Berlin has become a city renowned for its eminence in the worldwide house and techno scene, and in recent year’s Berghain and Panorama Bar have been the throbbing heart at the centre of it. With the clubs international status as two of the best places to party and stellar line-ups every week, we took the opportunity to have a chat with one of the figures that has been instrumental in the formation of this profile, Nick Höppner.
A Berlin resident for decades and the man responsible for seminal label Ostgut Ton, Höppner is a man who takes his craft very seriously, with the passion he exudes for his city and the music it represents being patently obvious as soon as we began to speak. With new material due out in the coming months and festival appearances at the likes of Croatia’s Echo booked, this is one of the most exciting year’s yet in the illustrious career of Höppner, so we caught up with how he’s feeling about the summer, the state of clubbing in Berlin and a whole lot more….
You’ve become intrinsically linked with Berghain and Panorama Bar, both of which have become synonymous with the club scene in Berlin. Why do you think that these clubs have become so widely appreciated and celebrated in dance music?
I think it’s down to a couple of aspects. It’s a brilliant venue that’s very well designed with a lot of attention to detail. It has a great soundsystem and the guys running it have a real history dating back to the mid-90s. They have strong roots in Berlin and maybe there aren’t many other places like that throughout the world. Of course, there are many great clubs, but they are different. A lot of people seem to get things there that they normally don’t in their hometowns.
To me, it seems like it extends past just being a club. All of the residents seem to be a family that are genuinely friends. When Prosumer finished his residency at Panorama Bar a few months ago people seemed to be genuinely sad about his departure suggesting that it was more than just business. Is this sense of community an important thing for you?
Yeah, definitely. I think that we are all very different in our approaches when it comes to DJing, but we share a history of eight years now. I’ve known some of the guys for even longer, like Marcel Dettmann and Boris from the old Ostgut, the predecessor of Berghain. So, that’s what really connects, we all came from a very local scene, we come from the same starting point. We were offered this amazing opportunity to become residents at that new club and had a huge chance to grow with it.
What do you think the future holds for the club scene in Berlin? It’s becoming more and more popular, especially in the past few years; do you think that there’s going to be a threshold where quality is sacrificed for appealing to the masses?
I think you can see a couple of negative side effects because Berlin is attracting so many people from all over the world to enjoy the nightlife and they can fail to understand the way in which Berlin is a little bit different. The attitudes in clubs are changing a bit; it’s getting a bit more impersonal and a bit less friendly in a way because there is less respect for each other. It’s really hard to say… They might come from somewhere where nightlife is completely different, you have grumpy bouncers and security guards with searchlights running around and making people feel uncomfortable. This was never that much of a problem in Berlin, but now people are coming for just one week and not experiencing the whole thing. They might not realise that they have something to bring to the table too. It’s not just about being entertained, it’s about creating your own party and interacting with other people and not just recording things with your iPhone or whatever.
But then again, nightlife wouldn’t work without tourists at all. The majority of people I meet are really cool guys and girls and their own flavour to the party. It’s a great thing to have people come from Southern Spain, up north in Scandinavia, or America and so on. It’s a melting point, and if it goes right there’s a lot of exchange going on.
Moving onto the music itself, I always got a sense that the scene you were associated with was maybe a bit more ‘serious’ than others. Do you think that’s an important element of what you do?
I think you should be serious about anything that you’re doing, which doesn’t mean lacking in a sense of humour. I think it’s a good thing to be serious about your work, it comes naturally when you truly love it. How can you not be serious about something you really, really love? Of course, there is a certain seriousness or austerity and darkness to a lot of the techno that we release, but if you look at our back catalogue, it’s not full of only dark music. There’s a lot of warm and friendly house music and ambient, more experimental stuff. I don’t think you can put the sound of the label of the clubs in a nutshell.
A lot of the time in the past, there has been that buzz phrase of ‘the Berghain sound’. Do you think there’s a problem with people being to keen to categorise music rather than appreciate it at face value?
