Deep cuts, deep digging, deep passion: Norwegian DJ/producer Prins Thomas is very much a self-made man. RA caught up with him on the eve of his label’s first compilation release to talk hip-hop, Wham and adult oriented disco.Before American radio was taken over by Clear Channel, there was a thing called “adult-oriented rock”. The style of programming focused itself solely on album tracks of the popular rock acts of the day, ignoring the Top 40 in favor of deep cuts and hidden gems. In many ways, Norwegian DJ/producer Prins Thomas has built his career on the same precepts.
As a DJ, Prins is renowned for his obscure finds and the expert edits he throws into his sets. As a celebrated remixer, he’s taken the varied likes of Bebel Gilberto, Radio Slave and Hatchback and molded them into fascinating new shapes. And, as the label head of Full Pupp, he’s championed his fellow Norwegian space disco travelers to the rest of the world.
It’s this dedication to keeping things open, to digging further and deeper, that has kept Prins Thomas and partner-in-crime Hans-Peter Lindstrom at the top of the cosmic heap for the past few years. With Full Pupp’s first label compilation, Greatest Tits, Volume 1, on the horizon, the promise of a new collaborative full-length with Lindstrom later this year and a host of DJ gigs coming up this summer (including this month’s Danny Howells Digs Resident Advisor night at Ministry of Sound), we get the sense that the adult oriented disco of Prins Thomas is going to be here to stay for a long time to come.
RA’s Todd L. Burns caught up with Prins Thomas earlier this month via phone to talk about the DJ/producer’s hip-hop past, how Wham brought him and Lindstrom together, and what happens when he tries to impersonate Carl Craig.
I was surprised to read that you played the cello growing up.
Yes. I played the cello. I don’t play the cello anymore.
How long did you play it for? Was this a situation where your parents made you play it?
Yeah, kind of. But I always wanted to play instruments. And I started going to music school, to learn to play the clarinet, and actually first the flute. Flute and clarinet, but I wanted to play bass. My mother told me “well, if you can master the cello, we’ll buy you an electric bass.” So I played cello for three years and it didn’t go anywhere. I mean, it didn’t really have anything to do with playing music, because I was going to a music teacher and learning everything the correct way, but, you know, what I’ve done ever since is try to basically play more primitively and master things by myself. So I quit playing cello, I gave up the bass, and then, just a few years after, I was asked to join a band, and one of the other guys in the band had a bass, so I inherited the bass from him, and learned to play myself. And from there on I’ve just picked up every instrument I could find, and learned it the hard way.
I’m sure some of that knowledge translates from instrument to instrument. When you pick something up do you feel like you have a basis for understanding it in most cases?
Yeah, I think so. I guess it’s different, if you compare me to somebody who’s really into programming, and working with trackers and shit, for years, then I guess I’m a skillful musician. But if you put me next to Lindstrom, who I play with, I’m definitely the punk rocker. He actually went to school, and he can play all these, like, what’s the name of all the strange chords? I have no idea. I just put my fingers down and try to make something out of it.
And I guess for me, it all connects. Like, I started DJing when I was ten, and I started playing the cello when I was 10, and for me they went hand in hand. Instead of trying to learn my lessons, which my music teacher gave me, I just tuned the cello down and put on “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, and learned to play by ear instead.
You were into hip-hop when you were first starting DJing.
Yeah. Around ’84 or ’85, like every other kid at that time, you had Beat Street, and Breakin’, all these hip-hop movies, and I remember seeing documentaries on graffiti in New York on Norwegian television, so I got really into it, but I was just a kid. But when all my other friends stopped doing it, I kept on doing it, and, was busy playing with turntables in my bedroom. We used to go take our ghettoblaster, and take cardboard boxes and lay them out in the street and breakdance every Friday after school, Saturday all day, dancing in the street, dancing for money.
So you were also breakdancing?
Yeah. Because everything was connected. I was writing graffiti, but never on the wall. I was just tagging, I had my little piece book. But at the same time I was listening to all this other kinds of music, like my stepfather played me older jazz stuff, and punk, and country music, classical, so I was always open to everything.
