I first heard of DJ Hell as a young adult in New York City, where he was known for his residency at the epic gothic church-turned nightclub known as Limelight. Years later in Berlin, I visited many an apartment where I saw his CD Munich Machine lying around. I felt almost dumb to ask about him, his name was so iconic. I aged and so did my musical tastes and when I heard Teufelswerk, the beats were so unbelievable, they just didn’t seem like they could be made by a human.
While he is synonymous with the title ‘DJ’, his work consists of an incredible mechanic that should really be taken from the dance floor and anatomized and revered (like classical music always is).
I was so psyched when I got the chance to meet with him this past Good Friday in Berlin, we sat down together in a hotel near Französiche Strasse—it was one of the most amazing talks I’ve ever had because of his openness about himself– he explained it all and gave me a taste of what’s to come with the album he’s next to release. Here’s a part of the conversation we had. I’ve included a couple of youtube video links, so you can pause and listen (again) or leave it playing while you read…
This is what I think about what you do. I think as a DJ, you are somebody who is channeling energy. There were times I have felt close to god or whatever on the dance floor. When you have good music and you’re feeling it and someone is dropping beats and really understands the music and how to deal with the audience….
Yes, some of the original creators of house music they would talk about a religious movement . It’s something like a community that everybody can join, you know? It’s easy to get in and dance to the music and the ‘DJ’ or ‘Priest’ or whatever you want to call it is presenting you and you can get connected immediately. It was a concept in the 1980s already, there was a song about it, that House music is owned by nobody and everybody can join it, and because nobody owns it, it became a universal languages and millions of people followed it. I think it’s my religion; techno and house music can bring people together and not only at a party or a dance floor situation. The kids here say that when they go to Berghain, they say they are going to ‘the Church’. The young Berlin kids. A guy I know told me; he’s doing a film(Yung) about the Berlin Kids now . Maybe because they go on Sunday (laughs) but they do believe it’s their church. A Holy Church, so they go to Berghain and do whatever they think is right, what their religion tells them. Their own Religion, they created that.
I don’t mean to get on this whole religion theme. I guess I’m so happy to talk to you in real life is because even though I’m maybe not someone who knows your music in and out, like a club kid, but at the same time, every time I have ever seen or heard something you’ve done, I’ve thought ‘Wow. There’s really more to him than we get. There’s something more there.’ I don’t know.
You mean about ‘the DJ’?
Well, when you’re out there, you kind of are the DJ but there are also times when you are not out there. It doesn’t seem like it’s just about performing. Like, there’s more content to it than that.
Yeah, what’s the question? (laughs) Are you talking about me now?
Yes. What are you about? I mean, I saw this one interview you did and you said ‘I just get it from here, I get it from the venue where I’m playing.’ I mean, what’s the concept? So many different things influence you that you also give out as an inspiration, apart from the music thing. You talk about Warhol and Bowie and Klaus Nomi, but your mix of these influences is different than how other people use it.
Oh, so you want to talk about me. Ok.
Do you like to talk about yourself?
Sometimes. It’s a good therapy to talk about yourself. My music, it’s very personal and with my last album I showed my whole DNA. It’s me, it’s everything I learned or saw in life and I was fascinated by other people, so I put all this knowledge in my last album, it was called ‘Teufelswerk’ (Devil’s Handiwork). The title also has a strong meaning and I think it’s very personal, but if someone else hears it there’s a different understanding. Or interpretation. It’s fascinating to hear what other people think about me, myself, and I…and my music. My music is me, so it’s very personal, so of course I like to talk about it.
What I think is crazy about Teufelswerk, when I listen to it, is that I feel like when you did the beats on it they’re kind of like when you’re blowing bubbles—it’s so light…
Yes! I mean with other harder music, let’s say, David Bowie, there are harder beats so it seems more tactical—you can reach out and grab the guitar riffs, you know? And with yours the sounds are like bubbles or even light…
It was a concept for a double CD, one called Night and the other Day. But even with that you can mix it up. I don’t give any rules for how you’re going to listen to my music, but at one point you need to name it, so I think this is ‘Day’ and this is ‘Night’. But when I did ‘Night’ I thought ‘Oh, maybe this is a Day-thing’, I wasn’t sure about it anymore because everybody’s free to use it how they want. The concept of ‘Day’ was for meditation and for getting connected with the music and not with other things, just like being inside, hypnotized. It’s a lot of kind of elements, sound design and loops and harmonies that really sucks you inside, you know?