I think there’s definitely an element of that and it was also a marketing tool. You name check Berghain or Panorama Bar in your press releases and people believed they might get extra attention for it. But there’s about 15 DJs playing every weekend at Panorama Bar and Berghain and I don’t think you can sum all of it up as simply as that. The term Berghain techno has gotten a bit old now and it was supposed to signify a different approach to techno by slowing it down and making a little bit darker compared to really fast and aggressive 90s techno. I don’t think a term like that is really necessary now though, no.
Whenever I’ve seen an artist associated with Ostgut Ton, whether it be yourself or someone like Ben Klock or Steffi, you always seem to draw from the whole history of dance music rather than following current trends to appeal to a general audience. Do you think this sense of history is important as a DJ?
Absolutely, there’s such a wealth of music available, I don’t see why anyone should exclude the music that has been produced for the past 25 years and only play recent stuff. But then again, it’s a double-edged sword because for the past two or three years this whole retro thing has really begun to get on my nerves. It’s gone too far, these rough and raw drum machine jams that aren’t going anywhere or cookie cutter mid-90s, it just seems a bit out of balance for me…
It does seem to be especially popular at the moment.
It’s just too trendy. I’d like to stick away from those kinds of trends as much as possible and mix it up a bit differently. That’s the great thing about trends, they are not just a motor for the mainstream, they’re a motor for other people looking for alternatives. It keeps things going. If something gets trendy, people get sick of it and start looking elsewhere. It’s got a good and a bad side.
How do you make the decision of what avenue to take when you’re DJing? Obviously there are so many different styles you could incorporate…
I always make sure I have lots of different types of records in my bag, I normally take 90 vinyls with me and then memory sticks full of unreleased material, promos and stuff I didn’t really need to buy on vinyl. So, I’m always prepared to go anywhere. It really just depends on how I’m feeling and how the club is reacting. It also depends on what records I picked up the week before, but in general I try to go from house records to techno within two hours and hopefully touch a lot of different musical spheres. That’s what I’m interested in from a clubbing perspective. I’m not so interested in those long and linear sets, which admittedly can be great, but usually a standard duration is two hours of a set is two hours and I don’t want to play two hours of the same thing. I really enjoy DJs with an eclectic taste, of course remaining in the boundaries of 4/4-based dance music. When it goes from house to garage to techno and back again, I really enjoy it. It’s necessary to keep myself interested more than anything, a really linear and streamlined set is boring to me to be honest.
This summer you’re playing at a few festivals around Europe, including Echo in Croatia. Are you excited about getting to play to a festival crowd?
Yeah, even more so because I haven’t really played a lot of festivals really. Last year I just played one, Stop Making Sense in Croatia. This year I’m playing Echo and then a smaller one in Amsterdam and another one in the Netherlands as well maybe. I’m not sure when I’m playing, during the night or during the day, but it’s a really different setting especially with Croatia. I’m expecting it to be pretty easy going, it’s in the summer, it’s be the seaside. It should be fun! It’s a welcome change.
Obviously playing to a festival crowd requires something a bit different to a normal club, are you going to change the way you approach it to fit the setting?
To an extent yes, but I still want to maintain my identity. I won’t play disco, funk and soul just because it’s the summer time and I won’t become a completely different DJ just because it’s open air. But of course I will think about something that suits the situation. If I’m on in the afternoon and Andres is playing before me, I certainly won’t play a set of fast and dark techno (laughs).
Moving onto newer releases with Ostgut Ton, Steffi is set to deliver a mix for the Panorama Bar series. I think she’s become one of the most well-renowned artists on the label, how did you go about making the decision to give her the accolade?
I actually haven’t been involved in the decision so much because I recently made the decision to step down from my position managing the label as I need more time with my family and in the studio. But, my friend and assistant Jenus who I’ve been working with for more than one and a half years now has taken over. But anyway, every second month we have a label meeting where we discuss things like that and people come up with work plans and then we try and co-ordinate it so that everyone is happy and has something to look forward to. We wanted to give Steffi a slot for a big project this year, a second album or a mix, and she just decided to go for the latter.
