Interview and Photos by Aaron Richter
DJ Hell has been here before. “Welcome back,” says the concierge. “It’s been years,” replies the 46-year-old German DJ/producer with a chuckle. Unsure whether the concierge honestly remembers Hell or if he’s just being polite, we walk downstairs at Manhattan’s Tribeca Grand for a basement-level photo shoot, and the artist fondly remembers the six months he called this hotel home while recording his previous LP, 2003’s NY Muscle.
Hell is back in the city to promote his latest offering, Teufelswerk. The record is a sprawling and ambitious double-disc effort, one disc of scorching, minimal techno bangers (aptly called Night), the other of kosmische ambient experiments (Day). Featuring vocals by Brian Ferry and Sean “Diddy” Combs (a longtime friend), the album is also the finest work of Hell’s three-decade career, a sentiment the superstar DJ is enthusiastic to agree with. As Hell relaxes in his former abode, self-titled speaks with the International DJ Gigolo about the Peter Kruder-assisted concepts behind Teufelswerk, the nonstop party scene in Berlin and the clarity of getting older.
self-titled: I have a friend who’s trying to convince me to move to Berlin. What advice could you offer to an American looking to move there?
To go to Berlin? Wow. It always [depends on] what time you come in, what people you get connected and what’s your interests. It would be totally different if you come even a day later. There’s so many little scenes and club. There’s the art scene, and then there’s the techno scene–because techno rules everything. It’s like big business as well. A lot of money is made out of the club scene because we have hundreds of clubs there with thousands of DJs. It’s exploding! Even a lot of record shops are still making money selling vinyl. If you DJ and produce and you’re from New York, in Berlin they love that. If you’re a producer, it’s easy to get your stuff out and get a name and get booked and travel all around Europe. People see that, and coming there, they’re very happy because the daily costs and monthly rent is very low compared to any other cities. [In New York] people work three or four jobs. In Berlin you just work for two day and take the rest of the week off.
Yeah! Even my company [International DJ Gigolos] if I ask people to work for the week–five days–they say, “Oh, no. I can’t. Maybe two days.” I call it the “Berlin virus” because it jumps on everybody, and they’re not willing to work hard anymore.
When was the last time you saw that not being the case?
It’s kind of a Berlin laziness.
Well, you’re obviously not lazy.
Yeah, I like to work hard and make things happen. It’s different in Berlin. It’s hard to find people who want to party and work hard at the same time because they see all these other people in Berlin, and they’re mostly freelancers doing projects here and there. You’re not constantly working. The party never stops.
It’s a three million city, and it’s built for five million people because when the wall came down everybody thought they’d have this future planned. But nothing went the way they wanted. It went totally in the wrong direction….There were a lot of plans already fifteen years ago and still nothing happened because there’s no money, and they’re still waiting for investors. It’s a crazy situation.
But it’s amazing that the club scene is such an industry. In New York it’s hard to get anyone to care much about a techno show.
The newcomers don’t know what it was back in the day, you know? If they go to Berlin, they go, “Wow, this is kind of crazy. We didn’t know this is still existing.” In Berlin is no limit. There’s so many promoters and people with new ideas still into the scene who make something happen because they knew you don’t need a lot of money. You just need a concept and a good idea, and you just do it. You just go somewhere. There are a lot of places where you don’t even know who owns it. You just went there and opened something. There were even illegal restaurants. It felt really great. It was even completely out of control in the ’90s. Now they–I don’t want to say they try to go in a New York direction, to control it more, because it’s very hard to control–but on the other side, they see that there’s a lot of money coming in. Nightlife is one of the biggest industries in Berlin right now. They say there’s around eight thousand people working in the club scene. I think it’s even more.
That’s a substantial percentage of a three million population.
Yeah. In one year they made a profit of one hundred and fifty million euro, and it’s even more because that’s just what they think they get at the door or at the bar. I think it’s much more because they all have labels now. All the clubs, they start their own labels. They have their resident DJs. And there’s DJs coming from all around the world and never leaving. Berlin is the mecca of the new generation.
Let’s switch gears to your new record, Teufelswerk.
I was thinking to give it a Berlin perspective, a Berlin touch, and it could not find it. I did a lot of production in Berlin in the Night album, but the Day album was completely done in Vienna.
What was the original idea that you wanted to work on? Was it always conceptualized as a double album?
