Johnny Hiller is the force behind the Music Room at Potato Head- Hong Kong's first (and in our opinion finest) listening room. We sat down to chat design, music history and his latest venture - Audio Files Festival.
Name: Johnny Hiller
Occupation: Music Potato Head, Hong Kong
Born: Hong Kong
Current Residence: Hong Kong
If you could have five acts in no particular order, living or dead, play in the Music Room for a one night special who would they be:
Arthur Russell for his left field sound, his unique voice and sensibility to you reach out to you.
Esther Phillips, with her classy versions of songs like "Home Is Where The Hatred Is", "What a Difference a Day Makes, "Native New Yorker", "Mister Magic" etc, would be great to have heard her in such intimate settings.
Manu Dibango for his mid-70s afro funky and mid 80s afro-electro sound.
Harumi Hosono for his composition, intricate melodies and sense of humor.
The list would not be complete without the addition of a DJ Roy Thode from the magnificent Saint Club for his smooth mixing skills and his ability to create drama, an essential quality of disco music.
How did you come to be in Hong Kong and at Potato Head?
I came out to Hong Kong at the end of 2012, although I was born here (I’m half German, half Chinese) but only really did high school over here. Then I lived in Beijing for a year and after that London for quite a while and then since 2012 I’ve been back here. Right before Potato Head I was mainly running my own booking and artist management agency from here and I did that in London, for a while, besides running cultural events and club nights, as well as DJ-ing on the ‘scene’ for quite some time. I have a background in TV production & broadcasting and worked in the industry for several years before I got involved in a start-up that pioneered streaming media technology. I did that for a while and did alright. I always had a passion for music and club culture, though, so DJ ‘d and collected records all my life. All of this took off through when I started a disco based clubnight in London, which allowed me to focus on music full-time. Fast forward to 2012, my then London business partner moved to Berlin, so we were able to stay connected with the music scene, which was ideal because when I left I wanted to have something I could expand on, geographically speaking. That kind of kept me busy over here, however most of my comissioned gigs and international artists tours during my first years in Hong Kong were in Japan and internationally, where they have a more mature music market.
At the same time I started putting on events at the old original [Premium] Sofa Club with partners Tokyo Matt and Samo DJ (international DJ’s in their own right), under Otaku Sound System. We invited I think about 10 or so international artists from our global balearic disco ’scene’. I liked the spot, it felt underground and you felt free to do what we liked - it essentially was a blank canvas allowing you to bring a certain feeling we wanted to bring to the party. I think for me when I first got here I found that the landscape was somewhat limited in terms of what was on offer musically speaking, but also the execution side of things. I had the urge to put on something different outside the Hong Kong reality, something that was maybe more left field or openly minded (musically speaking) and where you could create a sense of community for like-minded creative souls.
The Potato Head Bali way of life reflects a very similar belief to our music policy - that tropical, adult contemporary type of feeling. Some like to call it ‘Balearic’ - the term and idea comes from a period when Ibiza sunset culture just started and became known as ‘the’ bohemian place in the 70s for a hedonistic party, where jet-setter, rock stars and artists would mix with locals and hippies. But more importantly, where DJ’s nurtured a sound that was more downbeat and eclectic, taking in influences from Disco music, Emotional Pop, world music like Brazilian and Flamenco, right next to Acid House and Italian Piano House.
Through the reputation of my club night back in London, I got to DJ in Bali a couple of times, and I got to play Japan almost every other year for a decade or so. It was there where I developed an interest for good sound set up, which by the way is built on the model of seminal NYC clubs of the 1970s. Almost every other club I played at in Japan had an excellent set-up with proper DJ booths and a dedicated lighting guy. I already knew the music crew in Bali through London days, I guess we all moved to SE-Asia around the same time (maybe because London finally started to be come gentrified around that time). Coming from a similar cultural background helped in the sense that there was trust from the beginning to represent the brand and their ethos in a genuine way here in Hong Kong - perhaps that got me the gig, not so much my Cantonese skills!
Can you tell us a bit about your role at Potato Head?
