|Sven Väth: The beat goes on...
One of Germany's most popular DJs speaks.
Ask a random person in Germany who they consider to be the most popular techno DJ, and you're likely to hear the name Sven Väth pretty quickly. Celebrating 30 years as a DJ in 2011, the Frankfurt-based Väth has inspired a plethora of myths and stories over the course of time. Whether it's the 40-hour long sets, the rumors about his spiritual trips to Asia or his part-time ascetic lifestyle, much of Sven Väth's legacy has always been built around the man himself.
Hearsay aside, Sven Väth has undoubtedly played a crucial role in propagating both trance and techno music. At merely 18 years of age, he became a resident in Frankfurt's legendary Dorian Gray nightclub in 1982. After a brief and commercially successful stint alongside the Euro dance project OFF, he opened his first own club in 1988. Until its closure ten years later, the Omen became one of the most important techno clubs in Europe, inspiring a whole generation of producers. In addition to the club, Väth also guided Eye Q and Harthouse, two of the most popular labels in Germany throughout the '90s.
But in 2000, Väth reinvented himself as a businessman. Starting as a simple booking agency, the brand "Cocoon" has since become a household name in the electronic music scene, both known for its record label and its mammoth events. And then there is Cocoon Club, a multi-million venture that raised both the bar of club culture in Germany and the eyebrows of many bystanders once it opened in 2004. Then again, Sven Väth has never been a man of compromises. And 30 years in, he shows no sign of slowing down.
Welcome to Berlin, Sven. Do you remember the first time you got in touch with the music scene over here?
Shortly after the Wall came down in 1989, me and other artists from Frankfurt, Jam & Spoon, Pascal F.E.O.S., Dag and Moses P. organized a bus and drove all the way to Berlin. We arranged some sort of spontaneous concert over there. It was around that time when I first met Dr. Motte, the founder of the Love Parade, at the Ufo club. I guess that's what you could consider a first "touchdown" with the Berlin scene. During the 1990s, Tresor became my focal point, because Dimitri Hegemann and I have always been good friends. I had some truly amazing nights playing down there in the vault. But I also played regularly at E-Werk, Planet, Maria am Ostbahnhof and the old Ostgut, with which we organized several parties back in the day.
These days, you are a rather rare sight in Berlin. Why is that?
I left the Love Parade in 2000 due to personal and political reasons. My visits to Berlin had always more or less evolved around the event, so once I stopped playing at the Love Parade, I also lost touch with the local club scene.
Did you also lose touch in terms of music?
No, because I think the sound that made Berlin famous in the past decade was heavily inspired by people I already knew: DJs like Ricardo Villalobos, Heiko Laux and some of the guys from Munich moved to Berlin before anyone else. So what happened in Berlin wasn't all that "new," but rather influenced by many older and established artists. Only recently it has become a movement of its own thanks to a younger generation of artists. Still, many of my friends are living and working over there.
You, on the other hand, have always stayed in Frankfurt. How so?
We used to joke that everyone who moved to Berlin didn't make it in Frankfurt. [laughs] But seriously, Frankfurt is my hometown. I have always been able to follow my musical vision over there. Sure, it is pretty small. But then again, there have always been lots of talented artists. One should not compare Frankfurt to Berlin, as it is completely different in the way people go out: It's all very organized and built around the weekend. In Berlin, it kinda feels as if every day is Saturday—at least in terms of music.
Is that how you divide your time as well? Is it party on the weekend and back to the office on Monday?
Well, it's always been like that.
[laughs] Alright, maybe not on Mondays. But I have always tended the business side during the week. Nowadays, it's even more complicated: I spend most of my summer in Ibiza with my family. Between October and December, I am back in Frankfurt, planning the upcoming year. In spring, I usually leave Europe for an extended tour. Add family, friends and listening to records to the mix and you will understand that time management has become the most important type of management.
Speaking of Ibiza, this summer has seen quite a successful season once again. How do you explain this continuity?
The density and energy are truly unique. For me, it is both a melting pot and a starting point for many things in and around club culture. There is no place that combines so many clubs, entertainment, culture and beautiful countryside in such a small space.
