When life gives you lemons, start a record label

Meet Lemon Test, the imprint putting its own twist on electronica

Words By Jonny Tiernan
Photos By Inna Malinovayaa

Like many of the best ideas, the concept for Lemon Test was born over coffee at a meeting of like minds. Jenna Jones, Guy Nicki and Matthieu Petitmangin are friends who share two crucial things; the same taste in music and vision for what a record label should be. Jenna and Guy hatched the idea for a label while hanging out at 19grams in Kreuzberg, and a few months later Matthieu joined the fold. The company was officially registered in October 2017, and the rest is history in the making.

The ethos of Lemon Test goes beyond the task of releasing records. There is a desire to create a community and build a platform for the artists involved. Each release is celebrated with a creative party, which are a chance not only for the artists and their friends to perform live and DJ, but also for supporters and those close to the label to feel part of the process.

In the space of only four releases to date, Lemon Test has curated a style with deep roots in electronica that manages to stay free of being stuck to any particular sound or subgenre. We spoke with the three founders to find out more about how and why they do what they do.

Guy Nicki
Jenna Jones
Matthieu Petitmangin

Can you start by telling us a bit about each of your roles?
Matthieu Petitmangin: I’m the German speaker in the gang so I do some of the business side of things when my language skills are required. Otherwise, A&R decisions, scouting new artists… coordinating and making some mixes for our Slices series. Also the next EP coming out on Lemon Test (LT004) will be mine.

Jenna Jones: Yeah, I guess the three of us do a bit of everything, Matthieu is the only German speaker so naturally a lot of the business and boring stuff falls on his plate (sorry dude) but the A&R, decision making and communication is split among us (Guy, Matthieu and myself), sometimes equally, sometimes not, depending on what everyone has going on. We all have pretty busy lives outside of the label, and so we help each other out at times. We’re nice like that. Behind the scenes we have a really awesome group of people who help us out for every release – Jessica for design, Chris for copy and Sara for videos.

Guy Nicki: We try to keep responsibilities fairly fluid and diplomatic between the three of us, and we’ve been extremely lucky to have some wonderful people around us to help out.

What were your motivations for starting a record label, was it a long-held ambition or more spur of the moment?JJ: For me, it was definitely an ambition for quite some time. I also knew a load of artists who were producing (and sometimes releasing) a load of cool music and I wanted to be part of it, somehow. I wanted to make a platform for friends, or friends of friends to share their awesome creations with the world.

MP: Same, I wanted to know a bit more about how it is to run a label with hands-on experience. I wanted to have a platform for my friends and me to release on, and to find new, interesting artists to work with.

GN: The impetus for me came largely from the desire to start something more collaborative again. And ultimately something to build a community. I have a background of playing music in bands growing up and throughout most of my life – which by nature is very collaborative. But between this “band-life” finishing up and the beginnings of Lemon Test, a lot of my music-making and output had felt very isolated. I had been writing electronic music in a solo capacity for some years. Music needs collaborations, teams and community to thrive and I feel there is no better way to achieve these things than through a label.

You started out by releasing mixes under the Slices series name, what was the idea behind this?
MP: We wanted to start building a community and get a little following first before releasing anything. In my eyes, it was a bit of a test to see how people would react to us. And of course, it was easy for us because we were quite deeply involved in the music scene and knew who to ask for our first mixes.

JJ: Yeah totally, it was like, “OK, how do we instantly start promoting the cool sounds that our friends are making… let’s get a Soundcloud and start a mix series.” We’ve been releasing monthly mixes ever since, I think we’re on number 27 now, which is pretty amazing actually.

Can you tell us about your releases so far?
JJ: The releases have all been from friends – or friends of friends – and each has its own story behind it. Club Mayz first met Guy at an after party, and then I followed up by going to one of his concerts in a bar in Neukölln. Mayz gave me a promo CD –which I couldn’t even play! I tracked down a CD drive from work and then was able to check out his content! It was cool and the rest is history. We chose the bar where I met Mayz, IPA, to host the release party. The second release was from an artist called K (my housemate from London, a coffee shop owner who I discovered makes really great music, although I can’t say too much!)  

GN: Release number three was an EP of material that I had been working on for a couple of years. I had been gently exploring a sound that started to take shape and then solidified into something that felt nicely coherent for an EP. Club-leaning but essentially more of a home-listening electronica sound. We were also very lucky to have the brilliant Opal Sunn craft a stunning remix for us that added a lovely, club-focused dynamic to the EP.

We’ve all felt a great sense of community at the parties.

You throw release parties for each record you put out, is this something that is important to you? What are the parties like?
GN: We have rolled out a live event for each release which started with what was loosely the launch party for the label at the start of last year. It was never our intention from early conversations to enter into club night/party promotion but it felt appropriate and natural to pin each release around an event. It’s been really good fun to do and we’re so grateful to all the artists who have played and the people who have come who make it special. With so much activity online these days there’s perhaps more importance than ever for a physical gathering. We’ve all felt a great sense of community at the parties and I guess we all hope they’ve been as much fun for others as for us. And obviously it goes without saying that these become a crucial opportunity to showcase live sets from the artists we are releasing.

JJ: Yeah it’s awesome getting all of our friends together to celebrate a release. We have a solid 25-30 people who attend every party, including our one at Christmas. It really does feel as though we have a network; a community of people who love what we’re doing.

