Photo by Michael Mann
Electronica label BPitch Control was founded in 1999; 13 years later, label head and dynamic DJ Ellen Allien's become as much of a Berlin institution as currywurst. Back in 2004, Allien chatted with Exberliner about her business, her lifestyle, and her hometown. She'll be at the label showcase at Watergate on April 28.
It's a sunny afternoon and at the Caras Coffee near Hackescher Markt there is a woman with very black hair and very pale skin sitting outside. She is instantly recognisable as Ellen Allien: beloved Berlin born and bred DJ, head of the BPitch Control record label, music producer, and sometime graphic and fashion designer.
Ellen is tired today (the tolls of travelling and life as a DJ) and just a little grumpy. She has a new mix CD out, My Parade, but she doesn't bring this up once (she's too clever or sleepy for brash self-promotion). She found a second wind to talk about the two things she loves most: Berlin and her music.
Two of your past albums were titled Stadtkind and Berlinette, so the city is obviously a huge influence for you. How has Berlin helped form your musical identity?
The thing is that I grew up in Berlin in the West. And everything changed after the Wall came down. I started listening to techno and electronic music because new clubs opened and it changed my life completely. Completely. And about three years after the Wall came down, when I was 16, I started going to electronic parties and I quickly started playing music myself.
Lots of people were coming to Berlin – now people come because it's cheap and they can live freely here but before more artists came, makers of things. They put new power into the city. And this changed my life, which I realised after about seven years after the Wall came down. A
nd my first album Stadtkind (City Child) was a reflection of how I had grown up. I grew up in the West, with big houses, my mother was working, and my father ran away when I was two. I was a city child, an urban child, and this I realised. But it took me years to reflect on who I was. I realised it also took me years as a woman to come out of the club in the morning and see everyone going to work yet I was going to sleep, and to feel okay about that.
You mean it took you a while to respect the life and culture you had chosen for yourself? You felt you were doing something wrong?
Yes, because it was nightlife, it was underground; it was playing to drug people. It was not easy to respect that part of my life, I was always thinking that maybe I am not doing the right thing, that I am choosing the wrong system and lifestyle for myself. And it took me years to respect that.
But after I started my label and made more things, I see that it's right. And now I see I am in a system I can live with and I am respected. And it's not only drugs – it's art.
Was creating your own label important to you in gaining some self-respect?
Yes and also by not working only as a DJ. I did radio, made records and I did this to build up my own name. And then I set up BPitch Control as a collective, and I felt much better. New people came in and then I had more power to respect what I am doing. I need the collective. I'm not the kind of person who wants to be a superstar at the front line, for me it's more important to feel safe surrounded by the group and to see that my life is professional.
Why did you name your albums after Berlin?
Stadtkind was a self-cleansing process. Stadtkind especially, but Berlinette, the title is more of a joke, because I was touring abroad so much and everyone always asked me about Berlin all the time – it was during the Berlin-hype – so I started to refer to myself as a Berlinette – here I am, your Berlinette.
Do you feel like an ambassador for Berlin, because people connect you so closely to the city?
Yes, they connect us a lot. Even with people that moved to Berlin, they say to me 'For me you were the real Berlin person' so, yes, I do feel like an ambassador. And, of course, we use this to market me, too. As a label we have no concept of one kind of music.
On BPitch everybody looks different and everybody makes different music and this, we push. And this is Berlin: to respect personality and celebrate differences. If you have tattoos up your arm, you can walk and nobody says 'Hey, you're a girl, why do you have tattoos?' and that is really Berlin, let people do what they wanna do. You feel very free here because a lot of new people came into the city.
And of course people know how it was before the Wall was there so they need that spirit of feeling free. They live twice as fast because of what has happened before.
Why do you think people can live so freely here?
First there is the Hitler shit and also the government pushes it. They let clubs and cafes open and they let you in the city very easily and quickly. They want it to be a tourist city, and we need tourists because the rest is completely down. It's all about getting money from restaurants and clubs, because there is no industry. No car industry, no nothing.
Right now Berlin is totally bankrupt!
Yeah, it's bankrupt. But it's from the East side also – the East side is completely fucked. But we get money from outside Germany. But the West Germans are always like 'Arrrrgh, why has the Wall come down, now we have to pay all this money and now Germany is fucked up' – I mean how stupid is that. Many artists have said this to me in the past. But this is not positive.
What is important is to build Berlin up. We'll see what will happen. It takes time. They say Berlin is bankrupt now but it was bankrupt 10 years ago. If you have to build a city up it takes time.
What if you had discovered music in a city like London? Would your music be totally different now?
