This explains, at least in part, why Marcel Dettmann is so exhilarating behind the decks. Hard, austere and often a bit sinister, the music he plays is rarely inviting, but there's something about his delilvery that draws in even the relatively faint of heart. Of course, that's partly the result of skill—mixing as well as programming. But a lot of it is because if a record lands on the platter, it's something Dettmann is thrilled to be showing you. As he told The Quietus last year: "Sometimes when I discover one tune, just one tune, I go into the weekend feeling like a little boy getting a new toy, going crazy. Just because of one track."
Naturally, all of this makes Dettmann a fantastic candidate for Playing Favourites, a series that gives artists a chance to gush about their favourite tunes. Sitting in the home studio where he keeps his records—the same room where he mixed the upcoming fabric 77—Dettmann led us through a musical autobiography, stretching from the synth pop he loved as a teenager to some upcoming music on his label, MDR.
This is the kind of thing I take with me when I play a longer Berghain set, or the closing ones. I wouldn't bring it if I'm playing two hours in a festival or something. I think I have maybe three copies of that. I really love this. Everyone knows Human League as a cheesy synth-pop band, but for me this one is not cheesy, it's just very emotional.
It's kind of dark, too.
Yeah right, that's what I mean. That's also the reason I'm a big Depeche Mode fan. All the lyrics are really cheesy, you know, "love, blah, blah, blah," but the atmosphere and the sounds are kind of dark and sad. I listened to that when I was ten, 12, something like that, and I didn't know what they were singing because in East Germany we didn't have proper English lessons. But the atmosphere and the emotion this kind of track—something happened that I can't explain. The Cure was like this, too.
How would you hear something like this? Could you find records like this back then in East Germany?
No, I think this one could be the copy I got from my father. He was not really so into music, but his cousin was really addicted to it. You know, when you know someone who doesn't really like music but you want to push him—"here, listen to that! Listen to that! Check this out!" My grandmother was really into music, she taught music in high school, classical music and stuff like that. But my father wasn't. It's always the jump, you know the next generation. Maybe my daughter won't listen to music.
So anyway, I think this one is actually from my father's cousin, who worked in music. He did some concerts, background drummer or something. He gave us a lot of records—Kraftwerk, Ultravox, that kind of thing. At some point my parents split and my mother put the whole record collection in the basement. I said, "Well, if you don't want it, I'll take it."
I have almost every LP from them. With Depeche Mode you could choose any track, actually. I really like the old ones of course—I think the last album I didn't really get, I don't know why.
I like when you play this one. In a serious techno set it's kind of rare that someone would throw in a pop curveball. But it has a kind of techno energy to it.
It's so funny, back in the day I would always play it on vinyl but it's really fast. When you play it -8% it's about 138 BPM or something. Now I play it from the USB stick and at -10%, which puts you at 133 or something, it's really weird. But I like this because when it's pitched down that far it creates a different vibe. Everyone thinks it's a remix or a different version but I'm always playing the original.
Anyway, this one is off the first Depeche Mode LP, with Vince Clarke. The guy from Erasure, you know? I don't know, from 1979 or something like that.
This might be a stupid question, but in East Germany could you buy music in the same way you could in the West? Were there good record stores?
Yeah, but record stores couldn't have anything political, or anything that might make you feel like you want to leave the country [laughs]. So they didn't have everything, but they had a lot—Madonna, Depeche Mode, stuff like that.
Let Your Body Learn
Could you get this kind of thing in East Germany?
I don't think so. That was too weird and still very underground, nothing compared to Depeche Mode. I think it was in Frankfurt or even in West Germany that this stuff was quite big in the late '80s. Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, all of this EBM, electronic body music. I always laugh when I listen to Nitzer Ebb, because it makes me think back to this time—I was just getting interested in girls, you know, getting testosterone and stuff like that. You need something to kind of get out of yourself, like dancing or freaking out to music. Like when a little kid has something and smashes it against a wall, just to express yourself. And this music was great for that.
I also loved disco and Italo disco, but this kind of thing was the perfect soundtrack for me back then. You know, when the Wall came down in 1989, even for a while after that it was anarchy around here because no one knows what happens next. You know, you'd have young people fighting or having bad experiences with their jobs or with their parents and they're just not happy or whatever, I never had this. I also did sports, I was in judo at the time and it helped me a lot to get over this aggression.
So that's when you were a teenager?
