Since moving to Berlin to finish his chemistry degree in the early 2000s, Phonique has been a constant pulse in Berlin's electronic music scene. Upon arriving in Berlin, he started organizing parties, which led to DJing. Eventually, he began producing, his tracks have been released on major labels like Bar 25 Music, Poker Flat, SEN Music, Dessous Recordings, and Stil vor Talent.
The logical progression of a career in electronic music entails that launching a record label is a must. Some opt for establishing a clothing line, others for opening restaurants or bars, but a constant is always a record label. Having a music label allows the artist to release music without any constraints and at their own pace. It also gives the artist the freedom to introduce a new roaster of international musicians and sounds, as Phonique has done with Zatar Music.
What is Zatar? Za’atar is a noun in Arabic and refers to a MIddle-Eastern herb spice mixture, a distinct herb in the mint plant mixture. Za’atar is an aromatic, zesty, tangy, lively, and nutty spice herb. Made of Syrian oregano (Origanum Syriacum), grounded sumac berries, and toasted sesame seeds.
Like its name, Zatar Music’s roster offers an international mix of artists like Jordanian duo Fairplay, Ukrainian breakout star Korolova, Copenhagen’s Nilu, and Brazil’s Bakka.
Phonique discussed with The DJ Cookbook his vegan lifestyle, the state of Berlin’s electronic music scene, and his new label, Zatar Music.
Q: When did you become a vegan? What were the reasons behind it?
A: It started with just a challenge over ten years ago. Instead of doing my yearly seven-day tea fasting, I did a 30-day vegan challenge. After feeling so much better after five days, I thought my body was telling me something, and I never looked back.
Q: What have you eaten today? Did you cook, go to a restaurant or have it delivered?
A: I usually start the day with an Oatly (Barista) latte. Then I have a big bowl with oats and soy flakes (lots of protein in these) in hot water, adding frozen blueberries, one cut-up banana, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a splash of Oatly, a cup of soy yogurt, dark chocolate chips, hemp seeds, and cinnamon. Then I replace one meal with one of these liquid full meals (Jimmy Joy's Plenny Shake is my choice), and the other meal is a home-cooked meal with the family, or I grab something while outside.
Q: What is your favorite cuisine?
A: I love the variety of the Indian cuisine. The spices and their use of lentils are fulfilling to me.
Q: What is your background (where are you from/your family roots)?
A: I have German parents, growing up in western Germany and moving to Berlin in 1995.
Q: What types of food did you grow up eating?
A: Lots of Potatoes, peas, sausages, meatballs and of course bread, good old German bread.
Q: Do you have a favorite family recipe/dish that you can share?
A: My mother was never really into cooking. She cooked every day but wasn’t feeling it or getting creative. She did some amazing glazed Kohlrabi (cabbage turnip), though, ‘buttery’ with some herbs on it.
Q: What types of food remind you of your childhood? Is it sweet, fried, baked, salty, or spicy?
A: Sausages (Bratwurst) with mayo and tomato sauce and roasted potatoes.
Q: Do you like to cook? If yes, what is your favorite recipe, or what do you cook the most?
A: I love to cook Indian curry or cauliflower with an almond-curry sauce. I also love everything with broccoli.
Q: What is your favorite kitchen appliance?
A: my high-speed blender. The best for smoothies or for making smooth sauces.
Q: When cooking, do you listen to music? If yes, who do you listen to? Does it depend on your mood and the meal you are cooking?
A: As you might have guessed from my previous productions with Erlend Oye, I am a big fan of Kings of Convenience. I love to listen to this kind of music while cooking.
Q: Do you think there is a connection between food and music?
A: You need to combine the right ingredients to get something unique, but sometimes just the simple things give you great satisfaction. Also, both are important for your mood. I couldn’t imagine listening to Death Metal while creating some delicious food, but my friend Derrick Green from Sepultura probably has a different view on that with his show Highway to Health.
Q: When you are touring, do you get to taste the local flavors?
A: Oh yes. With the rise of the vegan community, you see small businesses worldwide veganizing local dishes. I love to explore that, or very often, the local dishes already have an extensive vegan part, especially in the Middle East and the Indian and Asian regions.
Q: What has been the tastiest or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten on tour?
A: Before going vegan, I had Blowfish in all possible ways in Tokyo, which was a weird experience, and the taste wasn’t even appealing to me. Since being vegan, I have been more surprised by the creativity of some chefs. The first time I had Beyond Sushi in New York was a blast. The first time I had a Beyond Meat Burger in Berlin or the first time I had vegan salmon made from carrots at a breakfast place in Cologne, or when I had some homemade Angolan dish in Luanda just made from greens and peanuts, are all moments I will never forget.
Q: Let’s talk about how you got into music. Did music play a role in your family?
A: No. I was just listening to music like every other kid.
Q: Did you learn how to play any instruments as a child? If yes, which one?
A: No, unfortunately. I wish I did.
Q: What were your musical influences growing up?
A: After pop music, I became a fan of Marillion, known for their neo-prog rock.
Q: When did you discover electronic music? What did you hear first, house, techno, trance?
