From Teutonic techno to grungy garage rock, Helena Hauff fuses her eclectic taste into punchy electro sets and analogue-heavy productions, united by a feel for music’s darker textures. Cameron Cook meets the DJ and producer ahead of the release of her new album to find out how digging for records, dodgy violin lessons and terrible teenage DJs helped form Hauff into one of electronic music’s most unique voices.
Helena Hauff is full of surprises. When I meet the Hamburg-based DJ and producer at Ninja Tune’s Berlin offices, she’s just been to the local record shop, OYE, to pick up some records to add to her already illustrious collection. As we sit down to discuss her haul, the first record she pulls out is a little left field for one of the year’s most talked-about techno producers: An Odd Entrances, the 2016 album by cult American garage rock band The Oh Sees. What, no super obscure Detroit electro or underground German house? “I saw a video of them,” she says of Thee Oh Sees, “the frontman has his guitar on really tight to his body. It looked really cool actually, and full of energy.” She smiles and shrugs. “So I bought it!”
When you read about Helena’s heady brand of techno, writers tend to use words like “dark,” “dank,” and “somber”. But to hear her talk about her methods, influences and perceptions of her own craft, other adjectives spring to mind: “emotional,” “singular,” “adventurous”. Far from the pseudo-goth personality that has been prescribed to her by the press, Helena is charming, funny, almost bubbly, if it was not for the seriousness with which she discusses her music. With this in mind, her new album, entitled Qualm, takes on new dimensions — of course, its swirling beats and sometimes oppressive synths are perfect for the Teutonic dancefloors of Hamburg and Berlin, but they are also contemplative and moody, electronic meditations that reach far beyond your typical club fodder.
It’s this that has made Qualm such an anticipated release: Helena has poured herself into this record, and it shows. To dig deeper into the woman behind the turntables, we touch upon Helena’s record collecting habits, how she began DJing as a teenager in Hamburg, and how being a terrible child violinist may have driven her to a life of techno.
OYE is such a good shop, and a crucial part of the neighbourhood. What did you end up picking up?
Let’s see: this is some electro stuff, Peter Graf York… I’ve never heard of it before, I don’t really know what it is. It’s cool though, at OYE they’ve got little descriptions on the sleeve, which is really handy. If you’re not 100% sure, you get a rough description of what it is.
This one is kind of classic electro, on this FTP record label… I don’t know what FTP stands for. It’s the compilation FTP003. I love it when electro has those syncopated snares, but you still have that structure, because when I play electro it’s a great tool to have something to play really fast, but that feels quite slow with the breakbeats. Then when you come in with the straight bass drum, you can feel how fast you are.
What about that blank one?
This is a strange one from 2012, Schizolectric / Annechoic’s Time Capture LP on this label Audiofugitives. It’s got some really strange sounds on there, a bit electro in parts, but techno in parts… kind of ambient-ish as well. It’s a really interesting record, I’d never heard of them before. [She Begins to read the description on the sleeve] “Great album featuring some hot electronics, hailing from Spain this is the first release on this DIY label, intense uncompromising tracks, of which the A-side is rooted in classically drawn techno and electro, the B-side takes the listener into orbit with some amazing space dub tracks. Only 200 copies.”
So, I take it that when it comes to your music taste, you’re pretty eclectic? I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t expecting to see a record by Thee Oh Sees today.
A little bit, I guess. I go for all sorts of different stuff. When it comes to electronic music, I do have a distinct taste. I definitely know DJs with way more eclectic taste than me. I’ve got probably quite conservative taste, when it comes to techno and electro. It’s very classic-sounding stuff. I like the harder and rougher versions of classic stuff, but it’s still classic. I like a lot of guitar music as well.
You seem like you could make it work in a guitar band. I could definitely see you fronting a post-punk outfit or something, especially in those pants.
[Laughs] Yeah! Hold on, I’m going to put the jacket on, just for you…
Yes! I can see you with a shiny black guitar, some other girls behind you. Totally.
I would love to, I just never learned how to play an instrument. I actually did, for a while.
Did you? Which instruments?
I played the piano and the violin when I was a child, but I was terrible at it! I was so bad, that at some point, the teacher just said, “Alright, look, just do something else.”
Maybe that teacher unwittingly steered you towards electronic music.
I was actually thinking about this not long ago, like, if I had been learning stuff that I liked more, maybe I would have got into it properly. But everything we played was just horrible music. I started when I was like seven years old I think and I was never into kids songs! If we had played some Erik Satie or something, I probably would have enjoyed it a hell of a lot more! So that’s why I’m not in a band. I can’t really sing either.
Well, clearly everything worked out. So after your first failed foray into music as a seven-year-old, when did you realize you were interested again? When did you start buying records?
