Based in the vibrant harbour of the Hamburg scene, Tobias Lampe has worn many hats over the years: promoter, DJ, photographer. In 2009, he decided to break out and establish hfn music, a beacon for eclectic sounds. Since then, the label has put out seminal records, one after the other, and this year they celebrate their 100th release, a breathtaking Trentemøller remix of Blaue Blume’s Lovable.
You founded the record label hfn back in 2009 and now you’re celebrating your 100th release. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to start hfn and how the first early years were like?
The idea for hfn was cookin’ for a while as I was mainly focusing on club music before – from 1993 actually. I just needed the right moment to start a label like hfn. This right moment was the idea of Harbour Boat Trips by Trentemøller followed by great demos of Kasper Bjørke and later of Darkness Falls, Reptile Youth and Jacob Bellens. But hfn is more a triumvirate actually.
On one hand, With In My Room, which is the sister label of hfn for all Trentemøller releases as well as his signings; and on the other hand, hafendisko, focusing on more club-orientated sounds – I always have this picture of a perfect concert and club night with harbour view and a disco ball in my mind.
You were a DJ and a photographer before starting hfn, what made you jump from behind the decks to organizing?
I was also a promoter and was, with a few others, responsible for establishing the techno and house virus in Hamburg. So this organizing gene was there from the start, simply as this scene didn’t really exist before. I was finally hardcore infected by this virus from my visits to London and wanted to bring this back to Hamburg. So that was indeed a crazy time and everything was co-existing. Priorities shifted over the years, but I actually never stopped any of the activities totally. For example, I still have my regular night at Golden Pudel Club every two or three months, also inviting friends or artists from all over the world to join this great experience playing there.
The actual founding moment of my label was somehow in 1992 – that was for the first label, which was called Superstition Records –, mainly to have a proper platform for my DJ and producer colleagues and their music as this part was not really existing before either. So we also needed to DIY a label – and all this from scratch! Then this journey started until now and beyond.
Tell us a little about the 100th release!
I had this spontaneous remix idea when I met Blaue Blume as well as Trentemøller in Copenhagen the same day in the summer of 2019. I simply asked them and all were excited. I forgot about it for a while, and when I was thinking of whether we shall do something special for the 100th release, the remix came in and it simply blew me away.
It was a bit magical to get it at that moment and that Anders had finished it. However, the vibe captures so perfectly what hfn also stands for that I had my perfect 100th release idea in hand, for me also crowned by the limited-edition 10-inch as I still love the physical format.
What is your process when scouting for new talent? How do you work with your artists?
There is no established routine other than listening to demos or seeing new talents live, get a recommendation or stumble upon them when browsing around. We never do any Soundcloud or similar research, for example. For some reason, we were always lucky that we never needed to release or design anything to survive, so it is in fact a ‘guts-driven’ label in the sense that the only philosophy is and was: we need to love the music and like the artists behind it, and share some vision for a long-term musical relationship.
I mean, there are many possible philosophies to run a label, but I’ve always been looking into one long-time cooperation rather than signing a bunch of one-offs. So when we sign an artist, we also want to continue working together and build something over time.
You’ve featured everyone from Trentemøller to Blaue Blume in recent years, is there a common sonic element to all your output or do you relish a more eclectic variety of music?
Yes, you can say that I relish a more eclectic variety of music. Electronic music was my focus for many years, and reviewing my youth I was early passionate about it. At 11 or 12, I was listening to Planet Patrol or Afrika Bambaata & Soulsonic Force, got into Depeche Mode, Kate Bush or Kurtis Blow. I was more or less into all kinds of genres. In my teenage years, my heroes were also the Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and so on, but I also liked rap/hip hop, soul or pop music.
My original vision of a label, starting with my first one in 1993, was to present a much wider spectrum as I realized was possible on one label alone. So I adapted my vision more or less over the years into a record company with various labels picturing a wider musical spectrum. So if there is a red line, maybe it is this genre mix open-mindedness in conjunction to above-mentioned ‘guts-driven’ A&R decisions. Does that make sense?
hfn is a proud export of Hamburg, how has the community and scene evolved over time since the label’s inception?
Diversification is the best word maybe. We have many great and vital micro scenes, creative people and camps under the bigger umbrella of the so-called ‘music scene in Hamburg’. In my view, the Reeperbahn Festival has also helped a lot over the last years to get the scene even more international than it was before. The creative output is immense and, in my opinion, got bigger and better over the years while the music landscape surely changed a lot. That being said, Hamburg has always had vital scenes – look no further than the Beatles.
How do you juggle the beauty and the hardship of working with artists with the commercial realities of the music industry?
You see, I started my first record label in 1993, so I’ve experienced many changes – including paradigm changes. For example, the ones caused by the format evolution from physical (vinyl to cd and back) to downloads, and now streaming – with all the difficulties it entails, like piracy. But I am much more relaxed after twenty-five years in the music business.
What is surely different from the early days is that it is a crazy amount of work to run a record label nowadays, and sometimes I feel unsure whether I would have chosen this way if I had known back then. But most of the times, I am f**king damn sure. Music simply remains the driving force, so I juggle like everyone else between the not-so-nice but need-to-do things and the lovely, nice parts of the job.
If you had to pick a film to describe the journey of hfn what would it be and why?
Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey – maybe as it remains a trip until the end.
What are you listening to on repeat at the moment – both from hfn and from other record labels?
One of the nice or strange things about working in a record company is that you listen to more unreleased music than released music. Demos are one reason, but I also always listen to releases on our labels months before they actually get out as I am usually very excited and enthusiastic about this signing and the very fresh output from the studio.
Right now, I’m listening to the debut album of Tom And His Computer, which is partly co-produced by Trentemøller; and also to the new Lydmor album. Speaking of other labels, the new Bicep album is also on rotation as this sounds remind me so much of the early ‘90s UK sound in a great, updated way.
What would be your essential advice to young people who want to start their own label or consider a career in the music industry?
Do some research. Also, maybe find a mentor you can trust, and if you feel confident enough, just start experiencing, networking and simply do your thing. Take it from there. You can’t learn without trying – and possibly failing from time to time. Keep the passion alive and try not to be too impatient. Maybe have a plan B so that you don’t need to take this journey too seriously.
After the 100th release, what does the future hold for hfn?
As revealed earlier, we have some great music and albums coming up, for example, Lydmor’s and Tom And His Computer’s. While we are in the ‘Covid-19 season’, here I am not into planning too much ahead right now. We will surely be more cautious with new signings now but I have a good feeling that we will get through this crisis in a way that we are able to continue releasing artists and music we love and believe in. A lot of great music is being produced right now, maybe more than ever.