Luke Slater: „Trust me, I am a DJ“
British DJ and producer Luke Slater creates his “Berghain Fünfzehn” mix from no less than 26 new tracks, constructed from the archive of the label Ostgut Ton. In addition to the recent feature review of the mix Luke Slater and Thomas Venker spend a lovely sunny April afternoon chatting on the phone about life in Corona times, the non-word “career” and of course this mega-micro-sample-mix named “Berghain Fünfzehn”.
Luke, before we start the interview, let me say how much I love the „Berghain Fünfzehn“ mix and the accompanying „O-Ton Reassembled X“ 12-inch series. You made a magnificent job there.
Thank you very much, Thomas, that is very kind, man.
Do you remember the first music awakening in the young Luke Slater that fueled the desire to create music yourself?
Well, you know, that kind of question is one of those questions, where I’d love to have a definitive answer, where I could really pinpoint a moment. But the truth is: when I look back at being really young, kind of anything to do with music was like an obsession. Back when I was a kid we used to have „Top of the Pops“ on tv and my first infatuation was with drummers. I started to learn the drums when I was about six or seven. Also, when I grew up, I had piano lessons – which was a real pain in the ass to be honest.
I hear you. I was not really doing well in the school with singing, so my parents thought playing piano was the trick… But I hated my teacher…
Yeah. The weird thing actually is, I love the sound of the piano. My dad, he knew his way around it, nothing too fancy, but I preferer to just mess around on it, kind of playing chords and making sounds. The piano lessons were quite rigid, and I didn’t get very far, I think grade one or two – I just could not do it anymore, it was so boring. It was a set of rules that you had to follow to achieve something significant – I thought, that`s not really for me. So I started playing the drums after that. By the time I was 12, I was already in a band, the rest of the guys in the band where about 15, 16…. At home I used to put the headphones on and play different pop tracks – I used to learn the drum part and play along to the songs. I spend a lot of time doing that, I learned all the things in the songs and then I tried to play it exactly like I heard it.
I was fascinated with the end of the 70s and that kind of sound on the records. Because when I played the drums, it did not really sound like I’d hear it on the records. I used to get pillows and tape up all the drums and try to manipulate them to make them sound more like the record. I did not know it, but I was trying to produce the drums. This obsession has been with me my whole life. At the same time I was obsessed with records.
I think I can remember one point, where I changed from thinking about acoustic music to electronic music. I remember this really clearly, me and my family we’d gone on holiday, in the UK somewhere, some kind of holiday camp. I was eleven, so it was 1979. And I managed to escape from the chalet where we were in and I found the arcade on the camp side – arcades were brilliant, you know. It was early evening, it was right smokey in there. They didn’t even have „Space Invaders“ in there, it was something like a car game where you could drive down a road with a steering wheel and you had a black and white screen with white fences, really early style arcade games. And then they played Donna Summers „I feel love“, which I think just came out then – I remember just standing there and hearing this record. I haven´t really heard anything like it before in that way in that kind of a song – mixed with the arcade and the start of the slight rebellion of getting away, of doing things on the sly, I just thought: „Wow!“ – it was like going to space with a song. I think that was the point where I started to get interested in how you could make sounds and drums with electronics rather than drums. That slowly overtook things from there. At that time, the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, hiphop and electro started to come about. So I was developing this slight obsession with new electronic sounds. It was a kind of a happy coincidence.
The subheading of Kaput is „Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop“ („magazine for insolvency & pop“). This is emphasizing our interest in the socio-economic circumstances under which artists create their works. So: do you remember when you realized this could be a career?
The funny thing is, the word career was a swearword when I was growing up. Anybody at school who wanted to have a career, that was like, „oh wow, that is so serious, man. Yeah, have a career, do some really serious stuff. “ This kind of way of thinking was not cool.
I know what you mean. We did not plan our lives like this. Me, I was already writing for music magazines and newspaper while studying – which was only an excuse to run shows anyway –, and only realized that this is actually my job when my parents asked me what’s next after the exams. It is a weird word. In the 90s it was mostly Americans who used the term.
It is a weird word. I am still uncomfortable with it now. I have always been uncomfortable with the word career; it gives you the impression that there’s a kind of goal of highness to reach where … you must forgot all for your career to reach this point of happiness and completion. That is really disturbing for me. That never really worked for me that word, it is a bit cold somehow. Even the word artist I find a little bit tricky. I kind of accepted that one a bit.
