led to a bout of live music burnout. “Carrying drum kits around was getting really old, really quick,” he says. “None of my bands were going anywhere and I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna take a break from playing the drums before I lose the will to live’. This coincided with the period of University where a bunch of my friends were discovering going out to clubs.”

Hertz was already listening to “some form of entry-level electronica” by this stage, identifying an instant connection with the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre and “the more accessible end of the Warp catalogue.” But it was experiencing clubs for the first time — at local spots in Oxford as well as formative nights spent in fabric — that allowed him to properly contextualise these sounds.

“The break that I was meant to be taking from music only ended up lasting a month or two before I got too curious about how this kind of music was being made and what the DJs were actually doing. I then started teaching myself how to DJ and delved deeper into the dance music production process.”

His first experience of digital production had in fact come years earlier, when he was granted permission to use the music studio in his family home. “My mum used to be a composer, so she had a home studio which I was allowed to play around with as a kid,” he continues. “I made some pretty basic songs on her setup. So I would say that from a young age — even though I wasn’t explicitly making dance music at all — I still got a feel for signal flow and how one thing would plug into another and how things are sequenced. Then while I was playing in bands I was again learning aspects of music production on a computer, by virtue of the fact that I had some cheap microphones and I would record a bunch of these bands.”

The flourishing dubstep scene also caught Hertz’s attention, and he became a regular on the influential dubstepforum during its late-2000s heyday, using the handle static_cast. These sounds would inform his maiden releases: two self-released white labels that subverted expectations of the genre; followed by bass-heavy techno remixes of Radiohead and SBTRKT, all released in 2011. The following year he debuted on Hessle Audio with two tracks that blurred the lines between techno and the exploratory bass scene that had emerged in the aftermath of dubstep – cementing his status as one of the brightest young talents in the underground in the process.

Hertz went on to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, a course he attributes to shaping his understanding of sound and audio. “I don’t know how much it shaped me creatively, but it definitely shaped my understanding of how things worked from a technical perspective,” he explains, while stressing that such a rigid, methodological approach isn’t always a blessing. “I’m not totally convinced that it helps me make better music,” he adds. “It makes me see the production process in a certain way, which has its ups and downs.”

By his own admission, a large part of his production process involves him wrestling with his own perfectionism. He recalls a time when he scribbled “stop fucking around with the kickdrum and make some music” on an A4 piece of paper and placed it directly above his monitor in a bid to improve productivity, and even admitted to canning around 90% of the music he makes during a recent reddit AMA. “I have been thinking about putting that sign back up again,” he laughs.

However this pain-staking approach to the craft runs in contrast with the sense of playfulness that permeates Hertz’s music. He previously downplayed one of his early tracks, “Cactus”, as a “comedy song”, for instance, insisting this critically-acclaimed oddity was merely an attempt to emulate enigmatic wobble technician Rusko. His longstanding Facebook bio goes one further, describing his music as “a convoluted mess of elektrology and teknology”, before listing a handful of made-up dance subgenres, such as “shithouse,” “proto-minimal wankstep” and “ambient gabber.”

This facetious streak carries over to the new EP, with Hertz insisting that B-side “Ballast” is “not a very serious track”, and joking that its intoxicating mutant dancehall rhythms sound like “the kind of shit that Diplo would maybe play.” That said, he is quick to point out that there is a fine line between playfulness and pastiche — rejecting the notion that any of his music falls on the side of the latter.

“I have a sense of humour and don’t like things to be taken too seriously,” he explains. “But it’s equally important for there to be genuine sincerity [in what I do]. I wouldn’t make or release something that I genuinely thought was a bag of bullshit. I’d prefer my musical output to stand up on its own merits without being this ironic piss-take.”

However it’s this aversion to convention that has undoubtedly helped propel Hertz’s music into bold and exciting new territories. After expanding the parameters of dubstep with his early output, his attention shifted to electro on 2014’s “Ganzfeld,” a glitched-out, 150 BPM showstopper put out as a split release with Detroit visionaries Dopplereffekt. Mind-bending debut album Flatland then demonstrated his unrivalled knack for richly detailed sound design, while 2017’s “Theme From Q” was by far his most accessible and commercially successful release to date. Follow-up album Cocoon Crush, his most recent work prior to Objekt #5, came the following year, again illustrating his technical finesse but this time drawing from organic source material and natural textures.

The playfulness-sincerity dichotomy that characterises much of Hertz’s production is also present in his DJing. On one hand he is revered by chin-strokers and casual dance music fans alike for his technical wizardry behind the decks. On the other, his adventurous track selection and refreshing disregard for genre boundaries conflicts with a section of the scene that is preoccupied with purism.

This collision once reared its head in Facebook track ID community The Identification of Music Group, when a disgruntled member called out Hertz, dismissing one of the selections from his Dekmantel 2018 set as “an Avicii EDM banger” that “fucking sucked”. Considering the track in question was “Immaterial” by the late SOPHIE, a maximalist masterpiece that is a far cry from what is generally considered EDM, the whole situation said far more about the po-faced, conservative mind-set that exists within some techno circles than it did Objekt’s DJing.

“After seeing how well it went down at Dekmantel I’m looking forward to playing SOPHIE – ‘Immaterial’ approximately every 20 minutes during my 3-hour closing set at [Dekmantel’s Croatian sister festival] Selectors next week,” Hertz joked on Twitter in the aftermath. (The Selectors set, a marathon eight-hour back-to-back with close friend Call Super to close out the festival, sadly passed by with no sign of the track, but Hertz did manage to squeeze in an amusing version of “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League, where 90% of the lyrics were changed to ‘cocktail bar’.)

