At home in Berlin with Ricardo Villalobos
For two decades Ricardo Villalobos has played and created records that have consistently re-aligned the spectrum of electronic music. In recent years he’s rarely spoken about it. On a bleary February afternoon, arguably the greatest living DJ/producer invited us into his Berlin home.
Ricardo Villalobos makes a point of seldom opening up to the press – never mind welcoming them into his inner domain. Crack’s attempts to ensnare the Chilean techno deity date back to the magazine’s formative stages. My first meeting with him was an hour of bright, loose-lipped conversation at an after-hours party on a Croatian beach, a personal email exchange (I took his wife’s address as he has no email account of his own) hastily typed on an iPhone, then promptly lost on a Berlin subway. Numerous subsequent attempts proved fruitless, so as I touch down in the German capital there’s the sense that this one has been years in the making. Merely setting foot in the Villalobos residence, situated in an annexed pocket of residential serenity in Kreuzberg, gives a sense of accomplishment.
“Your face does look familiar,” he mentions, when I remind him that we’ve met previously. “I remember, they were like ‘Ricardo, do you want to play?’ and I was like ‘yeah’ – but all the records were bending in the heat. Damian Lazarus was playing and the records were warping, it was so hot.”
That after-hours scenario is a stark contrast to the homely setting of our interview. The cushioned top floor of his immaculately decorated, three-storey detached apartment is far removed from the party animal image the dance music media peddle so frequently. The smell of bushweed fills the house and there’s a serenity to be found among the floor-to-ceiling windows, while a colossal sound system playing choral music provides the sonic backdrop to our time together. There is instrumentation in the form of a piano and bongos, and evidence of children playing everywhere, not least in the swathe of green space at the front of the house. Villalobos has two, aged five and seven. This feels like a place for family, and this is a different man.
Nestling into a floor littered with cushions, we begin our exchange, appropriately, on the subject of interviews. “Giving interviews is not a form of communication in which I work,” he asserts in his easily identifiable German accent, delivered with a zeal and a rhythm with betrays his Latin American roots. “Talking about music is good, but in general music is what I do, it is the basic communication form I have. After many years you realise in interviews the questions are very similar and the answers you give are also very similar. So why do an interview if the public already have the answers?
“Secondly, I have a problem with the press and journalism in general,” he continues. “Journalism is a department of a much wider industrial thing, in general the media is negative and the information they supply is negative. When journalists talk about music or the social phenomena of parties and what is happening there, it is only positive journalism that helps the people to understand why it is good. But writing something negative about music or art in itself – I detest this.” Villalobos pauses here. There is a drama to his delivery. “The power of negative information is too strong, so I prefer the life reception of music, selling records, on vinyl, to special dedicated people who spend 10 Euros for a piece of music that guarantees every artist and every person involved with the process gets paid.”
Villalobos is a scarred man. The internet and amateur message board journalism have not been kind to him. Unflattering photographs and Facebook posts littered with conjuncture and speculation on his personality have left him inherently suspicious of the digital world. A rare anachronism, a creature out of time, his music is presented on vinyl, he “doesn’t do the internet” and lives a life of simple values. For someone often perceived as a wild, even out of control, character, the overwhelming impression garnered from our conversations is a commitment to protecting the more traditional variables that make his world, and his work, function.
“I stopped getting digital promos an age ago because when I did, I was getting 400 in one go. I was missing the good music, so I said “no.” Then my email got hijacked by these guys in London. They wanted money from my wife and started sending mails to my friends saying things like, ‘It’s me, Ricardo, I’m in London, I lost my mind, can you send me some money?’ So I don’t have an email anymore.
“The internet is a monster, it’s an uncontrollable monster. Of course it has positive effects, but it can also be so negative and I think the negative parts of the internet have more power than the positive parts. The music I receive and play and also the people I exchange my music with is 10 to 15 people around me who are exactly as dedicated to music as me. They are dedicated DJs or dedicated producers or both. The Romanians [Rhadoo, Pedro, Raresh], Dorian [Paic], and Zippy [Zip] of course. We share four studios behind the Berghain.” He smiles. “It’s a boys’ studio.” The studio in question was the original destination for our interview, but there was good reason why the venue switched at the last minute. “No one has cleaned the toilet!” Villalobos exclaims. “I would have been so ashamed to invite you as it’s not my turn to clean it. So I was like, I cannot invite the guys here to make the interview. The absence of girls there is horrible. It’s like Lord Of the Flies.”
