"The best is to DJ from 8 AM until close," he says, easing into his chair. We're finishing the night with a cup of pre-dawn tea, listening to Ø's Oleva, and one of the album's more rhythmic tracks ("S-Bahn") gets him going. "At the Berghain, really late into the party, you could play this track. The crowd trusts you, so you can play anything you want, and they totally freak out."
This leads to a detailed explanation of how Dettmann builds the vibe at Berghain. Two or three tracks, selected ahead of time, serve as destination points for the rest of the set. Each track has to fit the next "architecturally," so reaching those predetermined tracks can take hours, and requires a lot of nimble decision making. "It's hard work. Sometimes you have to take the vibe back down, for an hour or so, to get where you want." But the payoff is incredible. Four or five hours into the set, if he's done his job well, Dettmann finds himself in a state of DJ nirvana. Track selections happen practically on their own; he just flips through his crate, and within moments the perfect record is right there looking back at him. "I don't have to think, it's just, 'This one. OK. Let's go.'" He sighs a plume of smoke as he pictures the scene, and a look of supreme contentedness falls across his face. "It's amazing."
Marcel Dettmann has the air of a man who has found what he's looking for. After ten years of producing, DJing, releasing records and throwing parties, he's dug a cozy nest for himself at the core of the music he loves. His name adds immediate value to flyers and record sleeves, his tracks and podcasts are eagerly gobbled up upon release, and his first commercial mix CD, Berghain 02, was this website's favorite of 2008. Working at Hard Wax helps him hear some of the best records first, and membership in the Ostgut-Ton family makes for plenty of artistic osmosis, not to mention access to unreleased and never-to-be released material. He is often quoted as being on a quest for "the optimal track," but this notion, along with his muscly press photos, contributes to a misleading image of Dettmann as some kind of stonefaced techno übermensch. In reality, he's a cheery music nerd who never denies a cup of tea, takes his bagel with cream cheese and honey and grins so widely it forces his eyes to a squint. When it comes to spinning records, his philosophy is simple: "I just play my favorite music."
Dettmann has been a self-proclaimed "music freak" since the age of 8. Growing up in the GDR, he and his neighbor would sit by the radio for hours, waiting to record whatever Depeche Mode track came on first, while his mother happily danced around the kitchen. When the wall came down, an incredible wave of music and culture came with it. Dettmann, who was fourteen at the time, began making weekend excursions to Berlin, first to see groups like Einstürzende Neubauten and Nitzer Ebb, and later to attend marathon parties at E-Werk and Tresor. The simplicity of those early parties would define Dettmann's taste in music, and eventually form the style for which he is now famous.
"It was always just a dark room, a soundsystem, some cheap strobe lights and everyone going mad. Very raw, not a discotheque." Dettmann's unique sound is still characterized by that reduced aesthetic; hooks and vocals are traded for hypnotic repetition and gravelly textures. Even outside of the music itself, his approach is ascetic; he has never used a pseudonym of any kind, and used his own name for his small imprint, Marcel Dettmann Records. "I like to keep the focus on just the music," he says. Such austerity makes Dettmann's tracks and DJ sets more challenging than some, which is exactly his intention.
Top Five Party Spots
Berlin's citadel of underground dance music, described by Philip Sherburne as "possibly the techno capital of the world." For Marcel, it's "home base."
Finland isn't usually on the global clubbing radar, but Redrum lures Marcel back to Helsinki at least three times a year. "The soundsystem is amazing and the people there are fantastic."
This medium-sized space (700 people or so) is home to Bodytonic, a Dublin party that's getting plenty of love from Berlin DJs. "They've got two floors, and the basement is awesome."
New York's Public Assembly may seem a bit understated compared to Dettmann's usual haunts, but the Bunker is still one of his favorite parties. "I played there just once and it was amazing."
"That's my favorite club in East Germany," says Marcel. The student crowd and alternative vibe make Jena's Muna a great party off the beaten path.
Photo credit - Marcel @ Melkweg: Merlijn Hoek
Dettmann's music is also driven by another staple of early raves: filth. "Techno is dirty," he says. "When you come back from a techno party, you should be dirty. Your jeans are filthy, you smell like cigarettes, you are covered in sweat. This is very important for me." Dirtiness always finds its way into Dettmann's tracks, and perhaps most of all in his remixes. "I love remixes," he says. "Especially when the track sounds very different from my stuff. I have my own mood, and I bring their track into my mood." This typically involves using filters and other effects to smudge over the original's shiny textures, often soiling it beyond recognition. "I'm doing remixes of some very poppy things now, by Junior Boys and The Knife. It's very fun with the vocals and the wipes."
In 1992, Dettmann picked up his first record at Hard Wax, thus beginning the 6,000 piece collection that lines the walls of his flat today. "That was the place for the new stuff from Detroit. All these unknown artists who go into the studio and do exactly what they want to do. Very non-commercial, very inspiring to me." The shop quickly became invaluable to Dettmann, as a source of music and as an entry point into Berlin's burgeoning techno scene. "I still can't believe I work at Hard Wax," he says.
By the time he met Norman Nodge in the mid-'90s, Dettmann was already well-versed in all the essential artists and labels, so Nodge recruited him for the parties he was throwing outside the city with Marcel Fengler. "Norman was always a mentor to me," says Dettmann. "Back when everyone was playing Playstation, me and Marcel Fengler were smoking spliffs and playing with Ableton 2.0." Dettmann made his first performances at Nodge's parties, experimenting with loops on Ableton and Reason.
Dettmann's first big break came in 1999, when Ostgut first opened its doors. The club needed a DJ with a particularly raw, dirty sound, and Dettmann fit the mold perfectly. He was finishing school at the time, training to work in an electronics shop, so the opportunity was a welcome diversion.
Marcel in Berghain's Panorama Bar
Since then, work and pleasure have been indistinguishable for Dettmann. Most weekdays, he wakes up around nine or ten, and gets to work on his tracks. "It's amazing, to sit there for ten hours just making strange music." Dettmann's creative process is interrupted only by his five hour shifts at Hard Wax, which occur three times per week. This can be difficult on Mondays, when he's short one night of sleep after a weekend at Berghain. Luckily, the staff there tends to be understanding—the shop is owned by Mark Ernestus of Basic Channel fame, and the staff includes, T++, DJ Pete (AKA Substance) and Equalized (AKA Shed). When his weekends aren't consumed by DJ gigs, Dettmann and his girlfriend go on double dates with Tobias and Cassy, or skiing with Ben Klock and co. And finally, once every month or so, Dettmann gets his clubbing fix. "Me and a bunch of guys get together and just go, for fifteen hours or so, we get totally lost." As a punter in the crowd, Dettmann's favorite spots include Harry Klein ("still very good... the sweat literally drips from ceiling") and Muna, a student favorite in Jena. But when he's manning the helm, there is no better club than Berghain, the club whose name has become inextricably linked with his own.
"Berlin, Hard Wax, Berghain, my music. It's an amazing combination," he says.
"It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."