Smallville Records boss Julius Steinhoff takes us on a tour of his much loved record label
As record labels go, there are few outfits in the post millennial world that come to mind who have not only actively defined and shaped a sound of their own, but also managed to stay completely true to the roots of the music they hold dear.
Continuing to nurture a stellar pool of talent that spans across the generations of Electronic music makers, over the last 18 years they’ve attracted releases from the likes of Move D, Benjamin Brunn, Thomas Melchior and Jacek Sienkiewicz alongside mainstay artists such as Lawrence, Moomin, STL, Christopher Rau, Smallpeople and Steinhoff himself (amongst many others we should add). Smallville has been a leading light, setting the trend where analogue tone intersects the fuzzier edges of Deep House, whilst blurring the boundaries of Minimalism. All lovingly put together with an eye for pleasing visual aesthetics and playfully distinctive design – the total sum of its parts are impressive as they are individually excellent.
A lynch pin within Hamburg’s bustling music scene for many years, Julius Steinhoff – his now closed record store and much loved label that he co-runs with Stefan Marx (these days), can hold their heads high in many respects. Since they first entered the fray back in 2005, their mission is as clear as it has ever been – fostering a space for deep electronically tinged music that moves the mind, just as much as it breathes life into the places and spaces you’ll find yourself dancing in.
As we come to the end of 2023, the label has rounded off the year with a stellar LP from a relatively new Berlin based artist Joe Davies (DJ Assam), which we’ll come to later. Given the timing of the release and our appreciation of Smallville’s role in the scene we’ve been steeped in over the years. We were lucky enough to be put in touch and dialogue with the chief in charge, to get a much better insight into the amazing creative outlet he has dedicated himself to over almost two decades.
So, where and when does the story of Smallville begin …
The story started in Hamburg around 2004/ 2005, when Stella Plazonja, Peter Kersten (aka Lawrence) and me were starting to look for a little shop location to open a new record-store in the St. Pauli area of Hamburg. We had talked about this for a while before and at some point, we simply started searching for a place around the area where we all lived at the time. We loved the idea of opening a record-store, specialising in House and Techno as well as offering some selected beautiful non-4/4 music – providing a spot for like-minded friends and DJs to gather during the week and to discover new music together. At some point we found a nice store in the Hein-Hoyer-Strasse in St. Pauli, so we took it – and opened Smallville in May 2005.
Which clubs and parties did you frequent and inspired you back then?
My main inspiration in Hamburg has always been the Golden Pudel from the day I moved there in 2001. It used to be even smaller back in the day than it is today. It used to be open every night of the week, 365 days a year.
There wasn’t only Electronic music parties, but a very diverse programme: music for the niches, a lot of concerts too. I got to hear a lot of amazingly weird music, met nice people, enjoyed the sweaty dance floor and the cheap beer, the staff were all very nice too. On Mondays there were small art exhibitions and sometimes even movie/documentaries on some special related-topic… So while the club nights were the main thing obviously, there have always been basically all shades of underground nightlife culture – Pudel has always been a special place.
Another highly influential club for me within the 00 years was Click in Hamburg, which existed from 2002-2006. I spent many nights there out as Lawrence was a resident DJ and they had quiet a basic setup – a bunch of great residents DJs from Hamburg plus they would invite a guest DJ or live act every Friday and Saturday to complete the night. These were vibing times back then and there are still a lot of friendships today that emerged out of those heady days.
The city has a rich history when it comes to House/Acid House, from the Front Club to Golden Pudel – did these places have an influence, or was it more about finding your own space?
Unfortunately I missed the Front, which closed doors in 1997, I would have loved to go. Quite a few friends were regular guests and were telling me good things, a young Pete was a regular and has some stories to tell. Front definitely was a highly influential club for Hamburg as the House city of Germany.
The Golden Pudel was like my second home and the Click kind of shaped my love for electronic music and nightlife culture. There were more clubs and locations that I liked a lot, we also threw Smallville Parties at several locations in Hamburg like Planeten & Blumen, Uebel & Gefährlich, Ego (run by a certain Solomun back then), Mojo Club or PAL. There were more off-locations in the past, and there are still spaces to discover within the harbour, but this has got a lot harder in general. A lot of clubs have closed now like everywhere else and we’re experiencing the lack of spaces, like in a lot of cities. There are still some exciting club/cultural projects going on nowadays though, but they’re more outside the city centre with some sweet collectives involved.
As for myself, I moved down south to Freiburg (near France and Switzerland) a few years ago, so both Stefan and I are not living in Hamburg any more. As Stefan is in Berlin, I’m running the label from down here, but I do go back regularly to play the Pudel and to see friends.
How did you and all the crew first come together and how did you get involved in setting up and running a record shop?