I couldn`t help myself as I grew up, everything about music – I just did it. It was not like that I was thinking, „if I do this, and if I learn this, then I can head towards making a record. “ It was more like: „Oh, wow, how did they make that sound? Why, when the record fades out, does it sound slightly different? “, „Ah, listen to the breakdown, you can hear the drums sound different in the breakdown than when the song is in.“ All these kind of things. I wanted to try that, I wanted to see if I can do those things I was hearing on the records. That way of thinking was really early something in me I can´t resists. Not even a hobby, a passion, a compelling thing I had to do – and let to all kind of strange experiments, where I take the piano apart and have a look in there and there are all the strings in there. I tried to find a microphone, my dad had an old reel to reel and started messing things up and record the playback slowly, try to reverse the tape. All these kinds of experiments, almost like a science experiment. Anything to keep it unconventional. I never wanted things to be accepted too easily, it was strange but good. I can`t even remember what the question was, Thomas, sorry.
We started somewhere with the question when you realized that this could be your profession. But the answer came out well. So we’ll pick it up there.
Once I started djing in 1988, when I got that first gig, I gave up everything else. I just wanted to live that life. So that whole kind of question what I was doing with my life finally became … I did not even have to think about that anymore. You know what? I am out of here! This is what I have been looking for, this is what I am gonna do!
I think if you just follow a passion, you kind of don´t mind the hardship and the mess that goes with it. I think it is meant to be like that. If you not gonna do the conventional route in life, you got to get messy, you got to follow your heart. That is a much better way to look at a career than some kind of stretch. Maybe it is different now. Maybe that kind of way of thinking was something from the time I was growing up and I was a teenager. But to me it is a good way of thinking:
„Well, do I feel that?“
Why am I doing something?
Cause I feel it or am I looking after my career?
Do I really wanna do this?, no matter what the consequences are?
I have always been excited by that way of thinking rather than the I suppose sensible way of thinking.
Have there ever been times in between, where you took stock and rethought your potential path?
You know what, the funny thing is. I started djing in 88 and since 1993 I don`t think I have been off the road for more than three weeks in any period. When the virus hit … this is the first time in all these years that I´ve been in one place for so long. If I look back now – because we are all isolated and a bit shy at the moment – moving around is what drives me, doing things: traveling around the world, playing live or djing that is the satisfying part for me, the life I love. I probably operate better that way when I am on the go than having too much time.
Luke, where are you right now by the way?
I am sitting in my studio at home – we live just south of London. I happened to be here when everything got locked down.
It´s definitely has been a time of introspection, I haven`t felt like I normally fell. My mind doesn`t work in the way it did before. So maybe there are some good things that come from this, some different ways of thinking. I am getting used to it a bit now, but the last weeks, the first two, three weeks were kind of … I haven´t even been able to go down the road nor travel like I normally do. I look at my travel case and I feel a bit sad: „Oh yeah, I remember when I used to use that, I remember when I used to pack up my case ready to go to the gig.“ All these thoughts. I stand starring at it like some kind of black obelisk of the past starring back at me. All kind of weird emotions, of strange thoughts and interesting observations that won`t there before. So yeah, I really miss this too, I really miss doing the gigs. I don`t think online stuff really cuts it, it’ s something, but there is nothing like doing the real gig with real people – that’s where it’s at.
Our call breaks off. When back connected I try to figure out if Luke kept talking for a while or realized I was not there with him anymore. His dry and funny reply: „Trust me, I am a DJ“
Luke, Ostgut Ton has chosen you to turn in their 15 years mix „Berghain Fünfzehn“. Therefor you created lots of new compositions coming from the label back catalogue.
Was this your idea?
As soon as they asked me that, I was like: „A dj mix –yeah, that’s cool.“ But I started thinking of the concept of a dj mix. It’ s fun to mix records together, but you know it’ s been done a lot. I was doing mixing records into each other in 1988, so I thought, maybe things need to be moved on a bit, how about I get every singe record, track they release and use all of them to make a whole lot of new tracks. New creations out of bits and bobs out of old tracks. So I said to the guys: „I got this idea and it’ s gonna take a really long time!“
Well, this was in September, straight away I knew, as great as the idea was, it was like I set up myself up for a challenge. On Ostgut Ton, there are over a hundred 12s, there are couple of albums, we are talking about a serious amount of sound and files – there is a guy called Daniel, who works on the label with Alex, I asked him for help. Daniel is quite technical minded with computers and he know Ableton live, so I said: „Daniel, what I need is you to prepare every set of ten releases for me, to get them all into Live and send it over. I worked out, as long as I do a certain amount of tracks a week to get it done for the end of January.
