In-Store: An Interview with Proton Records
In-Store is a new AM Clean Sound interview series featuring inspiring record stores. For the first edition of the series, we caught up with the perpetually evolving tastemakers at Copenhagen’s Proton Records—a shop/agency hybrid carrying the cultural heritage of the record store into bold, new horizons.
Interview and text: Ulrik Nørgaard
Photos: Nikolaj Møller
‘What makes a good record store?’ It's the eternal question occupying rent-free space in the collective mind of the global vinyl community. Mikkel, Anders and Martin from Proton Records located in Copenhagen’s diverse Nørrebro district have taken it upon themselves to offer a progressive, contemporary answer to this ongoing inquiry, resulting in a many-sided record outlet that’s approachable, unpretentious and uncompromisingly adventurous.
Locally anchored in Copenhagen’s small, but thriving experimental music scene, Proton Records has become a bustling event hub acting as a community support system. With impeccable, switched-on curation, the former Copenhagen basement throws release parties and music-led events, highlighting the wide-ranging talent engendered by the Danish capital with a rising frequency.
‘Never not in flux’ is the guiding principle that runs through the entire operation from the booking, event and artists management side of the company to the record store itself; new and exciting music is the fuel propelling the company into a boundary-pushing sonic future, and Proton is never content to rest on its decorated laurels.
We went record-shopping at the vinyl haven on Griffenfeldsgade 50 and had a chat with its three owners about the ins and outs of running a record store doubling as an agency; the staying power of vinyl; the transformative impact of safer spaces within the Copenhagen club environment; and the unavoidable topic that is fast Copenhagen techno.
Could you start by telling us how Proton started and how you got to where you are today?
Mikkel: We started out as event organizers. We’d been doing the Phono Festival in Odense for a number of years, and at some point we felt like doing something in Copenhagen. That coincided with Jazzhouse (Copenhagen venue - Ed) changing its profile to having a more experimental outlook that also included electronic music. So we started doing nights there on a monthly basis.
Anders: It’s funny because Bjarke Svendsen from Jazzhouse asked us to just do something or other. Then we planned out the next six months with gigs and asked them if they had the budget for it. It turns out they did, and that’s pretty much it.
Mikkel: Things grew from there and at some point we started collaborating with other venues and organizations like The Roskilde Festival, The STRØM Festival, Distortion and Copenhagen Jazz Festival. In terms of the agency side of things, our motivation was the fact that we felt there were so many great Danish acts that we were booking as warm up for our international bookings. In our opinion, they were just as good as everyone else.
Anders: The Danish scene has been insanely good for a long time. Posh Isolation (Copenhagen record label-Ed) has created a foundation of sorts, but there are so many other things going on outside of Posh Isolation. We hadn’t really seen anyone else doing what we’re doing, which is to act as agents for these acts instead of just booking them. When we were doing the Phono Festival, there was never an agency offering or sending these acts our way—which is quite strange on some level.
‘...we were seeing a distinct lack of awareness around the many amazing musicians and producers coming out of Denmark. So we formed the agency that now acts as managers for them. And that’s when we realized there was a need for a record store as well.’
So you were seeing a lack of representation around these artists?
Mikkel: Yes, we were seeing a distinct lack of people being aware of how many amazing musicians and producers were coming out of Denmark. So we formed the agency that now acts as managers for some of them. And that’s when we realized that there was a need for a record store as well.
How does this work on a day-to-day level? How does the record store relate to your agency and vice versa—are they separate entities or do they overlap?
Anders: It’s pretty much just one thing.
Mikkel: There’s not really any kind of separation. There’s a lot of talk and discussion over the desk about everything and anything. I can work on an agency thing for most of the day, and then Anders can work on a different record store thing, and then we’re in the same office where we can talk about things and discuss what we’re working on.
Anders: Mikkel is our second-hand champ (laughs)
Mikkel: Yeah, I buy a lot of old records, and write a lot of the descriptions on the covers. Anders handles a lot of the admin stuff and Martin is all over, I guess.
‘Keeping things as local as possible is also important to us.’
Your music profile seems pretty eclectic, but also tightly and lovingly curated—could you try and put your approach into words?
Mikkel: Saying that it’s DJ records probably isn’t that far off the mark in terms of describing the overall vibe. But within that category there’s a wide spectrum of genres from house and techno to Indian club music, interesting tropical music and soul, funk, boogie and so on. We try to keep things as open as possible within that spectrum. Keeping things as local as possible is also important to us.
