As one of the world’s most esteemed melting pots of music, Berlin is rife with parties and takes place against a setting, and in an atmosphere that is incomparable the world over. What rarely enters the discussion if ever, is the small but dedicated UK underground music scene that gathers in Berlin’s many iconic music venues.
I had the chance to speak with Paul and Thomas from ‘Operate’, self-stylised as ‘Berlin’s only UKG and 2-Step night’ to talk about their origins, their views on music and where the future’s taking them. The interview can be found in full below.
Jordan: Ey up 3000, it is my distinct pleasure and privilege to welcome the founders of ‘Operate’ — a UK Garage party based here in Berlin. If you could give our readers an introduction that would be great!
Paul: I’m ‘Ben Mono’ and I’ve been living in Berlin for twelve years. I had my first encounter with UK Garage in the late 90s/early 00s in Munich where a scene just happened to develop. It was quite an uplifting environment and all of a sudden the whole city was caught by the UK Garage virus and I was impressed by how immediately it resonated with everyone and then I was even more impressed by how quickly it disappeared and how, you know, it didn’t exist anymore. That vibe, that was so immediate back then, I just had to get this exact moment back into the clubs as there’s nobody really dedicated to this one specific genre that never received the respect or acknowledgement it deserved. That’s when Operate started and that’s when TMSN came into the game… [looks at Thomas]
Thomas: [laughs] I am Thomas — ‘DJ TMSN’, I got infected by UK Garage in quite a cheesy way, as we spoke about before the interview, watching MTV Europe and all of a sudden there was ‘It’s a London Thing’ by Scott Garcia playing and I’d never heard stuff like that before.
I really had to find out what it was and before that my ‘musical education’ came 100% from my brother. It started with like, I’ll be honest, like Eurodance stuff…
Thomas: But really the early stuff, like the ‘91-’92 stuff, as my brother is three years older than I am. Then he went into Techno which I didn’t really follow so much, as at that time I was really into Hip-Hop, then he discovered Jungle which totally caught me. So from Jungle over to Garage, of course there’s a gap in BPM, but yeah, this was like a perfect combination for me back then.
So I started buying records, I picked up ‘Ripgroove’ by Double 99…
Jordan: Hold tight!
Thomas: I picked up Dem 2’s ‘Destiny’ and other second-hand stuff. I was also picking up Deep House stuff at that time, which were like, yeah, my two favourite styles at the time.
It was difficult to find spots to DJ this stuff out then but I was very young so I wasn’t really worried about all that. I went to live in West Germany and that’s where I started my first nights spinning House, Garage and Jungle at that time. Later on I met Paul in Berlin after I’d started my own night, which he DJ’d at actually!
I was organising a party with two friends of mine and one guy, James, was from London and had contact with DJ Cropper. We booked Cropper for this night and he told us to get in touch with This Ain’t Bristol, which was his label at the time, they’re from Hanover and these guys told us: ‘Hey, Ben Mono’s in Berlin, he’s also releasing on our label, you should get in touch with him!’ So that’s what we did. I booked Paul for my first night, ‘Vibration’, whilst he was already doing Operate under a different name. He invited me back to his party at Farbfernseher and after a few times back-and-forth we decided it would be good to join forces and Paul invited me to be part of the Farbfernseher event which became Operate, which is four years old now.
Paul: It’s funny, my first release came out around ‘97 and it was a Jungle record with like, heavy breakbeats; It had a really dark vibe but then the main influence going into my first album, around 2001, was the West London scene — the way these guys worked on their drums and rhythms totally changed my work.
Somehow, I felt I needed to move on so my next release, in 2005, was a Hip-Hop release, which led to me becoming a radio host in Munich for a Hip-Hop show. After this I suddenly got some international recognition which led to me travelling a lot, playing festivals and all that. The typical response to this I think is that you think you have to ‘professionalise’, which led me to the idea that releasing on all the big labels at once would be a good idea. Having releases on Boysnoize records, Defected, Get Physical etc. eventually led to no booking agent wanting to represent me because they had no idea what I was up to!