Right, I was 12, 13, 14, something like that. For a long time around then I was really into this EBM stuff, and then comes techno. Techno came when I was 15, something like that. When I got into techno I totally broke up with everything that came before; I never listened to DAF or Nitzer Ebb or Front 242 again. Then a couple of years later I realised, "Hey, it totally makes sense, this stuff is the reason I got into techno." But at that age you're kind of like, "OK, now I'm this, now I'm this, and this." It's normal when you are younger, you pick something—you're either a skateboarder or a rock and roller, you know what I mean?
I find as you get older you start going back to stuff you gave up on ten years earlier and you realise it's actually pretty good. There was a reason you liked it.
Yeah, right, right. You know, most of the tracks I liked when I was younger I could listen to on the radio all day. Blondie, Madonna, whatever. But then when I was a teenager, this kind of music I'd have to find myself—nobody knows Nitzer Ebb, nobody knows Front 242, that's my own space, my own world. And that makes it fun—I'm really happy to share it with someone. It was really interesting when I got into this music, and I got to know some other people that were also into it, and we formed this little group where we're like, "You know this? You know this?" and we were sharing records. It was a kind of a scene.
There's definitely a special pleasure in knowing about something that other people don't know and getting to show it to them. That's basically what DJing is I guess.
Verschwende Deine Jugend
DAF was pre-Nitzer Ebb; I think they really inspired Nitzer Ebb. The name stands for Deutsch Amerikanisch Freundschaft.
A really weird name.
Freundschaft means friendship. German-American Friendship. And they are having all these crazy lyrics. In "Dance The Mussolini," the lyrics say "Dance to Hitler, dance to Mussolini,"—like, what are they talking about? They were punks, really saying, "Fuck you all, we will do what we want to do." Some people didn't understand. People from the Right party, Nazis or something, they see DAF have this look and they think, "Oh yeah, they're like us." That was really crazy. I remember this time, it was just after the Wall came down. People felt they had to be like, "OK, I'm on the Left. OK, I'm on the Right." And both sides want to kill each other. It's unbelievable, I could never understand this kind of shit. But that's what I mean with DAF and Nitzer Ebb, I never had this moment because I fell into music, I put all those feelings somewhere else. The anger I can understand, I know people have bad experiences, especially at a time like that, and when you're young. It's really easy to freak out.
So when the Wall came down, people were—
Freaking out. They were freaking out.
Because of the general uncertainty of the situation?
Yeah. Also so many people left East Germany, or lost their job overnight, maybe started drinking. You never knew what was happening behind the curtains of your neighbours. It was a crazy time.
So I guess EBM felt like an appropriate soundtrack to all that.
Yeah, this loud, screaming, really aggressive stuff.
Was there something about techno that suited that time? Did it help in some way?
For me techno was a community thing. At a techno party, everyone's really happy that you're there. You know, we are all here listening to nice music having a good time together. This kind of thing makes it really special. You have this with any kind of music in a way, but if you have ever been to an EBM party you know what the difference is. At those parties, people are really aggressive, like in a punk concert. Techno is totally different. That's what I really love.
Higher In The Sky
This was from a compilation on Logic Records. It was 1992 or something. A friend of mine had an older brother, and we were all into this EBM stuff. Then he shows up and says, "Hey, here is something new." In Berlin it was not really new anymore, but we were young and from the countryside. From this time I started buying trance and techno and all kinds of stuff like that.
It's pretty cheesy, but I love it. Trance was really big at this time. And then so much terrible music was coming out after this. Some nice stuff from Belgium, but then you had Marusha and all these things. It's funny, the way it happens… if something is really strong, it has to sell out. Like Scooter for example. It's a funny old thing.
Would you hear this kind of thing in clubs in Berlin in the early '90s?
Yeah, in Tresor, at the Bahnhof Zoo, and Linientreu, that was a club that was mostly into EBM and later on kind of trance stuff. I came from a small village [Pößneck] and didn't really know what was happening, there were so many basement clubs but we just knew Tresor, so we went to Tresor.
You would come for weekends with your friends?
Yeah, sometimes on Fridays or Saturdays, we'd get a train into the city and straight after we left the club we'd go home. It was a crazy time because I didn't drink alcohol, I did nothing because I was 14, 15, and I didn't have any money, I just had the money for the entrance and the train. When I came back I'd tell my mother I'd been sleeping over at a friend's house, you know, playing PlayStation or whatever [laughs].
It must have been overwhelming to go to Tresor at that age.
