Helena Hauff: Death Disco
Helena Hauff has a thunderstorm inside her.
Sometimes it comes out in tangible ways: a cloud of cigarette smoke, her throaty, thunderous laugh, or the flash of a genuine smile. But mostly, it’s projected in her music; in the hammering techno of her DJ sets; the white hot intensity of her acid and electro; the nocturnal mood of her more sombre productions. There’s a turbulence to her style that would fall apart in the wrong hands, but Helena Hauff knows how to walk the line between disorder and control.
When we meet in her ground-floor apartment on a rainy evening in Hamburg, the city where she was born, Hauff is surrounded by records. The place is flooded with them. There are overflowing stacks all around the living room and in her studio there are crates teetering on top of crates. Hauff looks upon the mess fondly. She seems content with chaos.
“I’ve always loved it when music – especially techno – sounds a bit nasty and a bit raw and unpolished,” Hauff tells me, lighting a cigarette. Visible amongst all the vinyl is her set of analog machines, which she started collecting five or six years ago and with which she produces exclusively — just a Juno-60, a Roland-303, an MPC, and a couple of other classics. “The aesthetic of machines is so appealing to me,” Hauff explains. “People tend to think it’s more like robotics, they think it’s soulless because it doesn’t sound like it’s made by a human being. But I like that concept. It’s almost like the machine comes to life and becomes something with its own soul. I’ve learned to let go of the more analytical part of my brain and just let the machines do their own thing. They have a mind of their own, and I love that.”
There’s also a thrilling spontaneity to Helena Hauff’s DJ sets; something journalists tend to describe as ‘eclecticism’ or ‘unpredictability.’ Her selections range from jarring acid to banging techno with infusions of old school industrial, Dutch electronica, post-punk and EBM. And while she’s maintained an experimental, punk attitude, the past few years have seen Hauff rise to become one of leftfield dance music’s most in-demand artists.
January of this year marked the first show in Hauff’s BBC Radio One residency – a landmark achievement that’s testament to her rapid growth. “It’s more work than I thought it would be,” she admits, “because I want it to be really diverse. I wanted each episode to showcase a different style of music: a bit of house, a bit of techno, sometimes more wavey, or one episode will be all punk.” Her anything-goes approach is carried through in her self-made label Return to Disorder, which she launched in 2015 with an EP from Leicester psych-rock band Children of Leir. “I don’t want to just put out one type of music. Whenever I get something sent to me, if it’s good, I want to release it,” she insists. “I want to return to disorder in the sense that releases don’t necessarily have to make sense together.” It’s with this attitude that Hauff has established a career that so many artists dream of, without having to compromise her integrity.
The story of Helena Hauff’s DJ career begins at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel, a small but legendary portside club renowned for its rough and ready vibe. Hauff discovered the club as a teen and her name is closely associated with the club’s tight-knit family. “When I was younger, I only ever went out to the Pudel. There just wasn’t any other club where I felt at home,” she explains. “Eventually I just got bored with clubbing at some point, around when I started touring. The Pudel was the only place that I never really got bored with.”
The Pudel’s spirit was a perfect match for Hauff’s own; the club famously cherishes its sense of freedom – DJs play whatever and however they want. Hauff affectionately dubs it a “playground”. I read her a quote from fellow Pudel regular Call Super, who claimed that the club is a place where you feel that everyone really listens. “I actually disagree!” she exclaims. “When you play on a Friday, there are loads of young people, lots of tourists, and to be honest, sometimes it feels like they really didn’t care at all. They just want to get drunk and have a good time! But I personally don’t have a problem with that at all. The good thing about Pudel was that half of the people were really into the music, and the other half just didn’t give a shit. It’s not just this elite club where you can only enter if you know everything about electronic music.”
In February 2016, the Pudel closed after a fire destroyed the venue completely. Hauff found out while heading back to her hotel after a gig in France: “People were calling and texting me, ‘The Pudel’s burning, the Pudel’s burning,’” she remembers. “It was at a time when we had fought with the owners of the café upstairs from the club, so a lot of conspiracy theories just popped up immediately. It was a really stressful time.” Hamburg’s music community banded together to raise money for the club’s repairs — Hauff herself played a few benefit events, and added her own homemade cut to the selection of “Save the Pudel” videos on YouTube. The club is set to re-open this year, if all goes well.
Having developed a reputation as an adventurous DJ, Hauff released her cassette-only debut, entitled A Tape on Dallas-based label Handmade Birds in 2015. The record – which will be re-issued this year via San Francisco’s Dark Entries Records – was compromised of Hauff’s earliest recorded material, rediscovered gems dug off of an old harddrive. “Some of the tracks on there are my first tries, the first things I kept from recording, that I didn’t delete immediately because they were horrible,” she jokes. In 2016 Hauff dropped her debut studio album, Discreet Desires, via Actress’s Werkdiscs, a subsidiary of Ninja Tune. The album is moodier than past releases, more of a “contemplative journey” than her freewheeling DJ sets would have you expect. She plays with melodies and synth and infusions of Italo keys, favouring her trusty Juno-60 on more than one occasion. Hi-hats are thrust in and pulled back out, fuelling the record’s dark, dramatic soundscape. It has a bleak Berlin winter vibe to it.