After this it was clear that I needed to focus my efforts a bit more and that’s a part of growing as a person as well as an artist. I saw a lot of people around me making Bass House, and I had a few releases on Bass House related labels, but I saw them going for the more EDM-influenced stuff, and I really wanted to get to the bottom of the Garage thing. I rejected the idea that you have to return to traditions but I began to see the relevance of that music in particular and noticed that people immediately responded to tracks that have that specific vibe. Adapting this to the Berlin vibe requires a bit more of a subtle approach and this is how we’ve tried to craft our sound at Operate; we try to find the tracks that are the most relevant to the ‘Berlin edition’ of UK Garage.
Jordan: And it has to be said, as I mentioned before the interview started, you’ve done a really good job of rounding up all of these influences whether it’s 2-Step, Speed Garage, 4×4 or anything else. You’ve played some part of converting my friends here to UK Garage and that’s amazing to see. Just to touch upon something briefly: you’ve collaborated with some amazing artists, I won’t go through all of them, but to what extent would you say these collaborations have affected your sound and by extension, your party’s sound?
Paul: I feel like when you reach out to those guys you receive a lot of appreciation. They know it’s a small scene and I’m always impressed by how immediately we get onto a personal level; it’s not some overcooked Tech-House scenario where there are too many people to stay in touch with, it’s a small community that totally resonates and we’re all grateful for finding each other. Just representing the genre itself connects you with other people in this scene and it’s something nice I’ve experienced with Operate.
Thomas: Yeah, like when I reached out to Xamount, he’s a DJ from Amsterdam who’s a veteran in the scene there playing Garage and Drum and Bass, I asked him about his event that he’s putting on there and his immediate response was something like: ‘Hi Thomas, nice to hear from you. Actually, my friends and I had a conversation a week ago and we were going to approach you in Berlin!’ I was very happy to see that we were on each other’s map so to speak and they rocked when we had them over in January.
It’s a really appreciative community and there are new groups popping up all the time. It doesn’t seem to be a competitive or restrictive scene, nobody lays claim to anything which is satisfying to be a part of.
Jordan: I think this is one of the nicer things about having a smaller scene, in the sense that it feels as if we’re working together. It seems you’ve had an overwhelmingly positive set of interactions with people in the scene here, which leads me onto my next question fairly nicely: what would you consider the state of UK Garage in Berlin to be right now?
Thomas: So we like to say on our event page: ‘we’re happy to invite you to Berlin’s only strictly UK Garage night’ and that’s true. There have been a few cliques playing some Garage in the past, but it might be like, one track per set. There are also some DJ’s that play the bassier stuff and they seem to be in a different scene.
Paul: And that’s part of why we do what we do: we want to appeal to a wide spectrum so that everyone can get involved. I want to find those Garage tracks that are like a gateway drug to the genre and we want to resonate with the average listener; I want the way we present our music to be the thing that gets people involved. We could easily start at 132 and bang the tracks out but we try to build a vibe and have a progression so we can end up playing stuff that wouldn’t have worked at the start of the night. I want to get everyone involved by the way we approach it.
– Ben Mono & TMSN –
Jordan: And that’s especially relevant here where Garage hasn’t had a tradition to speak of. You’re going to be, in most cases, people’s first point of contact with the genre. We spoke earlier about your move from Farbfernseher to Griessmuehle; could you describe the process of moving into Farbfernseher first and then your move over to Griessmuehle because it seems like big news!
Paul: How I sold my concept to Farbfernseher was quite a lucky coincidence because Caren, who used to be our main booking agent, she remembers those times in Munich in the late 90s/early 00s where we had UK Garage and I wondered: why don’t we do the same in Berlin? People were playing Grime and people played Dubstep here and there but nobody was addressing Garage as an individual topic. So we worked that out and then a few years later we heard that Farbfernseher was about to close and we were uncertain about our future; Berlin is quite restrictive outside of the more established venues and we had two options: Melancholie 2 or Griessmuehle. Through my contacts I reached out to both and it was super reassuring to hear that both were interested in getting involved. We chose to go all-in with Griessmuehle and it’s been amazing having our first night there and seeing how well it did; Griessmuehle is a whole other thing.
