After a long break, our interview series “In the DJ’s Mind” is back. The focus of this series is to explore the work and skills behind the decks of selected artists. DJs such as Naty Seres, Van Anh, THNTS and many more gave us some insights.
For this interview we spoke with Reka Zalan. She is well known and a regular face in the Berlin Techno scene and beyond. Reka is also running the ://about blank in-house format “://elements”, together with DJ fellow THNTS and their good friend Marc, which has become famous for great events with unique and extraordinary bookings. We are more than happy to talk with her.
Hey Reka, thank you for taking your time! First of all, where are you from and what is your musical background?
Thank you for having me, this means a lot to me. I’m originally from Erlangen, Bavaria and have Dutch-German roots on my mother’s side and Hungarian roots on my father’s side. I’ve been living in Berlin for almost 6 years now, before that I studied cultural and art studies in Bremen – a very formative time in terms of my involvement in a subcultural environment, music and DJ culture. I’ve been involved with electronic music for over ten years now, many influences in this process came from interacting with like-minded people, attending and hosting parties, DJing and last but not least certainly my recent work in the record store. As a kid I was in early musical education, as a teenager, I played piano for a while and also saxophone (playing the flute is I think not worth mentioning here haha).
When and how did you start DJing?
I developed my interest in DJing in my school days, where I already visited parties or festivals for electronic music. I remember that a friend (in 2006 I think) gave me a self-burned CD that featured artists like Ellen Allien, Felix da Housecat, Gabriel Ananda and Gregor Tresher. After graduating from high school in 2009 I moved for the first time to Berlin and explored the local music and club scene. I started to deal with the craft of DJing about 11 years ago (2011) in Bremen, where I also had my first gig. There I very quickly met people who were themselves strong music enthusiasts, DJs and/or active in the local scene as part of party collectives that conducted small outdoor raves, squat parties, and also club events.
In approaching and developing an understanding of the technical sides of DJing, I was very supported by various friends, especially male ones. I emphasize this at this point, because I actually experienced a lot of empowerment by the at that time much more male-dominated DJ scene and was taken seriously in becoming a DJ.
In the beginning I used a digital DJ controller as I had neither records, skills or equipment – I was excited about the fact that there was affordable digital access, of which I knew nothing before. Later I switched to Time Code Vinyl (Traktor), learned how to handle CDJs and finally also how to beatmatch with records. Today I’m happy to be able to handle different media – both digital and analog.
When did you get your first gig?
That was in July 2011, when I was DJing on the party ship “Treue” as part of the annual Breminale Festival, a small local cultural festival in Bremen. Friends organized the evening and I was deadly excited and totally flashed and touched when all my friends and acquaintances came and cheered me on from the front row. I will never forget that. I was so excited that I could only bring my water bottle up to my mouth with shaking hands during the performance haha.
What is your home setup?
2 x Technics 1210, 2 x XDJ 700, A&H Xone 92.
You are working at Hard Wax, one of the known techno institutions. How does the work at the record shop influence your DJing?
I would say that working in the store has has a significant impact on my DJ practice. On the one hand, I have regular access to new (pre-curated) releases that influence my selections accordingly and also provide me with a frame of reference at a time when musical output in the electronic music realms is simply endless and difficult to keep track of. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been buying most of my music on records, as it’s one of the few places where I’ve still been very actively exposed to and connected to electronic music during times when the clubs were/are temporarily closed. Also, the fact that my whole (work) life slowed down a bit during the pandemic allowed me to have more time to spend quietly with my records, implementing them into podcasts or streams while working on my skills. In general, I play both digital and analog, get digital releases as well, and am not locked into one medium.
In addition, working in the store has also given me better access to music beyond techno – I love UK bass in all its forms for example, which has led to me buying more music in this and other spectra as well. Of course, the record store is generally a source of inspiration, encounters and discoveries, and in a way, it also acts as a music cultural school for me, where I constantly expand my own knowledge and range of tastes, precisely because I am also confronted with music that I might not have sought or found in a digital context.
How do you organize your music collection?
Haha yeah this is such a topic and sometimes I wonder if there is a support group for DJs to talk about this and give tips on how to structure and manage yourself better lol. For the most part, I have my records sorted into my shelves by (sub)genre. I organize my digital collection into various subfolders using Rekordbox, sorted by subgenre, playtime, vibe, speed, add date or play occasion, saving them as playlists. I also save track histories from gigs.
However, this is all rather a mess and as soon as I start to classify individual tracks, it gets totally out of hand, because for me individual tunes belong to different categories and accordingly the sorting takes a very long time. Actually, I’d have to sort and clean out my collection from scratch – it contains almost 3000 tracks.
Where do you like to dig for new music? How do you get inspired by new music?