“There are always going to be pockets of people who are outraged if you don’t stay within your really narrow lane,” he says pragmatically, looking back on the SOPHIE incident. “But those tend to be people who wouldn’t come to see me specifically. It was harder ten years ago in Germany, where the cultural precedent for very straightforward, four-to-the-floor house and techno was so strong that it was difficult to play anything else. Thankfully that has changed a lot in the time since, to the point that I feel fortunate enough to be able to carve out a niche for myself where I can play pretty much whatever I want.”

A more recent example of this turntable intrepidness took the shape of Hertz playing what was largely a dancehall set in Panorama Bar — a club not exactly renowned for its embrace of Jamaican sound system culture — during a recent PAN showcase. “I asked Bill [Kouligas, PAN label boss] to put me on early as I decided I wanted to play a slow set. I was a little bit apprehensive but it ended up going really well and the vibes were fantastic,” he enthuses. “I haven’t seen Panorama Bar that on fire for quite some time.”

The shift in focus towards dancehall runs in tandem with the sounds he communicates on Objekt #5 — albeit combined with a smattering of rock music tropes and his cutting-edge sound design. He namechecks The Bug as a reference point for the record, but in the same breath stresses that his music tends to draw from a number of disparate sources. “I guess these days my influences in terms of musical inspiration are more transient,” he explains. “Rather than there being one or two absolute favourite artists that I idolise and would like to emulate, I’ll hear a track and generally be interested in its vibe or think ‘oh that’s a cool sound’ or ‘it’d be fun to try that.’”

The EP marks his first release in four years, something that is emblematic of his measured approach to releasing music, which in today’s climate verges on sporadic. Given the reception that practically all of his records are met with, it has clearly served him well. But is it realistic for younger producers to adapt this method, particularly at a time when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek suggests artists ought to be releasing music multiple times a year as a means of “creating a continuous engagement with their fans?”

“It’s a disaster for people that are not very prolific for sure” he laments, ruminating on Ek’s comments. “Will it lead to a rise in mediocre music? Probably. It will definitely serve to shift the emphasis onto a certain type of producer. I think you’ll end up seeing more music that’s churned out. The model that encourages rapid-fire output also encourages certain kinds of production. It doesn’t really encourage people to spend a lot of time on detailed work or on really complex sound design. That doesn’t necessarily mean the music will be worse but it does mean that you won’t have as much freedom to follow certain kinds of creative thought — and that’s sad.”

“Generally speaking, the move to streaming is super fraught, and obviously has a tonne of problems,” Hertz continues. “I’ve just been lucky in a sense that the majority of my income comes from touring. It is pretty alarming the way things are going, and the way in which there doesn’t seem to be many checks and balances to ensure that people at the bottom end of the pay scale are still going to earn enough to make any kind of living from this.”

The precariousness of the dance music ecosystem was laid bare during the pandemic. With an extended, unprecedented global clubbing shutdown in place, suddenly swathes of artists were deprived of their primary source of income, and things are yet to return to anything close to ‘normal’ in the months since restrictions have been lifted. Clubs and promoters are regularly hosting nights to half-empty dancefloors, while some festivals have been forced to cancel in advance due to poor ticket sales. The “Third Summer of Love” many predicted has simply failed to materialise, but Hertz optimistically suggests that this is likely a temporary state of adversity.

“If you have a period of two years where almost an entire cohort of undergraduates goes through university without discovering clubbing, then that’s going to have a pretty severe effect on how events will look once things reopen,” he concedes. “But I don’t know if you could really call it a demise. I think it was more of a bubble before the pandemic. These things ebb and flow and around 2018 felt like a really frothy peak of dance music popularity.”

It was around the time of this peak that Hertz felt the need to take a step back from what was a relentless touring schedule. Experiencing creative burnout, he decided to become more selective with his booking requests, and later rejoined music tech firm Native Instruments — a company he has worked for intermittently across the last decade — in a part-time developer role.

“I went back to Native Instruments during the lockdown of 2020,” he explains. “Partly to make up for lost income but primarily to take care of myself a little bit. I’d been burning out pretty heavily in the lead-up to the pandemic. It was a bit of a cluster fuck and going back to the job, albeit part-time, really helped to rekindle what at that point was a pretty shattered love of music, which had really taken a hit the year or two before the pandemic. The job has been really good for allowing me to start appreciating and making music from a much more lower stakes perspective. I’m taking much fewer gigs now because I’d like to try and keep the day job, but I have vanishingly little time to do any of this if I’m also trying to maintain a personal life which was part of why I was failing before.”

Even with less time than ever to make music, and while many of his contemporaries appear to be regressing in the direction of formulaic, nostalgia-drenched big room electronica, Objekt continues to push things forward. After clocking up more than a decade’s worth of service, and given the fact that his talents clearly stretch far beyond the dance music world, how much more is this creative polymath prepared to dedicate to the scene?

“I find it hard to imagine being a touring DJ for the rest of my life,” he admits candidly. “It’s something that has been on my mind pretty much the whole time that I’ve been doing this. But for the time being, I’m still enjoying it. I’m still really grateful to be able to do what I do.” 

‘Objekt #5’ is out now on OBJEKT. Buy it here.

Michael Lawson is a Scottish freelance music journalist based out of London. Find him on Instagram.

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