The in-demand Hamburg DJ and producer takes a left turn, swapping gnarly acid, techno, and electro for a selection of her ‘favourite songs’
Catch one of Helena Hauff’s DJ sets and you can probably see why Mixmag once described her as “uncompromising, straight-talking and a bit of a badass”. She’ll be playing dance music at its rawest, gnarliest, and most unyielding: acid, techno, electro, EBM, post-punk. She’ll be spinning it all on vinyl, having been lugging a box of records around the world on tour with her. She’ll probably be wearing all-black, and almost certainly smoking a cigarette. Crack voted her “the most exciting DJ in the world right now”, praising her for becoming one of the techno scene’s most in-demand DJs while making “zero concessions to mainstream tastes”.
Ask Hauff how she’d describe herself, though, and you’ll get a slightly different response. “Um, goofy and stupid,” she laughs over the phone. Over the course of our interview, the Hamburg DJ and producer jokes about the less glamorous side of DJ life (doing paperwork and paying taxes are not things she initially envisioned being a big part of her career), her favourite stuffed toy, and why she’s perfectly happy being lazy. It’s not quite the image of the icy techno renegade that people often project onto her. Hauff’s Dazed Mix also shows a different side to the DJ, choosing a selection of tracks for home listening rather than blasting out another set of bassbin-shaking club trax. She recorded the mix just before Christmas: “I just felt like doing something a bit different,” she says. “A mix with my favourite songs instead of a club mix seemed appropriate and like a nice little gift.”
We caught up with Hauff following the release of her second album Qualm last year and a hectic summer touring schedule, and before a slew of upcoming tour dates including shows in South America this weekend and North America in February.
You had a huge touring schedule last year. Is there anything you do to warm up before you go on the road, to get yourself into the right headspace?
Helena Hauff: I always prepare my records very well. I see what I want to play, and try get some new stuff into my bag. That’s pretty much all I do. And then I just bring a couple of t-shirts and a pair of pants and a pair of socks and that’s it, I’m off.
Were there any gigs that surprised you?
Helena Hauff: I played Ibiza for the first time. I’d never been to Ibiza before, and I was really pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think it was (going to be) a place where my stuff would work, but then I started to realise that the preconceptions you might have about people there are wrong. They’re more open-minded to different things then you’d think they would be. I used to misjudge crowds a lot when I was younger.
Qualm came out last August. How do you feel about the album now that you’ve had a bit of distance from it?
Helena Hauff: I actually haven’t listened to the album since it came out. When I had the first test pressing, I started DJing it a lot. And then it came out, and I got a bit tired of it. I think I should sit down and have a proper listen to it again. I have a good feeling about it now.
Have you been making any new music recently?
Helena Hauff: No.
Do you find it helpful to have a period of decompression after you’ve worked on a big project?
Helena Hauff: Probably. I think when you work very intensively on one thing, you’re kind of empty. You need to just stop, find the energy and the love for it again, and go in with a new mindset. One of the reasons I haven’t done any music is because I really didn’t have any time, so…
How do you normally balance studio time with touring? Do you block out a dedicated period of time for it, or do you fit in bits and pieces when you can?
Helena Hauff: I work in bits and pieces. Sometimes I find it difficult to combine the touring and music-making. The funny thing is, when I take time off, I tend to actually do less than when I’m touring. (Laughs) It’s complex for every touring artist. Everyone you talk to, they all struggle a little bit with finding time.
There’s been a bit more chatter about mental health on the road recently. Do you have any techniques you’ve developed to avoid burnout from a super packed touring schedule?
Helena Hauff: Well, take time off! That’s really, really good advice. Just don’t overdo it. Maybe two shows a week are enough, don’t do four. There are so many people doing way too much, it’s not necessary. In the summer, it was really getting to a point where I was like, ‘Okay this is definitely too much.’ I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, so I just said to my agent, ‘Please don’t get any more trips booked until December.’ I ended up having a month off.
I think the bigger problem is that people tell you that you’re not good enough if you’re not as famous as someone else, or if you don’t work enough, or if you don’t want to work on yourself and be a better person, and you’re ‘lazy’ if you don’t want to do anything, and all those things that people tell you are wrong instead of just saying, ‘Well, I’m okay where I am. I don’t have to do more.’
“People always say, ‘You like such dark music! Are you some kind of deep, dark character or something?’ And I’m neither. I’m neither deep, nor dark” – Helena Hauff
Also, not working is great! Having time off and doing things for leisure is a good thing.
