Mike Who: The Man from Planet Trip

We chat with Planet Trip Records Head Honcho Mike Who
Henry Johnstone
Mike Who: The Man from Planet Trip

Masterful DJ, inspired promoter and devoted digger, Mike Who is an icon of the Sydney scene. Since 2019, Mr Who has been running and curating one of the most exciting underground labels to emerge in the last five years, the esteemed Planet Trip Records. While the imprint may hail from Sydney, its essence is a global collective of like minded music lovers and makers - a little family of people who, as Mike puts it, "love weird shit."

Given the man responsible for some of dance music's most delightfully weird and wonderful Balearic, boogie and oddball jams is also one of our resident DJs, we seized the opportunity to sit down with Mike and chat his early beginnings, his work with FBi Radio and Goodgod Small Club and the genesis of Planet Trip.

It’s always interesting to ask people who run labels about the music they remember from childhood. Is there anything in particular that sticks out for you, that maybe your parents or family exposed you to?

I don't think I come from an overly musical family. Probably my biggest influences were my two older sisters, who are seven to eight years older than me. They exposed me to pop music at first and I remember hearing stories about some of the first concerts they went to - Prince, INXS, Madonna, stuff like that. So I'd hear those kind of sounds at home. Then as they started going out, they would drip feed me mix CDs. One of them was going to more R&B club nights and the other was getting into house music and spending time at clubs in the Cross and spots like Globe. I’d say hearing things as basic as the Ministry Of Sound compilations of that era was probably my first introduction to a wide variety of club music, house, techno and 2-step. But hip hop was definitely my first love and what I was more drawn to.

The elder sibling is a familiar story in music.

Definitely. You look up to your older siblings, particularly if they've got time for you. I think Mum and Dad probably just listened to the radio a lot. Mum liked classic stuff like Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Hebb, which in hindsight is cool as. Dad would listen to Italian pop music and Sunday jazz on the radio was his thing. Nothing overly deep, but an appreciation of music for sure.

What kind of hip hop did you first start getting into?

The early days of West coast rap in maybe year 6 or 7, then eventually I found early 90s rap and hip hop through TV shows like Rage and Video Hits. I also ruined a few home computers by downloading from Soulseek. I remember in Year 10 everyone did work experience and I ended up working in a local CD store that had a small section of records. Ironically the store let me burn CDs, stuff like Busta Rhymes, Tribe, De La Soul. Then I think one of the first non-Vinnies records I owned that my older sister Emilia bought me was ‘The Low End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest. That was an album that opened up the floodgates to a lot of discovery. Once you start listening to that style of hip hop, it generally opens windows into what the sample sources were and then that might lead you down a rabbit hole to start listening to soul, funk, jazz, reggae or finding drum breaks.

When did you start collecting music and DJing?

I bought turntables and started buying records around 17 or 18. I started going to places like Hard Wax, which was the hip hop and R&B section at Central Station records. I’d go in there on a Thursday most weeks, which was the day new records and imports would land. I was a geeked-out, wide-eyed teenager, so very green! That whole zone around Surry Hills and Darlinghurst was pretty crazy because there'd be stores on every other corner. There was Good Groove, Martins, Acetate, Spank, One Stop…and whatever The Record Store is now - I think it was BPM or Machine Music? A lot of the people working behind the counters would point me in the right direction and generally have time for me, which was very formative for me. Having that weekly discovery of music was really nice - going into stores, learning new things, meeting people and buying a new record that you would cherish.

When did you start playing at venues?

I started playing out around 18 or 19, filling in for older friends. A lot of them were my sister's friends who used to DJ, who were nice enough to invite me to come and warm up or play for an hour. I would buy music relevant to the places that I was playing, whether it was just a bar gig or whatever. I remember being super nervous and trying to pre-plan and think about every single record I was going to play, the polar opposite of my approach after playing records for a long time.

Do you remember which clubs and parties you were first discovering around Sydney?

