"Traum-zau-ber-baum..." The man known all around the world for his imposing, vikingesque look, not to mention his decades long contributions to techno, is attempting to dictate the name of his favorite children's music production into his smartphone, trying to figure out who composed it. We're bathed in dim light. "Oh right, it's by Reinhard Lakomy. Great!" Marcel Dettmann has a wealth of knowledge—and everything that he doesn't know, he immediately looks up with the help of Siri. It's appears easier for the famed Berghain resident to share his music with all of the people who wait in line for up to five hours to get into the Berlin club than it is to play the "Traumzauberbaum" recording for his own kids. As he later puts it: "Behind every good DJ, there's a good record collection."
It's October, and Marcel has already played 97 gigs this year. This weekend, he'll be playing in Italy and France. But one hour ago, when we first met up, he was just walking out of his Berlin apartment with a four-pack of coconut water in his hand. It's Thursday. "Sorry, I'm still beat from yesterday," he says. But in fact, he's alert, chatty, and engaged. He's everything, but closed off, even though his music and striking appearance might suggest otherwise.
Although he's known far a wide for his flowing long blonde hair, Marcel's kept it at a medium length for a while now. He played in Berghain early on Sunday, and today in Berlin he wants to lead us through the history of his induction into techno. It's perfect timing, given that he just put together a mix spanning several decades for the legendary DJ-Kicks compilation series. The car's windscreen wiper thumps out a gentle kick drum beat as we drive around on this rainy fall day in the city.
Hint: two of the people in this photo now work mainly at Berghain. Sven Marquardt greets us at our first stop, the former Stasi headquarters; a plaque at the space, which is now preserved as a historical site, depicts the infamous Berghain bouncer back in his punk days, standing next to a member of the Volkspolizei, the once national police force of East Germany. "I've always thought that black and white pictures have a special feel to them," Marcel muses about this picture, taken back in 1985. "even though they're really popular now," he adds. Marcel's productions echo the grave austerity of the blocky, gray-and-white East German buildings. This right here is the "real East," even though the TV Tower lies far off in the distance, currently shrouded in clouds. Many of the windows in the former secret police headquarters are also covered—refugees now live in the rooms, hidden behind blankets and scarves. Marcel's studio is nearby.
Despite the characteristic drabness of East Germany, Marcel had a pleasant childhood. He grew up in Fürstenwalde, a small town full of prefab buildings located in the Brandenburg region just outside of Berlin. We even brought him some "Schlagersüßtafel" chocolate for the interview, a former GDR treat that has now been reissued. Marcel was 12 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. He was in bed when it happened — the next day, he was one of only three students in his class to show up to school. Around that time, Marcel used to practice judo to balance out his raging hormones. "But I stopped when I was 14 because I got more interested in music and women," he admits. Before he moved on, the martial art taught him how to rely on himself; an important skill for a DJ. His dad was a big fan of Depeche Mode, but Marcel preferred EBM artists such as Front 242.
Tresor opened at midnight, and we'd be back out again at three. By noon we'd be sitting innocently at the breakfast table with our families.
Dettmann got his first techno compilation from a classmate's older brother, and has been DJing for many years now. "The first party I played was from 4 to 8 PM at a youth club," he tells me. "Me and a friend mixed our 20 records into each other." Thankfully, his music teacher explained to him shortly thereafter that you need a mixer to mix records. "At first I only had two power amplifiers and two turntables, and I would fade in from right to left without previewing the sound." Since the mixer didn't have a headphone jack, Marcel spent another year DJing without headphones. He even played his first mix like that—the hard way.
His group of friends started going to the clubs in Berlin in 1992. By that point, they could take a regional train to Alexanderplatz, transfer to the U2 U-bahn line to Potsdamer Platz, and then go from there into Tresor and E-Werk, the most important Berlin techno clubs in the early 90s. "We would go at 11," Marcel recalls. "Tresor opened at midnight, and then we'd be back out again at three. Back then there wasn't so much going on in the club at that hour. And then by noon we'd already be back and sitting innocently at the breakfast table with our families." Drugs weren't on the map back then, for Dettman and his friends. They only drank alcohol outside of clubs, and even then, it was beer from a gas station.
At home, Marcel and his peers listened to DT64. The former youth radio station broadcasted techno shows featuring DHs such as Marusha from a giant brick complex in Oberschöneweide, a district on the outskirts of Berlin. When the station faced closure after the fall of the Berlin Wall, WestBam organized the very first May Day as a campaign to save it. The studio portion of DT64 is no longer in use, but the radio station's unique, wood-paneled recording hall was recently refurbished. The floor space measures 800 square meters, and the ceilings are 15 meters high. The space is dominated by a giant organ, which hasn't worked for five decades.
The DJ spends a while looking down from the pulpit, which is pretty high up. It reminds Marcel of large festival stages: "You can't see the first four or five rows—or the people who want to see you—at all from up there," he notes. "But you can see the people in the last row who'd rather drink and talk. You're standing in front of 10,000 people and you feel like you're being served up on a platter." When he's back at "home" (a.k.a. Berghain), things are different: The DJ and the crowd are practically on the same level. "I'm not the type of guy who's like 'All right, let's get the party started!'," he explains. "But at some festivals, like Dekmantel, you still get that club feeling when you're playing in front of 10,000 people."
I'm not the type of guy who's like 'All right, let's get the party started!'
Marcel has been traveling to play gigs for a long time now, and far further afield than Holland. "South America, Italy, France — that's where things are really happening right now," he tells me. He once DJed underneath a soccer stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, at a club called Bassiani. "It's huge, and it's all dark, really crazy." His DJ ventures also take him to Ibiza, and even to Tomorrowland, since he wants to "just give people the chance to hear something different, to discover my music. After all, earlier on I started out at weird random raves in little villages."