A very disciplined schedule.
Yes, really disciplined. I need a Ford Car Convertible System here. I need to spend my time writing a track, but I can’ t spend my time getting all the bits together, I can just pick them from the shelf really quickly.
It turned out into a race, he was preparing the tracks ready to send me and I was writing at the other end. I was always trying to beat him – to be ahead of him with completing and turning ahead to him and say: Where is your next batch, man?“
So it turned into this thing. He mailed me: „I just uploaded the next 20.“ – „Damn, I am still two batches behind.“ That got me working again. Every time I got back from a gig I went to the studio and I had to stay there until I’ ve done one or two tracks.
Ah, I see, that’s why the track listing always marks specific time periods for the specific tracks. Sometimes they are also in chronicle historic order. Was that a goal too in the process?
No, no, no. But that’s a good point. Before I started, I had to set some ground rules for myself. The first rule was: I can’t actually sit there and listen to all the records and see if I like it. That rule was very brutal: I can’t get involved with the tracks; I am only allowed to see them as a sound source. I had to be really quick in going through stuff and picking out bits regardless what it was. Some of the tracks I knew anyway, but a lot of the tracks you could not even see what the tracks were.
If some of them sound quite like … have that sort of earlyish Berghain sound for example – that this is not out of design, that’s cause of the bits I chose from the records happen to go together well and ended up like that. So there was no process of choice how things will end up. The only thing was: whatever I do has to be good, every track had to have its own identity. If I couldn’t achieve that, then I did not wanna do the project. Because that would have been a failure – the idea had to be complete. There had to be both things: to use every track and that the final track is something new that stood up by itself. So it was like writing a new album with 26 tracks.
But the way the tracks are positioned in the mix …
Yeah, you are talking about the tracks in the mix. If they do follow the years that’s an accident. My initial idea was that the first track in the mix comes from the first batch of ten tracks. And then the second batch will be the second track in the mix – and I would design each track to mix each other in the mix. But I threw that out of the window as this was putting a limit to what I write. Cause maybe out of the second batch I might come up with something that is like 136 bpm and really heavy and that’s not good for the second track in mix. The whole mix thing came afterwards when all tracks were done.
Now as you have all those little and bigger sequences and tracks prepared, would it also be possible to do a complete different live mix with them?
Yeah. That was before the Corona days the plan, I wanted to do a few special sets just using all those tracks. I might still do that. But I gonna put that on hold for now until people can go to clubs again. Or maybe I do it online, I have not decided on that yet…
By the way. Luke, do you, when listening to the mix, immediately know from where which element is originally from?
The other day I was doing a different interview and I had to pick a few of the records from the catalogue I worked with but I did not know. So I sat down and listened to them. A really good example of that is the Steffi x Virginia track, the one with the vocals from „O-Ton Reassembled 3“ – one of my favourite tracks from the mix. I haven’t listened to the whole original track and actually it’s a real good track on its own. One thing I have to say: there is a lot of good stuff on Ostgut Ton. Having that selection of produced sounds … I did not make the tracks from nothing, there are always parts in there that were already produced, that added a new flavour to my writing. I feel like I was turning everything up on its arse end, doing something totally new and forget the old rules.
How different did the working process on these tracks and the mix feel for you in opposite to your normal studio habits?
The thing is, when I am writing stuff, a lot of the times I record something and process it and then resample what I have done and use it again. So this whole kind of idea of resampling and reusing groups of sounds was not new. That’s also what I do when I am djing– I use Traktor with four decks. I am rarely just playing one track when I am djing, I am not just using a loop and putting something over it, I am getting deeper into microscopic elements.
I have to say it again: you sound lie a super disciplined person to me.
I am very undisciplined. It’ s always been like a reverse psychology to me. If I say: „I’ve got two days and I need to write this set and another“ – it never works. But if I moan about it for a bit, if I really should write something but I don’t feel like it – then I suddenly I find myself doing it without realizing, it is almost an accident. I’ve always been like that. The more undisciplined it is, the better it seems to work for me.
Luke, have there been moments where you hated yourself for this specific monster mix idea?
