Photo: Christian Werner (Dixon)
Hier klicken für die deutsche Version des Interviews.
Dixon doesn’t record many mixes, and he doesn’t give that many interviews either. This is perfectly understandable if you take into account his tour schedule, his work with the Innervisions label he runs together with Âme as well as, more recently, his contribution to the debut album by Trikk and a collaboration with Jimi Jules as well as a handful of remixes. On top of all that, Steffen Berkhahn also dedicates his time to other projects. While the fashion label Together We Dance Alone, co-founded by him and Ana Ofak, is currently on hiatus, the Transmoderna artist collective that the two have kickstarted in recent years is also constantly evolving. Berkhahn’s mix for Groove, the 400th instalment, provided ample opportunity to discuss all this. Dixon spoke with Kristoffer Cornils, who has been programming the Groove Podcast for the past eight years, about DJing, paradigm shifts at Innervisions, new event concepts and playing with the star cult surrounding him.
This is your first extensive interview with Groove in nine years. Last time, you and Âme answered questions from Gerd Janson and then editor-in-chief Heiko Hoffmann. One of your statements was quite controversially discussed: “In my opinion, any house or techno DJ who doesn’t play more than 80 or 90 per cent current tracks has failed in their profession.” Would you still subscribe to that today?
(laughs) Yes! That statement was hotly debated afterwards and perhaps misunderstood somewhat. I think people responded with something along the lines of: “A track’s novelty is in itself not a sign of quality!” I still maintain that DJing is not about the quality of music since that’s an extremely subjective standard of judgement. As a house or techno DJ, however, you should try to reflect the zeitgeist or at least present your own perspective on it. And since as a DJ you are—hopefully—an entertainer and teacher, reflecting current musical (mini) trends and references to music history through your work is a part of this. Also, let’s do the maths real quick: According to me, if you play a set with ten tracks, there shouldn’t be more than one or two quotes from the past among them. I don’t think that’s radical or anti-historical at all. Back then as well as now—it’s something that seems to develop in recurring cycles—I notice a trend of DJs playing a best-of of house or techno from the last 30 years.
I thought the choice of words was important: current music doesn’t necessarily have to be new.
Exactly. New music can also pick up on an older trend. Music doesn’t constantly reinvent itself! For me as a DJ, current music is music that nobody else has. That includes unreleased tracks that are sent to me or tracks from releases that will be released through Innervisions in the future. But for other DJs it might mean something else—music that has just been released or records that they have bought in the last ten months, for example. I wasn’t trying to say that DJs should only play unreleased music! But as DJs we should reflect the zeitgeist as we perceive it in such a way that our own take on it becomes recognisable, and is not just a historical one.
In the interview, you also talked about being accused of having a sound that was too trancey—this was in reference to playing the music by the likes of Tale of Us and others. Considering the twofold nostalgia inherent to producers banging out hard trance edits of the pop hits of yesteryear, this seems almost comical today. Is that even new music?
Well, how DJs present such music is the important thing here. Updating older sounds and genres is part of our work, but just showcasing them is not enough. However, playing a classic, three new tracks and three trance-influenced pieces in one set—that’s the kind of contextualisation I expect from a DJ. But if every second track in a set is a classic because trance is currently in vogue … That’s exactly what I was trying to address.
Your mix for Groove captures a certain zeitgeist, but it also uses some historical quotes. How did you approach it?
Just like a DJ set: I wanted to present my currently favourite dance music to the world. While recording it, I thought about how I could best convey that. On the dancefloor, I can adapt to the context—is it an open-air event, who played before me, and so on—and use certain processes and tools to shape the essence of what I want to express. It was the same with recording the mix: I had selected about twelve tracks, but only three or four of them ended up in it. The sequence didn’t make sense to me, the flow wasn’t right or certain musical statements and contexts just didn’t fit together. That’s why tracks that I didn’t even have on my radar before ended up in the mix. That’s also how I approach DJing. I mainly play three-hour slots, so roughly 40 to 50 tracks. I have them in my head beforehand; they are my favourite tracks from the past two months. But it always changes when I’m playing.
In other words, you make a selection in advance and throw it out the window when you are behind the decks.
Exactly. I go into every weekend with ten or twelve new tracks and am curious to see how they will work, and then there are about 30 recent ones that are on my shortlist. I deliberately don’t sort the music on my USB sticks by genre, tempo or key. The only categorisation I have is by month—like November 2023 at the moment. So if I have an idea during a set, I have to search for the particular piece and find it. What I actually play and how I combine everything is always decided during the course of the set. I normally decide on the first two pieces within the last 15 minutes before the performance, and I usually already know the last two. What happens in between is another matter. (laughs)
You told Valerie Präkelt from AD Magazine that you mainly listen to music professionally “in taxis, airplanes and hotel rooms”. That sounds almost precarious.
