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De Profundis: In Conversation with DJ Hell

De Profundis: In Conversation with DJ Hell

This interview originally appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring of 2017.

Interview by Tony Wang. Photography by Greg Gorman.

Chances are you’ve danced all night to DJ Hell’s hypnotic visions at an after-hours and not even known it. Traversing a career of more than 30 years, he has disseminated and influenced movement after movement, from punk to techno through the new wave and into today. As one of the forefathers of disco electronic dance music, Hell instinctively creates new places for the genre to go. And now, with his new album Zukunftsmusik (Future Music), he is giving us his most ambitious release yet: a dive into what music will sound like in the future.

An apt synthesis of all Hell represents, the album is a juxtaposition of the dark and the light, the tension between past and future, and the inevitability of the fall for all that rises. Perhaps this dichotomy is nowhere better illustrated than with his name, which conjures the underworld for many, but also means “bright, light” in his native Germany. Though punctuated by nods to nostalgia, a favorite being 1980s synthpop references, the album as a whole never feels dated. The most popular piece will likely be the club-ready “I Want U,” with its lustful, entrancing beat reminiscent of those dark, Cold War-era rooms in Berlin, where dreamers rebelled from the waist down.

Of course, such imagery is only made more visceral by the corresponding video, illustrated by Tom of Finland. However, the real standout piece is “Army of Strangers,” with its ephemeral, rapturous sound. Hell’s experimentation with instrumentation in this track is greatly rewarding, recalling Matt Uelmen’s score for the video game Diablo II. The song’s shift from acoustic guitar to classical violin mirrors the song’s emotional progression from the desolate to the triumphant. Here, it is strangely evocative of the English Romantic artist John Martin’s haunting paintings, which convey similar feelings through different mediums.

In December 2016 Hell became the Virgil to our Dante as he recounted the history of his career, plotted against the evolution of electronic music itself, and explained where it all leads.

TONY WANG: Hi, this is Tony Wang for RAIN. How are you?

DJ HELL: I’m great. I’m just preparing a set to play in Munich.

TW: Nice. Are you playing tonight?

DJH: Yeah, it’s a small club. I play it every two or three months. It’s pretty good. All my friends are coming. You know, I live more or less in Munich. I was born here, so it’s always a special thing to play in your own town.

TW: It’s almost like a private party, but with lots of guests.

DJH: Yeah, we have had lots of parties there. In the beginning the owners were shocked because the people went crazy and they were not used to that. Normally, there were parties but not on that level!

TW: You’ve been in the business for quite a while, haven’t you? DJH: More than 30 years, yeah.

TW: I’m based in Berlin.

DJH: Are you from England? London?

TW: No, actually I’m from California.

DJH: Ah, right, you don’t have an English accent. Where in California?

TW: From the Bay Area, San Francisco.

DJH: I was there this year.

TW: Performing?

DJH: More partying… I can’t remember the club… Not many people. I was visiting California to meet the people from Tom of Finland.

TW: Oh, very cool.

DJH: It was to sign a contract and interview.

When I played in Belgium, Raf Simons would come to the parties,so one day I said, ʼRaf, you’re such a big music lover, and youreally go for this EDM stuff. Why not go into the studio with meand Terence and do your first track?ʻ He’s really a music loverand a genius when it comes to fashion. Why not use his genius for music, not just for fashion?

TW: You have such a storied past, starting as an electronic artist who was active before the Berlin Wall fell. I’d like to get a better understanding of your history— can you tell me more about your beginnings?

DJH: So, in the early days, I was pretty young—going to nightclubs when I was about 15. We would try to get inside by giving fake passports, or someone would know someone else who could get you inside. My friends and I were not happy about the music being played inside the clubs in the late ’70s. There was a lot of great punk music out there, and it wasn’t being played by the clubs. So we thought, “Why don’t we do our own event and play punk music?” It was the first time I started DJ-ing, but I wouldn’t call it that because I would just play my favorite songs.

I started traveling to London to buy the new records, because they weren’t available here in Germany. Those nights we played were pretty successful, they went by very quickly. So we kept going. We had no money and everybody had a small collection of records. We put all our records together for the night so we could have six or seven hours of music. After a couple of weeks, we started getting a lot of attention—a lot of managers and club owners saw what we were doing. I think it was ’79 or ’80 when I got my first real job working as a DJ. At that time we played different blocks of music for different scenes— there were the mods, the punks, and the goths. Then we had some soul, and there was early hip-hop already. In the ’80s, there was no house, though you had Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Ultravox, you know? The only thing we didn’t play was heavy metal.

TW: An eclectic mix. It’s interesting because you started in punk. Musical genres change over time, but punk remains a steadfast staple of musical subgenres. What do you think about punk today as a genre, or as a lifestyle, versus when you started out?