At the same time that I was getting into hip-hop, I was also buying the first house releases that came to the stores here, and mixing it up with those things, and also pop stuff like Thompson Twins or Madonna or whatever, like the cool B-side mixes by Shep Pettibone or Arthur Baker.
Was this stuff hard to get in Norway?
Not really. There was one really good import store in my old hometown called Funkytown, and they had all that hip-hop stuff, disco things, and a lot of bootlegs from New York. When I was 9 or 10, I was always reading my stepfather’s music magazines, like Melody Maker or Blues and Soul and reading about all this stuff. I remember buying the first 12-inch by Blaze in 1986 I think. They still had that in my shitty little hometown. And my father lived towards Oslo, so once a month I took the train and always stopped by the import stores in Oslo. That’s when I found J.M. Silk and Farley Jackmaster Funk and things like that.
Tell me about when you first met Lindstrom.
Lindstrom was recording for a label, which was also a club in Oslo many years ago, but he was recording under a different name. So he was connected to this club, and record label, and I was DJing at the same club. He said before the first time we met, he was in the club, and I was playing ‘Club Tropicana’ by Wham, and he thought to himself, “Wow, this must be a good DJ.” But I can’t remember. [laughs]
I’ve always been a DJ, but I was also doing some stuff together with some bands, playing with jazz musicians, and so he was looking for a guy for live performance, with his other moniker before Lindstrom. So I joined him for a couple of gigs, and that’s how we got to know each other.
How did you guys get into the studio together?
I was talking for ages about starting to make music again, because I used to play in bands and I had been in studios when everything was done on tape. He was really helpful in the beginning, when I first bought my computer. He asked me to do a remix and that’s basically how I got started: trying to do a remix for Lindstrom.
“When people would ask me if I could send them a vinyl copy of something, I’d tell them, I’d rather send you a check for what it costs in the shop. [It's] cheaper.”
And when did you start the label, Tamburin? Was this around the same time that you were doing the first remix for him?
No, I think I started the label a bit before. I moved to Oslo 13 years ago, and basically when I moved here, I met all these people coming to gigs I played, and they brought along demo tapes and I just had this idea that it would be cool to do something that really lasts past this five hour DJ set every night.
And I heard all these really great demos. Well, they weren’t really that great, but at the time I was just happy somebody I knew was making something and getting inspired by checking me out in the club. So basically it was just a little gang, a lot of the same people who I work with now on Full Pupp.
At the time, we had no idea how to make music, or how to get people to notice it. We did all the stupid things, like pressing up really heavy vinyl, so it was impossible for us to mail it anywhere. When people would ask me if I could send them a vinyl copy of something, I’d tell them, I’d rather send you a check for what it costs in the shop. That’s cheaper. [laughs] We had to sell it at double Japanese import prices. So that label was kind of short-lived.
I’m sure the start was amorphous in intent, but did Tamburin come to be a place where you only wanted to release stuff from Norwegian artists?
At first it wasn’t. I mean, I wasn’t really thinking internationally with Tamburin, but the thing that I learned by doing Tamburin is that you can’t really measure success by how things are going here in Oslo. I’m sure you could make a living being a DJ in Oslo, but after awhile you’d be really frustrated because you’re playing for the same people, and never really getting any new inspiration or anything like that. And I mean, people here are ridiculously lazy.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I think there’s a mantra for all Norwegian people, that you shouldn’t believe you’re good at anything, or whatever. It’s always been this Norwegian philosophy, I think, that you shouldn’t think you’re better than anybody else. And we always had like, Sweden, which has a really good record industry, and they’ve always been really good at selling what they do to other countries. I know for a fact that a lot of the artists I work with now wouldn’t have done shit if it wasn’t for me kicking them in the ass [laughs] and showing them there’s a chance to get noticed. You only have to keep doing it.
There seems to be a lot of government money from Sweden being put towards their own artists, to promote them and make sure that they’re seen overseas. Is that not the case over in Norway? Is there no structure like that?
Well, there is a way to get that money, but first you have to become really successful.
So it’s the chicken or the egg problem.
If you’re signed to Warner Brothers, there’s no problem getting twenty thousand euros for tour support. But, for me, I might get the time once a year to spend filling out this form, and maybe I’ll get a thousand euros to help fund a label, but at the same time I could use the same energy making a couple of tracks and get three times more. The local newspapers didn’t really write anything about us until we had already succeeded to some point internationally.
