Nobody goes deeper than Dixon; the Innervisions boss on carving his own niche
Dixon’s real name is Steffen Berkhahn. He was born in Berlin in 1975, had a promising football career (cut short by injury), chose music instead and became one of the best house and techno DJs in the world. He is married with one child.
As someone with access to the internet, all this information is easily available to you. Berkhahn lives what we might (pretentiously) call an ‘examined life’; interviews with, profiles of and, obviously, music by Dixon are just as Googleable as anything else. Perhaps this is why, over recent years, Berkhahn has tended to decline interview requests — maybe he feels he’s been “examined” quite enough.
After being told Crack was one of only a handful of magazines granted interviews, we were given a number to call and time-slot to work in. He then graciously took time out of his holiday to talk to us, who, armed with the internet, had a mixture of earnest and ‘zany’ questions to ask. How he feels about this kind of odd interaction — a conversation where one participant already knows (or thinks they know) so much about the other — was what we started on. He was in a reflective mood, talking in telegraphic, staccato bursts. Shots of dry humour punctuated the conversation as we moved onto Innervisions, the label he co-founded and helms; DJing; Warehouse Project; Movement Festival Turin; why he won’t be advertising nights on Facebook and, of course, football. There is always a question on football.
Berkhahn has had a long and successful career. That’s one reason why there’s now a corpus of information on him in the public domain. More importantly, though, this is a man who really thinks about his craft, is honest about it, and cares about both educating and entertaining his audience. Few do his job as effectively as he does, and that’s what continues to hold people’s interest.
There’s a lot of biographical information about you on the internet. How does it feel to live an ‘examined life’?
It’s definitely strange. When I’m doing an interview, I tend to open up. But afterwards, often I feel it’s just … strange. For instance, I was about to do a Resident Advisor feature. They wanted to travel with me to South America, base it on me being a father now, and the clash between family life and DJ life. We were talking about it and I thought, ‘actually, I don’t want that’. For the first time, I stepped back from that openness and said, ‘alright, wait a minute – having my wife and my kid in this? I don’t feel good about that’. When you do interviews, the first thing they usually ask is, [mock-earnest tone] “So: how did you get started?”. And usually I say, “well, check one of the other million interviews I’ve done”. The information’s out there already. And you can only say so much about music, or clubs, your past or whatever, and once you’ve done that, it’s out there. So two or three years ago I decided to stop doing so much press because it was the same thing over-and-over-and- over-again.
The rapid rise and sustained success of Innervisions suggests you’ve got a handle on the press.
Well, we’ve been doing this for a while now … everything I’ve done in my music career has been learned by doing. Everything was first driven by extreme enthusiasm – you might make millions of mistakes, but you learn from them and you survive them. That’s what we did with Innervisions. Over the years we carefully defined for ourselves what we wanted Innervisions to be. After a while, you start to really think about why you like that track – why now? Why this artist? Why not that artist? So I think the fact we truly care about the release policy, the presentation, and how we sell the records from our own shop are the reasons behind this success.
The past few years have seen you concentrate on running Innervisions and touring. 2013 has seen you produce again, will that continue?
I’m actually feeling much more comfortable in the studio now. There’s a couple of things to come: one with Guy Gerber, a remix for Mathew Jonson, I just released the remix for Mano Le Tough and I’m working on some inter-Innervisions things. I tend not to do too much though, which is based on one simple fact: I’m extremely slow when it comes to productions!
When DJing, you usually play at least one ‘curveball’ track. Is this to ‘test’ the crowd? Or to keep things interesting for yourself?
Both. Even if I love a record, after playing it 10 nights in a row, I might get sick of it. I want to entertain myself. This is the first and most important rule [of DJing] for two reasons. First, I don’t want to be standing there like some machine. Second, if I entertain myself, I play the records I really believe in. Then I transfer a message that may be more authentic than otherwise: you should always be honest and only play records for yourself. It sounds very selfish, but actually it’s not. If you do this, the crowd gets the best out of you and then, you make a difference. As a DJ you should only play what you really love, otherwise you’re just like 90% of all the other DJs out there.