Jordan: For those reading it was my first Operate event and they did an amazing job, so power to you both.
Thomas: Thanks! And just to add about our move from Farbfernseher to Griessmuehle, it was great seeing the development in the crowd, not just by numbers but also in terms of interest. We never had a single empty party − maybe this was luck but in our entire four year history there were maybe two parties where there could have been more people. You could see the numbers gradually rising of people who were coming early, to listen to Garage. I remember we spoke about making a conscious decision to only play Garage and maybe we lost some of the random guests but this was a part of establing − establing the night?
Jordan and Paul: ‘Establishing the night!’ [Both laugh]
Thomas: Establishing the night, thanks! Sorry I’m Greco-German.
Jordan: [Laughs] You’re doing a good job man, don’t worry about it!
Thomas: So we ended up having over 200 returning guests. We had a crew of like, five French girls and guys who first came to a party after New Year’s Eve and they came back the year after and told us they’d been following us ever since the first show. There was a guy from England who came with his friends also after New Year’s Eve and he approached us asking to buy tickets a few days before. Since then he has been here three more times and has booked flights to come to our party!
The vibe was crazy in Farbfernseher but if we had to move, we had to make sure it had the soundsystem that the sound deserves. We could have done it in any bar or bar/club but having Paul with this contact in Griessmuehle, that has that soundsystem and the reputation to help us grow our audience, was great and we’re really happy with the way it has gone so far.
Jordan: Related to that, what would you say the favourite party you’ve ever thrown is?
Paul: It’s a funny thing because quite often when the night started we’d maybe have a group of ten people come in and nothing was really going on… I was really inclined to approach them and say: ‘Wait, just be patient, it’s going to be amazing!’ They would leave and I’d be devastated, so we’d start playing, warming up, going back-to-back, talking to our friends and then, suddenly, you’d look up and Farbfernseher would be packed!
At this point whatever you dropped would resonate with the room, and this happened four or five times. So it’s hard to really pick a favourite, because the situation is so in flux. I don’t know if you get this, but when I DJ I have a problem recalling what happens.
Thomas: Well, Rekordbox does it for you!
Paul: You create this momentum, where you feel like everyone is in sync with you and those moments have happened quite a lot. For the first party at Griessmuehle we really tried to engage more with the crowd, but we hardly saw them because it’s so dark.
Thomas: We’re trying to sort the lighting situation as it’s very techno-oriented I would say. There are like two small spotlights on the DJ and a strobe but we want to change this so we can have a better connection to the crowd. You mentioned that people were reacting to certain tracks, drops and so on — we couldn’t really see it, which is something we learned to love at Farbfernseher.
Paul: You could read the crowd immediately.
Thomas: So now we’re trying to improve the lighting situation, so we can have one room and not a stage-crowd situation.
Paul: It really has to be as involving as possible and we really want to be a part of what is happening in front of us and that;s always my mindset as a DJ. I try to experience myself, in front of me, thinking: ‘At what point am I getting irrelevant? When is my set getting boring? When do I lose interest and get a beer?’ I’m always double-checking myself and my set, in terms of empathising with the dancer and changing the music accordingly. I hate high stages and we’re trying to introduce a new way of staging and lighting to Griessmuehle.
Thomas: Yeah, I have done a light installation at Griessmuehle before, for a different promoter and so I approached a friend of mine who is a video artist and he has this multi-canvas video mapping stuff going on. So there are ten to fifteen different canvases, of different sizes, at different levels, throughout the room and the video projection is mapped to those canvases which just looks great.
We want to do this at Operate too, which is an example of the way we want to improve the floor-both connection.
