More often than not on Sundays, there he is by the DJ booth – dancing and observing. Our paths have crossed many times on different dance floors around Berlin, and as fellow techno nerds, we’ve inevitably ended up talking about music, the industry, and life in general.
Despite being one half of Deep Space Helsinki – one of the most popular techno podcasts out there with a following of over 13 thousand – Juho Kusti is extraordinarily down to earth. He laughs when I ask him if he wants to do an interview, and then awkwardly agrees when he understands I’m serious about it.
Even though Juho is no stranger to the scene, with a DJ career that stretches all the way to the end of 90s, very little has been inked about him or the project shared with his partner-in-music and long-time friend, Samuli Kemppi. So how did this low-profile Finnish man with a grungy look end up being one of the scene’s most respectable curators?
“Music was always one of the most important things in my life, whether as a listener, a collector, a drummer, or as a DJ...” he says.
As the conversation progresses on a Friday afternoon in a Späti near his home in Berlin, it becomes clear that Juho Kusti isn’t one of those people who’s always known what he wanted to be, but rather chose to float through life observing its currents, drifting to the ones that seemed to resonate more with his own internal tides. This doesn’t mean in any way that his stance happened by mere chance; Juho has worked hard, maybe harder than most out there for every bit of knowledge, for every little certainty, for every achievement.
“I started playing in a café where I worked when I moved to Helsinki. In the summer, they had a collective of local DJs come and play every Sunday – different styles from house to funk to jazz and I was intrigued by the thing – not just playing a record after the other but building a story with the way they were put together.
I’ve always been interested in the technical side of DJing – I like neat, clean mixing. Beat-matching came quite easily and naturally to me, thanks to my days as a drummer, but when I started I wanted to be technically flawless, and so I stood by the DJs observing different mixing styles and tricks, and went home to mutter about it."
A lot of Juho’s practice happened in his head, because he never owned a setup at home. To this day, he only owns that same turntable, just one, no mixer.
“When the guys left in the evening, the turntables and mixer stayed back at the café, so me and my friend started experimenting mixing by mimicking what we had managed to observe during the day. Then, when the summer ended, we convinced the owner to let us do it, to which he agreed. On Sundays, I’d play for 5 or 6 hours straight and that’s when I got to practice – I can tell you. You have to learn pretty fast when you’re practicing before an audience...
At the time, I was mixing a little of everything: from trip hop and stuff like Nightmares on Wax, to some jungle to drum’n’bass tracks, stuff like that, starting with jazz, and chill out... sometimes I could play 7 hours of jazz and 70s psychedelic music."
“Obviously, people in the scene thought ‘who is this guy from up north doing his own thing at this bar?’ but I really enjoyed it and got to meet many DJs who had been playing for years and were technically very good.”
To play so many hours and such different styles, he must have had a huge record collection... when and how did his relationship with vinyl start, I ask him?
“A friend from back home used to work in a record store. At the time – it was the early 90s – CDs were there thing, no one cared about vinyl, but he did and so through him I started paying attention to it as well, and started my own modest collection.
Of course at the time, in my hometown of Kuopio (Juho comes from a small town 400km north of Helsinki, halfway to Lapland) there was very little electronic music coming through and most of it was shit like the super commercial euro-trash or something, so my record collection started with metal, grunge, rock, indie, and punk. I became aware of a lot of different bands through skateboarding as a kid.”
As a child of the 80s who grew up in a country peripheral to electronic music, I can completely relate to this. Back then, unless you were directly in touch with someone who liked electronic music, the chances of coming across Chicago house or Detroit techno, British rave, or even German krautrock were scarce; instead, you listened to what was on the radio or what your siblings or your colleagues listened to. Shaping your own taste was a slow and arduous process which required listening to a lot of crap until you finally managed to have a compilation of the songs you really liked in a cassette. Eventually, as your radius grew, you started having access to some new bands, or perhaps randomly see a program on VH1 about an interesting act, and dig your way from there. This meant that being a teenage vinyl collector was as rare as finding mangos in the supermarket...
