Ellen Allien is refreshingly upbeat as she takes control of the decks in Stellar Remnant, an intimate downtown Los Angeles record shop known for its top-tier techno and electronic selections.
Today, the shop is home to Allien’s globe-trotting Vinylism event series, for which the venerable techno producer invites a small crowd to join her and a few hand-selected DJs at local record shops for intimate sets made up of records taken straight from the bins at the shop.
Allien's energy is unmatchable even before she hits the decks, as she converses animatedly with fans and friends and bounces around the room in her version of an all-black techno uniform — a pleated skirt and cutout bodysuit — accessoried with with an infectious smile. Here, she takes a selfie. There, she’s engulfed in conversation with a friend Or is it a fan? It’s hard to tell the difference. While her actual base in Berlin is nearly 6,000 miles away, Allien seems right at home in this little crowd.
“[Vinylism] gives me so much,” Allien says the next day over coffee at her hotel. “It’s important for me to talk to people from [each city] about politics, about music, to understand what’s going on with them and understand where I’m actually playing. Otherwise, I’m just like a Hoover salesman. I just go, sell, go back to the hotel and leave, like a robot.”
This stop in Los Angeles comes between a two-show run in Colombia and gigs in Austin and San Francisco. Somewhere in between, Allien will have released a new EP, La Músican Es Dios, on her label UFO Inc, which she launched in early 2019. She's closing out 2019 on the road, hosting her 16-hour We Are Not Alone party in Berlin on December 27 and hitting six cities across Mexico — including Damian Lazarus’ venerable Day Zero party in Tulum on January 10 — before finishing off the tour in Montreal this February. Beyond that, the plan is simply to take a moment to unpack her bags and breathe.
But there's a noble reason why Allien, née Ellen Fraatz, has been hustling on the road for nearly 30 years. “DJing is like therapy, for myself and for other people,” she says. “It’s therapy to help open your heart and lose the walls you create in your daily life. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with work, or relationships, or worried about looking good. You let it go — that’s what happens in clubs."
She would know. Allien spent her childhood in West Berlin, growing up in a divided, politically turbulent city that was a far cry from the blissfully progressive creative capital it’s known as today. But when the Berlin Wall fell when Allien was a young adult, new possibilities for the city — and the young people coming of age in it — opened.
“It was beautiful,” Allien recalls of November 9, 1989, the day the wall fell. “My friends and I were like cowboys that day, biking freely, exploring everything. It was the happiest day of my life.”
“For the kids, it was an explosion,” she continues. “West and East Berlin came together. East Berliners were so welcoming and so willing to share, because they hadn’t been able to buy things for so long. I learned so much from them, and vice versa. The club became our unifying ground, where we became one.”
These profound experiences led her to DJing, and in the early ‘90s Allien was among the first residents at Tresor and E-Werk, far before Berlin had earned its reputation as a worldwide techno mecca. The venues, in no small part thanks to her commitment, today remain some of city’s premier musical institutions. But back in the 90s, Berlin DJs weren’t yet taken so seriously. Honing her craft, she began exploring faraway places, becoming one of the first artists to play places like Reykjavík. (The Icelandic capital is where Allien held the first in-store DJ session would in time inspire her Vinylism series.) By 1999, she launched her label BPitch Control, and two years later, released her debut album Stadtkind, already well on her way to defining her own lane of techno.
Today, Allien is a staple of the genre. Name a career-making event from anywhere around the world – Melt Festival, Movement Detroit, Creamfields, Name Festival, Ibiza’s DC10, any of the institutional venues in Berlin — and she’s likely to have played it, and probably more than once. But for her, the allure of Berlin clubland remains as strong as it was in those blissful days after the wall fell.
“When I play in Berlin, I play long sets. Those moments are intense for me, because it’s my hometown and there are always so many colorful people, some half-naked, and we’re always going hard, really banging,” she says with a smirk, jutting her fist in the air. “It’s emotional.”
A rare breed that’s equally as fierce behind the decks as she is masterful in the studio, Allien has released nine albums and dozens of EPs throughout her career. The title track from her most recent project, "La Música Es Dios" dives right into a heavy, propulsive beat outfitted with an alien chime that builds into a vortex of thundering, fist-pumping techno. The track is defined by Allien repeating "la musica es dio," Spanish for "the music is God," over and over until the sentiment becomes a rallying cry.
Altogether her sound is relentless, daring and oftentimes harsh — but in a way that feels authentic to techno and the sound that has come to define Berlin. Allien's work is also timeless, as she’s been actively creating her type of techno since the 90s, staying true to it as different waves and trends have passed.
Fittingly, her latest EP was released 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aligning the release with a pivotal moment for history and for Allien personally is a fitting full circle, nodding to her city of origin, the countless cities techno has taken her and the power she carries through the music, sharing that unifying club experience that gave her direction so many years ago.
“Life,” Allien says with a smile, “can be very powerful.”