Transmoderna, the work with the label, music production and other daily business tasks have left me with less and less time. I’ve also realised that I often lose my enjoyment of the music when I download and listen to it during the week. I need my downtime when I’m intensively involved with dance music every weekend. That’s why I just collect new tracks during the week instead of actually listening to something. When I hit the road, I start to listen analytically to the music. As a result, I approach my gigs with more enthusiasm because I can concentrate fully on music in the ten hours before my first show. However, this also means that I’m usually late getting out of my hotel room because I’ve discovered a few great tunes in the last few minutes before I’m supposed to head to the gig. (laughs) It’s positive chaos. Travelling to my other shows on the same weekend allows me to delve even deeper into the music. On the third day, I play my best set from a professional point of view because I’ve already bundled and edited everything. I also know what effect a new piece has on people and how I should use it best.
Is there a separation between the professional music listener Dixon and the private music fan Steffen Berkhahn?
Yes, partly because I listen to a lot of my eleven-year-old son’s music! (laughs) This brings me into contact with a completely different musical spectrum. In general, I see a need to engage with music beyond the professional context anyway. When I hear something on the radio or through my son, or discover something interesting in a rock context, it can be inspiring and applicable to club music. I also bring this into conversations with producers.
That brings us to Innervisions, where you have recently been very directly involved in the creative process of your artists lately. The label is slowly approaching its 20th birthday. How do you try to reflect or even advance the zeitgeist in a rapidly changing music world?
It’s a process with ups and downs. If you focus on something for a very long time, it can lead to stagnation. At the same time, there are always spurts of innovation that come from outside. It is important to maintain a balance between openness to external influences and the inner urge to drive change. If you succeed in doing this, you remain relevant—although this is not always possible, of course. We have already missed our tenth anniversary and we haven’t planned anything for our twentieth either. For us, catalogue number 100 [the 2021 EP The Witness by Âme, ed.] was the crucial turning point. We asked ourselves what we still want as a label. What do we want to say, where should or can the path still lead us? Looking back, it turned out that the first hundred catalogue numbers were almost exclusively dancefloor EPs and there were hardly any albums among them. At the time, I was toying with the idea of closing Innervisions. It seemed to me that we had already said everything in the context of the dancefloor. We had released innovative music, a few hits—and also a few bad tracks. (laughs) So I didn’t see the need to play the same game with another hundred releases. We discussed this intensively and decided to open up the label more to album releases. This includes a more sustainable and intensive collaboration with and promotion of our artists. All of this has made it interesting for me to continue working with the label and in my role as A&R and executive producer.
The albums by Jimi Jules and Trikk, both of which you were involved in, represent this paradigm shift. What appeals to you about getting directly involved?
The fun of it! I especially enjoy it when I work with people who have certain talents that I don’t have myself. Writing music is just not one of my strengths. I work with a lot of people who have amazing ideas but sometimes find it difficult to bring them into a coherent form. I can help them create a piece of work that represents the essence of their creativity at that point in their career.
How do these collaborations work, what does your work as executive producer involve?
The first step is to select the titles together. The second one involves taking a closer look at them and evaluating the individual elements. The third is all about the arrangement. For about every fourth track, I take the individual stems and reassemble them in a way that I think works to kick off a dialogue. So I tinker with beats, make suggestions for the arrangement or even remove elements so that the resulting gaps are filled with something different.
All of this is part of the conceptual paradigm shift at Innervisions in regard to the music. However, on a visual level, the label has always been changing.
Up until catalogue number 100, we worked in roughly annual phases in our visual identity. We originally decided to prioritise the label over the artists. In our early phase, the name Innervisions and the catalogue number appeared in large letters on the cover. Over time, the font size became smaller and smaller and eventually the information moved to the back, and later even to the inlay. At the same time, the artist’s name became larger and larger. This also ties in with what we decided after catalogue number 100: We put the artists above the label. Since then, the artwork is being tailored to the releases and developed in the context of the music. The exception is the Secret Weapons series, through which we present new discoveries. These releases continue to have a specific visual framework.
The visual identity of Innervisions has lately been very digital, very futuristic. There is a certain aesthetic kinship with your biggest recent project. What is Transmoderna?
Transmoderna is a constantly evolving collective of artists who produce installations, events and other forms of digital art. The creative direction is in the hands of Ana Ofak, who together with me is responsible for the conceptual side. We work with various artists on a project basis to realise and/or interpret the concepts and ideas we have developed. This collaborative work forms the basis for the visual appearance of Transmoderna. It is important to us to make this development process transparent in order to clearly emphasise the involvement of the team. This is to avoid Transmoderna always being reduced to Dixon in people’s perception. I play an important role in the team, but without team, Transmoderna would not exist.