So nothing has changed at all?
Well, you might notice the odd flyer of parties promoting Lady Gaga or Kylie Minogue these days. Ibiza has become a buzzword in the glamorous world of Saint-Tropez and Monaco, which has brought a new, posh audience to the island. That's a bit of a letdown, because Ibiza is well-known for its liberal spirit—a legacy of its '70s hippie culture. For many years, Ibiza has attracted people merely for the fun. You were able to meet people over 50 in the clubs, who just wanted to have a good time. It was all about understatement, but now many people just want to blow off steam...
You almost sound disappointed...
Don't get me wrong: It is something we have to keep an eye on. But then again, I don't think it will hurt Ibiza in the long term. After all, there are too many music lovers and passionate people living over there. And it doesn't affect "our" program. If you take a look at the line-up of DC-10, all the afterhours and our nights at Amnesia, you will notice a lot of new and exciting names. If DJs like Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler or the guys from Visionquest bring their own crowd and parties over to Ibiza, it proves its relevance to the younger people as well.
When was the first time you came to Ibiza?
I first went to Ibiza in 1980, hitchhiking with a friend of mine to Barcelona. After we crossed over to Ibiza, we were downright broke. And yet we managed to stay for almost three months. We stole a couple of sun loungers and set up a campsite in the nearby woods. During the day, we distributed flyers in order to get into the clubs...
And that's when you decided to become a DJ?
What I experienced in the clubs at night was a completely new experience for me. DJ Alfredo played a ridiculous mix of music at Amnesia—African percussion mixed with Italo disco and John Lennon's "Imagine." We were literally crying on the dance floor at 5 AM in the morning! That's when I said to myself: "Yeah, I want to do that! Here is where I belong!"
I came back to Ibiza every subsequent summer, soaking up the music and writing down the names of the records. Needless to say, it wasn't all that easy to get them in Frankfurt. And if I did, I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to play them. When I started out playing at Dorian Gray, I regularly had to fight for my one hour of music, always hoping that the boss would not suddenly crawl up behind me, shaking his finger at my track selection. [laughs]
Obviously, you don't have to worry about that anymore. Let's talk about Cocoon. A lot of people seem to think that Cocoon is too decadent and too commercial these days. What do you say about that?
[pauses for a long time] I can see that Cocoon polarizes—especially our club. Once we started, we knew that a lot of people wouldn't be able to "get it," that they couldn't relate to our idea. But then again, most of those people don't look closely at what we are trying to achieve with Cocoon. There is a lot of passion involved in everything we do. Our artists don't need a tailor-made suit in order to get signed. They are free to do whatever they want, just like they would at any other label. And our events, our club and our philosophy serve the sole purpose of providing an exciting and creative setting for our artists. Of course this means to make investments, taking risks and thinking outside the box now and then.
Do you think that there is too little risk-taking in the electronic music scene?
I think that club culture—emphasis on culture—is based around visions. But in order to turn visions into reality, it takes both risk and courage. So if I have a vision of a 21st century techno club and it turns out to be something as Cocoon, it is first and foremost a statement of our club culture. And I wish more people would just go out there and do the same.
However, your first attempt with Cocoon wasn't all that successful, was it?
Yeah, we first started throwing parties under the name of "Cocoon" in 1996. The whole concept was pretty far out: The decoration was hand-made in England and then shipped over to Germany. We invited obscure DJs from Japan and well-known acts such as Underworld. I used to be quite idealistic at that time. I didn't accept any sponsorship for the event. In other words, I put most of my personal savings into it. And I lost nearly all of it in the process.
What did you learn?
I learned what it takes to organize huge events. And I realized that the whole thing came a bit too soon. In 1997, I split with Eye Q and Harthouse a year before they declared bankruptcy. In 1998, the Omen club finally closed its doors after an ongoing conflict with landlords and the public authorities. For the first time in my life, I was literally on my own. I needed that break in order to properly focus on Cocoon again. So in 2000, we took another shot at it. But this time around, we started with a booking agency and took things from there.
Within ten years, Cocoon has become quite a successful company. Do you still think of yourself as an artist or rather a businessman?