So I had already been over to Bali a couple of times to play at the Beach Club. The Music Room concept came out of a conversation really with Dan Mitchell, the creative director and old London pal from the music scene over there. Potato Head’s philosophy is driven by a certain vision, that is to explore creativity and new concepts in hospitality through art and collaboration on both local and international level. They had something planned for Hong Kong and we sort of just talked about it and went from there. They were initially sourcing JBL blue series speakers - a studio reference monitor built in the early 80s. Vintage speaker enthusiasts know that the JBLs are quite special because they make certain ‘mid-range’ parts of music form that era sound really good, there is warmth, clarity and stage presence.
So they asked me if I could help source the speakers since I know the audiophile scene here, which also happens to be one of the world's largest vintage hi-fi markets. There are about 70 stores in Hong Kong that specialise in this area. In the end our speakers and rotary DJ mixer came from Japan, we had the cabinet shipped from the States and my personal collection and Klipsch speakers shipped from The U.K - the best part of all of the project was that the room was intentionally constructed around the speakers. Then there was record cabinet and DJ booth panning and design (and a bit of back and forth before we got that right). I got to design the record crates. A lot of thought went into this process before construction started.
So in summary, Potato Head said, you know we need someone to do this full time. In a way the job is perfect for me as it compliments to my personality and previous experiences.
We have locations all over Asia - from the Beach Club, award winning hotels, a growing number of restaurants and locations in the region. The Potato Head brand stands for tropical modernism. Whilst we showcase traditional Balinese arts and crafts by involving entire villages and of course flavours in both food and drinks - a lot of research goes into each and every process and discipline, and we have world renowned mixologists and artists etc. who contribute to standards in hospitality, but always from an creative, non corporate angle, first.
I feel it is important to explain where we are coming from. Because you asked me about my role, so whilst technically speaking my role is that of Music Director, on the daily execution side we work cross-discipline and with our team here in Hong Kong and in Bali. At lot of it is creative, events and service related, but also relationship related from working closely with artists, pushing format and perception about what sort of music should be played, i.e. pushing the envelope, and not settling for playing safe. We get to work with some exciting brands from the art and fashion world and help create experiences and events. Design and cultural references points, including music references come into play on the ambiance side of things, and the synergies create balance.
Coming from South East Asia, I suppose through our local traditions we grew up learning that balance is an important element in daily life, so it feels good to apply this principle in practical ways, and in trying to keep balance across the company and between departments is role that the entire teams works on. It is indeed possible to contribute towards positive cultural change, perhaps a more diverse cultural offering is a more suitable term, right here in Hong Kong. If you really believe in whatever you choose to believe in our professional career and work hard to achieve your vision, be driven passion first.
Can you explain a bit of the history around the speakers and the listening room?
The original vision was to have Hong Kong’s first vinyl library and public audiophile listening spot, whilst exposing different generations of music lovers to the concept of analog audio and vinyl. Our intention was to bring back the art of listening in this fast paced world we live in, you know sometimes we’ve forgotten what it takes to sit back reflect and have quality time. Disconnecting from the daily hustle is important, and music can help with that. It’s like going to cinema where you come out with that special feeling after watching a great film on a big screen, music has got to be heard on a proper system. LP’s are recorded and mastered in a certain way, the way the artist's intended it the recording sound like. In recent years, unfortunately, the format has been reduced and compressed format intended for playback over a device and headphones. Through exposing a younger generation to audiophile culture, we are trying to change this attitude and bring back quality.
Good sound is not only about the speakers. We sound proofed the room due to the findings based on acoustic measurements taken, isolated mechanical feedback and acoustical (secondary) reflections and so on. We had to have the exact right size of speakers and in the right position (soffit mounted) for that room to get the best out of them. With quality sound, you have science, craftsmanship and art coming together - you can’t explain in words what exactly happens. We are always on the lookout for magical music moments, and an acoustic sweet spot [between the two speakers at each end] as I like to call it, in other words the right mood and right volume at the right time.
Our JBLs and Klipsch have history. The JBL drivers were originally used at Paradise Garage in New York, where underground disco culture was born in the 1970’s. Larry Levan was the main resident there and he is the stuff of legends - one of the forefathers of the house and disco sound. It’s not just New York, I already mentioned Japan and their great set up’s.
We wanted to create a space, where the craft could be the main focus again, and our residents all love the opportunity playing on that system. At the Music Room we don’t have bar managers telling the DJ what he should play. We do challenge our residents and guests DJ’s to play their most personal music, which is not always club music, as long as it is not an obvious approach. So far we had Soviet Jazz, Korean 80s city pop, a Japanese vinyl night, Ethio Jazz, Chinese & Thai Funk, Ska, Reggae and Mod events right next to international House Music producers visiting from from Italy, France, Austria and Australia and Berlin.
