In the Midst of a Genre Resurgence, Berlin’s Ellen Allien Gets Back to Basics & Takes the “Techno Bros” Back to School
Miami Beach, Fla. – Does techno have an image problem in 2017?
For most, the simple mention of techno is sure to conjure up black and white images of nondescript brick walls, with mysterious Eastern European men clad in monotone getups and Warby Parker frames standing po-faced in front of them.
It’s a phenomenon that’s most recently swept across the United States thanks to the relatively mainstream resurgence of the genre, which has also ushered in its own new wave of clubland denizens (appropriately dubbed “Techno Bros”).
Obviously drawn to the sound being sold by the stars of the genre that have been donning the lineups of the country’s larger festivals, the zeitgeist has shifted toward what’s now considered the traditional image of it.
Enter one Ellen Allien.
Seemingly beamed into the electronic music sphere with supernatural sounds from outer space, the Berliner has been a stalwart of her hometown’s infallible nightlife scene since the early 1990s, constantly challenging that notion of just what techno should be.
For Allien, DJing is just as much of a full-body workout as the dancing the sold-out club crowds around the globe are doing to her genre-defying sets. In between combing through her crates for her next record, it’s not uncommon to see the venerable German jock with her hands in the air and flipping her hair back and forth as she drops immaculately selected cuts that project more than two decades of electronic music knowhow.
Most memorably, she turned the audience inside out during her electrifying set at Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival this past May. Dropping through Acid House belters (Emmanuel Top’s “Acid Phase”), rave classics (Spectrum’s “Brazil”), and even 1980s synth-pop (Trans-X’s “Living on Video”), the BPitch Control label founder delivered one of the riskiest sets of the weekend. As an enraptured crowd fell under her sonic spell, she dropped record after record onto the platters and proved that DJs play a much bigger role in creating experiences than simply beat-matching 125-BPM tracks.
Now, she’s on the cusp of releasing her seventh solo album, entitled Nost (via her own BPitch Control label).The nine-track LP calls on much of Allien’s 20-some year electronic odyssey and history, thankfully all infused with her trademark charm and personality. Upon listening to her first dancefloor-ready full-length since 2010, it’s clear she is ready to reclaim the 2017 techno narrative in her signature flamboyant style.
In person, Allien’s energy is just as animated and even more infectious than her performances, always full of smiles, laughs, and an optimism not often seen amongst artists. Bucking the stereotype of the jaded music veteran, it’s evident that years spent in the clubs have made her love them all even more.
We caught up with the woman herself—aka Ellen Fraatz, 48—in between her slammed Miami Music
Week gig schedule. Here’s how it went:
DJ Times: The new record is called Nost. What’s behind the title?
Ellen Allien: I’m second generation of female DJs, I think. I have all these classics, and I mix my DJ sets between new stuff and classics. Every time I play a classic, I just feel so good. I get hot, you know, sweaty, smiling because it’s like a flashback to the past. It’s so fantastic, and I’m very happy I have this history because I enjoy that. I realized two years ago how passionate it is for me to play old tracks and mix it up with new stuff. In the past, I had that always with new tracks. I didn’t know. I’d play new tunes and be like, “Wow, it sounds so new!” Now I have that with the classics because the new stuff is a copy of a copy of the classic. There is some good music outside that mixes up styles—I try to catch those tracks—but I felt like the most important thing for me at the moment is playing some classics, mixing with new stuff. It’s so important. That’s why I called it Nostalgie, or Nost. It’s the next chapter in my life.
DJ Times: One huge moment that stood out to me last year was when you played “Living On Video” by Trans-X at Movement, which was a very big throwback. Does the album try to mimic the journey of your DJ sets?
Allien: Not specifically. Not so extremely. I wasn’t focused on producing electro or that ’80s pop stuff, but it has some influences for sure: Detroit, Chicago, U.K. maybe, Berlin—everything. I kept it not quite so poppy. It was more for the dancefloor and how I play now.
DJ Times: When did you start working on the album?
Allien: I started working in my head like three years ago [laughs]. In my brain, I can make everything in my fantasies very fast, but mostly it’s not possible. The brain is always faster [laughs]. I worked in the studio in the summer, but very slowly. I did two or three singles last year, too. When I properly started the album, it was about two months in the studio.
DJ Times: How was work on this album different from your past ones?
Allien: It’s different because I worked with some different equipment. I never had a [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet [synth] before. I worked with a Prophet and we had a modular system from Moog that they produced after its 50th anniversary. They produced all the analog modular systems again, and only 150 pieces of the Model 15. I have one of those at home, and we also worked with the Model 35. It’s huge, almost like a wall.
