Photo by Sven Marquardt
How much do you actually know about Steffi Doms? The basics, no doubt: she’s Dutch, lives in Berlin and holds down a residency at Panorama Bar. You most likely know of her superb debut LP, too. Titled Yours & Mine, it scooted into our top 10 Albums of 2011 and many other end-of-year lists around the globe. Perhaps, you’ve even seen one of Steffi’s diverse sets, the stuff of crate-diggers’ wet dreams. Like you, I knew all these things before our interview. But what surprised me was how little concept I had of her personality. Would she be eloquent and pragmatic, like Robert Henke? Surly, like Shed? Or maybe as funny as Ron Morelli? The answer, I now know, is none of the above. A traditionalist to the core, Steffi’s penchant for vinyl isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, credibility, or even fidelity. As much as anything, it’s a reflection of her positively Germanic outlook: if something has to be done, you do it. No excuses or short-cuts. Just hard work and real effort. This was a constant theme throughout our chat at a coffee shop. And though at times the directness attached to this outlook was unsettling, it impressed upon me just how serious Steffi is about her craft.
You moved to Berlin in 2010, from your native Holland. Do you miss it there?
Steffie Doms: No, not really.
I don’t know. I come back every once in a while, I see my friends, I’ve got good contact with my family, there’s a lot of support. I’m all over the world during the weekend, so it’s nice to be back where my base is, and that’s in Berlin at the moment. My base is not in Holland anymore. When I left, it was a very clear cut for me.
One thing which interests me is that in Holland, there’s a lot going on. There’s Rush Hour and Delsin, and all these good things happening, but the club scene doesn’t seem that strong at the moment. Is that right?
I think it had a bit of a difficult period between, let’s say, 2004 and 2008, but I think it’s really strong at the moment. Holland has always had a very vibrant scene. It just had a little bit of a phase it had to go through, because three major clubs in Amsterdam shut their doors. One burned down, one club lost the owner — he died. So that went down the drain. And one actually decided to shut its doors because — I think — of bad management. So that was a bit of a hard time because there was not so much available, but there’s a massive, massive scene in Holland anyway, so it’s just a phase that they had to go through.
Originally, you’re not from Amsterdam, are you?
In between two big cities is where I was born — in Boxtel. It’s close to Eindhoven.
Early on, I know you got into Warp and IDM. Was this in Boxtel, or was this after you moved Amsterdam?
It was before I moved.
How did you get into that stuff, considering you were living in a pretty small town?
As I said, the scene was so strong back in the day. Like, everybody was involved. Even my friends in this little town that I met were into buying records, DJing, all that kind of stuff. It’s only 10 minutes’ drive from a big city on the left or on the right side. And it’s only a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Amsterdam, so to go clubbing — there were parties going on everywhere. There’s still a lot of clubs divided throughout the country, so I had loads of opportunities to go clubbing.
So it was stronger in the 90s than it is now?
Everything was. Like, I think that it’s justified to say that for any kind of country. England was stronger back in the 90s, Holland was stronger, Belgium was stronger — every country stronger, even Australia. Like, I see how they struggle now, and what was going on in the mid 90s — it’s crazy. There’s hardly anything left.
Perhaps the reason Berlin is so strong is because it’s still stuck in the 90s? [laughs]
I think Berlin is a different case because the social history is very different. It was only in ’89 when they dropped The Wall, so there was a lot of — you have to understand that one part of the city was communistic, and there was nothing there, so to merge two cities and two systems into one and dealing with the unemployment and all that kind of stuff just made it so hard to become a very wealthy city, and it still takes years and years and years to become a very wealthy city. And as long as there’s no money, there’s still no opportunities. Like, as soon as the government is getting too rich and your country’s getting too expensive, they have the opportunity to cut down all your fun, basically.
I spoke to an artist a couple of weeks ago and we talked about how well music seems to flourish in a blue-collar environment. Any time things get more affluent, it seems to recede somewhat. What are your thoughts on this?