Obviously Steffi is a female DJ, and recently there’s been a bit of controversy when it comes to sex with the whole Nina Kraviz affair. To me it seems like a bit of an excuse for some people to be sexist, what’s your take on the whole thing?
It’s a really tricky issue, but it does definitely need to be addressed. For instance, I was watching an edition of Boiler Room the other night and was in the chatroom and some of the things that were being said in there were frankly hideous. The levels of sexism and homophobia were through the roof and I feel it’s part and parcel with the anonymity offered by the internet. It’s a pretty serious issue and I whilst I might not agree with how Kraviz is marketing herself, that’s besides the point. She can do whatever she wants and her sex appeal is in no way her problem, if you understand what I mean? To tell someone to stop dressing in a sexy way is not really a solution to the problem. If you do that then when the next self-assured woman comes along, the sexist shit starts all over again. It’s especially worth considering when you take into account where house music has come from. In the 80s in Chicago, it’s been a culture for misfits, freaks and drop-outs, people who didn’t really fit in anywhere else. That’s an aspect of nightlife that I find really fascinating and important and it seems like it’s unfortunately fading away. It’s replaced by business, marketing and making things work. It’s not so much about getting together and respecting each other any more and if you look back at the roots of where we’re coming from it’s a huge shame.
You mentioned earlier that you were taking some time out to produce more music. What can we expect to hear in the near future?
I’ve just finished an EP that literally came out of the mastering studio yesterday and it’s going to come out in mid-July. That’s mainly what I’ve been working on.
I look forward to it! You also said that you’re family’s a very important thing in your life, do you think that’s affecting the way you operate as an artist? Have you had to adapt your approach to fit in with ‘real life’?
Becoming a father has actually made me want to work a lot harder at making music and take my responsibilities more seriously. It gave me a great push to be more prolific; it’s a huge incentive having a family that you need to take care of. I don’t feel a lot of pressure to integrate my job with my family duties. My wife knows what’s up and she knows how to deal with it and I’ve learnt how to manage my time and my energy more effectively. It’s not really a problem, I’m really enjoying it at the moment!
Is it strange to be able to say that making music is your job? Was that always your intention when you started making music?
I always dreamt about it since being a teenager into indie rock and punk or whatever. I used to have a punk band for a few years in my hometown where I sang because I couldn’t play an instrument. I’m completely talent-free when it comes to playing an instrument so it wasn’t really for me. When I moved town, my cousin started showing me all of this stuff for audio engineering and we’d sneak up there sometimes at night and start meddling with all the gear whilst drinking super-cheap beer. It was always just for fun. I was fascinated with the advancing technology that made it possible for a completely untrained person like me to make music, but it was just me and him getting stoned and having some fun. There was never any ambition of becoming a professional DJ or producer, I never wanted it to go anywhere.
It all got a bit more ambitious when I started my residency at the old Panorama Bar in 2001. I began to think that there could be that career option and it took years for my first record to come out in 2004 and then it all got going really.
Have you got any more plans for the near future except the three-track you mentioned earlier and a bunch of gigs?
I’ve started a lot of new tracks recently and there’s some really promising stuff that I’m trying to finish. I might be writing an album later this year. At the moment I’m sharing a studio with Steffi, but she’s found a new room and is moving out. I’m going to rearrange the space and buy a couple of synths that she owns and I grew really fond of, and as soon as that’s done I want to write music with an album in mind. It’s early days yet, I’m beginning but I’m not sure if I’ll be getting there as soon as I want to.
Words: Patrick Henderson
Photography: Sarah Schönefeld
Catch Nick Höppner at Echo Festival in Croatia 6-9th June alongside Andres, Kassem Mosse, Space Dimension Controller, Redshape and more. £65 tickets and more info here.