I probably started when I was about 19 years old. I moved away from home, and that’s when I started going to clubs and stuff, and discovering electronic music properly, and started collecting records.
Did the interest in the music come first, and then the clubs, or did you discover the music via the nightlife scene?
I would probably say I was into the music first, and then went to find the right parties. It was more or less at the same time, actually. I remember I went to a kind of rave party because a friend of mine took photos for them, and I really liked it.
I remember around about the same time I went to a record shop for the first time. I bought an album by Radioactive Man, his first album, which is like, proper electro. I loved it so much, I was so into that record. After that, I kind of tried to find the right parties, and I really did my research — what was going on in Hamburg at the time, where to go, and what DJs to see. And then, meeting people, meeting local DJs like Smallpeople, Richard von der Schulenburg, and Lawrence from Dial. It all happened at the same time.
When you first starting going to these clubs, what made you feel like you could DJ as well?
I think I wanted to do it really, really quickly. I didn’t immediately start collecting and buying my turntables and learning how to DJ, but it probably took about a year and then I was like, “OK, I need to do this, this is what I want to do.” I remember I was at a student party and there was a DJ, not playing techno I don’t think, just whatever. As I was standing there thinking, “This is horrible! I could do this so much better!” [Laughs] For other people, it might be the other way around — people might see a DJ and think, “Oh, this is amazing, I want to do the same thing.” I was more like, “No, I want to do this better than him.”
You have that inherent confidence though, and it comes across when you DJ.
I was a little bit into music already, and then I started seeing other DJs play, and it was like, “OK, that’s great, that’s what I want to be like, that’s the kind of stuff I’m into.”
When you’re on the search for new records for your collection, what’s your M-O? Are you someone who looks for rarities, or really crate digs?
I don’t necessarily look for rarities. It’s a difficult question though, because when you look through the record boxes, what do you actually pick out? At the beginning I just took out everything to listen to because I had absolutely no idea. I didn’t know any names, didn’t know any labels, didn’t know what artwork was supposed to look like… I knew that with a lot of the modern artwork it’s really difficult to tell anyway. When you see a ’90s techno record they all have similar kind of styles.
So I would just listen to everything, and I bought a lot of terrible stuff as well, because my ear wasn’t trained enough to understand if something works, if it’s good, within a few seconds of listening to it. I’d be like, “Yeah, maybe this is a good record? Maybe I could play this?” So I ended up with a lot of terrible records.
Now, it depends on the record shop a lot. If it’s a really well-selected record shop, like OYE for example, they’ve got the description, and it’s in the box labeled ‘Electronics’, so you kind of have an idea of what it is, and then you go through it and see if you recognize and names or labels, and then maybe pick some things out that you’ve never heard of before, just to see what it’s like. It’s a not-so-well-selected shop, you have to go through a lot, and just listen.
What are some of the shops you really enjoy shopping in, that make that experience easy for you?
OK, I don’t really have that many favorite record stores. In Hamburg, I would say, there is one called Freiheit und Roosen, which is a really cool shop. They have all sorts of different genres, new records, second-hand records, they’ve got electro, techno… I really like that one. There’s another one called Otaku which is specifically for electronic music, but they have a very good selection as well.
Then there’s Zardoz, which is more like an indie rock/pop kind of a shop, but they have all sorts of stuff, and a small section for techno and house. The selection is very, very limited, but somehow they manage to get really good second-hand techno records sometimes which you normally don’t see anywhere. Not necessarily rare, but pretty weird! I’ve bought some really good stuff there. We also have Smallville, so they have all the new house and techno, they’re pretty good for that. In Berlin, I used to go to the Record Loft, I really liked that place.
They just moved, right?
Yeah, I haven’t been to the new place yet.
The problem is, in Hamburg, you go to a shop once and then you don’t really have to go back for half a year, sometimes a year, because the turnover is quite slow, and they don’t get that much new stuff in. I don’t go that often anymore, and I need new records every week because I play every week, and I don’t want to play the same stuff over and over again, so I buy a lot online.
I also used to really like to go to shops when I travel, but now that I travel so much, I don’t actually have time anymore. I fly in, I have some dinner, I DJ, I sleep, I fly out. I was at OYE before, years ago, when I used to come to Berlin I would stay for a couple of days, just to visit the record shops. It’s a bit of a shame, because what I really like about record shops is that a lot of the time you find stuff that you didn’t even think of. You find unexpected gems, but when you go online you only really find what you’re looking for. I mean, you might find something similar because YouTube said, “If you listen to Robert Hood then maybe you’d like Jeff Mills too,” or something, you know? It just takes you in circles.
Yeah, the dreaded algorithm. You just can’t replicate a shop owner who’s really invested in curating a great selection.