It was totally strange. Sometimes I see that in the eyes of young people in parties, a young boy or girl, I can see they're thinking, "What the fuck is this?" Because I was the same back then. Since I didn't drink or do drugs I didn't understand why people were acting this way, I thought, "Oh, the Berlin people are really crazy." I didn't get it because I didn't have any experience with that. That was a really crazy situation, actually.
Did you have a feeling at the time that this was going to be your thing?
Yeah, I really loved it, the music and the Tresor basement. It was so crazy—you see nothing, it was full of strobes and steam and loud music. It was like a geisterbahn, how do you call that?
Yeah, maybe. Anyway, something happened in me, something new, something special.
You liked E-Werk, too, right?
Yeah, I was actually a bigger fan of E-Werk. Tresor was cool, but it was in a way, how could I say—it was too nerdy. I am also sometimes really a big nerd, I love music and I am really interested in what is behind it and stuff like that, but I also love when people are just going out and having fun, not thinking, "What is this track?" It's really important to have a mixture of people, otherwise it's too boring.
So E-Werk was more laid back?
E-Werk was just a great a party. The gays were there. In Tresor there were gays but not enough to be so open. E-Werk was the first club where I realised how big the gay scene is. Before that I had never seen it.
Everyone talks about Tresor as that deep, dark vault where you can't see anything. What was the atmosphere like in E-Werk?
Well, it sounds cheesy but in a way it was closer to Berghain. But more '90s of course. More colours, there were flowers. Different but in a way similar. I can't really remember how big it was, but maybe the same size as the Berghain floor. It was a really, really nice venue.
This one is mindblowing. It's Richard Bartz, and he was one of the main producers on Disko B and he also produced a couple of guys like DJ Hell. He's the same age as me, maybe a bit older or younger. Now he's into movies or something. This was 1992 I think, he must have been 15 or something. It's so great, I love this track.
This is also one of my first records I think. And this guy did a lot of really good techno stuff that's more like trance, acid, but I really love this one. It's such a good vibe in the club, it has a really bright sound.
This sort of thing doesn't sound so different today.
Yeah. It's really well produced. It always changes, the sound feels good, it's nice.
Did you start collecting records around the same time as your first raving experiences?
Yeah. I actually had some stuff before, and then when we started going to Tresor and other clubs, my friends and I started buying records and pushing our record store at home to buy some stuff. They started buying Force Inc., Space Teddy and some Disko B stuff. I think Disko B was really big at this time, right before Gigolo showed up.
When did you discover Hard Wax?
I think it was 1994 or something, a friend showed me. It was in a smaller store, about the size of this room. A friend of mine studied in Berlin, he was in a college for chemistry or something and he was into Aphex Twin. And he showed me all this Warp stuff and I was like, "Are you crazy? What is that?" It was like listening to Kraftwerk when you are 12 or something—you don't get it. We went there for the first time, and after that we went every month and I spent all my money there when I was in school. I remember my mother bought me a jacket, a Levis trucker jacket, and I sold it to someone else so I could buy some records. My mother asked me, "Where is your jacket?" and I just said, "Oh shit, I don't know."
In the '90s, that was normal. I sold everything just for records. Later I had jobs, like working in a car rental place, and then as someone who changed zip codes, because in 1992 in Berlin we changed from four-number zip codes to five-number zip codes. It was a job for like two weeks, changing every single code, but it was good money. After that I have eyes like this [opens his eyes wide], you know? After these two weeks I bought a lot of stuff in Hard Wax.
The records were always good, you never had enough money. It was great, sitting on the train home holding this paper bag—back in the day they had paper bags—sitting in the train looking at them, going, "Oh wow, this one!" It was unbelievable.
Just amazing. It has this really bad sound, scary stuff. It was a typical Tresor track, actually: perfect sound, perfect track for this club. These crazy strings. And everything fits perfect; he's the master. Every time I get tracks from him, even the latest one his agent sent me, I listen to it and think, "Oh no, you can't do that." You can hear how long the samples are. You know? It's great. You can picture him doing the track. This one is great, but everything on Internal Empire is amazing. He's really got something special.
Were you playing that kind of stuff when you first started DJing? Serious techno like that?
Actually back then, for me Robert Hood was kind of, how can I say… Robert Hood was one of the softer guys. This kind of stuff, also Basic Channel or Maurizio, had a bit more of a housey vibe, it was more fresh. I really loved that. So after all that EBM stuff, that really strong, tough white music, this one was really...
It's a bit groovier I guess.
Groovy, definitely. And just good club music. Maurizio number five or number four, all of them really, they're so, so visionary. They just had an idea and focused on it. I really respected this.