MP: At the parties we really want to have the artists from our label to play, but we also want to give our friends the chance to showcase their music. To throw a release party for every release has become a little tradition for us, small or big, so far we have been hosted by IPA bar, Anita Berber twice, and most recently a more intimate launch at Repeat bar in Kreuzberg.

When people listen to our catalogue we want them to find diversity.

Are there other record labels that you see as sources of inspiration, past or present? What is it about them that you admire?
JJ: Absolutely. In fact, we shared a load of labels that we aspired to be like at that coffee table back in 2016. Names like Ghostly, 1080p and Huntleys+Palmers were mentioned. These are labels known for quality and not tied specifically to one sound or genre. That’s really what we wanted to achieve with Lemon Test.

Do you have an overall aesthetic or style that you are going for? If so, how would you describe it?
GN: A focus on quality without a tie to genre has always been a mission statement for us. We’re aware that this may be present extra challenges in reaching a particular type of music fan for each release. Perhaps a new label would be better advised to stick within a genre so as not to confuse listeners but we wanted to celebrate the diversity we have within our tastes. I think largely all music fans have wider varieties of taste anyway. Having said all that, we have released music within the electronic music bracket to date and that’s naturally the way our releases will lean for the time being.

MP: When people listen to our catalogue we want them to find diversity. There will be tracks that can be played in a club and tracks for home listening. We would really like to be able to look back and say, “Wow, some stuff we did was weird and cool!”. I think to do one particular genre would get a bit boring for us.

What does a record have to sound or feel like in order for you to want to release it? Is there a decision making process for each one?
GN: As I’m sure is the case for the way that many labels operate, we have a “Veto” rule. I’d love to say we’ve agreed 100% on all offerings but inevitably not all the tracks we investigate resonate with all three of us. There’s been artists in discussion that we have fought our respective corners for but one or two of the three won’t get behind. Thankfully though, there’s always been an unsaid feeling of agreement when we listen to something together and it’s clear we’re all into it. Each release we’ve decided on has ultimately been very instinctual. It’s really joyful for all of us to share that feeling, I think.

JJ: Yeah, it can sometimes be a challenge, especially if one “lemon” really loves a certain track and the others are dead against it. But luckily that rarely happens.

MP: The music needs to click for everyone. I think we can agree that we never make a decision based on how the music will sell, rather it’s our personal tastes and musical influences that come together. In my opinion the music needs to tell a story, to make me think and feel something. It also needs to sound relatively well produced and interesting, with a full-frequency spectrum.

A special Lemon Test Selects playlist compiled by Jenna, Guy and Matthieu

Berlin is obviously an epicentre for music, does the city have an influence on what you do with the label?
JJ: It has to… I don’t think it does consciously, but subconsciously, it must have some sort of influence. I mean, we actively release music from people scattered all over. Our first release was from an artist called Club Mayz, who is based in Ghent. Then K from London. We have a few interesting releases coming from people further afield as well. And it’s the same for the mixes also. Our parties are based in Berlin, so we usually only work with Berlin-based artists for these.

GN: It’s an adopted home for all of us and the city that ultimately brought us together. The rich musical history and thriving current music scene is a big part of why we all came here in the first place, so I guess it’s essentially responsible for us meeting and connecting. And I’d echo Jenna in saying that the spirit of the city feeds into the way we operate the label subconsciously for sure.

MP: I think Berlin has a big influence due to the fact that the musical culture here is always flourishing; everyone seems to be involved in music somehow. We have so many resources in terms of artists, styles, and music business partners. Berlin feels full of possibilities; it encourages you to have artistic side projects like Lemon Test is.

What have been your highlights with the label so far?
GN: I guess it’s the events and the live feedback that you naturally get on the night that have been particular highlights for us. These have been the occasions when it’s all come together and we’ve been able to share in all the work we’ve put in. There’s always a particular feeling of buzz when the different components of a release come together as well. When the mastered tracks and the artwork and all other press materials are ready to go there’s a lovely sense of excitement. And we’re really grateful for all the people we’ve collaborated with on artwork, videos, press and more.

MP: My highlights would be good feedback about the music, people knowing that we exist and want to support and feature us like this interview for example! Seeing the same and then new people coming to our parties is always a highlight for me. That people are enjoying themselves and listening to our mixes and releases, and are talking about the label, is the best!

What are your long-term aspirations for the label, what does success look like to you?
JJ: For me, success is to have a brand that people associate with quality and fun with an element of surprise. I want to become a hub for cool mixes, great records and fun parties, working with artists across a load of different genres and styles. I also want to experiment with cool, fruit-themed merch, but this is something for much later.

GN: Success would come in looking back in the years to come and being able to feel like we’ve built a really solid and diverse catalogue. To feel that we’ve curated something we’re proud of and that has connected with listeners, providing some choice nuggets for a music fan to discover.

MP: It would be a solid and exciting catalogue, continuing to throw parties and support our artists.

What is next on the horizon?
GN: After LT004 from our very own Liebherr, we have an exciting schedule of releases pinned down to take us to the end of 2019, including a house music artist from Greece and our autumn release will be an ambient record from an LA-based artist called Ave Grave. An eclectic set of releases to follow in the ethos of Lemon Test. We are also hoping to pull together a compilation of a selection of Lemon Test releases which will most likely happen towards the beginning of next year. And of course a continuation of our event series for each release.

Keep up to date with Lemon Test releases and news via Soundcloud, Facebook and Instagram.