Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Lisa Wassmann
Previously published on ARTISTdirect
For the past decade, Ellen Allien has served as one of electronic music’s most effective and influential ambassadors. As the hands-on leader of BPitch Control, she’s signed artists like Modeselektor, Apparat and Sascha Funke – earning the label high-profile fans like Beck and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, while taking another step in establishing Berlin as an epicenter for electronic music. Her DJ sets became a must-see staple of any music fan’s trip to Berlin, while her many mixes have helped further her label’s reputation, as well as spread the influence of the Berlin scene as a whole.
As an artist, she’s never taken a conventional approach to her own albums. After perhaps her strongest flirtation with Stateside mainstream yet – 2006’s fantastic Orchestra of Bubbles collaboration with Apparat – Allien returns this year with SOOL – which is cut from a different cloth altogether. This time around, she’s pursuing her version of minimalism; for support, she holed up in the studio with avant garde producer/spoken word artist Antye Greie (better known as AGF). The result blends myriad electronic sub-genres and offers many slow-burning pleasures for any listener willing to give the album its due attention; yet another success for an artist who’s been on a long win streak.
I read a recent interview where you were talking about the American electronic scene, and you mentioned some cities where you’d had good parties – but Los Angeles wasn’t on the list. L.A. can be a very polarizing place for touring artists. What’s your experience been like?
In LA, we just had huge sound problems – and THAT is definitely a party killer. I like to be in LA, but such a gig just does not make me happy. In comparison to that, New York has been awesome – and some other gigs in the USA, too. I have the feeling that something is happening in the USA, going forwards. People like to go to clubs and dance to electronic music. I really appreciate the clubs in the USA. A lot has changed over the years.
I was at your gig at the Avalon here in Hollywood and watched a lot of people run out of steam before you even started your set [at around 4:15am]. What’s your secret to keeping your energy up through the night?
Maybe I started my set too late there. My booker told me it would probably be better to play later, but I changed that after half of the tour and decided to play before Sascha Funke, not after him. And this has been better. But as I told you before, we had sound problems in LA, which did not made it easy for us. The needles jumped, they had to change the turntable and the sound was strange. They told us they had a new sound engineer.
The last time we did an interview, you mentioned that heightened national security in America had made it even more difficult for artists from abroad to come over and play shows. Are you still experiencing complications from that, or has that smoothed out?
It is still difficult and the visa is so expensive. I hate that kind of politics, but I have many friends in the USA who are sharing something with me; they are the main reason for me to get there.
When you decided to work on the new album with Antye, did you already know what direction you wanted to go in conceptually? Or did the two of you find the concepts together?
The whole concept for SOOL had been developed in 2007. I collected ideas over the year, wrote lyrics and co-produced it with AGF in Berlin. It has been a very professional cooperation, because she is an amazing producer. We helped each other in making our imaginations concrete. Usually she is doing a totally different kind of sound than me, but the combination of both of us, opened up our ears.
Apparat told me that while making Orchestra of Bubbles there were some songs like “Jet” that had almost two separate versions – yours and his. Was it similar with you and Antye, or did you get on the same page from the start of each track?
No it has been a totally different production. AGF has carried it out; for doing it she put herself deeply into my ideas and concepts. She found an appropriate language for it. The album with Apparat was a complete cooperation; we both had to do a lot of compromises. With SOOL there were none, because it was completely my album.
So much of your work bears such a deep connection to the city – to Berlin, of course, but also just to cities in general. Do you ever escape to the country – and, if so, do you find the country artistically inspiring as well?
Lately, I have been less in Berlin than somewhere else. I was playing so much around the globe and, because of it, Berlin became just a concrete location for working and relaxing. But of course Berlin remains a very important spot in my life, I grew up here and here are my roots. My musical development started here, but it changed and opened through my journeys. Nevertheless, you still can hear the social and political atmosphere Berlin possesses in my music. It expresses the way of living we achieved here, and that means courage-hope-spirituality-minimalism-mystery. I LOVE THAT!
How is SOOL being incorporated into your live sets? You’ve been playing a lot of shows, but you’re not really planning to do an “album tour”, is that right?
There is no tour with live set for SOOL. I do not like if an artist is only hiding behind his laptop, playing his tracks only. I would only do live sets again with someone else. That brings more fun and one could sing. For SOOL I just DJ.
It’s obviously a hard time for the major record labels, and some people are predicting that record labels in general will soon become a thing of the past, as artists cut out the middleman. Do you think they could eventually become obsolete?
I do not, no, because BPitch Control is growing steadily, and we get better and better. We are not just a label that is dedicated to having international success; for achieving that we need a lot of exchange and communication. An artist is only able to manage that craziness if he/she possesses a homebase, a label. We are like an island in a stormy sea and that feeling holds us together.
Do you still spend time sifting through the submissions that BPitch Control receives? Going through the albums that I receive as a reviewer is both very exciting and very tedious, and I can imagine that it would be the same sort of mix of emotions for you.
I still listen to demos, but unfortunately they are rarely hot. The best music we get is from the BPitch Control artists or people who are huge fans of our music, or people I have already met somewhere. I like to have friends around, especially in the business.
What else is on the horizon for BPitch Control this year that you’re excited about?
That’s a secret! We are waiting each day for hot shit.