Now here is something a lot of people don't like to talk about. But every label, every booking agency and every club has to pay bills at the end of the month. And the bigger you are, the more important it becomes. Cocoon provides a lot of jobs for a lot of people these days. The daily operation is more complex than ever before. It's not all about selling tons of records any more.
If you want to make a living in this business rather than doing it as hobby, you need both: The joy in your work and a certain amount of professionalism. And that's what I'm doing and that's what a lot of people don't get. According to them, if you are successful in running a company, you are a sell out. But what we are doing has nothing to do with selling out!
Do you think your concept as a label, a booking and event agency is an inspiration for other labels as well?
Sure, why not? Take Luciano for instance. He had been playing our terrace at Amnesia in Ibiza for quite a while. Recently, his label Cadenza has become a fully-fledged booking and event agency that hosts its own party over at Pacha. And I don't blame him. Quite the opposite, really: I admire people that put whatever they deserve back into the community.
You are also well-known for your use of social networks and creative promotional campaigns.
Sure, all the different channels are extremely important, which is why we also launched a new website this summer. Our impulse-driven society is based upon networks, speed and all sorts of information on the click of your mouse. Personally, I sometimes have trouble keeping up...
For instance, I don't have to post pictures of my dinner on Facebook every day as some of my colleagues do... [laughs]
So you are drawing a line between business and your private affairs.
"Is there anything as global and
connected as our music?"
Lawrence's Timeless mix received some rather harsh feedback in the RA forums, simply because it was released on your label. Obviously some people think that Cocoon and Dial do not go well together...
There are always people who look at things from the outside without knowing the facts. I mean, why shouldn't we feature him? I have been a fan of Peter [Lawrence] for a long time. He even released a track under his Sten moniker on of our compilations years ago, and I have been playing records from Dial on my mixes as well. I just don't get it...
So where do these reservations come from?
It's all a matter of labeling things. People like to say "Oh look, it's Kompakt over here, and Dial over there, and these are rather introverted and those are more melancholic." Everything is put in its neat little box. But that is rubbish—is there anything as global and connected as our music? Every weekend, we are proving a point while playing in Korea or Chile, in Frankfurt or Berlin in order to bring people and music together.
Is connecting people part of your mission statement?
Definitely! In fact, I am a cultural ambassador for the German Goethe-Institut in regards to electronic music. Earlier this year, I was asked to speak at a panel discussion in Tokyo in front of 300 high-brow invitees—economists, musicians, writers, that kind of people. I was pretty excited, but at the same time amazed to see how much understanding and respect they had of electronic music! It made me realize how far we have come, and that is crucial to keep sharing our knowledge. Needless to say, I had to return all the kind words to the Japanese: Without Roland's 303 and 808, techno probably would have never existed.
Besides Japan, which countries impressed you most during the past year?
Peru was pretty intense. The way people celebrated in an almost ritual manner surprised even me—and I've seen a lot of things over the years. But cities like Seoul and Taipei were inspiring, too. Club culture is definitely on the rise over there. A couple of years ago, only really popular trance DJs had a chance to get booked, but now a lot of small clubs are playing techno as well.
The financial crisis is all around us these days. Do you experience any changes as a DJ?
Well, people still like to party everywhere I go. So that's a no. But you may notice that a certain "middle class" of DJs is slowly losing ground, because people change the way they go out: Either they don't want to pay little to nothing and don't care about the DJ, or they want to see a popular name on the bill. It is not that big of a problem in Germany, but in Italy or Spain, a lot of nights are based around headliners only. That doesn't make it easy for anyone who wants to support new artists and DJs.
How do you explain this?
Very often promoters compete with each other. Especially in Southern Europe, many clubs don't do their own booking. They use promoters in order to get their venues filled. And promoters try to keep popular acts on their portfolio by making them better offers—the costs of which are allocated to the admission. And the higher the admission to a club, the less people pay for drinks. So in the end, promoters get their share while the club loses money. Speaking as a club owner myself, that is something we have to keep in mind in the long term.
Published / Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Photo credits / Header - Hannes Windrath
Black and white - Michel Mees
Time Warp Holland - Luke Garwood