The surreal touch that colors Flügel's music extends to his masterful DJ sets. Speaking to Matt Unicomb, he reflects on his decades behind the decks.
Six years later, you're more likely to catch Flügel spinning in a big room or a festival, making it less likely to hear him play as deep as he did that night in Berlin. But the psychedelic touch remains, delivered through a keen ear for melody and technical skills honed throughout a career that stretches back more than two decades. A product of Frankfurt's fertile scene, he's known for his role in the pioneering labels Playhouse and Ongaku Musik, operations that helped define underground club sounds in the '90s. Understated with subtle flecks of melody, Flügel's style behind the decks is similar to the music in his catalogue. It's a style that requires patience and a deep knowledge of music, as clashing melodies or sounds can yank listeners from their trance.
A few weeks before the release of his Fabric 95 mix, I dialled up Flügel for a chat about his approach to DJing. Looking back at his time as a young clubber hitting the pivotal Dorian Gray club and afterhours parties in Offenbach, he shared his insights into the craft, including his shift to bigger rooms. He also touched on the benefits of CDJs and the importance of melody, while offering his thoughts on the role of the DJ in general.
A lot of DJs from the Frankfurt area, including yourself, are known for a hypnotic style of DJing. Why do you think that is?
Before house music showed up, Frankfurt was very much associated with new wave and EBM. There was a big scene of new wave heads who dived into the electronic aspect of that sound, which I think played a major role. Even early on at Dorian Gray, those people only showed up in the morning, like between 4 and 5 AM. Before that it was like a disco hangout—you know, people dressed up for a beautiful night. But in the morning these people dressed in black with strange haircuts showed up and the music became very repetitive and electronic.
When did you realise you wanted to DJ?
I wanted to be a DJ before I knew about electronic music, because I saw hip-hop coming from the US in the early '80s. I was 11 or 12 years old, and suddenly I saw documentaries about breakdancing, hip-hop and graffiti on TV. I noticed this guy with two turntables making weird noises—scratching—and I was totally fascinated. I gave it a try on my cheap record player at home and it didn't work at all. But those pictures—the guys using turntables as an instrument—were really important. It took some time until I found out how to mix, and then I did a mixtape. I remember making the mixtape with a friend when I was 12 or 13 years old. He had a little mixer, one record player and a cassette tape. That's how we created our first DJ mix—but with no beatmatching, obviously.
When did you begin to mix with vinyl records?
Around '87 and '88. We went out a lot back then—two or three nights, every week. Me and my friends finished high school and had money to spend and a lot of spare time, so that's how we all got into it. Record shopping was an important part. We bought records but Technics turntables were already very expensive. So we threw parties in our hometowns and then rented equipment. We learnt how to mix at those events.
You eventually spent time at a lot of afterhours in Offenbach.
I left Darmstadt in the mid-'90s and moved to Offenbach. There was a small scene going on with Zip and Perlon—they all came from Offenbach. Rent was also cheap. Offenbach used to be a very industrial area, so there were spots you could meet and play music. There was one venue in particular called the Fahrrad Halle [Bicycle Hall], where many people went on Sundays for afterhours.
Maybe this explains why you play so much trippy music now—you went to a lot of afterhours. One DJ told me that to be able to play this music well, you need to have spent a lot of time in those situations.
The good thing about those parties is that they can go through different phases of sounds. There are a few masters who do this really well, like Sven [Väth]. When he plays longer sets, there's a point where the energy goes down and it becomes very trippy. Then suddenly you have a certain track that brings back all the energy and tells you something new is coming. You can get lost in the afterhours sound, but it becomes special when you go through the different stages. That's something you only witness when you stay longer.
Do you consider the music you play trippy?
I don't know.
Do you think about it?
Not on purpose, but it's the kind of the music I like. Maybe some of my experiences are connected to that. I like those sounds and atmospheres.
I think you play hypnotic music, but in a different way to most other DJs. Others who have a hypnotic sound—Ricardo Villalobos, Vera—are more loopy and minimal. You're able to create this hypnotic effect by playing melodic and playful tracks.
