Photo: Press (Wallis)
Techno has become harder and faster, but not always stronger in the past few years. What’s been missing is joy and exuberance, or at least a bit of humour. However, the times are a-changing once more. DJ and producer Wallis is known for a hard-hitting, hardcore-inspired techno sound in both her sets and productions that leaves enough room for ecstasy, bliss and even the occasional cheeky moment. Much like the Jell founder’s contribution to our Groove podcast, which is hard, strong and fast – and “not exactly joyful” either, as she readily admits, but melancholic and tense.
Your approach to techno is decidedly rough, calling to mind early Birmingham techno and hardcore. How were you introduced to dance music in general and what were artists or records that specifically had an impact on you?
Like a lot of people I discovered dance music in clubs. When I was about 16 my older sister lent me her ID, so I could enter clubs when I was still underage. At the time in Paris there were not as many parties as today, there was Rex club, then emerged Sundae, one of the first open air Sunday daytime parties – very focused on house music though. Then a few others popped up, among which TWSTD, that later became known as Concrete. At the beginning I did not know how the particular type of music I liked was called, and I remember sending a youtube link of Clouds’ track „Those Cracks in Your Face, Do They Hurt“ to a DJ friend of mine asking him „this is the type of music I love, how is that called?“ „Industrial techno.“ And that was it. I then started to hunt much deeper into the genre, to target better the parties I should attend, and a whole new world opened up. About a year later on a Sunday morning I was having breakfast at my flat with some friends before heading to Concrete, and a friend of mine put on Ansome’s first release on Mord that had just came out, the Penny and Pound EP. I loved most of the tracks but categorized one track, “Halyard Hitch,” as too hard for my taste. Later that day we heard it again on the Concrete dancefloor and it completely blew my mind. That day I realised there was a gap between the tracks that stood out for me on dancefloors compared to what I listened to at home back then, and I think this realisation really changed my vision of music. As time went on my taste slowly got harder and harder, and I definitely stopped wondering „is that track too hard“ before playing it. “Halyard Hitch” actually became one of my favorite tracks that day and still is. That whole EP, Penny and Pound, is timeless. I then became obsessed with Mord, and I used to buy every single record they put out. Same for Ansome’s music and Clouds’. And yeah, those two records are real turning points for me musically.
As a DJ, you first cut your teeth in Paris before relocating in Berlin. In a recent interview with Discwoman, you talked about how your last illegal party in the French capital was raided by the police. Does the city’s scene face a lot of problems with the authorities?
The thing is that in France, it is quite tough to get permit for venues, so unless your are opening a proper club, it’s not necessarily worth it or even possible: each location has to be declared as “authorized to receive a public audience”, and this authorization process can take a while and is very uncertain (if the authorities really want to drag on the process in order to prevent the party from happening, they totally can – and any permit and license can always be taken away too). It is also very hard to obtain a license IV, which is the one you need to sell alcohol. So the result is that the vast majorities of parties – as far as I know – are not legal, and everyone just hopes the cops won’t come. And when they do come, hope that they won’t shut down the party. I once played at a party in a squatted building in Paris where the police came and asked us to just close one of the floors, but encouraged us to keep on partying in the basement. However, during the police raid I mentioned in the Discwoman interview, we were super cooperative and the second we heard the police was there, we immediately cut the sound, but it still ended up in a massive fight. I’m convinced the brigade came in a violent mood and were gonna do something no matter what we did. In the end, since those parties are „breaking the law“, the police can do what they want, so sometimes they do nothing but sometimes they shut down the party, fight, arrest some people, confiscate the gear, and tell you to come down to the police station later that week, and from there it can go from a simple fine you have to pay, to a proper investigation and a lot of very real legal problems – I have friends who are currently being investigated for “endangering the life of others”. Scary.
As a producer, you work a lot with modular synthesizers and sometimes discuss gear on your socials. Where does your fascination with modular synthesis stem from and how do you use modular synthesizers in your creative process?
They are just so much fun. It is both something that you have absolute control over and absolutely no control either. You can decide on everything, determine every step of the way, but there is still an unknown element to it, you never know 100% how your oscillator will behave and you just have to learn to pile upon it in the moment. Embrace whatever comes out and try your best to turn it into something beautiful. A modular can do stuff that you would not do on a computer because you could not even dream of those sounds. It’s just plain weird, and I like that. I think the „having fun“ aspect also translates in the music. On a computer doing super complicated sound design takes forever and I get bored. I would say the modular is one of the first steps of my creative process. I play around with it and record everything into ableton, and then I will select my favorite parts, and either mix them in ableton right away or send them for another round either into my modular or octatrack, and repeat the process until I feel like I got where I wanted to go. But I do not work 100% modular: the control freak that I am spends many many hours doing surgical mixdowns with lots of volume matched comparisons and modifications, so computers are also an important part of my process, even if people tend to associate me only with analogue gear.
You’ve recently contributed a track to the compilation Sonic Resistance. A Compilation for Rojava. Can you tell us more about the project and why you decided to participate? In a Facebook post, you have said that your grandfather came from Aleppo, not far from the autonomous zone of Rojava.
