Two Dance Music Historians Talk German and American Rave

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The authors of the two most compelling works on the history of dance music in recent years talk about process, roadblocks, and the differences between US and German club cultures.

Photos by Todd Sines and courtesy of The Underground Is Massive.

“When I use the term ‘EDM,’ I’m not referring to the entirety of the history of dance music,” Michaelangelo Matos explains to Sven Von Thülen. “I mean the stuff that has risen to prominence, particularly in the United States, over the past decade or so.” The definition sounds well-rehearsed, and that’s probably because it is. The Underground Is Massive, Matos’ book on the rise of US rave culture, hit shelves via behemoth publishing house HarperCollins’ Dey Street imprint last week, and since the project aims to introduce the phenomenon to a country that knows little about its origins, he’s had to make the distinction between EDM and other electronic subgenres a lot.

But for someone like Von Thülen, the clarification isn’t necessary. He’s a veteran DJ, producer and techno journalist who now works for Electronic Beats and joined forces with former De:Bug writer Felix Denk to compile an oral history of the earliest days of Berlin techno titled Der Klang Der Familie, which was re-released in English late last year. Like The Underground Is Massive, Der Klang Der Familie traces the transformation of a dance music subculture from its intimate and clandestine roots in the underground to its current manifestation as a formidable force in the pop universe. But as we found through the course of the conversation, “pop” means something very different in the US than it does in Germany.

Sven Von Thülen: Hey Michaelangelo, I want to start by talking about the similarities and differences between our books. Felix Denk and I chose to make Der Klang Der Familie an oral history because Felix and I love that format. It’s a great way of getting close to a historical account that doesn’t have one voice to put it all into context. We wanted the people who were involved to tell the story, with all the contradicting memories, perspectives and grudges so we could zoom in on how it actually felt back then, how the mood and energy were and the motivations of everyone involved.

Michaelangelo Matos: I love oral histories as well, but I knew from the beginning that The Underground Is Massive couldn’t be one. In the States, electronic dance music doesn’t have a profile outside of the very popular stuff, so it was incumbent upon me to do exactly the opposite of what you’re describing. The blurbs on the back of Der Klang Der Familie strike me because the word “pop” recurs. In the States, this stuff wasn’t considered pop for a very long time, so there’s a lot of explaining to do, which is why I had to take the omniscient voice.

SVT: Even though the word “pop” is used a few times on the back of Der Klang Der Familie, for all of the people involved in the early days [of German techno], it wasn’t that at all. Your book strikes me because it reminds me of Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence, a book I thoroughly love.

MM: That one was an inspiration for me. One thing an editor told me has still stuck with me. I wrote a feature for him and he said, “This is really good. I love theory as much as anybody, but it’s really nice to read about people doing things.” So the whole time I was writing this book, my mantra was, “This is a book about people doing things.” I think that’s very important because for Americans this stuff tends to be so inaccessible that the human element is mandatory if you want to make it a story that people care about. Therefore it’s incumbent upon me to make it intriguing, to make it seem like a story, which it always has been to me. That can be very hard to transmit outside the realm of dance music.

SVT: We, on the other hand, weren’t 100 percent aware of the narrative power inherent in the fall of the Berlin Wall. It ended up being an advantage for us, because a lot of people who had never heard techno could read the book and think of the music as a backdrop to a big political change in Germany. They could relate to stories about the times before and especially after the Wall came down, when there was complete confusion. In its last year of existence the GDR police didn’t enforce anything anymore—it was like zero gravity. For me, one of the most interesting things was that the anarchy wasn’t used to loot and destroy; it was completely the opposite. People started to reclaim and revive the city.

MM: Berlin makes cameos in my book, and I tried to have a couple viewpoints but not have it be the total focus. I love the way Detroit gets folded into your narrative, and the fact that you can focus on it more because Detroit’s music is so intrinsic to the Berlin story.

SVT: That’s a myth in itself, in a way. If you listen to sets from Tresor in 1991, yes, they played Underground Resistance records. But most of the stuff that was being played was from Belgium, the Netherlands, and sometimes the UK. Don’t get me wrong; the Detroit records were very important, as was the exchange between Berlin and Detroit—but they didn’t dominate the dance floors in clubs, which is what Felix and I thought when we started to work on the book. Between 1990 and 1992 the Belgian and UK stuff was just as important, and until the music was called “technohouse,” one word. If you say to kids today, “That’s technohouse,” they’d say, “No, that’s techno or house.” And if you play it to them, they’d probably say, “No, this is hardcore.”

MM: My editor was overly cautious about why were talking about Berlin. He had no problem with me discussing Daft Punk in France because he knew Daft Punk. He was also genuinely confused as to why we were talking about Detroit people like Moodymann and Shake Shakir. To him it looked like I had swung the spotlight onto a bunch of local no-names—and I don’t mean that in a mocking or defamatory way. He’s my editor, and he had these questions.

SVT: Was it hard for you to find a publisher?

MM: No, it wasn’t. I first conceived of the book in early 2011 and finished it in September 2014. In those three and a half years, suddenly this stuff got huge. I didn’t have a problem selling it because EDM fever had gripped America.

SVT: That’s interesting. I ask because we had a long process of finding a publisher. I had the original idea for the book when Tresor closed its first location in 2005. By 2007, we had started trying to sell it. Once, it was presented to a big publisher in Germany, and someone at the table at their meeting said, “Techno…is that still alive?” They didn’t know, because by then, techno was not present in the mainstream, even in Germany, except for the annual Love Parade. It was completely underground despite the fact that it was bigger than ever.