You have to become big elsewhere before you can become big in your own country.
Yeah, big…relatively. I mean, me and Lindstrom, maybe we’ve sold twenty thousand copies of our albums worldwide, and maybe 700 in Norway.
You said a couple years ago that there aren’t really any great record stores in Oslo. Has this changed at all? Or is it still the same state of affairs?
For me, it’s never really that I wished there’d be a great record store here. When I say a great record store, I mean SoHo, where you find all the import stores. At the same time, with those stores you drown in all the releases. And to me, if you go to all these record stores—and see all these genres divided up—then you kind of start thinking that way yourself too.
If you want to buy records here in Oslo, there is one store that gets a box of sixty records every other week, but it mainly caters for techno DJs, or trance DJs, and there’s not really many DJs left here at all.
There aren’t many DJ’s left in Oslo?
No, I mean there’s definitely some DJ’s here, but the club scene here was quite good from the early ‘90s to the end of the ‘90s, but then it died out because, I think too many DJs wanted to import the English-style of doing concept nights where it was all tech house or all drum ‘n bass. I’m not sure that really works here, because most of the people who come out to clubs in Norway are normal people. They don’t really care about listening to the same beats hour after hour. You cater to 40-year old women and 19-year old boys at the same time. So I always mixed it up, from salsa to the Stones to Jeff Mills to try to keep it interesting for everybody.
Do you think your DJ style grew out of that? Catering to a Norwegian-style crowd?
No. When I started playing out again around ’93, I didn’t know any other way to do it than to mix it up, I was playing stuff from Bitches Brew together with early acid house and like Beatles instrumentals. I grew up in a small town, and I didn’t have anybody else telling me how to do it, so I when I moved to Oslo, it was almost like a culture shock when I realized that people here were playing it really straight and ordinary. I felt a bit out of place.
But that trend kind of died out, because it didn’t really work in the end. People aren’t that interested in that kind of music to keep on doing it in Oslo. It’s not like Berlin or London where you can fill clubs for specific genres, week after week. What happened here is that in six months, maybe around 2000 or 2001, something like 50% of the nightclubs where they had all these house or techno nights, suddenly became rock bars or rock clubs.
Speaking of rock, you finally finished the new album with Lindstrom and I heard that you played live in the studio quite a bit.
Yeah, we did that with the last record as well though. But I think with the last one, we didn’t really have a plan. A lot of the stuff was recorded live, and then we sampled things again, and kind of made it sound—in my ears—too tight. [laughs] This new record is fully live. It’s more like a band recording, or like a band trying to sound like an electronic…no, we don’t even try to sound like we play electronic acoustic anymore, I think we just sound like a ’70s band. I don’t know. [laughs] There’s definitely been less thinking involved with making this record, and more letting loose in the studio.
Was there thinking involved in the first record? Like, we want to do this and we want to do that?
No, but I guess we were a bit more afraid of what the reactions would be. We didn’t really try to do anything to please people, but I went from doing sample-based stuff to playing myself, and I just wasn’t sure whether it was good enough, but now I really don’t care anymore. I know I’m not good enough, but I don’t care. [laughs]
Last question: your music has been tagged as being part of this whole cosmic scene, or nu-disco. How do you feel about that? I know that no artist likes to be tagged with anything, no one likes genres, and whatnot, but…
Well, it could have been a lot worse than nu-disco or cosmic disco. It sounds kind of cool. [laughs] But I do think it’s strange when I do a DJ set where I play old Detroit techno, and disco, and psychedelic rock, and people are like “Oh, it’s cosmic!” I can do my best Carl Craig impersonation on a remix and people are like, “Oh, it’s nu-disco!”
But, at the same time, people classify the music we do as being more open, and taking influences from other places. And if you look back to the original Italian cosmic scene, they would mix up all kinds of things, and it would still be classified as something. I mean it’s a good thing for journalists to be able to classify it, but I don’t really care. You can call it what you want. I’m just happy it’s not called syrup or crunk or something really stupid like that. [laughs]