Apart from musical content, and speaker principles, the social experience is also something that matters and very much the vision of the Music Room. It’s something we thought about during the special planning, so we applied design aesthetics that come from the schools of minimalism (Japan) and modernism (mid century Danish). I would say that our visitors come to the space for a reason - they are intrigued by passion or curiosity for Music. The Music Room is hidden so it’s not exactly something you would stumble upon. I’d say those who come by tend to leave their ego at the door for the couple of hours they are here, and I think that’s brilliant. It opens people up to social connections they wouldn’t necessarily make in the real world. I have witnessed friendships and connections being forged. I think it is a genuine way to add quality and sometimes even meaning to ones lifestyle here in Hong Kong. Think of it as a community space for people from all walks of life and regardless of background - passion for music is the common denominator, not your club membership fee.
How did you get into DJing?
I started out mixing on vinyl decks in high school, and before that started out editing tape on cassette decks. The cool kids in school would trade DJ mix-tapes (I tried to be one), so part of what my generation was into was showing off the latest music on our walkman. I updated my tapes every month (as long pocket money lasted) by the way of sequencing the most danceable tracks recorded from LP purchases from that month together with radio recordings and choice cuts from other mix-tapes. Not so much mixing, but pause button edits as we used to call it. My first music was jazz, exposed through my father, then funk, disco, rare groove, soul classic rock - essentially black music, but also loved European and electronic music. Italo, Pop music, dub, new wave, photo house and electro-funk. Sneaking out during bedtime as a teenager and cycling to night clubs to listen and watch ‘the older guy’ beat-match the black wax.
This was just before the Acid House explosion, basically the point when electronic music took over the clubs. Artist recordings made way for small label run dance music, where the sound of a particular record label determined the release. I always loved and still love hearing good mixes for many different reasons. Blending one record to another will give you energy and joy, at the same time you can discover good new music that way, more so than following charts. Buying records, going digging pre-internet age really helped gain knowledge and persistence in doing so an acquired appreciation over time. This method is similar to the principles of photography, cooking or design - like any craft. Once you understand content and gain technical skills, you can let your instinct guide you. In our world, instinct allows you to find obscure records when digging through crates and presenting your own finds is DJ-ing I suppose.
Where did the idea behind the Audio Files festival come from?
It’s has been a great opportunity to have been asked to help curate the festival which coincides with the launch of the KEF showroom, a speaker company that goes back to the early 60s, they are fine examples of British audio engineering. JIA group (our Hong Kong partners) basically pulled the strings and made it happen. During the event, we are introducing speakers from the KEF range, which add audiophile quality to a traditional club system, thus giving it another dimension. We are hoping to expose a hopefully curious audience to hi fidelity sound.
Audio Files first event started with traditional Jazz with one of HK’s originals, DJ Kulu. We then worked our way up to dancefloor jazz/ electronic jazz. We had United Future Organisation, originators of the Tokyo scene over recently. For our forthcoming event, we have Robert Owens, one of the originators and most recognisable male voices in house music over. His career goes all the way back to the Warehouse/Music Box days in Chicago, a counterpart of Paradise Garage during that era. ‘House’ is an abbreviation for the Warehouse, in Chicago, which Frankie Knuckles was resident at, so house music originated in Chicago.
Essentially, we are bringing artistry and good sound together at Duddells. It is inspiring to see that KEF have just launched their show-room, a space for dedicated listening. The motivation behind the Audio Files initiative is to bring together dance music originators and for us to showcase their sound on great speakers which you can take home if you wish to do so. There’s something for every pocket and apartment size within their product range.
Hopefully we will see a new generation of enthusiasts come down and hear the benefits of non-distorted speaker sound in a club context - I’d be eternally grateful for that, and your ears will be too in the long run.
Would you like to make it an annual thing?
I would like to continue and branch out the Audio Files concept through content, maybe a zine, where we can create a narrative and expose music culture and cool music through editorial. Audio Files could also develop as a concept not bound to a particular space, it's about connecting with other likeminded people.
You can catch Johnny at The Music Room at Potato Head most days.