DJH: I agree with the lifestyle. Even in the early ’90s, the energy that was still there was from the punk movement—maybe more crazy. We tried to change the world and do something that had never been done before—to try to create our own new future.

You have to remember, in the ’80s, there was a period, when I was about 18 or 19, when the youth believed there was no meaningful future for our world. We lived in the present, we didn’t care about the future. When I read Orwell’s 1984, I felt there was nothing positive that could come from the future. I really believed in that, and I was not the only one.

TW: It’s fascinating. Having lived in Kreuzberg, Berlin, for the past two years, I can confidently say Berlin is one of the few cities with a very distinct culture that has the power to transform people who live here. The city’s attitude is strongly rooted in its Cold War history—that sort of hedonistic progressivism, which served as a counterpoint against oppression. It draws from the punk attitude— you do what you want and I do what I want.

DJH: Yes, especially in Berlin. Fight for your rights! Despite all the change going on in Berlin nowadays, it still believes in the same values we had. Berlin, especially Kreuzberg, was not a safe place in the ’90s. Even travel guides warned tourists not to stray there. Today it’s a very modern, international neighborhood.

People who were living in Berlin in the ’90s knew there was a big change coming when all the East Berliners arrived in the West part. I was lucky to be old enough to be there—to see a lot of concerts and go to the nightclubs. I got to play my part in shaping that culture. My first early experience was in ’91 at a club called Tresor. I was on tour with an English band called Nightmares on Wax, they were signed to Warp Records. Somebody asked me if I wanted to go on tour with them because they were in the Top 10 in the U.K. but relatively unknown in Germany. So I went on tour with them in Germany. It was pretty wild because it was new music—a new revolution. It was pretty intense.

TW: It’s amazing to trace the chronology of Berlin and to see so many of these musical “institutions” still around today. For example, I live close to the record store Hard Wax, which you used to work at. I go there from time to time.

DJH: Yes, I worked there in ’93. I was working as a buyer and seller. Hard Wax was the only direct distributor of vinyl from America—they were talking to the labels directly. They got all the new American techno releases first. Sometimes there were no preorders, so you really had to be in the shop at the right time to get the newest stuff before it sold out. I was lucky because I got to meet all the producers and DJs. That was a real push for my career. Suddenly, I had connections all over the world.

TW: Whenever I visit, I always get the sense that there’s so much talent for me to discover. Despite the modest size of the shop, I could get lost there for hours. Interestingly, 2016 was the first year in a long time that vinyl album sales overtook digital sales.

DJH: In the DJ world, there are more vinyls out in the record shops than ever. It’s a situation I never thought would happen, but all the new kids are really getting into the vinyl thing. Some producers only release their music on vinyl. Sometimes I have to ask these producers to send me the digital versions because they do limited releases of only 300 analog copies, and it’s gone if you’re not in the shop when it drops. Funnily enough, we were doing this in ’92. We didn’t sell to everybody because there was a limited amount of records. You had to wait, like, three months to get hold of the record.

TW: There’s something so precious about collecting them. More than just the improved quality of the format, there’s also a sense of nostalgia, of exclusivity, and of the sense that you’re a part of a connoisseurial niche that “gets it.” By virtue of the fact that it’s not digital, it feels more permanent and collectible. It builds a sense of community and connection.

DJH: I’ve been collecting vinyls from all over the world for more than 30 years. My collection was like a catalog—it didn’t matter whether it was a good release, I collected to have the perfect collection. On my release I will do a full support of vinyl for every song and remix. I would never limit myself to digital only, because I know what it’s like when you get into collecting vinyl. My house is full of vinyl. I would never sell it or give it away. There are so many important moments in my life connected by vinyl—it’s a part of my life.

TW: I’m interested in your involvement with the fashion industry—in particular, your past collaboration with Raf Simons, given how influenced you both were by your respective techno scenes in the ’90s.

DJH: I was connected with the fashion scene from day one. To me there was always a link between music and fashion. These days it’s pretty much understandable for everybody, but that wasn’t the case in the early techno days. I really got into the collections of Helmut Lang, and Raf Simons later on.

Raf was really into new, big electronic party music, and he really loved the hard stuff. He was a big follower of Terence Fixmer—he brought techno and EDM together. When I played in Belgium, near where Raf was living, he would come to the parties and ask me about the guest list, so one day I said, “Raf, you’re such a big music lover, and you really go for this EDM stuff. Why not go into the studio with me and Terence and do your first track?” He’s really a music lover and a genius when it comes to fashion. Why not use his genius for music, not just for fashion?

He agreed to do it, but his schedule was always too packed. Then he went to Dior while staying with his own label and attending a lot of art exhibitions. There was just no time. He was really interested in the idea, but he said he wanted to prepare. He didn’t want to go to the studio without an idea.

