After an illustrious ten-year career recording, and performing, for labels such as BBE, Defected, and Sonar Kollektiv – blurring the borders of deep house, jazz, pop, and soul – Georg Levin disappeared from the public eye in around 2010. Following a further decade, focusing on his family and company, Playdis TV, Georg is back with a brand new single, It Was Fun For A While. A moment of melancholy `80s referencing dance, with a lovelorn, lost in nostalgia, lyric, The Insider has been raving about song, comparing it to Roxy Music, and Georg to Bryan Ferry. It`s there in Mr. Levin`s threatened by never quite reached for falsetto. Here our favourite four-to-the-floor expert quizzes the currently Berlin-based Georg on not only the new record, but the huge hits in his back catalogue. Touching on his team-up with Dixon, as Wahoo, and his days starting out, working at MTV.
Interview conducted by The Insider.
Hello Georg thanks for taking this time to talk. Where have you been the last 10 years Georg we’ve missed you..
I`ve been busy becoming a father of 2, and with my music production company, Playdis TV.
What can you tell us about Playdis.TV?
Playdis is a music production company – for film and commercials – that I set up with 2 partners in 2011. We have offices in Berlin and Stuttgart. We offer musical guidance to agencies, brands, and directors, and often compose and produce music for their films and ads. Before I started my music career I was working for film production companies, and always thought that the visual and the audio world are very much apart from each other. They have different languages, very different people and I like bringing them together.
Have you always lived in Berlin? Is that where you were born?
I was born in Northern Germany, near Hamburg, then moved to London to study before I came to Berlin.
Do you think that being in Berlin has had a major on you musically? If you didn’t live there do you think you would have followed the same path?
That`s a good question because I do feel that I might have gone somewhere different musically if I`d stayed in London, or went somewhere else. Techno dominates the clubs in Berlin, but that’s changing. You meet a lot of great musicians and artists here, but I always felt that I belong to a minority. But maybe that`s a good thing. If Prince had grown up in L.A., and not in Minneapolis – with basically just rock radio stations – his music may have been less varied.
Berlin has attracted so many musos the last decade. Why do you think people flocked there initially? Do you think it`s still the most attractive place in Europe for those interested in the modern-day music scene?
What makes Berlin attractive and unique for creative people is that it`s a big poor city in a rich country. Paris supports France, London supports the UK, but in Germany it’s the other way round. There`s virtually no industry in Berlin – no banks, no big companies. But there are three opera houses and 7 large orchestral ensembles, a few universities, a modern infrastructure, and lots of clubs. It’s not just the DJs coming here, there are also a lot of classical musicians, singers, jazz people, etc., that come here because they can make a living, and meet others to work with, and find spaces to rent. Then you have festivals all over the country – a lot of them also subsidized by the local governments, who more or less took over the role of the patrons from Beethoven’s days. Berlin is not cheap anymore like 10 years ago, but there is still some air to breathe.
You spent some time living in London, while at Goldsmiths. Where did you live in London exactly? Did you like the city? Did you spend time going out to clubs when you were there?
London was a very important time for me, both studying at Goldsmiths, and getting to know the language and the people. Lots of my best friends are from London, and I actually met my wife there too – we didn’t hang out back then though. I lived in New Cross first, then Brockley, later Camden, and finally Hampstead. I also had brief stints in Kensington, Clapham, Shepherd’s Bush, and Victoria. All sorts of flavours.
You worked at MTV. Was that while you were in London? What was your role there?
I was a researcher for a series called „Turned on Europe“ and yes that was in London too. First based in Camden, later Oxford Circus.
MTV was responsible for the musical education of a generation. Do you think there`s anything like that today? Would it be Youtube now?
This is hard to answer. MTV had such a monopoly back then. People who worked there did get a kind of a buzz from having this power over all those big artists – who turned up on time and behaved very politely, while the staff were more busy with their hangovers from some record company party the night before. I actually was quite shocked how chaotic it was there at times, things were stolen from your desk if you weren’t careful. But I liked working there.
Now we`re in a different world, but perhaps it`s not as fragmented as it may seem. I suppose Instagram is the new MTV. Just like MTV, the business model is about getting people’s attention – to sell more ads. As for the content, there are certain patterns, styles, and artists that are deemed more „relevant“ than others because they fit Instagram`s product and make the platform look attractive. Every hot artist these days has to know how to dress – even more than back in the MTV days – because people look at the artists more than they listen to their music. Spotify may be also a source of inspiration for music through their playlists, but it is a long way from „educating“ a generation.
