“I have a radical side to me,” says Ellen Allien. “Maybe because I’m a female, I always try to stand for something and scream it out.”
For much of her career, that something has been Berlin. It’s the city in which she was born, the city which cemented her love of techno—having first fallen for the dance in London in 1989—and the city she has been soundtracking since the nineties.
In fact, it is memories of those early days as resident playing Bunker, Tresor, and E-Werk that have inspired her most recently. Her latest album, Nost, is a straight up techno affair. Where previous efforts have been short art experiments (LISm, 2013) artfully minimal (Dust, 2010) or more abstract (Sool, 2008), this one offered nine to-the-point tracks aimed purely at the dance floor. For an artist with the range of Allien, it might be seen as a step backwards to make something so raw and visceral having produced such nuanced stuff before now, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“Most of the music I play is from the nineties,” she says in great English, but with a thick German twang. “Every time I play an old school track, they give me such big flashbacks and emotions it becomes more than just playing a track. New stuff can be interesting if it gives you feelings of ‘wow, how did they make this?’ but often I know and can work it out quickly because I’ve been in the game so long, so I have more excitement for the old stuff.”
Admitting that the album “was not about doing something new,” instead she refers to it as “a diary of emotions.” It’s the sound of an artist having the confidence to make the music they are feeling, rather than trying to fit in with any zeitgeist or fan expectations. “Sometimes I love the primitivity so much in dance music. When I play a simple track with not many lines, it kicks my ass more than a well produced, amazing, intelligent track.”
Ellen is buoyant in conversation. She giggles an infectious and mischievous giggle often, and isn’t afraid to plough straight into any topic, whether that’s how many drugs she takes these days (“not many”) how commercial the DC10 terrace has become (“too hype for me. I can’t do that”) or remembering the night the Berlin Wall came down and how ensuing days and weeks were spent exploring the unknown east of the city on her bike with friends.
Nowadays, she tends to spend half the year in Ibiza, partly because she’s a resident in the main room at DC10 all summer, and partly because “in Ibiza the sea and sun helps a lot to make you feel more healthy. Two hours there gives you the same energy it takes two days to get in Berlin, it’s crazy.”
As another famously chilly Berlin winter bites, there are fewer distractions outside and Ellen finds herself locked away in the studio. When reeling off current projects that range from Depeche Mode and Mount Kimbie remixes via breakbeat 12”s and experimental techno noise collaborations with Japanese artist Kyoka, she brims with enthusiasm. Add in recent shows in Miami, Havana and Mexico—plus the continuation of her own We Are Not Alone parties in Berlin—and she has rarely been busier than in her 25th year in action.
“Every year is different depending on my emotions,” she says. “Whether I’m in love or lovesick makes a difference. This year, I’m still in love and everything's in balance.” She tails off for another giggle before explaining that her partner of six years works in the industry, so has an important understanding of how DJ life works. She says she also makes time for friends, family and loved ones, which can be hard when you spend so much time on the road, but is important to create a bit of distance from the music.
“I have more experience now. It was such different times when I started. I had to have side jobs to buy food, and I always did the booking agency, label management and fashion side of things by myself.” Now though, as her effortlessly eclectic BPitch Control labels heads towards its 20th anniversary in 2019, she reports it has been finically stable for almost a decade.
“Since I can now live from DJing, I can focus more on things that matter, and have a better balance between making music and working on my sets.“
That said, Ellen says that if she had to give it all up tomorrow—whether by choice or not—she would be confident she could find another path in life. It’s clear she’s a strong, confident character, and that is at least in part why her and her brand are still at the sharp end of the scene two decades in.
“I’m solid, I have a strong mind. I feel safe and trust myself. And it doesn’t matter what job you do, you need that strong mind, to have your ideas and stick to them, don’t change for anyone because you can’t predict when you will please people. I play and produce for myself, and I’m happy if I please people, but first I have to be comfortable in myself. The more comfortable I am, the better I am. If I start thinking, 'oh what does somebody think,’ it all goes wrong.”
One change she did make was stopping yoga after a number of years practicing. Nowadays she does it occasionally, but is more into pilates, which is better for her back. “It changed me too much, it made me too sweet!” She laughs that laugh again. “It makes you more quiet and sensitive. My music changed. I started playing more slow, dubby, taking my time with mixes, and this was not so good. It didn’t fit into the world I live in. I have to have the adrenaline rush. I need to push my system, because DJing is very sporty in a way, I need the aggressive feelings to play long and survive.”
Ellen is an artist who thrives on feelings and connections. Without them, she can go in the studio and make something that, “sounds OK, but it doesn’t catch me. For me it’s about translating my emotions; what people give me or what I have.”
Though she is as Berlin as they come, Ellen reckons she is more open-minded than many from her city. “The German mentality is to be serious. We analyse a lot,” she says, before explaining that after the Love Parade and techno making the charts in the early nineties, it became “stupid music” and “the underground died a bit.” The result was that some clubs closed and the scene suffered, so now they keep it more staunchly counter-cultural.
“We don’t have commercial festivals, nobody wants that, everyone wants underground clubs. We also have many gay people here who want to be separated. It’s why the door is so strict, so they can do what they want and fuck around and not have people peering and laughing who aren't into that.”
Ellen, however, also likes Ibiza life. “It’s less dark, people are happy and there is a wild mix of commercial people, millionaires, Spanish, German, French, painters, fashion designers… I meet so many different people which I really like a lot, I like the contrast.”
She says she also loves the people of the UK. Somehow, it's been 20 years since she last played in Manchester, but the memories of that night are still vivid.
“I think my playtime was eight or 10pm. I went to the club after dinner and it was a big shock. Everything in Berlin is late, but everyone there was already so fucked up and sweaty and crazy. I went in with my espresso after dinner like ‘oh, wow, ok, let’s go!’ It was amazing, it was so much fun because everyone was so wasted. UK people are so fun, they make me laugh so much. I’m like them, just a raver. I don’t want to be a megastar or the top DJ. I don’t have this ego, I just want to be able to do my own thing as an artist.”
With that in mind, the countdown to her long overdue debut at The Warehouse Project has begun. When I explain the history of Store Street as a war bunker with vast concrete walls and exposed structures, she shouts, “zzuper! I love that.” And don’t we all.
Ellen Allien appears as part of Knee Deep In Sound at WHP17 - Sold Out.