July 26, 2017
At home with one of Berlin’s finest DJs.
It’s summer in Berlin, which means it’s pouring with rain. As Steffi offers us shelter from the elements, welcoming us into her spacious flat on the top floor of an altbau in Kreuzberg, a steady afternoon storm beats against the windows. The effect makes her record room seem cozy, a true sanctuary, with neat shelves of records piled almost to the ceiling.
At a first glance, it looks heavily curated, expertly pruned, the rock-solid collection of someone who has poured years and years into their passion for music. “For the first time in my life, I recently sold some stuff, which was really difficult,” explains the Dutch-born, Berlin-based DJ, as she gives us a detailed tour, section by section, genre by genre. “There are things that were either too damaged, or I’m ready to let go of it, which took 20 years.” She laughs and sighs at the same time.
When asked if there are records she would never part with, she jumps towards a shelf near the middle almost immediately: “Oh, yeah! This is all early Warp experimental stuff, that I would never think of losing — and this is electro I would never part with either.” And like that she’s off, pulling out old new wave records from childhood, Italo disco numbers (all pre-1984, she explains) and of course, a veritable treasure trove of electro, her genre of choice. It’s truly bewildering to see someone so encyclopaedic in their knowledge of specific music — you have the immediate impression that Steffi’s love for electronic music shifts from wildly passionate to clinically academic in the blink of an eye.
Which makes sense: Steffi is one of Berlin’s most well-known DJs, with her monthly residency at Panorama Bar now all but an institution unto itself. Last month, she put out an already super-acclaimed Fabric mix, and in September, she’s releasing her third studio album, World of the Waking State, a subdued, sophisticated and hypnotic collection that melds together the most compelling aspects of her career to date.
With so much going on, it’s easy to imagine record collecting taking a back seat to all of her other endeavours, but a few inconspicuous piles of vinyl on the floor suggest that for Steffi, her collection is always a work in progress. Several times during our conversation, she describes “bumping into” certain records on her journeys — not buying, not borrowing, but bumping into them, as if they were casual acquaintances that suddenly enthralled her with their charms. As the rain finally relented, we sat down to discuss her beginnings in the south of Holland, her favourite records shops, and how she stays fresh and engaged in the international DJ scene after over 20 years in the game.
Is there a record currently that you need to have in your set?
You go through phases where you’ve got certain records where you’re like, “Alright, I need to drop this.” There are a couple of Suburban Knight tracks from the album [My Sol Dark Direction] that was released on Peacefrog, I believe. There’s this one track, ‘Roundtable Chronicles’ that I really like. I’m always like, “Let’s just start with this one,” because it’s such an amazing tune. But that can be going on for a couple of months, and then I bump into something else and that’s the kind of vibe for that period.
You mentioned earlier that you had just played at the Sydney Opera House — what was the vibe there? Was it part of your tour?
No! I basically took half a year off from traveling and only played my monthly Berlin gig. Then there was a request from the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid Festival, which is like a light festival. It goes on for about six weeks, and they work really hard to make sure that they had a dance program. There’s a group of people called Goodgod, and they’re from Sydney, and I’ve played for them before, and they got four nights given to them to curate. So, obviously, I did something right because they were like, “Oh, let’s get her back!” I think Karizma was one of the acts, and DJ Harvey. So I woke up early from my sabbatical because there’s very little chance that you get to play at the Sydney Opera House. It was like a four-hour set, so I could actually lead people through, and take them on my journey, instead of just a two-hour primetime banging thing. It was really challenging.
When you think back at all the gigs you’ve played in your career, are there any other standouts like that?
I don’t know, I think it’s a lot about the energy. You can come back from a gig that means a lot, and there might be 15,000 people, and you’re like, “Yeah, whatever.” But for me, it can be a small gig for 300 people, and if I challenged myself that night and really lifted it to the next level, that has as much value as playing at a certain venue. I mean, God, it sounds so heavy but I’ve never really been starstruck like, “Ah, I’m now playing with this person.” It was more like, how am I moving on? Will I be able to deliver what I do to people and are they picking it up? I’m more focused on the crowd than what happens around me. It’s nice to end up on a line-up of people you appreciate, but in the end, it doesn’t mean anything!
How organized are you with your records?
It’s more like, how organized am I in my head, because I know exactly where I can find what I need. I’m pretty organized, apart from what’s on the floor, because that’s what I travel with, so I can pull stuff out and it’s accurate for that period of time. I don’t put it back [on the shelf], or I forget about it. I tend to take five hours time before I prepare a set, and go through all this stuff.
Sidebar question: what’s your trick for traveling with all that vinyl?
There’s a trick. I’ve got a case that looks like hand luggage, and it fits about 20kgs of records. I try to look really sophisticated and pull it through customs without people going like, “Oh, that’s quite heavy!” [Laughs] So there are tricks to it. I used to check it all in, but then you’re relying on your records to actually arrive, and it’s a bit risky. So I’ve got ways of pretending I’m just carrying a beauty case and it would be kilos of records.
When you do travel, do you shop a lot for records abroad? It has happened to me where I’ve needed to buy an extra carry-on because I decided I needed to take home like 40 records.
Right, right! Sometimes. It depends on how much time I have. But I have to say, 15 years ago, we would actually go on journeys into a different countries to search for certain records. But that, because of my time-consuming DJ life, has narrowed down. And we’ve got the internet now. I have to say though that in Berlin there’s quite a nice round of shops that keep me updated. I know quite a lot of people in Amsterdam, like Red Light Records, and when I’m looking for something, I’ll announce that I’m coming and they’ll ship the records over. Or when I’m in Rotterdam, I’ll go to Clone and they’ll just send it back to me. Rush Hour [in Amsterdam] does the same thing. Just go in there, have them wrap it up, and send it back home.