Also, in my normal two hour sets, I try to have two ‘memorable’ moments. And I don’t want to create them with big hits; I want to make that ‘strange’ record I love into a big track on the night. So I prepare my set on the night – not before – so that in 30 minutes, I can play this one ‘strange’ track I really love, and have the crowd react not just in a ‘oh, this is abstract, let’s go to the bar?’ way; I have to find a way to make it work so everyone’s like ‘woah!’
Does the above change much when you play with Kristian of Âme?
Yeah. When I play alone, I very much have a masterplan for the next hour. With Kristian, it’s about me getting rid of my ‘German behaviour’.
Your Boiler Room set with Âme really is a journey: pillow fights, broken pillows, feathers, Paul Simon. Was it fun to go a bit sillier than perhaps the media image of The DJ normally allows?
Yeah! You know, for a long time, I thought DJing was about teaching people what great music is. I forgot the entertainment aspect to it. I realised after a couple of years that you have to balance the two. You have to adjust to the situation, touch different emotions. It’s like, I don’t want to have cereal every morning for breakfast. I wanna have cereal two mornings then maybe I want eggs or something. So we played Frank Ocean in the middle and everyone was like ‘oh, in a Dixon/Âme set?!’
You recently played Warehouse Project – the first of three appearances across the season – and have Movement Festival approaching alongside the likes of Magda, Visionquest and Ben Klock. How will you be approaching these sets?
I won’t play that differently, actually. A while back I thought ‘oh, this is a festival, I have to go more banging’, and it wasn’t really going that well because there are other DJs who can do that stuff better than me. So I went to playing my usual stuff. And with WHP, again, if I do what I do, I stand out. Maybe 30% of the crowd will love the person before me, and think I’m a lame-ass DJ by comparison, but at least they’ll have an opinion. I’ll stick in their memory as being shit. I really want to create opinions, because then maybe another 30% will think ‘wow, this guy is amazing’. Also, I don’t know where I’m playing – big room, small room – but that will have an impact on my approach. It will depend on … how many girls are there?! How good is the sound system? What did the DJ before me play? Am I tired, or am I super fresh? Am I in an ‘after-hours’ mood? There are millions of factors that make every set different.
WHP have attracted some criticism for ‘going corporate’. Why do you think an industry largely based around entertaining people is so prone to sniping?
First of all, when I started to go out, I saw people I thought were super cool, and I wanted to be a part of that. But when something gets bigger, the crowd is no longer special. So people distance themselves from that. They want to have that one thing – even in times of Facebook! – that one party that only they knew about, and it was amazing. This is the ideal everyone is looking for. That’s where the criticism comes from – no one feels special any more. And then, these days you only hear the people that bitch. Most of the time, people that bitch do it faster than people that say something good. I can see it on my Facebook thing: if I get criticism, I get it on the night. People are actually on Facebook, saying ‘Oh this is shit’ already at the club. The people that actually like it react two or three days later. It’s a kind of sign of the times. That’s why for our parties of 2014 we will go completely under the radar. No Resident Advisor, no Facebook, none of that. We will do parties that you have to find out about. People will have to search for it, to create that ‘special’ feeling again. We won’t do that for all of them, but for some of them at least you’ll find no information online, nothing:. You’ll either hear about it from your friend, or you won’t.
To link back to the opening question on biographical details, how many times have you been asked about the injury that halted your promising football career?
[laughs] You know, there is a moment when you ask yourself [in interviews] if the answer you give now is the reality, or just a version of a version … you’re doing interviews and you don’t want to say the same thing all the time, so you change it a bit. Not making it up, obviously, but giving a different aspect of the story. After a while you’re like, “hmm, did it actually happen the way I just said it did?!”
Wait – has anyone asked you about that injury?
No! Actually, everyone talks about the football; I always come up with the injury. They’ll ask me about playing for the East German national team, playing for this club, blah blah blah … there’s never a specific question on it, but I like to finish the story with that: [in diva voice] “you know what? I was injured, and that’s it … then I fell in love with music”.
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Catch Dixon at Movement Festival, Torino, Italy on October 31st, In:Motion presents Futureboogie at Motion, Bristol on November 22nd, BPM Festival in Playa del Carmen, Mexico on January 3rd-12th and the Bugged Out Weekender, Southport, on March 7th-9th 2014 at Pontin’s, Southport.
Words: Robert Bates