Interview: Steffi - XLR8R

Interview: Steffi

The DJ, producer and label head discusses her new live act, the relaunch of Klakson and reflects on her success.
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Photo: Lisa Swarna Khanna

Despite both widespread global acclaim and an artistic reputation that sees her perched comfortably within the finest DJs and producers out there, Dutch-born Steffie Doms (better known simply as Steffi) maintains a more discreet profile than those exclusive few with whom she scales the heights of electronic music. She is, by all accounts a rare breed: an artist in the purest sense of the word, who avoids celebrity and keeps her press activity to an absolute minimum. On the verge of debuting her new live show and the relaunch of her long-dormant Klakson imprint, Steffi invited XLR8R into her Berlin studio, nestled deeply within an old abandoned building, to elaborate on her motivations and inspirations behind her new projects and share her views on the industry that she has long called her own.

The conversation begins with the launch of her live endeavor, a challenging addition to her flourishing artistic repertoire that is currently scheduled to be showcased six times across the globe before the end of the calendar year (and extended further if the format proves successful). “Having seen artists like Dexter play live before, I’ve always been interested in it, though I have always been very occupied with DJing—but I am getting even more involved in production and now just feels like the right time for me to roll it out,” she says. “I’ve done DJ sets with Virginia before where I play the instrumental and she sings on top of it, but now I want to take it to the next level,” she continues. “I will focus on the faster, harder side of my material when I play live without Virginia, and on the softer vocal tracks when she joins me.”

Considering the magnificent assortment of miscellaneous musical hardware components that fills the room, it becomes clear quite how much effort this project entails. “It’s a lot [of work],” says Steffi as she looks around to take it all in. “This is my cockpit, and there is so much to be done because I have two albums, some remixes and a load of singles to choose from,” she adds. “And I always have to see what works live, because not all tracks will work well in this format. I just have to prepare all the material.”

A fundamental inspiration behind Steffi’s latest project has been the continuous growth and development of her production work, an artistic avenue which should compliment the live performance—and which has led to much acclaim, ever since Tama Sumo asked her for a track for 2008's Panorama Bar mix-CD. “Music production is what drives me today,” says Steffi. “DJing will always be a challenge, but there is not much for me to learn about technique anymore. I am very old-school: I play with a USB stick though my basis is vinyl, and I have no need to go and work with loads of effects because I am going to stay pretty classical in my approach. But with production it is different: there is so much for me to still learn and explore,” she adds. And looking at her DJ calendar, it makes sense: While many of her modern-day contemporaries travel from city to city each and every weekend of the year, Steffi maintains a very controlled and constrained schedule, allowing herself the freedom to spend time in the studio.

“I am very selective with the shows that I play,” she explains. “My priority is playing the right parties, and I do not feel that the quantity of the gigs is a good thing—for me the quality of the gigs is what is important. As a result, I narrowed down my schedule to see what felt right to me as a human being,” she adds before explaining how she checks lineups carefully to ensure the vibe of the show will fit with how she wants to be perceived artistically. “I also try to take June and July off to keep my ideas fresh. There are a couple of people I like to consistently work with, and the only time to give myself the space to do this is by blocking time off in my calendar to allow myself to stay in the studio. I don’t have to become a millionaire, so I don’t mind this because it gives me a lot of fulfillment.”

“House and techno has already been discovered, and it’s not like I am going to go really abstract just to create something new,”

Beautifully melodic and consistently captivating, there is undoubtedly a common thread laced throughout Steffi’s growing catalog of musical works. But unlike other artists of her generation, Steffi is happy to embrace a more classical sound without feeling a pressure to innovate—at least, in the strictest sense of the word. “I don’t necessarily see myself as a contemporary artist because what I am doing has been done before,” she says. “House and techno has already been discovered, and it’s not like I am going to go really abstract just to create something new,” she adds. “Although my productions are always melodic and bassline-heavy, their sound has definitely evolved over time. By continually developing and improving this sound that I love…isn’t this innovation enough?”

On that front, up next is for Steffi is JBW25, a 12-inch scheduled for release on August 17 via Ostgut Ton featuring remixes by Further Reductions and Answer Code Request. “It’s named after the street I used to live on, as a dedication to my friend who still lives there,” she explains. “When I wrote the EP, I made a track that I knew she would like so I named it after that street.” In addition to this, Steffi will also be contributing to Ostgut Ton’s ten-year anniversary compilation with a solo track, and another collaboration with Martyn as Doms & Deykers—and has started assembling ideas for her third studio album. “Every day [I have ideas],” she says. “Sometimes I write them down, and sometimes I will record them straight away because it keeps the idea fertile. Others will just bounce around in my head, evolving and developing until they feel ready to create.”

Although Steffi’s musical origins lie in spinning records, she very quickly diversified her musical offerings to be become far more than just one of the world’s leading DJs. Alongside Dolly, the small imprint she set up in 2010, Steffi also is the acting label head of Klakson, the label she co-founded with Dexter in 2000. “The labels I run are not normal labels,” she says. “I don’t do promotion and there is very little visibility. “I don’t want or feel the need to convince the public that they should buy it because it was played by a certain DJ. I leave this entirely up to you guys to decide whether it is good.”

