Raised in Heidelberg in Germany's south-west, Heindel built a reputation in the nearby scenes of Mannheim and Frankfurt throughout the '00s. She's held residencies at two clubs: Mannheim's now-closed HD800, and Offenbach's legendary Robert Johnson. During this time, she honed an energetic, razor-sharp mixing style with an emphasis on smooth and quick transitions. Now based in Berlin, she's often spotted behind the decks at Club Der Visionaere, the low-key canal-side spot that's long been central to the city's minimal scene, or at Get Perlonized!, Zip and Sammy Dee's monthly party at Panorama Bar. Heindel's an accomplished producer as well, with records on Cargo Edition, Oslo and Perlon, and past collaborations with Maayan Nidam (as Mara Trax) and Ricardo Villalobos.
Like her mixing, a lot of the music Heindel plays is subtle, without much focus on big sounds and moments. Speaking amongst her immaculately organised records at her flat in Kreuzberg (conveniently located a short walk from Club der Visionaere), Heindel recently let us in on some of the secrets of her style, sharing insights and observations any DJ can learn from.
When did you get your first decks?
At the end of 1999. I was collecting mixtapes before this, and had friends who were DJing. Somehow, my friends had a feeling that DJing could be something for me too. I would often know the tracks they were playing, and would be that annoying person who makes comments like, "Oh, it could be nice if you play this record now." I was working at a café in Mannheim. Freebase Records had a shop downstairs, which is how I met those guys. I would go into the record store and listen to music all the time. One day one of them—Meat is his name—came to me and asked, "Why don't you DJ?" So I collected a few records and borrowed a setup from a friend of mine. I shared an Ecler SMAC 32 mixer with a friend at the beginning, then later on someone gave me a Pioneer DJM-500 as a gift.
How long did it take you to learn to beatmatch? Did you find it difficult?
I could understand how to beatmatch in about two weeks. Of course, I couldn't do long mixes, but I'd figured out how to do the basics.
How did you learn exactly?
At that time the minimal sound was quite popular. I always really enjoyed it—a little bit from Cologne, and Perlon had also just started. And, of course, Playhouse. I also was a big fan of Maurizio, which is quite basic and clear. So in the beginning I picked simple things that had a clear kick drum. Then I would sit and listen to one record and tap. I was playing instruments before—piano lessons for five or six years and flute lessons for two or three—so I knew how to count, more or less. I tapped then would listen to the other record and tap to that one too. Then, from feeling, I could figure out which one was faster.
When did you play in public for the first time?
It went pretty fast. I think I started DJing in autumn, 1999. Then I went to India for two months, and when I came back we had organised our own party for my birthday, which was the beginning of February. It was there I had my first gig. I enjoyed it. Of course, having a lot of friends there probably helped.
What was the venue like?
It was a club. We had a friend who was working at a gay club in Mannheim— MS Connexion. I think it might even still exist. They had a lot of parties there. It was in a big warehouse complex, which also had a few other clubs. I think they even had a Time Warp in this warehouse in the '90s.
So more gigs followed after that?
I had gigs in some smaller bars. Then one guy booked me for another "real" party, but I can't remember so precisely anymore. Little gigs and little parties. And I think a year later—or maybe two years later—I got this residency at HD800. They invited Federico Molinari and me. We were very close. He lived with us in Mannheim, and we played together a lot during that time. He had been playing for a bit longer than me but was also still a beginner. He'd just moved from Argentina to Germany.
When did you get your first booking agent?
It was pretty soon after starting to DJ actually—two or three years. A friend of mine started a booking agency. She had some smaller artists, plus a few bigger ones that were popular at that time. Although, I really believe that it doesn't make sense to have a booking agent too early. If you're not so known and people are not willing to pay much money for you, why would they want to pay an agent's fee on top? I have a feeling that in some situations it was probably more inhibiting than beneficial for me.
Did DJing in public make you nervous or did it come naturally?
I was pretty nervous. Everyone was telling me that it's much easier to play at home, and DJing on a big soundsystem was very different and difficult. But I actually found it easier because I had the feeling I could hear more clearly. But I was still very nervous. There are still moments where I'm nervous, because it matters to me. It's normal that you're emotional about something you care about.
What kind of gigs do you get nervous about now?
Mostly when there are a lot of friends around who are really into music, especially when I like what they're doing. I want them to enjoy my set. But I might also get nervous before playing at an important club, or at a party I'm really looking forward to. Or when I play with someone I respect. It's good to get nervous, I think. If I didn't get nervous it might seem like I don't care. Or that I'm so full of myself and just assuming it's going to be great.
Was there something in particular that you found difficult about DJing in those early years?
