A Sit Down With DJ Marcel Dettmann

09:15 Nov/13/2017

At the age of 14, German DJ/producer Marcel Dettmann was introduced to electronic music via friends whom he planned on attending parties with in Berlin.  3 years later he was spinning vinyl and by 1999, Dettmann was resident DJ at Berlin's legendary Ostgut (and later Berghain) club.  Since then, Marcel has created hi-profile remixes, produced his own records, and founded his own label.

After two decades of DJing, his is a star that continues to burn as bright as any without any hint of extinguishing. He admits to loving the larger audience he's accrued over the years, because it poses a challenge. The job, as he sees it, is to make people 'curious' about music. It's hard to think of a more utilitarian mission statement for a DJ, but it's for this very reason that Dettmann - and his Berghain/Ostgut colleagues - have remained so grounded despite the hysteria that's grown around them. The Quietus sat down with Dettmann in Berlin around the time of his new album's release to discuss the art of listening for new music, setting up his own home record store as a young man, and the pivotal role of the DJ.

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What does Techno mean to you?

Berlin is not only Techno, even if the look from outside may tell you this.  But the special thing about Berlin is that this city is still growing, nothing seems ready made, there's a lot of cultural and intellectual freedom.  This brings us to Techno, because Techno is the freedom of making your own.

What mix CDs have you worked?

I did a lot of mixes, for example the Berghain CD on Ostgut Ton, one for Music Man, a label from Belgium, a couple of years ago. I also produced a mix for Fabric London. What I always like is to head for a new direction — for each mix, people recognize it's me, but it's important to include something special. Doing a mix means not only mixing some tracks together. It's more like a present — for myself and for the people. Doing an edit of a track I've played for a long time, doing a remix of something I've never released before.  I love selecting music: ups and downs, crazy moments. Club mixes are way more spontaneous and intuitive, because you are mostly reacting to the people and then decide, what to play now and maybe later. This mix has lots of preparation. It took much more time.

At the time of the Berlin wall collapse you were only 12 years old – has this impacted significantly on your pursuit of music as a career, and more specifically, the production of your tracks?

Sure without the collapse of the wall the world would be something else, as well as I maybe wouldn’t do music. And this strange kind of freedom we had especially in the 1990s sincerely had a big influence on me. This rough but open minded environment in the east which is still a bit different to what you see and feel in the west made me to what I am now.

How does your storied history as a DJ influence your evolution as a producer?

Berghain is existing since 2004, the former club was called Ostgut and there I started DJing in 1999.  And yes, Berghain means one of the biggest influences to my musical evolution due to being my musical home.  I cannot divide my work as a producer from being a DJ at Berghain and the last 16 years of development cannot be seen as a one way street.  Without Berghain I maybe would not do the things I do today.


"I believe that you can't bring anything across if you don't believe it yourself, and believing in this context means to love the music you are playing and to make it shine by playing it with passion."


What are the other sorts of music that inspire this feeling for you?

When I'm listening to old post-punk, EBM or industrial stuff I'm always thinking, 'Well that's the reason that I'm into techno'. That's pre-techno. They did it 25 years ago. For example, Nitzer Ebb or Front 242, or Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft [DAF], that's amazing. Klein Inc. Wow, amazing. It was more of a political statement. I don't think techno is really political. Post-punk and EBM gave a shit. They wanted to make people go crazy. DAF's lyrics: 'Tanz den Adolf Hitler' ['Dance the Adolf Hitler']. And everybody gasps, "Oh my God," especially in Germany. "You can't say that". I put Cabaret Voltaire, or Throbbing Gristle in the same group. I remember the first time I heard Throbbing Gristle, I was like, 'What's that? It's strange'. 

What did it mean for you to do a DJ kicks ? 

In the early nineties, like many, I bought a lot of mix CDs. Simply because I did not have any money. As a young adolescent, you're excited about double or triple vinyl with a bunch of great tracks. I can still remember the DJ Kicks by Claude Young , Carl Craig and the X-Series, especially the X- Mix by DJ Hellremember. At the time it was incredibly inspiring for me, a kind of musical education. As a teenager, these mixes and compilations gave me a certain feeling, and that's something I want to share today. Back then I went to shops and discovered records I could not really do with at that moment, but I thought: That looks cool, maybe I'll think so in half a year. This is how my DJ kicks can be foundTracks that are known. Other pieces may not be known at all. My idea was to create something timeless, something lasting. I like to compare this with photography, books or even magazines: there are magazines that I do not necessarily buy to read an article, but because they are well designed. That's how it should be with the DJ Kicks . The artwork, the track selection, the mixing, my edits - the whole package should become something that you still like to pick up and listen to in ten years' time. That was the challenge for me.

Do you think there’s something special about playing the end of the night?

 Yeah, it’s special. When you are tired and relaxed, because it was a long weekend—me too! I come from somewhere and then it’s really special, you have time. You can start at any point you want and take the crowd up or bring them back down. Actually, now the nights end Monday morning at 10 a.m. or something, which is so weird. I remember it used to end on Sunday and now it closes to a day later. It’s special but it’s tough sometimes. When you stay there for twelve hours, it’s really tough. When you come home you are tired for two days—really, really tired. But it gives me power to be there. You just realize, when you finish, how tired you are. It’s like a drug, it keeps you alive and then after.

Is it true that nowadays it's impossible to play vinyl in clubs because decks are not set up properly?

Actually I've thought a lot, but I don't think that it was better back in the day. I've been travelling the world for ten years now, and sometimes of course yeah, when you have a festival and when you have a rock crew preparing the DJ stage, they don't think about how the turntable could get messed up with the monitoring or something because they normally put drums and guitars on the stage.

What’s it like running your own label on MDR, compared with releasing your own tracks on other labels as well?

Since 2002 I start working at Hard Wax recordstore/distribution in Berlin. I was involved in the whole manufacturing process… and it was just a matter of time starting my own label…  it’s amazing selecting music from great artist for an release… When it comes to releasing my own music I’m my biggest critic, no matter if it’s coming out on my own imprint or somewhere else. There’s no difference, I’m a person who is never satisfied with my own work.

Do you understand what has brought you this kind of success? 

It's everything. Berlin, Berghain and hard work, creates me; me as a musician or as a guy. I grew up here in this area and in this time as well. It's difficult to understand for myself because I'M Marcel Dettmann and for me it's difficult to say where it comes from. In the end, everybody has their roots and my roots definitely are here. If Berghain's the pot, and Hardwax is the top, then I am the soup, you know? So many things happen in your life that create happenings. They are really the main pillars.


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