The Art Of DJing: Lena Willikens – Resident Advisor

Was there any sense that functional dance music was trashy?

No. Vladimir’s background was throwing big rave parties back in the ’90s in Belgrade, so we didn’t consider it trashy. It’s not a judgment or anything. For me, DJing is like a language: I talk to people in a certain way, and I’m just not the type to teach or instruct people. I don’t want to tell people what to do—to tell them when to dance, when to put their hands up. I want to give them more space to interpret certain things, and I don’t want to tell them what to feel in certain moments.

I’ve been reading this book about wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic theory of the beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. I could relate so much of it to the way I approach my DJ sets. I’ve never tried to reach a certain kind of perfection. I was always looking for the beauty in imperfection. That doesn’t mean I fuck up every mix—it’s not about that. It’s more to do with… For me, if a DJ set is technically perfect and feels very planned—when the breakdown and drops happen at precisely the right moments—then you’re controlling people and telling them what to do. There can be an art to that, but it’s another way of approaching it. Wabi-sabi is warm, raw and human. It leaves space for imagination and welcomes ambiguity. That’s the way I want to DJ.

It would be hard for you to play “perfectly” in the sense you’re describing anyway, because you often play records that aren’t made for dance floors. Those aren’t mixed down for club systems, they’re not quantized or they’re songs that aren’t structured in a way that’s good for mixing, like in 16-bar segments. That makes those non-club music records more challenging to transition into and out of. When you’re shopping for records, do you consider how you might play a prospective purchase in a DJ set? For instance, would you think about how you might be able to transition into a certain song and whether it’s too chaotic for mixing purposes?

No. If I like it, I try to make it somehow fit in. And I also leave room for chaotic moments. I think it’s more about how to do a certain buildup, where you place it, where in time you feel this could be. Even if I only play something once in ten years, I have a vision of a certain moment in a certain setting, and then I wait for that moment to come. And then hopefully I remember that I brought that record.

What are you envisioning? What kind of stuff do you buy because you can imagine it working, but you don’t often get to play?

Mainly really mad stuff or very weird stuff. Maybe it’s a totally crazy, mad saxophone playing for five minutes. It’s something that I love, but you have to have the right conditions to play it. The right moment is when you feel you have the crowd on your side, and whatever you do now they’re with you. This energy is very special. They might be tracks I only get to play once in my life. But that one time…!

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It sounds like you spent a lot of time at Salon cultivating the opposite vibe to anger: chill, relaxed.

Definitely. But it could also happen that a Wednesday night gets totally mad at midnight. Sometimes a random group of friends drops in, and suddenly it’s the craziest party.

How do you respond to that sudden energy shift in the room?

I don’t want to tell people what to do, but sometimes they tell me what they want. That’s totally fine for me. If I was making coffees an hour ago and then a big group walks in and starts a party, I can change to another direction.

Even if you don’t want to boss people around, do you sometimes feel like you have to push or guide the energy? Let’s say there are 40 people, but 25 of them are outside smoking. And if you play the right thing, you could get them to come inside and stay there.

Yeah. At Salon the good thing is that you can see people standing outside because there’s a glass door. If you don’t know there are people in the club who aren’t on the dance floor, you’d just think like, “OK, no one’s showing up.” In that case you can’t be a magician and read minds. In general I see this as an exchange of energy. It’s not me pulling strings, but both sides pulling strings. The audience is pulling strings as much as I do.

Did you organize your records according to energy so you could respond more quickly to changes in the room?

Mmhm. I mean, I don’t play records anymore.

We’ll get there.

It’s the same now with rekordbox, actually. I sorted my records in terms of an energy level. After I started beat-matching, I started to sort in terms of BPM as well as energy.

How were you structuring transitions between tracks at different tempos?

I’d try to find other ways of doing transitions. The easy thing is, of course, when you have a track that starts beatless or when you use another, ambient track as a layer or bridge between two tracks with beats. Sometimes it’s as easy as stopping one and playing the other. Back then I was very impressed by Jamal Moss, who didn’t beat-match at all when he played at Salon. Also, Detlef rarely beat-matched, so I got the idea that there are other creative ways of doing it. When I started learning to beat-match, it wasn’t so easy to go back to not beat-matching. I try really hard to tell myself, “Hey, I don’t necessarily always have to beat-match.” I try to remind myself of times when I didn’t beat-match, when more surprising changes happened because I was free from the constraints of BPM.

When did you start to transition from never really beat-matching to mostly beat-matching?

Long time ago. I think when I started to get more out-of-town bookings.

I thought that might be the answer. So playing out more and in different cities changed how you played?

Yeah. I went from my safe place at Salon, where there was no judgment and no one expected me to do a certain thing, to playing a festival stage in front of 500 people. My first festival gig was at Nachtdigital. I was super nervous. I knew how to beat-match, but it didn’t always work back then. I felt so exposed on a big stage, and I felt less like I was just sharing music. I figured the majority of the crowd weren’t there necessarily to see me—maybe they were here to see the DJ after me. I felt like I wasn’t free of expectations, and I would like to free myself from expectations in order to do my thing.

Still, I didn’t try to cater to those expectations. I try to read the crowd and the space and decide while playing how far I can go. I always test boundaries. Sometimes I feel like I can’t go that far out, and sometimes I completely misread the situation, maybe because I was delayed and arrived at the club ten minutes before my set. Those are the moments when I might completely misread and play like I’m still sitting on the plane or way too challenging.

Like, I had this really—well, now I think it’s an amazing experience, but at the time it was very painful. It was at Sunset Campout close to San Francisco, a festival run by Solar and a friend of his [Galen]. I arrived there very tired and quite late, and I didn’t have time to get into the vibe of the festival. I had this image in my mind of San Francisco, where all the people would be on psychedelic drugs and into crazy music. I felt safe to go far out—until right after I started. After 15 minutes I completely cleared the floor. I lost two-thirds of the crowd. I felt like, maybe I should change my idea of what to play, but by then it was too late. I was so committed to my initial idea of what I wanted to do.

At one point a random girl came up to me. She was screaming at me like, “What are you doing? Don’t you see everyone is leaving?” She was so annoyed by what I played. Then I started to be stubborn as well. I figured like, the people who were still there—they were having fun and they really appreciated what I was playing. If I tried now to just switch and completely change my concept, it wouldn’t work. Still, it shook me that someone was like, “Pay a bit more attention to the outside world.”

Yet I didn’t really transition out of it. I couldn’t. I was really too stubborn, so I kept on with the one-third who were still there and enjoying it. I was really into it, I liked what I played. After I finished, the people who had stayed—they loved it. Still, I felt like I had to apologize. The festival promoters were like, “You don’t have to be sorry!” But it shook me for a few months.

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