Since 2006, Smallville Records have trodden a naturally realised path releasing subtle and enveloping sounds from their base in Hamburg. Often refined by a tender sense of warmth and a lushly immersive sense of depth, the music is accompanied by the minimal and infantilized visions of Stefan Marx giving Smallville an undeniably charming and recognizable aesthetic. However, after speaking to them about the label, it seems this warmth and charm comes not only in terms of the music and artwork but also in their approach. Phrases which seem to arise frequently – ‘Never planned, seemed to come together’, reveal a refreshingly humble attitude, one driven by the simple premise of releasing music for friends content to support whatever they want without self-conscious premeditation concerning genre or image. On the back of the release of Smallpeople’s full length, ‘Salty Days’, produced by co-founders Just von Ahlefeld and Julius Steinhoff, we spoke to them about their new record, the origins of the label and this self-proclaimed ‘naïveté’…
For anyone who doesn’t know, who are Smallpeople?
We are Smallpeople- Dionne aka Just von Ahlefeld and Julius Steinhoff from Hamburg. Together we are running the Smallville record store and – label plus we are djing and throwing Smallville parties in Hamburg and various other cities..
And Smallpeople have just finished a full length: ‘Salty Days’, is it a major departure from previous material?
Not really. Salty days was created in a long-term process, so we didn’t lock ourselves in the studio for 2 weeks and that was it.. more like many sessions.. there has been more hardware involved in the process of our salty days album than in the records before as we’ve got more machines now..
How would you describe its predominant sound?
We’d make it easy and say it’s deep house music.. it’s not always easy to categorise these days- but maybe it’s also not necessary..
Did you find the transition from EP to full length difficult and did your approach differ?
As it is no concept album we wouldn’t say it was much more difficult. we collected all these tracks over a long time, the hardest work was to rearrange some old tracks and put them into the context of the new ones.
Can you take us through this approach, your production set-up and how you usually develop your ideas?
It’s always nice to do music together – the approach is just to meet in the studio, sit down and make music.. we never really tend to try something that we think of before – it’s more like a development within a jam-session.
Theo Parrish identifies himself as a vinyl purist in a pretty uncompromising fashion as seen in his recent Slices interview. What are your views on the divide between digital/analogue in relation to the format of Smallville’s releases and (more broadly) your methods of music production?
As we love vinyl and run a record store, vinyl is still and will be by far the most important medium for us. We play vinyl and we produce music for vinyl. We don’t want our music to be released digital only. But we also sell Smallville releases digitally, as we know that in some parts of the world it’s simply not possible to go to a record store and buy your records or even get them shipped to you.
Do you feel that ‘Salty Days’ adheres to any kind of formula in terms of what full lengths are usually like in terms of the electronic/dance music sphere?
We wouldn’t say there is a classical form of doing a dance album, everyone may have his own way of approaching this task. In the end we had the opportunity to choose between a great extent of music and tracks that made it’s way onto the record we felt probably made sense together.
Was it a self-conscious decision to release a full length now, considering the success of the Christopher Rau (Asper Clouds) and Moomin (The Story About You) LP’s; did you feel the time was right?
The idea was actually initiated by Jus-Ed from Underground Quality who heard quite a lot of tracks a long time ago after we sent him a demo for the smallpeople record on underground quality. He told us why not do an album so we liked the idea. Actually some of the tracks on the salty days album were already done at that time, but in older versions- like „the loon’s groove“ or „move with your vision“. So the plan was there quite long time ago, probably even before the other albums came out- but then we just wanted to take our time and we never saw a need to rush things at all, like we never do at smallville..
There’s something quite distinct about Smallpeople and Smallville releases, but were there any major influences on ‘Salty Days’; producers/records you were listening to that may have had an impact?
Actually all kinds of music that we’ve exploring within the last 10 years has it’s part on the album, but there was no plan to create this and that sound..
There seems to be a minimalist aesthetic in terms of the Smallpeople work and the Smallville material more generally, with Stefan Marx’s artwork a fitting accompaniment to each release, were there any precedents for this minimalism, anything in particular that you think may have influenced it?
Maybe there is some childish and probably naive way of approaching things in life which connects our sound and the style of Stefan Marx. We build our own little niche within the movement..
Moving onto Smallville, for anyone who doesn’t know, who comprises the Smallville family?