DJ Times: Anything else?
Allien: My last few albums, I had concepts. This album is very much based on club music and the way I play since I’ve been listening to mostly club music at home. Years before, I listened to a lot of pop and a lot of indie and a lot of abstract stuff. I haven’t done that over the last two years. They were studio sessions that made you dance. Body music. It’s a very minimalistic drum style, I would say. I dance all over home now—nonstop dance music.
DJ Times: So this one is meant for the dancefloor?
Allien: It’s a club-focused record, I would say that.
DJ Times: Your voice appears on a lot of the record. Is that something you put there to leave your mark on a record?
Allien: I try to use my vocal like a synthesizer. I want to give it a human touch, but in a very electronic way, like a robot or something. That’s in many tracks I play in my sets. I like that futuristic thing.
DJ Times: Is it inspired by the nightlife scene in Berlin right now?
Allien: I think it’s the way we feel in a Berlin club, or what we would play in Berlin versus what I would play [in the rest of the world]. Sometimes here in Miami, I can’t go so dark. I mean, look at the sunshine and open-air! It changes my feelings. If I were to play in Berlin in a club, it would sound like this album.
DJ Times: How is the clubbing scene over in Berlin?
Allien: There are many clubs that aren’t very active on Facebook or other social media and press, but they are completely full. There’s IPSE, an open-air location by the river where we run parties. There’s a big outdoor floor and then a warehouse, which opens in the evening around 10 p.m. or something in the summer—it’s amazing. It’s fantastic. There’s SchwuZ, a gay club where I play twice a year. It’s a social center. There’s three floors.
DJ Times: Sounds amazing.
Allien: I think it’s a very healthy scene. Berghain has really strong door politics because it’s originally a gay club. Watergate is great—not so big, not so stressful. Griessmühle has an open-air floor, and it also has a little inside floor. There’s so many clubs. When I play in Berlin, I mix it up with gay parties and our own parties. I played twice with a first-generation DJ Tanith—he’s more breakbeats and a very radical sound—at Globus [Tresor’s house floor] on Sundays. It was amazing. I want to run parties in the winter again at Tresor because it’s amazing. The location is fantastic and it’s not so commercial in a way, you know? It’s a very, very good crowd and the location is so, so good. I have to say: I love it there again. I think it’s really coming back, and the lineups are so intense, so good. The booker’s doing a really good job. Berlin’s [clicking]. It’s 100-percent there.
DJ Times: It’s pretty interesting that you play gay clubs in Berlin.
Allien: I like gay clubs – they’re always very mixed with a lot of [different] people. It’s funny, when I play in gay clubs, I’ll have fans from other countries arriving there. They’ll be like, “Ellen, is this a gay club?” Yes, it’s a gay club! And then my gay friends will be like, “This guy is cute!” but he’s not gay! [laughs] I like gay clubs because they’re very sexual, and for me clubbing is something very sexual and very body-based. I like to flirt in clubs. I also like to flirt with gays, but [I do not] have sex with them. It’s very uplifting, I think. I also like that the gays have space there, and the idiots can’t enter. If they were there they might see them kissing and stand in the corner laughing at them—they cannot enter these clubs and that’s amazing. It’s a safe place.
DJ Times: You mentioned clubbing being very sexual. Is that what the track “Call Me” is alluding to on the album?
Allien: You are very clever. It’s actually about Grindr and all the things happening on your mobile phone. You’re checking photos: dicks, asses, whatever. This guy is too big, this guy is too small. It’s insane! I like to have that attraction when you see a person from afar and then talk. I like to go up to the person that I like, you know? I don’t need to see it on my mobile. I have many friends that [use their phones for that]. That’s why I created the song because of how they Beep! Let’s meet. Press button, that corner in 10 minutes. It’s fast sex, choosing the person you want. I keep it more open because sometimes I meet people that are very sexy, but you have to talk to the person to get their character, which can be very sexy. If I see only the face, the person could be [making themselves look better for their profile].
DJ Times: The underground queer dance scene’s been thriving in the United States in the past few years. Have you seen that?
Allien: I played with Kim Ann Foxman and DISCWOMAN [at Good Room]. There were many gay people this past Friday. Fantastic. In the morning, there were guys with no shirts dancing—the way I like it! Girls kissing on the tables in front of me. Those moments I love. For me, gender does not exist, in a way. It’s a lie. There’s one track on Planningtorock’s last album All Love’s Legal where she sings about it, and she’s so right. That’s how I feel.