Do you have any other favourite spots around that you like to shop at? Any places that you know will have hidden gems?
I try to keep up with every city and see what they have. Years ago I was in Adelaide, Australia, and they just opened up a new record shop, and somebody’s old collection was there. I pulled out so much stuff, it was ridiculous. So it’s a little bit about luck, and sussing out the vibe. Apart from your normal round that you have through different cities. Clone is in Rotterdam, and London has Sounds of the Universe, and Glasgow has Rubadub —those are the main ones, but it’s really about the little bits and bobs that come to you when you’re just checking out what the local party organisers know. They’re always happy to take you to a record shop.
Do you often hunt specifically for rare records?
I’m more into the unexpected than knowing that a record is really valuable — if you can just bump into stuff, that’s amazing. When I was much more into disco, I had a lot of people in Holland who knew a lot about it, and I would tag along with them, and they would tell me, “These are the things to watch.” If you’re in the game for a long time – say you’re like me, and you’ve been collecting for over 25 years – you learn to understand what happened in what year. That helps a lot: to combine the genres with the years. That’s what I’m focused on these days.
Sometimes it’s a wild guess, especially if you’re shopping second hand. You’ll look at a label – what it looks like, what year it is. “’82, with a crazy kind of logo?” And you pull it out and it’s like, “Oh, fuck!” For example, if you’re looking for Italo disco, you know that up until ’85 you’ve got a big chance it’s quality, and then it becomes Hi-NRG stuff. And if you’re into Hi-NRG, that’s fine, if you’re not into it, you know that that’s where the whole journey gets cut off. Same with early electro funk. It goes up until ’84, and after it starts to get a bit more techy. If you’re doing a quick search, you know to leave the ’86 kinda vibe out of it. Unless it’s early house, and then it depends on where it’s from.
You seem like a very opinionated DJ, which is actually really nice to see.
No, I’m just very straight to the point, you know? I think that if you’re now kicking off your career in your early 20s, it’s a different thing. You’ve got your social network and all these things. But we’re from back in the day, when your head was in the mixer, and it didn’t really matter who you were. For me, it’s about music, it’s not about me. It’s only been since a couple of years that there’s a face to the DJ, you know what I mean? All of a sudden I have to wear make-up in case somebody [takes a picture]! There are horrible pictures of me online! Like, “Oh, God!” Thank fuck they can’t film in Panorama Bar because then they would have had a hell of a lot of content to talk about.
Well, what would you say that’s changed the most between DJing now and back in the day? Other than just social media? Like, recently I was at a party and saw someone DJing off of Spotify, and I was kind of taken aback.
I think the massive thing is that it expanded a lot. Back in the day, the DJ was just the guy or the girl who came to play music, and now it’s such a thing. You can grab your stuff off Spotify, but that’s not the DJ we’re used to. But because of all the technology being so advanced these days, it kind of opened up the world for everybody. Same with digital photography, you know? All of a sudden there are much more photographers. Online journalists — same disease. And in one way it opens a lot of doors, but the other side of the coin is that it takes away the craft, it takes away the quality of people really investing a lot of time and effort just purely focusing on the music. There are a lot of extra little organs hanging off this whole DJ thing that you have to maintain as well, and that’s why the focus slowly steps away from the music. It’s all about visibility, and I think that’s a massive difference.
Do you think that in general that opening of the doors is a good thing?
There are always pros and cons. The internet is fantastic, but at the same time, it’s terrible. It’s like the good web and the bad web. For loads of people, it’s really fantastic to have so much access to all this music, and that the step up to releasing stuff is very small now because of the digital world. At the same time, hello pollution, you know, because of the shit out there that I wouldn’t even dare to touch myself! You really need to try and create a healthy balance, but we can definitely get distracted from your music, and on your own energy by concentrating on your personality.
Speaking of back in the day, could you take me back to the moment when you first started getting into what is now your record collection?
My record collection started with electronic music, but of course my fascination with music started earlier. But it wasn’t really up until the mid-’90s when it got really massive for me, like “I need to go [to the record store] every week.” I guess it’s an addiction, in a way. I think the first time I really got in touch with electronic dance music – what you would now call house – was ’87 or something? When I was 14. That fascinated me, and I started to go to parties and then got connected with friends who were actually playing records. I was like, “Oh, what’s this? I’ll have a go,” and they were like, “Oh, no no no! It’s not your thing!” And I was like, “Well, give it to me, I want to see what this is.” They were into really good quality music, so at the time I thought, “I want to start collecting myself because this music is really full on.”
How have your record shopping habits changed since then? You mentioned going to the record store every week back in the day…
It shifts to more niche things, now. There’s a lot coming out every week, but what’s debatable is the quality at the moment, to be very honest. The record plants give you the opportunity to press a white label without ordering a finished copy — back in the day you had to order a finished copy to be able to press 100 white labels. Now a release can be 100 white labels, and that’s the release.
So if you look at what comes out every week, it’s record after record after record. Some of them are just people that took matters into their own hands because they couldn’t get a label to release it on. But at some point you think that if it’s not being released anywhere, it might be because it’s not good enough. This is subjective, people could say that about my music as well, you know? So it’s really hard to go to the record shops and go through all the stuff and say, “OK, what’s there now?” The quantity has become much bigger but the quality has kind of narrowed down. You need to keep reinventing yourself to keep the train going, like, “What is there that I haven’t touched yet?”
Photos by Graeme Vaughan