Some successful DJs and producers, after years of following their muse, might opt to channel their musical sensibilities in a more retrained direction, as if to befit their old-guard status. Others carry on as if with muscle memory, plowing ahead with their careers with nothing new to say.
Still others, seduced by the financial rewards that come with clubland stardom, go the mercenary route, in search of fortune while losing their soul. And of course, a lot of them simply give up and become grown-ups.
Ellen Allien, who came up in the heady post-reunification Berlin techno scene, isn’t one of those artists. Born Ellen Fraatz, Allien’s been spinning since 1992, and been running her BPitch Control label since 1999 – but far from slowing down, she’s as active as ever, with the kind of nonstop international touring schedule that’s would tax an 18 year old. She’s occasionally tinkered with her sound over the years – a bit of deep house here, some electro-pop there, even a touch of avant-noodle with 2013’s LISm – but she’s resisted the urge to experiment with overtly commercial sounds, and has never strayed far from her roots at such hallowed clubs as Tresor and E-Werks. And rather than mellowing her sound, or giving into water-treading complacency, her whirlwind DJs sets are tougher and more propulsive than ever.
The same could be said for her productions. Allien’s last album, 2017’s Nost, was one of her most intense long-players to date; a follow-up single, this past summer’s massive “Take a Stand,” served as an urgent call to arms. (Coming out on Boddika’s Nonplus, it’s one of the very few Allien releases to come out on a label other than BPitch.) The latest salvo is “UFO,” a raw and transcendent tune that’s released on a newly-minted label dubbed UFO Inc. Allien was recently in New York City for a date at Brooklyn’s Good Room, and we were lucky enough to catch up with her for a pre-gig chat at her hotel’s bar, where her idiosyncratic mix of hard-headed business acumen, giddish enthusiasm and vibey otherworldliness were on full display.
Photo by Marie Staggat.
Before we get to the new EP, let’s talk about your previous “Take a Stand.” Was there any particular reason that you didn’t release that on BPitch Control?
Well, it was it really just because my music has come out on BPitch since forever, except for one thing on Spectral Sound [2006’s “Just a Man”/Just a Woman,” a split EP with Matthew Dear in his Audion guise]. I had actually worked with other labels before BPitch even existed, but I didn’t like the other music they were putting out, and that’s really why I opened my own label in the first place – I don’t think I fit very well with the other Berlin labels at the time. They just had different styles.
Anyway, I liked the idea of putting some music and not having control over it. I think “Take a Stand” is a very good record – I wasn’t copying anybody, and was just being myself – so I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen to it if somebody else released it. I talked to some different labels, but I decided to put it out on Nonplus because the catalog is great, and because Boddika has real passion for music. I like the vibrations we had.
It feels like the track was one of the big techno tunes of 2017.
Yes, I’m very happy – I know I love it! I like the breakbeat-techno thing it has, and it has a strong meaning.
How would you describe that meaning?
I think there are so many people in the scene who are afraid to say what they think. Everybody is just happy to just get what they get, and there ends up being no passion anymore. It’s just like, things are easy the way they are – you have some money in your pocket and you can pay your rent, so everything is okay. But not everybody has money, and everything is not okay, and there is a lot of shit going on. So the song is really just about speaking up. I’m not very political, but that’s what I felt, and the track seemed like the moment when I could say it. In one short sentence!
Why start up a new label now, and why for this particular release?
Actually, Serge [Verschuur] from Clone, which is our distributor, was the one who told me I should do it. He’s a friend of mine and he heard “UFO,” and he just said to me, “Why don’t you open a new label called UFO?” I thought, hmmm… I really adore him, and that opened a door for me. But I thought about this for a long time – a very long time. I wanted a way for people to think about new things, and not talk so much about old things. It’s to give space for new music and new people.
And you felt you couldn’t do that through Bpitch Control itself?
The problem is that when you have a longtime label, some people don’t really listen so much anymore. They almost look at BPitch as an historical brand. So a side label is a good way to stay away from that.
It’s almost like starting anew.
Yes, it’s exciting, though it will probably take some time to see how it does. But I am very happy so far – I’ve been playing “UFO” in my sets since the summer and everyone has been asking me what it is.
That track on the flip, “Koerpermaschine,” feels like one of the toughest tracks you’ve produced.
I had a lot of tracks that I was thinking about for that, and I was always changing which one was going to be on the b-side – but I was sure something a little different than “UFO.” I actually have so many tracks that I want to release right now!
You are deejaying so much that it must be difficult to run even one label, let alone two.
Well, it’s my hobby. [laughs] My hobby, my love, my life – everything!
You’ve been deejaying since the early ’90s and producing almost as long, and BPitch has been around for almost 20 years. What keeps you going?
I think that it’s just passion for music and passion for people. I love to meet people, I love to dance and I love clubbing. I’m completely a clubber! If I wasn’t a DJ, maybe I’d be running a club. I started by working behind the bar, and I was working at the door, too. Once you are that way, you can’t change that, even if I got married or something. I would have to marry another vampire – a Dracula! Never a day guy.