Paul: In the end we always want to connect to the music and the vibe — we don’t want people to feel like they’re being exposed to some nerdy, ‘professional DJ’ night. Some people in the scene are so fond of a very specific selection of tracks but quite often they missed a lot of opportunity to connect with those who are listening. This is a priority for us, as it’s not about us; it’s about those who are standing opposite us.
– Ben Mono –
Jordan: Yeah, for sure.
Thomas: This brings me back to the musical concept we have, because UK Garage can be a little bit more drop-oriented than Deep House right? And you could probably play a set where there’s a big drop in every track, but then you kind of lose the style and the funkiness of house.
We saw that some guests were really into drop after drop, but for us there’s not much connecting those tracks together. I think this is what we like about each other’s styles, that there’s a mix between creating a sexy, funky vibe whilst still dropping really rough 2-step and breakbeat stuff.
Jordan: Definitely, and it for sure makes one more effective when you have the other. For me, Garage is a mountain built on those distinctive vocal cuts and the inclusion of a range of sounds really speaks to your maturity as DJ’s.
Thomas: Yeah, and sometimes you can see the immediate reaction of a crowd going crazy for a really dark track and then you play a more vocal-oriented track, like MJ Cole, and they experience this kind of relief!
Thomas: And as a DJ you can feel what the crowd needs to feel.
Paul: And there are certain tracks you would never play, because you take yourself seriously as a DJ or whatever, but then, I was in a taxi in London for example, and I Shazam’d a track which ended up being a Conducta remix I think, and then there’s this moment where you know you have to play it.
Jordan: And it’s really cool that you mention Conducta, because I feel the guys in the ‘New School’ like him, Mind of a Dragon etc. are paying tribute to the stuff that came before.
As a neat little segue, what’s your favourite record of all time? It doesn’t have to be Garage!
Thomas: For me it would be too hard to make it all genres and still too hard to do it just for Garage. There is one track, since I bought it in 2001, as one of the first records I ordered online, which stands out. It’s Zak Toms’ ‘Bring Me Down’ (Stanton Warriors Remix). I have earlier Stanton Warriors stuff, which is great, like early 4×4 Garage stuff and some of their later, new school Breaks stuff.
‘Bring Me Down’ is a track that I’ve played in almost every set, even when it was really hard to play Garage somewhere and I’ve always had it in my bag — it’s a wonderful track!
Paul: There’s this one track I keep playing since I heard it for the first time and it’s a track where, when you are listening to it at home, it just doesn’t do the trick. But live, whenever I think it’s time for that track it just fits. The track is by Groove Elastic and it’s called ‘Vibe 1’ — no one plays it, but it’s always the perfect track for whatever time in the night. It keeps the energy, it’s very subtle and the ingredients come together to represent the night perfectly. This track just hits the nail on the head, as we say in German.
Jordan: [Laughs] I think we say it in English too! Both are great responses I think and we’ll provide a link to those tracks below. This next one’s a bit more of a reflective one I think; I’ve always viewed Garage, even if it’s not always been realised, as having a very inclusive appeal. I guess my question is: do you think Garage will grow or do you think it’s something that will stay fairly niche?
Thomas: I don’t think it will ever get back to the impact it was having in the late 90s and early 00s, but the music itself has always been open to influences: Jungle, Reggae, House — I mean it basically is house, we can twist it however we want, but also R&B. I mean there was a time when every R&B singer had a UK Garage/2-Step remix which was really, really boring. You had like Whitney Houston and then on the 12” there was a 2-Step remix and so on.
This was maybe a point where I was going away from the 2-Step stuff, but still it’s a genre that’s open, and maybe that’s typical for the UK in general. The DJ’s have always left an open door to let other tracks, from other genres, to become hits! Take Timo Maas’ remix of ‘Doom’s Night’…
Jordan: It’s a legendary track.
Thomas: It’s a legendary track but it’s not Garage!
Jordan: For sure.
Thomas: But is a signature tune of a certain time in Garage. So we have to think about stuff like that, because it’s very interesting and we think about this when we’re playing — we’re not exclusive, we see inclusiveness as a part of Garage.
