"I'm a bit confused about time right now. I accidentally fell asleep! And then I woke up thinking, isn't there something I'm supposed to be doing?" Ellen Allien says, apologizing over her lateness for our Skype date earlier this week. The sleep-deprived Berlin-based boss of the long-running BPitch Control label has just returned from a packed North American tour that saw her plying her techno trade in cities like LA, San Francisco, New York, and Miami—where she somehow managed to fit in four separate gigs during Miami Music Week.
Allien's polymath life is an ever-spinning whirlwind. On top of her relentless touring schedule, she's one of BPitch's booking agents, and oversees a busy release schedule packed with four-on-the-floor contributions from MANIK, DJ Funk, Camea, Joy Wellboy, Yousef and Jesse Perez in the past year alone. Her own productions veer between wistful and throbbing, often within a single track. She's also designed her own clothing line, and perhaps most importantly, she's served as a mentor and inspiration for a generation of DJs like MANIK (also signed to BPitch) and Joy Wellboy.
Somehow, within that action-packed life, Allien remains grounded and reflective—and now, she's releasing what was perhaps her most introspective, meditative work to date, LISm.
"I know that it's the most noncommercial thing that I've done, and some people can't be bothered. But I love it. It's like a beautiful piece of art that people can have in their flat."—Ellen Allien
LISm originally came out via CD and digital download in 2013—but this marks the first time that the album-length piece has hit the shops in a vinyl format. The warmth that the vinyl medium affords suits the music well: LISm takes one of the most overarching aspects of Allien's music, a feeling of melancholy-tinged intimacy, and gently builds from there. Electronic sighs and moans, punctuated with fluttering reeds, lonesome six-strings, poignant synth-horns, gamelan-esque percussion, jazzy interludes, various swirly bits and pieces—and, on occasion, Allien's speak-sing vocals, both unadorned and laden in effects—culminate in a elegant, joyous drone that, in the album's final passage, dissolves into breakbeat bliss. The result is an exercise in ethereal mood-play that's quite unlike anything she's released before—and you can stream it in full below.
But it's not necessarily the medium's rich tonal quality that serves as Allien's incentive for
s vinyl debut; its more that she just really likes records.
"I've been buying lots of vinyl again in the past two years, new stuff and lots of older stuff," she says, and as if to prove the point, she reaches down into her bag and proudly pulls out an newly-purchased Happy Trax classic from 1992, Jamerson's "Got To Give It Up," along with a copy of Spock Jr.'s "Acid Alien," a 1988 rave anthem released on R&S. "I play mostly WAVs, but I had been going through my old vinyl collection and realized that I was missing some catalog numbers. So started looking on Discogs for the stuff I missed… and then I remembered how nice it is to own vinyl! So now I'm buying more and more records and digitalizing them; it sounds so good. It is a passion… or maybe, vinyl is more like an addiction."
"I've had this dream since I was a child where I fall out of a window. And that's the idea I was trying to give, in a very minimal way."—Ellen Allien
As is LISm itself, perhaps. "It's the longest music process I've even had in my life, I think," Allien states. That process began at the turn of the decade, when [choreographer] Alexandre Roccoli asked her to do the score for Drama per Musica, "a performance with dancers and music and shadows and all kinds of things" that took place the Centre Pompidou in Paris in March 2011.
"But there were many lines that I had come up with that didn't get used in the piece," she continues, "and after one year, I listened again to the music that was left over. I had a little time, so I said, 'Okay, I'm gonna go into the studio, mix everything together and make some new stuff.'" (Two of her producer pals, Thomas Muller and Bruno Pronsato, pitched in at various points of LISm's evolution; Muller also helped rework Drama per Musica with Allien a few years after the Centre Pompidou performance.)
The process was liberating for Allien. "It was so different than making a track, when you have to make everything fit in seven or eight minutes," she explains. It was like I was floating, just like my body and my mind feel anyway! And finally, it came out, and that made me very happy."
That "floating" reference evokes one of LISm's most striking sections, one that sees Allien's unadorned voice repeating the word "falling" as wind howls in the background and an unadorned guitar plucks out a forlorn melody. The passage conveys unease, but one that's leavened with a touch of calm.
"I've had this dream since I was a child where I fall out of a window," she explains with a somewhat incongruous giggle. "I'm wearing this skirt of my sisters' that I really loved, a long skirt with flowers and black. But then she comes and wakes me up. And then I open my eyes and she is talking to me. I don't know the meaning, or if it comes from something that happened. But it stuck with me, and that's what made me think of using the word 'falling.' I thought that if you fall, but you get back up, then that's really a good thing—and that's the idea I was trying to give, in a very minimal way."
The experimental, free-form nature of LISm is a departure for Allien, whose music—though it can range in tone from hard-charging, bassline-heavy techno to inward-looking electronic pop—tends to be succinct, and based in traditional structures.
"I know that it's the most noncommercial thing that I've done, and some people can't be bothered," she admits. "Some young people especially, if they only listen to dance music, might not buy it, I guess. But you know what? I love it. After it first came out, I didn't listen to it for a while for around one and a half years—but then I listened again, and I remembered how much I love it, and how beautiful I think it is. And that's why I decided to put it out on vinyl. It's like a beautiful piece of art that people can have in their flat, maybe."
Despite her ardor for the album, LISm doesn't mark a new direction for Allien. Her next release, the Turn Off You Mind EP due out later this month on BPitch, is two skeletal cuts of acidic techno, aimed squarely at the 7AM slot at your neighborhood warehouse rave.
"I was working on that one at home, just jamming around. It's really nice to make music at home, because when you're a DJ, you're always surrounded by so much action. Then you come home, you make something quick and raw, and it's lots of fun. But that record will probably be in totally different shops than LISm!" Still, despite their immense differences—LISm aims for your mind's dream center, while Turn Off You Mind zeroes in on that part of your brain that controls the stomping of feet—they're both somehow recognizable as Allien productions. She has a simple explanation for that phenomenon: "It's the vocals. I like freaky vocals. I get excited by them, really."
Having been in the game for so long, it's surprising that Allien still gets excited by anything. After all, she's been a top DJ for well over two decades—by '92, she was already a resident at such pioneering clubs as Tresor, and E-Werk—and BPitch Control has been running full steam since '99. By now, a little ennui or cynicism could be forgiven. But Allien still plays the role of a kid in the candy shop. She seems genuinely thrilled about the prospect of LISm finding new listeners, telling me, "We didn't really promote it at all when it came out before, and I really can't wait to see what people who haven't heard it think about it. It's exciting!"
She still loves to play out, and is immensely proud that her label is going strong. "I just want to keep the story going," she says, her voice rising with optimism. "Berlin, the wall coming down, me and my friends making music, some of them getting big, everything that's happened… I don't want that story to end. Ever!"
Ellen Allien's LISm is out April 1 on BPitch Control. Get it here.
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