Lena Willikens: The art of staying amateur

© Mike Chalmers

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Few people would suggest Lena Willikens is anything other than the consummate DJ. From the deep-cover mysticism of her wide-reaching selections to the fantastic narratives she stitches them together with, Willikens consistently delivers the kind of startling new dancefloor experiences that ravers’ dreams are made of. It’s little wonder to see her presence soar across the tangled network of club nights and festivals that carry the contemporary electronic music scene – by the time 2018 is out she will have played well over 100 gigs of all shapes and sizes. But the modest, affable artist is far from the established formula of premier league DJs, both in her creative stamp and her consideration of her craft.

When we talk via a crackly transatlantic connection, Willikens has not long arrived in New York, midway through a string of dates for both club nights and her performance art project, Phantom Kino Ballett. In the background at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room, displaced shrieks and scrapes can be heard – it’s quite apt, sounding like a sampler for the kind of textures you would expect to hear threaded into the left- of-centre tracks Willikens has forged her reputation on. Despite a crowded schedule, the onset of a cold and a whole performance to set up, she’s completely at ease in conversation. Given her seemingly whirlwind lifestyle I have to ask, is it hard to continue to treat DJing as an art?

“This is something I really try hard to maintain, and it’s really important for me to keep having fun,” she responds. “I have my theory; trying to stay an amateur. Of course, it sounds a bit ridiculous because I play so much, but I really try not to repeat myself too much, to always try things without knowing if they will work out, to throw myself quite often in situations where I might lose control over the mix or whatever.”

© Mike Chalmers

“I really like these moments where I experiment while playing, and I can't predict how it will sound”

The foundations of her craft have given Willikens the tools she needs to maintain this risky spirit. As one of the core residents of Düsseldorf’s famed Salon Des Amateurs, she’s helped foster an open-ended music policy that leans heavily on the legacy of kosmische music forged in that part of west Germany, updating it via the leaps and bounds of electronic music that have come since. Minimal wave, industrial, EBM, proto house, Italo, electro – all these and many more incubators for experimental but groove-oriented electronics meld with the older organic sounds of jazz, post-punk, and other more exotic delights from further afield. Even within those broad terms, trying to pin down the vibe of Salon Des Amateurs, and Willikens herself, seems reductive at best. The rise in interest for such approaches across the dance music spectrum has been palpable in the last five years – her fellow residents Jan Schulte (Wolf Müller), Detlef Weinrich (Toulouse Low Trax), Vladimir Ivkovic and more are all now considered household names in the field of esoteric dance music.

Prior to life at the Salon, Willikens was studying visual arts at the famed Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. At the time, her engagement with performance art reached no further than creating a bar on wheels with four friends, which they would cart around the academy and elsewhere in the city, selling pancakes and coffee. “This was kind of considered as young artists doing an art piece, but it was not really a performance,” she admits.

Now though, her forays into performance art are becoming altogether more serious, as Phantom Kino Ballett takes on a touring schedule of its own. When we speak before the New York show, there had been a well-received performance in Montreal, with Los Angeles and San Francisco on the horizon. The project is an audiovisual collaboration shared equally between Willikens and Sarah Szczesny, and it took shape following a series of videos Szczesny made for Willikens’ first, and to date only, solo EP, Phantom Delia, on Cómeme. Without a clear goal in mind, around 2015 the pair embarked on a long form music video project that has been evolving ever since.

“The concept is not something we can talk about,” Willikens explains of Phantom Kino Ballett. “It’s more like a cabinet of curiosities where we collect everything we like in culture; in movies, literature, poems, fine arts, music, everything that interests and inspires us. Parts of it can be overwhelming with a lot of information at once, and intellectual and silly stuff on the same level.”

I first saw a Phantom Kino Ballett performance in September 2017, and it was indeed overwhelming – a multi- sensory scrapbook of gleefully weird, funny or serious fragments of image and sound fronted by Willikens and Szczesny moving in strict choreography through the seated crowd, ghetto blasters in hand. Even since then, Willikens assures me, the Ballett has evolved considerably. In March 2018 they took part in a joint artists residency at the Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa in Kyoto, Japan, where they were able to immerse themselves deeper into the project.

