The Birmingham-born techno artist talks overcoming fear, hybrid DJ sets and sobriety.
By any measure, Rebekah is a highly successful artist. But her story up until this point has been far less straightforward than all of this might sound. The heavy international touring is a relatively recent development for Rebekah, and she has, in fact, been DJing since the late '90s. The years between learning to mix records—which she did as a 17-year-old—and touring the globe were spent grafting in clubs around the UK and, to put it simply, figuring out who she was as an artist. When I talked to Rebekah last month at her apartment in Berlin, it sounded like her life had been deeply affected by a series of ahh! moments—the moment when she renounced the music she was playing and left her DJ agency; the moment when she realised that drink and drugs were ruining her self-belief; the moment when she managed to channel her fears into writing music. These events have made her feel extremely grateful for the position she's now in, because it sounds like things could have been very different.
Is the title of your album, Fear Paralysis, autobiographical?
Yeah, I think it is. The majority of the album was created in a period of time when I was really not sure, I was really stuck, I didn't know where I was going to go and the fear was crippling. CLR had come to an end, it wasn't announced yet but it had come to an end, and I still felt like as a newcomer to the label we still had more miles to go with it. So, it felt like I was happy-go-lucky and then it was like the rug got pulled from under my feet. So I was really scared of what was going to happen, and all of that self-doubt and the mental talk—maybe I'm only here because I'm like the token girl on CLR?
All of that stuff got really loud again, all these sort of fears and these doubts. I was really stuck, but I kind of channelled all these darker feelings into the music. For me, I can hear the theme throughout the album with the kind of pads and the darker melodies. It was a process then of signing some tracks, and then Soma were really keen. I mean, I had all these sketches but they wanted music that I'd already made. It gave me more confidence, and then I kind broke through, and I was like, you're good, you can relax a little bit now. It's even weird now as I listen back to the album. It's like I was connected to it for quite a long time and now I'm in a completely different headspace. It captured a moment for me.
How did you go about channelling those emotions in the studio?
I would just go to the studio and I sit there, and I was asking myself, what do I want to make? What sound? What do I want to come out? It didn't have to be 4/4, there was no pressure to make club tracks, I just felt like I needed to get whatever it was out. So it was a case of sitting there and just relaxing and seeing what came forth and going with it, creating something a little bit different. Maybe some different beats or starting with a couple of loops that were a little bit more unusual and really waiting till the last minute to put the beats in.
Is the track "Breakfast With Jeff" a reference to who I think it might be?
Did that come from a particular experience?
Yeah, we had a gig together. He arrived at the hotel and he couldn't check into his room because it was really early. I watched him, I was having my breakfast and I could see him walk in. I played with him the week before and he said some really nice things when I was playing. I just said hello and he asked if he could join me.
So I was having breakfast with him and it was really inspiring. I don't know if you've ever spent any time with him, but he just has a really nice way about him. He's really passionate, even after all these years, and the things that he has to say... We were talking a lot about Frankie Knuckles and people's legacies. What will people remember you for? I suppose, in a way, a lot of those guys are roughly the same age as Frankie, and they were probably really shook up. I've been doing this 20 years, it doesn't feel that long—so these guys that have been doing it for 30, 35 years, it must go so quickly, and then to see one of their friends go. It probably wakes people up, thinking, what's the purpose of this whole thing?
So, my counterpoint with that is that I'm very much about being in the moment. I want to create the experience for now. For me it's less important to have a piece of music that's going to go on after I've died. I'm more about wanting to create an experience between people and to get people to just be awake in this moment. So it's different, but I'm not as old as him, maybe it'll change in a few years.
I'd seen an interview with you from a couple years back and you mentioned that when it comes to inspirations you're quite visually orientated. Maybe influences at times are coming less from sounds and more from visual cues and images. Is that still the case?
I haven't used images for quite a while actually. It's definitely something I was using earlier on with my music, and it's another tool that I can use.
What form would that take?
I'd look at pictures or look at artwork, and then I would ask myself, how would that sound? For me, memories as well. I had a memory of being quite young. On my way to school I'd have to walk through this wooded area, and then in the spring and the summer you'd have all these bluebells and it's like, how would bluebells sound in the breeze?
You also mentioned switching up time signatures and tempos while you're writing. Is this a case of trying to break out of rigid creative patterns?
Yes, I think so. I think that the more of these things that are at your disposal as a producer the better. You're going to come up with different things, it gets you away from making the same track over and over, as many producers do. You know, I'm guilty of doing it: if I'm stuck I know that I can put in this kick and I know I can build this track, I know it's going to work, but it's not necessarily going to be any better than what I've done before. I think as a producer you have to keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself to get better.
So you got started pretty early. You were 17 when you got into DJing. How did that happen and what were you interested in back then?
