Of the handful of Berghain residents, Norman Nodge manages to somehow be one of the more confounding. Introducing himself to record buyers via stamped white labels on Marcel Dettmann’s label, his stripped down take on tough-as-nails techno captured the zeitgeist of 2008 perfectly; and as producers hopped on the white label bandwagon looking for a sense of anonymity, Nodge has played by his own rules, eschewing clichés of faceless techno producers. Nodge, a lawyer by day and Berghain DJ by night, is a distinctly Berlin version of Clark Kent, making him somewhat of a rarity in techno circles. But this division of Nodge’s time provides a much needed personal balance and keeps him from overexposure. It helps that the handful of records and remixes he has put out have been of top-shelf quality. So after years of his name being synonymous with a less-is-more approach, a big statement from him has been long overdue, and fittingly it arrives in October as Berghain 06. An even-handed account of techno throughout the ages, it’s a CD that speaks as much to the history of Berlin’s storied club scene as it does to Nodge’s strengths as a DJ — strengths which Berghain 06 should solidify for those not lucky enough to have yet caught him in action. We caught up with Nodge recently to chat about the CD, the constantly shifting techno scene of Berlin, and that pesky GEMA issue that everyone keeps talking about.
You grew up in East Germany. What kind of music you were hearing before the wall came down, and were you hearing any techno?
Norman Nodge: The wall came down in ’89, and even then, in Western Europe or in the States, I think you must have been very into dance music to have an idea what techno is before 1990. So in the former GDR, I didn’t have a clue what techno was. I first got in touch after the reunification. The situation was a bit different compared to the Western world then, behind the Iron Curtain, because you didn’t have the possibility to buy records. We were the lucky ones. We were very close to the west, to West Berlin, and we caught some radio transmissions, and so that’s why we had the mainstream music on tapes, especially stuff like — well, you had different scenes. You had the heavy metal scene, and you had people like me who liked Depeche Mode. They were really big in former East Germany.
It seems like Depeche Mode is a really big influence throughout techno.
My personal impression was that in the East they were a bit more famous than in the West, but I know lots of people who still love Depeche Mode and are absolutely not into techno music. It is the music which they heard when they grew up, and — I mean, they make pop music, and it is easy to consume; you cannot only see it as electronic pioneer’s music. They did, from the beginning, really big pop songs, and you could sing with it — [sings] “Grabbing hands,” and stuff like that. I don’t think that there is a direct line between listening to Depeche Mode as a child or young adult and then listening later to techno.
So what were your first experiences with techno? Was it pretty immediate after the wall came down?
No. When the Wall came down, I was 16, and we were really attracted by the possibility to finally go to a record store and buy records. I soon bought records with electronic music after the Wall came down, but I did not see it as techno music. Then some years later, in ’91 or ’92, then it was something completely different than we had — then it was something a bit bigger than it was before. We had the Tresor club, we had the Love Parade. I think my first experience was when I was 18 or so, when I went to the club called Turbine, where they also played techno music.
And then you sort of eventually got around to DJing yourself. Was that mostly in Berlin?
Well, I was attending school, and we had some pocket money. I didn’t have the possibility to buy equipment to DJ or to buy more than two or three records in a month. So it went step buy step. I bought more and more records, and then all the money I earned with jobs I bought records and stuff like that, and later we started, step by step, organizing parties, and that was my first experience with putting records on record players which you could pitch and synchronize the records. We had to rent all this equipment, and I tried to get the turntables one or two days before the event so I could practice on them at home. Step by step, I could save some money to finally buy my own turntables.
You were quite active for some time in the 90s. How do you think the scene has changed from that period of activity to now?
I think it’s more professional now. It’s not this adventurous spirit anymore, like we had in the 90s. We did parties and never paid any taxes for it, but now that’s impossible. Even if it’s just a hobby, I have to do it like a profession. And that’s what I see in the whole scene: you don’t have, like there was shortly after the reunification in Berlin, these clubs like Tresor, or in old houses where they just put some loud speakers in and just started parties. You cannot do this anymore in Germany. So it’s a really professional scene. Another thing is you have, especially in Berlin, all the partygoers from back in the day. So we all were younger in 90s, and it was our music. It was modern music for the 20-year-old people. Now if I go to the UK or France or wherever, I see more young people than I’m accustomed to with clubs in Berlin. But in Berlin, I see that there are more older people, which is good because it’s a good mixture of people.
Do you think this sort of professionalism has changed things for the better?
Everything has two sides. It takes away the possibility to do things spontaneously, and you have to plan and you have to make it like a business. So you cannot be as spontaneous as you might want to be. There’s good and bad at the same time. As a DJ and as an artist, it’s a little bit more comfortable to know, “OK, I will play there, and I will get this amount,” and I don’t have to run around and look for the promoter of the party and discuss with them if or how much I will get for the evening, or whatever. It’s good; it’s more safe these days.
