GREATEST / Ellen Allien
The ‘Berlinette’ DJ and producer on out-of-this-world techno and the momentum behind her nearly 30-year career.
At the height of the pandemic, Berlin-based DJ and producer Ellen Allien kept herself and hundreds of thousands in isolation across the globe sane with her weekly Balcony Streaming series. Spinning live high-octane DJ sets from her home in the German Hauptstadt, backdropped by the city’s iconic Fernsehturm (TV Tower), was just one of the ways the techno producer and label head maintained her creative momentum throughout the lockdown.
Since founding her BPitch Control label in 1999 and subsequent UFO Inc. imprint in 2018, Allien has offered a platform to some of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming electronic artists. In nearly the same time frame, Ellen released nine solo albums inspired by her interest in darkwave compositions and groovy, uplifting techno. Beyond producing her own dreamy, out-of-this-world music and in-between the odd fashion collaboration, Ellen brings her extraterrestrial party series We Are Not Alone to cities worldwide, sometimes throwing 36-hour-long raves.
Emerging on the other side of the pandemic, Ellen is as optimistic as ever and ready to return to clubs and dancefloors in Berlin and around the world, taking her place where she feels most at home once more: behind the decks.
How did you first discover electronic music and get introduced to techno?
I heard Kraftwerk's “Das Model” for the first time on the dance floor at a teenager’s club when a DJ was mixing it with Neue Deutsche Welle and Michael Jackson; stuff from the charts mixed with bits from the past. “Das Model” had already been out for years, but it was my first time hearing it and I couldn’t believe it. I was so perplexed by all those sounds.
I went to the DJ and asked him what the track was because I was so amazed at how this song transported me to a different dimension. The song tells a story of a model and her life, which really opened my world to the element of fantasy and imagining things I wasn’t aware of. From that moment on, my ears were changed forever. That was the first dancefloor experience with electronic music that really connected my body and my brain, an experience led by the presence of a very prominent synthesizer.
When the [Berlin] Wall came down in 1989, really cool clubs started opening in warehouses and news of parties spread by word of mouth. In 1992 I went to an acid house party and then to a techno club for the first time. It was the people and the sense of community that really pulled me in and made me realize that this is where I wanted to be. Funnily, back then, I thought the music was too fast for me. I didn't understand how I could move my body to it. I loved the atmosphere at these early parties: the outfits, the people, the presence and place for the queer community. When the [Berlin] Wall came down in 1989, really cool clubs started opening in warehouses and news of parties spread by word of mouth.
There were a lot of parties happening in industrial areas of the city we’d never been to; we’d bike there, under bridges and underpasses, unsure of where we were actually going. The type of electronic music was a new phenomenon in the city and a lot of exciting events were happening in the East when the Wall fell. I felt like a cowboy in the East, finding out about the people and the new club scene and bars because I was always in the West, cut off from that part of Berlin.
What was it like growing up in West Berlin when the Wall was still up, and how did the party scene bloom when the Cold War came to an end?
In the West of Berlin, I always felt like I was in a cage surrounded by the Wall. When it fell, I felt a rush of freedom and happiness. I was very depressed at the state of things after the Second World War and with the presence of the military. There were a lot of tests and military training sessions happening in the forest nearby, so I could often hear weapons being fired. There was no way of escaping the military’s presence. When the military finally left, the freedom felt throughout the city was incredible; the East and West were united and techno became the music of the time.
I started going to clubs four times a week. It was a meeting point for the new generation to reconnect with their city, find friends and look towards an exciting future. From there, I started DJing in bars and clubs, started a radio show, and in 1995 I put out my first record, which became a huge hit. I lived in a squat for five years where I made a lot of music, played saxophone, drums and studied acrobatics. In that time, I learned and found my own way to live my desires and passions through music.
A club started pushing me to become a DJ and play their club nights regularly, so I did and I had a lot of fun. But I didn’t want to be a DJ and back then, it wasn’t a good job to have or something people even wanted to do. Eventually, my hobby became my job.
What is it about techno that drew you in and has had you hooked ever since?
I love the community the most. I met all my friends over the last 20 years at techno parties. For me, it’s a meeting point where all the people I want to talk to and have exchanges with come together. I love this radical attitude that involves ditching normal life and switching things up in favor of the party. I'm also a very physical and sporty person and techno is perfect for this! I like the techno I play to sound a little bit abstract and industrial, mixed with nice melodies that uplift the people on the dance floor and allow them to connect to a dream world.
