German techno producer, DJ and BPitch Control founder Ellen Allien has just released her tenth artist album ‘AurAA’ and took the time to talk to Attack about her album, DJing, techno culture and more.
Through the slight digital blur of a pleasantly lengthy Zoom call, Ellen Allien’s Berlin flat appears cosy and uncomplicated, a pair of traits that aren’t really applicable to her music. As a producer, she’s spent her long career wandering through various shades of techno and its adjacent genres, sometimes branching out into electronica, electro and more experimental electronic music. Over the years her techno productions have run the spectrum from raw to lush, sometimes sparse and functional, sometimes full of sweeping chords and emotive melodies.
Allien’s latest album ‘AurAA’ dropped a couple of weeks ago and is a confident accomplished collection of (mainly) club orientated tracks, from the kick-drum centred moody acid-flecked bubbler ‘Traum’, to the stately slammer ‘Walking In The Dark’. This is her third album in three years and the music on ‘AurAA’ sits comfortably next to her two previous outings, 2019’s ‘Alientronic’ and 2017’s ‘Nost’.
Aside from production, Allien is, of course, a world-class DJ and before lockdown, she maintained a busy DJ schedule. Like the rest of us, at the time of writing (mid-June) she’s not been in a club full of people for months, spending her quarantine time in her flat in Berlin. She’s kept herself busy however: “It was hard – I came back from vacation and was really ready to go back on the road again but instead I came back here to lockdown. I was really shocked; all the world was shocked, we all had our plans but everything fell to pieces – all my diary, everything.
“I’ve been doing a lot of music. My album which I finished in 2019 just came out, I go in the studio four times a week so I’m completely still making music. For me DJing is my main job, I love it, I miss travelling but I do music anyway, so I can explore creativity in a different way, maybe a more intellectual way. I’ve been thinking about projects and actually having time to do things I couldn’t do before, learning instruments, thinking about gear, about my studio set up – I didn’t have the time for this before.”
Allien is open, frank and relaxed, wandering around her flat a couple of times mid-call, carrying her laptop with her as she closes her window. She’s an unhurried speaker with a lot to say about her music and her craft, and some questions generate several answers that set off on intersecting tangents before circling back to her final point. At one point we deviate from the details of techno production into the growth in popularity of home-made smoothies during lockdown; at another we find ourselves talking about what happens in Berlin’s parks after dark. She’s effusive too, often waving her hands around to illustrate her point, sometimes laughing loudly, sometimes reflective as she grapples with the more esoteric aspects of DJing, the world of techno and the realities of the pandemic.
“I created my life to be independent. I decide what I want to do and when but now we’re all manipulated from the outside which is a new experience. On the other hand, after the Berlin wall fell, the scene which had been very big became very small and many things changed here, and we all had to work a lot to build it up again. So I’ve had periods like this already although in a different way, and not as hard as now. The world wasn’t standing still then, but the scene was and I learnt that nothing is ever the same. One day something comes along and everything stops and we can’t control it. We think we control everything but sometimes it doesn’t work out and everything just falls to pieces.”
Control is a theme that occurs more than once in the course of our conversation, both our lack of control in the face of the pandemic and in connection to the natural world too. “We’ve built an unnatural world where we don’t feel things. We want to control things, but so many things control us – and then we try to control the planet – and this concept doesn’t work for me… We have lost our connection; we consume more, buying things rather than connecting with humans, connecting with animals, connecting with the sky, with the sun – we’ve lost it.
“I mean I love this world we’ve built, I love to live in it, I love to be here, I’m not suffering in it and I want to be part of it, but I think connection is so important for me and for the people who go to clubs. That’s why they listen to the music and go dancing: to feel that connection. because then with the music and the people around them, the energy, they feel it and you share it without talking. That’s my motivation, that’s why I’m a DJ.
Like many DJs who’ve – at least temporarily – lost their livelihood, Allien has been playing plenty of live streams and her relentless Movement at Home set in particular was a hi-tempo hour of live techno DJing well worth listening to. Before the pandemic her DJing schedule was hectic, and she’d spent winter 2019 touring South America, the US and Europe. DJing is her main job, but Allien’s understanding of the DJs role is more than simply a way to earn money, and very much related to her ideas around connection and community:
“I’ve known for a long time why I’m a DJ: I like the magic of the tones. Many people in the room don’t know each other but it’s not important where they come from or where they work, what’s important is their soul, their energy. And we don’t see these things anymore, we don’t understand anymore – or maybe we understand but we don’t want to talk about it… In the end, we all want the same things, and the things we want are very simple, more simple than the unnatural world we create around us.”
Allien pauses, as though she’s reflecting on the profound nature of humanity’s disconnection from the natural world, before breaking out into slightly hoarse laughter: “And this all makes things complicated!”