Helena Hauff: Yes, and not having the pressure of having to get bigger and make more money. You know, fuck it! The way we’re brought up, you’re (seen as) a failure if you’re happy with being lazy.
Right, there are a lot of people who think you have to be on your hustle all the time, where everything is focused on how you can leverage things for your own self-interest.
Helena Hauff: Even when they talk about things like yoga and meditation and all that stuff, it’s always to perform better in your work, to be more productive. It’s looked down on if you don’t have any goals in life. It’s not a DJ-specific problem, it’s everywhere. It’s even harder if you have a ‘proper’ job, because you can’t actually say, ‘Look, I’m just gonna have time off.’ You just have no choice at all.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Helena Hauff: I try to stop thinking about it rather than forcing it. If it’s not happening, it’s not happening. When it comes to DJing, if I don’t know what records to bring, I would take the same bag as last weekend and just deal with it – maybe there’s something on the b-sides I haven’t played before. When it comes to making music, just leave it. Go out, do something else. That’s the better thing to do, rather than getting wound up and frustrated.
What was the last track that you heard that really blew you away?
Helena Hauff: “Eyes Of Envy”, it’s on Monotone. The whole record is a compilation, Monotrax Volume 1, and the opening track is crazy good. This is not going to leave my bag for a while, I know that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Helena Hauff: My art teacher telling me not to do art was probably the best advice I ever got.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
Helena Hauff: Oh, probably that I’m depressed or something.
Why is that?
Helena Hauff: People always say, ‘You like such dark music! Are you some kind of deep, dark character or something?’ And I’m neither. I’m neither deep, nor dark. (Laughs)
How would you describe yourself then?
Helena Hauff: Um, goofy and stupid. (Laughs)
What’s been the most difficult lesson you’ve learned since you first started your career?
Helena Hauff: Don’t follow what you see, follow what you feel is right. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do and understand. Is this really what I love? Is this really what I want? Is this really the kind of music I want to make? Is this what I want to play? Or do I think I want to play this because it works, or because other people like it? This is something that I’ve not really learned, but something I constantly try to question.
Is that something you’ve found easier to do the further you’ve got into your career?
Helena Hauff: When I look back, especially when I was a lot younger and just starting out, a lot of people would say, ‘This is an essential record, you have to have this.’ And I listened to it and was like, ‘Okay, I don’t like it, but it’s essential.’ So I’d buy it, and then I would DJ it, and now I think, ‘What was I thinking? This is just not what I like.’ When people give you tips and show you records, always listen to them, because there might be something you’ve never heard before and really like, but don’t think that you have to like something because everyone says it’s the ‘thing’. The older I’ve got, the easier I’ve found it to actually understand the difference.
Has a fan ever given you a memorable gift?
Helena Hauff: In Kiev, I got a little stuffed animal, like a cat, a purple cat. When I’m ill, it stays in bed with me, I cuddle up to it.
People give me records – a guy knew I only played vinyl, and he wanted to give me his unreleased tracks, so he made me loads of dubplates. I get a lot of nice, quirky things as well, but those are two that come to mind.
Do you have a favourite piece of clothing?
Helena Hauff: I love wearing suits. Colourful suits. I’m actually planning on getting one tailor-made in a little shop in Hamburg. They mainly make stuff for men, but they can adjust their stuff for women, so I’m going to get one made in some kind of crazy colour. Since I was a teenager, I dreamt about having suits. I never had any money and never found anything in second-hand shops. The first one I bought about two years ago, and since then I’ve just been trying to find more. It’s not that easy finding good ones. I’m planning on having a big suit collection.
What’s the last dream you remember having?
Helena Hauff: I can’t really remember dreams, to be honest. I used to have one where I’m at school and it’s my exams, and I just go absolutely crazy and can’t finish them, and drop out of school. It used to come back again and again and again. It always freaked me out. This one time, I woke up and actually thought it was the case. We talked about the expectations of society earlier, and that’s probably what that dream is all about. I don’t get it anymore, so that’s good. I’m over that one.
01. Loop, “Brittle Head Girl”
02. The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Sailor”
03. Matt Johnson, “Icing Up”
04. The 13th Floor Elevators, “Roller Coaster”
05. The Aquarian Age, “10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box”
06. Broadcast, “The World Backwards”
07. Kings Of Frog Island, “Ode To Baby Jane”
08. Loop, “Thief (Motherfucker)”
09. Spacemen 3, “Revolution”
10. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, “Smell of Incense”
11. Super Furry Animals, “Nythod Cacwn”
12. The 23rd Turnoff , “Michael Angelo”