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From Cellar to worldwide fame – an interview with Objekt

We met TJ Hertz (a.k.a Objekt), the evening before his hotly anticipated set at The Bullingdon. Sitting opposite the man behind the music in the lobby of Oxford Spires Hotel, a long and rainy bike ride out of the city centre, was somewhat surreal, but the Oxford alumnus-turned-international DJ was immediately friendly. “I need a drink,” TJ laughs, “I’ve had three hours sleep”.

Both in terms of his production and DJing, TJ’s iconic style channels his self-professed “mild obsessive compulsion”. ‘Theme From Q’, which won top spot in Mixmag’s 2017 track round-up, offers a glimpse of TJ’s meticulous crafting process – its infectious, playful organ hook bounces on top of explosive breakbeats as vocal fragments dart all around. In his shows, his precise and masterful use of EQing and multi-track mixing has earned him attention as one of the most impressive selectors in the game. He is renowned for pushing the boat out musically, but admits that he no longer gets “a huge amount of joy out of just punishing people with really inaccessible music… There’s a joy to be had in seeing what makes people tick and how that intersects with what makes you tick and exploring that overlap in the Venn diagram”.

We certainly reached this intersection at The Bullingdon last Saturday. The popularity of the night – which sold out over a month before the event – manifested itself in a packed but energetic venue. The audience were receptive to each agile change in direction that TJ took as he moved through techno, electro, and jungle. Such dynamic eclecticism provided a masterclass performance that Oxford is lucky to have witnessed.

The Bullingdon used to be a “pretty mediocre venue”, TJ explains prior to his set. “These days it feels like the student generation is pretty well clued in and would actually come to see an artist play because they’re into them and not just because their mates are going. Honestly, if you’d told me in 2007 that Oxford students would come out in droves to see DJ Stingray at the Bully I wouldn’t have believed you”. In the current climate of Oxtickets’ competitive economy and the recent change in The Bullingdon’s ticket policy, it is hard to imagine a time when Simple events weren’t sold out a long time in advance.

Objekt at The Bullingdon. Photo courtesy of Simple.

TJ studied engineering at New College ten years ago. For a city with a short term memory and an ever-changing student population, ten years feels an impossibly long time, but TJ’s experience was not much different from our own. “Ten years is not that long – we had the internet, we almost had smart-phones…” he laughs. Clubs have come and gone, but in a relatively small city like Oxford, the scene hasn’t changed much – the likes of Park End and Bridge still cater for chart and cheese-lovers, whilst smaller venues play host to independent student nights.

Then and now, the intimate venues of Oxford have provided a fertile breeding crowd for emerging talent, something TJ explains concisely when he notes that “smaller venues are and have always been the incubators of the scene”. TJ learned to DJ in The Cellar by experimenting on the decks during soundchecks for the live music nights he was involved in. He took over running Eclectric, a night at Baby Love Bar on King Edward Street.

“It was a total pain in the arse,” TJ describes, “it was narrow, there was a staircase in the middle of it, there were bottlenecks everywhere, the sound was kinda crap, the management were a bit of an upward struggle, it got a bit sketchy after, like, 2am – but it was kinda beloved as well”.

Baby Love Bar closed in May 2014 after its premises were reclaimed by Oriel College. The closure of small venues is not an unfamiliar possibility to Oxford students, who will all remember the recent struggle of The Cellar to defend against the prospect of re-development. Unsurprisingly, TJ supported this campaign, and spoke passionately in favour of preserving such crucial hubs.

“You don’t have to risk your finances for the next several years in order to put on parties. It’s these small venues where you have the freedom to organise stuff on more of a whim. You can foster a sense of community of like-minded people, and give local artists, musicians and promoters the opportunity to learn and develop. It’s essentially the smaller venues that build a music scene.”

“What did happen with Cellar by the way?” he asks, and was pleased to hear that The Cellar was indeed saved, after a student-run petition received nearly 14,000 signatures. “I shudder to think what a whole generation of people of going-out age in a city like Oxford would do without at least one venue like that that straddles musical credibility but also accessibility.”