Not at the beginning. I always had this concept like eight or nine years ago to do an ambient album because this was music that I really liked in the early ’90s. There were ambient DJs like Mixmaster Morris, who was always dressed in silver. He played the best music you could think about in all directions, and he was really famous for being an ambient DJ. There was a lot of them, and there was a lot of ambient parties. It was electronic music mostly, but this really wasn’t getting much attention. There was people doing it, but it didn’t even get a review in a magazine or you didn’t know it got released. I was thinking around 2000 that I wanted to jump into this area, and later on I realized I would do a combination with early German electronic music called kosmische music–like Can or early Kraftwerk stuff–because I’m from Germany, and I was influenced by this music. I thought, I want to champion this area and do it the way that I like it. Then Peter Kruder came into the picture, and he brought in a lot of musicians. I had already this idea to do kosmische music–or we call it kosmische ambient now–and combine all the tracks that float into each other, not separated–one album, like Pink Floyd did with Dark Side of the Moon. Then there was the Night album to prove that dance music and techno music was still strong enough to release it in the album format. It’s all on 12-inches. There is some dance-music albums out, but I remember when I bought some there was always two tracks that I liked, and the rest was filler.
So you were looking to work within the structure of the full LP?
Yeah, I want to have a strong album like Daft Punk did with Homework or Kraftwerk did with Computer World, where it’s a complete strong concept and every song is outstanding, but it fits all together. For the Night album, I wanted to make it happen with seven or eight songs, keep it strong and prove that it’s possible, even in the techno direction, to create these intense moments. With the help of Puffy and Brian Ferry, I think we created something special. It feels good. I thought, Why I should release this Day or Night album now and then later on… Why not put them together?
[“The Angst” from Teufelswerk‘s Day disc]
What did you like about putting the two records together?
You really have to take your time and listen to all of it. It’s a strong message.
How was working with Peter Kruder?
Peter is a genius producer and DJ and master of everything.
What did he add to the record? Where can we hear his contribution?
It’s his studio. It’s his sound. Of course, I did it in my direction and my concept. But it’s his studio. It’s his keyboards. It’s his drum computers. It’s his mixer. It’s all him. He’d jump in there and use some of his knowledge to get the special sound I needed. It was a mixture of analog and digital, of course. But it sounded different. That’s why his stuff sounded so good back in the day–his Kruder & Dorfmeister remixes were the same. They’d take their time and go in. I said I wanted to have a touch of that.
How does the record’s title, which translates to “Devil’s Work,” relate to everything?
It says everything. I’m really not into this kind of Satanists, but I’ve worked with darker formulas. I’m not good with the happy things. I’m just not comfortable with that.
Are you committing any sins with this record?
What’s that? What does it mean?
A sin, like an act against the word of God.
No, it’s just me. It’s a very personal album, Day and Night, and it represents everything I am, everything I’ve learned. It’s a risk to give out something like that because it’s totally me.
Is all your music personal?
Very personal. Yeah. I can’t do it the other way. If I don’t feel it, if it’s not coming from the inside, I can’t do it. I always work like that.
Working from a personal perspective, what sort of things in your life influence your output?
It’s not only music. It’s also traveling, meeting people, everyday life, going to the movies, reading something about the Factory, doing interviews. The whole picture, all my life, is put into the music. I try to find some answers like everybody. I hope there is some, through the music. Like Puffy said, “Get your holy ghost through the music.” It’s not only based on musical ideas or musical concepts. It’s also very into art and fashion and movies and whatever you can think about. I’m really interested in cars. I’m very interested in sports as well.
I knew it was going to take some time to work on the album, so I slowed down with the DJ business and with the label work. It took me two years to make it happen. I worked on concepts for the artwork and the videos. I even worked on the press information and all the things. It’s very important to me. I do the whole program. I take care of everything; really, every single aspect I take care of.
So much of the record seems inspired by your German roots, either the music you grew up with or simply your home. What made you want to reach back?
I’m not trying to copy somebody. I was so much looking into the ’80s decade because a lot of concepts of Gigolo were based on that kind of New Wave, electro, early acid house, even hip-hop and punk music. All the strong music was happening in the ’80s, and I was lucky enough to DJ in the decade and get all this information. I really touched this more or less with my last album. So I thought, Why not go back more to the ’70s when I was a kid, listening to the music but not working in the music business because I was too young? So why not go there and try to bring these concepts to a new level of what people are enjoying now because suddenly a lot of early German bands are mentioned again? Even Oasis were influenced by Can on their last album. For me, it feels right to jump there and try to do it with all this new equipment and all these new sounds and new plug-ins, in a digital way as well, not only analog. I can’t use the same keyboards and the whole setup like they did. But I brought a new flavor to it. It’s like looking back, listening to the masters and going through what’s happening now and trying to do what may be happening in the future, what people would enjoy at the moment and maybe influence some people to do this kind of music.
