“It’s like this never-ending mystery”: Lena Willikens and Batu unravel the artistry of DJing

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Some of the most memorable sets tread a fine line between chaos and control, and two DJs operating at this realm’s bleeding edge are Batu and Lena Willikens.

Willikens, driven by subtle shifts in mood and temperature, deftly explores a dark and industrial spectrum of dance music, burrowing deep into its weirder outer corners and baffling track ID hounds in the process. Then there’s Timedance label head Batu, who warps rhythms, textures and club sounds past and present into a heady, kinetic rush with propellor-like force.

Behind the decks, both can splinter off into different directions – Willikens on a krautrock bent, for example, or Batu with rowdy, mutating breakbeats. But there’s a palpable affinity between the two in their approach: one which is challenging, unpredictable and marked by out-of-body experiences reached via musical paths less trodden.

Such was the topic of conversation when they caught up over a drink in a candlelit corner of an east London bar, ahead of their sets at Nuits Sonores. Delving into their overlapping processes and philosophies, Lena Willikens and Batu explored the art of DJing with all its risks and rewards.

Lena Willikens © Mike Chalmers
© Mike Chalmers

Batu: It was the start of last year, wasn’t it, when you first played at Timedance?

Lena Willikens: Last year? Yeah I’m so bad with this… it feels like two years!

B: We’ve played together a lot before and after each other, though. And I think both of us can play a few different tempos or styles or vibes – you playing slow or me playing faster, and transitioning from one atmosphere to another.

LW: For me, it can totally fuck up a mood if I don’t really like what the DJ before did. Sometimes you have to build everything up from scratch because you want to go somewhere else with the crowd, and they probably enjoyed the tech house set before, you know? [laughs] With you, it’s always that I can completely trust and know that whatever you’ve done, if people enjoyed it they might also find their way into my world. And it doesn’t have something to do with similar genres or tempo. It’s more, I would call it, attitude?

B: Yeah, I think that’s where we cross over lot. It always makes sense to me what you play. I can identify with all of it, not that I would go out and listen to that music or play it myself. It’s interesting… but yeah that night [you played] was the best Timedance party ever.

LW: It was at the ex-police station [The Island], it’s such a sick venue. I really liked it! And then you sent me the recording and I didn’t dare to listen back, because you don’t want to fuck up the memory of it somehow! Do you also have this? Or are you just curious and see it more as you want to learn? I’m sometimes too emotional. If I have such a good memory, I have a really hard time going back and listening.

B: I like the idea of listening back and analysing, but I don’t really do that often. If you’re at home practicing mixing, it can be difficult to understand a crowd and a vibe and a room can add so much to your playing. Some tracks I’ve heard loads of times before, but the way you’re putting them together in that moment and what the crowd adds to that can be so different and so much more exciting. That’s the really important bit, feeding off their energy.

LW: I see it exactly the same. What I also mean with attitude – it’s more about how you go into a conversation with the crowd without being, like, hands up and cheering at them, you know? It’s more of an introverted approach. I don’t really like to be in the centre of attention so much; I like my music and what I play to be in communication with a crowd

B: But you take a lot of risks on a dancefloor.

LW: Yeah, I like it! It’s the same within a conversation with friends – you don’t want to tell them only predictable stuff. You want to entertain them. You maybe want to surprise them. They should not want to fall asleep on the dinner table.

B: Or hear you tell the same story again and again.

LW: Exactly. Some people do it, and I can kind of understand it, from a professional point of view, that sometimes you might think, “I get so much money for this gig. I don’t want to fuck it up, so it’s a safe bet if I play a similar or the same set again.” I could never do this, I just couldn’t.

B: I feel that the bigger the audience you have and the more people that are engaged with what you’re doing… you can be more honest? You don’t have to prove yourself in the same way. But I think a lot of people go the other way.

“Sometimes you have to build everything up from scratch because you want to go somewhere else with the crowd, and they probably enjoyed the tech house set before, you know?”

LW: I feel the same – the more people who are coming to see you, the more you can give. You have much more freedom.

B: And sometimes DJs get really hung up on trying to interpret what a crowd wants and trying to deliver that. But you can play some weird out-there set and take some crazy risks, and maybe not everyone is going to enjoy it, but some people might be on the side of the dancefloor listening and they might take home a memory of being inspired.

LW: One interesting question, because I ask it myself: do you think you could please the people? If someone asked you for a favour like, “I have a beach party, 5,000 people are coming, in Ibiza” or whatever, do you think you could do it?

B: I think I’d have to have a moment. I could play two hours of more pleasing stuff but I’d have to get one track in or one thing that I felt was more ambitious. I’m sure we’ve both had gigs where you don’t feel that comfortable expressing yourself on a deeper level or you can’t play the most honest you can, but sometimes it’s the small victory is the thing you take away.

LW: I totally get this feeling of what you call ‘victory’. Sometimes after an hour of trying really hard to make it work, and you’re feeling like you’ve got the crowd where you wanted, then you can sneak in something which they’ve maybe never heard on the dancefloor or really don’t expect – maybe music which they thought it was impossible to dance to, but they continue dancing – then I can be proud of myself. At least one track!

© Mike Chalmers

B: I think that’s definitely one thing I’ve learnt from your DJing: getting people to those spaces where everyone’s dancing and the vibe is carrying it, but you actually listen to the music and you’re just like, “this is really weird! I can’t believe everyone is listening to this and not complaining!” This is an interesting question, actually – when was the last time you cleared a floor, or had a moment when you played completely the wrong track?

LW: It’s a bit like there are different types of clearing the floor. It can be that I really don’t understand the reason, and I figure it out later… “ah, Helena Hauff was starting next door.” You mean that I thought it was my fault, and I go home and I cry like I lost the skills? These moments exist, actually! These moments when you think you just can’t do it anymore.

B: It does happen.

LW: I [once] had to take over after Stingray, which was already quite heavy. I knew that I couldn’t play at the same intensity as how he plays, it’s not my thing. It’s more waveforms: I go up, and then you also need to rest a little bit, to breathe a little bit, right? I’m more of a moody person. And they were kind of into it, and then suddenly, within two tracks I had only five people there.

B: I was playing in Australia, in Melbourne, and was playing techno and stuff. But at the time I was going through a phase of going into ‘90s dancehall, and I didn’t really appreciate that people in Australia don’t have much education of Jamaican music. I’d say about 70% of the room left in one go.

LW: Crazy.

B: I think it was like a Bounty Killer track or something. But I look back on it quite fondly, because I think at the time I was being a bit too confident, just like, “oh I like this, they’ll understand it.”

LW: Sometimes you also have the memory of how you created a really good – maybe magic – moment the week before, and you feel good about playing this track again. But of course you can’t recreate these magic moments. Because it works so well, I don’t want to do it again! I’m like, “OK, it works. Let’s try something else.” It’s almost neurotic, I would say, but you have to keep yourself entertained! You don’t want to be bored while playing.

B: It’s a good place to be when you pull off those moments. There are so many things which are amazing about playing music to people, but I feel like no matter how successful you are you’ll never get to a point when you stop having bad gigs, which I what I really like about it. It’s like this never-ending mystery – you’ll never solve the puzzle.

Lena Willikens and Batu play at Nuits Sonores, France, 28 May to 2 June

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