Accessibility became a recurring theme of our chat. Venues like The Cellar create a space for more leftfield tastes that may be less welcome in other environments. We ask him if he ever DJed at bops and he found the idea amusing. “Are they as cheesy now as they were then?” Whilst the college bops we all know and love are still renowned for being, as TJ described, “cheese-fests”, there were other avenues for his music. He tells us that “at New College we used to occasionally put on these really small parties in the band rehearsal room, which was basically like a dungeon underneath the JCR. It was in the old buildings of New College so it was, like, ten centuries old or whatever – you couldn’t really hear anything from outside. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them raves. It was basically just twenty of us mixing records and having some relatively tame fun by partying standards”.

Oxford, as a relatively small and incredibly student-dominated city, has venues that are able to be more democratic in their line-ups, offering spaces to amateur student DJs and bigger names alike. As well as such diversity being critical for the flourishing of any music scene, and it also gives more room to female artists who are often overlooked by an incessantly patriarchal industry. As someone experienced in the profession, TJ is well-aware of this under-representation.

“The issue obviously starts with endemic sexism and harassment within the scene and industry, but on top of that there’s a myriad of interconnected factors which form a sort of vicious cycle. You’ve got this relative dearth of visible female artists being booked for higher profile slots, and an abysmal gender ratio on most house and techno lineups, so consequently there’s a lack of role models for young female musicians, who as a result are much more likely get discouraged or intimidated by the overwhelmingly male local communities of DJs and producers (with whom they’re meant to engage, learn, develop, bounce ideas off of, etc)”.

Last November, Lauren Bush (a.k.a re:ni), a DJ from the all-female SIREN Collective, made her debut in Oxford with a three-hour set at The Cellar. The SIREN Collective (founded in 2016) aims to “create a safe and immersive space for those who are under-represented in dance music, whilst continuing to critique the electronic music scene as a whole”. The status of SIREN has risen in the past year, as members of the collective have played at festivals such as Field Day and Brainchild, but the problem is still far from fixed. TJ, although admitting he was afraid of ‘mansplaining’ the issue, is undoubtedly right in identifying a “cyclical pipeline issue in addition to all of the misogyny and sexism that exists”; the problem is self-perpetuating.

The conscious efforts of smaller venues such as The Cellar in fixing this imbalance is perhaps the only way to solve it. Recently, the PRS Foundation’s International Keychange, a European initiative aiming to improve the representation of female artists, called for festivals and music industry conferences to pledge line-ups with a 50/50 gender split – 45 have committed, although, as TJ is quick to point out, “I’ve only heard of about 3 of them. Not many of them were electronic festivals; a lot of them were folk festivals or jazz festivals and I don’t know what the gender ratio is in the music scene at large – probably not great – but I think it’s particularly bad in techno.”

“I genuinely think it is changing in the sense that, like, there is more awareness of an emerging generation of female DJs that I didn’t feel was quite so present four or five years ago”. It might be too early to declare gender equality on techno line-ups, but the fact that “people within the scene are taking active measures to tackle the homogeneity of their lineups or rosters, rather than simply being like ‘oh well, there’s not enough women to book’ is certainly a step in the right direction. In parallel we’ve seen a proliferation of female/trans/non-binary music collectives and local community groups, as well as affirmative action – call it positive discrimination if you like, but I think it’s absolutely necessary – by promoters, label owners, magazines and other people with curatorial responsibilities who are able and motivated to offer a platform to female artists”, as was evidenced by re:ni’s and Josey Rebelle’s recent appearances in Oxford, along with the upcoming bookings of Shanti Celeste at The Cellar, and Saoirse and Or:La at The Bullingdon.

“It takes time for these shifts to propagate upwards to the bigger stages but I think the seeds have been sown and I very much hope that the generation of artists emerging right now might turn out to be more diverse than the last.”

