LWE Interviews Tama Sumo


Photo by Tresorpix

If you ever have the immense pleasure of meeting Kerstin Egert, you won’t soon forget her radiant ebullience or her buoyant hugs. Her wide smile shines just as brightly in conversation as it does from behind the decks, where she can always be counted on to share a personal, variable, and downright bodacious mix of tunes that cut straight to your emotional core. Despite almost two decades of experience as a DJ and resident for some of the world’s most well-known and respected clubs (from Tresor to the old Ostgut to her current residence at Berghain/Panorama Bar), Egert — alias Tama Sumo — didn’t really step into the global spotlight until 2008 when her first release on appeared Ostgut Ton (produced in partnership with her dear friend and musical ally, Achim Brandenburg, known to most as Prosumer). A few months after the release of “Play Up” and “Brothers and Sisters,” her incredible DJ sounds first graced my ears in the form of her — in my opinion, legendarily awesome — LWE podcast (which, although archived, can be easily found on the Internet). After 16 years of spinning, Ms. Egert finally earned her due respect with the release of the much-anticipated Panorama Bar 02, a mix that would top the charts as the year drew to a close. Months after her popularity boom and the world tour that ensued shortly after, we checked in with Tama Sumo to get the scoop on the Panorama renovations, the state of the Berlin club scene, and where she’s heading next.

So let’s just start at the beginning — when exactly did you first realize that you might want to do this music thing for the rest of your life?

Kerstin Egert: Oooooh. Hmm, well, music was always important for me. I played guitar as a child, but I think it was more or less because it was cheap and it didn’t take much space — can’t really say it’s one of my favorite instruments. I would loved to have played drums or maybe bass guitar or something like that. I spent of lot of time as a child listening to music and spent all my pocket money for records. I think at this age, I thought everybody liked music, and I don’t remember exactly when it became really clear to me that it’s kinda defining my life. Maybe at the end of my twenties?

Did you have a career before you were a DJ?

I studied, and during university I started to DJ. Then I was working for a company doing personal management, a job that I liked a lot — I loved talking to people and it was something that I found quite interesting. But then it was too much to have the full time job and also DJ on the weekends. For 14 years it was a balancing act. So then in 2007 I finally thought, “Ok, maybe I have to make a decision.” And it’s pretty clear which way it went. [laughs]

Where you living in Berlin at that time? Where are you from originally?

Well, I was born in a little village in Bavaria called Mühlhausen, between Nuremberg and Munich. But I was living in Berlin since 1990. I started my first steps into DJing in 1993.

Germany is known for breeding some of music history’s most influential experimental electronic music acts. Did you grow up interested this vein of music, or did you stumble upon it later?

I wish I did, but I didn’t. I grew up in a very little village in Bavaria — and of course we had no computers in the 70’s, when I grew up. It was far away from growing up with cool soul and disco music! So I grew up with mostly mainstream music — what came on the radio, and there were only two radio stations. During my youth, I was more or less forced to listen to some rock music, [laughs] which I actually don’t really like, I don’t really have a feeling for it. But, you have what you have. We also had some Italo disco and some mainstream disco, and by the 80’s of course I got some things like Depeche Mode or whatever. But in the record stores it was all things that everyone knew — there wasn’t any underground.

So when were you first exposed to underground music?

It wasn’t until I left home for university that I first heard other kinds of music. I studied in Erlangen, near Nuremberg, for three years. At this time, Nuremberg had what I thought to be a quite good scene. I went to my first acid house party there and it was totally flashy — it was really so mindblowing to me, so completely different. Even before this, I had started to listen to some independent music. But this scene was totally in the electronic music direction, which was much more my thing, and I was [deep breath] — wow!

Can you think of a moment in those early days when you realized you wanted to be a performer, instead of just a someone in the crowd?

There was an old friend of mine named Holger whom I knew from Nuremberg, who came to Berlin a little after I did. I shared a lot of music with him, we went record buying all the time. He sometimes DJed in Nuremberg and later in Berlin. We talked a lot about music, listened to a lot of music. And then he played at Drama, a house bar in Kreuzberg [Berlin], in 1993. And he was the one who said, ‘Ah, Kerstin, why don’t you DJ?’ He would really insist, forcing me all the time, ‘You have to become a DJ! Music is so important for you.” Because often times I was recording music I liked for my friends, on cassettes — I always liked sharing things. He kept saying, ‘Think over it.’