Yes, exactly my grandfather is from Aleppo, very close to the region of Rojava, that the Sonic Resistance compilation is trying to support. This is a 90 tracks compilation giving all proceeds to one of the last feminist organizations in the area. I am no sociopolitical expert, but from what I understand, the Kurdish resistance is fighting against the current Turkish invasion and trying to maintain their autonomy against an invading regime that has more money, more weapons and more power than them. In addition to fighting the Turkish military regime, Rojava established itself a symbol of hope in a region whose future is very uncertain, with the Kurdish resistance advocating for women’s equality, LGBTQIA rights, ecology, sustainability and democratic confederalism. I think that what is happening in Syria is extremely shocking. If you simply google photos of Aleppo, you can see how destroyed it is, and how the city is only a shadow of what it once was. This region was home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and historically is somehow responsible for so much of what happened in the world we know today, several religions emerged from there, some of the first traces of urbanisation, it influenced architecture, philosophy, literature, art… you name it. It can be somehow linked or traced back to something happening in this area at a point in time, and today it is all disappearing. Part of humanity’s history is being erased. And a lot of people lost everything, their families, their friends, their pets, their houses, and all their belongings. Some managed to flee in horrible conditions, while others had to stay behind, and today the Kurdish resistance are still risking their lives, because their entire community is being threatened, and I don’t think it would be fair to turn a blind eye to something so intense. My grandfather coming from Syria was not the reason I wanted to take part in this compilation, this was the reason. I think anybody who has the power to help should try. In any way they can. Rojava and Syria need help.
With Jell, you’ve founded your own label last year. Its self-description somewhat cheekily reads “violence is never the solution except when it comes to techno”. What was your motivation to start Jell and what is the overall concept of the label?
Launching a label was something I wanted to do for a long time, and what really triggered was the accumulation of several factors. A lot of labels sit on your tracks for a year or sometimes much more, which can be quite frustrating, but when it is your label you call the shots. I’m very efficiency and detail oriented and having a label allows me to do everything according to my own standards. Other people may not have the same vision, and sometimes you have tracks that you absolutely love but nobody else wants. My track “Apt1245” was actually refused by a couple people before I decided to take matter in my own hands and create Jell. And now, that track did so well, a ton of labels approach me asking for tracks like that one. It’s quite funny to think about this in retrospect, this track pretty much launched my career, and the label as well, but before that actually happened, nobody seemed to like it. Sometimes people need to see the finished product in order to understand it, and with your own label, you get to avoid having to wait for others to get on the same page, and simply broadcast your own artistic vision without having to compromise too much. And you make a contribution to the techno scene. I am such a fan of the artists on my label, most of them are fairly unknown and not touring a lot, and hopefully I help them get some extra attention. Releasing Jell I think really helped me to broadcast what is inside my head. As a personal rule I never try to fit into anything or mimic others, I may actually do the opposite of what others are doing just for the sake of it – even if it’s quite often just plain stupid and counterproductive –, and I wanted Jell to reflect that. This is why Jell has this super colorful and pink princess cheesy design, with lots of animals – something you would not necessarily associate with techno that tends to take itself very seriously. But Jell also has very hard and shocking artwork sometimes, because, well, the world is also rough. It is both very serious and not serious at all. I would say we are serious about not taking ourselves too seriously.
Besides being a producer and DJ, you also work as a mastering engineer. What does your job entail and what exactly does a good mastering engineer have to bring to the table, in your opinion?
I have the perfect metaphor for mastering. A mastering engineer is like a make up artist. You are handed a track, and you do your best to enhance its best features and hide its defaults. You can’t magically change the original product, but with clever tricks you can still do a lot, and turn a mixdown that was not incredible to begin with into something much more solid. I think a good mastering engineer must listen to what the client wants, because in the end, it is their music and their money, so their judgement matters more than mine, even if I would envision a totally different process at times. And a mastering engineer must know when to leave the track alone too. Sometimes you are handed in very solid mixdowns, and you are tempted to still do a lot on it because you want to take it a step further, but in mastering every little action has consequences on the entire frequency spectrum, and the job is to decide whether each action is worth the downsides it brings to the track or not, and when in doubt, it is best to leave it as alone as possible.
What was the idea behind your contribution to the Groove podcast?
When I record a set I try to create some kind of story line. Not a concrete story like in a book but something that makes sense in my head. There needs to be some continuity somehow – even though one of my trademarks is the diversity of what I play in my sets. I try to build the story line in a cohesive way, to make sure that the music makes sense, and has the strongest impact possible. During my sets I try to touch people somehow, trigger some kind of emotional response, change their mood a bit. The direction is also highly influenced by my own mood and I guess the week I recorded this mix I was feeling a bit frustrated, and it shows in this mix… let’s say it’s not exactly joyful music, perhaps a bit more melancholic and tense/let’s-go-to-war music.
Last but not least: Where can we see you behind the decks in the near future and what are your plans as a producer and label owner?
There are a lot of very exciting gigs coming up. This year I started traveling a lot actually, and the gigs are getting bigger and bigger. It’s quite unreal, and I am very very excited. This will all culminate in the next few months in an event I cannot name, but yes… insane things are planned in the not-too-distant future gig-wise. I can’t wait. Production wise I also have very big releases planned that I cannot announce either, but trust me, heavyweight stuff. The first one should hit around next month – if there aren’t too many pressing plant delays -, and I am counting the days, because I think it is my best work ever. This is the first time my own music gives me goosebumps even on bad computer speakers. I cannot wait to share it. And that release will only be a small taste of what will be coming after that. Be prepared! Regarding Jell I think I will release one last compilation before moving towards vinyl pressing and real EPs. I want to start working more closely with only a couple of artists instead of doing big VAs. Even though compilations tend to work very well, I think that EPs are more personal and correspond better to me for that very reason. If I keep releasing so many VAs with a big turnover Jell will feel more like a factory than a family. And that’s not what I am after. So in the future, I want to have fewer artists and be really focused on each of them. A personal approach, only a few producers, in for the long run – and only bangers, of course. Also… I hope to start throwing label nights across Europe sooner rather than later!
Stream: Wallis – Groove Podcast 248