One thing that sticks out when talking to DJs is that their lives are way crazier than yours. And of course this applies all the more with DJs who've been at it since the beginning.
Monika Kruse is without a doubt one of these people, a name that's been woven into the fabric of techno. Growing up in Munich, she bared witness to the birth of the genre, becoming a resident DJ at one of the most famous clubs of all time: the legendary Ultraschall.
With a career spanning nearly three decades which has taken her from putting on parties for free to headlining major festivals, there's a lot of ground to cover. But when stories about the utopic freedom of being at the frontier of a completely new music genre started coming out, you'd excuse me for wanting to hear them all.
I interviewed Chris Liebing recently and he said that along with Detroit, Berlin and Frankfurt should also be recognised as the birthplaces of techno. I'm wondering what you think about that?
Well it's true. Definitely. I mean Detroit, Frankfurt, and Berlin were the main cities. Detroit is where the producers came from that influenced the whole scene, but Berlin and Frankfurt had the clubs where it was happening.
Also, though, I'd say Munich. Munich had Ultraschall, one of the clubs that invited from the first day all these people from Detroit like Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance. It played a really big role in the whole techno scene as well. People were travelling to this club. These were the cities that played a big role in the techno scene, definitely.
And you were a resident DJ at Ultraschall. Care to share a memory that sticks out from your time there?
Well everything was possible. People dressed up really colourfully. Silly dresses, silly trousers, you know. If it was weird, it was even better. There were no rules. How to behave, how to dance, how to dress, how to play the music. It was amazing.
There wasn't really money involved. All the DJs that started at this time did it for the love of the music because we didn't get paid really. There was no management. It really was a revolution. Right now it's different, definitely [laughs].
But a memory that sticks out. There were so many. At the Ultraschall every weekend there was a different theme and one weekend there was ambient music playing. Without beats. And they'd prepared the whole dance floor as a big bed. People came taking mushrooms, or you know with their bong. Everybody was lying down and had a chat [laughs]. And the club was packed, without dancing.
It was amazing. These were the experimental things that were happening in the beginning of techno that I'm really happy I could see and take part in because it's not happening anymore, unfortunately.
Of course there's a lot more money involved now. Is there anything that's maybe improved the scene these days or is it just worse?
I mean the sound, of course, is much better. The equipment, the monitors, the mixers. It's better organised and what I like is that you can find techno everywhere and you can bring it to every country and see so many different cultures. What's making us come together is the music and that's really amazing to see. You can go to different countries and still see the same spirit. That we're all coming together for techno. It's wonderful.
Along those lines, you were actually one of Germany's first techno artists to tour internationally. Why was that something you wanted to do?
Because I like to explore cultures. For me that's the most interesting thing about my job. To go somewhere where I don't know what to expect and I can learn from the people and the cultures. This is what makes me really happy because it influences me and my way of being and that's what I love.
Was it nerve-wracking setting out back then?
Yeah sometimes it was nerve-wracking, of course [laughs]. Sometimes you got lost after your gig, nobody was driving you to the hotel and you end up driving with people who are totally fucked up on drugs because that was the only way to get back to the city. Sometimes you'd be sleeping at the parents of the promoters because there was no money so there was no hotel. It was an experience. I really liked those days even though it was kind of chaotic.
Especially when I did my own parties. I did a lot of illegal parties and every time something happened. The police would always come and we'd say it was just a birthday party and they'd let us continue. Once I rented a tram in Munich and we had a party in the tram that was still running through the city. We had to build everything inside the tram, like the bar and speakers. We even had lights and a smoke machine. We got stopped by the police who thought the tram was burning because of the smoke [laughs].
I did another party in a World War II bunker. Chris Liebing was there actually, playing for free. Somebody stepped on a cable and broke it so everything stopped. The music, the lights went out, everything was dark. We only had candles and 50 people were surrounding this cable and trying to fix it with something. And it worked! Suddenly – bang – the music was on, the lights were on, and when Chris played the first bass drum the party went off like 10 times better than it was before.
You're talking a lot about a community feeling at the club, what do you think of all the live streaming that happens these days?
It has its good sides and bad sides. Of course if you live in the countryside or in a country where DJs don't travel to regularly, then streaming helps you fall in love with and follow DJs. This is good, but for me there's a little bit too much streaming. I still think 'don't overdo it' because if everything is available then the magic goes away, you know?
I think if you're in a club and feel the moment with the people, you can't really translate this in streaming. You don't feel the energy in the club or understand why the DJ is playing a certain track when they do. You can only understand it if you're in the club right at this moment. So that makes streaming a little difficult for me because you can't really judge when you're sitting in front of a computer.
But what Cercle Music is doing for example is really wonderful. They really look for amazing locations, which gives the DJs something outstanding. That is streaming I really like because it makes a difference, but streaming in general I don't really like how every party or festival is streamed. There should still be some magic you know, something special. So yes, it has it's good sides and bad sides. I don't really like to be streamed myself. I'm always nervous when I'm streamed.
Is that because you know there's more people watching?
Yeah, I mean in general I'm always a little bit nervous before I play. But if I know that it's going to be there forever on the internet, I worry that maybe I'll screw up and then it's there forever [laughs].
I wanted to ask actually, you've been performing for over 28 years now. You still get nervous and big sets are still big sets for you?
I'm always nervous, sometimes super nervous. Especially at big, big festivals. But even when I play small clubs I'm nervous because I care so much about people, you know. I want the people to have a great time and so I'm nervous about whether that's going to happen.
It's kind of excitement and nervousness at the same time, on the same level. I want us all together to have a magic moment in the night, so if there are only like 300 people it's the same as if there are 10,000 people, because every person counts.
And at what point in the set does that nervousness go away? Or does it last the whole time?
Oh no, it usually goes away in the first three records, when I find that connection with the crowd. If it's a good vibe, it's gone immediately. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, when it's not an easy night. But it will always disappear after a while. But you know I like to have this feeling.
I did some therapy to lose this nervousness but then when it was gone I felt like 'hey I really need this, I really like this' because it means I care. I spoke to other DJs about this feeling and some people told me they really miss this feeling, to get this excitement. Which made me happy that I still have it.
I want to talk about your No Historical Backspin charity. You founded it in 2000 and it's trying to fight against anti-inclusionary, anti-immigration sentiments. What seems interesting to me is that in 2018, with so much political turmoil, your charity seems as relevant as ever.
Yeah, unfortunately, yes.
Sometimes when musicians get involved in politics, people get upset. Have you faced any backlash for your charity work?
Oh yes, people get very upset. Even stronger now than before. Because now this topic of refugees is really dividing the world, or at least definitely Germany. Of course you lose fans when you say 'I think sea rescue is not criminal and it should be supported.'
Of course you get some people writing to you saying things like 'how can you do this? We don't want these refugees in our country, we already have too many and they steal jobs,' etcetera. Of course if you make a political opinion you get a shit-storm.
Are you planning more events with No Historical Backspin?
Right now this year I was pretty sick. I had to cancel a lot of shows and couldn't really plan anything. Also the person who was working with me on this, we don't work together anymore so it's pretty tough to do a party. Plus there must be clubs who want to do our party. Without the club's interest I can't do anything.
Right now the clubs themselves don't want to be involved in this political discussion like they used to be. In the year 2000 there were a lot of clubs that wanted to host these parties. Now they don't want to get involved.
Find Monika Kruse's upcoming festival appearances here.