I think I went out when I was maybe 15, and funnily enough my dad was involved with a party, he invested some money. It was at The Q Club in Birmingham. They did this party with Cevin Fisher that was a complete flop. But I remember him playing the Deep Dish remix of "Hideaway." I was just like, wow. It kind of got me interested in DJing.
I also used to go to Bakers in Birmingham, so I heard Scott Bond play there. It was all this kind of new "epic house" as it was called at the time, which was obviously the precursor to trance, and he was playing all of this music. His father was actually a friend of my family. So it was kind of like an awakening: well, he's DJing, so obviously DJing can be for everybody, there are no special circumstances that you need to actually do this.
It was coming up to my 17th birthday and my dad wanted to get me a computer. My dad was like, "OK you should have a computer, everyone's having computers now." I said, "I don't want a computer, dad, I want decks." He found out how much they cost, he was like, "No way, you're not having that for your birthday." I was like, "OK, if you're not buying them I'm just going to save the money." It was probably the first time—and really the only time—I saved up some money, and I think when they saw that I was actually serious they were like, OK maybe we should try and nurture this. I was lucky, my parents are pretty young and they were already going out a lot in the club scene, so they kind of knew what it was about and they supported me.
I understand that Atomic Jam at The Q Club was eventually very influential for you.
I went to Atomic Jam and I was just like, what the hell is this? I suppose it's because I didn't get to go to these big raves, and I think that was probably the closest thing to it. I remember sitting at the top—Q Club is an amphitheatre, it's an old Methodist church, and you have all these balconies. I remember sitting in this balcony looking down thinking, what is going on here? I just fell in love.
Which DJs did you gravitated towards?
I really loved Dave Angel because it was really funky. Billy Nasty was super hard. I really liked his sound. And then obviously Dave Clarke, he was the king back then. His sets were next level. He'd come on with so much energy and he'd always make a statement.
Thinking about the energy and the sort of feelings this created, do you feel like the energy in techno these days is pretty different?
I feel like something's lost from those early days. Clarke was using a lot more effects, the sets were a little bit more raw. He was kind of like throwing things in, it feels like it had more energy. But I think nowadays techno has become more refined, the minimal influence is still running through it, so you have more deep techno, and also it seems to be more about cleaner mixing and building that way. You know, someone like Ben Klock is really good with maintaining energy with that sound. I think he's one of the best, just how he can keep it there and keep it rolling and still have this really big energy. But I think a lot of the time DJs are quite safe nowadays.
I want people, especially the youngsters coming into the scene, I want them to experience that feeling that I had when I was 17, and I was just like, what the fuck is going on? Just being assaulted with records and grooves and different things, which now I'm not hearing as much of. When I do hear these records I'm like, ah I've got to play this. Paula Temple is really great at doing that. She can create that kind of feeling from the '90s, and I love it.
When things started to pick up for you as a DJ you were mainly playing house, is that right?
Yeah, I was in Birmingham, I was playing some house gigs. I had a friend who was working at Miss Moneypenny's, and he took me to Russia, so we did some gigs in Russia, in Moscow. Then he was like, "Look I might have got you on an agency, there's a nice agency in London, I can get you on there." I went down and had a meeting and it was Judge Jules' agency, and at the time I was like, "Ohhhh. OK, let's see."
I was still veering towards loops and grooves. I was playing sort of West Coast tribal house. The agency wanted a mix from me. I gave them this mix and they were like, "This sound is not really doing it for us but we've got a division in the Serious companies, which has trance and hard house on one side, and then we have Dusted on the other side, which is more like funky house and house."
I didn't really have anything else on, and being 20 I was like, "Oh I have those records, I could play that." So in a way, looking back, I kind of sold out, but I just wanted to play. I just wanted to get out there and DJ, that was my dream. I did four years with them, and in the end I hated it. I left because I just couldn't stand the music anymore. I was like, what the fuck am I playing? There was one night at The Cross in London, I just woke up out of it. I was like, they want me to play vocals, I don't want to play vocals, they're telling me that I have to play this to be accepted by them and in the end fuck it, this isn't making me happy. I left the agency and went back to Birmingham with my tail between my legs, and I started again.
I was looking over your gig listings on RA, and it seemed like around 2010/11 things started to pick up for you. You were playing more internationally and you started to gain some recognition. What led to this?
A few things happened. So the pinnacle point was that I stopped partying. I stopped taking drugs. I stopped drinking. Because I realised that this dark energy that is associated with these things was really what was blocking me from having any self-belief or any creativity. I was just really frustrated. So I removed that element from my life. Things started getting a little bit better. To be creative and to make the music that I wanted to make, I just had to stop giving a fuck.
