Interview with Jonny Tiernan, founder of LOLA Mag, Berlin
I am lucky enough to have met the man and got from him all the numbers of LOLA, with amazing front covers featuring Tricky, Moderat, Nils Frahm, Mark Reeder, Gundrun Gut, Peaches, and Boys Noize and a lot of aspects of the cultural life in Germany's capital. We managed to have a great chat about his experience in radio, written media, and online publishing.
Having started as an independent radio DJ back in Belfast, Jonny has transformed his radio show Alternative Ulster into a top-quality British and Irish magazine. Alternative Ulster was in print for almost nine years and featured artists such as Therapy, LCD Soundsystem, John Holmes, Foals, Klaxons and Two Door Cinema Club, in a total of 81 issues, winning IPR/BT Magazine of the Year in its first year of publishing.
Tiernan moved to Berlin in 2014, launched LOLA in 2016, and started promoting Berliner culture in its myriad forms from music, art, film, multi-cultural festivals to sex education and entertainment.
As a DJ for more than 20 years, Jonny started his production alter ego ACID GOLD, the moniker under which he now also plays a specialist kind of disco-punk. We had a lengthy discussion about his life in Berlin, his inspiration, his two dogs, including Lola who inspired the name of the mag and the culture of publishing in 2020."
| How did the transition from DJing as Jonny Tiernan to the moniker Acid Gold come about?
When I moved to Berlin in 2014, it was an opportunity to have a fresh start as a DJ. The name Acid Gold is actually an old name that I had used for a remix of a Northern Irish band called Jetplane Landing. A friend and I produced the remix together and we needed a name for the project, so I came up with Acid Gold. We didn’t do any more remixes after that first one, so the name lay dormant. Over the years, I kept refining and honing my style of music, focusing more and more on finding tracks that sit across both post-punk and disco genres. At a point, I felt that I had arrived at a certain sound and direction, and the best way to define it was to give it a name that sets it apart from all of the other DJ work I have done in the past, and that also sets separates it from my other projects. I felt the name Acid Gold really reflects this sort of glittery and sharp disco punk vibe that I go for, so I decided to use that again.
Back in Belfast I had a reputation, style and sound. I started out as a techno DJ, getting my first residency at age 17. Then I got into drum n bass and launched my own club night. Over the years I kept getting more eclectic, and eventually ran a weekly electro, indie, anything goes club night called Gigantic for eleven years. In the background, there was always a very particular sound and style that I kept gravitating towards, and I kept collecting more and more tracks in this vein. I call it ‘discopunk’, it’s always pretty funky, often with sharp guitars and solid beats.
Here in Berlin, people are very open-minded to different musical styles, so when I came here I thought it was an opportunity to do something new and fresh, in my own style and with a proper name and identity. So Acid Gold was born.
Under my own name Jonny Tiernan I do party sets. In Belfast, I play in the big room of the club Lavery’s. It holds something like a thousand people, and I like to play to the crowd. My whole goal there is to try to push the crowd away from their comfort zone and what they might know, and to introduce them to new music that they will still like and respond to.
In Berlin, the style is different. People like to hear new sounds and fresh music and there is an appetite for different genres. It’s what comes with a bigger city with a larger population.
In my mix It'd Be A Lot Cooler If You Did, I play one of Mark Reeder’s remixes. He was on the first cover of LOLA magazine. I consider it midway between both genres, it’s not disco and it’s not punk either. It’s danceable, but with sharp guitars and post-punk elements, nice thick basslines, steady beats. MFU - Mmm Mmm Mmm Ahhh (Mark Reeder Umm and Arrgghh Remix) has all that and a really cool vocal. For me that’s a good slice of discopunk!
People often say: “Name me one discopunk band!”, and LCD Soundsystem is my go-to response. They have a lot of post-punk elements and influence, but they make Dance music. That is really the best reference point. Discopunk can be harder and darker than LCD or it can be more disco. The thing about this style is that it doesn’t actually fit particularly well into any genre – it’s not disco, it’s not electronica, it’s dance music, but still a bit punk rock. You can trace a line of evolution from bands like Gang of Four, Wire and Pylon, through to Talking Heads and The B-52’s, and then the sound has been cribbed and updated periodically. There was the 00s revival with bands like Bloc Party and The Futureheads borrowing heavily, then Erol Alkan and the whole Trash electroclash crossover period brought indie and the electro remix culture even closer together. Then acts like !!! and Emperor Machine keep the flag flying.
