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Ben Klock: “I Am Not a Techno Purist”

We caught up with Berghain's golden son before he brought his Klockworks label showcase to a Bushwick warehouse, as part of a mini-tour across America.

by David Garber
14 October 2015, 12:00am

You cannot have a conversation about Berlin techno and not soon utter two simple, yet pivotal words...Ben Klock. Classically stone-faced behind the decks, with brooding features, and of course, a dark black t-shirt draped beneath an even darker leather jacket, Klock's deep and hypnotic sets of meditative machine music have become something of legend in his home city, especially at Berghain, where he's held a residency since the club opened their doors in 2004. Known for marathon performances that can span the course of 10-15 hours (apparently he survives mostly on a cocktail of champagne and coffee), Klock's roots in the clubbing epicenter have made him a sought after attraction not only in Berlin, but most rooms around the world.

While not as frequent an appearance on US festival bills as other German stars like Dixon or Loco Dice, Klock recently tied up a mini-US tour with an appearance at San Diego's CRSSD festival, following a booking at this year's Coachella—an intriguing milestone the artist credits for introducing some curious Americans to his unique sensory spiderweb. If you've ever witnessed one of his sets you'll surely know, once he starts the show—you have no choice but to get stuck, lost, and submit to sermon in the Church of Klock.

This past October weekend, techno lovers in the borough of Brooklyn were treated to a rare visit by the artist, his first appearance in New York City since 2013, and only a day after the anticipated release of his debut Essential Mix. Helping kick off the first edition of Output's new party series, Outpost, Klock brought along his Klockworks label along for a night-to-morning showcase featuring DVS1, the Minneapolis-bred artist Klock himself helped discover, as well as local talent, A.Arias. Directly after DVS1's set, Klock went straight into a 5+ hour run that banged well past sunrise, quickly transforming the Bushwick warehouse into little-Berghain.

Before his set, shortly after he arrived from an appearance at Chicago's Spybar, I got the chance to sit down with Ben over a couple of martinis at a local Williamsburg hotel.

THUMP: Ostgut is releasing the ten-year compilation soon. Can you tell me about the track "Sirens" you've provided to the album? It's your first release in over a year.
Ben Klock: The overall vibe of the release is very diverse actually. It's very different from Ostgut Fünf five years ago, where we all used field recordings—sounds of the building, banging on metal or whatever. This time was an open concept where everybody handed in whatever they felt like, from ambient to house and techno. For me, it was the first track in quite a while—I haven't been to the studio in years because of my traveling schedule and stuff. This year I bought a lot of new gear; I jumped into this modular world, so I've got stuff like Prophet 5, and a mix between old vintage polyphonic synths and the new world of Eurorack modulars. The sequences on my compilation track are actually made with modulars, and on top of that I just play an atmospheric synth. It's not particularly a dance floor track, it doesn't have a heavy bass drum. It's the first step back into the studio again.

Berghain has been in the media a ton over the last year in America. There have been spreads in Rolling Stone and stories about people offering bribes for entry on Craigslist and recently a story about Claire Danes, who called the club "the best place on Earth." Do you think this kind of exposure is healthy for the club?
If something like the Claire Danes thing happens, it's always going to be a topic of interest. It's nothing that [Berghain] would like to have too much of. There's always the concern that [these stories] will happen, and that's why I think the doorman has a tougher job now than ever. More people who are not even related to that sound come, looking for what they think is techno, or what they think is played at Berghain.

I think the title of the Rolling Stone article had "sex-fueled" in the title. People seem to find themes that usually don't have much to do with the music to center the stories around.
Yeah, that was in the news a lot, but that's just sensationalist journalism. It's not always about that. This is only one side of it, but from a DJ's perspective you don't see that at all as part of the club. It's more about the music. It's a great place for all kinds of things, just to feel free in a way. If you want something else, then you can have something else. People won't judge you there for anything.

Club residencies seem like they're becoming a little less popular around the world. Do you still think that a residency has the power to ignite a career the same way it did for yourself?
It depends on what your main focus is as an artist. If you have a big club bid, you don't need a residency. I think it teaches you a lot if you have a residency—I always think I can go deeper and more intense because of those longer sets, and you read the crowd better and learn things you couldn't if you just play quick two-hour sets all over the world. You maybe learn something different [with shorter sets], but [don't have] that intensity. You also learn to present something new every month for people who always come to see you. If you just travel all the time, you can kind of play the same sets everywhere because there are new people everywhere. Residencies challenge you, definitely.

Ten years ago this idea of celebrity DJs on billboards taking in $50-60 million a year was a pretty alien thought. Do you think the culture of celebrity DJs are good for the dance music scene?
It's interesting that just a couple of years ago when I'd talk to random people who don't know about electronic music and they'd asked me what I do for a living, I'd say I'm a DJ, and the next question would be something like, 'Can you make a living from that?... Do people pay money to let you come to their cities and clubs?" I had to explain that I could live off [DJing]. Now, it's the opposite. It happens to me all the time; when a taxi driver asks me what I do for a living, I say, "DJ," and the next thing's like, "Oh, you must be rich." So that perception really changed a lot. Before, I was more tolerant with that distinction between EDM and the underground. Now, I think there really isn't a big connection between those two things.