As mentioned above, working in the store is a great source of inspiration. In the digital realm, I’m mostly on Bandcamp or Beatport, checking promos or friends’ material. Also listening to podcasts makes me discover tunes or announcements via social media from artists I follow make me aware of certain releases.
How do you prepare for a gig?
It varies. Digitally, I’d listen through some folders (old and new) and put together rough playlists that include tracks I want to play on a particular occasion. Old gig histories can also provide guidance and orientation here. If I also take records to the gig, I think beforehand – depending on the playing time, setting, location – what might fit and try out a few things at home and see which records go particularly well together. I then try to pack my bag accordingly, planning something for different vibes (deep, groovy, forward, tooly).
Usually I like to use building blocks that I have found work very well together and then add new tracks. The new tracks eventually become new building blocks, to which new ones are in turn added, replacing old ones. It’s like a musical patchwork quilt that keeps renewing itself. Working on podcasts can also be helpful in this process, as you get particularly involved with individual tracks and combinations. Generally, I like to lay down the first 3-5 tracks to have a safe start.
Generally, the extent of preparation depends on factors like time, my mood and gig context. For example, if I’ve never played a venue before, I’ll approach preparation differently than if I’m already familiar with the venue. It also happens not rarely that I prepare nothing at all. In general, it’s important for one’s own development and in order to do justice to the individual situation of the gig (vibe, crowd) to be able to free oneself from all orientation structures at some point and to act intuitively out of the moment, as should ideally always be the case. But that, too, has to be learned and is a DJ skill that is not acquired overnight as many people might assume.
Before the pandemic, streaming was becoming more popular. Now due to the pandemic, live streams have become a solid and heavily used tool in the scene. You also played on several live streams such as HÖR, Monument, Room Lab and BE-AT.TV. How does it feel to play in front of a camera instead of an audience?
I find it relatively horrible to be honest haha – I always experience these streaming situations like some kind of exam situation where people are watching you, checking and evaluating your every move. It gives me immense pressure in the situation itself, especially considering that this recording is available forever in the digital ether. When you’re not having a good day or you’re excited and nervous in the recording situation, but you still have to function on cue with the knowledge that this snapshot is archived forever, it triggers feelings of anxiety and frustration when things don’t go as you planned. I sometimes felt like I couldn’t deliver the way I wanted to. I knew that I had gone through a progression in terms of my technical skills, for example, but wasn’t able to show it in the context of my performance. This can be pretty demotivating, even though I’m aware that one’s perspective is very influenced and overshadowed by subjectivity and perfectionism – I’m trying to train myself to embrace more and more the beauty of imperfection and learn to accept mistakes. Playing in a club, feeling a real togetherness and community feeling, where an (almost spiritual) connection can develop between DJ and crowd, is a completely different setting.
Just because someone can play a flawless streaming set doesn’t mean that the DJ can respond well to a crowd and vice versa. It only – conditionally – says something about the skills or performance ability of an artist and nowadays you often get the feeling that it’s not even the music that matters but the way artists present themselves (clothing style, facial expression, gestures, social media presentation). If we’re honest, this phenomenon has been around for a long time, especially if you look at artists in pop music – but it still leaves a strange feeling because electronic music culture and DJing actually originated out of a different approach and motive…but things just change and you have to adapt in places and go with the times I suppose even if it means that you play along to some extend in order to stay on the radar.
You are also playing vinyl at your gigs. What are the most important things for you to make the performance enjoyable, especially for vinyl?
About vinyl, the turntables must function solidly (pitch sensitivity, balance-/ weight adjustment of the tonearm, motor) and stand stable and protected. CDJs should also be regularly maintained and all relevant functions, especially the pitch faders should work properly. In addition, and regardless of the medium used, the monitoring and the mixer are of particular importance for a smooth performance. Especially the monitoring is a key factor for me and sometimes I have the feeling that only very few gigs allow a convenient experience due to a certain booth setting, quality of the monitor boxes etc.
I don’t know why the particular issue of a proper monitoring setting didn’t strike me as much in the early DJ years, but probably my focus/perception changed so that I developed different demands as my experience grew. Furthermore, the booth should be of reasonable (body) height, the floor flat and a small light or box for records for vinyl should also be provided. I like the booth to be at ground level in relation to the dancefloor and not arranged like a pulpit, where the DJ is elevated to a spatial and symbolic pedestal so that an intimate and equal connection – at eye level – can be made with the audience. At the same time, when DJing vinyl, it can be important that the booth also protects me from drunken ravers jostling against the desk, causing the needle to jump haha. Also, the light situation in the booth as well as in the whole room plays a big role for me. If it’s too bright, it’s hard for me to let go and feel the vibe of the music. So all in all – regardless of whether I use CDJs or turntables – it’s all about the high quality of sound, technical equipment, lighting and a particular spatial setting. Of course, the whole thing is then rounded off when you vibe well with the crowd and feel comfy and welcome in contact with the promoter or artist care.