With Acid Gold, what I’ve done is taken bits of all these generations and put them together in my mixes. It doesn’t matter if a track is from five years or ten years ago, as long as there is a similar sonic thread running through it and it fits with what I do then I’ll put it in a mix.
| With Alternative Ulster magazine you’ve published 81 issues from 2003 to 2012 with covers heavily promoting local acts such as Snow Patrol, Ash, Therapy but also international acts like LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy & Wilco. What was the story of the this Irish magazine?
Publishing AU was such a definitive experience for me and I’m so thankful I was able to be a part of it. I learned so much during the process, met and worked with so many amazing people, and got to be in the middle of what was a really exciting time for Northern Ireland. Originally, I wanted to start a pirate radio station when I was at University. I knew a lot of people in bands, other musicians and DJs and thought I could start a station around these people. I was dreaming about what the first song on the station would be, and I thought of Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers. The lyrics are a rallying cry to go out there and do something, “Grab it and change it”. Inspired by that song, I decided that I would name the station Alternative Ulster. At the time I didn’t have the resources to start a radio station, so the idea got into the back of my mind. Then one day a friend of mine showed me a website called Fastfude, a local community platform about the Northern Ireland music scene. The first thing I saw was a post that said: “Do you want your music played on the radio?”
At that time I was getting into production and thought, yeah I do want my music out there! I clicked on the link and it took me to the site of a media organisation called Northern Visions. It said that they were starting a new radio station, and if you had an interest in programming or presenting then you should get in touch. So then I had the idea of taking my concept of an Alternative Ulster radio station and instead turning it into an Alternative Ulster radio show. A day or two after I saw this post I was having lunch with my dad, and he was making fun of me for being a DJ, saying things like “Who do you think you are, DJ Jonny? Jonny the DJ!” Then an hour after this I was walking up the street by myself and out of nowhere a girl stops me and asks me: “Are you Jonny, the DJ?” It was such a funny coincidence after my dad had just been making fun of me. She introduced herself as Cathy, and said that she wanted to do an interview with me for a website she was starting that was going to be called Alternative Ulster.
It blew my mind that we were both doing such similar projects with exactly the same name, the name of a song that was more than 25 years old at the time! I asked her if she would be interested in teaming up to do the radio show idea together, and we pitched the idea to Northern Visions. They were amazing and offered us the last available time slot – 5pm on a Sunday. We then had our own weekly radio show! It became a cult hit, and after the first year I decided to turn it into a magazine. We eventually found out that the song Alternative Ulster was named after a fanzine from the late seventies, and was originally written for the fanzine in order to be given away as a flexi disc with one of their issues. So, a magazine that was started before I was born gave its name to a song that then inspired a radio show which in turn became a magazine. 25 years and it all came full circle. Kind of crazy!
I created the first issue more or less by hand. I had recently graduated from University and was on the dole (unemployment benefit). After six months on the dole, the unemployment office said I’d either have to get a job, join a training scheme, or I could join the ‘start your own business’ program, where they give you a small amount of money and training to launch a business. Originally, I was going to start a record label, but then I had the idea of making the magazine the business. That’s how it really kicked off. Then after our first year, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland gave us some annual funding, and that along with sales and advertising is how we kept going for the next decade.
The experience was amazing and was probably the most formative time of my life. To be involved in that project with so many great people around and to be doing something culturally relevant felt really good. It was a focal point for the Northern Irish music scene and was a really good proponent of quality culture. We had a great team of people and we got to produce so much great stuff and we had so many opportunities that came from Alternative Ulster. In nine years, we published 81 issues.
My personal highlight of that time was the Northern Ireland Music Awards. It was a big awards ceremony with a number of categories – Album of the Year Award, Live Act of the Year, Single of the Year, and so on – and we did a huge ceremony in the Ulster Hall. We had a massive line-up of bands, including Stiff Little Fingers, and that really felt like a real celebration of the quality of Northern Irish music at that time. That gave everyone an immense sense of recognition and it was just incredible. When AU finished, I was lucky enough to land a job as the General Manager of the Oh Yeah Music Centre. We turned the music awards into the Northern Ireland Music Prize which is an Album of the Year award similar to the Mercury Prize or the Scottish Music Prize, and it’s going stronger than ever. The Northern Ireland Music Awards felt like a celebration and a culmination of what we were doing with Alternative Ulster. Championing Northern Irish music like that felt excellent, to signal that it is as good as music from anywhere else in the world and to highlight it for more recognition and attention.