What started off as a "grandiose project," inspired both by a desire to "create a platform for somebody who can give something new to the scene" and the duo’s common love for the electro music of the time, Klakson’s profile grew rapidly in the aftermath of the label's Dave Clarke double-pack in 2000. “It was absolutely crazy,” recalls Steffi. “It just grew so much faster than we thought it would. We sold shitloads of the first two releases.” And now, following a seven-year dormancy prompted by an "absence of things to say" and a "need to try something different," Klakson is set to relaunch in September with a series of brand new Dexter releases.

“From the beginning, Dexter and I have always said that if we don’t have anything to release on the label, then we shouldn’t release anything. We could easily have started to release techno but it is not a techno imprint, so we just didn’t do anything,” Steffi explains. “But it felt different when we released [2014's] Treasure Seeking together, so we decided that we should restart it again,” she adds. “Although we will not take the magic out of the label by over-pushing or over-promoting it, I do think that my input as a producer might be a little bigger now. There were definitely some electro touches on my second album and I think I have rediscovered the love for it, so there is a feeling that I want to go back to my roots,” she continues.

There is little doubt that these are exciting times for Steffi. Reflecting on her career to date—with two beautiful LPs, a pair of respected labels, and an eight-year ongoing residency at Berghain/Panorama Bar—it’s striking how much she has accomplished. In and world where markets evolve and tastes continually change, enduring prosperity in electronic music is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. But while her influence and notoriety as both a producer and a DJ remain on the same steady upwards trajectory as when she first spun vinyl in her hometown of Boxtel just over 20 years ago, the list of her contemporaries that peak and fall continues to grow at a similarly remarkable rate. Central to this longevity, as becomes increasingly clear in the discussions, have been "experience," she says, and a long-term vision for exactly how she wishes to be perceived as a musician.

“My time in Amsterdam really shaped me as a DJ,” she explains, before elaborating on Elechicks, the Wednesday-night party she founded at Mazzo alongside Steven van Hulle (a.k.a. Awanto 3) while freelancing as a graphic designer. “If a DJ knows how to open a night, then that is 50 percent of the skills he or she needs—and these skills are what you learn when you’re playing at your own parties. It gives you so many different challenges to overcome and different situations to adapt to, and there is a big experience in this."

“Success in DJing today is very different to how it once was," she adds. "The problem is that lots of younger artists find early success after producing just one record, but being a good producer certainly doesn’t make you a good DJ, and you can see that there is a massive lack of experience,” she says. “DJs used to be selected because they were good at DJing—but today it is all about who produced the music, and this dirties the market because there are so many high-profile producers who can’t actually mix a record,” she continues. “My ten years in Amsterdam certainly played to my advantage because it allowed me the time and space to really hone my skill set as a DJ.”

Photo: Lisa Swarna Khanna

Photo: Lisa Swarna Khanna

It has not always been the case that some DJs have been celebrities but the continuous growth of electronic music has infected the scene with an influx of artists motivated by glitz and glamor rather than any devout love for harnessing their skill. Steffi, however, seems different—her motivations remain pure, unblemished by the stardom that she could so easily embrace. Ever since she began collecting records "obsessively" in 1995, nestled deeply within her character has been a profound and unwavering commitment to developing her art, an urge so entrenched that she perceives the consequential recognition of her success as little more than an unnecessary distraction that can only impede her artistic expression.

“Besides my Facebook page, which is my replacement for a website, I stay away from social media, and I always keep it informative rather than hyping it up,” she explains. “As an artist, focusing on the business or commercial sides of things is dangerous because it discourages you from doing interesting and innovative things,” she adds. I am so crazily obsessed with music that it would be completely wrong for me to waste time on other things.”

Though understandable, it is a slightly risky strategy to employ. Despite the apparent dangers of overuse and artist glorification, it goes without saying that social-media channels have undoubtedly become invaluable platforms for artists to engage with their fans, and further cultivate their profile. There are, after all, many artists either DJing or producing electronic music today who will boast a considerably larger fan base than Steffi—despite considerably less acclaim or experience.

"It’s a very romantic image,—but I really want to be remembered for my work and not anything else."

“Artistically speaking, I don’t need to peak like so many DJs do today. I’ve had so many opportunities to do so but I want to stay true to myself without making concessions towards my creativity,” she says. “It’s true: If I were to promote myself, I could have a bigger profile—but who says that it is everlasting? I am sometimes tempted, but I have to remind myself who I want to be. It’s a very romantic image—but I really want to be remembered for my work and not anything else. While certain remixes and record deals may bring big success in the short term, I feel that you can easily lose your integrity as an artist. Throughout my career, I have always monitored this very closely—and that is why my growth has been very consistent.”

“For me, I need that in my life," Steffi adds. "I need new projects to work on. I need this excitement and these new outlets through which I can express myself artistically.”

The Klakson relaunch and the live show should provide just that.