Half way through I was like swearing: „What the hell did I come up with this idea? There is no way I’m gonna pull it off! It is too much work. How can I write 13 fresh tracks that have to be good in that time.?“
But as soon as I got over the halfway point it was great, everything just went great after that. You got to be ready for that kind of thing. I needed the pressure myself to make it work, feel the energy from the process – be a slave to the rhythm, man.
Did you play the tracks in-between to other people?
Yes – at the gigs. I played the tracks at the weekend to see how they sounded. For me that’s a really important part of writing, I’ ve done that with everything, I write something and then I play it. What matters to me – as these are club records – is that is sounds good and works on the dance floor. I was very lucky that I could finish that process. I was done with it right before everything got locked down. I don’t think the result would have been the same if I would be writing now during lock down.
Talking about the lock down. Do you expect the electronic music scene to be different after the Corona crisis?
Maybe we are all evaluating different things in different ways now. Actually there’s part of me that doesn’t want things to go back exactly like it was. I want a new wave of understanding. It’s a nice thought that we maybe can add something to ourselves remembering what this actually did and how it changed everyone’s life and nobody really saw it coming.
We as the human race were on this mad path, believing that money and speed was the answer – I mean speed like in rapid pace rather than the drug. I was uncomfortable, many people were uncomfortable with that preaching that was thrown out before this hit. Lot of people were saying this: „There is so much of everything. So much music, so much equipment, so much food, so much money around, so much of everything…“I did not really like the balance that was there before. It was in some ways real uncreative.
I mean, you are talking to someone who spend his life in clubs and around groups of people that are thinking in a slightly different way to the mainstream – so I am in a slightly different zone, have always been in that zone, locked into the world of music and clubs and festivals. I like to think that there is a positive element within what we are going through now – and that positive element we can hold on whatever we learn.
That said: I feel you miss being on the road a lot.
Yeah, I miss it terribly. I miss it all. It is really sad; you go out for a walk and you have to avoid everyone – and everyone is avoiding you. It is such a weird human condition to think like that: „Oh no, don’t go near this person, it could be…“ The whole thing is wrong. We are not meant to be that scared of each other. And you know we will come back together, its gonna take a while, but we will do so.
Which leads me directly to the next question. Luke, I was so lucky to see you at Berghain at the end of my NYE celebrations. You played there from 11pm onwards on the 2nd of January – and I wonder, how does a dj and producer like you with so many years behind you experience such a gig? Is this still a special thing for you too like it is for us dancers?
I’ve always been aware how special these things are. I am someone who comes from getting into music from nothing, every gig has to feel special, has to feel like an event to me. I never fallen into this… Yeah, I have been tired when there has been a run of five gigs and on the fourth I am thinking „shit I am all naked“. But still, before you play that feeling comes up that you are about to perform music and that there are people with you, the whole event is still miraculous to me. I still know how special this whole thing was and is. I lived through that through nearly all my adult life. It’ s what I live for. You can’ t buy that. Some great memories along the way. Especially some of the New Year Eves at Berghain.
For a little twist here, what I always wondered while dancing to your music: are you a dancer yourself?
Yeah…. I wouldn’t say I am a dancer, I am more a lunger – I kind of lunge around a bit. I can feel the rhythm, I hang around in the background, in the corners, something like that. I’ ve been know to let it rip sometimes, yeah.
Next time we see each other we def do so!
Luke, one last question: When listening to „O-Ton Reassembled 3“ my mind is playing me more tricks. I know theoretical that you did compose this specific one with elements from your Planetary Assault System track „Spell A“ as well as „The Wisedom of no escape“ by Tobias., „Utility“ by Barker and „Internal Bleeding“ by Steffi x Virginia – but somehow around minute three and minute six I hear both times atmospheric interferences which always flashback „Nights of the Jaguar“ of Rolando into my head.
Does the composer of the track have any idea how that might be the case?
I really can’ t explain that, maybe it is just in the mix? Maybe it is just the way it sits. I really can’t explain that. But that’s nice if it gives you that kind of memories.
Maybe I heard it with some of those tracks one night in the mix together and now the waves of memory are hitting me every time I hear those.
Thank to Walter Wacht of Ostgut Ton for arranging the conversation in these troubled times.
This interview is dedicated to all the fellow dancers I regularly share the dance floor of Berghain / Panorama Bar – I miss you, kids.