Another incredible memory is the first issue, where we put Therapy? on the cover. We had them play at our launch party, it sold out and they even decided to film it for their first ever live DVD. People came from all around the world to the gig and that whole experience was just insane. I was 23 at the time, thinking: “These things are really normal. It’s nothing extraordinary!” but now I look back and think that if I met someone now, at the age of 23, and he or she said they wanted to start a magazine for their country and promote local music, I would be like ”Are you mental?”.
| AU became a free magazine in the last 20 issues. How did this decision came about?
It was a purely business decision really. At the time a lot of print magazines were folding, and circulation numbers were declining. Advertisers want to be sure that their adverts are being seen by a large number of readers, so rather than relying on people buying the magazine to read it and see the ads, we decided to make it free. Going free meant that our readership actually increased and that the magazine was even more accessible. It really worked and we were able to keep all of our clients happy and to keep running. We made some changes to the design, people liked it even more than the previous way it was printed, and we saved a lot of money. I wish I had known that from the start! I think that in the modern era a free magazine, a high quality product, is the best way to
reach a lot of people. We never reduced the quality, so it was a ‘freemium’ magazine – free premium. It’s the same business model as Vice Magazine. They started out publishing a magazine that was high quality but free, and now they are a global media empire.
| Alternative Ulster had the Army of students who promoted the magazine. How is community building in Berlin now?
I think there is a really good international community here in Berlin. A lot of people move here and they all have experiences to share. The photographers, writers and people we work with at LOLA all come from different backgrounds and nationalities. It’s a very nice feeling of an international community. No matter what you are into, there is always something there for you, because Berlin is a very big city with an ever expanding population. Whatever you want to find, it is out there and there is a community for it. There is a really good and strong independent music scene, I noticed a similarity between that and Belfast. The same people go to gigs and are band mates and tour together. I can see it emerging.
| What were the first steps of Lola Magazine?
It’s funny, I didn’t intentionally call the magazine LOLA. I was having lunch with my friend Aysha from the German class I was in during my early days here. I was talking about starting a magazine about Berlin, but I didn’t want the name to have Berlin in it. She asked me: “What’s your dog called?” I told her she was called Lola, and she said why not call the magazine Lola? I said it was a ridiculous idea, but then I started to visualise it, and I could see the logo and everything and realised that it actually really worked!
A while later, a German screenwrite friend of mine, Michael, starting telling me how good a name Lola is for a magazine, how playing the character Lola Lola in the film Der Blaue Engel made the Berlin actress Marlene Dietrich famous, and how the film Run Lola Run is a reference for it too. He thought I had taken all this into account, and he couldn’t believe it when I told him it was just my dog’s name! I even launched the magazine on her tenth birthday. Publishing and media is not an easy game, but it has a lot of value and it’s really worthwhile. Mark Reeder, MFS label’s boss, was the perfect cover star for the first issue.
I’ve been coming back and forth from Belfast to Berlin for a number of years now and I really like the city and this is what attracted me here. I’m really passionate about culture and being engaged in culture and obviously Berlin is one of the cultural capitals of the world. Right now, it has some of the best music and art, but also food and lifestyle. At the start ,when I first moved here, I kept having this idea of starting a blog and kept coming back to the idea of promoting culture in Berlin and how I could best do that. My first idea was to call it An Immigrant’s Love of Berlin, inspired by a phrase used by David Carr, the late journalist of the New York Times. I feel that when you come to live in Berlin from somewhere else that you have a different feeling about, sometimes with more passion towards it, than if you grew up in the surroundings. I had a friend from back home who moved here a few months before, who told me that if something doesn’t exist, you should just create it: if a job or a magazine isn’t out there, create it yourself. At the time there wasn’t a high quality free English language magazine in Berlin, so why not start it myself? I had been working as a freelancer for the first months I was here, so I decided I wanted to do it again, to start a new magazine.
| How do you perceive the flow of information today, through social media and the internet in general?
