Ellen Allien, the longtime German electronica producer who has spent much of her career DJing to packed clubs in Berlin and around the world, talks to PopMatters about her latest album, crazy politicians and the status quo of dance music today.
Berlin bleibt nie Berlin, so the saying goes. It’s the city of change, without a defined center, always heading full bore into the future, undergoing some kind of wonderful metamorphosis, yet paradoxically living under a shadow.
The city’s soundtrack is electronica, a German heritage begun with Kraftwerk which continues today. This is perhaps counterintuitive -- it’s a rough city, bearing its scars proudly, its hoary, bombed-out past ever-present. However, much that is glittery and new seeps persistently through the pavement cracks in equal measure, auguring a future full of fresh hope and permeating the air with creativity.
Part of this constant change is the ever-mutating, hydra headed monster of the dance scene. Sometimes overwhelming, it’s party-saturated, glutted with demanding punters and discriminating clubheads, along with tourists queuing up in raw warehouse spaces and outdoor venues. The music itself is churned out in the private lairs of the Mietkaserne or basement studios, the city verily throbbing with the sounds of novice noodlers and itinerant DJs perfecting their “chops" in said urban spaces.
One of the undisputed mavens of electro in Berlin is Ellen Allien, who for years has been crafting a series of vinyl (well, CD -- and now mp3) conversations about the city to a 4/4 beat. Initially inspired by such former East German punk artists as Nina Hagen, the unpretentious Allien discovered acid house in the summer of Love, 1989, and has never looked back.
Allien isn’t just your garden variety knob-twiddling, chin-stroking techno boffin, though. She has a complete vision to go with the music -- manna for the headphones, the feet and the spirit.
Her endeavors to date include a slew of albums; contributions to the Boogy Bytes DJ Mix series; her own record label, B-Pitch control; collaborations with Sebastian Funke of Apparat and others; ongoing club dates, of course; and even her own fashion label.
Allien’s new album, Dust, is a perfect summer soundtrack, mixing the sweaty, the ethereal and the funky, the organic and robotic, its squishy beats and smooth, hypnotic grooves simultaneously keeping one eye on the disco and one on the street.
Obviously passionate about what she does, she is motivated not by pop crassness or cynicism like so many of the current crop of electro puppets but by a confluence of influences which scale the history of electronic music, taking into account the political climates of its respective phases. With a higher profile she could be straddling the mainstream as a cult star à la Roisin Murphy or Robyn. But no, that doesn’t fit Allien’s low-key style.
I recently spoke with Allien about, among other things, the creation of Dust, the status quo of dance music today and the vicissitudes of running one’s own record label.
The first track on Dust is called “Our Utopie". What is your idea of Utopia?
The question is, what is actually our utopia? I ask myself this question every day... it’s quite incredible that we can still live on this planet... let's see how long it can bear us. When I start thinking about the universe, my brain just explodes.
One of the superlative tracks on the album is “Sun the Rain", which has a New Order type of sound with an almost country rock feel underpinning the track. Other tracks use woodwind sounds. What is your creative process as regards laying down a melody and choosing sounds to utilize?
I wrote and recorded the lyrics myself at home, on the couch... thereby they are very personal. I tell stories inspired by my own life, like “Sun the Rain" for example. In this song, it's about how to assimilate pain, the pain that so-called friends can cause to you. I overcome my pain with the happiness of the friends who stay on my side when something happens and hurts. 'You take my hand and I smile, life feels easy...' Sadness surrounded by optimism, it can be just as simple as this.
Tom Krimi played the guitar, he plays in a couple of bands. I asked him to play in one really minimal and simple summer guitar part. As soon as I had all these elements together, I brought them to Tobias Freund, the co-producer, and he worked out everything, in order to make it sound good...
But it's more fun to write and to record vocals at home, I have more time, more tranquility... and I can record the vocals as often as I want. It was really amusing. The guitar and my voice make it all sound so indie, pop...as I didn't pitch my voice down like in previous albums.
You’ve been around for several creatively and commercially fertile periods in dance music, from acid- to micro-house, minimal techno to electroclash. How does the dance/rave scene at this juncture in history differ from these previous periods?
I call my sound 'funky tech-electronic'. I've never made electroclash, rather indie electro. My DJ sets change from one set to the next one. It depends on the location. Even if I've got the same music with me, it can sound completely different every time.
My productions are changing all the time a little bit, moving from the left to the right, and back... depends on the social facts happening... politically, I mean. House music belongs to crisis periods, to make the crowd shout and have fun. Each land has its preference. I mix it globally; house-dubstep-indie-techno is the mix that I like the most. These days, I can mix everything. But one thing I noticed is that for a while I can't play dark sets anymore, not so mental... then people just don't feel good, it's no fun. My sets used to be very mental three years ago...
