WHP FEATURE 035
When I first make contact with Marcel Dettmann I'm met with a faint voice and a sort of, barely audible droning hum. He asks to rearrange our conversation for another day as he's driving his family out of town for the festive period. When we next speak, two days before Christmas Day, it's clear that he's fully enjoying the downtime the holidays give him. Nestled in a winter retreat somewhere in the German countryside with his wife and two young children, this image of him that my brain created was a far cry from what I, and presumably many others, perhaps associate with Dettmann. We think of marathon DJ sets amidst sweaty, naked bodies in Berghain or chest rattling techno at dawn, and while both of those are more than relevant, ‘relaxed’ is not usually a word I’d use to describe his life. But much like the city where he made his name – Berlin – Dettmann is more than just a perception.
There are few places in the world of dance and electronic music which share the same esteem as Berlin. I realise that is something of an obvious statement to make, but what we now associate with Berlin is something that can’t be formed in one place just by chance, but in one defined turning point of that city’s history. New York had it in The Loft and its ushering in of disco in the late-60s and 70s, and so did Detroit with the industrial sound of the motor city. But from the rubble of the Berlin wall - which fell in 1989 - came the soundtrack to a unified Germany. A new life was given to the city of Berlin, and in techno that heartbeat was pulsating at 130 beats per minute. Of course, those unique environments create unique artists. Artists who personify that transformation from the old into the new and represent a city of change, and in Berlin few others embody that moreso than Marcel Dettmann.
“It was a time that was like anarchy in a way” says Dettmann, recalling his memories of that tumultuous time in Germany’s history. Growing up about an hour outside of Berlin in a sleepy town called Fürstenwalde, located on the east side of Germany, Dettmann was just 12 years old when the wall fell. “People lost their businesses, their jobs, and nobody cared if the kids didn’t go to school. You had fights happening between punks and neo-nazis in the streets. It was really crazy, everything was changing.”
“This is what techno means to me” he goes on to say. Not that street fights and anarchy are fundamental characteristics of techno of course, but instead that techno came to be a new identity formed from the ashes of an old one. “Detroit for example is a workers city” he says. “People have to work really hard for their money there, and in Germany when the wall came down it was the same.”
The fact that Dettmann can still remember and be inspired by these moments is perhaps what has kept him in the limelight for so long, and in some ways is what made him a living example of Berlin’s changing identity. After an early adoption of 80s electronica and pop music as sanctioned by the then east German government - “Depeche Mode were a big thing across east Germany” he says – via EBM and gothic, the emerging mid-90s German club scene eventually lead Dettmann to techno. After years of hostility and tension within the country techno became its soundtrack to liberation, creating a scene which became a complete antithesis to the years which came before it. “The thing I really love about techno...” says Dettmann, pausing briefly as I wait expectantly to learn some sort of divine secret to his success.
“...Everybody is really nice to each other” he simply remarks. “Most of the people would say it's because of the drugs, but it’s also the way that people are coming together and enjoying their time together. Listening to the music, dancing, flirting, everybody smiling together, that's the reason why I love this surrounding. I personally don’t think I would have stayed with techno if it wasn’t the way that it is.”
For Dettmann, while he remains a regular fixture on stages across the globe - “I do at least 15 shows a month” he says, casually – his 'surrounding' has always been Berghain, the place where he’s called home since its inception. It's strange that something like Berghain has gained the type of reputation that it has. That's not to detract from any of its successes, quite the opposite, it enforces it. While it’s gained the level of esteem it has as one of Europe's – if not the world's – greatest clubs, it's also been somewhat misrepresented for the same reason. While its uncompromising music policy and dungeon-like labyrinth of hidden rooms make it the beacon of Berlin that it's become, it is also become a source of parody. 'Berghain fashion guides' are essential reading for some, while debates and shared superstitions on how to perfect the best queuing etiquette to ensure your entry past Sven the doorman continue to rage on. Whether it's Ellen's
confusion of what 'techno music' is to Conan O'Brian's
simply embarrassing attempt at satire, Berghain's gained a status within both electronic music and the wider population that is for most, iconic but for others is something quite misunderstood. It's a small price for its success, I suppose. “It’s really, really weird what happens but it’s also something that you have to work pretty hard for” says Dettmann in regards to the rumours which have found themselves a part of the club. “You have to work pretty hard for this attention and reputation, and while in the end it’s pretty weird I would say I’m really proud of what happens. After all of the shit which has happened in Germany over the last century, WWII, the Berlin Wall, all that stuff, people are now coming back to this city from all over the world to have fun again. It makes me feel really proud to be a part of that and to be living in a time when I can see and enjoy that.”
With the prestige that comes with being one of the Berghain's original residents, so do the pressures. After all, if you find your blood pressure racing as you impatiently wait to hear your fate in the queue to the club, imagine playing inside the place. For someone of Dettmann's stature it would be easy to assume that he takes all this in his stride - 'another day in the office' where your colleagues wear less clothes than would ordinarily be allowed – but after 12 plus years at the helm of Berghain, Dettmann is still more than conscious about the responsibility which comes with such an accolade. He's built his reputation over time, one that continues to evolve to this day. “I’m not this kind of guy who broke into the top 10 in one year or whatever” he says. “Of course there is pressure when you're a representative of something, even now when I play in a small club my stomach is still going crazy for the first half hour or so, but I don't feel like a star or anything like that. Even recently when I last played at Berghain, I walked in through the main entrance and up the stairs and it was like, ‘wow’, it’s the same as it was 12 years ago. You hear the bass from the outside, you open the steel door and it’s the same feeling that I had in the 90s.”
In some ways, the parallels between Marcel Dettmann and his proverbial home of Berghain should, on paper at least, be few and far between. A father of two in his late-30s who's found himself a cornerstone of Europe's undisputed home of Techno hedonism. A former youth judo champion whose humbled outlook on his career thus far is a far cry from the fabled urban myths that associate themselves with Berghain. “It’s like Ying and Yang” says Dettmann about his dual lives. “When I come home to my family I come home to my roots. You could easily get lost within this business - if you're full on 24 hours a day that would make you crazy – so after 5 days on the road I’m so happy to come back home and take my kids to the playground, or to go and get some ice cream with them or something. It’s difficult to do but it gives me the chance to come down and it gives me time to get my power back for the next shows, it gives me the energy to make the next shows as full on as they can be.”
There’s a certain aura that surrounds Marcel Dettmann that few other DJs share. Effortlessly cool, yes, perhaps even a little intimidating if his tough techno persona is to have you believe. But as Berlin’s face has continued to morph and evolve over the years into what we see in the city today, Dettmann has changed with it. His craft is something that he has gained from his experiences as a DJ and producer, yes, but also his experiences outside of his musical world, those which can only be gained in a specific time and place within history. And much like the fables which surround Berghain, the rumours are never really the full story.