“I became obsessed with vinyl and digging for new music. I had to really think about the budget and buy only the most precious ones. When I moved around a lot in Helsinki between 2003-2006, I left my record collection in a storage place and one day came back to notice that it had been broken into. They had taken most of my non-electronic records (some 500-600 of them!)... it was a devastating blow to my face. I had so many wonderful collectables there, such as the first Queens of the Stone Age album – the gatefold one with the green vinyl, which they only pressed 190 copies of (I’ve seen it on Discogs for 1500€!) – and it was mint condition too, since I bought the CD to listen to, because I was a collector... but funnily enough, none of my electronic records were taken, which was probably because they didn’t have any re-sale value, which shows how popular electronic music was at the time...”
So how did he get to electronic music then, or how did it get to him?
“I guess the first record to catch my attention was Goldie’s Inner City Life (1995). I don’t know what genre that was but it was pretty interesting! The first electronic music record I owned was Orbital’s In Sides (1996), it has that track ‘The Box’... I remember thinking that it was similar to some 70s progressive rock, it had this psychedelic feel to it that really got me hooked.”
Then, the fortune wheel turned and he went to Helsinki...
“My friend whom I was living with in Kuopio moved to Helsinki for University, so there was an opportunity for me to go and live with him.”
There, Juho started working in the café which would, that summer, trigger his interest in DJing. It was also there that he would meet Samuli Kemppi, with whom he shares the decks on Deep Space Helsinki:
“When the café got turned into a bar, I was asked to become the booker there. I was completely clueless but had to give it a try, and it worked out very nicely. In 1999, I booked Samuli to play there, and that’s when we first met. Then, when he moved to Helsinki four years later, we started hanging out. We clicked straight away and lived quite close to each other so we became really good friends.”
Kemppi has naturally been a massive influence on Juho throughout the near 20 years of friendship with 13 of partnership.
“Samuli has a great taste in music – every other track he played I was asking ‘what is this?’. Back then, we used to play more housier stuff, but Samuli was always pushing for a bit of techno and he tried to convince me to start playing it more but I was just too laid back for it at the time” – he laughs - “But it was more deep house stuff like Moodyman that we played a lot. We both liked a lot of the stuff coming out of Detroit.”
Techno came later with the first Ostgut Ton releases.
“I was already trying to get into techno more around 2004-2005, but it was that first release of Ben Klock – 'Warszawa' – on the Ostgut Ton label that really turned me on to playing modern techno. It was deep, heavy stuff but not hard. It was liquid, hypnotic, psychedelic!”
Even though the genre has changed throughout his life, one thing characterizes the music Juho has always advocated: loopy, with big, fat bass sounds...
In 2004, Juho Kusti started having his show on the newly-founded Basso Radio. It was the first radio station dedicated to the underground side of urban music to broadcast on the Finnish FM, Juho explains, after having been founded as an internet-based radio for a friend's school project. Right now, they have the usual shows with playlists during the daytime, and after 6pm they always have specialist, curated shows. Deep Space Helsinki has taken up the Tuesday night slot since January 1st 2009, which they “branded” after 5 years of Kusti and Kemppi having similar but independent shows running bi-weekly, sharing the same slot.
“I haven’t seen any studies on the subject but I would argue that Basso Radio has had a lot to do with the growing number of Finnish DJs and producers, I think it broadened people’s horizons to electronic music. I remember finding it quite overwhelming in the beginning of the Deep Space Helsinki when we received messages from 50-year old housewives saying ‘I really enjoy what you play!’
“We were one of the only ones playing that style of music back then, and I think – I hope – we had some influence on this new generation coming up now.”
Not just musically, but also in their approach to the scene:
“Helsinki is a hard scene to make it in if you’re an up-and-coming artist and if you're from out of town. Being sometimes a bit socially awkward like me doesn't help. It’s dominated by a few key players, and if you don’t make that click, it’s hard. But now there is this new attitude in rising young artists, who built their own base by organising raves and throwing underground parties. They are having so much impact that even the biggest players acknowledge their talent and now they’re getting bookings in the more established clubs, so that’s great!”
Who should we watch more closely, I ask Juho?