But you know, maybe one day, Terence, Raf, and I will meet in the studio to record that song. I played three shows for him. One was in Singapore, when he opened a flagship store and he asked me to do the catwalk music for the show. There was an after- party at a club, and there was another for a collaboration he did with Mercedes-Benz in Berlin. He’s a really good guy—we had a lot of good times together. I can always say great things about Raf Simons. I really like his work. I was really amazed by his first womenswear collection for Dior.

Music speaks directly to your brain and your soul. This album is something totally different from what I’ve done before. I want to go where no one has gone before. I want to touch new ground. I want to surprise myself—it’s the only way artists can go. We have to look into the future

TW: I bought a runway piece from his last womenswear show at Jil Sander—that was an outstanding collection. I don’t usually wear women’s clothing, but that’s just a “usually.”

DJH: Me, too [LAUGHS.]—not much.

TW: When you think of Raf Simons and his own brand, it’s much more streetwear and youth-culture oriented. There was something so vulnerable and romantic about that final Jil Sander collection, I just had to buy a piece—it was like owning a piece of history. Now he’s over at Calvin Klein. Do you think there’s any possibility of working with him again, or is something already in the works?

DJH: Thanks for reminding me! That’s right, he’s at Calvin Klein now. I should send him my new album, Zukunftsmusik, which is coming out in April. He’s one of those guys I listen to and really respect, even if it’s critical feedback.

I stopped studio work for the new album about two weeks ago and I’m still kind of in a weird, trippy situation. You work so long and intensely that you forget about the outside world. I’m happy with the final touches and how the album sounds. This is a new step in my producing career and my music world.

TW: Let’s talk about your recent work. I would love to learn more about your new album.

DJH: A lot of artists try to explain why they did things one way versus another. But I think it’s better that people listen to my music directly and form their own interpretation. Some people will not understand it, others may dislike it because it’s not what they expected. Ultimately, my music could only have been that one way because it’s me—all my DNA is there.

TW: I can appreciate that sentiment. It’s important to allow your fans to have their own interpretations.

TW: I can appreciate that sentiment. It’s important to allow your fans to have their own interpretations.

n today’s age of commoditized creativity, so many artists issue very detailed, explicit statements regarding their work, especially in fashion. But then you have some brands that do the opposite so well, such as Comme des Garçons. Rei shrouds her work in mystery and lets her fans go crazy trying to figure it out.

DJH: I like that.

TW: What about the wider universe of ideas that feeds into the album? 

DJH: There are so many different inspirations. For example, I wrote a song about the hanky code in gay culture. To an outsider, the lyrics read like a love song, but it’s definitely not if you listen closely. Now, I’m not gay, and that’s something everybody asks me—“Why do you focus so much on gay culture?” In my album, I pay tribute to the early days of disco and house, to Paradise Garage in New York or The Warehouse in Chicago, and all those other early house clubs. These clubs were patronized heavily by the gay community and the DJs were mostly gay, so I pay a big tribute to gay culture because they strongly influenced my career as a DJ and a producer.

TW: You’re right—gay culture, club culture and techno music are very much linked.

DJH: Think about Berghain. Tourists are very attracted to it and everyone wants to be there, but it was originally a gay sex party.

TW: Right, Snax. It’s incredible how these cultural scenes enter the mainstream consciousness from such small communities. They start out in places of social alienation, such as with you and the early punk scene, until they get exposed by the mainstream. It reminds me of the 2013 Met Gala, which focused on punk’s influence on fashion.

DJH: Did it?

TW: I remember one of the criticisms was that they had all these celebrities come to the gala and pay homage to punk. Even though many of them had the visual trappings of punk, everything they represented was the antithesis of punk.

It’s ironic. These subcultures start out as safe spaces for people who feel like they don’t belong elsewhere. In a weird way, many of them become the gatekeepers of mainstream culture, because the works they produce come from such a place of passion and inspiration that everyone else wants to be a part of it. Now you have all these people who want to go to Berghain and then get frustrated when they don’t get in and they don’t understand what the spirit of these places is like.

DJH: I heard that the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood burnt all his punk memorabilia.

TW: Yeah, burned it all.

DJH: I think it’s kind of radical that he burnt all the original punk memorabilia from his mother and father. It’s a big statement and I immediately thought about the band The KLF when they burnt £1 million. It’s an artful way of doing it, but it’s very radical. I wouldn’t burn all my records or my clothes just to make a statement.

TW: I know that politics play a role in the conceptualization of your music. Given the surprisingly meteoric rise of populism across the world this year, how do you reflect that in your music?

DJH: It’s a strange world we’re living in today. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Maybe, with this album, I can bring some much-needed love and emotional catharsis. I play at parties for, like, half the year, and it’s very easy to not think about the outside world. I felt very disconnected this year. How can the world keep repeating the same mistakes again and again, especially in Europe?

