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Zone Unknown: a Conversation with DJ TLR

Just remember you are not alone. Others have entered the R-Zone with you and together we may embrace its infinity – as we enter into a new age.”

rzone

The above text reads more like the dogma of a religious cult than a description of a record label’s modus operandi. What is this zone? What is this “new age?” Are they taking the piss? The answer to the first two questions is: God knows. And to the latter – probably, yes. Tongue in cheek or not, R-Zone is a no-bullshit proposition; no names, just music. It’s a sub label of the legendary Dutch house label Creme Organization – the home of dusty drum machines since 2000 – and was launched last year as an anonymous outlet for some of techno’s wildest disciples.

R-Zone and Creme are both run by DJ TLR (Jeroen to his family and friends) who has been active in the Hague’s underground music scene since the early 90s. I caught up with him to discuss the “weird, faceless collective” that is his label, and prize away a few of his many anecdotes.

R-Zone, he told me, works on a “different bandwidth” to Creme. “It’s a space to do something different, to fight off boredom.” It also allows for a freedom not possible when working within the confines of an established label. There are no expectations, no hype. The classic Hague sound was a heady mix of minimal Detroit techno and Chicago house with italo synths cavorting on top. Yet TLR states that no one really makes this music anymore; “it’s much more international,” he claims. Few of the artists on R-Zone have anything to do with The Hague and, indeed, their output so far has been characterised by its diversity. One minute it’s heads down techno (R-Zone 004’s “Claustrophobic Habits”) , the next stargazing beauties (R- Zone 002’s “Rosa Luxembourg”). There are strains of Drexciya-esque techno yet also much from the 90s UK rave scene.

Perhaps their ‘biggest’ release thus far, “Jungle Raver”, is an obvious example of the latter style. TLR is cagey when asked about key influences for the label, and rightly so as each release carries its own distinct melting pot of inspirations. For me the R-Zone sound is a patchwork of classic influences woven together in a very modern way. Jacking Chi town kicks vie with rave breaks, and each tune never stays in the same place for too long. It is music for dance-floor abandon yet also for those moments of blank eyed edginess toward the end of a night as paranoia sets in. When it is unclear whether you are up or down.

“Down you go” on the forthcoming R-Zone 009 – about which TLR remains adamantly tight lipped- demonstrates my point ably. It starts off with moody, gothic keys and unholy female chants, and then descends slowly into an abyss of distortion, only to re-emerge as a full throttle acid stomper. TLR says he likes to create the musical illusion of there being “a light at the end of the tunnel”, yet it’s obviously one which is continually snuffed out. This is the tension that the music thrives on. Moreover, if there is one unifying theme in the R-Zone oeuvre, it is an overriding sense of darkness.

“I only like uplifting music when it’s also depressing. I look for a certain sense of teeth clenching euphoria which isn’t quite fun.” Not the happy, sun drenched club hit that will sell a thousand records. He then recalls a conversation with Alexander Robotnick where they were discussing why they found trance music so depressing. To cut a long story short, it turns out that a typical trance chord progression is identical to that used in Indian funereal marches. So when people were off their tits dancing at 8 am in an early 90s car park, they were really grooving to a dirge. Pointing out noirish influences may be an obvious observation to make of R-Zone (TLR’s forum is called Global Darkness after all) yet it is by no means confrontational or aggressive music, it just has a complex set of forces at work.

During the course of our conversation TLR talked of what it was like in the early days of the famously freaky Lowlands scene. “No one knew who was playing… but it would be, like, packed, you know? Just some dudes playing records they picked up in Detroit or some shit.” His descriptions make it sound like a romantic secret society, where anything was possible. And because no one had any expectations “no one could really complain.” He has plans to reintroduce these “no line-up” parties, which will no doubt feature the resplendent Creme visuals, in an attempt to recapture the spontaneity of those early days. R-Zone is about adventurous music, but also about being adventurous as listeners, too. Don’t trust the hype, follow your ears and listen.

The label hankers back to a time when there were no Facebook pages to like, no flyers or big names to tick off your “must see list.” Nowadays it takes skill to create mystique, whereas in the past it was a given: “you had to spend a year to even hear some things, stumbling in the dark. You would have to trade things, and write letters,” he told me. This kind of effort seems unimaginable to the Soundcloud and Shazam generation. Yet that is how it was. Underground dance music was pretty much inaccessible to those who didn’t have a burning desire to seek shit out. The irony, as TLR reminisced, is that “in the end much of it was quite mediocre!” The internet slashes these myths instantly, yet with an anonymous label, mystique is preserved. The music can, perhaps, be judged on its own terms. Or, at least, those of the label’s aesthetic.