Pete’s ‘Changing Weather’ nights at Golden Pudel (together with Carsten Jost) were my favourite nights out in Hamburg from the day I moved there. So, I was a very regular guest. I got to know Stella at Pudel at some point in 2002, and she introduced me to Pete (Lawrence) while we were all out at. I was loving the Dial label that Pete and Dave (Carsten Jost) were already running and they played out in Hamburg a lot. When I was chatting to Stella on the dance floor, she said, “Hey, I will introduce you to Pete”… We all met again in Pete’s kitchen soon after that for tea and to listen to music and everything else followed quite naturally. Pete asked me to join in a Changing Weather Night at Pudel soon after, when Dave was not in town and I was so happy to contribute to my favourite night out, in my favourite club in Hamburg. We played together with Jake Fairley back then, probably in 2003 – it was my second time playing the Pudel back then and there were many nights to follow… So yeah, both the Smallville shop and label emerged out of these times for sure.
Once we started making plans for the store and the label and thought about the visual part and a logo for Smallville, Stella introduced Pete and me to Stefan Marx. Stefan was running his Skateboard- and T-Shirt-Label ‘Lousy Livin Company’ and already had his sketchbook with him wherever he went. I think we found the location back then and met Stefan to show him the place and it was a fun day. He also drew a little sketch: a small village and this became our logo, that has stayed with us ever since.
After running the store with us for a while, Stella left Hamburg and moved to Berlin to study Philosophy. Around the same time Pete started Mathew, a Gallery project in Berlin, again together with Dave/ Carsten Jost. Around 2008, Pete introduced me to Just von Ahlefeld. Just soon started helping in the record-store. We also started to make music together and this quickly resulted in releases of Laid 05 and a 12!” on Jus-Ed’s Underground Quality. We decided to call ourselves Smallpeople. We had a good flow from the beginning, Just and me had a mutual kind of love for House music. As Pete got more and more involved in the Gallery project in Berlin after that, Just stepped in and took over Pete’s part.
2010 onwards, Just and me were then running Smallville together. We had good times touring the world in the years that followed, it was great to see so many places and meet people who spoiled us with their favourite spots in town.
In 2017, we changed the shop’s location into a bigger store and moved away from the old location at Hein-Hoyer-Strasse. Unfortunately, we had to close the shop doors permanently in 2021. Just and I parted ways at that point, so the shared Smallpeople project no longer exists. I now run all the labels together with Stefan Marx, who finally joined me in 2021. I am super glad to continue working with Stefan, putting out music into the world that really moves me.
Regarding the shop, it was very important for me to pass over the store into good hands after the Smallville shop closed down, I was super happy when a great bunch of sweethearts took over the location and founded Remoto records in 2021. They recently celebrated their 2nd anniversary and are doing great projects and parties, too. So, if you are in Hamburg, make sure to check out the Remoto store at Neuer Kamp 32, they have a great selection of new and used records!
Where did the idea of a Smallville record label come from then?
We were planning to build a label around the store from the beginning to be honest, it felt cool to start with the shop first and set this up properly as a base. It was helpful that Pete was already running a label (Dial) and had good contacts. We chose Wordandsound as our distributor, as they are located in Hamburg and we went there to pick up records for the store every week anyway. A lot of people from the house scene around Hamburg were or are still working there, like Marc Schneider, one of the best DJs from Hamburg and also former Click resident DJ.
We put out the first release in 2006, a bit more than a year after the shop had opened its doors. We had started to throw Smallville parties around that time and we planned a little compilation as Smallville 01 from the beginning – it was supposed to be called ‘We Are Smallville’. We had two tracks already from Lawrence – one as Sten and one as DJ Swap. Pete wanted me to be on the first record too but I had not released anything then. I was making lots of tracks with my friend Abdeslam back then and played out new tracks of ours to Pete when we were in the store.
At some point, Pete picked some more tracks and we were ready to go with Smallville 01.
How did you feel about the whole musical landscape at that time?
We were definitely highly influenced by a lot of US imports, that we mostly got through Wordandsound. The first year of the Smallville store marked the first releases of Underground Quality, Jus-Ed and his UQ radio show. These were highly-influential in the following years and it was nice to be able to listen to a web radio station in the States (myhouseyourhouse.net), while chatting to the people around the world on the message board and being cheered by the host, that was Jus-Ed.
Also straight after opening the shop, we discovered the first releaes on FXHE, we got all these raw, pen-written white-labels by Alex Smith and loved them a lot. Stella was selling these to literally everyone like ‘Warme Semmeln’ as you say in German (freshly-baked, still-warm bread‘). It’s quite sad to hear the latest news from the FXHE camp.
