Kit Macdonald visits the Danish capital to investigate its emergence as a hotbed for 140 BPM dance music.
I first became aware of the fast techno (140 BPM-plus) sound in Copenhagen around a year ago. I was beguiled by the texture, emotion and fun underlying its pounding beats. I decided to try to trace its genesis, experience the scene and find out where the whole thing is headed. My starting point was chatting and track-sharing with Najaaraq Vestbirk, AKA Courtesy, cofounder of the label Ectotherm and a tireless champion of the Danish capital's community of fast techno DJs and producers. A year on, my exploration has led to half a dozen trips, formal and informal conversations with DJs, producers, party organisers and devotees of the sound, some new friendships, and, if not a complete recalibration of my club-music tastes, then at least my own version of the awakening described by a friend in the city. "I'd heard people talking about it, but I always thought of super-fast techno as too functional and not fun enough for my tastes, so for a while I assumed it would be none of my business," she said. "But eventually I ended up at one of the nights and I haven't been able to get enough of it since."
Of course, 140 BPM techno isn't a new idea. The genre has been periodically speeding up and slowing down since the beginning. Plenty of producers outside of Copenhagen are currently exploring breakneck tempos. But the Danish capital's take is distinctive both for its style and the size and strength of the scene around it. Copenhagen has long had a thing for high-BPM electronic music, which stemmed from the popularity of Swedish and Danish trance and hard tribal techno in the 1990s and was reaffirmed by dubstep midway through the following decade. Many of the producers and crews leading the current scene have been quietly doing their thing for years, a fact that Ectotherm was set up to address. "Sara [Svanholm, AKA Mama Snake] and I started the label because we were sitting on all these amazing demos from our friends in the city," Vestbirk told me. "Both of us had separately dreamed of running a label, so it just made sense to do it together at that point. There was no initial masterplan to become a 140 BPM techno label—that just happened because that's what the people we signed and liked decided to make. In that sense I don't feel like we can take credit for the scene turning in this direction, we were maybe just the first to present the sound to a worldwide audience, which is something I'm really proud of."
The warehouse raves favoured by this scene have also happened periodically in the city through the years. What is completely new, however, is the powerful sense of community that has emerged in the past couple of years among what was previously an atomised collection of DJs, producers and parties, bringing with it a surge of creative energy.
Copenhagen is an ideal incubator for the scene. Around 600,000 live in the city, with almost 2 million in the surrounding area. This brings rich cultural potential while maintaining an everyone-knows-each-other vibe. Everywhere in the city is at most a 30-minute bike ride away, and it's perfectly feasible to make and keep half a dozen social plans in a day in a way that's impossible in London or New York. Stretched in a rough crescent moon shape along a north-eastern section of the Zealand coast, Copenhagen's postwar development has been governed by the iconic (in urban planning circles, at least) Finger Plan, under which five residential and industrial "fingers," led by transport lines and bordered by green space, extend north and northwest from the "palm" of central Copenhagen.
Hop on the metro from Kastrup Airport and you're in the centre of the palm in 13 minutes. Walk north over the crooked line of five artificial lakes that bisect the palm and you're in the neighbourhood of Nørrebro, home to such a large percentage of the DJs, producers and fans of the music that it's common to hear it referred to simply as "the hood." Some of its producers and DJs live on the same streets as one another, and nobody is more than ten minutes' walk away from anyone else. The area is home to a large population of immigrants, young creatives and students, and its mix of excellent shawarma joints, trendy coffee shops, bars and parks brings to mind East London.
The first of my two visits to the city coincided with the final cold snap of a long winter, as well as the year's first big Fast Forward rave. Fast Forward is a "rave production company" and artist agency run by three longtime friends in their early 30s: Nikolaj Jakobsen, Lukas Højlund and Anders Marc. It began in late 2015 and is, by common consent, the factor that's linked the previously scattered elements (specifically the groups of people around the labels Ectotherm, Euromantic and TRTLNCK, the label, collective and studio BunkerBauer, the parties Vortex, Lost 2 Reality and Et Andet Sted and the record store Percy Records) into a community.