How was Transmoderna founded?
The starting point was a residency I was offered at Pacha in Ibiza in 2019. The island considers itself the epicentre of dance culture, but is ultimately one of its most commercial and conservative branches. Ibiza stands like nothing else for the extreme focus on the DJ and thus the turning away from togetherness on the dance floor. We wanted to counter this with an immersive dancefloor experience. The simplest thing was, of course, to bring the DJs closer to the audience and place them more in the centre rather than putting them on a literal pedestal. Then there’s the combination of the various design elements of a club night. DJs will of course always say that people come for the music. In reality, however, they are motivated by their identification with a group, a sense of belonging. Music is not the only component that makes this possible. Light, lasers and visuals also play a role. With Transmoderna, we aim to merge all these elements more strongly. By reacting to each other in real time as much as possible, they enable a more intense experience on the dancefloor.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
As a DJ, I’m a storyteller, but I don’t come with a prepared story like bands or EDM stars do, where the visuals are perfectly coordinated with the music in advance. With me, the narrative develops spontaneously out of the moment, as storytelling in real time. However, behind the lights, lasers and visuals there is also an artist who also has something to say. It is important that these spontaneously created stories inspire each other and do not contradict each other. This requires a well-rehearsed team, but also hardware and software tailored to our needs, some of which we have developed ourselves. Last but not least, the stage design, or in a club context more specifically the dancefloor and stage design, is important. Our aim is to incorporate these elements in a surprising and different way. Visuals have become increasingly important in club culture—not always for the better, in my opinion. They are generally seen behind the DJs and draw even more attention to them. The bigger these LED walls get, the more the dancefloor becomes a place for which a show is put on. We do not want to close ourselves off to the latest technologies and media, on the contrary—what we do want is to use them with the aim of shifting the focus away from the performance and enhancing the experience. It’s about being in the middle of it instead of just in front of it. For decades, “A Basement, A Red Light and A Feelin'” was the essence of a club night for me. But house and techno clubs as we know them today have been around for more than 30 years. The challenge is to integrate this essence into the year 2023 or to transfer it into the present without being nostalgic and rejecting modernity. That’s what we want to work on. This perhaps brings us full circle to my statement about the classics in a DJ set.
In this sense, you’ve produced an edition of Boiler Room in which you’re hardly ever seen. Does this all stem from a certain frustration with being filmed every second as a DJ anyway?
I wouldn’t call it frustration and I don’t hold it against anyone. It’s simply a reflection of our times and our relationship with media. It’s not possible to undo this. I feel the same way about it as I do when the tenth demo that sounds exactly the same arrives in my inbox: It may be frustrating for a moment, but above all it prompts me to look for something new. What I ask myself is if there aren’t ways of using technology to influence our perception, so that people automatically refrain from pulling out their phones.
However, a more tight-knit community on the dancefloor would go hand in hand with dismantling a hierarchy—the star cult surrounding DJs. There’s one around you, too…
And I can’t and actually don’t want to evade it. I even actively play with it. For me, it’s about making my job exciting and maintaining an interest in what I do. I’m not so radical as not to give interviews, not to use Instagram or to ban photos at my gigs. The relationship between DJ and audience is ultimately based on give and take.
What are your plans for the future?
There will be new albums by Âme, Jimi Jules and Trikk on Innervisions. With Transmoderna, we are planning a few more events than usual in the coming year and will continue to present our VR installations in museum contexts, currently at Julia Stoschek, the Max Ernst Museum and the Centre Pompidou. Next year, we want to expand this with one or two immersive exhibitions that aim to bring the essence of our events—the interplay of music, lasers and light as well as visual art—into spaces that have more of an gallery character. We are also working on the development of a computer game. Depending on the way it is played, the soundtrack changes accordingly. Basically, the players remix a piece of music depending on their behaviour in the game and will receive their unique version of the music once they have finished the game. Last but not least, I have just started a new project with Trikk called Tri/xon. Let’s see where that takes us. I think 2024 is going to be an exciting year.
Stream: Dixon – Groove Podcast 400
01. A&B – Question Of Things
02. Works Of Intent – You Should
03. Flume & Caroline Polachek – Sirens (Dixon Edit)
04. Mr. Flip – Dripping (Karizma Baltimore Drip) (Edit)
06. Amnesia Scanner – CAT (Tri/xon Rework)
08. David Koch & John Falke – I’m a
10. Jarreau Vandaal – Mojo Riddim
13. Trikk – Rigor
15. Kino Todo – 2004