This was all way before there were proper digital releases, Beatport had just been founded then, so it was naturally all about vinyl and physical record-stores. Myspace got some attention and I managed to get my first gigs through the platform… 🙂 I am far from judging nowadays, or comparing the old times to today’s world though. I guess there have been significant changes, but we all go with the flow. Some things changed, some things remained, sometimes it’s good to move on and sometimes you can look back and be happy that you were able to experience some of the things that might have changed.
What was the ethos for the label when you started it?
It was simply about gathering friends and like-minded people from around the store and the world to make music and release it, so it can be played out and listened to… combined with great artwork to create something nice, that stays forever.
As things progressed, when do you think the label really started to hit it’s stride in terms of style and sound?
It always felt to me that Smallville grew in a very organic way, which might have been important for the whole thing. The first album by Move D & Benjamin Brunn got a lot of love from all camps and was definitely a push for the Smallville universe.
Shortly after, we released “Silent State” by STL, which became a secret weapon track of some of our favourite DJs.
This was followed by a label compilation spliut over 12” parts and that were received very well.We went on to release debut albums by Moomin, Christopher Rau and Smallpeople and gained a steadily growing amount of response from all around the globe.
So I guess the ‘Smallville Sound’ might have manifested itself by then, combined with Stefan’s cover artwork and his iconic party posters that reached all over.
How did the look of the label come about then?
That’s all about Stefan Marx. He was involved from day one of Smallville and gave such an inspiring visualise identity to our label catalogue and everything beyond. There was a huge light box above our big shop windows at our first location at Hein-Hoyer-Strasse. We printed Stefans handwriting of ‘Smallville’ in big letters and put these onto the lightbox. It looked so good and made us feel at home and everyone else feel welcome. We then used Stefan’s ‘Village Logo’ as a stamp for Smallville 01 when the release was ready. So, when the Smallville Shop evolved into the label, it was clear that Stefan would be responsible for designing and producing the cover artwork.
And which covers would you pick out as your favourites?
I really can’t pick a favourite, as there are so many. The LP 01 is kind of a milestone artwork, also as it was the first cover with colours for Smallville.
Smallville 06 was my first full 12” (again with Abslem), so that was a special one for me and i still remember the feeling when I had the cover in my handy. There are so many amazing pieces of artwork, also to see them in a collective view is very special.
Stefan arranged this for a poster a few years back, check
But there are way more…
Now you’re at release number 61, how has the label progressed in your mind?
I think we’re in a good flow at the moment and it’s sweet to continue to get such good response from all over the world. It really means a lot to realize that people are following what we do and giving the love.
18 years on and you’re still going strong: how do you feel about the landscape of Electronic music now?
Even if some things changed in the world of electronic music and the so-called “underground music” scene might have gotten washed out in a way. I guess we all still do our thing somewhere deep down… Its about finding your space nowadays, trying not to let yourself stress-out about certain movements and developments on a bigger scale. I definitely feel that there is quiet a good energy of music-loving people around and there is a lot of young talent out there at the moment, too… A lot of up-and-coming new artists who found their way into playing out music, so that’s good news. There has always been sounds or trends within electronic music that you were not following, so this is also no news..
I feel that a lot of new pressing-plants are popping up these days and vinyl is still here to stay – on the same hand, the digital part really helps to keep up the vinyl part moving, even if production costs (and therefore prices in general, also in record stores) are getting a bit out of control unfortunately.
What do you think the key to longevity as a label owner/collective is?
Don’t follow the trends but know what’s on, stay true to yourself, release timeless music that you know will stand the test of time. Its better to be slow with releases at some point, rather than putting out something solely to put out something.
If you could go back and do something differently now, what would it be?
More cowbell.. 🙂
What moves can we expect from the Smallville family next?
Fresh out now is Smallville LP 16 – Shields In Full Sunlight by Joe Davies, and its so amazing!
Joe released as DJ Assam before – this is his debut under his own name and I am very thankful to be able to release Joe’s inaugural album project on Smallville. Smallville 61 by Christopher Rau is out in the world since the autumn days and we got such great response – it’s such an amazing record- make sure to check it out if you haven’t done. Mr. Rau still has the mightiest groove and my honest love and admiration for his constant timeless contributions that have shaped the Smallville catalogue.
The first 12” in 2024 will be Smallville 62 by Lawrence – finally back on Smallville! It’s already in the making, I played out the test pressings at Pudel the other day and it sounds fantastic. There is another Fuck Reality 12“ by Fossar in the pipeline, too and… see next question.. 🙂
Are there any new artists you’d be really keen to work with in the future?
We are working on a very exciting project for 2024 at the moment and there are artists involved that inspire me and that I love a lot, so this will be exciting! Keep an eye on the streets and let’s see what the future brings.