On a bitterly cold late-March afternoon, I met Jakobsen at his flat in Nørrebro. Prior to entering the world of techno, Jakobsen—softly spoken, with a subtle intensity in his eyes—was for many years prominent on the city's DIY punk scene. During this period he was resident alongside Højlund in a legendary squat and artistic community called the Youth House, though he was often away from the city touring worldwide with punk and metal bands.
Given the decisive changes he has helped make to the city's electronic music scene and his skill as a DJ and producer (under the name Sugar), I'm surprised to learn that Jakobsen only set foot in a club for the first time in 2012. That club was a short-lived, much-missed spot called The Basement. Jakobsen had first found himself there not as a punter, but as a janitor. "The Basement was an amazing, huge place that reminded me of the Wesley Snipes movie Blade," Jakobsen told me. "One of the perks of my job was that they let me put on shows there for free, so initially I used it for punk and metal gigs. I had never been to a rave and had no interest in techno, but I had friends on the techno scene who would talk to me about the nights they went to, and it occurred to me that The Basement would be perfect for that kind of thing. So I called them and said I thought we should do something ravey there," he said, before adding with a smile, "whatever that meant."
Jakobsen's drive and his friends' knowledge led to a series of five parties in The Basement named Exile, which featured the likes of Headless Horseman, Ancient Methods and Adam X. By the time a major flood forced The Basement to close, Jakobsen had caught the bug. He wound down the punk band he was a part of, and teamed up with Højlund to found Fast Forward. The first party took place at the Youth House in late 2015, and the pair learned on the job from there.
"From then our mission was to boil down putting on a rave to its essence—just to really get good at it," Jakobsen said. From the beginning, Jakobsen and Højlund were clear that they would run Fast Forward on the principles of community and cooperative action they'd learned (and lived under) on the punk scene. "The way of life we learned in the Youth House was based on building networks of like minds all over the world, so if you wanted to do a show, a festival or a tour, you could do it through cooperation, with a minimal amount of money involved. We were taught that anything was possible as long as you involved people who wanted to help you." People were invited to help out at the early Fast Forward parties in whatever way they wanted—working the bar, or the door, or cleaning up afterwards. When more door money started coming in, the former volunteers began to be paid for their work. "Two or three times a year we would have a special 'community party' just for the people who worked with us, to reinforce the idea of it being a community effort," Jakobsen added.
Another important element of Fast Forward adapted from Jakobsen and Højlund's past is a strictly enforced zero-tolerance policy on racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic behaviour. The club uses door staff from a security firm linked to the local Anti-Fascist Action group. They are specifically trained to deal with such incidents, and they have Fast Forward's political and social principles close to their hearts—they're the very opposite of goons on the door. "That's not to say nothing bad can ever happen at our parties," Jakobsen said, "and as a white heterosexual male I wouldn't want to be the judge of that anyway. But we do absolutely everything we can to make everyone feel safe and accepted."
Bringing all of this into the techno scene helps explain why Fast Forward has been such an important factor in the scene's newfound cohesion. "As we did more parties people started to come together around them—people would meet doing the door or the bar together, and after a while we began to see new groups of friends forming. In that way the scene is totally different now to how it was two or three years ago. There are multiple reasons why it has changed and we're definitely not saying, 'It was all us, we made that happen on our own,' but I do think our way of doing things showed the techno community something it hadn't seen before."
Jakobsen's sentiments were echoed by many others on the scene, including Alexander Salomonsen, AKA Repro, who co-runs the Euromantic label with fellow producers Adam Askov and Niki Istrefi. "There's been a huge change since Fast Forward came along," Salomonsen told me. "Things were happening here but there was no coherent scene tying everything together. There was nothing that was really special, and nothing I would have genuinely missed if I had left. I used to go to Berlin a lot and was thinking of moving there because I was bored here, but now when I go to Berlin..." he paused. "It's rough to say I'm bored of the music there, but I'm close to being bored. The things that are good here are the absolute peak of how I want a party to be and how I like music to be, and the sense of belonging that has developed is really special. When I play I can always look out at the dance floor and see lots of people I know and love. There's a great sense of pride in knowing you've played a part in creating this thing."
Alongside organising Fast Forward and DJing regularly, Jakobsen produces tracks from a well-stocked analogue studio in the north of Nørrebro. With banks of synths and drum machines on either side, copious plant life and a huge Midas 250XL mixing desk as a centrepiece, the studio could easily be the workplace of a techno A-lister with a side passion for horticulture. Unsurprisingly given his commitment to pushing the sound, Jakobsen's productions are emblematic of the scene's as a whole: aggressive 140-BPM kicks (his studio is precisely calibrated for production at that tempo) paired with killer melodies and atmospheric touches. Euromantic will release his debut EP, No Sex Only Feelings, in the summer, and an appearance on a new compilation from Berlin's Herrensauna will follow. Jakobsen's commitment to his (relatively) new medium is obvious, and his studio schedule and workrate mean these records are likely to be the first of many. "I kind of don't want summer to arrive," he confided one day, half-jokingly, "because people are going to try to make me leave the studio and come out and do stuff."
Rune Bagge, a DJ and producer with an EP on Ectotherm and a recently released mini-album on Northern Electronics, laughed when I brought up Jakobsen's commitment and application. "Niko is so naturally musical that I always think of him as being a bit like Rain Man," Bagge said. "When he decided to start DJing he borrowed a few records from me and within a week or two he had learned to play a good set. It's the same with gear—we'll buy the same piece of equipment and I'll spend months getting to know it and Niko will have mastered it in a week. And I'm left sitting here thinking, 'Damn you, Rain Man!'"
With a couple of days to go until the Fast Forward party, I ventured out into heavy snow to meet some more of the scene's leading figures. First, I scurried a few streets over to Heimdalsgade and took shelter in Percy Records. Percy opened a year or so ago and is owned and run by Troels Hastrup, a grounded, chilled local DJ and promoter in his mid-20s whose small but excellent store has played its part in bringing the scene together.
Hastrup, who asked Glasgow's Rubadub for guidance in setting up shop, has an impressively curated range of music besides house and techno on his shelves. The store, the only one of its kind in Copenhagen aside from the periodically active Dorma 21, has become a hangout. Most quality electronic releases from the city have a launch party at Percy. (Launch events were scheduled for every evening on the six days I visited.) In the back of the shop a recently founded distribution business, EM92, is run by Hastrup's friend Jeppe Petersen, and is attracting business from an ever-growing number of the city's labels and crews. Hastrup and Petersen don't work together directly, but they help each other whenever they can, and working under the same roof is proving a mutually beneficial way to make contact with DJs, producers and label owners of all stripes.
"I had been playing with the idea of opening a store for a while because there was nowhere that stocked experimental stuff alongside house and techno," Hastrup explained as he opened brown-paper packages of new vinyl on the shop's counter. "I also noticed an increasing desire among my friends to have somewhere like this, especially those involved in the techno scene. I've been organising shows and festivals for a few years and the social aspect of music means a lot to me. I think record stores can really contribute to bringing people together and that's a major part of why I wanted to do this."
Both the store and the snow-covered streets outside were deserted when I first visited, so I returned for a launch party the following day to see Percy's social mission in action. As various figures from the scene chatted, drank beer, browsed records and took turns to DJ behind the counter, I chatted to Mikkel Sönnichsen, AKA third wife, whose new 12-inch, Closer, we were there to launch. Sönnichsen isn't directly a part of the fast techno scene—he makes rave-influenced tracks with a less militant feel to them—but thanks to the store he's now a close associate of it.
"Meeting people who have similar music tastes, worldview and so forth at parties is one thing," he told me. "But what Percy has brought to Copenhagen, aside from great records, is a space outside of clubs and warehouses where we can meet and talk about music, what's happening in our city and so on. Whether people are making trance, house, ambient, experimental or techno, they are all somehow connected to Percy, and the shop has become a space where people can share their approaches and experiences in a way we weren't able to before." Sönnichsen pointed to the shop's display wall, which that night featured only copies of his record, and told me Closer would probably never have existed if it wasn't for Percy. "I've met so many people here who've succeeded at releasing their own records," he said. "So when I finished the tracks, I was able to think of those people and have the confidence to do the same."
That evening I headed to the Frederiksberg neighbourhood to meet Laura Martini, a thoughtful and measured Romanian who DJs and produces under the name Sella Turcica. Martini is a relative newcomer to the scene whose productions and DJ sets have an atmospheric murk that made me wonder if dubstep had been a formative influence. "Dubstep and drum & bass were my things before this," she told me as we sipped orange wine in the bar she works at part-time. (Everyone on the scene aside from Vestbirk works at least one other job; Martini is also an accomplished graphic designer.) "I had a year of slight confusion, of not knowing where to head musically. I had been looking for a heavy, dark sound to immerse myself in and had started going to Fast Forward and the parties at the Bunker, and that's how I settled on techno."
At that time Martini was constrained by sensitive neighbours, but, like many others, she found a solution in the Bunker, a second world war air raid shelter in Østerbro that's home to the BunkerBauer collective. A friend suggested she write to them and, to her delight, they welcomed her into the collective. "I was in awe," she said, smiling broadly. "It took me a few months to wrap my head around it—there I was, making music and DJing alongside the people I had been looking up to. Those guys and others in our scene are who I take inspiration from, because I get to see up close their commitment to DJing and producing, and their amazing record collections." A popular figure, Martini now DJs regularly at Fast Forward and other parties, and is developing her sound as a producer in the creative, supportive environment of the Bunker. "I still have so much to learn about producing, but I love sitting and learning on Ableton for a whole day, until my body is properly stiff."
Later, on a visit to the Bunker, a debate broke out in the (all-male) group of DJs about how egalitarian or otherwise the fast techno scene is in terms of gender. When I asked Martini about it, she told me: "I've never seen or experienced any hidden obstacles in this scene. If we're looking at the gender ratio then of course it's unbalanced but I wouldn't hold this as evidence of oppression. As a girl coming from the outside I've had nothing but support and encouragement from everyone else." She agreed that the scene was equally welcoming and supportive to both genders.
The following morning I returned to Percy Records. I'd arranged to meet Frans Ibon, a tall, sandy-haired Norwegian DJ and producer whose superb Three Ways EP in 2017 was Ectotherm's third release. Ibon is someone who crops up a lot in conversation—one friend delighted in his "endless desire just to play one-euro records he's found on Discogs," while another told me that one of his own primary motivations in DJing is to "find tracks before Ibon does and watch his face as I play them out… it doesn't really matter what the rest of the crowd thinks."
A core member of BunkerBauer and an evangelical devotee of 1990s Swedish, Danish and German hard trance, Ibon produces constantly, but his perfectionism has so far kept him to one official release. I later found joined him and Salomonsen (Repro) on a train headed across the Øresund Bridge to Sweden, where the two had been booked to play a party in the factory district of Malmö.
Over a couple of train beers, Ibon and Salomonsen discussed where the Copenhagen techno sound has come from. "People were tired of slow, big-room techno," Ibon suggested. "That, plus the fact that people with completely different musical histories and inspirations started to DJ and make techno, without ever being influenced by or interested in slower techno to begin with."
In the late 2000s, the slower—typically around 128 BPM—techno sound from Berlin held sway in the city, and peopled repeatedly told me they'd grown bored of it. Copenhagen's main house and techno club, Culture Box, had ties with Ostgut Ton, and guest sets there from the label's DJs were generally the biggest events on the techno calendar. "It became really samey," Bagge said to me. "[Marcel] Dettmann would play at Culture Box in October, and you knew Dettmann would then play again at Culture Box the following October. We just started to feel like we needed to do something different for ourselves."
"I think another part of why a fast tempo works here is that a lot of us are children of the late 1980s and early 1990s," Ibon added as our train pulled into Malmö Central Station. "Trance was massive in Denmark then, so we all grew up hearing music of that speed, but we didn't actually experience it in a club setting. Lots of us are actually playing faster than 140 BPM now, and going faster and faster has been a way to push things forward and challenge each other." Salomonsen nodded: "That idea leads into the thing I appreciate most about what we've got in Copenhagen: it's really organic. People have similar interests and like each others' tracks and sets, so they naturally get together and feed off each other creatively. It's driven by that rather than any craving for success."
The party we were headed to, Astrum, has been building ties with the fast techno scene bubbling up across the bridge. Astrum is run by a small crew of east-coast Swedes who are cut from the same cloth as their counterparts in Copenhagen: friendly, welcoming and keen to talk about music. "Malmö is a hard place to run parties—basically everything good here has to be run on this semi-legal 'pirate party' basis," Astrum member Niklas Navijik told me in a quiet corner of the warehouse space that was hosting that night's rave. "I wouldn't say the fast techno sound has exactly caught on here, but in the past six months it's certainly been gaining some traction, and the people who get it really love it. To my knowledge we're the only crew in Malmö pushing it so far, but we always have at least one Copenhagen artist play at every party we do, and they always kill it."
The sound is starting to make small but sustained moves into other countries, too. Fast Forward has a collaboration with Berlin's Herrensauna, and the two regularly co-host parties in either city. In January, Ectotherm artists played for nine hours at a showcase at Berghain. Fast Forward's mix series, which was originally confined to Copenhagen artists, has recently expanded to include guest mixes from Bassiani resident Hector Oaks and Germany-based DJs such as Solaris and Freddy K. Istrefi, Salomonsen and Martin Schacke are regularly booked around northern Europe, and in June the latter curated two Friday nights at the Клуб club in St Petersburg, bringing Jakobsen and Ibon over as guests. The TRTLNCK label has found an unexpected fanbase in Paris, and in July the Norbergfestival in Sweden will host a Fast Forward Agency showcase. UK bookings have been relatively slow so far, Ectotherm showcase at London's Corsica Studios last winter suggested that could soon change.
Back in Copenhagen the following evening, I met up with Salomonsen and his girlfriend to attend a 1,000-capacity warehouse-type venue in Vesterbro called KPH Volume for Fast Forward. As we walked in, Rune Bagge was playing to a crowd dotted with people I had met in the previous few days—it doesn't take long for an outsider to feel at home in Copenhagen. I stood at the bar with Simone Øster, formerly of Apeiron Crew, and watched Bagge warm up with some ambient and breaks and a couple of his own "trapno" edits (mashups of drill/trap and techno) before settling into a fast techno groove for an already healthy crowd. "You should have seen Copenhagen five years ago," Øster said. "There was nothing like this happening."
Sometime during Jakobsen's set Schacke appeared on the floor in full leather chest-harness gear, energy undiminished by his flight from Los Angeles that landed an hour earlier. Ibon, also suffering no visible ill-effects from that morning's exertions in Sweden, played a trance-heavy closing set while dancing happily and leaning over the turntables to bum cigarettes from friends at the front. At 9 AM, as the ethereal intro to Jones & Stephenson's hard trance classic "The First Rebirth" kicked in, he jumped down from the booth and danced along with the couple of hundred people still on the floor, all of whom he seemed to know.
Before and after Fast Forward I had attended parties at the apartment of Joel Krozer, a mastering engineer who works with Ectotherm, Euromantic and others. Back in London I emailed Krozer, firstly to thank him for his hospitality ("It was a pleasure...a lovely bit of hygge!" came his very Danish reply), but also to get some technical insight on the music I had heard at Fast Forward. "The most prominent characteristic of this music is the contrast between dusty, older sound design aesthetics and modern mixing and mastering techniques, which we use to make the records unmistakably new-sounding," he told me. "The fast tempo can at times dictate what kind of sounds will work in an arrangement and can impose certain limitations. For instance, it generally wants the kick drums to sit a bit higher up in the frequency spectrum than in slower techno, but we make sure not to lose the lowest octave, all the way down to 20Hz. There can be a lot of relevant musical information even as low as 20-something Hz and I won't shave it off unless it's absolutely necessary. As humans we can't actually hear those frequencies but we can feel them on a soundsystem with extended low-end.
"As for the tempo, it has an almost ominous effect on the listener because it creates a kind of roar, especially in a setting with warehouse acoustics, because the notes are so closely stacked together and are being washed out by the reverb around it. When I'm mastering this music I try to find the right balance between making the synths wider and therefore bigger than is natural, and I often push the low-end further than is common, while keeping the transients of the drums snappy so they don't get drowned out on big systems. Traditionally engineers try to separate kick and bass as much as possible, but with this music we often intentionally make the two compete to create tension. This can potentially lead to problems, but I attend a lot of the parties to check the masters and make sure that the balance works."
A couple of weeks later I returned to find the city changed almost beyond recognition by the arrival of spring. The city flowers in the sunshine—a product of the yearning created by long, Mordor-like winters combined with an abundance of lakes and parks. As the 5C bus carried me from Norreport over the bridge to Nørrebro, I looked out at the lakes—their banks, previously rain-lashed and deserted, now teemed with people hanging out, drinking and listening to music.
I stepped into the early-afternoon sunshine and walked a couple of blocks west to the Assistens Cemetery, a graveyard for "notable Danes" in Nørrebro that doubles as a beautifully kept park. There I met the DJ, producer and promoter Kristian Andersen, a man with an infectious streak of mischief only amplified by his strong resemblance to Woody Harrelson. Andersen has run a party called Lost 2 Reality for the past five years that caters to his deep love for fast techno and other styles (gabber, doomcore, hard trance, early hardcore) that make 140 BPM techno sound like bedtime ambient. Lost 2 Reality takes cues from the golden age of rave and hardcore, both in terms of its music and its DIY flyers, which feature hand-drawn, acid-fried bootleg likenesses of everyone from Bugs Bunny to the Norse god Thor. We settled down on a bench on a tree-lined pathway near the white cross-topped grave of Søren Kierkegaard, and Andersen told me how Lost 2 Reality got started.
"I had just got home from six months living in Berlin," he began. "I had thought about doing something for years but it takes a lot of guts to do it." A combination of circumstances led to Andersen being asked to organise a night at a club called KB18 in the city centre. He booked DJ Iron, BunkerBauer's Lasse Vind and a friend who had just been released from house arrest who appeared under the name Mikael X-Unchained. A thousand people came through the door and Lost 2 Reality was born. "It was a real rave and still the craziest night I've ever put on," he said. "That one experience completely opened up this world for me." Lost 2 Reality has happened four or five times a year in various venues ever since. Its booking policy is a mirror of Andersen's irreverent personality. "For me it's just about booking crazy sounds. It's generally just people I meet in strange circumstances who I think are nice and/or crazy, and whose stuff I love," he said.
My next stop was a visit to the Bunker. Active since 2009 and now with 15 members, BunkerBauer is the longest-standing of the crews in the fast techno community. The atmosphere crystallises the indifference many on the scene have to chasing a typical DJ career—it's a classic example of a bunch of friends simply being happy to have a great place to hang out and listen to music. The Bunker is subsidised and protected by the Danish government because of its cultural contribution to the city, meaning that each member of the collective has to pay just a nominal fee (200 DKK, just over £20) in rent. Its longest standing DJs—the brothers and founders Osvald and Aske Lund Rønde, Lasse Vind and Ibon—have a special place on the scene, and are as respected and liked for being "really sweet and supportive brothers," as one younger DJ put it, as for their magical sets.