I think if — let’s put it this way: what happened to Amsterdam in early 2000, for example, is that they started to run down all the old warehouses and had a different purpose for the warehouses. Like, they were all squatted. They wiped out the whole squat scene in Amsterdam, which was massive. Like, there were so many houses that were occupied by groups of people, and it was a very activistic scene. They wiped that out, built all these flashy apartments — you know, when the guilder was changed to the euro, there was a price-raise of 220 percent. So everything got so expensive. Nice, flashy apartments attract different kinds of people, do you know what I mean? So they cut down — the government cut down on cultural funds like there was no tomorrow. As soon as they start to do that because they want to concentrate on getting a very wealthy city, there’s no room for anything anymore.
And they start attracting bankers, and that kind of thing?
Exactly. I think maybe 80 percent of people in Amsterdam weren’t born there. It just attracts people with money, because there’s nice lofts to buy and all that kind of stuff. Berlin hasn’t got the money to do that. It will slowly, eventually get there, and maybe some other influences will ruin the vibe, but there’s no money for that. So they will be able to keep the vibe alive, you know what I mean?
Do you think the next big music hub could be Greece, or Spain, or somewhere else that’s not doing so well economically?
That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about this as well. I wouldn’t know what the next big thing will be. I wouldn’t have a clue. But it could well — I mean if Berlin gets too crowded and tourists are not able to maintain the vibe that’s going on there, then it might definitely move. You don’t know what’s going to happen with GEMA; if they pull through with their new rules, it’s going to change a lot in the New Year.
What are you thoughts on GEMA?
It’s ridiculous, what’s happening now. It’s really ridiculous. But on the other hand, it’s a wake-up call for people that if they want to maintain a certain kind of liberty — because there’s a lot of liberty in Berlin, there’s a lot of freedom — they have to fight for that. And our generation’s not used to fights. We need to go on the street and demonstrate, not just do it on Facebook, you know what I mean? Today’s generation’s not really interested, like they were back in the 60s and the 70s, just to get on your feet and represent something or fight for something. So I think that, in a way, it’s good. They’re all worried that Berghain’s going to close. They don’t understand the concept of GEMA ruining the whole industry — the whole music industry — even the small little bar that has fantastic live music, you know? Or an opera singer doing a small little gig. They have the same problems with GEMA, you know? But [they say], “Oh, if Berghain closes? Damn it, we need to do something.” You know, people are so stupid. It’s unbelievable.
So don’t think there’s any way to combat the proposed changes to the law, apart from protesting?
Yeah, you have to just get on the street. You have to run a bulldozer into the front of the [GEMA] building and say, like, “Fuck you, this is not going to happen. And we’re not going to leave until you decide that the law’s not going to change.” You need to really be consistent about it, otherwise they’re not going to listen to you.
When you’re in Berlin, do you speak German most of the time?
Well, if there are German people talking to me, then you speak German, yes. If there’s an English person talking to me, I’ll speak English.
I just wonder how well you’ve fitted in, being –
Yeah, I speak it fluently, and that makes a difference for me. I feel really at home because I can go on the street and make myself very clear in their language, you know?
I ask because, having lived there myself, I found that Germans are so good with English that you never get a chance to come to their world. For me it was a bit hard, sometimes, to feel that I was really —
If I would be moving to Paris, I would make sure that I would speak French within four months, do you know what I mean? But that’s my mentality. “I didn’t get a chance to blend in” — no, that’s bollocks. You can go to the Goethe Institute and sign up for a two-week course, and you’d be able to speak German, because they’ll drill you to be able to learn the language. But it’s how much you want it, you know? And if they make it easy because everybody in the world speaks English, well, you don’t really get around to doing it. But that’s in your own head. I wanted to do that, so I asked everybody to speak German to me from the beginning. So I spoke German within a couple of months.
Do you think you’re strong-willed in that way? Like, when you want to do something, you just do it?
Yeah, I hate people that say, like, “Oh, I would like to go to Berlin.” If you would like to go to Berlin, you need to go to Berlin. If you want to go to Paris, you need to go to Paris. There’s no point in saying it, to me, and not doing it. You need to make it happen. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, you know? That’s how I see it.
Is that force of will translated to your work?