I am not sure what 2017 will bring. But if I can bring back some hope and belief in a good world, I will be happy with that. It’s not like the ’80s, when I didn’t believe in the future. It’s the opposite, there will be a future. I don’t want to give out specific messages—I’ll let the music do that. We’re an army of strangers.

TW: Love and hope are powerful emotions, and music has a profound ability to convey that in a way that so many art forms can’t. It’s a great goal.

DJH: Music speaks directly to your brain and your soul. This album is something totally different from what I’ve done before. The first single, “I Want U,” is not representative of the rest of the album. It’s the only song made for clubs. The rest of the 12 songs come from a more personal place. It’s definitely from my brain, soul, and heart.

I played the tracks to some really good friends and they said, “Oh, it’s really experimental.” I never thought of it that way. To me, it’s like Kraftwerk and their concept of alltags music, which means everyday music. It’s the kind of music you can listen to every day to get into a good mood or an optimistic kind of flavor.

TW: It sounds like, in some ways, that this album is a departure from what fans might expect, but in other ways it’s just a continuation of your musical evolution.

DJH: I want to go where no one has gone before. I want to touch new ground. I want to surprise myself—it’s the only way artists can go. We have to look into the future. What will electronic music sound like in five years or 10 years? Some songs may sound retro, but for me the album is future music. That’s the name of the album—Future Music. This is my future. If it’s the future of many people, I would be very satisfied.

TW: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times but I wanted to hear the story from you. The name DJ Hell seems paradoxical, especially with this new album’s theme of love and hope. Where did the name come from?

DJH: My real name is Helmut. I’ve tried for 30 years to answer this question in a different direction every time. It’s a catchy artist name, and “hell” in German means “light, bright.” In English, hell is Lucifer—it’s darkness, it’s the end of the world, whatever. I also like people to think that I’m a hellish kind of guy. Some of my music in the ’90s was really dark—Detroit techno. There was a dark power going out of my music at the time. Very dark, very powerful, very punk. A lot of people ask me why I don’t go back in that world again.

TW: I’ve listened to some of your older works, and I was also expecting something very rough, the kind of heavy atmosphere that I associate with Berlin nightclubs.

DJH: Two of the tracks are very dark, super-heavy. When I listen to it, I’m scared myself. I told everybody in the studio, “No one wants to listen to a song like that again.” Listen to it. You will know when you hear it. Darkest stuff I’ve ever done.

TW: You can’t have light without dark.

DJH: True. Listen to the album— you will understand immediately. Maybe that will help more than all this talking.

TW: I think that’s the only way to get a better understanding. Words are artificial. They’re symbolic, and the work… Well, the work is the work, and you have to experience it to truly understand.

DJH: Yeah, think about Martin Margiela. He never gave interviews and it’s impossible to find photos of him. But when he released his first collection there was this letter that he wrote with his team about the new collection, and I loved it. When I read it, I understood everything perfectly—but he never explained anything again, and he was never front stage. He never did interviews. It was kind of magical. He said it once and that was it. I was really inspired by that as well.

TW: His approach to branding is easily one of my biggest influences as well.

DJH: And there’s this new guy at Balenciaga who is doing very well.

TW: Ah yes, Demna Gvasalia from Vetements.

DJH: Exactly. He is getting lots of attention. I love his work at Vetements, and especially Balenciaga. I was thinking about buying some of the SS17 Balenciaga pieces for my performances. The big shoulder pads. I love that.

TW: I’ve been collecting some Vetements pieces. Intellectually interesting stuff. I can’t wear it at all.

DJH: I think it’s really amazing, but Margiela is the king of all kings. I tried to get closer. I tried to work with him. It was too late, though—he stopped. He was absolutely number one.

TW: Margiela’s aesthetic and approach have certainly influenced many creative disciplines.

DJH: Everything. The shops, the press, the lack of press, his collections. He was the master.

TW: That silent, almost mystical undertone to his work. It was empowering to his fans. You didn’t need some corporate message about how to think, you just had to think for yourself. I liked that. That was beautiful.

DJH: I like that very much, too. I would like to be the same way, but you’re already interviewing me. Kraftwerk and Daft Punk also don’t say much. I’m really behind this kind of approach—maybe this is how I should go, too.

TW: There’s not enough of that kind of mystery in this world. Everyone is on social media, trying to demystify everything right away. Sometimes that mystery is more powerful.

DJH: You know what? Why don’t I send you a copy of the new album? Not in two months before it launches, but like right now. I created some unmastered copies for friends and I have some left. It would be too much to explain everything. Keep it mystical.

Zukunftsmusik is out on April 28 on International Deejay Gigolo.
Tony Wang is an art and digital director. He is currently the director of content at SSENSE, Montreal. Instagram: @luxomancer

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