|Delta Funktionen: Resisting routines
Defy expectations: That's the lesson the young DJ/producer learned in his early days in a small Dutch town. RA's Matt Unicomb visits him in his new Berlin home to find out more.
Niels Luinenburg found electronic music the same way many small town kids in northern Holland do: via a local library's music collection. And, like countless other Dutch teenagers, Luinenburg was further exposed to the sounds of Detroit, Chicago and the UK via semi-regular raves, where DJs visiting from Holland's larger cities would play. Before long, though, he grew disenchanted with the banging festival sets these acts delivered. These days, his club appearances as Delta Funktionen are rarely comprised of straightforward techno alone—spend an hour on the dance floor with Luinenburg in control and you'll likely hear electro, Italo, house and techno within quick succession. Given the punishing nature of his EPs, this is often much to the audience's surprise.
Those productions stem in part from a love of London and Birmingham's gritty output, delivered by the likes of James Ruskin, Surgeon and Regis, which took a leading position in Luinenburg's taste early on. But his debut album Traces, released on Delsin last month, embodies something only those who have caught Delta Funktionen in DJ mode would know: his tastes run much deeper than the purist techno sound that was so pivotal to his development.
You've said that James Ruskin, Surgeon and that sort of techno were among your first loves when you first started getting hugely interested in the genre. How do you find that in a small town in northern Holland?
I got in contact with Damian Keane at the Awakenings parties in Holland. He was quite well-known locally, and he was really into that stuff. I had discovered techno before, but more the easier stuff, the groovy Marco Carola stuff. But then I met him and he became a mentor. When you're like 17 or 18 what you hear musically forms you in a way I think. Of course you develop later on—we are always developing—but that was a big starting point. "Hey, this is the shit I really like, it's raw, it has some kind of deepness." I liked the sound design, the deeper atmospheric side combined with hard beats.
What I really liked of the American stuff when I heard it wasn't so much the bass or the sound, but the raw feelings. "Turn the drum computer on, find some sounds and just put your soul and energy into it." That came a bit later for me, though. I was pretty much a techno kid.
Did you have any other friends at school that liked this sort of music?
No, I was always the one with the weird music. I was always trying to convince people. "Listen to this, listen to this." I always tried to convince my friends who were actually DJing, "What are you playing? Why don't you play this? It's much better." It's funny. Some people now are like, "Yeah, you were the guy with the weird music taste," but now they are going to the same parties I go to.
What about parties back then? Obviously Holland is known for its big scene.
The town I grew up in had this big ice rink that did these raves for 20,000 people, and when you're 15 or 16 that's a big attraction. A friend's dad worked for the local fire department so we could sneak in. The second year I went there was some kind of [smaller] room, and some guy was playing really groovy stuff and I was like, "What the fuck is this?!" and they were like, "This is techno." That was the starting point to really start going partying and checking stuff out.
I'd tell my parents that I was going to Amsterdam to party, and they were like, "No, no, why? You can go out here." [And I'd say]: "Yeah, but the music sucks here, so I have to go to Amsterdam!" Along the way you meet people at these parties that are a bit like you, and we went to a lot of parties. Everyone started to get turned off by the big events though, and started going to the smaller clubs. That was maybe during the time when minimal came up a bit, the early days which was quite refreshing. The parties were really nice in the early days, and then took a different direction, and I really lost interest. That was when I met Damian and Dave [Miller].
Just to go back, what didn't you like about the big parties at that stage?
I always have this feeling with DJs in Holland—especially at the bigger raves, I don't know how it is in other countries—that they will just play two hours of straight techno. There's no adventure, no extra dimension. Now I understand it, it's partly the Dutch crowds, which are not so outgoing, and you have to just bang it out at the mega parties—if you go too difficult, it just doesn't work. Now I understand why back in the day I was always fed up. "Come on, I know you have more interesting records." It's better to go to a club where the same DJ plays, and you indeed hear the better records he has in his case. But of course it's different with a party with 2000 people in the room than it is with 300.
When did you start buying records?
Seven or eight years ago, where I grew up there was no record shop for the stuff I wanted. I was around 20 or 21, so pretty late. I wasn't DJing back then. When I went to the studio with Damian and Dave, they were producing with Ableton, and they showed me that you could DJ with it too. So I tried that a bit, and met another guy who said he was DJing in a bar and invited me to come. I said, "I'm DJing, but not really. I'm playing with a laptop." And he said, "Me as well. What do you use? Ableton? OK! Let's try it!"
So we had these parties on a Wednesday evening, and that's where I ruined my studies. That's where I learned to build sets not just for the dance floor but also for the people who were there appreciating the music. I started with Ableton, and everybody was still playing vinyl, so I'm sure they were thinking, "Fuck you with your laptop." They were probably right. [laughs]
"If you do music to become famous,
then you do it for all the wrong reasons."
