It's just gone 4 PM in Hamburg, and Helena Hauff has awoken after a late night out playing pool with a minor hangover in tow. With her debut album Discreet Desires set to come out collectively on Actress's Werkdiscs label and Ninja Tune this fall, the German DJ and producer is gearing up for its release by doing the opposite of what many others would be doing in her shoes—after spending the summer touring extensively, she's taking most of September off to go on holiday and stay in working on more music.
"To be honest, I never think, I have an album coming out so I need to plan things out and go on tour," Hauff muses. "I don't actually believe it makes a difference. Nor do I get not wanting to release records during the summer either. I don't understand or operate in these industry-focused types of ways."
Hauff's rawness and slightly punk approach to music comes through in Discreet Desires' hardware immediacy. Its ten tracks explore a shadowy electronic hinterland via the relatively limited palette of a few vintage Roland synthesizers and drum machines: a TR-808, TR-707, Juno-60 and an Alpha Juno 2. In the album's press materials, Hauff expands on her symbiotic relationship with these instruments: "I have the feeling it's more one-to-one—you do something and then the machine reacts. The machine has its own mind too, so it gives something back."
Listen to "Tryst" off Discreet Desires:
Recorded and improvised in her bedroom studio in Hamburg, Discreet Desires has a rough-hewn sonic palette best explained by Hauff's belief that "perfection is pretty boring [and] doesn't really exist anyway… only in death. Death is perfect." She further pinpointed the album's extremely cohesive sound by using a photo she'd taken as inspiration—an image of black-and-white figures with their eyes in various states of half-open and half-closed, similar in atmosphere to the one used on the album's cover. "The picture evoked a mood that I wanted to translate into a record right around the end of 2013," she remembers. "I wasn't thinking about making an album back then at all. I just came up with this track 'Sworn To Secrecy Part II' that seemed to fit this mood I'd had in mind. Then I made a few more tracks with that photo as a guideline, and soon I realized that this was more than just an EP and it was conceptually becoming an album."
From the foreboding whispers and electro-tinged bleeps of "Sworn To Secrecy Part II" to the frenzied percussive assault and propulsive modulations of the banging "L'Homme Mort," Discreet Desires draws heavily on EBM, industrial and proto-acid house and techno influences. "I've applied these kinds of sounds to the album since I mainly DJ this kind of music, Hauff explains. "I'm inspired by a lot of 1980s synthesizer and EBM tracks, but I love listening to 1990s industrial and acid techno and electro as well. I also listen to a lot of psych and acid rock."
Although she's released a handful of singles, EPs and even a tape album that have been unanimously received well, Hauff is quick to point out that playing records is her preferred creative outlet. "I have no desire to make a live show out of my productions as well," she says. "My only live thing is with [James Dean Brown's recently revived legendary 1980s drum machine project] Hypnobeat, which works so well because it's all improvised on stage. We have three TR-808s and one TR-707, making it a purely rhythmic thing. Much like when I make my own music, I don't have to try and remember any melodies or have to practice much. I just jam."
Growing up in Hamburg, Hauff's fascination with DJing began shortly after she started going out to clubs. "I was fascinated by the art of playing records over any specific sound at first," she reminisces. "My early sets were slightly more house-centric than now, but still included the harder, acid techno as well. I was initially drawn to electro records by AUX 88 and Drexciya, and didn't really know how 115 BPM house tracks went together with 135 BPM electro records… later I figured out that I just needed to play more techno! [laughs]"
Hauff's leap from DJing to producing came after she broke through a string of frustrating failed attempts at software recording that had put her off the process. "A few years ago, I hit a point where I knew I had to find a way to make music," she recalls. "I couldn't understand why I couldn't do it and knew there had to be a way to make it work. I had a friend who had some synths at home, which I immediately fell in love with, and I ended up buying his TB-303. I got an MPC shortly after, and it clicked that I needed the machines so that was my way to do it. That was it… after that I couldn't stop!"
Hauff excitedly describes to me how the release of Discreet Desires means she can finally get back to new music alongside DJing and running her new label Return To Disorder, whose first release by psych rock band Children Of Leir is set to come out in early September as well. "I've just set up all of my equipment in my new apartment and want to get back into it now. I needed to have this LP out of my system, and it took a year between being done and it finally being released. Part of me feels like I couldn't make any music for a while because it took so long, but then part of me thinks it might be an excuse for me being really lazy."
"It probably is," she concludes, "but now it's coming out and I'm really ready to start working on new material."
Zara Wladawsky is a music writer, co-creator of Sustain-Release festival, and the house and techno buyer at Halcyon. You should follow her on Twitter.