He barely needs presentation. The godfather of electroclash, DJ Hell, has been behind the decks for some decades now, either playing in the greatest clubs throughout the world, in massive music festivals, or even fashion shows –by the way, as you read this, he’s preparing the music for Balenciaga’s fashion show and after party. His latest album, Zukunftsmusik (2017), made him explore new disciplines like songwriting, in addition to mixing and producing. We had a sensational time with him backstage during his performance at Department and here’s what he had to say about his career highlights, collaborations, and even the World Cup.
Zukunftsmusik (2017) is your latest full-length. It is a blend of techno, electro, and downtempo. What does this record mean at this stage of your career?
At this stage, I think production-wise, songwriting and learning how to write your own lyrics. It was the best I could deliver. I put a lot of attention to this album. I put all the knowledge and information I had over the last, let’s say, forty years. There is not only electronic music in this album. It was not only for DJs like I normally do, it was a next musical step for me to go somewhere I never went. Still, I think it is very influenced by the ‘80s, like the song I Want You.
You have an impressive career. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone at this stage. I believe you did this record like that just because you wanted?
Half an hour ago I was in my hotel room thinking about other DJs and producers I know from long ago. They don’t do any music anymore. No need to give you names but to me, as a musician, producer, remixer, and label owner, it’s always been very important to express myself. I always say what I think and, these days, people are afraid of saying something, even in music.
I find a big influence from Kraftwerk, that kind of sonic spaces rather than the more eclectic sounds of New Wave and punk back in the days.
Kraftwerk was always a big influence to me. Not just influence, medicine. It can heal, it can bring you into a good mood when you are in a bad one.
Do you agree to this reference?
Absolutely, I did two tracks really sounding like Kraftwerk because my concept was, what would Kraftwerk do if they were in the studio? I tried to think like a robot (laughs).
Do you have any relationship with them?
I know them pretty well. I even played after them, like for instance, in Monegros and Sónar in Spain. They’ve come to some of my shows secretly when I played in Dusseldorf. I wouldn’t say we are special friends but I think they respect my music. We had an idea to do something together in Ibiza because they never played there. We even checked a location for their 3D show, but it never happened.
Speaking of early days, is it true that Schwarzenegger sued International Deejay Gigolos for using his image?
It is true.
How did that happen?
His lawyers found out – maybe himself or somebody told him – that I was using his image. I don’t know how they fond out. By then, I thought we were a really small label and they would never pay attention, but sadly, this came out even in the press. I lost a lot of money because of that. I had no arguments like “I’m sorry,” I had to stop the label and pay him a lot of money. Later on, we restarted the label, I think Sid Vicious was in the same pose, which was the logo. I lost big time and made a deal with the lawyers to pay less because, in the beginning, they were thinking about suing me for more than two hundred thousand euros. Finally, I paid less – still, it was a lot of money – but they allowed me to pay it every month. It took me over five or six years to come clean.
You just released some fresh remixes from the new single I Want You. For instance, working with The Hacker. Please, let us know a little bit more about these collaborations.
The story is that The Hacker was the first one who wanted to make a remix because he really liked the first version. He is a great producer, you know. Miss Kittin and The Hacker released their first stuff in Gigolo. Today he is a good friend, and the first remix he sent I told him “Michele you can do much better, I know (laughs)” and he said, “Yeah, you are right”. I think he did up to three versions. I released the third one.
After one year, I was listening to his first version and said, “Wow this is really cool, I missed it the first time” (laughs). Also, Darren Emerson from Underworld called me to make a remix as well. I was like, well okay, let’s try. When he sent it to me I was like, fucking hell, this is really good! He gave it a new twist, genius. I think it’s even better than the original.
On the cover of I Want You, we can see a man eating ass.
Is that eating an ass? I don’t know if he’s eating, licking, or something else.
Is that some sort of statement to be as outspoken as possible about the LGBTQ community?
I’m fine with that, I think this community will love it. People criticized me, someone said, “You are a serious artist, why do you do something like that to provoke people?” It’s definitely not a provocation or anything like that. The original picture is from Robert Mapplethorpe; this is a copy. I tried to buy the original from the foundation but they asked for way too much money. So we recreated it. It’s a recreation. To me, it’s erotic art. Mapplethorpe did that in the ‘70s, and now we are in 2018. If you get offended by a picture like that, I’m so sorry. It’s about art.