When you became a professional DJ, was it hard to maintain the same relationship with records? To stay excited about them in the same way?
It always depends on what reaches you when you got to a record store. If you go there and you don't find anything, you're like, "Shit." When you play five shows in a row you get a little bored with the music, of course. So yeah, it can be difficult to keep it fresh in a way. For me that's why I always have my laptop with me and my sticks, so if I have something in mind that I don't have with me I can get it online, play it from the stick. It's a nice thing now, you can play almost everything even when you are on tour. I can't imagine now, back in the day having ten shows in a row and having just 50 records with you. Even while I'm playing I never do the same mix twice, I'm not the kind of guy who prepares a set at home and plays it out five times in a row, I will kill myself if I do that. It's so boring.
Do you have tracks that you know go together really well?
Sometimes you have something you did last night and it works well, maybe. But I don't know. It's not about trying out before, it's still in the moment that you think, "This one was good last night."
A U R O R A
I got A U R O R A like two months ago. Amazing. For me it's like classical music, with these big ups and downs. Or it could be music for a film. I don't know which track, I just love the whole album. Every noise, every sound. Someone sent this to me, and I listened to the whole album on a train. I only have the digital files, but you don't need it on vinyl—this is music for traveling.
It doesn't happen often that something like this shows up. This guy is something fresh, in a way. Of course, in a way it's nothing so new, but it's fresh. It's like Burial—you know, Burial was nothing totally new, but he had a new interpretation of how to use sounds and how to make them work. The same thing happens in techno—sometimes you have someone who just has a new interpretation of it.
Do you listen to a lot of stuff like this?
Yeah. I really like the label Blackest Ever Black, they sound really old school. What else… the one on Warp, Oneohtrix Point Never. His track "Boring Angel" is really nice.
I don't know anything about it but I love this track. I got it last week or two weeks ago. It's just… straight. Really straight but I love the atmosphere, it gives me goosebumps! Like you're in a weird church, surrounded by guys in golden robes, singing [laughs]. I don't know. But yeah, Fango, I don't know anything about him. Maybe it's a really young guy who is just doing his first record. I don't know what it is. But I love this really straight, simple drumming and the atmosphere is so great. It's all about this voice.
Was Patrick Gräser the first person you put out on MDR other than yourself?
The first person other than me was Norman Nodge, the second was Wincent Kunth, and the third one was Patrick. Patrick is a really old friend of mine, he's a bit younger and he grew up in the same hometown and he always came to my parties. At some point he started playing there as well, then he moved to Berlin, started making music. He was always sending me demos, and at some point I said, "OK, you're ready, now we can think about having a 12-inch." We just had to clean up his profile. That's the reason we did Answer Code Request, the first 12-inch was without any name of the artist or anything. After that we decided, "OK, keep it as your artist name." It's a long one but it makes sense to me. Patrick Gräser sounds like Michael Mayer or something, too Cologne [laughs]. I think Answer Code Request was a good choice.
What do you like about Patrick's music?
He has this classic UK vibe, this breakbeat kind of stuff. It's really fresh and sounds kind of positive. I like that, it's nice.
I like how on most of his EPs, there will be only one normal 4/4 club thing. The other tracks are still techno, they're not experimental necessarily, but they're very different, very fresh.
Yeah, and he has a lot of tracks. He's sending them to me all the time, and they're really getting better from each record to the next. He's got time for working on music, he is just starting his career now and he has his own special style that is so good. So many demos I get all sound so similar… maybe I can see why someone else would like it but it's boring to me. I need something that sounds a bit different, you have to catch me. It's not about the club functionality, it's about if I like it or not.
Is it hard to make sense of all the new music you hear?
It's just a time thing. Even without promos, just from the music I'm buying I have to make time to listen to it properly. Now I try every week or so to take one day off and listen to every single record I got in the week to hopefully find the tracks I really—the tracks that make sense to me, that feel like they really need to exist, you know? Then I record them in Ableton. If I like them I have the back up in iTunes and then I can listen whenever I want, I don't need a turntable.
It must be hard to really get to know the tracks before you're DJing with them.
Yeah, and I try to not be focused on DJ tool tracks. I get really bored of it. That's the challenge you have as a DJ: to play different stuff. Otherwise you could be a live act, just bring a drum machine and a synth and do your own shit. So yeah, it's important to find the really good stuff. It's difficult because of the time, but it doesn't mean there is not good music around. There is a lot of interesting stuff, you have to keep your ears open.