Mark Dale spoke to Steve Bug about all things Poker Flat, his formative clubbing experiences in Germany and record label families ahead of his last UK gig of 2015.
Last updated: 9th Dec 2015
For the first half decade of his career Steve Bug was an also ran of the European house scene, in an age when underground dance music was largely dominated by American producers. In 1999 all of that changed.
Although his productions had previously been noticed by DJs playing a deeper, stripped back house sound, not least the ones on his early label Raw Elements, it was with the issue of his 'Loverboy' track, the debut release on his own Poker Flat label, that Steve gained a much wider and international recognition.
The launch of Poker Flat coincided with a shift in music trends and a more minimal, European emanating house sound began to seize the underground dancefloors. Poker Flat was at the forefront of the movement.
With releases from Hakan Lidbo, Martini Bros, John Tejada (listen to the classic 'Sweat (On The Walls)' from him below) and Steve himself the label steadily grew in repute and could be heard all over Europe and further still. Particular success was to follow with releases from the likes of Argy, then in 2005 they hit pay dirt with the phenomenally successful debut releases of Danish artist Trentemoller.
In 2006 Poker Flat released Trentemoller's grondbreaking debut album The Last Resort which sold incredibly well with both the artist and the label benefiting from their association to each other.
Poker Flat continues to hold the attention of underground dancefloors to this day and has in recent memory released refined house music from the likes of Vince Watson, Alex Niggemann, Daniel Dexter, Andre Hommen and some of Poker Flat's original artists.
Steve Bug has also founded two other labels, the more deep house orientated Dessous and the wild, contemporary house and techno minded Audiomatique.
He has pioneered the sound of Poker Flat and its peers across the European club scene as a DJ, building his reputation to the point where he now DJs across the globe (watch him in action below). He has cemented this reputation with several mix compilations including his own Bugnology series plus instalments for Cocoon, Fabric and Fuse.
Steve Bug now sits comfortably atop the underground European house scene in respect to his production, DJing and label work. Not that he is one to rest on his laurels. He is constantly striving to improve and progress in each of his disciplines.
He's achieved a lot considering he initially set out to become a hairdresser in the comparatively dull north German city of Bremen, his introduction to house music having come from visits to a gay club in nearby Hamburg.
We caught up with Steve Bug midway through a tour of Asia, prior to his appearance at PlayItDown, held at Hidden in Manchester. It's Steve's last UK fixture of 2015 and will also see Matthew Dear's first Manchester DJ set in over ten years, plus a visit from Secretsundaze's Giles Smith.
Before you were a DJ you were a hairdresser. What made you want to do that?
First of all I wanted to be a tailor. I had my eye on fashion. Luckily that didn't work out because the wage of a tailor in the first year was 90 Deutschmark, which is about 45 Euros and you can't survive on that. But I still wanted to do something creative and so that's when hairdressing came in.
I really liked it for at least 5 or 6 years. After that I got over it, it became a bit boring, people always wanted the same hair cut. You can't really live your creativity doing that, unless you're like a super popular hairdresser.
You're not really being super creative with your own hair at the moment Steve, it has to be said (Steve has long hair which, more often than not, he wears tied back).
Ha! After I finished hairdressing I just cut it all off, I was so bored of hair. Then it just grew. I've never really liked styling my own hair. I'm very lazy with this kind of stuff.
In the UK a lot of men who are hairdressers are gay. Your earliest notable clubbing experiences were at Front in Hamburg, which was largely a gay club. You've obviously never had a problem with other people's differing sexualities or with what other people thought of you (Steve is straight).
That's just the way I've been taught, I grew up like this. For me there's no difference in humans. If you love a man or if you love a woman, I just don't care. For me, we're all the same. If someone's nice to me, I'm nice to them. And I'm not afraid to get in touch with people from different groups, such as the gay scene. For me it was always fine.
It's right I never really cared what others thought about me. I think that helps in the music scene. When you've been in it for so long, when you go into the studio you can easily let go of hypes and trends.
You just make what you feel like producing without thinking, well, these people are not going to like this one or someone might have something to say about this one. I don't care. My personality is, this is my music and if nobody wants to buy it, then that's fine, but it's still my music. I don't want to be anything or produce anything that anybody else wants me to do. That would be stupid.
When you first heard this music at Front were you aware that this music had a further gay heritage?
In Germany it's the same as the UK. Most of the guys who are into hairdressing are gay. So I kinda grew up in the gay community, I started hairdressing when I was 17 years old.