That's exactly what I like about music.
Why are melodies important to a DJ set?
They make music memorable. I love melodies that touch you emotionally. It's nice to get lost in the rhythm, but then when the melody appears, it's something you can't compare.
Do you think the music you play is positive?
I don't think so, because there have been times when I played, I wouldn't say negative, but the darker side of electronic music. The last couple of years have been more fun, so it's good for me to have a generally more positive vibe. I'm not trying to put people in depression.
Many of the tracks you play feel quite sensitive and soft. You don't play many obvious bangers, but you're still able to rock a room with these delicate tunes. What do you need to keep in mind to play this way?
You can only play these tracks if you don't play a string of them for the whole two hours. You have to balance it out. Sometimes I play a rough track—maybe a drum beat with hardly any notes or melodies—and then a beautiful, for example, Fort Romeau track appears. People really appreciate that. If I would only play melodies the whole evening, or just drum tracks, it would never work.
How do you balance your love for trippy music with the need to give people a good time? You're not playing classic house or disco, so the moods are less obvious.
If you dig deep into the history of house music, you learn about its foundations. Then you discover how to push certain buttons by playing certain tracks. I know of many people who can play disco a lot better than me, and who know much more than me, so why should I try that? I'd rather stick with what I know and really feel, rather than pretending to educate. That's not my idea of DJing.
Do you think some DJs are too pretentious about what they do?
I wouldn't blame anyone, but DJing is different now compared to how it started. When it was brand new, it was all about playing the latest tracks and going to the shop to find the latest records. Now if you're a young DJ, you can go through playlists, find the right compilations and read the right articles, and you'd probably end up with house music's 50 most important tracks. But that doesn't mean you're a good DJ. Take a look at soul music and rare groove, for example. There are certain DJs playing 7-inches all night long with the most hidden gems in their collections, but there are tracks that are played again and again. At least that's what I've heard. And people freak out—which is fair enough—but I always hoped this wouldn't happen with house music. I think it should be developing all the time.
Maybe you think that because you're a producer. You want to create, so you don't feel like looking back at old tracks.
Certain tracks might be obscure and unknown, but that doesn't make them better. If you're younger, it might be a very exciting thing to do. We have a record shop here in Frankfurt, Gosu, focussed on old records. It's interesting to see that people are trying to find out about the music of their childhood basically—or maybe the music of their parents.
I saw you play a great DJ set in Berlin in 2011. It was at Horst Krzbrg, which has since closed. Your set was very deep and subtle, and you even played "Pattern 16," one of your trippiest tracks. You play much bigger spaces now, so I can't imagine you get to play like that very often anymore.
That Horst party was special—I was playing David Bowie by the end. I didn't know what to expect from the club because I'd never been there before, and suddenly everything was possible. There's a difference between playing in an intimate club and on a stage. But that doesn't mean I don't play smaller clubs anymore. When I play at Robert Johnson or Panorama Bar, the sets are very different compared to a big festival stage.
In terms of DJing, it feels like you're busier than ever. Is that the case?
Yes, at least for the last three or four years. I stopped playing live with Alter Ego, which gave me more time. I worked hard to get to the next level in what I'd call my career so I could travel more and present what I really like and stand for. I didn't want to just play my own music over and over again, which is what I did with Alter Ego for many years.
How did you adapt to DJing in these big rooms?
It's something you grow into. I don't know what it feels like to only play big rooms from the beginning. It was a very, very slow development, and I played small clubs and parties for years. Eventually I started to play festivals here and there, but it would be between midday and 1 PM when nobody was there. It was step-by-step. It's a different challenge to play on a big stage and to hold people's attention, but I still try to remain playful without playing one hit after the other. There has to be room for trippy sounds. I can't play some fist-pumping, rolling techno set for two hours.
When did you switch to CDJs?
It was a slow process starting with CDJs and CDRs a couple of years ago. I began carrying less records until I ended up playing almost none. There are a few places where you feel absolutely safe playing vinyl—like Panorama Bar or Robert Johnson—but besides them, I haven't played a full vinyl set for a couple of years.