Please tell me about this collab with Tom of Finland in the new single.
In 1991, Tom of Finland (Touko Valio Laaksonen) painted the original erotic art pictures that are in the single. I went to the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and signed a contract to use some of his artworks for my releases on vinyl and for the video. I was fascinated by what he did when I was a young man and never stopped supporting the gay community and gay people all around the world. House and disco music was originally popular inside the gay nightlife club scene, and later on, it became a worldwide phenomenon. First, house music DJs were gay people playing in front of a gay crowd.
Since you started working with Michael Michalsky, other fashion designers followed asking for your musical input on their fashion shows. How is it for you to work with fashion designers?
At the moment, I’m the happiest man in the world because, believe it or not, Balenciaga asked me to play on their show in Paris. For me, brands like this asking me to make the music for their show and play at the after party means that they respect my work. They think my music has an edge and has something that fits into their world. Then I think I’m on the right tip. His women’s collection is the hottest thing on planet Earth (chuckles). I’m very happy to work with him.
What do you remember from other collaborations? Anything fun you could share with us?
I once worked with Versace in Milano. Donatella came, we were sitting backstage before the show, and you know, to such occasion I was thinking, “Okay, I gotta wear something special, I’ll wear my best suit.” So the first thing she did when she came was checking what brand was it.
And which brand was it?
It was a Gucci suite (laughs). She was laughing, and I was like, “Fuck, why is she doing that?” She took it with humour. In fact, she invited me to her house in Switzerland but I didn’t go – huge mistake. I had three or four shows that weekend and needed my privacy so I told her I was sick; she didn’t believe me and never invited me again. I asked her personal manager about her favourite flowers and sent her a lot of them. I even sent her underwear that I was producing with Agent Provocateur. She said she really liked me, but still, she never invited me to her house again.
You moved to New York for a period of your life. There you collaborated with artists such as Alan Vega or James Murphy.
I worked with Puff Daddy at that time too.
How was that?
To meet people like Puff Daddy, now called Brother Love, is highly inspiring and thrilling. He’s a forward-thinking genius and pushes the limits in all directions. I highly respect his working ethic and the way he motivates people. He has lots of unusual great talent and he knows how to make gold out of it. Brother Love is going where no black man has gone before.
How’s your relation with DFA?
At that time, we played a lot at different parties in New York City. DFA and Gigolo Records were on top and really pushed the limits, and hopefully inspired other people around the world. James played the drums in one of my songs, NY Muscle.
I would love to hear about your experience with Alan Vega.
Alan was a big experience for me. I didn’t know him before. We set up a meeting in the hotel and he came with his wife. I found out his wife was her manager and her lawyer as well. When we went to the studio, I asked, “Alan, we need to talk about business, what do you want?” He was looking at me and said, “I’m the artist, you don’t talk to me”. And I was like, fuck, this is really cool. I would like to go that way. “If you wanna talk business, talk to my wife”. It was an amazing experience to work with him because everything he did was just spontaneous.
The song we did together only needed one take. I was playing the backup, instrumental, while he had his texts on a paper to sing. He was behind me when we recorded it and he was so intense; he was screaming – so brutal and hypnotic. I was even afraid to move, I was so touched. Amazing, he’s such a great charming guy. All those stories about him being on something when he performed in Europe are false. He wasn’t even drinking alcohol! I have a huge respect for what he did. He sent me some tracks but I never released them. They were kind of rockabilly electronic and I didn’t like them, but I must have them somewhere.
I think you root for Bayern Munich.
Yeah. I’m a critical fan. Are you a Barcelona fan?
I like Atletico.
Oh, cool. I like Atletico a lot. I like the coach, Griezmann. My favourite player is Gabi. I watch them. I wasn’t happy they didn’t make it last year, they are always close. But happy they got the EU this year.
How do you see the German national team for this World Cup 2018?
Germany is the favourite number one. There are lots of new players like Goretzka or Werner, also Süle or Kimmich. Spain and Argentina are the greatest rivals for the title but I will miss Italy and Holland big time this year. I will definitely not watch the games in Russia because of the political system and their despot ruler Putin in cooperation with the extremely corrupted FIFA handling this World Cup 2018.