“The most important thing to keep on going is to always find new angles and new opportunities, I don’t want to repeat everything so I’m always looking for new directions. I’ve achieved that with this album, I think I’ve made some very different music.”
Sitting in a cosy Berlin bar on a cold late winter evening, DJ Hell admits he’s excited about the prospects for his new double album Teufelswerk, both from his own feelings and those of journalists reviewing promo copies. Such as Guardian music critic Tony Naylor, who’s recent review dubbed Hell a ‘shining example to pop stars long past their best’.
“Many of you will find the idea that DJ Hell has made one of the best albums of 2009 (yes, already) utterly ludicrous. I know. I can hardly believe it myself,” said Naylor, ditching whilst recognizing the hostility Hell has long attracted.
“But, prepare to be amazed,” he continues, “because Teufelswerk – a 17- track opus, split between ambient Day and jackin' Night tracks, which arrives on 27 April – is one of the most ambitious and cogent dance music albums of, well, all time. Seriously.”
In email interviews Hell is typically brusque and mono-syllabic though in person, he’s loquacious and enthusiastic and clearly still just a touch sensitive to the criticism he attracts,
“One Berlin magazine recently dissed (disrespected) me, they said I’m not cool, for two reasons, both of which were wrong,” he complains, “They said I’d come to Berlin too late, that I’d come in 2003 and I’d missed the best times but actually I lived her in 1993 when everything started. I was working in a record shop,” he sighs.
“I was sitting there thinking about why they didn’t like me. They did a top 100 un-cool people in Berlin story and I was number forty- something. A friend of mine sent me the link but then I checked out the other un-cool people and there were a lot of great people included, artists and fashion designers that I really liked.
I was also recently named as ‘Best dressed man’ in a list for Vanity Fair, I was number 4. And I was thinking ‘why am I number 4, how can I become number 1?’ he laughs, “But a lot of people thought it wasn’t cool for me to cooperate with Vanity Fair, as a techno DJ.”
New album Teufelswerk includes a stellar cast of collaborators including P Diddy, Antony Rother, Peter Kruder and Roxy Music’s legendary singer Bryan Ferry, a man Hell’s more than happy to admit he idolizes.
“He’s one of the greatest living singers of all time. I still can’t quite believe that I worked with him,” Hell admits.
Meeting Ferry several years ago to pitch him idea for songs, Hell started by presenting his more Roxy style ‘jazzy sombre songs’ though was delighted when he instead loved his P Diddy collaborations Jack U and Let’s Get Ill.
“I was totally surprised because I hadn’t planned to play them to him because they were more modern techno tunes, not from the Bryan Ferry world, but then he reacted and said he had an idea to use a song he did with Dave Stewart in the 90s which was never released,” he says.
“He told me he’d like to give me the song to work it out and that song was ‘U Can Dance’. I went back to Berlin and worked on it though never thought it would be on this album but after a lot of discussions we’ve sorted it out. I’m incredibly happy to do that and the highest level I reached was when Ferry said he loved it. And then he gave me the rights to use it on my album.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): The album’s being acclaimed as your best by far,was it in any way different from making your previous albums?
DJ Hell: “I think I worked on this album fore more than 30 years in some ways because I applied all my knowledge from all sorts of musical styles and genres to it. I brought everything together to the highest level possible, with the best studios and producers. I’m 46 now. There were many things I discovered during the process of making it such as classical music and early minimal music from Steve Reich, for example.
I never explored these areas before. I think, and hope there’s my special touch on the album too. In the past I was finding inspiration from the 80s, listening to hip-hop music and electro and early acid house, but I went back to the 70s this time.
I decided the 80s had been touched too much and were finished for me so I also explored areas such as Kosmiche music and even Roxy Music.”
Skrufff: How did the Roxy Music connection come about?
DJ Hell: “The idea emerged three years ago when they were releasing Roxy Music remixes. I was involved in that process as the initial idea was to use Berlin producers such as Tiefschwarz and M.A.N.D.Y. who lived here now, Fetisch, even the Ricardos and the Richies: the Berlin sound on top of the Roxy Music sound. I was already considered part of this Berlin sound because Gigolo is based here, as I am. I’ve updated my music a lot and it’s also been influenced by Berlin a lot too: I call it house music now, because we’re not allowed to talk about minimal anymore (chuckling).
Skrufff: Bryan Ferry is infamous for being a studio perfectionist, did he give you carte blanche on the track?