I think there’s definitely a reason why the album [Yours & Mine] saw daylight, at some point. Because I said as a joke [to Ostgut Ton], “So when am I going to do an album?” And they already had it in mind and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what we wanted to talk about.” And I was like, “Oh, I was only joking.” [And they said] “But no, we’d like to do it,” and I was like, “Fuck it, why don’t I just do it? If it goes wrong, I can always cancel the master date and not release it.” So then I had the eight-month period of time just to collect all the material that I had and select what was to be on the album and finish it, and there it was.
One thing that strikes me about you, is — not insecurities, exactly, but you have this thing where you’re not sure if you want to put your music out there, because you don’t know if it’s perfect or not.
I think judging your own music is always hard. I’m a DJ, so I select the music I want to play in my sets, and I don’t want bullshit around. I always want to be playing the music that I really like. I don’t want to fall into a position where I’m all of a sudden pleasing the dance floor — because that is a line that you can cross at a certain point. It’s all about choices in your life. Like, if people offer you to take a step more into a commercial direction, it has consequences. You might want to play more crowd-pleasing, and you just have to balance and juggle just between your choices and where you want to be. And it’s the same with making music. Sometimes, you just don’t know if it’s ready or good enough.
The thing about, “Oh my work’s not good enough. I don’t want to put it out there,” I think that that seems more common in women; us men are more arrogant. Do you think there’s —
No? You don’t agree?
No. I think it’s a personality thing. That doesn’t really have anything to do with men or women. That’s just somebody that is really focused on — like, there are people who release something every week, they throw it on Beatport, and they don’t give a fuck. Some people get their music produced and they just throw it out, and some people are really cautious about what they want to put out in the world. And I always say, “Is it vinyl worthy, yes or no?”
So gender doesn’t come into it?
No, not really. People make too much fuss about male or female, in general. You should just see it as more like, “What’s the soul like?” Not, like, “In what kind of wrap does it come? Does it have tits, or no tits?”
Speaking of “wraps”, I remember seeing you play a few times last year, and always thinking you how serious you looked. What’s up with that?
I’m just in the zone when I play, and that’s a lot of — that’s a thing that people don’t seem to understand. Like, if I’m DJing, I’m in my bubble. I’m not there to talk to people during my sets; I’m just there to make sure that I do a good job and play the music that I would like to play. I’m very concentrated and very much into, “OK, where am I going to go? How do I feel? What’s my vibe? How’s the crowd? What’s the interaction?” I’m not interested in people going, “Aw yeah, it’s so fantastic.” Because it’s not about me. I keep on trying to radiate that to people. There’s too much identity about the DJ, and it’s about the music.
We have a big problem with that here in Australia, actually. So many times, I’ve seen local warm-up DJs play phenomenal sets, and then the headliner comes and plays everything the crowd expects them to play, and their set is not that exciting. But the second they get into the booth, everyone starts cheering for them. That must happen to you a lot.
It was quite funny — I was in Adelaide, I got on, started to play, and a guy comes up to me and says, “Play deeper, play deeper. Play slower, play slower.” He’d had a little bit too much to drink — very young guy — and kept saying to me, “Do this, do this.” I said like, “This is the fifth question now. It is what it is. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry to hear, but maybe you want to go home and just put on one of your favorite mixes because I’m obviously not the one for you tonight, you know?” [And he said] “Oh no, no, it’s not about that.” So I’m just playing all this stuff and going from Chicago to techno, to end up in a disco thing, what I do, a very diverse kind of set; a guy comes up to me like, “Play more like Boiler Room. Play more like the Boiler Room set.” And then I said to him, “Listen, you know what your problem is?” He looked at me, and I said, “You are too impatient. Because I had a lot of things for you in mind, but you might be the second one on the list. There’s people here that love disco, and that’s what’s been playing now, and I might end up in techno, but because you’re impatient, you don’t know if that’s going to happen, right?” And he looks at me like, “Oh no, yeah, yeah. That might be right. Yeah, yeah.”
Did you actually say all of this to him while you were playing? [laughs]
Oh yeah, I took the effort to explain that to him because they can be nagging you the whole night, “Play that track!” You know, the familiar kind of thing — like, a mobile phone, all kinds of lists of wishes or — do you know what I mean? There’s not much patience for them, or not much — they can’t level down their expectations to zero and just say, “OK, what am I going to hear tonight?” It’s very difficult for them. I think that the whole Internet has a lot to do with it. Young kids have a different kind of attention span.