Is your music profile something you think about and actively try to maintain?
Mikkel: I wouldn’t say that, no. Very often it’s a question of a few records and that’s not going to take us into a direction that’s significantly different. With that said, we just bought a huge box of old trance records without knowing exactly what was in there. Right now we’re fully stocked for 90s euro bangers (laughs).
Martin: We also go by our own individual tastes and what our customers want. We can’t help bring ourselves into the music profile, I think.
Is that why people come to you—they know you have a certain perspective on music that they like and trust?
Mikkel: Yeah, definitely. Some people come to find some ambient. Or techno, or they think it’s interesting that trance has had a revival. People come to us for different reasons, and some customers are blank slates who are like: ‘I’ve heard that trance is back. Sell me three trance records.’ Then there are other people who know everything, and we can actually learn stuff from them, and talk about things in a looser, more fluid way.
What’s your perspective on the contemporary Copenhagen music scene?
Anders: That’s a hard one.
Mikkel: The Copenhagen scene has been great for a long time with experimental clubs and venues like Mayhem, among others. Also, there’s no question that the 140 BPM trance sound has been great and interesting and made a lot of things happen for a number of years now. I think we’ve gotten to a point where that sound has proliferated for a good long while, and people are ready for new stuff like breaks and bass music and all that UK stuff. I think what we’re seeing are musicians and producers creating new offshoots and subgenres.
Anders: We actually sell just as much electro, techno and acid as trance when it comes to the new records that we buy. With new records, we just buy everything we’re into and it’s pretty much all of it we can sell—including footwork and the stranger stuff. If it’s a great record, it’s going to sell.
‘When the Germans come to Copenhagen, they want to buy fast techno. They’re like: ‘We’re in Copenhagen, we want those guys that destroyed Berghain.’
So you’re not only selling fast Copenhagen techno?
Anders: Not all at all. I mean, when the Germans come to Copenhagen, they want to buy fast techno. They’re like: ‘We’re in Copenhagen, we want those guys that destroyed Berghain. But people living here buy loads of different stuff. And it doesn’t have to be that fast anymore, compared to what it was like a year ago.
Mikkel: No, that’s true. And I think it’s great that people are expanding their taste.
I think that relates to a catchphrase we work with, which is ‘adventurous music.’ That’s the dogma for how we approach music, whether it’s experimental or club music or something else.’
Martin: I think that relates to a catchphrase we work with, which is ‘adventurous music.’ That’s the dogma for how we approach music, whether it’s experimental or club music or something else. There’s no doubt that Copenhagen has a lot of talented musicians and producers—where Copenhagen is often found lacking is when it comes to clubs and live venues. Mayhem has become an institution, and even a place that people come to see. Sometimes they’re surprised that it’s basically just an old barn. But Mayhem is a cultural hub that’s even come to develop and represent a particular sound. Then there’s Ved Siden Af, which has carried the torch pretty far as far as the Copenhagen club scene is concerned. The Copenhagen club scene is thriving with a lot of different, smaller initiatives despite the regulations and people complaining about noise. There is a huge interest in experimental club music in Copenhagen—and I think we’ve filled a void with our record store in a sense.
A slightly different, AM-related question: what’s your favorite physical music format?
Mikkel: That’s not hard. It’s definitely vinyl. I’ve pretty much only bought vinyl records for the past 20 years. There are many reason for this, but it started with the simple fact that vinyl was cheaper than CDs when I started buying music. Somewhere along the way vinyl became more popular and again, and I’ve been buying it ever since.
What about you guys?
Martin: I remember seeing people DJing with vinyl and thinking that it was cool and interesting. I started accumulating a record collection relatively late when I was 24, but having a physical object in your hands was just a great feeling. When I DJ now, it’s a mix of digital and records, but I mostly play records and I think the sound that comes out of it is more unique. Buying records shapes your collection and your overall style. Adding to that, there’s the community around records, like record stores where you meet people. And there’s also just a lot of music being released on vinyl, which hasn’t been released digitally.
‘I think we all feel an affinity with vinyl culture and a lot of it comes down to the chase.’
Anders: I remember seeing Justus Köhncke DJ with vinyl at the A-House back in the 2000s. But I was buying records before that and I was hanging out this older guy called Mathias who was fucking wild. He used to DJ at the Tresor club in Berlin, and was just a really cool guy. But my record interest really started to pick up when I moved to Copenhagen. The DJ scene in the south of Jutland was pretty much non-existent. If you were a DJ back then, you were probably also a drug dealer (laughs).