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The techno scene has been growing a lot in America. What do you think of the crowds you play here? Are they as open-minded as the crowds you'll find in Europe?
Yeah, I think I'm more or less playing the same stuff. For me, it's kind of weird sometimes because I play a lot of American music and there's this misperception that it's just a "Berlin sound." [That music] just happens to be very popular [in Berin], but techno is from Detroit and all that—it's actually American music even if it's not that popular there anymore, so I kind of have to bring that back. In a lot of techno parties [in America] I see older crowds, when in Europe you have these 18-19 year-old kids standing in front of you going crazy for tracks that are older than they are. I hear people [in America] saying, "Thanks for bring techno back to our generation," and that's amazing. But I don't see many American kids going crazy for techno—it's more like the older generation going out once or twice a year for some techno. I would love to see the younger crowd growing more into this type of more underground music, of course.

You don't play a ton of festivals in America. Is it something you want to do be doing more?
I played Coachella this year and it was nice. There was a lot of feedback like, "Wow, that was the first time I've heard something like that and it was amazing." It's great to get new followers into that type of music, but it's a bizarre because we're spoiled in Europe with scenes in Italy and France where huge crowds of people are coming to hear techno.

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Do you have an interest in being someone to help expand techno in America?
Yes, that's why I did something like Coachella. Of course, there are people who say, "Why are you doing this? This is a sellout." I mean, come on, it can really help getting new people into [the sound].

How would you define selling out exactly?
I think it's when you change your sound for certain career steps. I was always thought that it's fine if I grow big as long as I play my and don't change. The underground can be very harsh with their perception of someone as soon as they get bigger, even though you think, 'they're playing the same music as before,' so don't be so rude. Just because they're playing in front of a bigger crowd or becoming more successful, doesn't mean they're changing their style.

What do you think about the state of techno right now as a whole? Levon Vincent recently made comments saying that it's losing its soulful, jazzy vibe, and he's bored with it.
There are always eras where things are copied and everything kind of sounds the same, and it gets a bit mechanical. I think you just have to have authentic artists and unique voices that have their own style, and not care so much about wanting to sound like this and that. As soon as you have that "copy, copy, copy" thing, then it gets boring and is dangerous for the techno scene, because at some point it gets stuck without any life in it anymore. Especially now, when everything is expected to sound perfect—all boosted and compressed and loud—it doesn't have that rawness anymore.

Your set productions seem to revolve around a lot of tension, where do you pull that inspiration from? You seem like a pretty relaxed dude in real life.
Well, that relaxed side is definitely only one side of me [laughs]. I don't know, for me it's not so much about the style. I'm not really such a techno purist. What's more important for me is music, life, feelings, and what you transport with that music, and techno is just my tool of transporting these emotions. It's really about the human touch behind it. I sometimes see it more as a shamanism thing to put people in a trance or change directions. The music is just a tool. I draw a lot from my moods, I think.

Do you ever have a desire to play a brighter, house-influenced set, if you're feeling a bit in that mood?
The last time I played at Berghain for my Klockworks night, I played 11 hours, and they closed Panorama Bar upstairs, so everyone's just down in the main room. Many people came from a different vibe upstairs—slower, houseier—so that influences me as well. Maybe the light guy brings in warmer colors, and I get into a different phase where I play groovier, house tunes. I always come from a techno perspective even when I'm playing house tunes with vocals. I would play them as a techno DJ, but again I'm not a techno purist. There are a lot of DJs in the techno genre who only play dark, techno and that's it. I wouldn't agree that I'm this prototype of a German, dark, techno DJ.

You're playing with DVS1 tonight, who's someone you helped discover. Do you feel like you've reached a point where you can mentor up-and-coming DJs and guide them through the scene?
I feel a little bit like a mentor to Etapp Kyle, a new guy who will have a record out on my label next month. It comes naturally in a way—I always talk to the artists [on Klockworks] about their tracks. I'm very picky, and might say, 'I like the basic groove, but maybe you can change this and that,' and just give them ideas on how to improve things. Then they change things in the way I wanted, and I'll come back to the first version and say, 'You know what, that was actually better.'

Was there someone who mentored you a little bit?
Not really. You have to learn on your own in a way.

Does the community of techno DJs in Berlin and elsewhere still feel tight to you?
I think there are a lot of different scenes or crowds that stick together. For me, people like Marcel Dettmann are closer to me than others. But [Marcel and I] always see each other everywhere at airports or festivals. Even if you haven't seen each other for a year or so, you feel connected because you know each other and what it's like to live this crazy life. I think there are times when the bond is stronger and times when it was more of a lonely life on the road. It depends—this year, Marcel and I played a lot together so it felt more supportive because you see each other and communicate more.

You still don't have a manager. So many DJs, especially in EDM, have huge teams behind them—how important is independence to the success you've had?
I feel like maybe I'm too much of a control freak. I work with people, but in the end it's me making decisions and stuff. When you have a manager and they're deciding for you—I never really got that. I have an assistant who does some of a manager's job, but I want to be in charge of my profile or artistic direction. I'm not the kind of person who can give that away to someone else. As the label boss, I have a vision of what I want and I don't need someone else to tell me what I should do. I come from a club DJ background, which starts in the underground, and like I said, this EDM thing is not related to where I come from. It's just a different thing.

Ben Klock performs at Smalltown with Nina Kraviz and Bicep at Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne on Sunday November 15.

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