From a personal point of view, I would love if there was a way of encouraging people to consume better media. I don’t have a solution for that though. People consume their media via Facebook and social media has become the gateways to the internet, where the information gets filtered through. I feel it should be a better way of people absorbing or getting better access to new information. I would like to go back to using RSS feeds, to being more connected to the source. From a media perspective, how do you encourage people to engage with content? It’s often about virality, content you’ve seen before. And the question is what do you want to do? Give people what they are already into, on the same wavelength and in line with their view and interests, or give them something that expands their horizons and learn about new things?
| Have you got any favorite neighborhood in Berlin?
I love the neighborhood I’m living in. I loved the area before I lived here, but when I first moved into it I didn’t realise I’d been here before. When I first started visiting Berlin, I stumbled upon this street with some restaurants and an ice-cream shop that I really liked, it was sunny and people were hanging around on the street and it just had a really nice vibe. Every time I came to the city to visit friends, I would go to this street for vegetarian Vietnamese food and to hang out.
When I first moved into my neighbourhood, for the first few weeks I always walked the same route to the station. Then one day, instead of turning right when I left my apartment, I turned left. When I got to the top of this street I realised it was the street that I fell in love with and always went to on my visits. It’s great here, I’m a five minute walk from the canal and the park is on my doorstep. Having two dogs, it’s really great for walking them. The mixture of people is very cool but it can get a bit insane in the summer. It feels like a festival in the park every day with people drumming and playing music and doing all kinds of things.
Robot Bennett shooting for LOLA mag
| Do you have any favorite bands and projects you have interviewed in LOLA?
I really love the Robot Bennett story from the last issue of LOLA, he’s a 70-year-old DJ who learned to DJ at 67. It’s a really cool and inspiring story. It’s amazing that somebody can do that in life, something unexpected and out of the ordinary, at that age. It’s an example that you can do anything you want, whenever you want. It sounds really corny, but I don’t care: you can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it!
Another LOLA story I loved is theFrisbee Jesus of Gorlitzer Park. Everybody has a story to share and something to tell. We had Nils Frahm on the cover of the last issue, I am a huge fan so it’s brilliant we got him. I loved the story and cover with Moderat, because I’m just a massive fan and they’re like Berlin icons, plus it was the last interview they did before the hiatus. It was very good timing for us.
We did a really nice feature on bird watching in Berlin, it’s one of those things you wouldn’t expect from the city. Some say Berlin is all sex, drugs and rock & roll, but there’s bird watching too! I just bumped into a friend, a proper bird watcher, and he told me of the rare birds in the city of Berlin. There are also really good places to go and see them: a whole world I didn’t know existed of graveyards and zones near the outer city. We love to showcase the unseen city and we did a feature on pinball in Berlin. There are some unexpected worlds in here and I like being able to shine a light on them and it’s cool. What I would like to do is stories from the Turkish community and explore other cultures more too.
| What is the strategy behind the LOLA covers?
We always use big names on them. You want people to pick up the magazine and with the stars on them everybody will take LOLA seriously. Then, when they read the inside content, they will take it more seriously and when they read about Robot Bennet inside a Nils Frahm cover story, they will think he’s just as cool. When they will see Moderat or Boys Noize on the cover, people will say that’s cool and then read a story about bird watching in Berlin and wow that is great too!
| What can you share with us from back in the radio days in Ireland and the UK. What special place in your heart has the radio and broadcasting industry?
I loved the Alternative Ulster radio show. We used to get people in the studio to do acoustic sessions regularly. I had never done something like that before, but we just put the mic on the guitar and one on the vocal and it turned out really cool and sounded great.
Curating the playlist was always one of my favorite moments. It’s really exciting to discover and then play new music. You are giving the music a platform and promoting it. I loved to provide that platform.
I did one episode of a LOLA radio show here in Berlin on a pop-up radio station. We had Mark Reeder as our guest, and did a feature called Backtrack, where we went through his life in songs, going backwards from the present, from the album he produced with the Chinese band Stolen, to his past and bands like Die Unbekannten and Shark Vegas. We would love to do more of that with LOLA – more broadcast and radio work – because it is something I really enjoy doing.
| Can you mention anyone as of an important influence for you regarding radio ?
John Peel is an obvious one. He redefined radio and music completely! What I loved about him is that he wasn’t commercial, he did not do his radio show to sell music for labels. Also he was incredibly important for Northern Ireland, he gave the first airplay to a lot of our bands, he launched The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers too. I really admired him for that. He championed bands and artists because he liked them, and not because it was in the Top Ten or whatever.
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