“When journalists talk about the social phenomena of parties, it is only positive journalism that helps the people to understand why it is good. Writing something negative about music or art in itself – I detest this”
This studio is a microcosm of Ricardo’s position within the wider musical community; he rarely wavers from his tight group of allies, kindred spirits and trusted accomplices. The connections he has established with clubs and labels reads like a roll-call of credible European techno, and his passion is heightened when recounting the kind of personal relationships that have not just ensured his success, but have ensured the product he has presented over the years is free of compromise.
“My life has to have less confrontation, less conflict and be more harmonious, as it makes everything more fertile, especially my relationship with the people and my surroundings, my family and the people I am connected with when I am working” he says. “The people in the scene that survive 10 or 20 years, and people who run certain labels for that period of time and certain DJs; these people are really not following the hype and they have a real connection with their surroundings. They are all members of a social net and this social net is the soul of every party, the soul of the musical movement and the soul of selling records to dedicated people who have a turntable and are prepared to pay this money, even though they can get everything for free.” Frequently, Villalobos uses the act of purchasing vinyl and placing it on your turntable as a metaphor for a respect for musicians and musical culture. There is vinyl on the shelves, vinyl on the floor and an old gramophone in his kitchen. The physicality of the format reflects a participation in the music world as a growing, breathing, mutually-beneficial organism.
“All my friends and all the people I am dealing with worldwide belong to this musical, social movement that guarantees the parties and the quality” he continues. “So if anyone who belongs to this group is having a problem they are caught by their surroundings, helped, and they survive. An example of this is a very long and strong relationship with Time Warp. I met Steffen Charles when I was working with a distributor and was carrying around records while he was buying records for his shop. So I’ve known him for 22 years and I’ve been playing for 15 years at his Time Warp party. It’s a very important social update for the scene and your colleagues.”
Villalobos talks about the mythologised ‘party’ frequently and fervently. The party is framed as a social institution that brings music, culture, people and identity under an umbrella heading. In Villalobos’s case the party fuel is the social experience, and if “social facilitators,” as he’s previously described them, play a part in the positive connection then so be it. It’s his ability
to tap into a collective consciousness, to connect with thousands of people in one single moment, which have made him one of the greatest proponents to ever do what he does. And the party is inexorably positioned at the centre.
“I am concerned about playing and having a good time with my friends at a party with a lot of happy people, where we all have a feeling of togetherness. And then we go home, and if you entered with some problems, hopefully you left feeling at least slightly healed. This is the effect the club scene and the electronic music scene has on me. This is the only thing I am interested in. All the other things are not so important.
“The social net around you should also catch you if you are not having success and not working properly, or if someone is being portrayed in disgrace in the eyes of the media and falling down in his DJ career. Or if people are saying he does too many drugs and will die soon!” He laughs, his hands motioning to the sky as if dismissing the fantasy. “In general, the safest people are the ones inside the net because no one can take or tear this net apart. Even the government, or other parties with economic interests in making parties and selling drinks can’t destroy it, because it’s like a bubble. Our scene is a wonderful scene that is co-existent to normal society. We are not bothering them, most of the people after the weekend go to work and lead a normal life. If the party has good expression, people will come again, if they don’t come again maybe I’m not so necessary next time. If they do come again maybe I am necessary to the party, but for the right reasons. Not because of promotion and interviews and being everywhere in the media. Promotion is essentially a lack of talent or attraction.”
Herein lies the crux of the reverence bestowed by legions of fans on Villalobos. Whether it’s in the middle of an eight-hour set in fabric’s main room (a club he describes as being run by “really wonderful people who put in a lot of dedication to the party happening, often at a big risk”), or at Sonar, or The Robert Johnson, or any electronic music institution where the sound system is paramount, the wild experimental dexterity of peak-time Ricardo Villalobos sets him totally apart from the pack. The number of risks he takes has become the most enduring feature of his legacy and his most celebrated facet, not just of his DJ career but also his production work. Creator of some of the most ambitious and outright bizarre electronic constructions of the last 20 years, his latest work can only be heard at the party on weekends, and his physical releases are frequent and confounding in both length and form.