But also, they have certain expectations, because they’re able to preview everything you’ve ever done on the net, but they still don’t necessarily understand what you’re about.
I get a great thrill simply watching DJs doing their thing. You said before about how you get into the zone; I think you’re actually the most intense DJ I’ve ever seen. The speed with which you cue your records, for example — you’re so intensely focused on it. Do you think that in a way, people need idols to focus their attention on, even if it’s not a good thing? Even if it goes against the idea of “music first”?
I think they need to go in themselves and learn a little bit more about what they want. Like, being a DJ is something that everybody gets a hard-on for, and they don’t understand what the job’s about. Like, the fact that Paris Hilton is a DJ nowadays, she completely takes the piss out of a really nice profession. Like, out of a really nice job. Because DJing has been there from the 50s, or — God knows when the first people started to play records for a crowd, you know? And they just take the piss because these days it’s so easy to be a DJ. Laptop: done. Laptop, Beatport account and a credit card — boom, and you’re on. For example: there are young guys that rent a venue, they’ll do the warm-up themselves, and you’re entering the room, you’re like, “What the fuck is this?” It’s very important that my booking agency selects gigs carefully.
Tell me about the Third Side project with Analogue Cops. In the past, I’ve found that a lot of collaborating artists, they hook up after some specific chat they had, where they found a shared appreciation for an artist, or a venue, or something else. How did you first hook up with those guys, all those years ago?
Somebody told them that I was a big Drexciya fan, and they’re big Drexciya fans, and somebody said, like, “Why don’t you pass on some of the records you’ve done on the label to Steffi because I think she might be really interested in that.” And I think they mailed me or something, and I decided to come to their house, and I just made a package of Klakson records — that’s the first label I started — and they had a package for me. So basically we exchanged, and they asked me if I would be interested in making some music with them so I just went over, and we just started jamming, basically.
How do you feel about the new Drexciya re-releases?
Oh, I think it’s a nice thing to do. I think Serge [Verschuur] from Clone is very privileged that he has the rights to most of the Drexciya material because there’s a lot more they’ve done with different kinds of names that’ll probably never get to see any re-press. Of course, when you do a re-release, it’s always — like, when you have you own real original pressing, you’re like, “Oh, now everybody’s going to be on it,” but I think music is there to share, so it’s good that the younger generation actually gets the chance to get the music for an affordable amount of money — on CD, on vinyl. I think they’re selling it digitally, as well.
That’s funny, actually. I was chatting to my Mom the other day and complaining about the cost of records. I said something like, “God, $16 and you get three songs, or whatever,” and she goes, “Don’t you realize that when I was your age, records still cost $16 or $20?” And this was back in the 60s and 70s. She still bought them, of course. Whereas now, because we have digital to compare it to, we look at it and we’re like, “No, I don’t want to pay that.”
And that’s exactly where you hit the nail on the head, because it’s a mentality question. People, say, “I play CDs; I have no money for vinyl.” And that’s a lack of devotion, because back in the day, when I started to collect records, all my money went straight to the record shop. And the joy of having your paycheck, and it’s Friday and the new records are in. You go straight to the record shop, and you’re nervous halfway there, and you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to get, but I’m so excited to get some records.” Week in, week out, you know? I said to some people the other day, it would be a tragedy for me if I had to let go of that excitement; going to the record shop.
If I feel bad, I just go record shopping because I know I’ll find something that will cheer me up. You know, it’s that whole thing that people just don’t want to do anything for it. “No, I’ll just buy it on Beatport. It’s so expensive.” That’s how you build up your passion. Invest all your money to make something, you know, make it happen for yourself. That’s — your mother is so right. It’s absolutely — that’s what it is about. You have to make the money to be able to afford the music that you’re going to play. Now it’s just about digesting. If you press a record, you’ve got three weeks to sell as much as possible, and then it’s all over. Nobody cares about it anyway. Like: “Oh yeah, I missed that one.”