So, I just worked with these kinds of concepts and formulas and tried on the other side not to repeat something that already happened in the music industry or music business already. I’m influenced by a lot of people but I put my own touch on it. I never thought about it– I need to figure out why you think about it.
I think the album flows out like a complete entity. It doesn’t feel like it could possibly be written by a human. It’s just there. (laughs) Sorry I’m not coming with a really set question, but this stuff isn’t so easy to ask questions about.
The songs are very complex and I put a lot of emotions in there. It touched me really when we did it in the studio. And I also knew when I finished the whole project…it’s the BEST I did ever and I couldn’t do it better in that moment. So, I was quite satisfied about it because I reached a level where I said to myself, ‘This is the maximum.’ It’s a great feeling and I think if you reached that kind of point, people will have the same idea as well when they’re listening to it.
There was one song called ‘Angst’ and I was lucky to find an American artist (Nicole McDonald) and she did a really beautiful video to it. She really understands my vision. Two girls, coming together in a dark, mysterious situation. Their faces are always reflected in the water. They come together but not really and it’s five minutes of pure melancholic emotional kind of realistic humanized feeling. (laughs) If you say it’s a bubble, maybe it’s that way. You can’t grab it, but you don’t need to grab it all the time. So maybe I had the same feeling, you just say it with different words. Also, I mostly follow my instincts when I am sitting there in the studio. And it’s very simple: if you hear something that touches your soul and your heart you try to grab it and hold onto it and then try to bring it into a construction and arrangement….It’s like how Bowie worked.
I saw a video from his producer and he was sitting in a studio I think on BBC 1 on the TV. And he was on the mixer in the studio and talking to the camera and told the interviewer how everything came together. Every single part, every sound. So Bowie was playing some strange keyboard, and it doesn’t fit to anything. And then Brian Eno had an analog synthesizer and made some noise– but they didn’t know where to go. So, they put this and that together, there was a guitar from Robert Fripp, he played a really strange, amazing guitar sound, put lots of effect on there, and it sounded out of this world, you know? Then they put, like, a lot of elements and different parts together and there were no vocals even. But somehow you can feel there is something unique coming up. And then Bowie starts thinking about going in the next room to write something about ‘Heroes’. Here then, the producer went out with his secret girlfriend (she was a background singer) and they kissed in front of the studio window. And Bowie saw it and then, you know, got this ‘thing’ with the heroes…. And was inspired by them because it was a secret love affair because the producer was married to another woman and the background singer was afraid of that nobody should know about their love affair. The people in the studio knew about the relationship, but I like to think about how they work because with my work, it’s the same thing.
You’re experimenting and you go into soundscapes and concepts and ideas I had the same feeling. I’ll play you the video later on, it’s a song called ‘Anywhere Anytime’. And I thought about some concepts with the lyrics because I’m also working like Bowie worked. It’s all about Bowie– he has a cut-up technique about how to write lyrics. So you have things, maybe from a newspaper, a headline, or simple ideas in your mind so you write it down– cut it out and put it in front of you. It doesn’t fit together in any way. So you have a lot of words and headlines and things that come up in your mind. But then you cut everything and mix it up on the table and look at it. It’s a ‘Cut-up’ Technique. So you’re putting it together and you suddenly see something and it looks nice (it doesn’t make sense, but it’s not been used so far). I was working with that as well and it’s totally mind-blowing to write songs and lyrics like that. He got that from another writer (William S. Burroughs) so I was lucky to find out about it and there were even pictures from the exhibition in Berlin, the Bowie exhibition where they show the Cut-up technique.
So I did the same thing and I totally had this feeling when we started this song ‘I don’t know where to go’, which sounded not interesting at all. It was a keyboard line, but then we put something on top and we thought ‘Ok.’ But I still didn’t know where to go. Sometimes, it’s kind of an accident; you touch something on the computer or keyboard or guitar and it sounds strange, but you’re gonna use it.
I don’t know if this is coming from God or a secret church, from Buddha, or Bowie.
I know what that’s like sometimes, too, with my proper writing. I feel like I spend more time thinking about than actually doing it. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to write, and then I sit down and it rolls out really fast and then I look at it and I feel like I kind of left by body for a little bit. Then you look at it again and think, ‘Ok, I did write that. I remember sitting here.’…I notch it up to being a confirmation that you are in a flow because you’re doing and the universe wants you to be doing it. Maybe we can just leave it at that.
