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Lena Willikens: Telling Stories

Lena Willikens chats Cómeme, Salon Des Amateurs, record digging, Sentimental Flashback and more with Tony Poland. 

It’s 1am on a chilly Saturday night in early February and an expectant crowd gravitate tipsily towards the DJ booth of a Hackney Wick space as Lena Willikens steps up to start playing records. The preceding warm up DJs were tepid at best, but the next three hours from Willikens are a masterclass, despite the sound issues she evidently experiences throughout her set. A strange spoken word monologue from Louise Huebner’s Seduction Through Witchcraft opens her set, soon to be accompanied by one of Frak’s more wonderfully deranged productions of recent times. Between then and lights up around 4am the only track that sounds vaguely recognisable is the Crash Course In Science classic “Flying Turns”, the rest a glorious blur as the urge to dance takes a firm grip. Soon after, a friend who was also in attendance pops up on the Facebook event page to excitingly proclaim the three hours from Willikens are “up there with the best DJ sets I’ve ever seen.” It was hard to disagree.

That is until I get to witness Willikens on home turf at Düsseldorf venue Salon Des Amateurs a few weeks later. The easy option of a Skype interview was cast aside in favour of catching Willikens play the cult venue, though for her tonight is slightly different. “It feels weird because this is the first time I’ve been booked to play the Salon,” she jokes. Willikens has been booked as the special guest for Visual Music Night, an annual event held by Düsseldorf’s Institute for Music and Media which features visual and musical input from its students. One of their tutors is Christian Schäfer, better known as Cómeme’s Christian S, a close friend of Willikens. This friendship is clear from the moment I sauntered up to them outside Takumi, a Düsseldorf restaurant with the best Ramen I’ve had so far. Both stood smoking and sharing a glass of beer with their record trolleys at their side.

visual-music-night1It’s a stressful time for both of them, caught in various stages of the hoop jumping process involved with applying for US work visas. Willikens and Schäfer will be playing several dates in the US in support of Cómeme main man Matias Aguayo – a SXSW showcase and Beats In Space gig amongst them – with Willikens particularly excited as it’s her first visit Stateside since a trip to New York a decade or so ago. Despite the stated stress, they both appear to be handling it well, making light hearted and self deprecatory jibes about their status as Aguayo’s support acts. As we sit to eat along with the photographer, Roman Szczesny, and a fellow colleague of Schäfer’s at the Institute who I am informed also makes music, Willikens reveals how she and Christian S first met.

“I had just moved into my flat in Cologne and could hear this music nearby that I loved,” she says. The music was coming from African Drum, a party Schäfer has held in a Ghanaian restaurant of the same name from 2008 to this day. Soon after Willikens was booked to play a great friendship began, leading to her involvement in parties, Radio Cómeme, and most recently her label debut, Phantom Delia. Of course, part of why I’m here to interview Willikens is to find out how she felt about that record, so in between ramen and the Salon we retreat to Panorama Bar, an amusingly named Greek restaurant near Düsseldorf’s Central Station, to speak in more detail.

Willikens met up with Matias Aguayo in a Berlin studio late last year, presenting some 11 tracks produced and recorded over the past two years, “I work very slowly” she confides. Her original intention was to have between two and four of these 11 tracks as her debut solo release; it quickly became clear Aguayo had other ideas. After hearing the productions, Aguayo was quite adamant they should use six, “I was like, come on, that’s too much,” Willikens states, adding it took quite some convincing by the Cómeme founder, but she is happy he was so insistent. “If I had chosen just four dance tracks it would not have been the story I wanted to tell”. The pair spent four days together finessing the music, mixing them down and taking full advantage of Aguayo’s “cool drum synthesiser”.

So how does she feel about the finished product? “The mastering was amazing from Frederic (Stader of Berlin mastering company MusicMatters) I was blown away by what he did. He didn’t change that much, but it was just kind of, ‘wow, suddenly it was there.” Willikens was also very happy with how the record looks. The rather bold insert was from her friend Sarah Szczesny, one of Cómeme’s main in- house artists – Willikens was also dressed in a jumper that night based on this insert and designed by Szczesny.

