Another side to Helena Hauff
“There’s a lot of humour in my sets as well, I like to play stupid stuff too, like obvious breaks and drops. You know? I enjoy that.”
Helena Hauff had a meteoric rise to fame in 2013 when her ferocious sets of electro, techno and acid struck a chord in the UK. After a debut set at London’s Plastic People and a groundbreaking first release on UK techno pioneer Actress’ label, she has gone on to release three albums including the critically-acclaimed Qualm last year, as well as becoming one of the most in-demand DJs on the planet – all without any social media.
While her tastes are often rough, aggressive and raw, Hauff’s style on the turntables shows a refined sophistication that gives her sets an allure that has radically changed the techno landscape. Our Nightlife Editor, Leo Burrell, called on a quiet Tuesday afternoon to uncover the persona that lurks beneath those sludgy beats ahead of her appearance at Hope Works’ final No Bounds pre-party this month.
From the moment Helena Hauff picked up the phone in her hometown of Hamburg, my perception of the artist began to change. I’d seen her playing her trademark apocalyptic sounds with that deathly stare at festivals like Bloc, Farr and Houghton, and had built up an image of a fairly dark character.
LB: “How long do we have?”
HH: “Umm… five hours? [laughs]”
One of the first truly enigmatic superstar DJs to surface in the last ten years, from 2009 onwards she quietly went about redefining techno parties with her breathtakingly fresh style. But in 2013, the UK developed a cult-like fascination with the German DJ almost overnight. A beacon of joy in a dark and punishing world of techno, Hauff lit up dancefloors with her unique blend of old school electro, acid, and breakbeat techno, eluding definition with a mysterious absence from social media platforms.
Everyone seems to say your sound is really deep and dark… I have to say, I find it personally so fun?
“Ah, THANK YOU! I’m so glad you said that! That’s what I ALWAYS say – it’s fun!”
It doesn’t seem dark, because it’s such a party atmosphere. Does that make sense?
“It does make sense. There’s a lot of humour in my sets as well, I like to play stupid stuff too, like obvious breaks and drops. [laughs] You know? I enjoy that.”
I find your sets so uplifting.
“I don’t know what it is, but I feel like in the UK they get it, whereas in other countries they… don’t? [laughs]”
She humbly puts this down to exposure. “You Brits grew up with dubstep, drum’n’bass and a lot of different genres that aren’t just four-to-the-floor, and in Germany it doesn’t seem to be as big. I remember in Munich I played a classic electro track, I think it was Aux 88, you know, an ultra-classic, and someone said: ‘This is great, but can you stop playing so much drum’n’bass?’ What are you talking about?! England is a little bit different with that.”
And while it’s clear that the eclectic history of UK dance music gave her the freedom to bring a newly rediscovered genre like electro to the forefront, this was more a matter of style. Back in 2013 there were two very distinct dancefloors at UK raves. On the one hand, you had a massive techno DJ, throwing down rollers and relentless pounding four-to-the-floor; and on the other, the final remnants of the ‘UK bass’ scene were living their last days, with comically large basslines fighting for the biggest wheel-up of the night. Hauff brought those two dancefloors together, taking the deep hypnotic sophistication of German techno-logy and pairing it with the party-driven consciousness of British sound-system culture. Crowds all over Britain revelled in her energy, lapping up the momentum and ever-changing sets.
“Can you imagine a burger that is so bad that you can’t even eat it when you’re hungover and still pissed? It was that bad.”
Techno is an odd place at the moment, or at least it was, until Hauff came along. Linear, rolling minimalism and patient, timely drops had taken centre stage. But homogeneity has led to dissatisfaction – the recently coined phrase ‘business techno’ comes to mind. Some are still searching for that perfect drop, mindfully meditating through half-hour hypnotic breakdowns. But there’s also those whose attention spans have changed. Hauff’s DJing treads the line between those two crowds perfectly, toying between repetition and immediacy so fittingly, leaving others in the dust behind her trailblazing velocity. There is also the matter of the changing substances that people are taking.
“I do think the drugs you take, or don’t take, influence the music you like. I spoke to a friend and they said that at a club in Asia they take a lot of LSD and the longer, more hypnotic or trancier stuff works very well over there, whereas the electro or my type of stuff would be way too much for them. If you’re on speed you might prefer shorter… I dunno! [laughs]”
They are starting to ‘get it’ outside of the UK, mind. “In the past couple of years in Germany it’s changed a lot, they’re a lot more receptive to techno or electro that’s not four-to-the-floor, and they get the breaks-ier stuff that I like, and before they weren’t used to that stuff.”