DJ Times: The subject of female representation—or lack thereof—on festival and club lineups is a hot topic in the dance-music scene right now. As a woman who’s DJed since the 1990s, what are your thoughts on the current state?
Allien: When I look at festival lineups, they’ll book only one woman maybe. Why don’t they book the two together to play with each other? It’s always me, or Nina [Kraviz], or Monika Kruse, or Nicole Moudaber. Why don’t they book us together and then two men?
DJ Times: At Amsterdam Dance Event last year, you threw your We Are Not Alone party with an all-female lineup. Is that something you’re looking to do when throwing parties?
Allien: Yeah. I started running BPitch Control parties with a gay guy before I started the label, and we booked only women. It was 1998 when some clubs closed, and we had no clubs, which is when I started running the parties with only female DJ lineups. I don’t do that all the time anymore, but sometimes. It’s really hard to book the girls together because there aren’t so many and you have to bring them together.
DJ Times: Is clubbing becoming more inclusive of women and queer identities?
Allien: In Berlin, it was always like this, and for me as a woman I never felt strange because I am a woman. There weren’t so many, of course. There are so many women in music now – promoters, bookers, publicists, singers, who sell more than the men! In techno, maybe DJ life is complicated because you travel a lot. Even many men can’t deal with that because they take too many drugs and fuck it up. It’s not an easy life, touring and DJing in the night. Maybe that’s why the girls are a little slow [to take to it]. I heard at Beatport that 95-percent of their sets are from men, 5-percent from women. It’s unbelievable. It’s insane. I don’t know if it’s true; I have to ask our digital distributor FineTunes again for the numbers. But I said that’s why I DJ: to show the girls you can do it! Look how many years I’ve been here and I’m not fucked up or whatever. I’m happy, I have a boyfriend, I can live my life even as a DJ. OK, I have no baby, but it’s my choice.
DJ Times: What about the crowds when you play?
Allien: When I play, I’m very happy because many girls are coming. In the past, guys would say, “With two girl DJs, no girls are going to come to the club.” When I play? I have more girls than boys, much more. I think DJ girls bring back the girls [to the club]. It’s very important! That’s why the promoters have to book the girls primetime: to bring the girls! If there are only men on the dancefloor, the men are bored. They don’t look good; they’re not happy.
DJ Times: You book the girls, the girls come out to the club, and then even the men are happy.
Allien: Yes [laughs]!
DJ Times: On the album, “Jack My Ass” and “Stormy Memories” have some very key acid elements. It feels like acid house has been having a revival recently.
Allien: It’s been there forever!
DJ Times: Well, it just seems like it’s everywhere in the past year or two. Why is that?
Allien: It’s because many producers found acid tracks again. It’s there again, but it was always there, people and the media just talk more about it. There’s an acid movement [happening], but I think with acid it’s very important in how it’s mixed up because it can be very boring. There’s so many old tracks [played] again and again; I don’t need another Phuture track. It’s up to how the people use it. Also, acid lines are in house music and people don’t realize that it’s a 303.
DJ Times: “Jack My Ass” is quite a title. How did that track come to be?
Allien: “Jack My Ass” is a little bit like move my ass. I tried to create a track that’s very groovy and has acid lines inside, but not so clearly acid. It’s all about the beat structure, actually. If you listen to it on not-so-good speakers, you don’t hear it, but in the club it’s grooving your ass off. It’s so, so, so, so groovy. It was a body-jack track for me, which makes me dance. It’s all about the arrangement of speeds, the basslines—it’s very important.
DJ Times: What are some of your favorite tracks off the new album?
Allien: “Stormy Memories” is very beautiful. I think it’s a very Ellen Allien track. “Physical,” I also like a lot. I love that track so much. It’s so good in the club. It’s a bit trippy, groovy. The structures are very beautiful, I think. It’s very beautiful to dance to it.
DJ Times: I assume you’re going to tour even more after the album’s out?
Allien: I don’t think I can tour more than I do now!
DJ Times: What are some your favorite clubs to play and what are your favorite clubs to dance at?
Allien: I like to play at DC 10 a lot in the summer because it’s very special to me. I live in Ibiza in the summer, and I have a lot of energy. I always go out, and I go there even if I’m free. Even if I’ve played four times that week, I go to hear the DJs. I meet so many people there from all over the world. To play there and to dance there is fantastic. The sound system is not the best, that’s why sometimes it’s difficult if the DJ is pushing the sound system too much. It can be a nightmare.
DJ Times: I bet.
