Balkans contemporary culture guide

Lag shares his experience on playing at Berghain for the first time

Hey everyone, Lag here! Previous weekend I had the pleasure of playing Berghain for the first time. I thought I’d share my experience and a few impressions with you all, so here goes:

First of all there’s a thing that a lot of people don’t really understand about DJs and hospitality, and that’s that traveling to gigs is fucking stressful. People associate travel with holidays and those are amazing because the journey holds a promise of rest and healing. With gigs – you fly in, go to a hotel with no real time to sight-see or anything, you eat dinner, rest so you can perform, do the gig, have some more rest and fly back home. You’re thrown into a big pot of unknown, the routine equivalent of “fuck you” so you need someone kinda holding your hand while you’re there to alleviate your monkey-brains sense of “what the hell is happening to me”. You performing 100% for the people who came to see you is top priority so good hospitality is basically joint effort to make a good party that everyone gets to enjoy. While that’s obvious to us, we all still experience shitty hospitality from time to time, even when it’s big clubs and famous nights. When it comes to Berghain the hospitality was perfect. I got picked up at the airport as soon as I left the gate, the host was friendly and easy to talk to, the hotel they put me in was nice and, most importantly, had a late check-out and late breakfast option I could actually actually relax knowing I get to get some rejuvenation after the performance. A lot of well known promoters will use their good reputation with the crowd to save money, time and effort on hospitality, so everything I was experiencing ahead of the gig was good sign that what the DJs do and need is well understood and respected by the establishment I was about to perform in. You have no idea how much this means and helps with the actual performance.

Anyway, the behind-the-scenes: I guess some people associate the Berghain personnel with a certain form of tension, probably because they are afraid of the bouncers, but I can assure you everyone I’ve met who works there is just super nice, friendly and forthcoming. One of the guys working there even wished me good luck in my own language which usually means nothing to me but for some reason impressed me and got me a bit emotional me this time. As for the back rooms and offices – I’ll leave that to your imagination.

When it comes to the party itself – everything they say about the club is true. It’s an atmosphere of acceptance, freedom and love and you generally feel like you can be yourself. For us who have a general feeling of not really belonging anywhere – this is the one place we can relax and feel not only welcome, but actually a part of something. People usually focus on the sexual aspect of this but it’s so much more than that. While I’ve never actually been accepted into Berghain without being on the list (I once cued three times in a row cause I wanted to see Karenn live and got turned down every time) – I can’t really be mad because it’s down to the bouncers and their gut feeling for who might disrupt the fine equilibrium which helps Berghain keep being an oasis of freedom. Ironically, we are all judged only to establish if we can truly be a part of the no-judging zone.

Anyway, back to the gig. I was initially supposed to play 12-16 on Sunday afternoon which I was looking forward to because then I get to have a good night’s sleep and the people coming in are well rested which means I can go full beast-mode on them. In a timetable shuffling they moved me to 5-9 Sunday morning which initially made me feel a bit disappointed, but when I came to Berlin and realized how hot it was I realized it was actually the perfect time because the temperature during my set would be the best for dancing and enjoying yourself on the dance-floor. Berghain featured me in their description for the night so it didn’t really matter when I would play anyway I guess, there would be people there to hear me. My only worry was that I would be too sleepy for my slot (no matter how much you sleep before the gig – if your your biological clock is used to something else you’re fucked), but since I had a gig in Mostar a few days before that and spent a lot of time on an inverted sleep schedule – I seemed to be at ease with being awake at the time. Had a Red Bull just in case. I’m ready. Barker was playing before me and he did his thing, state-of-the-art melodic journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the last track which was beatless (I think it was Maximum Utility off of his new EP) and was just a trip to enjoy with your eyes closed. I was very nervous up to a point when I just started lying to myself that it’s just another gig and that I should just do my job the way I always do. I started off with an old school classic – Tres Demented (Carl Craig & Laurent Garnier) – Demented (Or Just Crazy). It has a long intro which helps build it up and give me some time to go through tracks and tag them (I never prepare my sets, but when I get to the club and feel the vibe I do like to tag a bunch of tracks which seem right for the night and then come back to them throughout the set). Long intros also help set a slower general pace. The pace setting is important because if you are used to 2 hour sets you want to generally go guns-blazing as there’s not too much time to leave a good impression. If you have 4 hours ahead of you then you have time for a journey and the idea is to take it slowly and give both your audience and yourself room to enjoy the ups and downs.