“There’s this guy Justus Valtanen whom I saw play a couple of months ago in Helsinki, he truly made huge progress since when I’d seen him first a year before. He played a solid mix, one and a half hours of cool house tracks. Also, Linda Lazarov has made an impression on me. She takes risks and plays amazing music that you don't hear being played out very much. It will be interesting to see where they will go with their sound in the future..
"Katerina Andonov's now living in Berlin but she's always great and original. Also, I'd like to see Kristiina Männikkö and Emma Valtonen
get more exposure outside Finland. Both of them have done quite impressive Boiler Room debuts.
"Some others too, like Pekko and Sansibar are coming out with great stuff. Kitkatone already made his debut at Berghain a while ago and he's just starting his own label. Antti Salonen starting his label will be interesting to see. There's so much talent in Helsinki at the moment that I can't go through them all. You just have to wait and see who is going to break through!"
Juho tells me that he is impressed at how some of these artists figured out their style quite quickly. He confesses it took him years.
“Before I moved to Berlin, I had a collection of 3000 records but had sold over 2000 records to afford the move. Now I only have 800 of those. But there was also a lot of shit amongst those I got rid of because when you start getting into new music you don’t have the aesthetics, nor the idea of what’s going to last so well...”
Like Juho’s moving to Helsinki in the late 90s, his relocation to Berlin a year ago happened rather spontaneously.
“One of my best friends, Sami, with whom I used to work in that café in Helsinki, had moved to Berlin some 7 years ago and in June 2016, he rang me saying he would need a tenant from August onwards, and if I was interested in taking it. He’s one of my closest friends, so he knew how much I liked Berlin, and that I was a bit tired of the Finnish winter and the fact that summer lasts only for a couple of months. It’s easier to connect, also on a personal level, in Berlin... So that night when I got the call from Sami, I saw my girlfriend Rebecca. We discussed the opportunity and moved to Berlin just like that.”
That’s why Juho doesn’t waste an opportunity to be there, on Sundays or whenever there’s a moving line up – he appreciates being able to choose from the plentiful of options in the capital of techno.
While the raver in him has clearly benefited from his new residency, the financial side of his DJ career can’t rejoice as much.
“It’s complicated in Berlin, because there are codes of conduct in the industry that prevent you from playing every weekend or in any club in town... you jeopardise more than you gain by doing so.”
He considers getting a full-time job to have more of a breather. Ideally in film editing – his main/side/main professional background.
“When I graduated from art school (BsAr in Painting), I felt the need to do something that could translate into a real job. I had done some experimenting with installations and conceptual art, grabbing hold of a video camera and doing some video-art stuff and it felt right, so I decided to study film and specialise in editing. I was accepted as one of a couple of students they take each year. And I loved it – I still do!”
Film-editing and Djing... aren’t they similar in the end? Both a patchwork of pieces of content created by other sources, put together in a certain way or another to provoke different feelings...
“They asked that question when I was applying to the school and I said I didn’t think they were related, but of course they are. Especially in the linear way of how a film is constructed in the classical sense and the way a DJ set is being built. A strong sense of drama and empathy can really help you a lot when DJing, understanding where you need to go deeper or harder in order to keep things interesting to a crowd of people dancing can make a world of difference. The same goes with film.
As an editor, you need to be constantly aware of where the story is going and where the turning points of the film will be. The best results will appear when you can build a strong emotional tie with the audience and hook them in. I haven't given up on film editing but I have been on a hiatus for a couple of years now, simply because there wasn't a lot interesting work available for me, and also because I just had a few really bad experiences with a couple of projects. It seems that if you want make a living as film editor you'd have to be 100% focused on that and only that, which is hard for me, since music plays such a heavy role in my life these days.”
Entering the film school had another direct impact on Kusti’s career as a musician: it made him buy his first laptop and use Ableton for the first time, even though that computer also got stolen a few months later. As expected from the non-tech savvy guy he claims to be, he had no backup.
How unlucky of him, I curse in awe...
“Or lucky”, he laughs. “They were really not something I would be proud of now, and then when I got to buy my second laptop a few years later and produced the tracks that made the first release of Deep Space Helsinki, I had a much better idea of what I wanted to make. But I don't consider myself a producer. It's still very much a learning process for me, but slowly I am improving. I'm a DJ first and always will be.”