We are a bunch of people that are around the shop regularly. It’s also really kind of a hang-out, so that’s why there are so many people.. Lawrence, who is also one of the founders of Smallville, also has his room in the back of Smallville with records and some instruments and stuff, that’s also the warehouse of Dial, Laid and Smallville. We’ve recorded the Underground Quality radio show in there when Jus-Ed was around and sometimes do a little session. Stefan Marx is also a very important part, he is drawing all the Smallville covers and posters and he does everything on the visual side- which is obviously very important for Smallville,. Jacques Bon is running the little Paris branch of Smallville, that was never really planned but more just happened- and it’s great! and then there are some more friends, who work for the store but also come to chill or buy records- like Richard von der Schulenburg aka RVDS, he runs his own imprint it’s, Tilman Tausendfreund and akaak, who run the klingtsogut party series, tilman also produces nice music, together with christopher rau but also solo- recently with a remix for Reilg, Wiebke aka Elin, who runs a party series called Dear, Christopher Rau, who hangs out here a lot and who is also an Important part of the musical side. Christian aka blessing but also Chriso aka Krosse Krabbe or Moni aka Bobbie and Axel aka Akaak and everyone who is hanging here as well.. and a big shout to Stella, too who is now living in berlin, but opened the shop with us in 2005.
And how do you decide on what to release; is it kept as a close-knit community or are you happy to go outside that if you really like something you’ve been sent?
Almost all of the Smallville releases came through either a friendship or through some other kind of relation- somebody that we’ve met before or played with or something like that. We almost never listen to any demos, but mostly because we just got so much good stuff and music in our direct surrounding- there is just no need unless we don’t want to do 3 other labels..
And you’re based in Hamburg which, from an outsider’s perspective seems to have a relatively healthy scene, with DJ Koze’s Pampa label and of course Lawrence’s Dial Records, who Smallville have strong affiliations with, do you feel being located there has been fundamental to Smallville’s success?
Not really the place of Hamburg, but it definitely helped a lot, that Pete was with us in the beginning, who was already running Dial since 5 years when we started Smallville. When we started the Label, he was already experienced with everything and is still a part of Smallville now though he is doing so many other things as well- but always giving advice if needed or helping with tax-related questions, haha.. Dj Koze is also coming by the store regularly..
Do you feel strongly attached to Hamburg?
Yes, kind of- but just because we like the place. It’s really not like some kind of local patriotism. We don’t see a need to compete with another city or something like that. It’s more because it’s the city where we live and where we really feel good –these facts make us feel attached- but not because it’s Hamburg.
Many would associate you with deep house but there’s diversity with releases from STL and Move D/Benjamin Brunn; do you see your future releases striking a similar balance between deep house and more experimental work or is there intent to branch out even further?
We are really not planning what sound should be released- this comes naturally through our taste of music and through the artists, that are doing records. We’re open for experiments, but we wouldn’t look for experiments just because we think we need experiments, you know? but there will be a Stl 12” this year, definitely some trippy stuff..
Do you find that what you release is a reflection of what you listen to on a regular basis?
Not that much maybe, because all of us also listen to a lot other music than house and techno. But yes, maybe we are also influenced by that. And maybe this makes us like the music that we release..
Do you think your ideas of what you want to release have changed since Smallville’s inception?
No, not that much. Probably we’d say there is a larger group of nice people around us now who help in the store but also do great music. This feels good!
With a lot of Smallville’s releases (including those of Smallpeople) there seems to be a ruminative, often melancholic quality to a lot of the music – something you don’t often find or at least associate with electronic dance music – why do you think you are often drawn to this kind of mood in some of the music you release and produce?
Because we are hopelessly romantic people , we are yearning for the moment on the dancefloor when everyone forgets their bad feelings and just wants to fall into each others arms .
What are your plans for the rest of 2012 and beyond for both Smallpeople and Smallville?
There will be some nice records in 2012 from smallville. Number 30 has just been released, it’s a great 4 tracker split ep from William “Arnaldo” Smith and Juniper from Manchester, great guys- we met in Manchester. Next is smallville 31 by Roaming- a new project by our friends Christopher Rau and Moomin- it comes with a Smallpeople remix. They are both also playing a superb liveset together- watch out. Also upcoming are 12“es by Stl plus the second album by Christopher Rau… lots of good stuff .. and for Smallpeople- we will be playing a lot this year and we got a bunch of nice tracks to be released, let’s see..
By Tim Wilson