In the '90s there seemed to be an obsession with different categories of dance music multiplying almost daily, with much snobbery and elitism and not so much cross-breeding between them. How have things changed regarding this?
True... nowadays, everything is possible. There are more clubs and record stores, and webshops where to buy your wavs. Since I buy wav files, I mean since I play with CDs, I'm closer to the sound I really want to play. Because the record store already makes a selection of what is to be ordered. Now I buy my music on different webshops, but it just takes longer, several hours in the week, but it's also interesting to listen to so much music. This is education, hehe. Or research for the new sound; the selection is the most important thing, your taste. At the moment I like the music and DJing scene, because the audience is mixed and the listener is more open-minded concerning music. Or maybe the audience just trusts me more... could be. Festivals are a mix of indie-rock and electronic music, elitism a little bit over now, by chance... at least in Berlin.
For many people techno music is something to take drugs to and reflects a harder, darker sensibility. Your music is the opposite of this and still retains an experimental, playful sense, and is sometimes alternatively dirty and clean, but always positive. Does this lightness of touch come naturally?
Yes. Yes -- really, I'm a very positive person. Every dark thing scares me a little bit, and I try to feel and to spread positive energy every day. Life becomes far richer in content then. Fear, fury, and nervosity are the problem. Social and freaky is my key. Too many drugs break your balance. Drugs can be fun, but not constantly, please.
You have spoken of drawing inspiration from the reunified city of Berlin as a symbol of hope and freedom. What are some concrete examples of things in your daily life there that inspire you?
When the wall came down, there was only one hope: the reunification. But the reunification was very hard for the eastern part of Germany... and it's not over. But Berlin spreads hope in the music scene, as we have space here to develop ourselves in a creative way. I mean BPitch Control has sold lots of records, and the company still exists, it's been 10 years now. I've paid a lot of taxes to the state, and a big part of it goes to Berlin. Clubs, labels, booking agencies create jobs. There's hope of having the possibility to work in your own network, to act social. That´s what BPitch Control does: acting social. I'm in Singapore right now, and here it's forbidden to chew a chewing-gum, to smoke, and oral sex and drugs are forbidden too, and DJs have to pay a kind of tax every year when they play, something around 2,000€. In Italy, you can't buy alcohol as of two in the morning, closing time is around 4. In Barcelona you don't have the right to dance in bars anymore... what the hell? Are they joking, these politicians? Thank you very much. When you think on how much they kill the music scene, this is crazy.
You started your own fashion line as well. Can you describe your fashion philosophy and marketing demographic? How is the creative freedom in Berlin reflected in the clothing?
Ellen Allien Fashion is my second passion after music. I design clothes for day and night life. Comfortable, minimal and freaky... like my music. There are a lot of little labels, but it's very complicated to produce tracks and build up a whole label. Within the music and fashion scene, you get to feel every crisis very well. A couple of clubs have to close, labels go down... but by chance BPitch Control can still survive. I didn't find the time yet for my 2010 autumn winter collection. My new album, Dust, took lots of time, and I want to make music, that has absolute priority. When I'm back from the Dust Tour, I want to return to the studio. I'll do a remix for Telefon Tel Aviv. Matthew Dear made one, it's really nice, lovingly arranged.
You have mentioned in other interviews how your label, BPitch Control, is a platform for developing new talent. What do you look for in new artists on your roster?
I'm searching for talents with their own vision, that don't go crazy in this crazy world... hehe. New signings! We Love, from Italy, made a incredibly good album between electronica, pop and indie. And Chaim, from Tel Aviv, and Aerea Negrot, from Venezuela, who makes Latino meets electronics. Very talented. A wonderful woman with an amazing voice, doing great live performances!
What prompts you to sing a song in German as opposed to English, or vice versa?
At the moment, I sing a lot in English, because I'm traveling so much, and my mind discovers... the world... my feelings are multiple. With my boyfriend, I only speak English, and with a lot of other friends living in Berlin, too. It's just a good tool to communicate with the entire world.
In your website blog you discuss what it means to be creative in a chaotic world. Would you describe yourself as a political person and how does that bear itself out in your creative process?
Of course, I understand most of the situation around me, sure... and I try to move in this world in a social way, with creativity and a clear overview of the world. It's a kind of spiritual vision I have, from the inside directed to the outside. My creativity comes out only in a peaceful environment... I'm searching for a liberal way... the FDP is the liberal party here; but I when I say I want to live in a liberal way I don't mean the FDP, I'm not an FDP supporter at all.
What’s next on your agenda after this tour?
I want to make two remixes... I'm already really excited about it. I will do them for We Love and Telefon Tel Aviv, both bands are on BPitch Control. And one track for our BPitch Control 2010 Compilation, as well.
Where do you find the most responsive audiences? Does dance culture still tap into something universal?
Yes, it's extremely networked. I mean I play everywhere... it's crazy and it's big fun. I'm a travel- and music-addict. DJing is the thing!