Martin: I think we all feel an affinity with vinyl culture and a lot of it comes down to the chase.
Mikkel: Yeah, definitely. I like a bunch of old stuff and I get really excited when I read in a weekly local rag that some guy has a big box of weird old records just sitting there waiting to be snapped up.
Anders: There’s also the aspect of size with respect to cover art. Whenever we have a record with nice cover art, it’s sure to get more attention than the other music in the store. In that sense, there’s something special about vinyl.
In your opinion, what kind of need does a physical record store meet in 2022?
Anders: The need to dig. We have quite a few people coming in, buying a coke and just sitting there listening to music for hours.
Mikkel: I think the fact that we have physical in-store release events is also quite important. Everyone and your mom can come to these events and hang out. One day there’s someone playing noise on a modular synth, and the next day there’s a banging 2-hour techno set, and on the third day there’s someone playing the harp with a reverb pedal. A lot of really different types of performances, in other words. And they see and listen to each other’s stuff as well, so there’s an exchange between people going on—that also acts as needed support for the small scene that exists in Copenhagen.
Martin: Our event calendar is pretty packed.
Anders: Yeah, we have a lot of great stuff here in the store and also out of the store. We have a night at Ved Siden Af next week, for example.
Martin: Not too long ago we had a jazz release.
Mikkel: We have a lot of different things coming up.
‘There’s been a few times when we’ve booked amazing new music, wanting people to hear it when there wasn’t really an audience for it at the time. Then people would come by years later and say: ‘Hey you should book these guys, they’re awesome.’
You have the company line ‘never not in flux’—what does that mean?
Anders: It literally means to never be static or stay in the same place. That you’re always in motion, keeping up with things and doing something. That things are always happening. And that’s true, because they are.
Mikkel: Yeah, I think it is. It’s how we tend to approach everything from how we mix genres in the record store to our event line-ups.
Anders: It’s been a strategy from the very beginning. To keep moving. For example, we booked the first footwork acts in Denmark.
Mikkel: Yeah, we’ve always been driven by the urge to find new and exciting music. Sometimes that’s worked out to our advantage and other times it’s been a huge disadvantage (laughs). There’s been a few times when we’ve booked amazing new music, wanting people to hear it when there wasn’t really an audience for it at that time. Then people would come two years later and say: ‘Hey you should book these guys, they’re awesome. But yeah, ‘never not in flux’ means to keep exploring, I think.
Favourite current vinyl release and why?
Mikkel: We’re all very taken with local artist Hvad’s new album. Hari was actually one of the first artists I booked and we’ve followed each other ever since. His new album is very him. In fact, it could only come out of Kapelvej (the street where the artist lives -ed).
Martin: I think it’s worth mentioning that Hari really embodies vinyl culture. He cuts his own dubplate and he can produce his own vinyl, which really makes vinyl his medium.
‘Another thing we have seen in the emerging music scene and within the club environment here in Copenhagen over the last couple of years is the increasing focus on actively doing something to create safer spaces and think more about diversity and representation. I think the fact that there’s a focus on giving each other space and generally being nicer to one another are the makings of a better party and If the music curation is good, I also prefer some variety instead of having the same thing going on all night. ’
Tell us about some emerging music trends—where’s it all going?
Anders: If we take ambient music for starters, I think it’s really nice to hear some guitar on some of those tracks. Then there's a wave of reissues of older, more obscure stuff that’s been impossible to get before now. A lot of things happening on that front.
Mikkel: Like we talked about before, I think trance is undergoing a transformation of sorts with offshoots into new subgenres. Internationally, there’s still a lot of fast techno, and I think Copenhagen is ahead of the curve here for once, so we’re going to see a lot of interest in slower music again.
Martin: You can have slower music that’s really powerful as well. Tempo is a very immediate tool.
What are these slower genres?
Mikkel: I think people are getting interested in dubstep again, for example.
Is the fast techno getting so fast that it can’t get any faster?
Mikkel: I think that’s probably the case.
Martin: Another thing we have seen in the emerging music scene and within the club environment here in Copenhagen over the last couple of years is the increasing focus on actively doing something to create safer spaces and think more about diversity and representation. I think the fact that there’s a focus on giving each other space and generally being nicer to one another are the makings of a better party and If the music curation is good, I also prefer some variety instead of having the same thing going on all night.
Proton Records is located at Griffenfeldsgade 50, Nørrebro, Copenhagen.