Obviously the sound-system there is fucking amazing. The monitoring is superb, the main sound is very loud but not too hard on the ears so it’s very easy to enjoy without leaving the place with your ears ringing (unless you are mental and enjoy standing next to the speakers). That said there are a few things which do shape your set in the Cathedral: first of all it’s a concrete hall, which means there’s reverb, which means that if you play too fast the reverb covers too much of the silence – and you need silence. I’m not referring to the break-time-silence, but to the quieter parts of tracks which happen between the booming kicks. The ups and downs are pleasing to us, whether it’s on a bigger or a smaller scale, so if you play too fast in an environment like that – you risk losing your dynamics to reverb. I started off at 137 with a plan to speed up, but ended up staying on the same BPM for this very reason. Also, Funktion 1 is a very special kind of sound-system and it is probably the best one for music with minimalist approach (ie. music that doesn’t have too many elements). When it comes to music with a lot going on it can get a bit mushy and, while even that sounds better than on most sound-systems – you kinda want to get the max out of what you’re playing on. With this in mind it’s always better to play something like Norman Nodge – NN 8.0, or Steve Stoll – No Questions Please than to go for Joey Beltram – It WorksJeff Mills – UFO or something noisy like that. Obviously there are sometimes good reasons to go that way, but as a general rule – go for less if you want the true power of the F1 bins. There were some technical difficulties in the very early part of my set (I think I was the only one asking for a DJM mixer in that part of the night so the connections gave us some trouble) but the engineer was quick to fix it and we were off. Also, on a system as good as that one you can really notice how much better the sound quality is on the A&H. Despite that, the DJM fits my schizophrenic style of DJing far better. The way it’s built and the utility it offers suits my needs for softening sharp transitions between styles, rhythms and moods.

I started playing with slower transitions, just to get warmed up and soon I was engulfed, following both the crowd by their cheering (I don’t look up much while I’m working cause I’m, well, working) and constantly chasing the balance between pleasing them and challenging them. I guess it went down well. For me DJing must be a dialogue. If I just played stuff for myself, no matter how much the crowd loved it I consider it a failure. It should be an ebb and flow of energy being bounced between the artist and the audience, where, ideally, we are both surprised several times throughout the performance. My EP on MORD records “Fiend EP” is actually about this. Kontrola is, well, the sense of control you have over the crowd and Trema is the jitters you get from both the performance itself, and trying out something new in the set. A perfect set is in a constant flux between the two, where both offer their own dangers (control puts you in danger of getting too comfortable and stale, while the jitters can get you paralyzed and unforgivingly self-critical), but when both are being ridden with respect and understanding – they can take you far. Here’s just a few moments that surprised me or the crowd from that night:

  1. Wevie Stonder – Ton Wah (Jerome Hill Remix) ///I played this on several other sound-systems and it did okay but for some reason it really opened up in Berghain. The vocal was clear and distinguishable, the kick was fucking huge and the funk was just right for the moment. In my mind it was gonna be a a short connection between two tracks but I ended up playing it for longer, till after the break.

  2. Zeta Reticula – Double Star ///I only dropped this for the synth initially. The few tracks I played before it were 4-4 and fast so I wanted to play something half-step to break it down. It was that or Mariel Ito – Sintex49 but went for this one cause it has less drive and more bounce which suited the goal of giving the crowd some breathing room. I threw it in planning to keep the 4-4 kick from another track as the basis but I though “fuck it, let’s try” and brought in the break-beat and bass in to actual cheers from the crowd.

  3. Lag – Kontrola ///I hated this one so much while making it and didn’t want to release it (happens when you spend too much time working on a single track) but Bas talked me into doing it. It took me years to be able to enjoy it and I only recently became able to play it without cringing and being overly self-aware about it. It felt really good playing it on that right it actually sounding good!

  4. AQXDM – Ballad 002 ///This one sounds huge whenever I play it but while it’s heavier than a 100 ton wrecking ball, I use it to change the rhythm pattern a bit. Instead of the track landing as something to simply break up the 4/4 monotony it landed on flying firsts and banging heads. By simple chance Aquarian (1/2 of AQXDM) was there to experience the track being played on a big rig for the first time in his life which made it even more special. Him and Deapmash are great producers and deserve more attention!

  5. Heiko Laux – Tangoamt ///Like with most older production it doesn’t sound nearly as massive as the new stuff on a rig like that, but since several people asked me after the set about this moment I guess the emotion it emitted was right for when it dropped. I enjoy nothing more than to play something easier, but super-musical after a stream of heavy hitters. This entire album from Heiko is just that, gorgeous, jazzy, soothing but still dancable and groovy. Similar to this was when I played Sleeparchive – Spring early in the set – when those chords kick in it feels like a warm, summer breeze on your face.

  6. Lathe – Werk ///Off of one of my favorite EPs in the last few months – check it out. Each track is different and this one is an amazing banger. I only played it as a layer (using only mid and high frequencies), but even played like that the room got progressively crazier with every buildup.