How did your relationship with Diddy come about?
You’ve been friends for a while?
Yeah, I worked on some remixes in 2004. I did “Let’s Get Ill” and “Check This” and released it on Gigolo records. We met some times, and he even went to some parties in Miami [for the Winter Music Conference] that I was playing and performed on top of my music. It was insane. He’s a great guy to watch. He’s a genius businessman. He’s not what you’d expect. I had my picture of him as well, but he’s such a nice guy. For my last album, he even performed in my video for “Keep On Waiting.” [Ed. note: Watch below.] He wanted to do vocals [for the new record] and I said, “Let’s do it in an old-school, New York house style.” He said he loves the track [“The DJ” from Teufelswerk‘s Night disc] and gets the rights to release it.
What sort of direction did you give him?
The vocals was first. Then I did the music. The funny thing is that he talks about the after hours. He talks about the DJs who’s not playing long versions. I like when he disses the DJs, the crowdpleaser, ass-kisser, dick-suckers. I really liked that. I found out that for the American market I have to do a special version where I keep out the motherfuckers. I have to do all these bleep sound, like beeep. I never did it because in Europe you don’t have to do that. When I’m back I’m working on, how to you call it, a clean version? I never thought about a clean version, but I have to do it now. I never thought of it when we did it, but I really like the way he’s saying it.
“The DJ,” featuring Diddy
It strangely reminds me of Mark E. Smith of the Fall.
Yep. Puffy’s genius. It just comes out, and he’s just thinking aloud. He’s not afraid of saying it loud, and I really respect him for that as well. If you think further, he gives some props to the after-hours scene and the Berlin scene. He doesn’t say Berlin, but he says the scene where they never stop partying, it’s about the music, the special feeling and the holy ghost, through the music. He brings it to the point, you know. I hope a lot of people listen to what he says.
If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you now?
Do you feel forty-six?
I’m maybe one of the ones that proves that you can be a DJ and still be in good condition at forty-six or forty-seven or maybe fifty and not playing some commercial music and not losing it. A lot of people lose it on the way. Maybe I can be a role model for younger DJs. I thought when I was forty that I would not be a DJ. I remember when I was thirty, there was a guy coming from London, and he played in a techno club in Germany, and I picked him up from the airport. He was forty years old, but I also thought it was so cool because he was playing hard-banging techno in the early ’90s. I thought, Incredible; he’s so old, and he’s still there. Now I’m forty-six, and I’m still in the middle of what I’m doing. Maybe I can prove this kind of situation, that it’s very possible to do it as a DJ. Look at people like FranÃ§ois Kevorkian or Junior Vasquez. They’re still really doing it, especially Kevorkian. He does his night and runs his label. He’s doing great music. He’s a fantastic DJ with all this knowledge and experience. And I have a lot of knowledge and experience as well, so I will keep going on because this is my life. Now it’s maybe on another level with the help of other people. Who knows where it goes? I have no idea, but I know this will go on for a long period.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were younger?
I didn’t know that I would still still doing what I’m doing. I just was believing in what I was doing, but I didn’t know there was going to be a future. I would have been happy if somebody had told me I’d still be doing it twenty years later because I was DJing already when I was eighteen.
Don’t you think that might have taken some of the fire out of your drive to succeed?
No. I was so into the music most of my life. It would be maybe more relaxed. I even didn’t have money for food. That’s the truth.
When you were how old?
I was like eighteen, nineteen, twenty. I’d always ask my friends, “Can you give me something?” I owed this guy some money and this guy. That was when you’re young and you don’t have money. Later on, if I have money, I give money to my friends if they ask. And I never get it back. A really good friend asked me about a lot of money, and I said, “OK, some day if you have it, you will give it back to me.” But still now, he didn’t.
One day, maybe.
What gets easier when you get older?
You get more information about life. You get more experiences. I would have been happy to have a mentor back in the day to give me all this knowledge, but on the other side, if someone asked me to give them some advice, I would say that you have to find it out yourself.
Did you surprise yourself at all when you were working on your new album?
Oh, there were a lot of surprises. Yeah. Because it was something new, this kosmische ambient stuff was a brand new direction. I’d never jumped there. But there was a point where I closed the book and said, “This is done. I can’t do it better. It feels great already. And I’m gonna stop it.” I’d never had this before. There was always a moment where I’d have to say, “Stop working on it or else it would never end.” But with that album, I was like, “It’s done. I know it’s not going to be better if I touch it again. This is like it is. And it feels good.”