Definitely a special night for me was a party called Oishii, which was run by a dear friend Kavir, and Naiki, another good mate. Both of them had great taste that sat outside of the more staunch side of rap and hip hop at the time. They were touring a lot of hip-hop DJs from the States like J Rocc, Shotkut, Paul Nice and tons more who again had a similar approach of not just running classics. A lot of hip hop parties back then were dude heavy, but the Oiishii parties had a good energy in the room with both girls and guys and people down to dance.

Then I came across other nights jumping around to different places in and around The Cross, discovering places like Wham at World Bar and getting lost in that back room or even having heaps of fun at the front. Funnily enough I remember going to Club 77 for the first time, I must’ve been maybe 18 or 19. I think it was a Bang Gang night and of course I had my blinkers on as a hip-hop head. I walked down the stairs and I was like, wow, this is wild. It felt like an alternate universe. It was the polar opposite of what I was listening to musically at the time and I probably would’ve hated the music! Context is everything though with music - hearing it played in a certain place or time or hearing it on a proper sound system or in the right environment can change what you think or open up your interests. When you're young you don't tend to understand that until you've had those experiences. That's why it's so important to have clubs that program interesting stuff or take risks.

Were you DJing in clubs by this stage?

That came a little later. As I got a little older and started to play out a lot, my tastes broadened and I got a bit bored of the hip hop parties and nights. Goodgod Small Club was the next place that played a huge role in what a music venue could be and is probably a big part of why I’m still involved with music and playing out today. As a club, it really allowed me to do my thing with ultimate trust, play a little bit weirder and also play for longer, which I think is really important for DJs starting out. Learning how to play for five, six, eight-plus hours, vibing the ebbs and flows and not just having one gear.

I ran a party in the front bar called House Of Who for close to five years. I used to start playing at dinner at 8pm and would go through to 5am. This was pre-lockouts and you'd have that crazy second wave of hospitality crew coming through at 3am, which would bring a whole new energy into the club. I'd usually invite a friend to come and play 2-for-2 from midnight until whenever they were keen or too faded to continue. It was a really nice way to keep things interesting and bring in people with different tastes. It would force me to explore different sounds or buy different records month to month.

Goodgod really had its moment in time in Sydney nightlife for a while there.

Absolutely. They had a really beautiful community in that space. I'm definitely really appreciative of all the love and energy that Jimmy and Hana and all the amazing staff that worked there put into it. It's not an easy thing to run a club. It takes a lot of time, crazy late hours and a lotof blind passion and energy for sometimes not much return. I think people working in nightlife - bartenders, security, owners – who really give a shit and everyone behind the scenes are often not given the props for all that they do.

What do remember about your time at FBi Radio?

I think I did Wednesday Sunset for five years, which was Stolen Records with Shantan [Wantan Ichiban]. He had been doing the show for a while and I came in to do a guest mix one day. We ended up being mates and he asked me if I wanted to come in more regularly. It formed pretty naturally from there and then I ended up DJing there every Wednesday night. I think Sunsets on FBi has always been quite a unique and special show for people to discover music - it's gone through many different hosts who have all played important roles in the city and done some really interesting stuff. Those were really fun and simple times. FBi will always be a special community of music lovers and heads.

It's great that radio is still an important platform for music scenes and continues to endure. I find that quite heartening.

Yeah, I think it's essential. It's very different to being in a club and a different way to share music. It's not so much about reading a room, but just sharing music that you have found or are into. I think when people can talk about music - and not in an overbearing way - and give context to certain records or the stories behind them, or the labels and players connected to them, that's a really nice role in educating people. It's different to just being fed an algorithm on Spotify.

What was the catalyst for creating Planet Trip? Why did you want to start your own label?

I guess it was a natural progression from doing lots of different stuff within music for a long time, from DJing and radio to putting on parties and events and working on touring local and international acts. I think what I’ve been interested in musically has always sat a little bit outside of what was normally played in Sydney, so I wanted to start something that fit with my own tastes. I had lots of friends from overseas I was meeting through online communities who would send me interesting music they were making. I was also DJing and finding a lot of interesting Australian records that I would trade with them and those relationships grew from there. All of a sudden there was this weird little pipeline opening up of people from all around the world who shared similar tastes, so it made sense to try and have an outlet to put out their music.