In the early years you would often see me with a very angry face in the booth. I would not smile, because I wanted to do everything right, and if I made mistakes with mixing I became very nervous and stressed. I thought little mixing problems mattered a lot. With time I learnt that it's actually not so bad if you mess up a mix. Just continue, you know? But this is something that comes with experience, and in the beginning you take it very seriously. You want to leave a good impression, and don't want people to talk badly about you or your mixing. So if the technical setup was not right or the needle was skipping or something I found it very difficult to deal with it and relax.
Smooth mixing is still very important in this kind of music.
Of course the mixing is important, but I think it's more important to be able to tell a story and play the right music at the right moment. Because there are some people who have super good mixing skills but play music that is not interesting, or don't have a feeling for the moment. You need to have a feeling for the situation. You can learn to mix, but I think the most important things about DJing are things you can't learn. This feeling for the music and being able to tell a story.
This is an interesting point. It's often very hard to explain what exactly separates people who can beatmatch and own nice records from top DJs.
Experience is important. The more you play, the more you get a feeling for what is working and what's not. You begin to understand which records might be too strong for certain moments, for example. But I really believe one of the most important things in DJing is empathy—having a feeling for a situation and being able to feel the people who are on the dance floor. You are either empathetic or not.
To be a special DJ, do you think you need to be an extra sensitive person?
Very much so.
Do you see this quality in any of your friends?
Yes, they are emotional people. They have a subtleness and they bring this emotional element to DJing. Emotions that people can relate to. You could say that they have a strong female side, maybe. Although, it's not necessarily a female thing to be emotional. But when you DJ, you're offering a lot of yourself. You risk stuff, you know?
When a DJ has this emotional connection to their records, they can express how they're feeling through the music they play. Maybe if you were in a bad mood, you could sense it in your track selections.
You probably could, yes. You can also feel when I'm out of balance. It's hard for me to really get into it and let go. When I'm well balanced I can stop thinking. For me, the biggest challenge is to stop thinking and to not let my thoughts interfere with my DJ actions. To just play and give in to the music, without thinking, "Oh no, what should I play?" or, "Should I go there?" or, "Somebody's looking strange." Outside things affect you when you're a sensitive person. This can be really good because you absorb what's happening around you. But it can affect you in a negative way, and your set can go wrong. So you need to stay open and stay positive.
What's your preferred setup in a club?
Technics turntables and good monitors. I like the Rane [MP2016S] mixer. I also don't mind the Allen & Heath Xone:92. I've become so used to it, so it's easy to mix with. There are better sound options, but I'm quite used to it. Then CDJs, because I have a lot of music that I play from USB. Tracks from friends who make music, and some vinyl rips.
It's also essential that the DJ booth is comfortable. When I don't have space for the records—and maybe I need to put them on the floor—I don't see well. It also stresses me if I can't see on the mixer because there's not sufficient lighting. You have to focus more, and when you focus more, your head is already involved and then you're less relaxed and cannot get into it so easily. I like having my bags on a good level, maybe on a table, and to have a little light there. And I also like the DJ booth not to be too dark or too full or having people always passing through. I get really nervous about this [laughs].
The sound in a club is clearly very important to you.
Also in the DJ booth. When the monitors in the booth are not that good your ideas are limited somehow. You don't get the full frequency range. You need to be able to hear all of a track's elements in order to connect one record to another. I don't get as many ideas when the sound in the booth is bad. I usually play well when there is good sound in the DJ booth.
What is the secret to quick mixes? Is it the EQ?
I wish I knew [laughs]. EQing takes time. When I start mixing in, I take the bass of the new track out—but not completely—and go in with the mids and highs at around 9 or 10 o'clock. I bring the fader for the new track up until I can hear it in the monitors, then I gradually start working with the EQ. I EQ the old track away, sometimes while the fader of the new track is still not fully up. I go gradually. I'll move the fader for the old track down a bit if it's getting too loud, as I'm moving the new one up. As you can see, this all takes time. It's not really fast mixing. I'm not sure how to make it faster. People like Zip and Binh are doing quite short, nice mixes sometimes. I've never really watched closely how they do it, but it sounds like they would be relying more on the faders, and only EQing a little bit.
The flow you have while DJing is also impressive. The groove is steady, even though you're playing different styles.
This is about choosing the right record. You need to know the connection between two pieces of music. You listen for a certain sound in a track—maybe the percussion—that another track also has. There's always a line connecting one record to the other. The smooth mixing is important, and the EQing, but it's more about connecting certain elements from one record to the next. Maybe the harmonies synchronise together or the two basslines make a nice unit, which makes the transition smoother. But it's not always happening so smoothly. Connecting the different genres, energy levels and beats can be tricky. It's not always working.
