Ellen Allien: Thrill Seeker
- Words: Julianne Shepherd
As a kid, Ellen Allien idolized David Bowie. She learned his pop star language–the art of reinvention–early on. More explicitly, he taught her English: “My teacher said we should begin learning English from the translation of our favorite band texts. Bowie was thereby the first pop star for me. He has enchanted me because of his constantly slipping into other roles.” Not surprisingly, Allien is probably the closest person techno boasts to Bowie–an ambitious innovator and powerhouse, she shapeshifts nearly as often as she packs a crate of twelves and jumps on a red-eye.
An internationally renowned producer, DJ, independent label head, and soon-to-be fashion ingénue (she’s starting a line called Thrills), Ellen Allien is a pop star for the post-millennium. She’s also visually unforgettable: her album covers depict a fierce, intelligent lady lording over imaginary computer landscapes, and they’re often analogies for what’s going on inside. Her last album, Berlinette–designed by Berlin collective Pfadfinderei–showed her fixing a steely gaze skyward; the record explored being a native of Berlin and a citizen the world. The cover of her third full-length, Thrills (released in Europe in May), shows a two-headed Ellen Allien (realized by Steffi+Steffi) whipping her hair all around, free, while a mini Ellen peeps out from under her armpit. Clearly, Thrills is a philosophical record about self-discovery, an exploratory mission of uncharted internal landscapes–perhaps Allien’s version of Ziggy Stardust? “I am still on the search for me,” she explains. “Meanwhile my self-definition comes, to a large extent, from my work [and] my creative output. That also means discovering new in old and [vice versa]—like Bowie does and did.”
Growing Up Allien
Allien grew up with her mother in West Berlin. “I learned to play flute,” she says, referencing her musical background, “and in the corridor of our flat stood a small organ, on which I always hammered wildly. But I lost making music over the years until I was 19. Then I tried out all possibilities; I had a practice area, where I played drums and saxophone. I [did] that for three years, until I noticed something else was happening. When I bought my first vinyl, my saxophone sunk into dust.” Living with her boyfriend in a squat on Berlin’s Westside, she became addicted to mixing. Luckily, her “hobby” jumped off around the time techno was really starting to pick up in the ‘90s–just about the time she was getting bored of Berlin’s chauvinist hip-hop scene. “The main reason I moved from hip-hop to techno [was] it was the first time that [sex] really played no role [in the scene]–whether you are man or woman, whom you love, the way you love, why you are doing it,” she explains. “The only thing which counts is the love for the music, and thus a special [bond] of respect and friendship is created.”
This bond forms the modus operandi of Bpitch Control, the label she founded in 1999. It’s one of the more successful independent labels in Berlin, releasing a host of boundary-pushing techno, electro, and breaks by European producers like Sascha Funke, Smash TV, and Sylvie Marks, but it’s structured like a family. She and Funke listen to all the demos together and release albums by consensus–it’s less a collection of employees than a group of friends collaborating on an art project. No doubt her new Bpitch offshoot, Memo, will operate in the same way.
Bpitch’s mentality derives quite a bit of influence from the collectivity of Berlin counterculture. The label’s offices–comprised of two simple, loft-like rooms in an old building on Oranienberger Strasse–even have the air of a squat, albeit one with a lot of records. “I lived five years in an occupied house [squat],” Allien explains. “The exercise area [practice space] was in the cellar, the studio in the dwelling, and a Brazilian cultural center was on the ground floor. That was the first time my life that I could out-rave myself in an artistic and social way.” Though Allien has moved on, she holds on to the ideals of the underground. “We are all a little bit similar to street kids at Bpitch,” she says in her press materials, and she’s quick to clarify: “This refers to the fact that we are always out on the streets, on the roads of life. We carry the key around our necks so we can decide for ourselves when and where to return.”
As if an extension of Allien’s street-wise philosophy, Bpitch albums share the trait of being incredibly human. Beneath all the floor-pounding synth rhythms is always the frisson of vulnerability, even among Kiki’s Bauhausian grumblings and agoraphobic beat snapping. Allien’s affection for great melodies undoubtedly affects what artists she chooses as much as it does her own work.
Melody was the real grabber on Berlinette; with its glitchy breakbeats gracefully layered with swathes of guitar, synth, and vocals and its discernible hooks, it was as much a pop album as a dance one. “Berlinette tried to integrate my inspirations and influences from other people, nations and musicians,” Allien explains. “It had noisy, experimental elements and poppy, ravey melodies. Thrills is so much clearer in contrast to it. I found a way to concentrate on me. Now depth, fat basslines, clear beats, electro, and techno are simply merging.”
Allien says it was necessary to do some personal rejiggering to get into the mood to make Thrills. “In January , I canceled all gigs and went instead to the studio each day,” she explains. “It is such a beautiful feeling from my ‘on the go’ life to return from traveling and DJing and so many humans around me to make music, to finally get out the ideas which accumulated themselves in my head in the course of time.”
Thrills presents another side of Allien, one more in touch with “elechtech”–the moniker she’s given her own music. Bookmarked by the deep sound of her new keyboard, an analog Arp 2600, Thrills is a dark, heavy, and isolated-sounding sojourn into the impermanence of self and time. “Future is dust/flesh makes me blind,” she sings, the vocals ground down and heavily processed to sound like the voice inside her head. “Don’t break me down” she implores on “Down,” as a chorus of snipped-apart breaths crest over cable-shock twitches of electro.
“[The darkness on this record] is not [meant to represent] emotional darkness,” she explains. “It’s the opposite. I just love melancholic music, it eases me…but the mourning I feel over the destruction of our world flows into my work and my music. The political situation is a drama for me; the history of mankind consists only of violence and wars. Nuclear policy, Bush, and [all] the prohibitions make me sick.”
Getting Her Kicks
Though influenced by global living and the precarious nature of our planet, Thrills is an album about Allien more than any of her past works; there’s practically Buddhism behind its laser breaks and ping-pong sequencing. It’s full of self-reflection, allusions to a dual-self, and wire-tight production and EQing (thanks to Smash TV). It’s less obvious and immediately compelling than Berlinette, but much deeper, the sound of a woman taking stock of her accomplishments and unpacking who she’s become. “It’s a journey of the head into the heart, an ‘emo wave,’” she affirms.
“Music is my isle and my wave at the same time,” she professes. “I was always on the search for something that creates a thrill,” says Allien, “and it’s completely simple: it’s music!”
Four BPitch artists sound off on their fearless leader.
“As a producer, Ellen’s music is surprising, never standing still and never sounding the same–it’s constant musical change. And it’s always interesting [working with Ellen]. She’s not only the BPitch boss, but also a good friend; our constant musical exchange is very important.”
“I really like Bpitch’s open-minded, across-the-board approach to music. It’s not like other labels, where every record sounds more or less the same regardless of who made it.”
“We first met in a club in Berlin when we were accidentally booked at the same time. We ended up playing back to back for six hours! It involved a lot of fun and vodka, which gave me the name for my first release on BPitch, “Vodka Lime.” [Ellen has] the guts to try new things and to push things forward, and actually makes it all work on a big scale.”
“[Ellen puts] a big touch of sensitivity into this dancefloor shit!”
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