Then the clincher was when I went over to Jerome’s (Caravan) studio in Camperdown one night. He's played such a huge role in Planet Trip and also runs the studio on Eddie Avenue that we recently opened. Anyway, we’re hanging out in his studio and he starts playing me some of his demos, which sounded like a modern interpretation of weird, oddball 80s and 90s stuff we were both playing at the time. I was just blown away. I hadn’t heard anything like it released on an Australian label, so I'm like, ‘I'd actually really love to try and put this out. I don't really know where to start or how to do it, but I'm sure we can figure it out. How hard can it be?’ And that turned out to be the first release, The ‘Riveria EP’ by Caravan.

Thankfully I had a bunch of people that helped connect the dots and gave me a bunch of advice in regard to where to get stuff pressed, or the importance of mastering and distribution, and really getting those elements right from your first release. A good friend Jamie Bennett from Crown Ruler in Melbourne also helped open up a conversation with Antal at Rush Hour. He sent him that first EP, which I’m sure would have remained an unopened email without Jamie’s co-sign. Antal ended up really loving it and was keen to run distro via Rush Hour.

And that opened you up to the world?

Yes. It’s almost like there are a lot of ceilings in Sydney, or Australia for that matter, when it comes to music that's not necessarily commercial or super accessible. But like I was saying before, there are small pockets of communities all around the world that love weird shit. Rush Hour was the perfect vessel to get that first record into stores around the world and connect with those people. To have a distribution company as credible and connected as them was huge.

Planet Trip’s output is very eclectic, but it feels like there's also a certain sound or vibe that ties everything together – a kind of Balearic warmth and playful fruitiness. Is it important for you to maintain a certain sound?

A bunch of people have said similar stuff to me about how the label sounds. I think maybe it’s just a natural reflection of me doing this for a long time and liking a lot of different music. I didn’t particularly set out for Planet Trip to have a certain sound, but I guess it's nice to have some sort of cohesion in the way that it's programmed. It's nice that it feels different and eclectic enough to keep people engaged too. It's a DJ focused label, which may change with time, but it’s not straight up house and techno. It's like the slower side of things for DJs who might be looking for something different for their bag. And yeah there’s an overall reliable tone connected to sunshine and warmer weather, or that umbrella term, ‘Balearic.’ I feel like there's always been a consistency to the 12-inches that we’ve put out. There are cuts that you can play for a full dance floor, stuff you can play that's just on the verge of building a dance floor, and tunes to close a night as well. If you go to all the effort of putting something on wax, you want something that will be versatile. It's really nice when you've got a 12” in your bag and you can play three or four cuts off it.

That diversity perhaps gives the releases longevity too? You know when you buy a 12-inch just for the one track, and maybe the other tunes don’t connect with you at the time. Then as your tastes change, you might go back and listen to a track on the flip and be like, wow, this is mad. How did I miss this?

It's beautiful. That discovery in your own collection is a really nice moment. I've had so many of those over the years. Also, everyone has a different set of ears and a different interpretation of when to play tracks at certain times in a night. That's the ethos of trying to put out 12’s - to showcase a variety of sounds, tempos and energies. At least it is for me.

Can you tell us a little bit about the visual aspect of the label?

The visual side is obviously really important. There are so many labels I’ve admired growing up that have shown me the importance of consistency. I grew up in the hip hop/graffiti world and used to paint trains and stuff like that. That was a big part of my youth and there’s that crossover when you start buying records and realise that everything is interlinked. I've been lucky to work with a bunch of really great designers and crews that I like and a lot of them used to paint themselves, so everyone is tied back to that weird link of those days. Sean Bate is someone who’s played a massive role in probably 70% - 80% of the releases. He's had a huge impact on how the label's represented – visually, a true don. And there's been a bunch of other designers I've worked with over the years who have been just as important in keeping the look of the label interesting and unique - like Pauly, Cam and others. When I scribble down a weird brief or try and draw something really badly, they always manage to interpret what's in my brain and make it look 10 million times better.