As far as the scene developing goes, I see now that there are a lot of small parties, not in Berlin, but in Europe I would say. I think this time it will grow healthy and will develop to a certain extent, maybe some tracks will crossover to House, but this is as far as it goes, I think.
Paul: My view on this is exactly what Thomas says; it has this mass appeal from its vocals, but for me there was always a much more relevant basis for people liking these tracks, which were the instrumentals. I would always think ‘why is no-one capable of making those the core of a night?’ Maybe it’s also Berlin, because we totally resonate with instrumentals here and that’s not a common thing.
In my opinion this genre has a level of longevity that we’re probably not even aware of. First of all it’s super close to House, but with a different formula and it hasn’t really been explored to the max. And because of UK Garage getting so big, so commercialised and so vocal-oriented at a time, there’s going to be a long progression in the development in the genre because of the production being so unique and so specific and that’s where I see the community getting involved and the unique potential of what we do — I just don’t see the genre being maxed out in its possibilities.
Thomas: And there are labels like Kiwi Rekords right, who have a balance of more bassline-y stuff and stuff with a more classic Garage flavour, which is interesting to see on the same label. Which is perhaps a sign that these things aren’t drifting away from each other completely.
Jordan: And maybe that shows, if there is going to be a future, that maybe it comes from crystallising all of these influences together and showing that this sound really is versatile. Interesting you mention Kiwi Rekords because I think they embody this really well, by blending the grimier, more bassline-style influences with UK Funky and classic influences too.
As a closing question: are there any future shows that you’d like to spotlight, personal releases coming up or other projects in the Berlin area you’d like to draw attention to?
Paul: So Operate now has started to branch out; we’ve got shows coming up in Sweden with Marble & Toof (Garage Sessions) and in Amsterdam right now, and we are starting to get more and more attention in other cities. We’re creating a network which leads to a better exchange program which is definitely one of the priorities of our concept. Besides this I’ve been producing a lot of UK Garage myself, with the aim of getting my own qualities embedded in that formula, without straying too far away from the traditional stuff I like. Thomas and I are also collaborating on more stuff and we’re going to see how to market and sell it, since now seems like the right time with Operate getting bigger and bigger. We really try to get the community involved and supported with everything we do.
Thomas: We also have the next show coming up in a month on June 27th, with the resident DJ of London-based night ‘Gay Garage’. We have had quite a lot of requests from DJ’s that live in Berlin, who send us their mixes; some of them are from the UK, some of them are Berlin residents who have lived here forever. We’re trying to think how to work together with them — obviously we’re selective but we do want to put on a showcase and we’re considering a more classic format, of a show with like seven or eight DJ’s, where everyone does an hour or something. The requests are there and we answer every request we get, which is unusual for the scene I think; if someone wants to play we usually ask them to come to our party and chat to us, so they can see what we’re about.
We’re also thinking of having a DJ or two from the UK scene coming over, we’re working on one booking that I cannot really speak about…
Jordan: Exciting stuff.
Thomas: Yeah and I’ve come back to producing after around four years away — I just started again because we have these little trailers, so I did an eight bar loop and Paul did another one. We both bring different stuff and that’s why I’m looking forward to doing something together and seeing where it takes us. We’re just having fun with the music I guess!
Paul: And this is exactly the core idea behind it: it’s not us trying to impose what we do onto the crowd, it’s about us connecting them through the way we represent the music. It’s about the community and bringing everything together whilst not being too anal about it — this is what we experience a lot in Berlin and we feel its time to open up to different scenes, no matter how small they are and just involve everyone.
Jordan: Lads, thank you so much thoughts and your time, it’s been a pleasure hearing your insights and here’s to many more years of Operate!
Big thanks again to Thomas and Paul for taking the time to meet and you can check all the relevant links and socials, including their favourite tracks, below!
Ben Mono’s track selection:
Words: Jordan Moussavi
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