My friends told me there's this amazing club in Hamburg, they asked me to go and I asked, "What it's like? What the fuck is house music?" I went to a record store before I went and asked if they had any house music and I actually found two of the really early compilations, one was The House Sound Of Chicago. I liked them and so I bought them and brought them back home with me. So I was prepared for my first time in the club.
I personally wasn't shocked at all when I visited for the first time, but it could be a pretty rough gay community. At some spots in the night some people would've been very shocked by it. But it was just fun, you know, people celebrating themselves. At that time I think it was around the moment they were really starting to feel their freedom.
They could show off and be who they were, some for the first time. Instead of hiding, they were in their own club, their own world and in the social system they were being accepted more than ever before. It was a good time to be there. Before house the club had been coming from the disco era and played a lot of hi energy and EBM stuff like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb, some of which they still mixed in with the house.
I walked in and it was the first time I'd ever heard a DJ mixing. Non stop music, the first time for me, as I was more coming from funk and commercial stuff. I loved it and I danced my feet off all night. After that I was obsessed with the routine of visiting the record shop and going back to the club until I finally bought a second turntable so I could mix at home.
It's interesting you talk about that mix of music in that setting. I'm from Manchester where The Hacienda is credited with introducing house music to the city, but in London one of the early clubs to be playing house music was Heaven and there too they would mix in EBM music and the electronic latter day disco records.
That was also known to have a large percentage of gay people as its clientele and it was the first club in London that you ever visited. Is that because of your gay friends?
Well, that's just where this music was happening. Of course you heard about it from your friends, so that's the places where you would go. The clubs in Amsterdam that I visited where this music was happening also had really strong gay communities within them.
So I think it was just the times. Unfortunately I missed the early days in the US, I wish I had been able to be there to check that out. I think it would have been a completely different thing again.
Your debut Poker Flat track 'Loverboy' was such a success. Do you think in the early days it defined for other contributing producers what it was you wanted sonically for the label?
Err... No, I don't think so. Maybe for a while, but we pretty quickly went to things like the Hakan Lidbo stuff. 'Loverboy' is really simple. It's virtually impossible to make a track like this that still works and is not the same, if you know what I mean. If you take out the piano there's almost nothing.
It would be impossible for us to have released music like that and still be here...what is it? 180 releases, 17 years later? The Moog bass sound was soon part of the label, but we've been pretty openminded. In the beginning it was more important to have people who I would call my friends on the label and build a family.
That was a priority really. The label I was coming from, Superstition, had a lot of different music, a lot of different characters, so I really wanted to surround myself with people that I liked.
There's an increasing trend now for people to start their own labels. Has signing music become more difficult as a result?
To be honest it's quite an easy time for us. After Trentemoller we had a dip and I was signing different kinds of music, different kinds of acts, who didn't have a big name, to bring everything down again and build it up from there. After a while I started asking people if they wanted to do stuff for the label and I still do that sometimes, but for the last two years people have just been sending us stuff.
It's either artists that I really admire or ones that I've discovered. I chart their tracks and suddenly they're sending music to the label. I think we're in a very lucky position, there are so many great labels. People appreciate our work over the years. And they know we always pay our artists, which a lot of other labels don't.
We're now getting some of the best things we've ever been sent, so it's a really good time for us.
You said you like to work with artists as though it's a family. Has keeping hold of family members become more difficult given this increase in people wanting to do their own labels?
Yeah, that's happened to us pretty much all the time, over the years. Matthias Tanzmann we signed for Dessous, but pretty soon he started his own label, Moon Harbour. Argy started his own label. I think it's just a natural thing. I started my own label and I release on others (although my label partner is still the same).
I think there's just a natural need, certainly for a certain kind of artist, that they want to build their own surroundings. It makes sense for them to start their own thing at some point. It's not always the best thing to do. I saw a lot of people try to do it, then they find out it's actually a super tough job to do.
Maybe sometimes it's better to stay with someone who's been doing it for a super long time who has the knowledge and the people? If you're running it by yourself it can be tough. I'm lucky I have a whole team behind me. They know way more than me about distribution and publishing, this kind of stuff, than me. They have the time to focus on that and that gives me the time to focus on signing music.
I tried to run Dessous alone for maybe ten releases. The tracks were being licensed for compilations and stuff and you had to ask the labels for money to do that, it was so time consuming, a nightmare. You end up not being able to produce music yourself. So, it's a common thing for people to start their own label, but it's also common for them to find out it's a tough job.