Objekt at The Bullingdon. Photo courtesy of Simple.

Though the dominance of male artists in dance music bookings has been consistent since underground music’s inception, one aspect of music that has undoubtedly changed is the ease with which it can be identified and obtained – the rise of apps like Shazam, and of Facebook groups like the 91,000 member-strong ‘The Identification of Music Group’ have made it far easier for music lovers to find tracks that have been played at shows. Speaking of how people IDed their tracks when he was at uni, TJ comments that “there were some message boards on the Internet where if you managed to get a recording on your phone you could post something, but they weren’t as active as these bigger Facebook groups now.”

The ease with which tracks can be IDed and accessed is a development in the music scene that has attracted different opinions, but TJ offers a balanced view: “I think that being able to find out what a piece of music is and access it is a fantastic thing, and I think it goes some way towards democratising the distribution of music in general, also making it less nerdy and less competitive, which is nice. But I think with that comes a certain obligation to dig a little deeper than the answers that are just fed to you.” While many have heralded this inventive use of social media and advanced technology as a way of bringing music-heads closer to the tracks, purists have argued that this obsessive ‘track-ID culture’ can lead to a kind of laziness that does not respect the value of sifting through boxes of records to see what you can find. “It’s a double-edged sword… I’m wary of sounding like an old fart because recontextualising music is also something that can lead to really exciting new movements. But for me, I think that even if you take something out of context and do something completely new with it, it’s worth knowing a bit about it fits into a scene in the first place, and that’s something that…”

TJ pauses. “Actually, thinking about it, I’m gonna contradict myself here – maybe that’s not the case. If, in the olden days, as it were, you happened across a track that you’d been looking for for ages in a second hand record store, you wouldn’t know anything more about that track than if somebody told you what it was on Facebook.”

Clearly, then, the increasing accessibility of music has value, but with great power comes great responsibility… “I think that the easier access to music becomes, and access to technology becomes, the greater the onus on artists to push themselves further – they make up for that by just being better at what they do, finding new and interesting ways of excelling in some way or another.” TJ has, himself, been involved in allowing artists to adopt new technology. He worked for Native Instruments, a job that was in many ways led to by his Engineering degree. Such experiences have allowed TJ to meet the responsibility that he sets himself and other artists – of working for Native Instruments, he describes it as “tremendously informative in terms of my understanding of how the tools that I was using shaped the sound, and how I could manipulate them more effectively.”

TJ’s attitude towards his role as an artist is therefore a humble one. “I don’t think DJ’s should be gatekeepers of the music that they play. I mean, the way that I see it, I, and the people who do what I do, have a huge privilege in being able to actually spend time looking for music that we’re essentially paid for because this is what we do for a living, so the least that we can do is share that.”

This modesty is also evident in his feelings towards the city he studied in. Despite playing all over the world, TJ confesses a fondness of Oxford that is simultaneously sentimental and mysterious. When asked if it ever felt weird coming back here, TJ admits that while he hadn’t at this point had a chance to explore, the last time he was here (he performed at The Cellar in 2015) was “profoundly weird”.

“I remember taking a long walk through the city at dusk and revisiting all of these old haunts and getting these flashes of nostalgia from this place, but also just feeling like I was walking through the nostalgia of generations gone by. Not just generations, but centuries. It’s a really weird city, it feels haunted.”

As a city and a cultural hub, Oxford is simultaneously changing and unchanging – receptive to the constant influx of new students and new ideas, but also, as TJ suggests, haunted with the ghosts of hundreds of years gone by. Whilst the music scene is – albeit gradually – progressing, many of the traditions that define such a strange institution remain. When we ask him for some thrilling anecdotes about his time as a student here, TJ replies: “I wish I could regale you with crazy stories of Piers Gav but it was basically just us getting cold in the field. It was just scantily-dressed, posh Oxford kids taking pills in a marquee in the grounds of a mansion.” Nothing much has changed there, then.

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