Listening to Ellen Allien's albums some several thousand miles away from the city of their conception, one obtains a fascinating aural picture of Berlin and, strangely enough, of Allien's irreplaceable role in its roily underground music scene. From dedicated club kid in the late '80s to essential scene DJ in the mid-'90s to now one of the most prominent and respected members of the city's electronic-music community, Allien makes a brand of Berlin techno that digs deep with driving, insistent beats while teasing listeners with jagged electro edges and, at times, unexpectedly soft vocals and melodies.
True, she's something of a one-woman show: producer; remixer; head of the highly regarded BPitch Control label; DJ; and, most recently, fashion designer (her collection is called eae). But it's through music that she pushes the direction of Berlin's electronic-music scene, and on her 2005 album, Thrills (BPitch Control), Allien reveals what she's made of. “Thrills shows the way I feel in the world I live in,” she says. “On the outside, everything is very crazy, sad, beautiful, brutal, sensitive — like in a thriller. But on the inside, I feel very strong, like a big tree in the wind. I have a strong contact to where I am and who I am.”
Who she is, then, is a complex, dark and urgent beat maker. Whereas Stadtkind (BPitch Control, 2001) was an ode to Berlin and Berlinette (BPitch Control, 2003) was a peek at her vulnerability, Thrills is a strong, markedly more mature statement about the resilience and depth of electronic music — it's an homage to the analog world made with the ease afforded by digital technology. “Berlinette [was] a completely different production; we [played] guitars until the ears and fingers started bleeding,” she admits. “I've learned the pleasures of a production [with] Thrills. I found it back.”
As much as she enjoys shiny new gear, Allien would be at a loss without her vintage synths. For Thrills, she employed her trusty Roland TR-808 drum machine and SH-101 analog synth along with Clavia Nord Lead and Nord Modular synths; a Midas mixer; Apple Logic Pro; and her prized piece, the ARP 2600. “Turning wheels and pressing buttons, all [my] instruments sound deep and dark in my ears,” she says. “The ARP is perfect for that! And the ARP 2600 is the last synth I've bought — I saw it in Japan first and bought it finally on eBay. But I was looking a long time for it.”
Making Thrills in a protracted period of intense studio time (typically nine hours a day) with almost no gigs to distract her, Allien was able to lay down ideas that had been germinating inside her head for months. “I aimed to make a rough, deep and not-cut long-player that takes the listener on a flow, a wave,” she explains. “And it has become rough, smooth, analog and warm. Thrills was the coming back to my emotional world inside, and the production equipment enabled me also for taking a closer look and materializing it. The combinations of old [analog] and new [digital] equipment made the production process something very exciting.”
Allien's DJing experience certainly had an impact on the album, as well, and she credits it for keeping her current. “DJing trains my ears and keeps them open for new and unusual sounds,” she says. “Mixing abstract stuff with dance — or just the mixing [process] itself — is a very creative thing. Two layers melt together and create something new.”
But perhaps it really is Berlin itself that allows Allien to create such expansive, intricate soundscapes. “You can feel that certain spirit in the air, a spirit that everything is possible,” she enthuses of her hometown. “Other countries [aren't] that happening — often, it's too expensive somewhere else or just boring or no place left for electronic music. Berlin is an electronic city and very peaceful. It feels ‘adult’ now, and I hope that it will go on and on. In Berlin, or in Germany and Europe in general, there will always be an audience for electronic music. It was like a revolution. It was the creation of a culture, not only a youth culture. We developed an alternative way of living, and that makes me feel very proud.”