Lena Willikens:the Sentimental Selector

Lena Willikens grew up in a bowl – a grey valley poured full with smog and obscured by tall walls. Stuttgart, home to drivers of Porsches and Mercedes Benz. Down in the valley the people could not see beyond themselves, but she could. She could see much further. She could see through the scumbled sky to cities bristling with lights. She could see the ground was shifting.

On the morning we meet in Amsterdam, we start the day with croissants, dipped into large cups of black coffee, between long cigarettes. The city is her new home, and today it’s cold but sparkling. After years bouncing between Cologne and Düsseldorf, she has been drawn to the Dutch capital by its small and supportive scene. It’s the next chapter in a career that has been characterised by movement. Whether Berlin, Montreal or Kyoto, Willikens is used to finding the good record stores, getting to know the interesting people: pulled in different directions by an ever-growing network of club owners, selectors and artists, who in turn gravitate towards her unique creative vision.

It was in Düsseldorf, as an art student in the mid-00s, where Willikens made her first connections as one of a small circle of DJs who founded the Salon Des Amateurs, a modest venue in the bar of an art gallery. She started work there as a bouncer in 2006, soon moving to behind the bar, where she began to play records between serving drinks. Before long she was booking acts and holding down her own residency.

Glasses: Neil in Matte Black, Ace & Tate

Glasses: Neil in Matte Black, Ace & Tate

The Salon Des Amateurs, named so in admiration of hobbyists – those who love what they do – was the first venue Willikens ever played. As a space it escapes clear definition, equal parts bar, café, arts space and nightclub, a fluidity that informed her own attitudes towards clubbing. “Salon was never about becoming a proper DJ, technique. It was always about sharing music,” she explains. She reifies spontaneity, describing the club as a place where the unexpected always happened.

Willikens is a genreless DJ, who works instead with mood and colour. Her identity as a selector is complex and multifaceted, but also simple in her unflinching commitment to the new. She vows never to repeat mixes or transitions, and refuses where possible to have her sets recorded. “It’s about this particular moment,” she qualifies. “It’s one thing we experience together. I don’t want to try and repeat it.” She also claims little interest in showing her audience a good time – “I’m not so much into escapism” – preferring an experience that triggers more abstruse emotions, perhaps even discomfort.

Her most recent project, a collaboration with Sarah Szczesny (the artist behind Cómeme Records’ aesthetic), was devised as part of a Goethe Institut residency in Kyoto. The audio-visual performance that combines a mix with snippets of films and spoken word. She describes the Phantom Kino Ballett as radio-drama. Willikens and Szczesny even venture into the crowd in costume, blaring field recordings from moveable speakers through dry-ice and strobes. “It’s an energy exchange,” she explains, when asked what she’s trying to realise. “I can’t just give, I need something back.”

“With certain harmonies, melodies or rhythms, you feel comfortable suddenly, and you don’t know why”

Provocation runs in the family. Her father, Ben Willikens, is a painter. His most famous work dates back to 1979: a reimagining of Da Vinci’s last supper as an empty table without Jesus or any disciples, caused uproar when he completed it. The church denounced it, and on its first exhibition one protestor even attempted to slash at the canvas with a blade. Her mother was an architect, who largely gave up work to raise her two daughters.

As we talk about her past – her childhood in Stuttgart, a place she describes as a valley full of “short-sighted” people – Willikens relishes the power of memory and its inexorable relationship to music. “Why does everyone I know like the smell of gasoline?” she asks. “It’s because when you were a kid and on the road with your parents, you might get a nice chocolate bar or an ice cream at the gas station. This works with certain harmonies, melodies or rhythms as well. You feel comfortable suddenly, and you don’t know why.”

Glasses: Neil in Matte Black, Ace & Tate
Sunglasses: Paul in Spaceman, Ace & Tate

It’s with her radio series for Cómeme, Sentimental Flashback, that she has achieved this best. Across the show’s 31 episodes, Willikens showcased tracks from across the globe, new and old, connected by her loose definition of the word ‘sentimental’. You’d be hard pushed to find a show that does esoteric listening music better. If crowds increasingly know her exclusively as a peak-time DJ, it adds an important dimension to her power as a selector.

After all, Lena Willikens is a sentimental DJ. Not sentimental in the traditional cloying sense, but sentimental in terms of the materials she uses. She understands that the human experience is neither light nor dark, something the dancefloor should reflect. Her work explores the unknowable spaces between: “Certain feelings don’t need intellectual proof.”

While she hasn’t recognised a notable shift in her fortunes, it seems fair to say Willikens' stature as an international DJ is only going to rise – her profile growing with every radio show, every major festival appearance. Her magnetic presence is pricking attention outside of the confines of sweatbox clubs too, having recently been chosen as a face of Ace and Tate’s 'Me Myself and I' campaign, alongside Eglo Records' Fatima and Mona Morssy from hardcore outfit Vile Act, which highlights the complexity of identity by celebrating creative spirits who refuse to be defined. It's clear to see why Willikens is an enticing prospect for such a project – an artistic outsider who occupies her own space in the electronic music landscape, whose sound invites her audience to explore the power of amorphous, in-between spaces.

Willikens is also preparing to release her contribution to the Dekmantel Selectors series – a double vinyl compilation comprised of unreleased tracks and rare oddities from her archive. In the liner notes, she describes the collection as resembling a “little trip through the dunes”, an image she clarifies in person as ground where you can dance but it might be challenging. “The best things I’ve experienced in DJ sets have been when I’ve been sober but was tripping only through the music,” she continues. “That’s the ideal goal, that you don’t need hallucinogenics.” She raises a smoke to her mouth, before succumbing to laughter. “But that’s also nice sometimes.”

It’s heartening to know Europe still exists somewhere; that pools of artists still collect in riverside bars to talk about sculpture and play post-kraut records. That DJ-turned-performers can drift from Cologne to Amsterdam in pursuit of good parties and interesting spaces. In this sense Lena Willikens will forever be an art student. Forever smoking cigarettes, forever gathering sounds from the edges of the world. Tripping on the dunes, never standing still.

Lena Willikens' Selectors 005 compilation is released 16 April via Dekmantel