The more we talk the more Juho comes across as an amazingly positive person who seems to always look at the bright side of life.
“Hardships have made me appreciate more of what I’ve got”, he adds, with that confidence in life that only people who are happy with who they are can have, because they know they wouldn’t be them if things had happened any differently.
“When I win the lottery!” – he jokes another time, when asked if he would like to get hardware to produce – “I would like to combine stuff. Last year, I went to Sweden and stayed at Nima Khak's house and we went to his studio for 3 or 4 nights to play around. He uses analog stuff and then records it to Ableton and that's what I would also love to do.
If you have the whole gear it makes it easier to just compose the whole track there live, make mistakes and find new things, while with a DAW it's all more rational... and easier to lose focus. Sometimes you’re just there for hours, listening to the same kick drum, tweaking the hi-hat to try and make it sound good...”
Having been a guitar player but mostly a drummer in punk bands when he was a teenager, rhythm is easy for him because he knows how to build patterns, but when it comes to melodies and the sounds, they seem to appear more chaotically and sometimes even by mistake – Kusti is a firm believer in the importance of error in the creative process.
Even though he considers himself not the most technologically-savvy person in the world, he embraces technology where it comes into the service of creativity, much like the way CDJs have allowed him to experiment mixing with 3 decks...
“When you come from a vinyl background and then play with CDJs, it just gives you so much time, that you feel comfortable to experiment more, to take risks and perhaps make a mistake. I don’t care if I fuck up a bit with 3 decks, sometimes it can even help the flow of the party, I think it’s more important to challenge things than to be super perfect and boring.”
He regrets not taking more risks. It's hard to have the confidence to when you don't get much practice, as I point out, remembering he doesn’t have a setup of his own. He even has to go to a friend’s house to record the Deep Space show every other week...
“That's what I miss about Finland, I was playing all the time. Not for a lot of money, but it's great when you feel that the people behind you are supportive.
Berghain helped a lot in getting acceptance back home – you know how it is.... After playing there the first time I got a lot more confident about what I was doing. I think I pulled it off quite nicely and they must've agreed because 2 weeks later I got contacted by them again and got 2 more gigs that year.”
It was 2015. He got an email from the club asking if he was available to play on April 11.
“I just replied ‘Yes, I’m available’ and went for a smoke to shake off my excitement. I didn’t want to be over-excited about it or put myself on a high-horse. Anyways, I’ve always felt smaller than the music.”
More recently, he opened Berghain as Deep Space Helsinki. He likes sharing the booth with Samuli, it’s more relaxed, he says, because you know your friend has your back, and vice-versa. And since they share the same style, approximately, it’s very comfortable.
“Except that some tracks that I consider deep can be raving for Samuli”, he jokes. “Also, that sound system elevates everything – a track you listen to at home and think ‘Ah this is quite chilled!’ – there it is blasting!”
Was Berghain a turning point in his career?
“Certainly. It made me think of my DJing more seriously and where I could go with it. But what initially helped a lot were the first releases of Deep Space Helsinki back in 2012. They were surprisingly well welcomed even though they were very low profile.
And they were released on vinyl – my only dream when I was a kid playing in rock bands was to press my music on vinyl! So I guess I can die happy. (laughs) Even though obviously when it happens, you want to go a step further the next time.”
So what’s your dream now? “I wouldn’t mind winning the lottery” – he jokes.
But seriously, perhaps it has something to do with the new label he’s starting with his friend Ville Vähäsaari.
"Well, we're putting up a vinyl label called 'No Future But What We Make' with Ville, and we are trying to put out the first release before the end of the year. We're going to concentrate on releasing other people's music, but it can serve as a platform for my own productions too. So, it will be interesting to see what comes of it. Myself, I'm always in the middle of trying to finish tracks and I have tons of projects lying around unfinished, almost ready. I have a few options to release on good labels in the future, so I'm just trying to get demos done so I can start scouting for my first solo release.
So, I still have a lot of things to look forward to. Hopefully, the future will see me playing more gigs in places I haven't visited before. There's nothing like it in the world when you're playing to a room full of people who are there to share the whole experience with you. That's when I'm at my happiest!"
Picture by Samuli Karala