Ellen Allien Can See the Future
We caught up with the BPitch Control boss at a synthesizer exhibition in Berlin to hear about her time traveling path towards fame.
All photos by Tereza Mundilova
This article originally appeared on THUMP Germany.
"Playing records is like traveling through time," says Ellen Allien as she glances out a glass window, bright-eyed. "We DJs are looking for the message in an old record, thinking about how we can integrate it into our sets today, and then: boom, the club explodes!"
But for the two of us now, Ellen and myself, nothing around us is "exploding." It's silent. And it's no wonder: We're at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Berlin, Germany, and we're here to see the current special synthesizer exhibition, "Good Vibrations." From Moog to Roland to Yamaha, the evolution of electronic musical instruments has been curated here to the utmost detail. The visit was Allien's idea, and it also fits well with the synthesized aesthetic her new album Nost, that was released May 12 on her own BPitch Control label.
"Nost" is derived from the word "nostalgia." which is, in turn, derived from two ancient Greek words. The first is νόστος (nóstos), the "return" or "homecoming," and the second, ἄλγος (álgos)—the "pain," "distress," and "grief"—was simply erased by Allien. Her work is a space for love, pleasure, and memory to exist in the present.
"We DJs are looking for the message of an old record, and then: BOOM, the club explodes!" —Ellen Allien
The fact that she recorded the new tracks in analog, however, has nothing to do with the past. "It's much more fun when you get to rummage around on a thing like that, and when a wave comes out...," she tells me. Her hands then move towards the keyboard and her purple windbreaker rustles. She's glowing again. And then we're turning on the buttons of a digital Theremin replica, putting the headphones on one by one, and letting the waves start to sing.
"Totally great, a little toy!" she exclaims.
A few yards away, Allien compares the displayed modular system with her own System 35 device, which she also used on Nost. We arrive at the next display case, she says, "This Moog-Synthie here—brilliant melodies, great pop music, but it floors everything, so you can only use it as the main theme. Apparat and I have used it quite often at Orchestra of Bubbles," she continues. The instrument turns silent.
The Berliner produced her first songs over 20 years ago on an Akai MPC 2000 drum machine. At the time, she'd only been playing music for four years. Today, the Akai is on display in the museum, and Allien is now a successful DJ, producer, label operator, and event organizer. Her Vinylism series celebrates record stores and vinyl culture, and her BPitch Control label organizes regular parties at the Berlin Open Air Club IPSE.
"There's no [such thing] as 'too into it.' I simply live [and breathe] music 100 percent."
Allien says that at this period of her career, she "clearly feels nostalgic." She currently listens to dance music at home more than she ever has before. She orders lots of records, and immediately listens to new things at home. "It's very intense right now, I'm way too into it," she says. "Actually, no—there's no [such thing] as 'too into it'; I just live [and breathe] music 100 percent."
The nightly work of playing music becomes an emotional high and low, Allien explains: "When I play an old track, I get all hot—I get goosebumps and get whisked away back into the past." She says it's always been like that, and then a new track—perhaps an unreleased song—brings her back to reality.
If you see Ellen Allien playing music today, you'll be sure to notice one thing: unlike many of her colleagues, she dances—even if her movements are sometimes only barely perceptible. She doesn't put on a show just for the audience. She's concentrated, dreamy, and can get carried away herself. And her dancing happens completely automatically. "After all, I get the full bass wave on my ass, and if I don't dance people obviously won't do it anymore either," she admits.
But if you get the chance to talk more closely with Allien about her art, her strong political opinions will immediately come into focus, in addition to her ideas about movement and nostalgia. She's already been standing up for her beliefs in the grand circus of techno-capitalism for years.
"You really have to watch out right now," she says. "There's so many events. Who should I or should I not play for? We turn down a lot of inquiries. My booker looks into whether or not there's Mafiosos behind [the club], and whether the festivals bust the local venues." In order to do that, the booker needs experience and a large network of contacts. Also, wherever there's commercial demand—and this is especially true of larger festivals—there's sure to be the "same lineup of terrible music."
We leave the synthesizer exhibit to go sit in the museum cafe, and start discussing one of the biggest issues in the business: bookings for female DJs. "Why do you never see two strong women performing at big festivals—one Nina Kraviz and one Ellen Allien, right after each other. Why is there only one woman in the lineup, and then six to eight men?"
"It's just cool when a woman plays cool stuff. We're hotter than guys right now."
While she's pleased with the success of acts like Helena Hauff, tINI, The Black Madonna and their acceptance into the upper echelon of the industry, she expresses her frustration with the general booking climate. "Why does a woman have to be particularly good friends with one of these big guys to get these sets?" she asks. "The Black Madonna and Nina Kraviz came up so fast because the market is dying for them and their music. Because it's just cool when a woman plays cool. We're hotter than the guys right now."
The different facets of our conversation manifest on Nost in various ways. Dancing is the first to get addressed. The introductory track "Mind Journey" samples the famous Air Liquide quote from the early days of Berlin's legendary Love Parade festival: "This is not a mind trip, this is a body journey!" "Jack My Ass," the third track, cuts into the same dark peak-time groove. "Dancing is a bodily experience that lets you keep the mind going," says Allien. "Every muscle is active, and that's an outbreak of the computer work, of always adhering to the same pattern of movement."
"I'm totally happy to have a story like mine."
The same applies to when she goes out or when she's just finished a set. "I can't stand in the corner of the club and just watch for hours; I have to dance or make out [with someone]. Between tracks like "Erdmond" (which is about the first moon landing) and "MMA," (which is about the eponymous club in Munich; one of her favorites), "Stormy Memories" captures Allien's nostalgic, emotional roller coaster of a romantic history.
And then there's "Call Me," in which the producer sings: "Call me and your dreams will come true / I want your sex." It's the music of fast sex and fast love, of Tinder and Grindr. Allien finds it extreme that so many people value one another solely for their appearance, but the track is still more soundtrack than criticism, even if she renounced all dating apps long ago. "I start the talk: What's your name? Do you want a drink? I need to see how a person moves and interacts with other people." And since nostalgia is the theme of the day, it's worth noting that Allien already grappled with digital love 16 years ago on her first album, Stadkind. The idea of a "digital romance" was already real—it was just conducted over email. Then and now, she stands by her belief that "it's important for people to meet each other, no matter how."
Once again, we've gotten carried away from the present into the past, and back again. Far from the stages of big festivals, Ellen Allien sits in the belly of the museum and reflects for a moment, "I'm totally happy to have a story like mine."
This weekend, she'll fly to Dubai for a gig. When we part ways, she offers one last piece of advice to the people of today: "People, meet up as much as possible, and kiss!" Once that's done, you can get all nostalgic later.
Ellen Allien Nost was released on BPitch Control. She will play on July 2 for the label's next party in the IPSE, followed by sets at the Melt!, Madville, WET Open Air, Sonnemondsterne and the Street Parade in Zürich.
The exhibition "Good Vibrations" the Museum of Musical Instruments in Berlin has been extended until August 27.
Many thanks to Katrin Herzog.