The artwork for the 1800 Triiip mix series definitely feels like a nod to old school rave flyers.

There's definitely an element of that. Funnily enough I think the popularity of the mix series has sometimes eclipsed the actual record releases. It’s another thing that goes hand in hand with the discovery aspect of the label. A lot of the friends that I'll invite to come and hit record on a mix have shared tastes and have supported the label, played the records or broken them in clubs overseas. It’s a nice way to maintain the community vibes.

You mentioned earlier the studio you’ve opened up at Central. What's the idea behind it and what are you hoping for people get out of it?

It's a really interesting space run by Jerome (Caravan), who as I said has been a massive part of the label with his releases, played at a bunch of parties and always been a really close friend and someone I really love and trust dearly. He had a studio set up in his living room where I would go and hang out and he would play me crazy stuff he was working on. He's the sort of dude that's sitting on hundreds of incredible demos. If he wanted, he could probably put out another EP every second week.

They were offering expressions for interest on a bunch of spaces at Eddie Avenue and Jerome asked if I potentially wanted to use a space for a studio under the Planet Trip banner. So it's essentially functioning as a studio that Jerome works out of every week and we've also got other crew working out of there who are loosely connected to the label - people like Setwun and Mango. There’s an open invitation to touring artists and people doing shows in town to come down and record a radio show or write music in the studio with Jerome. We eventually want to open up the mezzanine level for any younger crew that want to do small private events, like an EP launch or listening party. There's a chunk of records up in that top space, so we’re planning on doing semi-regular record fairs maybe once a month or late on Thursday nights. We want it to function as a nice little spot to meet like-minded people where you can hang out, talk about music and listen to music.

That whole area used to be a bunch of empty shopfronts with not much activity going on. Now there’s a nice buzz. Nomad Radio is next door and Fester and Drew have opened Oltra-Disc with Poor Tom's - the pizza shop down the road. I hope the city can do more stuff like that, because it's pretty much next to impossible to be able to afford rent or take a punt on a business. Sydney's so expensive to live in, so it’s really important for government or councils to offer opportunities like that, even if it’s for a short period of time. It can really inject some value and culture.

What have you got coming up for the label in the future? Any releases, gigs or things that you're excited about?

There's a couple of releases pretty much ready to go. One is a digital EP from a local crew called INQ and Rob Fehr;a broken beat, soul EP clearly influenced by the early Co-Op bruk, UK broken beat sounds. Then after that there is another Borrowed CS EP coming out, which is Cory Champion (Clear Path Ensemble). He put out a Planet Trip EP a couple of years ago, ‘Balance/Ascend’, which was mid-tempo boogie, house and techno, machine funk soul and this follows a similar path. Then we have another EP coming from some friends from France called GFH. That one is sounding amazing. More info on all those coming soon.

I’m hoping we can get another Ordinary Dreams compilation out this year, which has always been an opportunity to broaden the horizons a bit more as opposed to just working with singular artists on an EP. It's a nice way to be able to put out singular tracks from people that might be working on a bunch of different projects, or people that have never put out a record before or released a physical record. The compilations are a bit of a process. The last one was two discs, 12 tracks. There’s a lot of thought that goes into how it's sequenced and how you want it to sound as a compilation.

I really enjoyed the last one. Especially the Jex Opolis track, it was mad.

Yeah, it was super varied, I was really happy with it. Being able to do compilations is a really nice way to showcase the range of music that I love or what I feel sits under the umbrella of Planet Trip. And, as you said, maybe they’re a good way of sonically connecting the dots between energy, style or genre. If it makes sense in my head then hopefully it feels the same for the listeners out there or anyone else playing the records.

Club 77 Weekly Newsletter
Sign up and get a weekly Club 77 newsletter
By signing up to receive emails from Club 77, you agree to our Privacy Policy. We treat your info responsibly. Unsubscribe anytime.
Thank you for signing up!
Stay tuned for the latest news...
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
© 2024 CLUB 77. All Rights Reserved.