DJ Hell: “Yeah, he did. After I played him the Puffy tracks he said ‘I want something like that’ and I had to interpret that guidance. I was even surprised to have the possibility to work on a remix so this was the highest accolade for me. What’s the next level?”
Skrufff: David Bowie?
DJ Hell: “I hope so. That’s not easy though, I tried to talk to Bowie for the last album. There was a little communication with the manager, they were basically asking me what I wanted. I’d made an enquiry saying I want to do something with David Bowie and they replied ‘yeah, but what exactly?’ Do you want to design some sunglasses’. Bowie’s doing a lot of great innovative projects outside the music business.
He’s quiet in terms of new releases but busy with lots of other projects. I said I want to do a song, they asked me to present a song.
I was pushing to arrange a meeting, to talk to him one on one to try and catch his attention through this new sound.
Bowie made all this early electronic music when he was living here in the 70s with Iggy Pop. At the Hansa studios. I still hear stories from people who met him. He’s the man. Maybe he’d like this new sound but I don’t know how he’d see it. He’s a very intelligent guy, all his moves were genius. He was always far ahead. But he never really jumped into this club sound. I’d love to grab his attention, I’d be happy to work with him one day but I don’t know what his world is looking like.”
Skrufff: U Can Dance is almost 10 minutes long, and Puff Daddy goes on about playing 15 minute tracks on his rap, why did you make a 9 minute track with Bryan Ferry?
DJ Hell: “There’s a radio edit that’s 4 minutes long. The original version was 13 minutes and I was pushing everyone in the studio saying ‘please, we have to reduce it to less than 10 minutes.’ I was aiming for a seven minute version but the way it’s ended up is that it has two parts, with the vocals then it goes more in a modern Detroit direction, it’s hard to describe. It’s still Ferry but it’s not. And it still works in the clubs. It’s Ferry with my touch and shows him with a new side. Maybe we’ll do a video, I’m not sure yet.”
Skrufff: You’re running a label, DJing, producing, and travelling non- stop, how are you prioritising and keeping on going year after year?
DJ Hell: “This lifestyle of making music, travelling and running the labels becomes a 24 hour a day lifestyle so the most important thing for me is that it shouldn’t feel like I’m working. I want to keep on doing things I like because this is my life. I’ve decided to do this until the end of my days and if it started feeling like I had to do it because I needed the money or for some other reasons I wouldn’t do it.
I’d try and be a soccer coach. I still very much enjoy being in the music industry and working with Bryan Ferry for example, I’ve reached a level I never dreamed would be possible. My question already is, what’s the next step, where can I go after this album.”
Skrufff: What is the next level?
DJ Hell: “I always dreamed about doing my own movie, featuring all these freaks I’ve worked with over the years, great artists from New York, Berlin and all over the world. And the soundtrack is already done, with all the Gigolo releases. People like Amanda Lepore and Fischerspooner are such great characters.”
Skrufff: What happened to Amanda Lepore, she’s no longer your Gigolo logo?
DJ Hell: “We had a four year arrangement which I offered to her. I had trouble in the past using Arnold Schwarzeneger and also some people were unhappy with Sid Vicious, then when Amanda came along most people were confused because she was unknown here in Germany. They were all thinking ‘who’s this freaky looking girl’. I really like her and immediately thought she fitted perfectly for Gigolo and the music we were doing at that time. She was involved in lots of things, press shots, with me, I was licking her knee on some of them (smiling). Now we have the (Sex Pistols) naked cowboy logo. Lots of young people don’t know where it comes from. We changed it so we had the rights to use it. On the new Gigolo logo the left character is Iggy Pop and the right side is David Bowie.”
Skrufff: London’s old electroclash club Nag, Nag, Nag also used that logo five years ago?
DJ Hell: “Atomizer? Yeah. I told them to use it. It was originally my idea, they didn’t like it at all but I said ‘this is cool, this will look good on the cover’. They understood though I think they would have been happier if I’d put them on the cover. I was really pushing the cowboy image at the time. The Atomizer song ‘Hooked On Radiation’
was a genius production by the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty then even later the Pet Shop Boys offered a remix for free, they just made it themselves.
I was already dreaming about a top ten entry because the song was great. I thought there was a chance if the KLF supporters had got behind it. It was a cool song and it sounded a little like What Time Is Love so I was really trying to push it to the UK but it never worked out.”
Skrufff: Why do you think electroclash attracted such hostility?