This field of ambition has proved crucial to his survival. While detractors have held him up as minimal techno’s foremost purveyor, when the genre became something of a dirty word – shorthand for posing, wearing sunglasses in dark rooms and horse tranquilliser – Villalobos was already reaching far beyond the genre’s rather shaky roots. His 2003 debut album Alcachofa remains the genre’s masterpiece, spawning the majestic, polyrhythmic Easy Lee and the achingly melancholic refrains of Dexter. Though these were the show ponies, a 19-minute remix of Shackleton’s Blood On My Hands – a dystopian ode to 9/11 – remains one of the most affecting pieces of abstract techno ever released and cemented him as a superstar outside the booth. Two more full album releases, a mix CD for fabric that was essentially an artist album, a reinterpretation of a classical record with collaborator Max Loderbauer and a slew of EP releases with tracks that frequently check in between 12 and 30 minutes, as well as over 100 remixes to his name have proven Villalobos to be something of a studio addict. Even as we sit talking, he feels pangs of guilt about missing studio time.
"When music connects people, whatever the music, it has a strong healing influence on society"
“I protect my time, so today for example I need to go into the studio. When I found out I had an interview I was like ‘no, no!’” He laughs, but there’s no doubt he means it. “Even having an interview is not protecting my time and space for producing or listening to music.”
The careful division of time between the trinity of the home, the studio and the party is an issue of profound important for Villalobos, but time management is also a key feature of his professional work, namely in the comparative elongation his tracks. As the minutes and the phases build, length and repetition become instruments in themselves.
“If the track hypnotises me so well, I forget the time,” he says. “Even if the music is half an hour in, it was probably worth it, so I stop the recording. If a track is shorter, it’s because everything was done and all the mixtures, the frequencies, the claps, the bass drums, basslines are complete, so we can also stop the recording. But as far as the length of my tracks are concerned, I’m not guilty for that. I’ve done several remixes and productions and handed them over to the person in question in their raw version which are say between 10, 30, 40, 50 minutes long – but it’s not my fault, I’m just giving them the track and if they want they can cut, cut, cut! I much prefer other people doing the edits, because for me it’s really difficult.”
It’s a pattern adhered to in recent remixes of Insanlar’s Kime Ne and his own Voodog. Each a two-part release due to the full-length of both pieces reaching over half an hour, they boasted those typical Villalobos traits of percussive strains and warped vocal abstractions. But though his own musical connections are built on more esoteric leanings, on organic percussion mutated and elongated into infinity, it’s the connection itself which is key. If people are being harmoniously brought together under the banner of music, then why should it matter what that music is?
“I can’t condemn EDM or cheesy pop music if the people democratically decided that’s what they want,” he declares. “It belongs to them. When music connects people, whatever the music, it has a really strong healing influence on society because it connects their interests. People who have the same interests do not go to war and kill each other. It’s hard to kill someone when you share similar values.” That said, his mood turns when discussing why he doesn’t play in America, and particularly his feelings towards Burning Man.
“I would go, but there are millions of parties between here and Burning Man,” Villalobos stresses. “I’m not going because I have my Burning Man every weekend, and I’m not going there to share with people that have millions of pounds in their account and invent a system to share things for 10 days, but in normal life they don’t care about anyone.”
After our serene start the interview ends on a spiky note. Where there is disorder and disquiet Villalobos is seemingly at his most vulnerable – though one suspects if he did find himself at the heart of Burning Man, he’d probably be the first on the Playa. The themes of order, discipline and structure away from the public eye remain the most potent variable during our time together. There is an incredible resilience against anything severing the systems he has in place that have provided him with so much success, whether that be his home life, his studio life or his party life. Balance is of singular importance. He is dependent on little, but serenely happy.
As our conversation winds to a close we’re interrupted by a professional speaker technician, invited round to tinker with that insanely impressive system. As asides go, nothing could feel like a more apt. I happily make way. In this world and in the mind of Villalobos the DJ and producer lies a musical imagination that hasn’t just re-shaped what’s possible within the parameters of techno, but in the history of music. He remains utterly unique, so free of modern day restraints that he doesn’t even understand the concept of compromise.
He should be treasured as a true musical visionary of our time.
Ricardo Villalobos headlines Time Warp Mannheim, 5-6 April, and Sonus Festival, Croatia, 16-20 August