Do you think the music has progressed much since then?
Even in ’91 or so, all this techno music was completely new for us. If you read music magazines then there were techno records in the 1980s — maybe it’s true, yeah. I love these old records, but techno was really fresh in the beginning of the 90s, and so it was natural that in those times you had every second week completely new music. It’s not so easy to go on over 20 years and have every two weeks a completely new style or whatever. But I’m really surprised how often I go to the record store and listen to music and say, “Oh, that’s really — that’s something new that I have never heard before.” So it’s not dead. It still has possibilities and directions in which the music can develop, and it’s still exciting.
Switching a bit now to you as a producer, you’ve only released your stuff on Ostgut Ton and Marcel Dettmann’s label, MDR. Why is that?
Yeah. Well, first I’m really lazy in producing my own tracks. I don’t give myself pressure to release every week a new 12″ or so. And that’s the first factor, I guess, why I’ve only released these four or five records on Ostgut Ton and MDR. And the second is I feel connected to Ostgut Ton and Marcel, and that’s why I would not give away tracks to other labels. But I have — a few days ago, I looked into Discogs, and I was surprised at how many remixes I did over the past year. So, this is a way to release on other labels. I mean, a remix today is not — you cannot compare it to remixes that we knew from 80s music. Remixes are today mostly completely new pieces of music. This is my way to express myself on other labels than Ostgut Ton and MDR.
It seems like dance music expects individuals to constantly participate as a DJ and producer, whereas you have chosen to do so at your own pace. You can only speak for yourself, but do you think other producers could benefit from not feeling that pressure to release something new every week?
Well, I understand people who have to release constantly. I have this luxury situation that I have a daytime job which satisfies me, and I have the residency at Berghain. So it gives me air to breathe. It’s not comparable to someone who has really decided to dedicate his whole life only to making music, and who, of course, has the pressure to do more than I do in music. I think these are two things you cannot compare. For me it’s fine; I don’t have to make false compromises. I can say, “Okay, I don’t have a deadline, and I don’t have a label standing behind me and saying, ‘You have to deliver until day X.’” But of course, I can see other colleagues would say, “I cannot afford to work like you.”
At Berghain you’re often playing the first set of the night–
That was true the first years, but I think in the last two or three years, it’s more like I play the first set of the night one month and then the next month I play the end.
The first slot is interesting because it’s midnight to 4 AM on a Saturday night, so there are a lot of people in the club, and it’s a long slot compared to a lot of other places around the world. How do you prepare to warm up a place like Berghain, considering that in a slot like this, you have a whole four hours, but once you end, the party still has over 24 hours left.
I really enjoy playing a warm-up set, but it’s not that it opens at midnight with one handclap the whole dance floor is full. It’s nice to see people come in and stay at the bar and drink and step by step, they dare to go out there and start dancing. At the end — I don’t know, depends on the night, but at half past one or three, the floor is full and they dance. So that’s what I’m there for: to play music that people feel good to and dance to, and I don’t have in mind that after me will others be playing until Monday morning. If I see that after me there’s someone special who normally doesn’t play hard techno, then I will not play really hard techno the hour before he starts. I will try to make it not so hard for the next artist. The opening slot is a nice way to, especially in the very first hour, ambient music and other interesting music that you could not play in a regular techno set.
How does it compare to playing the last set? I know the last set is quite a long one.
Yeah, normally it’s the longest set. For the very last track or the track before the last track I can’t play silent music or classics which are not necessarily techno music. Usually people expect to hear techno music on the floor, so I don’t have the possibility like in a warm-up to play ambient stuff or other kinds of music, but nevertheless, it’s interesting to play the last set of the night.
If the beginning of the warm-up set is people sort of filtering in and getting drinks at the bar and slowly getting to the floor, what’s the last hour of the last set like? Can you go really hard with the music?
Well, it depends on the club is filled and how people act. I cannot — I don’t have an alarm clock standing in front of me which says, “OK, in one hour it’s all over here.” So you can see the end coming maybe one hour before or maybe half an hour before. So I don’t usually play very hard tracks in the very end. It depends, but if there is a special moment when a special track fits, then I play it. It doesn’t matter how hard or soft it is.
For the Berghain 06 CD, you recorded it at the club when it was closed. What was it like doing it without a live audience? Was it difficult to capture one of your normal sets?
Before the final recording I made a rough version of the mix just to get a feeling of the time that it takes. I had some strange experiences, especially when I played the Boiler Room once. I thought, “I will only play for one hour,” so I took records with me which I thought would be enough for one hour, and then after half an hour, I said, “OK, I have played almost every record,” and I had to play some unreleased CD tracks and B-sides. In the end it worked, but I wanted to avoid, of course, such a situation when I record a CD, and that’s why I did a rough version. I got a feeling for the time that the single tracks take and that the mix is not too short and not too long. I did not miss the live audience watching me mixing a mix CD. It was like in a studio, but for me very comfortable to make it at a place that I’m used to and very accustomed to.