So I don't care if I don't have any gigs, I'll go get a job. I went and got a job, and then when I had some time off I would go to the studio with a specific plan—I'm going to make a track that sounds like this memory. This is when it started to get really interesting. I stopped pushing for gigs, I was like, I'm just going to make music that I like to make and see what happens.
I assume that your sobriety helps you massively now that you're touring constantly?
Yeah completely. I'd already done the touring and getting wrecked and missing flights and not turning up to gigs because I was just too wasted. This is the truth, and I really took things for granted, you know? This time round I don't take it for granted. This whole thing is a gift. I feel lucky to be able to do this. If I put that element back in I don't know what would happen. I kind of don't want that person to come out, I don't want anybody to see that person anymore.
Let's talk about your DJ setup. You're running something of a hybrid system at this point. Talk me through what you're using.
I'm using a Traktor setup, four channels open on Traktor, and a Roland Aira TR-8. I also use the Korg Volca Bass and some pedals for the bass as well. So, because I like this kind of '90s sound, the Volca Bass has got three oscillators, so you get this kind of weird, retro sound, so I wanted to incorporate that. I use the TR-8 to give me more percussion, even though I probably don't need more percussion! I wanted to challenge myself a little bit, because I can do the four decks, and I keep that rolling and rolling, which is nice, but I think it was more about bringing in something different to make it more unique.
So how do you typically use all of this stuff?
The Volca Bass has eight memory slots, so there are normally like eight things that I can play from there. I have more loops and different bits of my own productions now in Traktor. I'm using the TR-8 quite a lot, just to add in some more percussion, even more little subtle effects. Then if I strip things back enough with Traktor I can start bringing in the Volca Bass and I have a little jam.
That sounds pretty satisfying.
Yeah, I enjoy it. I'm still getting to grips with it, I'm one month in. For me it's really important that I don't lose the energy, I just want to keep everything going. By adding in two more elements, in the beginning it was like, OK what's going on? It slowed me down a little bit, but sometimes I can be really hectic, sometimes I could be so fast that it's maybe a good thing for people on the dance floor. So in a way I'm learning more about myself.
I'd seen on social media that some people were trying to suggest that you somehow fake aspects of your performances. That must've been incredibly frustrating. What actually happened?
It was just some comments on a video of mine from the Kappa FuturFestival in Turin that I played at last year. Some guys were saying, "Oh it's fake, she's playing a pre-recorded set." I'm kind of used to the sync thing with Traktor—"Oh she's not playing, not beat matching"— and I'm at peace with that. But people who actually say I have a pre-recorded set, then I'm like, this is actually slander now, I'm not down with this.
So I responded and I made a statement on my Facebook. What I realised is that even if you proved the point, the person or the people just move on to the next thing: "Oh, well you're syncing it." And then if I proved that point it would be: "Oh, you're just a girl." And if you get to the core of it, it doesn't matter what you do and who you are, if they are not happy with themselves they will find something to be unhappy with you about. So I've learnt in these last couple of days about what I need to do: it's to not respond.
You're not going to change their mind. And also what happened, which I think is hilarious, is that by making this statement, now all these other people are leaving messages on my page: "Fake!" And it's like, you just jumped on a bandwagon, be original at least. I've got good humour about it now, but at the time they just caught me in a bad moment, I'd just finished the weekend, lack of sleep.
It must be a tricky thing to navigate. On the one hand, I've seen that you post quite frequently, you engage with people and you're quite open. Then on the other hand, you have incidents like the one you experienced. As an artist, is it exhausting to have to think about social media so much?
Yeah I think so. Facebook change the rules all the time. So I realised that what worked in the beginning, more of a music sharing community on my page, if you do that now Facebook cuts how many people sees it. Now it's this whole Facebook Live thing, and it's like, I don't want to have to do Facebook Live for the sake of doing it. Facebook dictates the rules on what you have to do to engage with people, and it's all about money. They just want you to spend money on an advertising piece. So you're at their mercy. I respect artists who just don't have a Facebook page.
But presumably there's pressure from promoters, agents etc. to be posting?
Once you get into it, yeah. I had a gig in Tunisia, and it was great, but they were really nervous after what happened there with Dax. They were like, "Please put that you're coming here, post the event up for us." So you're trying to please promoters and please the record labels and please your fans at the same time, and you have to do it in a way that isn't just bombarding people with advertisements. I'm looking forward to the day where I don't have to be as fully engaged in it. Now I'm always thinking, OK I'm leaving tonight but I have to take a picture of me holding this record because my album is coming out. There's all this pre-planning stuff. Ultimately, I just want to go to the studio and make music.
Rebekah plays RA's takeover of The Underground Stage at this year's Movement Festival in Detroit, which runs May 27th to the 29th.