DJ Hell Interviewed
, June 30th, 2009 12:02
For the first in a new series of articles exploring the ongoing experiments in modern German music we talk to DJ Hell about his fine new album Teufelswerk.
It has never occurred to me before to think about how old Helmut Josef Geier aka DJ Hell is. He looks clean cut and fresh faced on photographs. (In fact he looks clean cut and fresh faced when I meet him decked out in impeccably neat fashionista clothing at ease in his large room in an opulent but discrete London boutique hotel.) It certainly never occurred to me when first hearing of him as part of the Electroclash scene in the mid-90s, or as the founder of the cool and well respected International DJ Gigolos label or as the boss responsible for releasing crunchy original material by Jeff Mills, Miss Kitten/The Hacker and Christopher Just as well as reissuing old school nuggets like ‘Shari Vari’.
Perhaps it should have after hearing his excellent and timely Ellboy disco compilation in 2007. The mix, which drew together tracks by the likes of Cerrone, Alexander Robotnick and Trans X, stood out as a sublime counterpoint to the snotty nosed neuveau disco-likes of Glass Candy/Italians Do It Better coming through in the States. Of course his mix spoke of someone who had grown up with and cut his teeth on disco, rather than experienced it second hand. Helmut, born in 1962, has lived through more dance music than most contemporary figures in club culture.
But in many respects dance music stands opposed to rock music - which doesn’t rely on, and in fact suffers greatly in the face of obsessive librarianship. Hell’s teenage grounding in the most utopian of 1970s musical genres and first hand understanding of its pleasure seeking/nihilism creating polarity, has stood him well. From early singles such as ‘My Definition Of House Music’ to 1998’s acid techno state of the nation address Munich Machine and beyond to NY Muscle in 2004.
Whereas the latter album certainly exists as one that initially had listeners nodding mutedly in approval on first listen, only giving up the full extent of its not inconsiderable charms with many replays, his recent album Tuefelswerk (or Devil’s Work) almost immediately screams ‘end of year best of lists’ at anyone who hears it. On first glance it could seem like a grand folly (a double album split into ‘night’ and ‘day’ segments featuring Bryan Ferry and P Diddy on vocals? Eh?) but it is anything but.
The track ‘U Can Dance’ is certainly the best thing Mr Ferry has been involved in, in many a year and sounds not unlike Roxy Music MKI making house music; that it is a success is almost certainly down to Hell’s utter respect for the man’s legacy and his understanding of his back catalogue. ‘The DJ’, another single waltzes giddily like a ballerina with a head injury between the almost hilarious sound of Sean Combes excitedly demanding the DJ play longer mixes and bigging up the few people in the room who are high enough to be into the 20 minute platters that are being spun and Hell’s insistent techno throb.
Elsewhere he nods towards his ‘Krautrock’ heritage on ‘Germania’ and ‘Electronic Germany’, specifically to Kraftwerk, Manuel Gottsching, Harmonia and Tangerine Dream.
For the first of our new series of columns looking at German music, innovation and modernity we decided to catch up with Hell to shoot the shit . . .
The new album was five years in the making and has obviously had a lot of time and effort spent on it. Was it a stressful experience for you?
DJ Hell: “It was stressful. At one point I reached my limit. I couldn’t go any further. I remember being in the studio we really pushed the limit. I was very tired but I pushed on. I knew it was a very important point in my career so I pushed it and pushed it and did the album as best as I could. Now I can say it’s the best album I’ve ever done and that I’m quite happy about it. I’m happy about how it’s turned out, about the guest musicians, about the sound, about what I’d tried to say. It’s come out great.”
So why a double album? Because not all of the tracks are immediately and clearly divisible into night and day, which is how you’ve split the album up.
DH: “Good. You just have to give it a name to get it out. There were originally concepts for both sides of the album. For example, I’d had this idea of doing an ambient cosmic album years ago because I think one is needed. I remember back in the days when Mix Master Morris was one of the greatest DJs. He would always play in the chill out area. I wonder where he is now because he was a massive influence and would play music from all over the world and experimental stuff. But this genre went out of fashion so I thought ‘Why not do this and mix it with what I am doing now with cutting edge electronic music.’ I thought it would reflect the last 30 years of my DJ career. What I learned about music and the music that influenced me like Kraftwerk, early Krautrock like Can or Amon Duul and even things like heavy metal – I realised recently that I am a big fan of Iron Maiden, early Slayer and UFO as well as glam rock like the Sweet. When I started DJing in the late 70s there was a lot of punk music and there was a lot of disco music and it was not always easy to combine these two interests! It was difficult if you were dressed as a punk to go to a disco night and vice versa! But I loved both of them."