You are very musical versatile: Besides your reputation as a skilled techno DJ, you are also rooted in other genres like dubstep or drum & bass. I listened to your podcast for GIGI FM and it is a great mix! How did you approach this mix?
I’m especially happy about this question because UK bass is really close to my heart and I had the vision for a long time to include this musical spectrum in my DJ practice at the appropriate place. NTS and Gigi’s openness were the perfect occasion. I knew I’d been itching to record a mix with wobbly deep dubstep in combination with gritty half-time drum’n’bass à la Pessimist / Overlook. I love both genres and just picked some of my favorite records from this realm and started mixing without a too concrete plan checking what goes well together and how I can bridge the different tempos. Some of the tracks and final compositions actually came together during the recording process itself. Even though I love techno very much and my collection and overview / knowledge in this field is much bigger, for me the mentioned music styles have partly a more timeless, lasting quality than many techno tunes of these days. I’m especially touched by the infinitely deep gloomy frequencies of dubstep, but also the clear, dry, sometimes hard, break elements of D’n’B with their dark, dystopian vibe.
What are the differences and similarities between playing techno and dubstep or drum & bass?
Good question. While techno lives mainly from generating an eternally lasting loop with barely audible transitions and putting the listener into a kind of trance state, for me, for example, D’n’B has a different dynamic, where you work more with the breaks and breakbeats, which influence your way of mixing like the speed and type of transitions and thus also the way of reception. With dubstep, on the other hand, the overall vibe feels a bit more decelerated, not only because of the nature of this specific genre of music but also because I tend to let the tracks run longer than, say, tool techno, where you basically bang in one new tune after another.
Overall, though, I notice that regardless of which (sub)genre I’m playing, there’s usually a similar, certain mood that remains. Often I like a deep dark impact, but also love dense percussion strands and rhythmic components, which in turn can be rather uplifting. I think the whole concept just has to make sense and express a certain rhythm, flow and vibe. At the same time, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more receptive to friendlier, groovier dynamics and moods lately. This is mainly related to my techno selection. But in general, I just enjoy playing with different elements that range between warm and cold sounds, bringing together a certain deepness and groove with repetitive, trippy, loopy, dry facets that can even include vocal cuts in places.
Although you are quite known within the scene and you have been active for a while, you are not part of a booking agency. How do you organize your gigs?
To be honest, bookings have always come about very organically over the years and since I’ve built up a valuable network of connections and contacts over the time, I’ve never really found myself in the situation of having to “offer” myself somewhere. This is not self-evident for me and I’m very thankful that it all developed so naturally (although certainly, my involvement in different contexts has helped here a lot). In the meantime though, I can imagine working with an agency because it would help me to hand over the negotiation of operational, technical and financial matters to someone. My various fields of activity (://about blank booking, Hard Wax, DJing, co-hosting ://elements) just keep me already very occupied. When choosing an agency, the orientation of the roster plays a role, but much more important to me is the interpersonal level, a certain mindset and common values so that I can work together trustfully.
Could you imagine having your gigs organized by an agency?
Yes, but as mentioned above the mindset of the agency/booker has to match mine. Especially in these days, where you often get the feeling that the music is almost secondary and the electronic music scene is thoroughly commercialized, I want the music itself to be in the foreground and certain values to form the basis for all processes of internal and external cooperation (general communication style, selection of gigs, setting of fees, promotion). A special awareness and sensitivity towards certain matters and a shared socio-cultural and -political understanding/world view play a big role for me.
You are hosting with THNTS the event series ://elements and also act there as a resident DJ. Would you agree that your residency formed your way of DJing? How does the residency influence you?
I’m convinced that a residency at a series of events or at a club shapes and empowers every artist in their development. Not only by having more or less regular visibility in a (local) context, but also in terms of own DJ development processes, like learning how to read different spaces, times and vibes of a venue. Furthermore, a residency affiliation can be an orientation frame that gives the audience a hint of which music-and club or socio-cultural environment an artist comes from. In general, it’s fantastic to receive the support of a club or crew that believes in you and it can also help you share certain projects and gigs with the public by spreading them through various channels. Overall, you just feel like you belong to something and I think that this sense of “haven” gives every artist a lot of self-confidence and back strength, even if it’s clear that he/she/they should also be perceived, valued and booked regardless of their residency affiliation – as an independent creative person – so this connection does not lead to some kind of a narrowing horizon of expectations that “equates” the artist with his/her/their “belonging in brackets”.