Given all that, you’d probably have problems working in the straight world.
I mean, I can get up in the morning. There is a lot to do. [laughs] During the day, you have to think about so much. But I really love when the day is over and people enter into a different space, where they don’t have to think about their daily life. I love that we have the possibility to lose that, to get it out of your system, in the way that we choose.
Music can open doors in your mind. It can take you towards emotions that you already have – and it can lead you in new directions, too. I think that it’s something we’ve always had, even in the jungle, with monkeys and birds singing. It connects earth & planets & other dimensions, which is something that is beautiful.
And music is your way of facilitating that?
Yes! I think that music can open doors in your mind. It can take you towards emotions that you already have – and it can lead you in new directions, too. I think that it’s something we’ve always had, even in the jungle, with monkeys and birds singing. It connects earth and planets and other dimensions, which is something that is beautiful.
Does that play into why the track and label are named UFO?
I think that’s really just because I talk about UFOs all the time. [laughs] But I think there we have some connection with the unknown. We’ve lost that a little bit, but music can help bring it back.
When we’re dancing, we’re moving our bodies, our temperature goes up and the blood is flowing. It happens when people are running, too – it has something to do with the rhythm of the body. Techno is the same – it gives you a physical or chemical connection with something outside of us. You can feel the rhythm of the earth. It’s something that’s beautiful.
Do you think about all this when you are producing a track?
I’m searching for it. When I sit in front of the computer and I’ll have something on my mind that I want to do, I am trying to find it. You have to find the right tone, the right combinations, the right breaks, the right vibrations. It’s a long process, and it’s difficult – sometimes it’s there, but not there. I have so many tracks on my hard drive that are shit! I can’t feel them; there is no connection to them.
Why do you think that happens?
I think because I had nothing to say at the moment that I’m making it. Sometimes when I am doing it, I’ll think, “Oh, this track is amazing!” Then after a while, I’ll analyze it and discover that there’s nothing inside. But sometimes you can have luck and find where you want to go, just by mistake.
Some producers say that mistakes are a big factor in their production process.
It doesn’t happen often for me, really. It usually takes lot of work and many hours to get it right. So I think that the most important thing for an artist is to have something in your mind before you start, to have somewhere you are trying to go. Otherwise it’s just jamming – which is good, too! But for me, I need to have some idea when I start. It’s difficult.
Even though it’s demanding, do you enjoy the process?
Yes, a lot! I just love music. It’s so amazing, what music can do with you. Like I am searching for music with my DJ sets, I’ll spend like ten hours one day, and then I’ll get up the next morning and I’ll be doing it again. And again and again and again! I cry, I laugh, I do everything when I am hearing music. It’s so beautiful that music can affect us so much.
You seem to let it affect you when you play – you always seem to be really into it.
It’s so fun! I have all the bass on my body, and I can’t stop moving. I’m like, oooooh!
You do dance a lot when you DJ, more so than you in your earlier days.
I just couldn’t dance so much back then.
Because I was playing vinyl! You make the record skip if you dance.
Good point. But even though you’ve switched to files for your bigger gigs, you still have a strong commitment to vinyl – the new EP is coming out on vinyl, for instance, and you regularly host your record-only Vinylism events.
I still buy a lot of vinyl, too. And Vinylism is so much fun. The last one was at [Berlin record store] Spacehall. They pushed all the records to the side, and they have a big sound system, and they have an outside open-air part where people can smoke – it’s really beautiful. I drank a lot of wine and got so drunk! had a big hangover the next day. It was the best.
Do you normally drink when you play?
A little, but not every time. If I feel okay, I might do it, but if I feel tired, maybe not. Sometimes it makes it hard to find the tracks that you want to play.
You play multiple gigs in multiple cities almost every weekend. How do you keep your energy up?
It’s the adrenaline. But on Mondays… the first years, I would I would get depressed. Like, what am I supposed to do now? Okay, red wine! Not a good idea.
Red wine works short-term, but it might end up making you even more depressed eventually.
Exactly. I’d get in my car and drive for hours, crying. Red wine, no good. [laughs] But then I just learned to tell myself that tomorrow’s a better day, that everything is okay. And since then, it is okay!
Whatever you are doing, it’s working – you seem to be at the top of your game nowadays.
I think experience gives you a very rich life. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve felt…it makes the brain grow stronger. I can analyze better. I feel like I am getting so peaceful. I love getting older.
Not many people admit that.
Things are so good for me now. I’ve had times when I had no money and I couldn’t pay my bills. And I’ve had times when there was too much work, when things were exploding and I didn’t have enough people around me to help. Now, I make money, I have love stories, I travel around the world, and there is nothing to be afraid of. That can always change – I could lose everything tomorrow. But even if that happened, I can build something again.
Ellen Allien’s UFO is out now on vinyl & digital; buy it today at bpitch.de.