“The three months we had in Kyoto we worked a lot on [Phantom Kino Ballett],” Willikens explains. “We made field recordings, shot some new video material and made some music for it. It’s really important to us that people to know it’s an equal collaboration. Sarah has musical ideas as well as I have [opinions on] visuals.”

“I have my theory; trying to stay an amateur. Of course, it sounds a bit ridiculous because I play so much, but I really try not to repeat myself too much, to always try things without knowing if they will work out, to throw myself quite often in situations where I might lose control over the mix or whatever.”

Now the first document of Phantom Kino Ballett can be experienced outside of the performances themselves, by way of an album that has recently been released on Commend, a sub-label of RVNG Intl. Rather than a definitive summation of the project, Willikens describes the release as an artefact that presents part of the whole piece. While the LP and cassette is partially the result of the three months working in Kyoto, it wasn’t the sole purpose of the residency.

“During that time I didn’t go away DJing so much,” says Willikens. “Part of the idea of the art residency was to find the time again just to go to concerts, to go out, without being involved. If you play at a festival or a club night, most of the time you don’t have the energy or concentration to check out the entire line up, so I was really happy to do this research, to really check out the scene in Kyoto and Osaka with Sarah.”

This raises the issue that Willikens, like so many hard-gigging DJs, faces, where her role removes her from the position of the audience member. Does it get harder to relate to the people on the other side of the booth the busier she gets?

“Yes… it’s definitely harder,” she admits. “I try at least to not just come and play immediately, to have some time in the club to breathe the air, to feel the people, to feel the atmosphere there.”

© Mike Chalmers

“I don’t want to talk about it!” she adds, laughing. “It makes me a bit sad actually, because I really don’t want to become like a routine DJ who just appears, plays a set and then right after the set goes to the airport to the next gig. Sometimes it’s a bit tricky.”

During the first month in Kyoto, Willikens and Szczesny were introduced to the local electronic music scene, where they watched and connected with artists such as YPY, Rie Lambdoll and Compuma. Months later, Willikens was able to surmise what she had experienced by curating a night at Meakusma Festival in Belgium, presenting a line-up comprised entirely of artists she encountered during her time in Japan.

Through the reputation she has engendered as a DJ, Willikens has become a trusted stamp of quality in the field of curation. She talks of other potential opportunities to choose the billing on a high-profile festival stage, while earlier in 2018 she put together the fifth instalment of the Dekmantel Selectors compilation series. In all instances, the results are highly distinctive, and never predictable. As a mark of taste, it’s a natural extension of her work as a DJ, and likewise the “cabinet of curiosities” that is Phantom Kino Ballett.

“Sometimes you are surprised how different elements suddenly make connections you never thought about,” she says, referring to the collage of material in hers and Szczesny’s project. “You put two things next to each other and they start to talk, and this is also the moment where these phantoms are coming in. It’s not always us as artists controlling everything. Things can have a life of their own.”

“It’s similar to mixing,” she continues. “I really like these moments where I experiment while playing, and I can’t predict how it will sound, and then sometimes something just grows which surprises me as well. I like the adrenaline of not knowing if it will work out or not, because then the surprise, when it comes, can give so much more.”

Aside from her continuous desire to gamble on combinations with the attitude of an “amateur,” it’s also noticeable to anyone who follows Willikens’ DJing, either live or recorded, how rarely she treads the same ground. Given the mammoth amount of recorded mixes you can hear online, not to mention her reams of live gigs, that’s no mean feat. I put it to her that she never seems to repeat herself.

“Mmm, yeah,” she ponders, searching for a response. “What can I say? You are right. It’s a lot of work!”

Lena Willikens will be in discussion with Crack Magazine’s Thomas Frost as part of The Record Bag of the Salon Des Amateurs at ADE on 19 October.

This feature originally appeared in the Crack Magazine Guide to ADE, available in Manchester, Bristol, London and Amsterdam.

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