Should we expect more Lena Willikens records soon? “I don’t know yet, for the next six months I have quite a lot of bookings and I don’t really see the time for making music, so I think now the plan is to tour and play a lot and then to take time off. But I think I have to plan it now, to have at least three weeks to spend on music.”

Last June, Willikens contributed a mix to the long-running Resident Advisor podcast series which probably brought the German DJ to wider attention, certainly in the online realm. Whether she felt this sense of increased exposure was something I wanted to find out, but if our conversation revealed one thing it’s she remains steadfastly grounded in her outlook. Indeed if there is one downside to her increased profile and bookings it’s that she can’t play Salon Des Amateurs as much as she’d like to, telling me with a tangible sense of sadness it’s not financially viable for her to play the Düsseldorf venue every month because their size means they can’t offer the money she would get elsewhere.

She wasn’t surprised at the positive reaction her mix for Resident Advisor received, “it was quite easy for me,” she says. “It sounds arrogant but I don’t mean it this way,” Willikens adds, suggesting that perhaps too many people have tunnel vision when it comes to hearing mixes online. Willikens feels more pride in the reception to Sentimental Flashback, her show on Radio Cómeme, especially, because she “didn’t think of it as a way to generate bookings with this kind of weird shit.” As Willikens explains, Sentimental Flashback is “just playing really emotional, and personal music, and not dance orientated in any way.”

Willikens was the first DJ Cómeme label manager Avril Ceballos approached when setting up the station two and a half years ago. “I had total freedom; ‘you can deliver whatever you want,’ is what she told me,” Willikens says of Ceballos  open request. “For me it was no question, because if I had the chance to share music I listen to, that I don’t play on the dancefloor, I will always take the chance.”

The fact each edition of Sentimental Flashback seems to have a particular theme is “something that happened by chance,” according to Willikens. “I made my first three shows and I recognised that, ok, they were quite distinct. For some shows I prepare something and I already know before what kind of theme it will be, and for others I just record it and afterwards I see, ‘ah there is a connection between them’, so it doesn’t have to be a certain theme.”

Glance through the Sentimental Flashback tracklists, or others she’s done for online platforms, and it’s clear she spends a lot of time looking for records. A few friends noted the final track from her Resident Advisor podcast, a wonderful early ‘80s Japanese synth pop curio by Mariah, was quite expensive on Discogs, so I wanted to ask the lengths she goes digging for records. Willikens clarifies in the case of that record she was lucky, chancing upon the track whilst staying with Chee Shimizu, owner of Tokyo online used record store Organic Music. “I was staying at his flat in Tokyo and sleeping beside his record collection for one week so I could wake up and go through all his records and it was super perfect. And then he showed me around other record stores.” As for rare records, “I would never spend crazy money on records, of course I do for a bunch of records, I buy a lot, but I would never spend €200 on one record, I would never do that,” she says.

Willikens got the craze for collecting records in her early teens, so she had quite a collection before DJing found her, as she frames it. Back in her days as an art student, she would always be responsible for the music whenever there was a party or an exhibition opening. “It was never the intention to do it professionally, it never came to my mind because I have my art and then the things I did with movies, so it more or less, step by step, came to me more than I intended it too.” Her studies with art took her to Düsseldorf, Berlin and back, “I came back because of Rita McBride. This was more or less when the Salon was first opening.” At a certain point Willikens realised the art world was not for her. “I decided not to make my money with art, because I just couldn’t stand this intellectual talking anymore. I started to hate it, hate the ‘blah, blah, blah’ and going to exhibition openings.”

She reveals how the urge to express her creativity in multiple ways – visually and musically – is no longer there, now she is “totally busy with music”. Is Willikens happy about that? “Yes,” she says. “I don’t have the feeling now that something is missing, I am complete.”

With our conversation at Panorama Bar done, Willikens leads me towards the Salon for Visual Music Night, and immediate impressions don’t quite match up to my expectations. One of the students is DJing, playing some booming house music that doesn’t quite suit the time of night. He’s quite evidently a DJ unskilled in the fine art of the warm up, but the other students in attendance seem to be enjoying themselves. Earlier that evening I had asked Willikens to list her favourite warm up DJs from her international selecting adventures and it was the one moment she had to stop, think, and request the opportunity to respond properly via email at a later point.