So maintaining a family is not always easy. Most artists want to progress. Has it ever occurred that any of your artists has progressed musically to the point where they didn't really fit the label any more?
Yeah. One is definitely Trentemoller, because he started doing band stuff. He founded his own label, with my partner, to release his own band stuff. That was definitely out of the world of Poker Flat. But generally the label grows and progresses with the artist and I'm very happy that we have people continuously on the label.
Unfortunately, my good friends The Martini Brothers, when they kept doing their thing (they have this kind of German English vocal thing that's kinda humorous), one time I thought the label had really grown out of it and it was really painful to tell them I didn't want to release that stuff any more. They're such good friends. But I didn't really see it fitting in the picture any more. It was a tough thing to do.
But apart from that and Trentemoller, I can't think of any time anyone had to go because of the music, because it didn't suit any more. The artists that we have grow within their own world and as they do, we grow with them.
Because of the way vinyl has come back and the limitations of the places that produce them, labels can be restricted in how many vinyl releases they can put out in a year. If you had to make a choice because of any limitations, which would you rather do, nurture an artist that's been with you for a long time or break a new artist who's never released anything before?
It's never really come to a decision like that, thankfully. We manage to release everything we want to, it's just that sometimes artists have to wait for their release if they want to be on vinyl. We have two or three releases now that are not coming out on vinyl, just because that's the way things are at the moment. To do them on vinyl would have taken four months, we didn't want to do that, so they're digital only.
Most of the stuff we like to try and do on vinyl. We started our vinyl only series, the first one was Kindimmer, and they're really successful, we're doing the third repress now. The repress is going faster than the original release.
But, to come back to your question, I would probably like to stick with someone we've been working with because these days it's harder for us to build up someone who hasn't released. We barely sign people who haven't released yet any more. It doesn't really make sense for the artist.
If your label has a name and you're releasing something from someone who hasn't released at all it seems like people don't pick it up. If the same artist released those same tracks on a label that doesn't have such an existing reputation there are much bigger chances for them to be heard and to get some hype around the release.
It's kind of strange. I just figured it out over the years. So we just kind of stopped searching for completely new artists. We now usually work with people who already have a little bit of a profile, otherwise it's not helpful for them.
What's next for you personally in terms of productions?
I just released this Apes Go Bananas, which is kind of a fun project I did with my mate Cle. We always had the plan to do it but we never found the time until now. We're having so much fun, sampling old records, letting go of any thought, worrying if it will fit anywhere or if there will be a label for it. It was released last week and it's like very old school house music.
The first one is like and ode to Kerri Chandler, it's called Kerri On and the B side is more of a crazy Chicago inspired thing. We're working on the next one.
Then there's an EP for Paris Rex Club. They started a label and this was going to be the third release, but I don't think it's going to be out until Spring.
Besides that, I'm working on a lot of stuff but I haven't finished anything, so I guess I need to be in the studio more, but I didn't really find the time or the inspiration. After the summer, I don't know what happened, but I've barely been to the studio since the summer.
What's forthcoming for Poker Flat, Dessous and Audiomatique?
On Poker Flat we have a new Tim Engelhardt coming up in the end of 2015, then there's going to be a best of 2015. For Dessous we have a Vincenzo thing coming. Audiomatique also has a label compilation coming for the best of the year and a new project with a vocal from Lazarusman.
Great DJs are sometimes not great producers. And great producers are sometimes not great DJs. Is there anything we, as a community of clubbers, media and contributors, can do to support these two individual skills without there being this constant pressure for people to do both?
One of the major issues is that people don't really buy music anymore, so for the producers it's a very tough one. They can try and produce way more music, but at some point they all discover that they have to play out because otherwise they won't survive. Unless they have a day job as well and they produce only by night, but then that's not enough time to produce. So, they have to DJ.
There are a handful of DJs who don't produce, great ones who still play in clubs. For example Heidi. Did she ever produce a record? I know she's running the label, but I don't think she ever produced. So, I think that can work.
In general it's all about names these days. They barely search for new artists, new DJs, they go to the safe things. I think that's just the way the world works right now, people following someone just because they're popular. It's very weird for me, coming from a time when house music was really unpopular and you would go there because you really loved the music, not because everyone was going there.
In the 90s when there was a big techno boom in Germany, then the trance stuff, for a while I didn't even like the crowd. Everyone was just turning up at these parties and they didn't seem to really get the music. So, I think in general people should just be more open to discover things by themselves.
Tell us a good German joke.
A good German.....there are no good German jokes! (laughs)