Helena seems modestly unaware of just how radically she is re-defining techno. In a world where DJs’ Instagrams and the glossy perfection of some house and techno can be sickening, this artist is flying the flag for a truly subversive alternative. With no social media presence and a handful of determinedly immediate records, she puts on a proper hair down, no holds barred party. I ask Helena about headlining Bangface, one of the more ridiculous festivals in the UK. Gabba, jump-up and happy hardcore is the mise-en-scene, with bpms pushing 200 all weekend. You’d expect a DJ as credible and technically precise as herself to run a mile, but she saw it as nothing but a test.
“I think next time I’ll pack a more challenging bag. They love crazy shit. I really hope I can play again, and I’ll go a lot more wild.”
Wild in terms of energy or style?
She says she hopes to play again one day, despite finding the on-site Wetherspoons slightly off-putting to say the least. “The food was really, really bad at that festival. Can you imagine a burger that is so bad that you can’t even eat it when you’re hungover and still pissed? It was that bad. I lived off pasties the whole weekend. But it’s a fantastic festival.”
The more and more I speak to Helena, she comes across like she actually doesn’t give a toss about coming across as super-cool. We chat about social media, and the constant struggle that everyone seems to be under to be bigger and better. But she avoids relentless touring, only playing maximum three gigs per week, and always plays a balance of smaller clubs like our very own late Harley, as well as the bigger festivals. She doesn’t feel under pressure to be the biggest DJ in the world. I ask about a comment she made in a previous interview about yoga and meditation – that it often ends up just being something to make people more productive at work.
“I don’t do any yoga or meditation so I can’t really say much more about it, other than the way it’s advertised or the way people talk about it. It’s always about business: you have to work on yourself and your career. You have to be a better person for yourself and for other people. It’s like… sometimes I think it’s a bit better when you don’t really even think about yourself… and just be? And do what you enjoy and if you feel like you wanna chill out, chill out? And if yoga’s the right thing for you that’s fine but the way people talk about it… maybe it’s good enough not wanting… anything?”
This laissez-faire attitude doesn’t necessarily come across when you watch her DJ. An all-vinyl, technically precise magician on the turntables, it’s easy to just see perfectionism and seriousness. “I’m taking the whole thing very seriously, don’t get me wrong. I’m totally obsessed with it. In 2009 when I got my decks I spent every day doing something. I was a bit of a maniac; still am I guess. I spend six hours before every weekend packing records.”
And what do you do with your weekend off?
“Went out drinking. Saw friends.”
And what have you been doing this week?
“Recovering. Recovering from my time off. [laughs]”
This contrast makes Hauff all the more alluring. Her absence from the competitive side of DJ culture and her continued success in the face of that is illuminating to say the least. Is it really necessary to do anything as a DJ except play records? This punk-like stance gives her taste in dark music a sense of revolt; it feels like a reaction to the ever-present sexy ‘darkness’ that usually only exists to express the glamour of dance music culture. Hauff’s sound cuts through the bullshit like a knife.
“I was always drawn to the rougher, more aggressive stuff, and less so the sleek, cheesier stuff. I’m really into like weird experimental stuff, but I also enjoy the stupid stuff. I just want the people to have fun really. My goal is to make them dance. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they’re like, ‘What is this shit?’”
We begin chatting about the occasional sets she’s played at mainstream festivals in the last year. There was the b2b with Nina Kraviz at Time Warp: “It was funny, it was at 8am, right after Solomun. I got two hours sleep before, and we immediately started drinking champagne and got totally wankered. Really quickly. Of course. I was half tired, half drunk. But it was really funny. I mean, the vibe was quite different to Solomun, but it kinda worked!”
After a recent debut set at EDM festival Tomorrowland, I had to ask how the crowd responded to her primordial sludge, to quote a track title off her 2018 album, Qualm. “It was terrible… I was playing after Paula Temple on Nina Kraviz’s stage. I put my first record on and the feedback was awful – within five seconds everybody was gone.”
There were doubters in the underground too. Some people couldn’t quite believe that she was actually that good. “I heard people say that my sets were premixed, because no-one can mix that tight on vinyl. Total rubbish!” But as the dust settles on the dramatic whirlwind Hauff has created in dance music, she is still one of the most intriguing DJs to watch on the planet. Her consistently mind-blowing performances are inherently subversive, as well as pervasive. In the words of Hope Works and No Bounds founder Lo Shea: “There’s nothing false about Helena, she’s done it with integrity. She’s a lovely person and a decent fucking human being.”
Helena Hauff’s way of doing things is a much-needed reminder that DJing is not a contest, and others could take note. She may not need to compete ‘cos she’s so bloody good, but god, isn’t it a breath of fresh air?
Helena Hauff plays the final No Bounds pre-party at Hope Works on Saturday 28 September alongside Rebekah, ahead of the third edition of No Bounds festival on 11-13 October.