R-Zone, however, is not a vehicle for nostalgia. It is simply a way of trying return to a more naïve state away from what he calls Facebook’s “constant stream of shit.” Relentless self publication is not TLR’s style. You can find out who is responsible for R-Zone’s current 8 releases, but it requires a little effort. You have to actually get off your arse and look, not simply be handed a “recommended” link via a bullshit algorithm. This is why TLR has reactivated the Global Darkness forum, which was once a key platform for like minded “heads” to exchange information in pre-YouTube days. Now that the history of every kind of music imaginable exists in a vast and chaotic cyber library, the need for sifting and curation is greater than ever. He describes the site as “something old school that’s nice and alive,” as opposed to the “dead obsolete medium” of Facebook and other social networking sites. Past members of the forum included a young German producer named Gunnar Wendell, and the site is currently regulated by Innershades and TLR himself. Like everything that Creme and R-Zone stand for, it is underground yet not elitist. It has an endearingly lo-fi design and is an unquestionably honest source of opinion. Whilst browsing the quirky threads on the site it’s like falling down a rabbit hole; transporting you to a time before your mother and jock cousin were on the internet. As if you’re part of some benign but secret sect.

It is this sense of an underground community that keeps good labels vital. Labels such as Bunker who evolved out of the Hague’s notoriously sordid early 90s squat parties. 12 hour acid sets with a high proportion of LSD were standard fare, and it is out of this industrially charged electro-punk scene that Creme and now R-Zone emerged. Bunker’s 20th anniversary was celebrated in 2012 with a sprawling TLR mix. In the accompanying text to which he wrote how the 90s Dutch scene prevented, in some cases, a “total drop out, gun in the mouth killing spree blues.” Yet when I asked about this, he was more sanguine, admitting that rather than being suicidal basket cases, those who no longer make music are now “probably doing some excel office shit. Just life, I suppose.” Many people floating round that scene are now “nowhere near professional music careers”, he tells me. Yet people such as himself and Danny ‘Legowelt’ Wolfers would have made it in any conditions, I suggest. “Yes, Danny is creative in a strange way it’s hard to pinpoint”, if he wasn’t making music he would probably be equally successful in some other medium. “Like in experimental food, putting cream cheese with french fries”, or perhaps making whacked out films “like the next Werner Herzog, or something.” Wolfers is obviously a one in a million, and TLR described success in music as being like a “chance encounter”, as on the one hand you have to posses a level of innate competence, yet one must also “be obsessed with it too”.

TLR has travelled the world several times on the back of Bunker’s success in the 90s. Unit Moebius I-F and Legowelt were integral to this, and also the concurrent rise of the Internet which made music much more of an international concern. Creme and Bunker were also lumped briefly in with the “electro clash” movement, which TLR refers to disparagingly as “more about putting your name on underwear than music…basically the hipsters of 15 years ago.” Yet unlike the ill-fated electro clash acts, Viewlexx, Creme, Bunker et al have all remained resolutely underground and lost zero credibility during their lengthy lifespans. Proof that you don’t have to sell out to be successful. I suggest that L.I.E.S are perhaps cresting on a similar wave of success to that of Bunker in its heyday. “Yes, that is true, but those guys were around at the time too.” Obviously a fan of Morelli’s crew, he adds; “I support them 100%.”

As our conversation draws to a close, we touch on a few broader topics. After a cough and a slurp of coffee, he says, “everyone keeps trying to label what we do as outsider house. But it’s just house, you know? Classic, Chicago, obscure shit.” To consciously make ‘outsider’ music is obviously abhorrent to him, and smacks of a pretension that runs contrary to everything Creme and The Hague stand for. “It’s just music,” he concludes, after another swig of coffee. It isn’t thought about too much “we just do it.”

And finally, as an explanation of how to run a successful label, he offers me the following advice: “a gardening tip, if you follow your taste, you can’t go wrong.” Wise words from a man who has been doing just that for many years, and will continue to do so for many more.