Interview: Ellen Allien

As a youngster, the BPitch Control label signified my introduction to electronic music. Modeselektor’s Happy Birthday and Hello Mom provided countless party anthems for me and my friends, and seeing them live was a downright revelation (champagne shower mosh pits, anyone?). 

Paul Kalkbrenner, Sacha Funke, Kiki, basically each and every single artist attached to BPitch helped forge my taste in electronic music. But one BPitch album especially blew my mind: ‘Orchestra of Bubbles’, a collaboration between Ellen Allien and Apparat. A musical journey; a fascinating collection of tracks that once and for all obliterated my skepticism towards the ability of electronic music to evoke emotions. This album made me feel, in ways I hadn’t felt before. An endless admiration for Ellen Allien was born, and only later did I find out she is actually the founder and manager of the BPitch Control label, responsible for the careers of so many of my favorite artists.

And it doesn’t stop there: she’s a DJ, producer, label manager, and even has her own clothing line. She holds residency at DC10 in Ibiza and Nitsa in Barcelona, tours the world doing shows, and has been doing so for some twenty years now. Obviously I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Ellen over Skype. What followed was an interesting conversation about post-war Berlin, the Ibiza lifestyle, running the Bpitch Control label, passion for music, and what defines talent.

“…everytime I do an interview in other countries…they always ask me ‘how is it to be a woman in this industry’?…but when I do an interview in Berlin, it’s normal that women are DJs making music, or doing other jobs which men are doing.

Good morning Ellen! How are you?
I’m good thank you, just a bit tired. I am based in Ibiza now and I like to sleep until late. I always need some time to wake up.

So you’re staying in Ibiza for the summer then?
Well I play often in Berlin as well, so I go back sometimes for a week or so, but mostly I am here since I play a lot of gigs here as I’m a resident at DC10. It doesn’t make sense to fly back and forth all the time. Also, I have a friend who works here, so for the summer I call Ibiza my home.

Do you miss Berlin?
In the summer I must say it’s nice to be close to the sea. In Ibiza, I’m not so creative. I wake up, I don’t think about my emails, I don’t really make music, I go out to drink a coffee, or to the sea. In the nighttime I go to the clubs to meet all the artists and listen to DJ’s, so life here is different for me. I would say it’s more clubbing, while in Berlin I work a lot. When I arrive in Berlin, after one week I want to go into the studio. It makes me very creative and concentrated. I think it’s good for me to have a different way of living in those two cities, otherwise I would work non-stop.

If you had to choose, would you consider yourself a stadtkind (city child) or a woman of the world?
Clearly from my character and my ideas, I am a Berliner. It’s the way I work, the way I treat people, the way I am, you know? But I travel non-stop, so I feel like a European moving forward and backward, but born in Berlin. Nothing else gives me the strength that Berlin gives me because of the freedom, also to work as a woman in this business, I think it’s different than in other cities.

In Berlin, this is not a subject – everytime I do an interview in other countries, like Spain, France, Japan, they always ask me ‘how is it to be a woman in this industry’, and whether I feel more like an artist or a businesswoman. These things always come up, but when I do an interview in Berlin it’s normal that women are DJs making music, or doing other jobs that men do. The emancipation in Berlin started after the second war, when they built the city up again. The structure of relationships in Germany between men and woman, there is no ‘gender-thing’, also in the gay scene. What you do doesn’t give you the answer to who you are – who you are gives the answer to what you do.

I read that after living in London for a while, you returned to Berlin just in time to see the wall fall. With the city open again, everything seemed possible – what effect did this have on you personally?
Well the fact is, as a child I grew up in a military system. When we were children, crossing the wall was very difficult, because they controlled your car with guns, you had to get out and they would check everything. I was always afraid. So when the wall came down, I was crying out of happiness, a huge weight fell off my shoulders. The second war is a very strong thematic for my mother and my grandmother. My mother was born in the second war, you know. When the wall fell, for me it was freedom. And then, I went to the east side (Ellen grew up in West Berlin), and I found so many new friends. I took my bike and checked everything out, it was like a new playground for young people in the underground. A friend of mine is a photographer, he’s called Ben de Biel and he has amazing pictures of this period, you should check it out! So it was crazy, everything changed. My life changed in the way that I now understood that the government can change everything from one day to the other if they want to. They can say, click, now we’re gonna shut down the car industry, because we created something else, and the industry is shut down, and a lot of people lose their jobs, just because they say so – you can’t control it. So for me, this chapter was good, because I had this new playground, and all these new clubs opened.

But on the other hand I learned that, okay, now it’s kind of a new Germany. Now we are the ones to create something. That’s why I started very early to do my own business, like starting a label, starting a booking agency. Just doing it by myself. When you have something in your mind, move on, in a structure of people you like to work with. In a way it gave me the energy to do it by myself, because there was space. There weren’t many labels yet, or agencies, there was no structure. The structure was just to survive, you know what I mean? DJ’s in Germany at that time were not travelling around a lot, we just played in Berlin. So the wall coming down gave me a lot of energy to do it by myself and I’m not afraid of anything, I just do what I want. The energy comes from yourself, not from what people say. You have to feel it, and create it in the way you feel comfortable with. Then the people can decide what they want to do with it.

So this feeling in Berlin, witnessing that moment, was essential for you to become the person you are?
Yeah, but it was also very crazy in the nineties, most of the people in the business were complete freaks. Some people maybe killed the techno vibe, because they made it really commercial, when it all came to the charts and became very big, and it was a mass of shit music. But there was this other group, doing their own labels, trying to present the music in the underground, so we had many different periods in Berlin. Strong periods, commercial periods, underground periods. The city had so many different periods of people with input in the scene, and where we are now, we’re trying to keep good music going in the clubs, and the gay scene is very strong. There are many new small clubs, and many new people doing things, so there is still space. I don’t know for how long, but it still feels like Berlin’s past for me. How the clubs are runned, how they open and close, so far it’s not really different to that period.

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