Thick Owens (born Thorsten Hertog) is a young Sydney-based DJ and promoter. Over just a few years he’s cut a distinctive figure in Sydney’s 4×4 community, supporting artists such as Sigha and Baba Stiltz, while getting deeply immersed in the DIY scene, where he helps run a number of events, including the umlaut-loving Haüs of the Rising Sün. He’s an example of a new generation of party people moved by Sydney’s increasingly oppressive atmosphere to create alternative spaces without compromise. We spoke to Thick about record digging, the impact of the lockout laws on creative expression, and having your ears deflowered.
You’re pretty young – just 22, if I remember right? I need to ask the standard question: how did you get into electronic music? Was there some epiphany?
I don’t think there was one ‘eureka’ moment. It was more of a slow and steady immersion. When I moved to Melbourne in 2014 I was exposed to the strong DIY scene of local crews organizing amazing free park parties. Then I discovered it on a larger scale when I went back to Amsterdam and Berlin that year. The music was completely intertwined into the culture of those cities, and I started to mingle with a community that was religiously devoted to keeping the scene alive. From actively digging to marathon party weekends, I was totally intoxicated by all of it.
You were going by the name Oligark for a while, but you seem to be calling yourself Thick Owens nowadays. Why the name change?
For a while I was bouncing between both monikers, depending on the gig: Oligark for sombre techno and Thick for my lighter sensibilities. I think at some point I realised that I didn’t need to segregate styles. Thick felt like it fit a wider diversity of sound and it’s also a really silly pun, which makes me happy.
I’d assumed you were basically playing only serious techno, but this is apparently not the case. What styles do you like playing at the moment?
Recently I’ve been sifting through a lot of cheesy New Beat, early acidy trance and noisy industrial sludge from newer imprints like Unknown Precept, Lux Rec and the ever trusty L.I.E.S. I think my favourite DJs connect the dots between different genres, eras and tempos. A good set is like a concise history of dance music. That’s what I’m always striving for!
You’ve become quite integrated into the Sydney scene. Aside from DJing, you’re involved in running a few events, including Haüs of the Rising Sün. What would you like electronic music culture in Sydney to look like? Where do you want to see it go?
To be honest I think the lockouts have actually been a positive catalyst for the underground scene. With a lack of spaces we’ve seen more party innovation, more cross-pollination between otherwise disparate crews, and a more supportive and united community.
Haüs of the Rising Sün developed as a direct response to the lockouts. We chose to throw day parties at residential locations around the Inner West because partying at licensed venues at night has become increasingly difficult and uninspiring. Heavy regulation, poorly tuned systems and unwelcomed security presence has poisoned most legal venues in Sydney, in my opinion. Part of the mission statement with haüs was to create a welcoming space for radical self-expression and provide a platform for the next generation of Sydney DJs. There’s too many excellent bedroom selectors who don’t get the opportunity to play out because many parties prefer safe, seasoned booking to get bodies through the door. I fear that this is creating a homogenous, vanilla sound which has dissuaded a lot of punters from supporting licensed venues. I’d love to see promoters challenge that and take more gambles on their local bookings! I actually have a new project in the pipeline called Soft Centre, a one-day festival of techno, noise and visual abstraction slated for May-June. I’m collaborating with Jemma Cole and we’re hoping to push a lot of the off-kilter, experimental sounds that we don’t see enough of in Sydney.
For lots of people there’s a temptation to go overseas, to somewhere like Berlin. Is that something you’ve thought about?
Absolutely! I was born in the Netherlands and my whole family recently migrated back so there’s a big pull to return. I’d like to cut my teeth in the Amsterdam scene for a few years. They have an incredible ‘digger’ culture (for lack of a better word), with festivals like Strange Sounds From Beyond, new clubs De School and Shelter, and deeply stocked record stores like Rush Hour and Red Light Records all contributing to this amazing atmosphere of collector fanaticism. If I do make the leap I definitely intend to return with the gathered knowledge. Sydney is home after all!
DJing is quite fashionable at the moment, and it’s also been made very accessible through the Internet and music tech. How can a rising DJ stand out?
I think a big part of it is depth of knowledge! You have to dig deep and constantly diversify your taste. For me surfing through my go-to avenues (Discogs, Juno, Boomkat etc.) has become a daily discipline. Not that it’s a burden, I truly enjoy it! But it’s so easy for young DJs to mimic what they see on Boiler Room or feed off RA’s DJ charts and end up sounding familiar and safe. I want a DJ to deflower my ears with new challenging sounds. Personality comes from the hours spent refining your taste by actively listening to and cataloguing disgusting amounts of music. Then you have to be brazen enough to mix it all together clean and crispy for maximum effect.
One way to stand out, of course, is producing. Are you doing any of that yourself?
I honestly spend most of my time trawling through the depths of Discogs. Even when I’m working at the call center I’m always stocking up the Wantlist in the background. This doesn’t leave much room for producing, which I’d only like to pursue if I could afford daily dedication. However, I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon jamming with Dutch producer Molitson when I was visiting Amsterdam over the Summer. We managed to knock out a didge-infused tribal slow burner called Silly Athena which recently got a digital release on BONDGIRL’s Pharmaceutical Audio label. Hopefully I’ll have more time when I finish my studies this year.
Finally, you did Sydney proud in the front row of that Veronica Vasicka Boiler Room set. Is it weird to read the YouTube comments? Who do you think these people are who comment on Boiler Room crowds?
That was undoubtedly my proudest moment! No troll can take that away from me.
Catch Thick Owens spin on Feb 11th alongside Voiski [Live] – Dekmantel/L.I.E.S. Chiara Kickdrum & a heap of local talent.