What are the benefits and the disadvantages of being a DJ?
Where to start here haha?
· sharing music you love with others and helping shape a unique experience of community feeling.
· connect with other music lovers and build an enriching network of friends, like-minded people and cooperation partners – analog, digital and international.
· building up musical and technical knowledge, learning a craft and training your ear.
· being able to get to know and visit new places (cities, countries, continents, clubs).
· growing beyond oneself by facing a stage situation.
· enjoying music digging/performing and even getting paid for what you love haha.
· compulsion to withstand the pressure of competition and to market/promote yourself.
· being in the spotlight, even though you may not be a stage person at all (stage fright).
· feeling responsible for the success of a party or the people who work with you.
· suffering from one’s own perfectionism, comparing oneself to others, fear of failure and of being canceled.
· feeling lonely (for DJs who travel a lot) and dealing with the difficulty of balancing nightlife and everyday life (e.g. with partner/family/friends)
· being at the mercy of physical and psychological health risks (tinnitus, disturbed sleep rhythm and resulting imbalance, regular contact with intoxicants, depression, anxiety).
Over the last two years, the pandemic has the world in its grip and has a huge impact on the techno scene. Any memorable gigs you had in this time?
Actually, every gig in pandemic times was a bit special in its own way. Especially memorable was when we held the first dance event in 1.5 years at ://about blank garden in the summer of 2021 with our beloved community network of regulars, friends, staff and artists – it felt like a little New Year’s Eve in the middle of a bright June day and I was playing b2b2 with my DJ fellows THNTS and Rodmin. Also, the ://about blank indoor reopening in November 2021 was very moving and felt totally surreal. Besides, I particularly enjoyed playing Tarmac Festival in 2020 – it was the first time after the first big shutdown that I heard loud, bass-heavy music coming out of massive festival speakers and that I was being around a lot of people – experiencing again a sense of community and togetherness that everyone had been missing so much. I played b2b with THNTS at prime time on the techno stage, we had two close friends from Berlin with us and met other friends on site that we hadn’t seen in a long time. At some point, a festival guest came up to me and told me that he and his girlfriend had met at a set of mine in summer 2019 – that touched me a lot. Also, the streams, especially the ones at Hör – Radio, felt like small milestones to me: without the pandemic situation and the accompanying establishment of streaming formats, I would not have felt up to this kind of exposure and probably would not have voluntarily faced it but was able to outgrow myself in the process. The participation also brought me on the radar of many people and their feedback meant a lot to me. The fact that Amotik – an artist and person I respect very much – had invited me to his radio show was another highlight in this context (even if I was unhappy with my performance, haha).
Despite the pandemic, have you got any upcoming plans and projects in the future?
Not really. Right now, I just can’t fucking wait for the clubs to reopen (hopefully in March) and start DJing regularly again. We have some ://elements dates planned for this year and are already looking forward to the first edition at the end of May, which will take up most of the lovingly put-together line-up from the canceled December party and will be 22h long. I’m going with the flow, for now, trying to keep my balance and looking forward to everything that will pop up and develop over the course of the year.
Last but not least: You got any tips for DJ beginners?
Don’t be afraid, just get started.
Seek support and ask friends to help you understand the basics. Attend DJ workshops or local networking meetings, watch / read tutorials that will give you an understanding of how electronic music is built.
When playing with vinyl, be patient with yourself! Keep at it regularly and with discipline, then you will notice the progress.
See the process and not just the goal. Be gentle with yourself, mild and not too judgmental and perfectionist, give yourself time to develop a taste and technical skills.
Focus on the music and not on marketing and self-promotion. Don’t bend for others, follow your own taste, be brave, dare to irritate and not to please.
Network organically and try not to impose yourself too much.
Try – as far as possible – not to rely too much on digital readouts when learning to beatmatching, in order to develop a sense of rhythm and tempo yourself: train your ear to ultimately be able to draw from your own trained sense, knowledge and experience. Of course, you can use digital/visual solutions (BPM counters, software, etc.) as they can be very helpful, especially in the beginning, but it’s mainly about knowing your craft and building up self-confidence: On the one hand, to be able to continue working independently of external assistance when the situation requires it, but on the other hand, to also be able to creatively use, for example, the many functions and possibilities of digital devices. At the same time, it doesn’t matter what medium you continue to work with as both vinyl and CDJs have their pros and cons, and I’m absolutely not a fan of picking a side!
Last but not least: Don’t look too much to the left and right and don’t even start comparing yourself. You are unique in what you do. Mistakes and imperfections are okay. Don’t let the pressure of the outside world/scene navigate you – always try to stay with yourself and trust in your individual process.
Cover picture from Alex Beran