  7. Mark Broom – Break 97 ///Again, another sharp turn that exploded more than I expected it to. Played it after something dark, noisy and banging so I knew what I was going for, but it was the first time I played this track in a club so it surprised both me and the crowd with how well it landed.

  8. Burden – Φ 3.2 ///I have several tools which I’ll always play (Like Tommy Four Seven – Track 5 or Christian Wunsch – White Coats (Function Remix)). This track I didn’t really feel that much until I’ve played it on a big sound-system for the first time. Now it’s slowly turning into something I’ll play forever. You know that a tool is good when every time you use it to simply make a bridge between two disharmonious tracks – people actually scream and shout to it and you end up playing it out longer than you intended to.

  9. Cleric – 2nd Limit ///I’m an over-thinker so I tend to over-complicate things, but sometimes the track that works the best has only a few elements, especially on a sound-system and acoustics such as the ones in Berghain. This fucking blew up, especially as the vocal is produced in such a clear way that it breaks through everything, no matter what you play under or over this tracks. Such a pounder.

  10. Anthony Rother – Father ///This is the track I got asked about the most. Rother is a beast. His new stuff is amazing as well – musical, well produced and sounding great and characteristic on a big rig. Playing this as a closing track was pretty emotional for me as it’s one of the tracks I grew up on. It was an anthem of my time and, while some tracks I grew up loving don’t get such a big reaction from people these days, this one seems to be the bridge which connects the old and the new and makes me feel that everything is related – the old and the new, the dark and the light, the dancers and the musicians.

Four hours later and I was at the finish line. I reached the end without fucking up, but also without clenching: I managed to take risks and actually successfully showcase what I’m about. The reverb tail is still in the speakers, the dance-floor is cheering and clapping and I’m smiling awkwardly like every other absolutist who has no fucking clue how to take and enjoy a compliment. I get off the decks and let Objekt take over. I hug my friends, surround myself with their love and talk to strangers sharing their impressions with me. The feeling after the set was… empty. Well, initially. I think playing 3-4 decks for four hours does that to you, as semantics fly out the window and everything you are dealing with for the duration is abstract. Using emotions as tools is like trying to quantize the untouchable. I mean it’s doable, but you’re constantly dividing by zero. People were talking to me but I couldn’t really feel or think for a while – I was just a flat line, auto-pilot driving me and taking everything in for later processing. I got a drink, sat at the bar and restarted my operating system. Slowly but surely I was getting back. I started enjoying Objekt’s set (he’s one of my favorite DJs, daring as hell) and talking to my dear friends. After a while I succumbed to the weight of the experience and I headed to the hotel to try and get some rest. When I left the club and took the photo in front of it – it finally hit me. It was an overwhelming feeling and it was the exact kind of smile you’d get after realizing you’re in love that was stuck on my stupid face for the next few hours. I rarely allow myself to pat myself on the back or bask in my accomplishments, but moments from the night kept coming back to me and the words and emotions of people who shared their excitement with me finally engulfed me. I don’t believe in afterlife and I try to put my life in perspective and enjoy every wonderful moment of it, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it is. Well, this one wasn’t small or insignificant. This will follow me forever. I couldn’t really sleep from the excitement so I just rested while I shared my experience with friends who couldn’t be there. Later I went to see some friends at Urban Spree where there was an [aufnahme + wiedergabe] night which means good music. I was thinking of going back to Berghain and seeing someone else play but I was too afraid I would somehow ruin it so I just left it alone and decided to end the day peacefully, grateful for what it was. Walking back to my bed I was thinking about my parents who supported me on every step of the way, and how happy I am that they actually realize how big of a deal playing Berghain is. I even took my mom there once (yes, I showed her every room including the one) so I know it gives them some pride that they got to help me get from a kid growing up in a war-torn country where turbo-folk rules the scene, to a point where I’m playing the best techno club in the world with such an cultural impact on the electronic music scene globally.

Shout out to my friends who made the evening even special: Artur, Alex, Andrew, Mario, Mr. Kowalski, Marija, Sam, Rory, Dunja and Nicolas. Thanks to the bar-tending crew who were kind enough to pass on their impressions to the office staff, to my agent Alessandra for taking good care of me and to the people who were there for me through this wondrous experience: Dobrila and Milan (my dear parents), Maja, Tamara, Nemanja, Jelena, Mimi, Miljana and Igor. Last but not least: thanks to everyone in Berghain who made this such a wonderful experience: the crowd, the staff, the countless producers and DJs who played there before me and who keep giving their all to keep it such a special place.

Playing Berghain was a dream come true. It was literally the last thing off of my bucket list so now I gotta come up with new goals to chase. Thanks Obama. It was everything I expected it to be – and more. Hope to be back soon!

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