Is what you’re doing now a continuation of the cosmic German electronic music of Harmonia, Manuel Gottsching and Tangerine Dream?
DH: “I hope so. I would be interested to know what these people think of my music. I have never met Holgar Czukay (bass player, Can), I’ve met Michael Rother from Neu! and he said he likes what I do. I’m not sure what they think about the new album but tracks like ‘Germania’ and ‘Angst’ really reflects those times but maybe with a new twist because we use acoustic guitars as well as digital equipment. It has a new twist but it still has an early 70s, Krautrock, ambient, space rock, Pink Floyd feeling. This is what I feel that music should sound like now in 2009. Maybe in 20 years time we can talk about what I’m doing now. I just know that Andrew Weatherall said he really liked ‘The Angst’ song. I’ve had so many good reactions to it now and it says to me that I’ve done the right thing at the right time. People seem to really love it and I don’t know where that leaves me but it feels good. I don’t want to do something that people don’t understand now but understand in five years time. That’s what happened with New York Muscle which I produced with Alan Vega and James Murphy. At the time people were [shrugs] . . . I don’t know if some people were shocked. I remember when we were doing the music we were in the studio and the war on Iraq had just started and we were watching it on TV. It’s not an easy record. It’s difficult to get. It’s very intense. I think the new album is more enjoyable. Maybe ‘The Angst’ is a love song. A love song dedicated to angst. It’s a different mood and level that I’ve never touched before."
The Bryan Ferry track ‘U Can Dance’ is surprisingly (dare I say it) enjoyable. Not only does it sound modern but it also has that feel of classic Roxy Music about it. What was it like working with Ferry? Is he like a cool guy?
DH: “I met him at his studio in London. He had a lot of gear there, some of it I think was Brian Eno’s from the early Roxy days. Synthesizers, analogue drum computers and pianos. I think he is one of the best singers of all time. His voice and the way he uses his voice is so unique and so special. I never thought when I started my career all those years ago that I would get to work with such a living legend. And suddenly I was there in his studio talking about doing some remixes for the Roxy Music album. I played him some music and played him some of the remixes I did for Puff Daddy. So he played me this song of his that had never been released called ‘U Can Dance’ and he said that he wanted me to produce it. I thought maybe it reminded him of the early days of Roxy Music because of the elements of space rock and electronic pop. My favourite track by Roxy Music was ‘Do The Strand’ which was avant garde pop if you like. It was special and outstanding. As a kid I couldn’t handle it you know? The biggest respect I got from Mr Bryan Ferry was that he said he loved my music.”
How did you find Sean Combes?
DH: "Puffy? Oh sorry Diddy I mean! I was like you at first because I didn’t know him. Then I met him and I changed completely about what I was thinking about him. I thought he was the biggest . . . I don’t like to say it but I thought he was the biggest asshole in the world after seeing how he appears on TV but to him it is a game and he knows how to play that game. He is a provocator and he likes to do his own thing but in the mean time he is a genius business guy. He knows about techno music and when he was a kid he was going to the Sound Factory to see Junior Vasquez. What thrilled me the most and what’s most interesting is, he’s just like you. He doesn’t approach you as a superstar, he treats you like a friend. So I really respected that. I was doing some music for him and like he said ‘You do something for me and I’ll do something for you.’ I changed my mind completely about him. For me it is interesting for me to watch him and to learn from him. I mean, I would not do my performances like him and play the big guy or the pimp daddy or whatever but he is a nice father taking care of his kids. I’m very pleased he let me release that song and he’s even dissing the DJs on it, you know the crowd pleasers. It’s funny because they told me I would have to clean this song before I could release it in America and I didn’t know what they meant. But they mean to cut the swearing out; which is funny because I don’t need to worry in Germany. In Germany I can say ‘motherfucker’."
DH: [laughing] "Yeah, fuck them!"