We've finished up at the radio station. Where should we go now? First, we take a smoke break (naturally), and then we head on to the Warsaw Bridge, which is peopled by party tourists at night and serves as a good vantage point over Berghain's past and future. It's a long way off from weird, random village raves.
A collection of chairs in front of the building where DT64 was once based
"It's crazy how much construction is going on here," says Marcel. "I heard that they're going to build a whole street of malls here, including clubs." There's a plaque advertising the developers a few meters to our left. When we look at it, we can see plans for a club within a sketch of a massive, modern-looking shopping center. "Holy shit!" he exclaims.
Marcel points down. "Ostgut used to be there, where the Mercedes-Benz Arena is now." The legendary club run by the founders of Berghain, which was home to the first Panorama Bar, was open from 1998 to 2003. Marcel recalls his first time there: "My friends said 'Hey, there's a new spot in Berlin.' Of the 300 people there, 200 were gay, and the rest were heteros from the area with their partners. That mix of people was what made the club what it was, just like with Berghain today." A year later Marcel became a resident there, where he was somewhat overshadowed by André Galluzzi, a powerhouse DJ who loved the limelight. Galluzzi was "a super-entertainer, kind of like the Sven Väth of Berlin," as Marcel puts it.
Nevertheless, the young DJ also got plenty of attention. He had some good nights (turning into mornings), and had to learn a few lessons, too. "When I was 21, I once played at Ostgut at 9 in the morning when I was pretty drunk, with no shirt on. I got a fair amount of shit for that the next day. It happened once, and never again. I realized after the fact that I'd done something that I shouldn't have, and that I needed to make a change."
But then Ostgut closed in January 2003, just like Tresor and E-Werk before it. DJ Boris played the very last track at the club. "I felt totally uprooted for the next two years. I didn't have any place where I could relax and let go. In that sense, Berghain saved me. I still think 'Wow' whenever I climb up the stairs to Berghain."
Marcel and his peers were surprised when the music press quickly started referring to the "sound of Berghain' ("All we do is put on records!"), but they weren't surprised when it was crowned best club in the world by DJ Mag in 2009: "Of course Berghain was the best club in the world," he says. "I just knew that already." After receiving the title, the club went through a stressful time, what with headlines splashed all across Germany crowing about "fisting," the "tough door policy," and "drugs." But that all went away.
How to get into Berghain? I always say 'No idea, just be yourself!'
One aspect of the club remains the subject of public fascination, though: "People constantly ask me what they have to do to get in. I always say: 'No idea, just be yourself!'" Marcel is standing in the muddy patch behind the former power plant. He didn't know until just now that all the people who get rejected at the door slink away down here in order to avoid the walk of shame past the line of people waiting to get in.
'Schlagersüßtafel' and 'Club-Cola,' just like they were back in the GDR.
This is storied ground, but Marcel feels like he was most influenced by his experiences out on the flat territory of eastern Germany, not in Berlin techno institutions. That was a difficult time: "I had to fight hard for every record and every gig out in [the German regions of] Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Sachsen, back before the Ostgut phase," he admits. "I sold my clothes for records and borrowed cash from my brother. You would DJ so that you'd have money to DJ." And whenever your meager budget would run out, you'd party in the parking lot in front of E-Werk instead of inside.
We drive a little further, from Berghain to the former E-Werk site, which has since been converted. "That's where the entrance used to be," says Marcel, pointing at the building next door to the event location, which is also called E-Werk. The area between Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz, once teeming with nightlife, is now virtually bereft of clubs. WMF, Cookies, Elektro, and Picknick have all closed. The new Mall of Berlin also testifies to this change. Through our car windows, we can see brand logos for electronics and cosmetic manufacturers. This is where the entrance to the old Tresor used to be, where you'd go to hear Jeff Mills & Co.
According to Marcel, that Detroit legend still comes to shop at Hard Wax each time he visits Berlin, as do Carl Craig and many other top DJs. The Hard Wax record store on Paul-Lincke-Ufer in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood might well be Berlin's most important techno institution. It's our next—and final—stop. Marcel has been a regular there since the early 90s: "This is where I realized what I really like." This awe-inspiring store is a hub for techno lovers and legends from Berlin and Detroit alike.
Marcel had already gained experience running his own record store back home in Fürstenwalde when he began working for Hard Wax in 2003. He didn't apply—he couldn't have, since employees were asked to come on board. In his case, the call came after he had put in ten years as a loyal customer. "Everything in Hard Wax was impressive: the music, the people. I felt immediate bliss in there," he says. "I wanted to maintain that feeling." Today, two customers ask to take a picture with him. We're standing in front of a bunch of records labeled "MDR," which stands for 'Marcel Dettmann Records. Marcel's label releases music by Kobosil, Answer Code Request, and Wrong Copy.
On the way to Hard Wax, we passed a rain-soaked billboard advertising the revival of the old Tekknozid techno party series. It seems like we're not the only ones revisiting history. Even Berghain has been around for 12 years, although to Marcel, it feels like five. "Back in 98, when I had already been DJing for seven years, I asked myself how techno would actually develop. And that's when things really got started for me."
Marcel dictates a text to his wife into his phone, something about his kids. Later on, he leaves the GDR-era chocolate bar that we brought him behind in the car.
Looking up to the ceiling in the smaller hall at the former DDR youth radio station.
Organ stop 77: "Flötenschwebung."
The entrance to the old E-Werk is behind us to the left; the current entrance is to the right
Selected records are immediately previewed on the Hard Wax sound system.
Thanks to Funkhaus Berlin and Hardwax!
Thomas is on Twitter.