This, she feels is a very important question, a skill that she truly values having learnt herself behind the decks at the Salon. She later supplies a list via email that includes Pudel resident Phoung Dan, Orpheu De Jong of Redlight Radio, Huntleys & Palmers man Andrew Thomson and the Salon’s own Vladimir Ivcovic. During our chat, Willikens references Ivcovic several times, indeed she calls him one of her favourite DJs, revealing he is a star in his hometown of Belgrade and when he plays the Serbian city, “there are long queues in front of Klub 20/44 to get in and people go crazy”.

While the students DJ in the Salon we make several trips outside to smoke and get the occasional espresso (which Willikens kindly provides after learning I hadn’t slept the night before) amidst jokes about the sheer size of the Salon doorman. He is massive. A side note: you may have noticed from her press shots Willikens likes to smoke, and she informs me of her penchant for flaunting the smoking ban when DJing, more out of necessity than any attempt to court controversy. Willikens also adds that night in Hackney Wick someone approached her and started saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s the first time in five years,” which Willikens initially thought was a compliment, but was corrected by the man aghast at her puffing away on stage. It didn’t quite feel appropriate for me to tell Williens my own enjoyment of her set that night was slighted twice by a silent assassin who let rip noxious farts nearby. Before the smoking ban perhaps this wouldn’t be as much an issue.

Around 1am Christian S takes over the decks and marks a change in mood for the better with a superb set that dips into house, disco and obscure ’80s 12” mixes. It’s clear he’s spent years behind the decks and I’m left rather impressed. At one point Willikens leans over and informs me Schäfer is playing her new remix of Ana Helder, soon to arrive on the latest One Night In Cómeme compilation. Remix commissions are a recent development that Willikens is enjoying, having also done one of Oklo Gabon’s “City Gym” for Huntleys & Palmers. “It’s really fun to play it and I really hope he puts it out soon,” she says. “Because he (Andrew Thomson) said, ‘please Lena do a remix’, and I made it and then he said ‘oh I don’t know what to do with it,” she tells me laughing.”

With the floor warmed up, Willikens takes over around 2am amidst curious glances from attendees who clearly know who she is and are curious to hear what she’s going to play. Much like those weeks ago in Hackney Wick, she starts with a palate cleanser, in this case some unknown beatless track before seamlessly blending in the druggy slow acid of “What Time Is It?” by Golden Teacher. Later she plays a cut from the excellent L.I.E.S. 12″ by DJ Slugbug; a random Scottish kid dancing by my side can’t help but convey his enthusiasm. He studies in Cologne, so I ask how many times he’s been to the Salon. Like me this is his first time, he made the trip for Willikens. Over the course of the evening Themes For Great City founder Arne Bunjes and artists affiliated with his label appear by the DJ booth, they all look surprisingly young.

Willikens and Schäfer later go back-to-back with the Salon jammed full of people dancing, coats drunkenly tossed in piles on nearby sofas. Sometime around 4:30am Willikens teases in “Red Sex” by Vessel, the “magic mushroom shaped vacuum cleaner” as she described the track to this site late last year. It’s the first time I’ve heard it in a club and it blows me away. It’s the last memory of a night that descended into tequila shot hell.

I depart Düsseldorf in the twilight hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning with pleasant memories of the Salon, Lena, Christian, a displaced rhythm to my body clock, and hangover far outstaying its welcome. A trip to the German border with Holland awaits me (cheers Ryanair) but what does the future hold for Willikens? “For me it’s about showing what kind of fantastic music I own and have found. This is also the reason why I keep on doing it,” she says. “There is unbelievable potential of amazing musicians out there doing music that nobody knows about,” Willikens adds. “There’s so much to discover, and it will never end, it’s a cool feeling.”

Interview by Tony Poland

Photography by Roman Szczesny
Header image by Ilaria Pace based on artwork by Sarah Szczesny