You started the BPitch Control label in 1999 and your second label, UFO Inc., which is described as an “incubator for rough, raw techno” in 2018. How have you used the two labels to platform the techno scene’s rising stars and hidden talent?
I started running events in 1996 in rented industrial places like warehouses, which don’t exist anymore. Back then, we rented a good sound system, found a location and just threw a rave. Often, people would come up to me and give me demo cassettes of their music. Eventually, I wanted to start putting some of it out, which led to BPitch Control.
Back then, we sold so many records, but we were kind of doing it blindly; we didn’t know how to run a label and everything was blowing up quickly. We made a lot of mistakes, lost a lot of money, but we signed a lot of incredible artists. In 2000, I started DJing internationally and met so many people from different countries and upcoming artists from outside networks. I wanted to release their music too, so the labels just grew and grew, along with my career.
I started going to clubs four times a week. It was a meeting point for the new generation to reconnect with their city, find friends and look towards an exciting future.
Your discography, which is split between releases on BPitch Control and UFO Inc., spans nine albums alongside a handful of singles and remixes. Several releases and even your artist name give a nod to all things extraterrestrial and out of this world. What’s your relationship to fantasy?
The inspiration for my albums comes from which synthesizer I decide to use and what my general hardware setup will be. From there, I start writing lyrics and play with my voice a lot because I want to use my music to tell a story and leave space for fantasy. I want to ensure that people can dream through my music and engage with a world beyond themselves.
Where do you find inspiration for an upcoming DJ set or a new record?
I think the dance floor influences me a lot. I like to watch how people dance and how they react to specific sounds. I love darkwave too, so I play a lot of my favorite darkwave tracks that I’ve remixed and made techno edits out of. I love to bring that music to the club because nobody knows what's going on. I'm trying to create an experience that inspires me and the people on the dance floor.
I always focus on very elegant and melodic basslines, mixed with some harder style techno. I have an ear for very strong bass drums and beat structures, but always paired with melodies. I'm not very minimalistic. The hardware and software I work with inspire me a lot too, and in my daily life, I write songs that stem from feelings transported somewhere else. All of my music tells a story.
The BPitch Control party series that took place in the early to mid ’00s was where many people from the city were introduced to partying and heard electronic music for the first time. What prompted you to start your more recent party series, We Are Not Alone?
We started the We Are Not Alone party series with a new Berlin club, Revier Südost [formerly Griessmuehle] and remain committed to inviting an exciting crew of underground techno artists. The upcoming second edition of the We Are Not Alone compilation is based on techno and darkwave artists like Rosa Anschütz, Karl Kave, Metaraph, Brutalismus 3000 and more.
There will also be a magazine and an exhibition illustrating the diversity of the concept.
What’s the longest party you’ve ever thrown?
The longest one so far was a We Are Not Alone party that ran for 35 hours. Living in Berlin, we have the opportunity to run parties that go for 30 hours non-stop, so why wouldn’t we throw a party that goes for two days?
You’ve been DJing since you could mix two records together. How has your approach to DJing and producing evolved during this time? You’ve mentioned previously that what you play now is very similar to what you played when you first started out and that you’re still inspired by similar sounds.
I still have the records that I played back then but my style has changed: melodic, fast techno with vocals on top. But the attitude, the reason why I'm DJing, and how I'm communicating my musical style, that hasn’t changed. Sometimes I play techno from the ’90s and I feel those days rushing back to me. I like to maintain my freedom as an artist by running my own platforms, parties, labels and so on. I don't let people put me in a cage; I just do my own thing. I’m part of a certain crowd and I’m influenced by other artists, but I choose who's influencing me. I maintain my freedom so I don’t have to make compromises. That attitude and approach to music have stayed with me throughout my entire career.
When the clubs shuttered during the pandemic, your Balcony Sessions series, which was streamed from your Berlin home via Instagram Live, became a weekly highlight for those stuck in isolation. How did the idea come about?
One Sunday, during the early days of the pandemic, I was feeling very down so I asked my flatmate if he wanted to dance with me. We put on some nice records, set up an Instagram Live and decided to share the experience with those online too. Recording those sessions was so much fun; we just laughed and drank and played nice music for ourselves and for those who tuned in.
The next weekend we had people over social media asking us to do it again, so we did another one and another, and another and, well, we did many. The reaction was really surprising and I’m glad we could do something for people stuck at home while the clubs were shut and the world was at a standstill. Coming together during those times was really important and I’m looking forward to finally connecting with everyone back in the club, in real life, two years later.