A: I first realized there was something different, like house music. I was about 16 or 17 years old and got hooked. I would buy some records now and then, as this was the primary way to get music back in the day.
Q: When did you start DJing?
A: I started DJing during school, a friend had a mixer and one turntable, and I had just one turntable. So we combined our setup and took turns experimenting with our few records.
Q: When did you know music was going to be a career choice for you?
A: I joined a collective doing parties when I moved to Berlin to finish my degree in Chemistry. They were not deep into the music, so I took over the booking part. One day a DJ friend heard my mixtape and asked me why I was not playing at my parties, and I thought because I was studying and there were enough DJs out there.
Q: When did you start producing?
A: I’d been DJing for four years; I was on a beach vacation on an island without much to do (before the internet), so I decided to start producing once I returned to Berlin.
Q: How do you create your DJ sets? Are they organic? Do you read the energy in the room or build it beforehand?
A: I am super organic about my sets. Even when playing a stage at Tomorrowland, I decided during Claptone’s last track what my opening track would be. Of course, if I know what kind of party I am playing, I prepare folders with music that might fit, but I still have all the other folders there with 10.000 tracks in them to be able to switch at any time.
Q: What is your favorite club or room to play at?
A: All over the world, there are so many great places! In Brazil, from D.Edge to Warung Club and Surreal, in Berlin, from Panorama Bar to Ritter Butzke or Sisyphos, or the smaller parties in cities like Amman or Tirana can be very intense sometimes!
Q: You’ve been in Berlin since 1995. You’ve seen the changes in the electronic music scene in the city. What have been the pros and cons of the Berlin hype?
A: There was a time when we had too many great clubs (WMF, Watergate, Berghain/Ostgut, Tresor, Polar TV, and more), but the so-called Easyjet tourism wasn’t yet happening. It was difficult for all clubs to be successful every weekend. When this tourism started, it helped the Berlin scene a lot. Some clubs struggled with the handling of that. You need to get good tourists into the club who are coming for the right reasons. By letting everyone in, the locals will stop coming to the club, which has been its heart since its inception. Some places managed to find the right balance. Then the social media wave started, and some clubs needed to protect their guests and started the camera ban. After the pandemic, all clubs are almost back to normal, and Berlin’s nightlife is doing fantastic again.
Q: You have a vast discography that has been released on major labels. Why did you decide to start your own record label?
A: I have been working with SEN Music in Hamburg since 2003; they run Pokerflat and Dessous (and many more). My music evolved over the past five years and no longer fitted into any of these labels, so I released music on great record labels such as Bar25, Childisch, Stil vor Talent, Katermukke, etc. I needed to catch up on the family idea behind a record label. As my work with SEN was always very professional, I decided to start my label Zatar with them, allowing me to create a music family of my own.
Q: What’s the story behind Zatar Music? We were very intrigued by the name, is it named after the herb?
A: Yes, it is! While traveling in Jordan, I fell in love with Zatar. I developed a deep connection with my buddies from Fairplay, who are from Amman. Their track Latlal was the reason I started Zatar Records.
Q: Will Zatar Music be a mix of many flavors like the herb?
A: Yes, the main ingredient is my definition of melodic house music, which has flavors of deep, Afro, and middle eastern elements.
Q: Tell us about the artists you’ve released so far? Bauarbeiter der Liebe submitted a recipe to The DJ Cookbook!
A: My core artists are Fairplay from Amman, Nilu from Copenhagen, and Bakka from Brazil. These three artists are already enough to complete my release plan for Zatar. But like a good recipe, you want to work with some other flavors for specific occasions, and sometimes a particular taste grows a lot on you. We also have my buddy Mitch aka Essence of Time, from France, who is becoming more and more one of our core artists. We also have a lot of girl power on the label with Helen&Boys from Ukraine, and of course, the lovely Korolova was on the first release with her remix. Ece Ekren from Istanbul and Nela from Berlin just finished a remix for us. As you already mentioned, Bauarbeiter der Liebe from Hamburg had an early release, and we got some big names like Gui Boratto, Cioz, Martin Waslewski, and Pete Sabo coming this year.
Q: What was the idea behind the Zatar Spices compilation, (the cover art spoke to our hearts!).
A: As a young record label, it is challenging to present the musical idea of the label with just eight releases. It’s like just reading the first eight ingredients of a complex recipe and guessing from there what the dish will taste like. So with the Spices compilation, we can give you little taste tests of what's coming.
Q: The label is turning one year old in June. Are there big celebrations lined up?
A: The first year went so fast. We still need more releases to show what Zatar is about and to paint a fuller picture. We need more EPs by Fairplay, Nilu, and Bakka and a few more Spices compilations for that, and then we are ready to showcase our label at some excellent festivals.
Q: What’s on the horizon for Phonique for the rest of 2023?
A: Keep connecting with the world and supporting my Zatar artists! Shows from Brazil to Georgia and Tirana to the mountains of Jordan are already confirmed.
Q: That’s it, Phonique. Thank you again for being a part of The DJ Cookbook!
A: Thanks for having me!
Follow Phonique on Instagram.
Follow Zatar Music on Instagram.
Listen to Zatar Spices here: