Document talks to the Berlin producer about her transcendent new album ‘AurAA’ and the post-COVID future of raving
It’s 10:30pm in Ibiza when Ellen Allien flops down on her sofa to take my Zoom call. The Spanish Island’s famous club circuit is still silent though lockdown restrictions started lifting three weeks ago, and Ellen, one of Berlin’s most high-octane techno producers and label bosses, is as pissed about the virus as anyone by this point. “It’s crazy how it takes our life away,” she says, lying flat on the couch in a black t-shirt with “FREEDOM” written across the front. “You know, I can survive—I make music, I make a lot of things, but every day I just get pissed. I can’t cry but I feel pissed because I can’t do what I want to do, and nobody can do what they want to do. It makes me just really pissed! [Laughs] I mean, everybody has a different reaction, no?”
Ellen didn’t intend for her new album to arrive in a world without nightclubs when she finished it in December, before leaving Berlin for a holiday in Mexico. But AurAA (released June 12) is a perfectly analeptic soundtrack for our collective restlessness and creative entropy, when introspection can give way to aggression (or vice versa) at any second. On the opening track “Hello Planet Earth (Breath Mix),” Ellen mournfully whispers over a languid, meditative beat that becomes faster and harder before fading away. Tracks like “Traum” and “Confusion” envelop the listener with deep, hypnotic swirls of synth work and drum beats, while “Human” has the sublimely tranquilizing effect of new-age healing music made for aliens. AurAA is the sound of ego death, of fully giving yourself up to a moment—whether it’s in a club, at a rave, or walking down the street wearing a mask and headphones.
“Music gives us the possibility to relax the brain, to follow something,” Ellen says. “If you move your body—if you have sex, if you kiss, if you dance, if you’re in the shower and the water goes through your body—all these movements open channels and [allow us to] connect. That’s why we are going to clubs. Just to feel this moment, without pretending to be someone else.”
Post-release, Ellen has been equally busy preparing for nightlife’s post-pandemic future. She’s planning releases on her label BPitch Control and UFO Inc., including a 34-track quarantine compilation called We Are Not Alone, and cleaning out an old beer factory for the 35-hour raves she formerly held at Berlin’s now-shuttered Griessmuehle. Here she tells Document why rave will never die, how technology can bring us together, and what she learned about revolution from reunification-era Berlin.
Hannah Ongley: I saw your Movement streaming set, which was incredible, though I’m sad I didn’t see it in real life. It was still an experience and a cool set. Was that a new experience for you or have you been sharing your music from isolation a lot over the last few months?
Ellen Allien: Actually, when [the lockdowns] started I was just back from Tulum, Mexico, for a holiday. So I was ready for playing. I played a long set in Miami at [Club] Space in the morning, and it was so awesome—very packed, very nice people, and I played very hard techno. Then I came back to Berlin and then lockdown. So I was in shock. After two weeks, my friend came to me on a Sunday, and said, ‘You know what, I’m so depressed. Let’s do streaming or something—I want to share music with people.’ The first stream we did from my studio, on Instagram, so it just stays for 24 hours and then disappears. So many people were so happy that something happened, and then I realized how important this was—also for myself. So I did all those streamings just to connect with music—to not let the music die. The music doesn’t have to die.
Movement is one of my favorite festivals ever, and I wanted to do something special—something in a warehouse, something empty, like when I go around in Detroit at night and I see all these empty warehouses. Sound-wise it was not easy for me to play, because it was a big empty space, but I don’t care if there’s nobody or there’s thousands of people. For me, when I listen to this music, I have a flashback—I feel like I’m at a party [laughs].
“At the moment, with coronavirus, I connect with many artists and we exchange tracks. And I actually really like that; because we have more time to talk, I have more time to make music, and we have more time to maybe make music together.”
Hannah: That’s funny you say it’s the same with or without a crowd. How do you select tracks for a set with no immediate audience?
Ellen: Many tracks I play are edits of tracks I like that are not on the market. Or I play new stuff, or old stuff, or edits of friends’ tracks that are not out. I always have a bunch of tracks I want to play, so it’s quite easy for me to make a set because there’s so much going on around me. At the moment, with coronavirus, I connect with many artists and we exchange tracks. And I actually really like that; because we have more time to talk, I have more time to make music, and we have more time to maybe make music together. Other artists—photographers, or fashion designers, are connecting with me to do things because there’s more time. In art, many things are going on.
Hannah: The album’s message of reconnecting with the world around us, of feeling small moments of transcendence, feels incredibly important for this time. But at the same time, these are themes you’ve been exploring for a long time. So was there anything in particular that inspired the feeling behind these tracks?
Ellen: Everybody’s searching for something which we don’t get, and then we build a world around us, taking us away from something. It’s just our brain. We’re not connecting anymore with planets, with Earth, with human beings, because there’s so much going on. And it’s so beautiful what we can create between each other, or what we can feel when we just watch the sky, or we have our feet on Earth. When I play music, and I just watch the people in the room, everybody’s going to a club or to a rave to try to feel those very human feelings again, without talking.
“When I play music, and I just watch the people in the room, everybody’s going to a club or to a rave to try to feel those very human feelings again, without talking.”