You really can’t. This human factor is just gone. It’s so funny, when I go on YouTube and I listen to electronic music – I’ve actually tried this – you go through the top recommendations, and if you just let it autoplay, how long does it take you to get to the Solomun Boiler Room set? [Laughs] You know? It doesn’t take you that long! You can start from the weirdest shit ever, and that’s where you’re going to end up. So, it can work if you want to find out a little bit more about what’s out there. Obviously, Discogs is great if you want to find out what else a label or artist released, but if you want to find something you didn’t even know you wanted, you need a record shop.
Speaking of those magical moments, do you remember the last record you stumbled upon that really blew you away?
This one! (Points to record bag) Time Capture LP. I bought a record in Detroit the other day, DJ Marquis, this breakbeat record, it’s got one kind of house-y track, and then a very fast techno-y, electro-y track, and then extremely fast breakbeats. But it’s a great record. Didn’t know that one before, and it looked like it might be something good.
Since you’re buying records every week, what does your collection look like at this point? Do you roll over a lot, sell stuff, use storage?
I don’t sell at all, maybe because I’m too lazy. I’ve got so many records that I really want to get rid of, and my room is probably as big as this one, 15-20 sq. meters, maybe a tiny bit smaller. And it’s full. But also I’m not very well organised, I could have a shelf but… I don’t [laughs]. It’s all on the floor! It’s a bit messy.
So how do you prepare for a set?
As I said, I’ve got my records on the floor, which kind of helps because a lot of them are out of the hard sleeves — I mean, a lot of techno records don’t have hard sleeves with any information on them to begin with. So I just put them in inner sleeves and plastic, so I can fit more records into my record bag. If I have it on a shelf, I would find it quite difficult to find stuff, so I’m in front of the decks, and I just have to bend down and go through the box! I find what I’m looking for, eventually. I’m very, very messy, but in my head I’m very, very organised.
It’s really strange, my head is very straight, but like, everything around me is a mess. I kind of know where everything is, in my mess. I mean, sometimes it might take me ages to find stuff, but I kind of know where everything is.
How analogue are you? Obviously you DJ with vinyl, but your music also sounds very analogue to me.
I’ve got some of the classic Roland machines. I’ve got an MPC-2000 and I record mainly while jamming. I switch on the machines and see what happens. I don’t have a hell of a lot, I’m not a synth collector or anything, but I have got the classic good stuff, which is nice to use. Then I record it onto the computer. I used to record onto cassette tape, but I stopped doing that a while ago when my cassette tape broke.
I used to do this thing of recording onto the computer and onto cassette tape because sometime it would sound better if you first put it onto cassette. But sometimes you would lose some frequencies and some stuff that you didn’t want to lose either. So for some of the tracks that I recorded, it worked using the tape, but for others it didn’t, so I would do both at the same time. But right now I’m just recording with Audacity, actually.
I found the new album very atmospheric, and I was wondering if you try to recreate the same atmosphere in your DJ sets as you do as a recording artist, or if you consider it to be different worlds.
I see them as two different worlds that sometimes communicate with each other. I feel like DJing is such a different thing to making music, one is very outgoing and extroverted — you get the immediate response from the crowd, you work with music that other people made, and you create something new out of that. It’s only there for the moment, and then it’s gone, it’s a unique experience you have together with the people that are there.
Then you’ve got producing, where you’re on your own, it’s more this introverted thing where you’re alone in your studio. I don’t even think about the listener at that point. I’m in my own little world. The feeling that I have when I make music is very different to the feeling that I have when I DJ. There are, of course, similarities because I’m the same person, I’ve got my taste in music, but when I make music I first and foremost make it for myself — or for Ninja Tune [laughs].
You know, in researching this article, I read a lot of other articles where writers describe your music as quite dark. Which, first off, is a very general term, and secondly, speaking to you now, you are not this dark, moody techno-type person. Where do you think that idea comes from? Are you attracted to “dark” music?
I don’t even know what the hell that means!
Actually, I kind of dug my own grave, because I did this interview a while ago where it was probably the first time someone told me, “Yeah, it seems kind of dark.” And I said something like, “I really don’t like happy music.” And after that, I’ve had that question every single interview! “Do you know your music is dark,” “What do you mean by that?” “Are you depressed?” [Laughs] My new thing that I say in interviews now is, I read about this thing where when you eat coriander, some people have a gene that makes it taste like soap. I was thinking, that’s exactly what it is with the music. Sometimes it’s just taste. Some things you like, and some things you just don’t, and there’s not that much to it. For some weird reason, I am drawn to the darker side of music. Why, I don’t know. I’m absolutely not depressed! I’m fine! I’m probably the happiest person in the world!
Photos by Kristin Krause.