DJ Hell: “It still does. Maybe it was the last real hype about a musical genre. If you think of all the hyped genres that have followed, they’ve all died immediately. Take new rave for example, I was really struggling to remember its name in another interview which shocked me. I was shocked by the reaction of all the magazines in Germany in 2005 and 2006, they all jumped on ‘new rave’ as the next big thing. Even great art magazines and cool music magazines did cover stories about it which completely shocked me because I knew that for the first time this hype was not about the music any more. It was about anything else: how you dressed, whatever. There were all kinds of DJs playing ‘new rave’ and you couldn’t really grab it any more in any meaningful way. There was no musical direction involved whereas with electroclash there was.
Suddenly all these bands who were tossed into this new rave hype were distancing themselves from it, saying ‘we’re not part of this’. So even as the magazines were talking about it as the next big thing it was already dying.
With electroclash there was a lot of attention, it was crazy and I think we put a lot of great records out at that time, Gigolo was the label that reflected electroclash then. But we weren’t pushing it too much because a lot of people started jumping on it really early. I remember in 2002 I released a record by the Twins, that was early italo-trash-new wave electro-pop whatever and I said ‘this will be the last record we’re releasing in this direction’.”
Skrufff: How was electroclash perceived in Germany?
DJ Hell: “The electroclash sound never touched many people here in Germany, they didn’t embrace the sound, it got popular everywhere else but not in Germany- and never in Berlin. When Too Many DJs play in Berlin they usually play to quite small venues for say a thousand people, when they play anywhere else they usually play to 20,000 people. LCD Soundsystem never got much attention here either. Here rock music was never connected with the DJ world and dance music, house or techno history. So it didn’t work out here at the time when electroclash was in the spotlight.
Even now in 2009 there’s a lot of people who say they’re making electro-rock and I listen to it and think ‘this is so 1998’. I saw Metronome yesterday and I liked it, the video and song were good but maybe I would call it New Electroclash’. But it’s good it works with the same feeling and formula. What was also funny about new rave was that when it was big they used all these bands who were already associated with electroclash. I was working with the Presets for example when suddenly they were no longer considered electroclash, but were straight into new rave. I even have a hard time to remember what was the hype of 2008, or last summer. Maybe there wasn’t a hype?”
Skrufff: The latest hyped genre in London is ‘new disco’ . .
DJ Hell: “Oh right, sorry.”
Skrufff: It’s even smaller than new rave . . .
DJ Hell: “Much smaller than new rave. A lot of people talk about disco and I would agree there are some good disco edits, but if you take italo-disco for instance, we already did that in the 90s. If I was playing this kind of music now. I’d feel old.”
Skrufff: What do you see as the future of music today?
DJ Hell: “I don’t know what’s the music of the future. When we were producing techno music in the 80s and 90s it was always the music of the future, it sounded futuristic. Maybe the future is to work with Bowie and Ferry and to put them into more club orientated techno environments. Whatever you call it.”
Skrufff: Let me ask about your Ford Mustang . .
DJ Hell: “It’s parked right outside. . . “
Skrufff: Cars have been blown up in Berlin recently, what’s your take on that, presumably it’s connected to the global economic crisis?
DJ Hell: “This has nothing to do with the Depression, cars have been set on fire for years in Berlin. It’s an anarchist thing, they burn these rich people’s cars, such as BMWs and Mercedes cars as a protest against all these outsiders with lots of money moving to Berlin and destroying the system here. In a way it’s true that monthly rents have risen, as have the prices of coffees in coffee shops. Everything has gone up in price but these outsiders can afford it because to them it’s still cheap. It is cheap still but it was even 50% lower 10 years ago.
This is about people from Berlin who lived here and see the radical changes and they’re not happy about it. Bono from U2 said in a magazine interview recently that Berlin is a Mecca for a new generation and I like the way he’s saying that. I understand what he’s saying and maybe he’s right. People say they feel a certain energy when they walk around Berlin and I agree, it’s true, but having said that, there was a lot of energy ten years ago and also 20 years ago.
The changes are so radical now, I still think about it. I lived here in the 90s and I’m still here.
Some of the changes are good, but a lot I can’t agree with, such as shutting down airports (Tempelhoff recently closed), which of course is important to me personally as I’m using them two or three times a week. All these new buildings are also an issue. I don’t see any great new buildings, most of them are ugly. Why is nobody taking risks and designing original new buildings or even renovating some of the old buildings instead of destroying them.”
DJ Hell’s Teufelswerk is out shortly on Gigolo Records.
Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)