When you watch a human walking or an old person sitting on a bench with a dog—I can watch that for hours and it makes me so happy. When I touch my plants or give them water, they react in a way, and they look more beautiful because they’re happy to connect. All those things are so important, and we lost them a little bit. I don’t want to say the world we’re living in is bad. It’s beautiful what we’ve created and what we can do with our brains. But we have to believe more in ourselves and the people around us, to share vibes and auras without talking. You can feel it even if you close the eyes and sit next to each other. We can be more spiritual in a simple way, every day, without these luxury things.
Hannah: I’ve been listening to the album when running. There’s a similar oscillation of feelings to what you might experience on a dance floor—traveling between euphoria and this heady hypnosis and almost introspective moments.
Ellen: Yeah, it’s hypnotizing, or you just isolate yourself, or you connect or you cry—every character or every emotion comes out. If you move your body, it doesn’t matter what kind of way—if you have sex, if you kiss, if you dance, if you’re swimming or in the shower and the water goes through your body—movements open channels and [allow us to] connect. Music gives us the possibility to relax the brain. The rhythm gives you a focus as it goes through the brain and the body, something opens up. But you can do it also in your fucking normal life! It’s very simple. We just run, run, run for money, for jobs; it’s super crazy. We are running away from ourselves. We make it too complicated [laughs].
Hannah: Have you always been a spiritual person?
Ellen: I have always had a sensibility for things around me, that I can see things before they happened. I think everybody has this [ability], but we don’t listen enough. Most of the people I know are saying now, ‘Just sit down and watch around you; there is so much going on.’ You don’t need to go to classes for people to take your money. Just look around; you don’t have to pay for it!
Hannah: That’s part of the thrill of being in a club, having the sense that this experience is fleeting and won’t last forever. It’s going to be closing time, and the DJ’s going to go home, and you have to go home…
Ellen: Yes, exactly. After we open again, everything will come back very fast, because we are all waiting for it. There will be a big club explosion and rave explosion. We will bring it back stronger, 100%. But it’s good that we understood life can change from one moment to another. Nothing always stays the same.
Hannah: You fell in love with the techno scene in London, during the whole acid house craze, and then back in Berlin you experienced the reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Do you see any parallels between our current moment and these past eras of youth revolution?
Ellen: Yeah, when I came back to Berlin from London, the Wall came down. I grew up in [West Germany] but in a very military context. My mother was born in World War II, and her upbringing was very strange, so my mother and all these women rebuilt Berlin, in a way. When the Wall came down, everything changed from one moment to another. And I realized this can happen again—like now. So what is happening now is very depressing for me, it makes me very aggressive and very pissed. But I knew it would come. I’m not surprised. For me, it has the same feeling as back in the day when the Wall came down. The revolution in music, when the Wall came down, was also with new instruments. But now we don’t have new instruments. Now, if you want to create something like a new computer, it would be a revolution [laughs].
Hannah: There’s obviously an intrinsic connection between new technologies and techno, in the spirit of the music as well as the sound. But in the modern high-tech world, society seems increasingly individualized and atomized. Do you think technology can help bring us together?
Ellen: For me, technology brought me together with other people. It’s globalism—that’s why we have corona everywhere now. But the internet opened my mind. It was very important for connecting worldwide with people and exchanging art, but also for [accessing] political information. So nobody can play any games with me. What I want to find, I find. Sometimes it’s not easy to find it—back in the days after Fukushima, [one year after the nuclear disaster], I traveled to Tokyo. I was so afraid, and I checked in Japan what I could eat, or if I could take a shower, or what happens when it rains because Fukushima wasn’t so far away. I couldn’t find anything. It’s really hard to find information if they—the government—want to cut it. But I think technology brings us together if we use it right. If some kids spend 15 hours on the computer playing video games, it’s not good, because that keeps you distant from people. And sometimes information can make you crazy. So it has a plus and a minus.
Hannah: What was it like when this technology started becoming available in Berlin? What was inspiring you at the time?
Ellen: It was a big revolution of information. When the Wall came down, there was a lot of space—places I’d never seen. I felt like a cowboy who just arrived in California [laughs]. I felt more free, because the military was gone, and East and West came together so I met so many more people. We exchanged our social lives, which were so completely different. This was a very interesting process to me. It gave me space, as a woman, to create my own world and to build my own island—for friends, for other artists, to exchange in the moment when we needed to exchange. We’d stay together in the moment and create, then it’s gone.
When the internet and technology [evolved] I could produce faster tracks, I could play more with my voice, I could create more of a dream world with my voice. I could create almost a different person, which I really loved—a man, a young girl, or a baby. I could switch into different characters with my voice, which was very interesting for me as a producer. And on the internet, I could go into the past or into the future. Wherever I wanted to go, I could find the music. This is, for me, the best time ever. Before, I had to go into a record shop, and there wasn’t the record I wanted to have, or they didn’t order it again, or I couldn’t research when a person was just lying to sell something. The media is also lying; the media is never telling the truth, but if you know how to research, you can find anything out. It’s perfect. Just don’t destroy Mother Earth [laughs].
Ellen Allien is streaming a live hybrid AurAA set from the Berlin TV Tower on July 23 at 7pm CET.