Dixon, aka Steffen Berkhahn, likes to try new things. In the past 12 months there has been an adventurous live show, two (very different) mix compilations, and, most recently, a film score – much of which has been accomplished in partnership with long time friends Henrik Schwarz and Âme. Of all these projects, the Temporary Secretary mix, released last October, managed to stand above the rest. It was a mix in which he lovingly rejigged, reimagined and reinvented almost every track that featured, taking the parts and editing them to suit his chosen direction. It also injected some much needed life into a dying medium: the commercial mix CD. Dixon spoke to Juno Plus about his latest projects, a newfound passion for chess and why he is sick of the deep house resurgence.
In 2009 both the Grandfather Paradox and Temporary Secretary mixes were incredibly well received. They were pretty much polar opposites in terms of content weren’t they?
The Temporary Secretary was very much about the here and now, what I was feeling at that moment. It’s not about a DJ showing off how clever they are, sharing their wealth of knowledge. I guess Grandfather Paradox is the opposite, that’s where we can show off (laughs). It is going to be a series, the second one will come out next year. I think the next one will be about human voices being used in music over the past century. We’ll be collecting pieces of music containing voices and putting them together. The Temporary mix was also the first in an ongoing series – Âme will be doing the next one.
Do you think the two mixes form a nice overall balance?
I think it’s good to do both, so we are not always following the same path. I always like to be doing different bits and pieces, and at the end you can always come back to the music you love.
You edited a lot of the tracks in the Temporary Secretary mix so they would suit the ebb and flow of the mix – is this the way for commercial mixes to survive?
Definitely. I can’t see any other way, unless the mix is linked to a big festival or club. I spent two solid weeks of day to day studio work getting the mix done. Of the 14 tracks, for 10 of them I got the parts and the other four I manipulated the originals. With Fever Ray’s “If I Had A Heart”, the original gave me so much space to work with I didn’t need the parts. The thing is, Temporary Secretary came out in October, but I started working on it in March and delivered it in May. Because of this I knew that it would be outdated by the time it came out, because you have DJs posting mixes with new material every week, charting new tracks every week. I needed to give people a reason to buy it, needed to make it a unique product, so it could exist alongside the modern habit of downloading music and mixes for free online.
Does the mix reflect your DJing or is it designed for at-home listening?
It doesn’t reflect my DJing, or what I play in a club environment. When I release music as an artist or as a label owner, I’m thinking of its use. If it’s a 12”, it needs to be good for a club, but if it’s a CD, you want to be able to listen to it in your house, in your car, on a Sunday afternoon. That’s why I’ll never do a club-orientated CD. I’m DJing two or three gigs a week, I’m in the studio a couple of times a week and listening to music at work for Innervisions, so I have enough house music around me (laughs). It’s important to have something else to listen to.
Do you still get the same thrill DJing now as when you first started?
It’s not the same, it’s totally different. I started in 1991 and back then there was always the thrill of doing something for the first time. It could be the first time you played in a club, or outside your own city, or outside your country or at a festival. But now I’ve done all of these things, the thrill of doing it for the first time is gone. So it’s very different, but I get thrills in other ways. I’ve realised that if I have the balls I can play some music that maybe other DJs wouldn’t play in a prime time set, I can take more risks…
“With Temporary Secretary, I needed to give people a reason to buy it. I needed to make it a unique product, so it could exist alongside the modern habit of downloading music and mixes for free online”
And how did the Critical Mass project with Henrik and Âme work out?
That was a collaboration for 2009, so it’s over now. There was no real definition to what we were doing it. We were doing something that we probably wouldn’t be capable of on our own. There’s a group dynamic – we can push each other. But people tend to think, hey I like that artist and I like that artist, what they do together must be amazing. That isn’t always the case – it’s just different.
Did you get a good response to the Critical Mass shows?