Did you partly switch because of the technical troubles you would have with vinyl?
They happened, of course. There was a period when most places didn't care about record players at all. And if you travel a lot without anyone managing your stage—like the big DJs have—you get in trouble. The other aspect is the amount of records you carry with you makes it difficult to travel.
CDJs were very interesting to discover, because you can experience new things while mixing with them. You can play very flexible sets, deciding the cue points, using loops and stuff like that. It can be another way of expressing yourself. It's also interesting to slow down or speed up tracks in an extreme way. I play tracks that I could never play on vinyl because they're too slow. So even though vinyl sounds beautiful and the technical side is interesting, I can't say the CDJ thing is something I would complain about.
The music you play also requires well-timed transitions, as clashing melodies can destroy the set's flow. CDJs help with this.
Definitely. You have to be careful, but you can do that with CDJs. You might have a little breakdown where only the drums are playing, so you can easily make a loop for a couple of bars and then mix in the next record. You feel safe that transition will be smooth.
Were you ever into this pure minimal sound the Frankfurt area was known for?
Yeah, I was. But you have to see it in the context of that time. Minimal was basically a reaction to what was happening at around the same time: electro house. DJ Hell, Gigolo—it had a more pop appeal. You had bands playing on stage, and I think minimal was a reaction to that. A younger generation and a different group of people were sick of it, and the most extreme reaction would be music that basically sounds like there's almost nothing left—drum beats, a bassline and some abstract notes here and there. That was minimal for me, and I really liked some of the tracks. But as with any kind of music, something new comes along.
There are plenty of DJs playing your early tracks.
I find it interesting to see which tracks become popular from my old catalogue. It's really surprising. I can't complain at all, but I would never play them again. I wonder if it will be the case ten years from now.
"How To Spread Lies" will definitely still be played in ten years.
I hope so.
When you find a particular combination of tracks that works well, will you repeat it at another gig?
Yes, of course. That's something that comes with playing a lot. You discover certain mixes while DJing, which you can't do at home—it's impossible. Then you repeat them until you find tracks that go even better together. I try to bring tracks together in my head, but you can only hear it properly on a system.
Will you keep the same combinations for a while?
Sometimes. It's something I learnt from listening to other DJs, because not everyone can reinvent themselves every weekend. I think it's important to learn how to build up to certain tracks by playing them in certain combinations. You can base your sets on that. You could go a whole year only playing new records, but it's also possible to get better at playing the records you already have.
What are you looking for when you look at the crowd from behind the decks?
Well, since I'm not making a big show on the stage—I don't wave my hands round to get people on my side—I let the music do the talking. So when there's a certain energy and movement in the room, it puts me, the crowd and the music together.
It's still about fun.
I think it is. Fun isn't a bad thing. It's something enjoyable and you don't have to play stupid music to make people feel good. You can do it in a beautiful way.
How would you define the role of the DJ? Is it simply about finding the right music for a certain situation, taking people on a trip, or something else?
Taking people on a trip is a beautiful thing to do. But it depends on the DJ and the listeners, and whether the people in the club are educated. Some people think they can ask the DJ to play their favourite tracks. That happens, but on the other side you have people who are there to really experience something and let themselves go.
How do you deal with track requests?
I don't. Unfortunately I have to disappoint anyone who asks.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you value the solitary nature of being a producer. This contrasts with the idea of you as a DJ, and as someone who's spent a lot of time at afterhours and loves nightclubs. Some of the best producers aren't big party people, so you're lucky that you enjoy both sides.
Yes, I do. It's part of my personality. The music put me into clubs in the first place, and then I discovered the wonderful chaos you have at a party. It's unique. I like to stay in solitude in my studio, but a party is a beautiful thing to have. It's not a beautiful thing to experience on your own, because you have to connect with other people. And I always liked that aspect, having many people in a room enjoying the same thing. It's very ancient and profound.