Despite the current chaos, ‘AurAA’ was completed so she pressed ahead with releasing it rather than delaying. “I’m still processing it. It’s released but I don’t have the product in my hands, because it’s digital. I’ve been listening to it for a year so now that it’s out it’s a bit scary because of corona, many record shops are collapsing and the market is poor… When you make an album you are very connected to it emotionally – and there are lots of stories behind it… for me, it’s like the soundtrack of 2020”.
If ‘AurAA’ is a soundtrack for 2020 then opener ‘Hello Planet Earth’ surely has the most appropriate song title for a year in which much of the planet has been united in its isolation during the pandemic. The tracks that make up ‘AurAA’ are, like much of Allien’s work, infused with musicality, communicating emotions through the choice of notes and chords as well as her more abstract synth sounds and beats.
“I love to write melodies and basslines. The melodies I use to create emotions and the words I use to give a direction. So when I DJ, I play very raw and fast but there are always melodies, I love emotional melodies… something hypnotic, something repetitive. When I repeat the melody you can get in a kind of trance – It’s very spiritual music I think.”
Allien’s music on ‘AurAA’ is techno no doubt, but she’s pushing the definition a little in some of the tracks, taking in sonic textures that hint at other musical backwaters. Whilst seven of the nine tracks are clearly dance floor targeted, what’s impressive is the variation in mood and style. ‘AurAA’ is less experimental than 2013’s ‘Lism’ which toyed with Neo-classical, drones and industrial noise, but instead serves up a series of intense club tracks, each with its own distinctive sonic character. Having worked in such a broad range of electronic music, does she see herself as an experimental artist?
“I could go crazier or more advanced or in a more experimental direction and it would be amazing to do… I did it with ‘Lism’ but the way I decide how I want to DJ and how I want to live with my artist life – which is also my job – this is the right thing to do now. I want young people who’ve just arrived on the scene to understand my music and all kinds of other people too. If I become more experimental or advanced, it’s more for a specific sort of crowd and with this album, it’s a little raw and fast – and this is how I feel now – but equally I didn’t want to make it too crazy either.”
The balance between experimentation and accessibility, between maintaining techno’s futurist, progressive ethos and keeping your dance floor moving and your fans happy can be tricky to manage. Allien’s back catalogue is rich with experimentation and alternative takes on traditional genre templates. But techno as a genre was created in the late 1980s – thirty years on, in a world of DAWs with seemingly limitless powers, pre-sets and samples packs, can techno still be futurist?
“It can be futuristic if you’re making experiments, programming your own effects for example, you know, you can be very nerdy in electronic music and this can be very futuristic. But I think in some ways techno and the club scene can be very conservative these days. Some clubs have one house floor, one techno floor and each floor has to be one type of music. Nothing can grow, there’s no experimentation anymore; this isn’t futurist, this is standing still and just using techno to sell alcohol or tickets.
“So yeah there’s some artists who make experimental music, some not. For me, on some of my albums I did some big moves, but with others not… Sometimes I was taking a step forward and it was always this thing of how I felt, what I wanted to produce, what kind of synthesisers I was using, how I was arranging the tracks. And so we have some music in the present, some in the future and some in the past, and it’s nice, you can switch between them and everything can exist.”
The future for our entire industry is unclear at the moment, but Allien is continuing to work as much as possible. She’s not keen on compilations but during lockdown has been compiling a 30 track BPitch Control project as well as producing original tracks for various collections. Working on collaborative projects has been an important element in maintaining community among a creative population isolated from their jobs, audience and each other. “I thought now’s a good time to make a compilation, work with different artists, do something together, create community. You feel connected when exchanging tracks, it really helps in the lockdown; you do something together and you feel we’re not standing still, we’re still here, still creative.”
Currently, she’s focused on how she’ll play her album live, working on a new track for a compilation for Italian record store Serendeepity, she’s just contributed her ‘C19 Bitch’ to a Third Room compilation and is continuing to look forward, musically and personally. For someone for whom music and DJing are such a central part of their life, Allien remains positive about her music and what DJing can bring to an audience.
“There’s something very physical about my music, I’m a very physical person, I like to move my body, I like to dance, my music is always very emotional, always about something that happens in my life, love, pain, dreams… or I want to bring the listener to a specific level to open the mind. Or sometimes I use words to open something when they’re listening to my music, something spiritual – it’s important for me that the people can dream on the music, that they can put it in their lives, put it in their own journey and use my music for their own fantasies. That’s something beautiful for me.”
AurAA is available on Ellen Allien’s Bandcamp and on Spotify.
Ellen Allien is on Instagram and Facebook.