At the end of the day, both Mark Zuckerberg and Viacom – who were behind MTV – want to make money, and don’t care about educating anyone. Musicians are just the door-openers to the ads. Zuckerberg and Viacom are in the advertising business, just as they are in the T-Shirt business…and similarly, as a DJ, you are rather in the drinks – and possibly drugs – business, rather than the music business. Tickets and physical sales of music are just a small part of the financial and cultural reality of music.
How did you meet your Wahoo production partner Dixon?
Dixon and I were introduced by Alex Barck, from Jazzanova / Sonar Kollektiv. Alex’ brother-in-law is one of my best friends – someone else that I met in London – and I chased him for quite some time to listen to my tapes. Alex liked „When I’m With You“ and thought that Dixon would be the right studio partner for me. So Dixon came to my apartment. That’s how we met. I was the new artist, he was the producer with the equipment, and as it turned out, we both had no clue about production. But something came out in the end.
Is Wahoo still active today?
I don’t know. Dixon wrote „Wahoo forever“ in my wedding book, but that was already 11 years ago. We are both too busy right now, I guess.
You put out ‘I Got Somebody New’, with Clara Hill, in 2002 – co-produced by Dixon. It’s a song that formed a big part of my personal soundtrack at the time. How much do you remember about the making of this track?
It was tedious and lengthy. I remember it very well. I first recorded a demo on a multitrack machine, still with no main line – „IIII got…“. Then we recorded the parts with different musicians, either at Dixon’s home studio, or at their place, and cut everything into bits and put them into an AKAI sampler. We didn’t have an audio recording device. Everything we recorded was loaded from a DAT recorder into the sampler and triggered by Midi. Crazy, when I think of it now, but Dixon was very persistent and disciplined, a true sports person. Then one day I heard this Frank Zappa song called Sy Borg. Great song with an amazing synth solo, shocking lyrics though. That became my inspiration for the main line. I always love to take inspiration from all kinds of genres, and put them somewhere else. Then we recorded the vocals at Jazzanova’s brand new studio. It then took us another 3 months to finish it. I remember playing it to my flatmate, who thought that there wasn’t enough of a groove. Thanks to him, we changed the high-hat. By the time we put the record out we weren’t sure about it anymore, and neither were the guys at Sonar Kollectiv. Hence the low key cover. But we were overwhelmed by the reaction.
‘You Know What You Want But You Don’t Get It’ was from the album ‘Can’t Hold Back’ in 2003.. That video is super cool! Did you produce the video yourself? Was it fun to make?
The video was actually quite expensive. The director is a friend and was represented by a big film production company that had its own set builders and film ateliers at the time, and they just let us use their stuff and staff for one day. He needed something for his show reel. The film was shot on „real“ 35 mm, leftovers from other projects. It was quite spontaneous but it was fun. I don`t think I`d even had a gig before this video – where I pretend to have a gig.
The late and the great Phil Asher remixed your, ‘The Better Life’. Did you get to work closely with Phil on this? His passing was such a sudden and shocking loss to the deep house community…
Yes, a total shock. Unfortunately I never had the chance to meet Phil. The remix came through Pete from BBE.
In 2006 you released ‘Keep On Making me High’, another essential warm and balmy jazzy classic. How has your relationship with Sonar Kollektiv been over the years.
An earlier version was actually the B-Side of my first single. I always liked the chord progression with that pad-ish horn sound, so I wanted to revisit it again. It was also featured in the musical „Belle et Fou“ with its own Jazzanova version. The musical lasted about 1 week, but the soundtrack was doing okay I think.
My relationship with SK was a bit like family – including the occasional squabble.
Sonar Kollektiv re-released ‘Don’t Take It Personal’ as part of their 15 anniversary celebrations. What’s it like as a singer yourself, letting others take the reign like Paul Randolph’s vocal here. Did you ever feel like you wanted to sing it yourself?
The re-release happened because we found out that this version of the song wasn’t available on Spotify. It was actually picked by Moodymann to appear in Grand Theft Auto, but unfortunately it didn’t make the final cut. That’s how we found out. Through that I also found out that the song was sampled for Oliver Dollar’s „Doin’ Ya Thang“ 10 years ago, which features the Moodymann sample that later was also used in Drake’s „Passionfruit“. I`m glad that Paul sang that song. I sometimes sang it live at my gigs and enjoyed it, but he has the right growl and power to make it what it is.