Allien: I love to dance at IPSE a lot because the sound is very good. SchwuZ is lovely. Berghain is great if you want to have a techno kick; you can dance there for many hours. It’s great. I love to dance at Fabric because the dancefloor is hanging so you feel all the basslines go through your body. It’s fantastic. It feels so good to dance there. I have to say the level of clubbing these days is so, so, so, so good.
DJ Times: You just played at the massive new London venue Printworks. How was it?
Allien: Oh my God… Printworks. So good. It’s a 3,000-person club and you have these high ceilings—very industrial. Sound system is good, and for techno it’s fantastic.
DJ Times: Does techno work better in that sort of industrial environment?
Allien: I think that techno works everywhere if the people go with you. I mean, you can play techno anywhere; it’s up to the techno you play. If you play strong, very industrial techno, it’s better in places like that, but you can play hypnotic techno everywhere—it’s just how much time you have.
DJ Times: You’ll dip into a lot of different genres when you play: techno, house, acid, breaks, etc. Do you know where you’re going to take that set when you start?
Allien:I never think about what the DJ before me is playing; it’s more about the sound system. Here [in Miami] I couldn’t play [vinyl] records at all, so I have my hard drive today. It’s always about the sound system. In Detroit, for example, I took many risks. I said to myself, “I can make a very sure set,” but I listened to some DJs and I said, “No, I don’t want to do that here.” It’s fucking Detroit! This is where a lot of music I grew up with came from. I have so much respect for Detroit and the U.S.A.—there was a big line between Berlin and Detroit, you know? I said, “Here I take risks.” Where else? The needles were jumping, but I said I’m playing records, and I’m doing it!
DJ Times: It was a big moment.
Allien:It’s always up to what kind of possibilities I have. Sometimes if I go too far, people don’t want to follow because they’re coming from radio music or whatever. They’ve never listened to a real DJ, only safe DJs.
DJ Times: So are places like Berlin and Detroit places where you can go further?
Allien: And London, Tokyo, also. Italy, Spain. Many countries! My booker is trying to not book me in places where I can’t go deep, but sometimes I have to do it: like in Miami sometimes for [Winter Music Conference]. Even yesterday [at Crosstown Rebels’ Get Lost party], there was a lot of deep house and normal house nonstop. I can’t get crazy there, so I have to try and find the balance. I can do it, though—it doesn’t hurt me because I’m flexible. Not very flexible, but flexible! Flexible for friends [laughs], like Damian Lazarus. For [him] I can deal. If there’s a good vibe, I can do anything.
DJ Times: Do you always travel with vinyl?
Allien: All the time.
DJ Times: What are the challenges of that?
Allien: I switched from vinyl to digital because it felt good to find everything on the internet. It was a dream for me. [I’d spend] 30 hours on the internet doing research for everything. Then one moment I’d find out that I could only find a track as a MP3—I don’t play any MP3s because it doesn’t sound good in the club—so I had to buy some records they didn’t put out digitally. I started buying records to get the music to digitalize them, and then at the end I asked, “Why am I digitalizing them?” I also digitalized my record collection because some records are nearly [worn out]. I still do it—I have 10,000 records, you know! I started buying records again, and then I said, “Let’s take the records to play them!” I started to play a few of them, and then I fell in love again. For example, I played in Argentina in Buenos Aires. I took my heavy records, and I could play two hours on vinyl! People are so happy to listen to records. For me, it’s a different kind of mixing—more elegant. If there’s the possibility [to play vinyl], everyone’s happy. So I carry them most of the time, just to have the possibility to play them.
DJ Times: You mentioned playing in South America. What’s it like to play there?
Allien: In the cooler areas, you have to do many things to make the people woo and get crazy. In the hotspots, they are really fun. It’s great. The people are very into it and lovely! I meet many girls and have a bunch of girls around me; they take care of me, I take care of them. They’re very warm people, so it’s very good for clubbing. Clubbing means groups: taking friends, meeting new friends, having an open mind, talking to each other, and smiling. There are many, many beach clubs down there that are very beautiful.
DJ Times: Is it part of a DJ’s responsibility to play so clubbers can make these connections and experiences together?
Allien: I think it’s a very important chapter of clubbing. There are some DJs that go to club, play, and go home. That’s also possible. Why not if your set was very good? I prefer to stay in the club to feel the crowd better. I’m a raver! I like to meet people. Alright, sometimes if you’re tired, it’s not possible—I have to sleep. I’m always running out of time sleeping. I want to look good, so many times I have to leave because my plane is five hours and I need to sleep three. But if I have the time, I stay or I go out by myself. I think the DJs that are more connected are better DJs.