“I was going for bleak Hamburg winter vibes actually,” Hauff laughs. She rolls another cigarette. “I wouldn’t call it ‘dark’ necessarily, because this type of music makes me happy. Even when I do feel sad, for example, I want to listen to the saddest most depressing music in the world. Maybe I feel a bit sadder for a while but then it gets me out of it. It’s like celebrating the sadness… And then it’s over.” She takes a long haul and blows the smoke out, thinking. “Some people think dark music makes you feel horrible and depressed. But you don’t have to be happy. You can be sad, it’s okay. You’ll be happy again tomorrow, it’s just one day.” She laughs — a kind of half-shrug, half-laugh — and leans forward to ash her cigarette.
I wonder if Hauff is into the type of melancholy art or dark poetry or noir films that her productions would suggest. In fact, I am banking on it — I’ve based half my interview questions around it. “I’m not into poetry. I’m not even really into album art, I end up throwing out record sleeves and covers because they take up so much space in my bag!” She does the shrug-laugh again. “They’re heavy to carry around as well. A beautiful cover is nice, but in general I’m not an artwork person.” The cover art for Discreet Desires might suggest otherwise; a grainy, tightly cropped photo of Hauff leaning in, mouth-open, towards a mirror version of herself. It’s alien and slightly erotic, the perfect moment to illustrate the album’s title. Hauff took the photo herself a few years ago when she used to study Fine Arts in university, but it’s a world she’s since grown out of.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘dark’ necessarily, because this type of music makes me happy."
“I’m just not interested in Fine Arts anymore.” She moves a hand as if to wave the idea away. “My professor, Nikola Torke, I really admired her. She told us, ‘Art can be a fucking horrible world. You have no money, no work… I don’t know why you would do this if you didn’t have that need for it.’ And that’s when I realised, I don’t have the need for art. But I have the need for music.”
Hauff’s Fine Arts degree was undertaken alongside a major in Systematic Music Science. When she eventually dropped out of school to pursue music full time, that sensibility transferred over. Where music is concerned, Hauff’s method is logic over poetry, realism over romance. Even her music videos, which at first glance appear to be deeply artful and symbolic, come from a left-brain way of thinking. The video for Discreet Desires track Sworn to Secrecy Part II, for example, is a roughly edited piece that features sinister scientific clips in quick succession: chemical containers, a gloved hand, sallow limbs, and a particularly alarming close-up shot of an eye being rinsed out with water. I’m sure that it’s Hauff’s take on a David Lynch-style short film, but Hauff is all logic in her explanation. “It reminds me a bit of a Luis Buñuel film, but I actually just nicked that video from the CIA,” she confesses. “It’s some kind of educational footage from the fifties that the government put together in case of a gas attack. So I just found it on YouTube and I really liked it so I took it for myself.” She pauses. “Don’t put me in jail for this!”
Outside, the rain comes down in sheets and Hauff gets up to close the window. I wonder if there’s a romantic aspect to working with machines rather than software, like writing a letter with pen and paper. But for Hauff the beauty is all in the technical process. She references The Fall’s frontman Mark E. Smith, a deranged genius to his fans, who once described how writing lyrics on a computer completely altered his way of working. “I feel exactly the same,” Hauff says. “It’s not a romantic idea, but I choose not to use them because it interferes with my creative process.” She shakes her head. “I don’t think about music in an emotional way, music is not therapy, you know? I don’t want to romanticise it like that.”
Hauff’s aversion to modern technology extends beyond music production too. She’s not on any social media. She uses few online resources other than email and SoundCloud (when I ask how she promotes things, she answers simply, “I don’t!”) and she still uses a beat-up old mobile phone. She talks affectionately about the archaic methods of gathering music in her youth, by collecting tracks from CDs she’d borrowed from the library and recording them to cassette tapes. “I think that experience probably made me a DJ, I loved how certain tracks would blend together on the recording,” she says.
“It felt like I was the only one interested in music in my school,” she remembers. “I wasn’t even that deep into it but they all just followed MTV. I listened to that too, don’t get me wrong, but I was really looking for something else. I liked Wu-Tang Clan, Radiohead… I loved Joy Division, Nirvana, The Cure… I remember this television channel where they’d stream the Love Parade and stuff like that. [But] when you feel miserable and you’re a teenager, there’s nothing better to listen to than Nirvana.”
It’s easy to imagine her as an outsider during her teenage years, and I ask if young Hauff was anti-mainstream. She laughs: “Maybe I thought I was at some point! I did feel like an alien at my school sometimes, but not because of the music, that was mostly just because I was a very weird person. The worst part about it was that I wasn’t an alien, I just thought I was. People actually liked me, I think, I just thought they didn’t so I turned my back on them. And there was no need for that, really. At the end of the day, it’s not even important. Just do what the fuck you want!”
It seems as if Helena Hauff will always live by that mentality. For her forthcoming EP, she tells me, she’s moving away from Discreet Desires’ melancholy tendencies back to making that rougher, more acidic music. Outside, the rain has finally stopped but it’s nighttime now, and the sky appears to be endlessly black. I wonder if this new release will take a step away from the darkness of her album. In her usual way, Hauff strips her answer back down to reality: “Proper darkness is a bad place,” she explains, rolling one last cigarette. “The rest is just life.”
Photography: Vitali Gelwich
Styling: Fabiana Vardaro
Hair & Makeup: Gabrielle Theurer
Helena Hauff appears at Sunfall Festival, Brockwell Park, London, 12 August / Helena Hauff appears at Dimensions Festival, Croatia, 30 August – 3 September