The scene went back underground after 1997, the cutoff year for our book. That was when E-Werk closed and Frontpage went bust, and by then a lot of people from the first generation had become disillusioned, started to do something different, or started using techno as a way to make money. The commercialization of German techno didn’t stop there, obviously, but for the most part people stopped caring about Berlin. Then the whole hype surrounding the city really started to go off. In 2008, Paul Kalkbrenner starred in a successful movie about a techno artist, Berlin Calling, and two years later there was the Love Parade tragedy. Suddenly it wasn’t a problem to sign the book anymore.

MM: I also get the sense that you cut the book off at about the time when you came into the scene.

SVT: Yeah, that’s true. Felix moved to Berlin in 1994, and I moved to Berlin a year and a half later. But we weren’t there for most of the events in the book, and that’s one of the main reasons why we could do it, because if somebody who had been a part of it had made an attempt, it would have been hard because there were still so many grudges. When we started interviewing, it made the rounds that there were “two guys talking to people about us.” For instance, when Felix met Marusha for an interview, another guy who had been in the scene for ages approached him and said, “Ah, are you one of the guys who wants to write this book? We don’t like books.”

MM: I had a slightly different experience with roadblocks. I got a lot of, “And what blog is this for?” It was amazing to me, because it indicated that the attention economy has foreshortened so badly that, if you say, “I need to talk to somebody for a blog post that will disappear into the ether forever within a week,” they will grant you that time. But if you say, “I want to write something permanent,” they won’t.

SVT: The only people who asked us what blog we wrote for were from the US.

MM: Hah. Perfect answer. What you said about the scene in Berlin going back underground is very helpful, because between your book and Tobias Rapp’s [Lost Und Sound: Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset], there’s a gulf that you helped fill in for me. It also sounds like there was a musical malaise in the later ‘90s.

SVT: Yeah, techno became uncool for a while in the early 2000s. It needed a new surge of energy and creativity and a new home.

MM: It also helped that, in the late ‘90s, house was more happening musically than techno. In the States, a lot of ravers became clubbers in the mid-90s, which was something I regretfully didn’t have a chance to get into much. What did you end up cutting for space?

SVT: We had a whole part about the fashion scene in Berlin and its relationship to techno. There were also more drug-related stories of people getting busted by the police, going to jail for it, their experience in jail, coming out of jail and going back to parties. By 1992, the police in Berlin had a special team to observe the techno scene. They rented an apartment across the street from a club called Walfisch to observe it.

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Photo by Todd Sines and courtesy of The Underground Is Massive.

MM: I describe a similar game of cat-and-mouse between the police and covert dance music parties. The “secret party” aspect of dance music is very important to it as a subculture, which requires you to know the codes, and knowing a subculture’s codes is part of the fun. When you have a sense of exclusivity, which often derives from a door policy, it definitely adds to the aura of things. Still, what always appealed to me about rave a construct, at least as it existed in the States, was that anybody could come and nobody was rejected at the door. All that was required was that you knew where the party was and that you had a ticket. Ostensibly, raves didn’t make the same kind of differentiations between sexual preferences or skin colors. I grew up in a fairly homogenous city, Minneapolis, so I knew about racist door policies, and I was always interested in parties where a mix of people could occur. The rave scene appealed to me because it was non-exclusive, and I still feel that way. I want a broad mix. That’s very American, too, because in America, club door policies tend to be horrible and snobbish. But that might not be the case in Europe as much.

SVT: My primary musical background was punk and hardcore, and my idea of techno was that it’s horrible, because I wasn’t exposed to its underground origins at first. It took a little while to actually understand that there’s better and other stuff, and that techno isn’t an execrable German invention. What I loved about techno, when I finally got into it, was how I would meet people I would have never met in my normal life and scene. I loved the fact that I would stand in a field, dancing my ass off, and then I would meet some hooligans and all these weird people. I love that to this day, but the parties have become way more homogenous over the last couple of years.

MM: Is that the Easyjet phenomenon reaching a critical mass?

SVT: I think it’s a phenomeon you’ll also see outside Berlin. The scene’s becoming global and people gaining the ability through telecommunications technologies to easily access all the information about where to go and how to get there. Rejecting people at the door can become a necessity for clubs that want to remain safe havens for minorities, so a club’s success often tends to reflect on the entrance policy. If there’s a crazy demand and everyone wants to come—and that can happen very quickly these days—then there’s an attempt to make sure the vibe isn’t completely destroyed by tourists who want to consume something they heard or read about. Maybe that’s unfair to those people, but there’s a sense of, “Well, we can only let so many people in, so it might as well be the ‘right’ people.” But, you know, as humans do, it often turns into power plays. For me, that’s when there’s a problem with my idea of what has always been so great about house, techno and the club scene.

MM: It’s also the post-EDM surge starting to mature at the edges. In the United States, big EDM festivals have side-stages, which is where “credible” DJs who’re still somewhat congruent to the EDM audience play. The crossover happens when the big festival audience starts to drift into more mature-sounding music—and frankly, right now, as EDM matures musically itself, as well. Still, there’s a prevalent attitude in America that accuses electronic music of using sub-genre names as elaborate smokescreens to keep people out of the culture, rather than communicating the sound or style of the music as they do. Is that also the case in Germany?

SVT: To an extent, but people solved that problem by just calling it all “electro.” Electro is David Guetta, electro is Jeff Mills. It started maybe ten years ago, and by now everybody who’s not in the scene understands that “electro” means anything electronic. I wonder how, if and when that will change again.

MM: It will. It always does, whether we like it or not.

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