Did you have a particular goal in mind with the CD?
Just to tell a story and not — I didn’t want to make it too tight. And I didn’t want to deliver what people might expect when they hear Berghain techno. I mean, I think the mix represents music how it is played in Berghain, but in the same moment, I did not use special elements which I think lots of people have in mind when they think about Berghain techno. I don’t know how to describe it. I said in an earlier interview that French people, when I come to the club, or a club somewhere in UK, anywhere, and they want me to play all this Ostgut and MDR stuff. Why should I play these records again? I didn’t want play records that people maybe expect to hear.
How do you think your contribution fits in with some of the other CDs in the series? Was that on your mind when you went into it?
No, I don’t think so. The series was meant to give the DJs the opportunity to express themselves, and I don’t think it was meant that one DJ has a connection to the mix before. I mean, it depends on every listener, how he sees that. Maybe there are people who listen to Berghain 01 to Berghain 06 in a row, and for them it makes sense, and others say, “Okay, Berghain 02 was great, and we did not like 04, and 05 was okay…” Yeah, I mean these are six different DJs which have different styles of techno.
Did you like the process of putting the CD together? It’s quite a process, with licensing, time constraints…
All this licensing stuff was not my business. [laughs]. I gave the guys from the label the tracklist and I had the contacts to some of the guys who made the tracks, so I was in a comfortable situation. I did bring a tracklist by, and in the end we could not use, I think, three tracks. It was too bad, and I found two other great tracks to use. We were talking about the project since, I think, last year, October or September, and it is always astonishing if you work on the project and in the beginning you have lots of time and in the end it’s really close, and [you say], “OK, now it has to be done immediately.”
What about some of the exclusive tracks, the ones coming out on the vinyl sampler? Do you get in touch with those artists for them?
I know them all personally. This Mark Broom track, I had some tracks of his from two years ago, and then when it came to collecting tracks for the mix CD, I remembered this one, which is now released on o-ton 59 [the Berghain 06 sampler]. And for the others, I was constantly in contact with different artists who sent me their tracks. So it came to use this Patrick Gräser track, also known as Answer Code Request. I have only three exclusive tracks on the CD, even though there were some more great artists who sent me tracks, and they really had great music, but for me it did not fit into this set, unfortunately.
Compared to your Berghain colleagues, you play a little more rarely outside of Berlin. What are some of the parties that have really inspired you, outside of Berghain?
Maybe I’m a lucky guy. I’ve never played at a party which was completely shit. And I normally have lots of parties which are really great, and I would treat other parties badly if I didn’t mention them now, so I’ve had really great parties. Maybe I don’t play as often as Marcel or Ben, it’s clear, but I think I don’t play that seldom. I did play in July and August just in Berghain, but we had holidays, and I had to care for my children — I wanted to spend time with them. But now in September and October, I’ll play almost every weekend. So I’m not the headlines like my colleagues, but it’s fine.
One thing I figured I had to ask was about GEMA because it’s really been talked about quite a lot. I know that you’re a lawyer, and I don’t know if the law that you do has much to do with the GEMA sort of thing, but I thought that maybe as someone who is a lawyer and also a Berghain resident, you might have a little more balanced opinion.
Maybe I will disappoint you on this question, but I don’t think I have many new things to talk about or to tell about this topic compared to the things you have already heard. I see it more as an artist, I think. And I don’t know how much this discussion of GEMA is really affecting people outside of Germany.
Of course, if someone’s artist’s music is not selling many copies, then he at least should be payed when his music is played in a club; that’s for sure. But the main problem is that the GEMA does not have the instruments to guarantee that those people whose music is played in the clubs get the money, as opposed to other artists. Because they treat all the clubs the same way. They treat Berghain like a big discotheque which plays chart music, mainstream music. In their minds we play the same kind of music as, like, Rihanna or Black Eyed Peas. And that’s not true. So we love Rihanna, we love all the other mainstream artists, and they shall get their money if their music is played in mainstream discotheques; that’s absolutely no problem. But we don’t want to pay for them if their music is not played. We want to pay for our own artists and our own music, and that’s what GEMA can’t do at the moment. They just want to collect the money, and they have no instruments to spread it amongst those artists whose music is really played.
As a DJ, do you think you could provide that information for GEMA? Could you give them a tracklist?
Well, even if you give them a tracklist, they don’t accept it as an instrument to distribute the money that they collect. They have so-called black boxes in discotheques, and they record what they play there — they have 10 black boxes in 10 different discotheques, and those clubs, to them, represent all the discotheques in all of Germany. And they don’t differ between the mainstream discotheque and the heavy metal music club and the hip-hop club, and so they say what is on these 10 black boxes is what all the clubs are playing.
And what’s coming up from you in the next 12 months?
After a long period of almost only doing remixes I am really bent on producing my own tracks again.