Did you work long on your new album?
No. In late December I had like six tracks ready that I wanted to do something outside of the [singles] series, so [I thought] maybe I'd do a double pack, and Marsel from Delsin suggested that we do an album. I said, "I don't know, it's not an album, the tracks don't fit into an album concept, there's a story from A-Z," but it got me thinking that maybe it is the right choice to do the album right now. We'll make it a story, and maybe skip one or two tracks from that six, and make some new tracks or finish some ideas or sketches or whatever.
So I wasn't working on many of these tracks like they were part of an album. Later on in January or February I started thinking, "OK, I need to fill some gaps to make the story a bit more reasonable," so then I started producing like tracks like "A Distant Journey." Those are really made for the album.
The album tracks sound different than what you have done on your singles.
Yes. I wanted to do something that didn't fit into other concepts. That was the starting point. And when I DJed, people would come to me at afterparties and ask, "When are you going to produce something which is more in line with what you actually play?" It got me thinking that maybe it is a bit weird for people that my releases are more techno than what I play. The album is my research into the history of all this electronic dance music, trying to make my own thing of these genres, getting influences from everywhere but making it my own.
What made you move to Berlin?
Shiver - Subsonic Soundscape
Amazing production on a fine line between electro and techno. I've played it many many times, and it will never ever leave my bag.
The Conservatives - Loneliness
Dark haunting disco-electro-techno crossover. Late at night the cyborgs come out!
Random XS - Give Your Body
One of the deepest acid trips. It just keeps going and going. Heavy stuff which doesn't age!
The DJing. There came a certain point when the DJing took off, and it became like a job. I could earn my money with it, so I had to travel to Amsterdam for flying and I had to go the day before because it was pretty far and you can't trust the train system in Holland, so I had to sleep at friend's places and you can do that for a year but at a certain point if it becomes professional you should act professional. It was more a logistical question, I could move to Amsterdam or Berlin, but Amsterdam is really expensive, and I could not afford to live there from only DJing.
And how has being in Berlin influenced your music?
It's funny. I always try to do the opposite of what is going on. I came up at the same time as this "Berghain movement." I'm part of that wave in a way. Maybe you see it like that, some people tell me it's like that, I'm not sure. But, on the other side, I don't want to be part of some kind of wave, because I make my own stuff. The hype is good and bad of course. But when something sounds like it's made to be a part of this hype, that's where I always cut off and go in my own direction. Go left on the roundabout [laughs] Have you seen the Tour de France? Most of the guys go one way when they enter a roundabout, but there's ten people going in the other direction of the 200.
I also wanted to ask about the Inertia mix. Was it difficult putting a mix like that together where you had a limited amount of tracks to pick from? It's pretty banging and—for people who haven't seen you DJ and not knowing the story behind the mix—that would be another thing that would make people surprised when they see you.
Yeah, techno is just a part of me. It's not a complete picture, but this was the sound of the compilation. It would be a bit weird to put disco or Chicago stuff in between. In a way, I like that people expect me to play like that and when I am at a party I play totally different stuff. In the end, hopefully they like it. It's playing with expectations that people have. I like to do that.
So what happens when you are playing a set that is obviously not what people expected?
I mostly start with some techno stuff. Not always, but you give the illusion that it will be like that and then after 45 minutes you just drastically change it by putting in some kind of acid record or something like that. Much more jacking. You can see in their reaction that it sounds fresh to them because if you bring people into this state of mind that it is going to be techno, techno, techno, then it opens up. It's the same with the weather, if it's really shitty for ten days then you're really happy when the sun shines. You also have these emotions in certain techno tracks, where you can play five dark tracks and then a track which is more based on synth lines it opens up a bit. I like to do it with genres.
Have you seen many DJs that have really surprised you?
Back in the days never—or, rather, rarely. There obviously are. I am not the only one who is doing it like this. But I really had the feeling in Holland that DJs are playing safe and not taking risks because they know the crowd is not that outgoing. I always had that feeling when we had guys from Amsterdam playing. It was so fucking boring. I mean, we might not have been on the latest hype or trend but we had ears as well. We weren't deaf. So yeah, I try to do the opposite of what they did. With me, you might have a lot of surprises. It's nice if you go home and say you had a special night, that it was totally not what you expected. You talk about those nights. Let people think outside their borders. I wish more DJs would do that.
What happens if you get famous enough that people know what to expect?
I don't know. I tend not to think about that. I am not aiming for fame. I just want people to have a nice evening out. I don't want to play in front of thousands. I like to play small clubs where people come for the music. I never thought about getting famous. That either happens or it doesn't, it's not my call. If you do music to become famous, then you do it for all the wrong reasons. That's what I believe in.