We know you as a singer, song writer and producer.. Have you ever been much of a DJ? Do you enjoy getting behind the ones and twos?
I did every now and then, but never seriously. I always dream of throwing a gig with this and that song, but I never got further than a private party.
For someone who leans towards rock and electronica, you’ve worked with a hell of lot of soulful artists. There’s a lot of jazz and soul in you too, right?
Well, I was quite often asked about that „rock“ thing. It’s on Sonar Kollektiv’s website I think. I don’t know where it’s coming from. Of course I like rock, and love the classic stuff like The Beatles, or Queen from the `70s, but soul and jazz have always been my main thing. Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Prince. I like that brief phase in the early `80s where it all came together – Disco, New Wave, Soul and Rock. I think it was a sweet spot in music history, and that’s why people still like Talking Heads, Grace Jones or Roxy Music today.
Who are the songwriters that have had an impact on you and have maybe inspired the music that you make? In your opinion, who are the greats?
The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, George Gershwin, Roger Temperton, Kate Bush, Kevin Parker…thousands more. I particularly admire artists who manage to write great stuff over a long course of time.. also people like Pharrell or Daft Punk who had hits before they were 25… and great producers like Trevor Horn, Quincy Jones, and Mark Ronson, who manage to bring something special out of their artists.
When you write a song do the lyrics come first? Or the melody?
The lyrics come last most of the time.
Lyrically you can be melancholic. Is it possible to write about everyday things? Or would that just not make for a good song.
That’s a very good question. It takes me a long time to write lyrics because I try not to be too clever or too banal. It’s more about creating a feeling, that helps to transport the music, rather than actual content, I suppose. I want the words to sound good and tight with the music. In the past I`ve tried to be funny sometimes, which I always regretted afterwards. But of course, there are also songs that are pretty concrete. „Fall into a dream“ is a song about a dream that I actually had where I felt both strong and weak, both happy and sad. This is a quality that I find very interesting in dreams and I also like it in music. I like happy-sad.
How do you put yourself in the mood to write a song, or do you write when the mood comes over you?
I think it’s the same for most musicians. You stumble across something either through another song, that you find inspiring, or through a lucky mistake while playing an instrument. Then you get excited, and flesh it out a bit more…and then the rest is just work. Especially the last 10%.
‘It was Fun For A While”. How did this track come about?
I think this came about through the chord progression of the chorus. And the wobbly, tinny sound of an Oberheim Matrix-1000 that you can hear in the background all the way through. I wanted it to sound very 1981, kind of new wave but soulful.
Musically it’s a personal memory of me as a kid in the early `80s – stuck in a snowstorm on the Autobahn near Munich with my family. Outside was just darkness, snow and car lights, and inside the warm car we were listening to Grace Jones, Roxy Music and Soft Cell from my older brother’s tapes. It was kind of gloomy but also fascinating. We later found shelter in Munich at my father’s aunt’s house who had a bust standing there. It was later given to my father, and is now on the cover of the record.
I am curious to know – What was fun for a while? What`s the story with the lyrics?
The phrase is actually from Roxy Music’s „More Than This“, a breakup song. I find it the most brutal thing to say to someone who might be really in love with you. The story is a hazy, distant memory of someone who has „moved on“ a long time ago.
There’s a brilliantly subtle collection of remixes. Tim Paris… firstly.. you’ve worked with him before over the years right?
Yes, I sang on a song of Tim`s, and wrote the vocals for a tracks on his new album.
I love the Amberoom rework in particular. What can you tell us about these guys? What have they done to the original…
Well, I briefly met Ramin from Amberoom a long time ago – through Dixon – but we also have a very good mutual friend, Kimsy – who actually was a host on MTV for quite some time, during my London years. Ramin asked me to sing on one of Amberoom’s songs, and as an exchange I asked for a remix. The same goes for Tim and for Eitan, because I sang on one of the songs by his friend Yotam Avni.
Do you still play in a live band? Are you playing anywhere soon?
No, not at the moment, and not in the foreseeable future. But who knows.. if enough people are interested I might do it again. If someone offered me a gig in Japan, then for sure (smiles). After a proper jump into cold water with my first album, I loved playing live with a band after my second album, where I had some repertoire to choose from.
A lot of people are thrilled to hear your name again Georg. What else are you working on what should we look out for next?
I am thrilled that people are thrilled, because I thought that I was long forgotten. The plan is to release music, single by single or E.P. by E.P., hopefully leading to another album one day.
Welcome back Georg Levin and thank you for your valuable time!