How does someone learn to make a set flow nicely? Is it just experience?
It's a little bit about experience. But I think where I learnt most is being a dancer on the dance floor and listening to a lot of DJ sets. I started going out in the beginning of the '90s, and I would always be the first one on the dance floor and be the last one to leave, dancing all night long. I would always go to Frankfurt to listen to Sven Väth. He's a master of taking you on a journey over hours and hours. I think this is something that influenced me a lot.
How far ahead are you thinking when your set is going well? A few times when I've seen you play, you'd pull a few records out of your bag at a time, put them in front and keep looking for more.
I go through and pull out the records I know I definitely want to play soon. Then I go back through the bag to see what goes with them. The only thing I know is that I want my sets to go in waves. But which wave is coming next? Is it going to be dramatic, crazy, deep, melancholic, or something else? Each wave is always three or four records. So when I'm pulling records out, I know where I want to go next but I still need to find more records to match this wave.
Do you have a system for how you order the records in your bag?
I usually just put them in randomly. Then when I get to the club I go through them and assess how the situation is and how I want to start. Then I put the records I would like to play first at the front, or separate them somehow. If I bring a lot of records, maybe I separate them into those that I will play later and those I will play in the first two hours or something.
What are the signs that the party is going really well?
I think this is very subjective. Some people think it's a good sign if people are screaming all the time. For me, I feel comfortable when people are dancing with closed eyes and have a smile on their face. Then I can tell I'm doing it right. Some DJs are aiming and hoping for more of this outward expression. I like to take the people on a journey inside of themselves, and put everyone on the same level.
Does it take a take a few nice mixes to get into the flow of a set?
It takes a few records to adjust to the sound conditions and how you have to mix. I usually start by taking a step back and building it back up myself slowly and quietly—sometimes with a more minimal approach. You can create a bit of space and tension, and then build up according to how the situation is.
Is it ever difficult to do that? For instance, if the DJ before you was playing really banging stuff.
It depends on the place. If it's a full party, for example, people probably won't leave simply because the new DJ's first few tracks were more chilled. Maybe it would clear the dance floor a little bit, but you need to trust that you can bring the people back. This is the good thing about having been a resident DJ somewhere. When you've been doing all these warm-ups, you get a feeling for the dance floor, how far you can tease people. Then you know, "OK, now I'll play this record," and they're going to come back.
A lot of the time people only concentrate on how full the dance floor is, without maybe realising it's not the end of the world if a few people leave it. As you said, the people are usually not leaving the club. You can get them back.
Exactly. You need to give people time to go to the bar, chat a little bit, get a drink, refresh or go outside and have a cigarette. Still, it's not like I actually plan for this to happen [laughs]. It's just not necessarily bad when the dance floor is emptying a bit. And if people do leave because they don't like your music, it's OK—not everybody's going to like it.
How quickly do you adjust your approach if a few tracks don't get the reaction you want?
There were situations where I might get insecure and try to adapt quickly, but you have to try and continue with your flow. If you make an abrupt change and try to do something completely different, this might have a worse effect. Just try to relax and slowly change it. There are always situations where you're going to clear the dance floor a bit. If you panic and get insecure, this is going to affect people too.
With subtle music, sometimes you'll notice the energy drop when the DJ plays two loopy tracks in a row. Both could be energetic and groovy, but for whatever reason the energy in the crowd is lost. What can you do there?
Well, it's also OK if it's flat for a moment. But, generally, there should be some kind of dynamic at play. If you play two loopy tracks that are on the same energy level, the set stays on a flat line for a moment. It's the same if you play one peak-time track after another. It's always good to play with different dynamics—maybe build it up a bit or take it down a bit. You could introduce another melody or another rhythmic element, or some different bassline. But, as I said, sometimes it's good to have this flat line for a while, as it creates a kind of hypnosis. This can also be good, but it depends on where you want to go or what you want to do.
Do you find yourself in many situations where your music is clearly not a good fit for the party?
It happened more often in the past. I had a phase where I started to get more gigs and became more popular—when Oslo was big. I would be playing at bigger parties and places where I didn't fit. I tried to play music that would work there, but I really wouldn't feel it. There were times I felt that I couldn't give the people what they wanted. It was also not satisfying for me. So there came a point where I just stepped back a bit, and realised that I didn't have to go in this direction and try and please everyone. This is not me. I'm not the type of person who plays this functional, totally energetic music. I'd rather play for smaller crowds and be able to express myself. It took a while, but now I get the feeling that I mostly get bookings from people who invite me because of what I play, not because of a name.