If I had been in London or New York in the 1980s it would have been different because techno has its roots from political and new societal feelings. In Berlin it's very emotional because of our history and it happened at the same time that the Wall came down so it's very special for us; it's in our blood. And it changed us, and I don't know if it changed people like that elsewhere.
In England I know there were a lot of raves but the police stopped it. Also in France, they stopped it. Here, nobody stops it. It's still growing. And that's why a lot of new people are coming here to Berlin – a lot of the new clubs we have are from new Berliners because the government is not stopping it. In other countries they cut it but not here, so the new people keep on coming.
Are all the nationalities that are coming to Berlin adding anything to the music scene?
Before the character of Berlin was more alternative. Now it's changed a little bit because of all the people arriving. I think there is the creative side, people that come here to work, and then people that come here to consume. They sit in cafés all day and go to clubs.
How do you feel about areas like Mitte that have changed so much in the last five years, that have become very gentrified and trendy?
I live in Mitte, my office is in Mitte, I don't care. Before I lived in Friedrichshain, but then I changed to Mitte. I've seen a lot of shops opening and closing. For me I live here because it's easy for me.
Things always change, the weather changes, the feeling of the city changes. And you have to respect this. I feel very good living here. People that don't live here think Mitte is a bit snobby, but that's just the first picture they have. It's not true. I like it when people respect each other and don't worry about who's wearing what – I don't worry about things like that.
Would you call yourself a businesswoman?
Well, I don't take care of the business anymore at BPitch but if they make a mistake then we have discussions about that. But I don't want to be involved; I am more into my music right now. It's boring for me to be in the office. But we always have open discussions about things and decide together which way we should go.
I would say I am the Creative Head. And sometimes it's good because I am not there every day. I can see where they are going wrong and tell them. Sometimes they don't see it because they are there every day, and I can offer insight because I am more removed. But it's all about how we can give good energy to each other. And I am doing a lot of art graphics with them too.
But I am not like this chief that goes in and shouts at people in the office. I see it as a business but it's more about just how we can present our music in lots of countries, it's music for music lovers. It doesn't feel like hard business and if we have to do hard business, we give it to our lawyer. It feels more like a game. You put something in, you move this or that about, and you get something out.
So do you see yourself as a DJ first?
I'm a person who needs different things. I'm a DJ, I run BPitch Control, I make music with my producer, I make clothes, and this keeps me alive. If I make only one thing I get so tired.
What other artists do you like, apart from ones on your label?
I like Ricardo Villalobos, Miss Kitten, Acid Maria – many, many more.
What is the relationship like between record labels in Berlin? Is there much competition between BPitch and say, Kitty Yo?
No. I don't see this. Because for us it's not like this. If they want to be like this we just don't feel it. Maybe there are some people like this but after a while they learn that you can't be like this in Berlin. If you try and work against people then people will start laughing about you. Then you are out. They have to exchange and if you are not nice then you are out. People will start talking against you, and if you are not social, then that is not a Berlin thing and then you are out. It's not important to be in the group or something, it's more important to work with people.
Has that happened with any labels here?
Yes, but I can't say who. They learned after a while it's not good for them. Now they are nice but before when they first arrived they were talking a lot of shit. After a while they learned this is not the Berlin way. I hate it if I go somewhere and people start bitching to me about other people, I just say stop talking to me please. I don't want to hear it.
You spend a lot of time travelling – when do you get to come to Berlin?
I play in every country; I travel everywhere, America, Japan, all over. I have residencies in different countries. Then I come back to Berlin on weekends and whenever else I can. But I don't have much time for relaxing. Actually I'm really tired at the moment.
Has travelling influenced your musical style? Do you absorb a lot of the culture?
From every culture I get something. I listen to different DJs and get a feeling for the people in the clubs. I learn a lot and it's very interesting. If you travel a lot you see how small your own work is and how you are not so important. There are many, many people that are making it the same as you are.
What do you feel you are communicating with your music?
I'm a DJ; I have to communicate with my music. If I don't do that, everybody leaves. If I play my selfish music then no one can dance any more. I don't like selfish DJs, and there are a lot of them, trust me. My feelings of my life come out with technical equipment. This makes my music. It's a process of choosing the right equipment. You don't use the programmes, the programmes use you. And I work with this equipment to reflect my emotions.
You have a new mix CD out now called My Parade. Is it is easier to make mix CDs than it is to make a proper album of your own music?
I have thousands of records and choosing which ones to use is a long process. Some people say 'oh, she's making this mix CD to make money' but it's not like that. Making a mix CD is about keeping time on the format – to hold time like you do in a club. It's a reflection of the time, of now, and I hold it, and then I put those records away and I won't play them anymore.
How many records do you reckon you have?
God, I don't know. Thousands. Maybe 10,000.
What are you going to do today, after this interview?
Originally published in September 2004.