Yes and no. What we were doing was very improvised and in a club environment, when there’s 600 people there to see you, it worked. People were more patient, but at festival gigs it was different. You are on one stage, and there are six other stages with music at the same time, and there’s 6,000 people watching, not 600. If people aren’t feeling something right away, they can walk off and see something else. They won’t wait, they’ll just go to another stage. We realised after our first festival show our sound need to be bigger, more precise. We played at the Detroit electronic music conference, and we were very unhappy with it, so we went back and reprogrammed the whole thing, and the other festival shows were much better.
What are you working on now?
I have been working with Henrik (Schwarz) and Âme, we have just finished a film score, which has been very interesting. We worked on it for five days and we were like, great, now let’s get back to club music (laughs). The film project is sponsored by Time Warp, a festival in Mannheim; it’s basically one big rave with a week of cultural events as well. We’ll be doing a live score of a classic movie, “The Chambers of Cagliari”, it’s a German movie that was made in 1920. It was basically the first ever horror movie, and was full of arty expressionism. We’ll be touring with this as well – we have 4-5 shows scheduled. The idea is to represent the 1920s, when you had silent movies showing and someone in the theatre playing the piano, although we won’t be playing the piano!
As someone who has been playing deep house for many years, what is your take on the glut of deep house releases in the past 18 months, and the amount of media coverage about it?
I’m sick of it, You know, when I started in 1991, house music went in every direction. There should be a diversity there, and if there is too much deep music I can’t listen to it anymore. You’ll be surprised with our next release on Innervisions in February; we are going in the opposite direction.
This time of year usually signals a new Secret Weapons compilation, is that on the cards again this year?
Yes that will be the next one out, and it will be super cool. We have signed tracks from Kashmir, Larry Heard and a few others that I can’t say yet, because that will ruin the surprise!
With Innervisions, there’s four of you running the label, right?
Actually now there are three of us left, the two Âme’s and me. Matthias, who used to be with us, has moved on to work outside music.
What is the approvals process for a release on the label – does everyone have to like it? Have there been any tracks that have split you down the middle?
For some years I was doing the A & R myself, now Kristian (Âme) and me have the final say; if we agree on something the release will go ahead. We only release six or seven records a year, so that gives us a lot of time to think about each release. Some labels hear something, sign it and release it a week later. Then after a couple of months, after they’ve played it out a few times, they think, hey, I don’t like this as much any more. Plus we only ever release one or two records a year from outside our regular stable, so there’s no real signing process. If we are only releasing one new artist record per year, you can imagine there is a lot of discussion about it. Why this track, why this producer, why now… last year it was Culoe (De Song). We try to take special care.
“Some labels hear something, sign it and release it a week later. Then after a couple of months, after they’ve played it out a few times, they think, hey, I don’t like this as much any more”
You’ve also branched out into books with Tobias Rapp’s account of the Berlin’s techno scene. Why did you decide to distribute it?
The book is a special case, it came to us and it was the best thing we had ever read about Berlin’s music scene, and we took the opportunity to have it translated. It was fun to work on, something different from another 12” on Innervisions. We might release a DVD next year, but it’s too early to talk about that just yet.
Tell me a bit about the book – it seems to have gotten a pretty amazing response…was it important for someone to document this part of Berlin’s history?
Definitely. What happened to Berlin as a city was obviously amazing, with the wall coming down and all the space that was left. But what happened over the past six or seven years was amazing too… the city has been pushing boundaries, and it has influenced people. You go to London today and it’s like Berlin three years ago. It’s not writing about “this is the greatest music on earth” – there’s barely even any talk of music until the end. It’s all about the social background, the club structure, the city structure, the people.
What does 2010 hold in store for Dixon?
Hopefully I will find the right balance between private and business. Not working as hard, having the balls to relax. I’m also starting to get more into art, building up my knowledge. After so many years of building up my knowledge of music, it’s nice to get inspiration from something else. I’m also taking time out to play chess –
– With Henrik?
No, with Marcus Worgull, he’s a very good chess player!
Interview: Aaron Coultate