I think you—and other DJs like Zip and Binh—are blessed in that way. You're all playing party music but it's subtler than most house and techno, so you play for people who appreciate that particular sound.
Maybe we just took the risk? In a way, we stayed true to ourselves and just did what we feel. I think music is so personal. Playing for smaller crowds doesn't necessarily mean you're less successful than somebody who is playing for huge crowds. The amount of people that relate to this music is smaller—it's obvious that not everyone can relate to it.
How often are you really happy with a set?
My friends would probably say never [laughs]. I don't know. I know when it went well, I guess. Most of the time I'm OK with it, but there are also times where I'm not really satisfied.
What makes you unsatisfied?
When I interrupt the flow—this is what's bothering me most. The mixes I don't find so dramatic, because people forget about it on the dance floor. It's not like they look back, like, "Oh, she had this one really bad mix!" Well, maybe they remember, but it doesn't affect the overall feel of the set.
With this kind of music, which is not so easy to get into for some people, it's really important that you tell your story right. If you play more simple music, it's not a big problem if you interrupt the flow, because people can easily connect one track to the next. But with this subtle stuff, it really affects the dance floor if there are disruptions all the time. But then again, it could just be my perception. Maybe other people are not taking it that seriously, or the people on the dance floor are more forgiving than I think.
You like playing tracks with breakdowns, but you often mix out before the breakdown comes. What situation calls for this?
Maybe when the situation is sensitive. The party might not be so full anymore, or people are not so into it—it can happen. I would also not play anything too edgy or complicated in a situation like this because it could go down very badly. But I like breakdowns. I'm usually not avoiding them, but sometimes you also get a feeling that the track is taking too long to get to it and you don't want to wait. It's a decision that you make in the moment.
Do you need to listen to a track a few times before you understand how it might sound in a club?
When you listen to a track in the store, it helps to be able to imagine a situation it's going to fit to. You might listen to a track and think, "This could be good for an afterhour," "This would be nice for a warm-up," or "This is really warm and it's going to give a hug to someone." But sometimes—in Robert Johnson this was often the case—you would have a track that sounded really deep and mellow at the store or at home, but would completely take over the club and be like this massive intense thing during the warm up. I'd be there thinking, "Oh my God."
Let's say you're DJing at a party, and you're somehow badly trainwrecking a mix. Do you have any special tricks to recover?
I think the best thing is to try and mix out. If you try to fix it, it might get worse. I've observed that it's usually better to try to just go out as quickly and smoothly as possible—just take the fader down. In my experience, when a DJ tries to fix a track for a really long time and it doesn't work you remember it. But if something goes wrong for a bit and then it's dealt with smoothly, it's a short moment of shock but then you just continue and maybe forget about it. But you would probably remember a really long bad mix. So yeah, I guess just try to bring it out as smooth and as fast as possible.
You have a very neat and organised storage method for your records at home. Have you always had it like this?
It's quite a classic record store system. To have it organized by countries, artists and labels works quite well, actually. It helps me to find things quickly. There are also a few boxes where I keep the records I'm playing at the moment. Those are all mixed up. After a while they go back in the main collection, and I pull out new ones that go in that section.
Do you think there's such thing as a perfect transition?
The perfect mix is the one you don't hear. If you have the feeling two tracks are melting into one, and you actually couldn't tell when one started and when the other ended—this is perfect. All of a sudden you're on the dance floor listening to a new track and you don't know how it happened. This is probably the perfect transition.
How do you approach the last track of the night? Or the last track before another DJ takes over?
If I play the last track of a party, I usually like playing something warm and emotional. I want to send people home with a good feeling. Something happy that makes them smile and touches them somehow. If another DJ is taking over, I would take it down a bit. I'd try to make it smooth for them to start, or maybe play a longer track so they have time to get into it more easily.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be a DJ?
My first piece of advice is to be patient. If you're passionate about what you are doing, and put a lot of time and effort in, it will pay off eventually. Be true to yourself and try not to just be like someone else. Inspiration is important, but don't copy anyone. Finding yourself or getting attention by just being yourself might be the longer way but it's more enduring. Thoroughly consider what steps you take in order to move forward as a DJ, and do what feels right—not what others may expect from you.
Secondly, enjoy. Don't take yourself and this business too seriously. It will give you the freedom that is necessary to express yourself in the best way. Put your worries, thoughts and judgements aside and just have fun.
Lastly, keep your good friends close. Unfortunately there are plenty of fake people in this scene, especially around people who are successful. They might have different values to you, and listening to them could push you in the wrong direction. Your good friends will help you keep your feet on the ground and remind you of what's important.