Music for me is very personal. I put everything in there. Always. I don’t try to copy somebody. Sometimes, I listen to people I find to be great influences, but I don’t try to do the same thing, the going the way to doing that, you go somewhere else. Sometimes it’s better or it’s going in a new direction. So, when I started producing, the main headline was ‘Always Go Where No Man Has Gone Before.’ So, I’m not going where no one’s going. I want to be a man who’s touching new ground.
Do you ever get…I mean, the other day, I was reading this one interview I thought ‘Oh my gosh. This is so boring.’ I didn’t want to read it; I want to have real conversations with people.
You should go into Dance Music magazines and read some of the interviews they have with DJs and producers. You would get the same feeling. Sometimes I think I’m not fitting there– never did. Even with the photos they use or present themselves– it feels they don’t care or they don’t know how to do it right.
But does that get frustrating?
Not at all.
I’m mean, that’s the thing. I was always thinking when I saw stuff from you that there just had to be more to this guy.
Thank you– please listen to the new album.
What’s the difference between the last album and the new one, also with presenting it? What’s coming (laughs)
I need to surprise myself. I don’t want to touch things I’ve already touched. Yesterday I played in a club here called the ABBAU BLANK. And there was a girl; she didn’t stop screaming at me that I should play ‘Klaus Nomi’. And you know, I just had to ignore that. And she didn’t stop it, you know. But of course I am very happy to work on that song and create a new concept. Get official rights for it even– I never thought to release a Klaus Nomi Song because in my early DJ years he was one of the biggest influences. About his look, his performance, his singing his performances. About combining Opera music with Rock and Electronic music, he was a total innovator. There was nobody like Klaus Nomi. Even then.
Ok. So you said that when ‘Teufelswerk’ was finished you put everything you could possibly put into it at that time…
They always expect something from you. I think they expect me to do something like my last album, and before they expected me to do something like that. But I always turn that down and do something totally new but it’s still me. The new album is totally harder-cut than the stuff that I did before because now I am doing…I call them love songs or ballads. It’s really music to….not to make love to, sorry. (laughs) It’s in a different way. Like I said, I did a song called ‘Anywhere Anytime’. The idea came from this thing called ‘Hanky Code’ and this Hanky Code comes out of the gay community of the 1970s. Not a lot of people know now… Even the younger gay generation doesn’t know much about it. Like, the color of Handkerchiefs you tuck in the back of your jeans. So the other gay guy who wanted to get connected at a party or on the street would know exactly what fetish you are looking for or whatever. Also what ‚left side‘ or ‚right side‘ means. So, either you are offering or you want to be receiving. I mean not a lot of people know about it anymore.
Then, I thought about these wonderful lyrics like ‘Meat Beating’ and ‘Chubby Chasers’ horse riding and stuff like that. So I tried to write lyrics about the Hanky Code in a new more abstract way. It’s about not telling people what’s going on because it’s secret. Those who know what it means—they know what it means; but other people think it´s just, like, a normal ballad.
I don’t talk on the track ‘Anywhere Anytime’. I’m really into writing songs and it’s not a club situation, it’s not for me playing it as a DJ. When I created the songs, I thought that I would perform them in museums or galeries and theatres. People would be seated, not dancing. It’s not regular Dance Music. They would watch a show that I am creating now with some Berlin people who work on concepts and futuristic kind of ideas with big car companies. And they aren’t into electronic music but somehow I found them really interesting because they try to step on new ground so I thought they were really good for what I’m trying to do in the future, so people will be seated and watching my show, it’ll be more performance, lightings, theatrical… I don’t want to say ‘Multimedia’ because it’s not. I want some tracks that I’m not on stage, so you don’t know what’s going on. Different situations and changes for every song, you will not know what’s going on exactly and I will not answer all questions about it. Its better to leave it open.
So this is the concept for presenting the music live for the next album. The problem is, I don’t have a name for the album and I’m looking everywhere, but it always comes out of nowhere—in the studio, when I’m working on a song. The first concept before I went into the studio was that the new album was going to be called ‘Holy Shit’. But that’s over. Totally. (laughs) it doesn’t fit inside anymore. (smiles). It came from a piece from Andy Warhol, where he wrote it and then turned it around so you kind of can’t see it. I think Andy Warhol did it. I liked how he turned it around, so I did it. Also, I did a photo-shoot with Greg Gorman, I went to LA and we talked about styling and makeup. Now, I’m in this kind of situation where I do the music and already think about the visual concept and how I’m going to present it later….
DJ HELL’S NEW ALBUM WILL BE RELEASED IN FALL 2016.
Images: Courtesy of DJ Hell. (Title Image:Foto: Music by marina)