I’m really more an introverted than an extroverted type. I just kept thinking, ‘No, no… this is such a stage for me, I don’t know if I feel comfortable with that.’ I was refusing this for a long, long time. And then he played at the Drama bar and he was like, ‘Kerstin, I play there regularly, and I would so love if we did it together.’ So he gave me his old record players and said, ‘Try to mix.’ Then, without my knowing, he confirmed a date for the two of us at this bar. If he didn’t, I think I wouldn’t be a DJ today. So it’s due to him that I do it.

So what was it like transitioning from Nuremberg to Berlin? How were the scenes in the two cities different?

I mean compared to Berlin, the clubs in Nuremberg were very nice and a bit chic. Then I came to Berlin, which was completely different, because it was right after the wall came down. There were immediately a lot empty spaces here, and it wasn’t clear to whom they belonged. It was possible for people to throw illegal parties there because nobody lived there, the space belonged to no one. As long as things were this way, people could bring in their sound systems, bring in their party, whatever. It was really weird, I liked that a lot.

It was a dirty atmosphere for sure because nothing was renovated — it was the former East, everything was abandoned. And you had some great locations, like Tresor or the Planet, which was at different locations. There wasn’t this big flier culture at that time, and no Internet, no place where you could go to look what’s going on. It was quite interesting because you had to know the people. So somebody tells you, ‘Oh, there’s a party on Koepenicker Straße! Go through the second door and then up to the third floor….’ It was really amazing, kind of an adventure game.

For me, who came from sober and nice Bavaria, it was a trip! I loved that. And the music was different, too. Whereas in Nuremberg it had been a lot of the nice, cozy acid-housey thing, here in Berlin, techno was the soundtrack to all the political and social things that were going on. At the beginning of the 90’s, there weren’t a lot of places where they’d play house music. It was a more like a really dirty, industrial sound that you could hear in every club — or at least that’s how I perceived it. So for me, at that time, I sometimes found it a bit too hard, because I wasn’t used to it.

In such a historically “techno” city, you have such a warm, housey sound. At what point did it become normal to play house music the way you play it? Or is Berlin still primarily a techno town?

I think Berlin is still more a techno town than a house town. But compared to the 90’s, or the beginning of the 90’s, the house sound has increased a lot. And of course the borders are a lot more fluid. At the beginning of the 90’s, it was more of a distinction if you’re a techno or a house DJ. This or that. This was a bit of a pity, because there was kind and attitude that if you’re cool you play techno, and if you’re “handbag” you play house. At Panorama Bar I love to do that — I love to go from techno to house to techno to disco — for me it’s about playing music that I like, that touches me in some way, and not to just have one genre that I have to fit into. At the beginning of the 90’s, I had the feeling that this was very unwritten rule, that you have to play either THIS or THAT, but not both. It wasn’t until the middle or the end of the 90’s that people started combining the two.

How do you feel like the the scene here in Berlin has changed in more recent history? Especially with the influx of the discount airlines and so-called techno tourism?

Well, I think it’s still a solid place. For sure there are lots more people coming from abroad for a weekend to party, and that does something with the scene. But I think it can get quite interesting. From the view of the DJ: at some point in the past the club scene became so familiar to a lot of people, they know what to expect. But now, because there are so many people coming from abroad, you always have a good mixture of people — some who are from Berlin, who you know (so there’s that family feeling) mixed with some people that nobody knows, who might be here for the first time. I think it can be a good exchange.

To be honest, I think it’s really great when I travel around the world and people have these glowing eyes as they say, “Oh I came to Berghain last month, it was so great!” Maybe this sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s in these moments when you see that music can be something combining, that you can celebrate together — that’s sweet! I’ve gotten to know so many people from all over, even when maybe we didn’t even share the same taste for music. So I guess, to answer the question, sure it changed the scene, but not in a bad way. As long as you stay open-minded and open-hearted! This is why I went to a big city instead of staying in a village where everything has to stay the same.

So you’d say it’s good to have this influx of new people?

It can have good and bad influences – it depends what you make out of the fact that a lot of tourists come to Berlin. Concerning exchanges, in many ways it’s great. But there can be bad influences as well. Not because of the new people that come, but because of the people who think they can make good money from these tourists by repeating the well-working concepts. It’s capitalism. If it’s only the money that motivates people of doing something instead of the heart for something and their interesting ideas, that means you are looking for concepts that fulfill the tastes of the masses, concepts that are easy to get… and this usually bores me to death.

On that note, how do you feel about refurbishments at Panorama Bar at the beginning of this year? Do you think it’s a good thing that the clubs are making enough money now to invest back into their spaces?

I like that they renovate, but at the same time they remain true to themselves as they develop. Berghain always did it. Before Berghain, there was Ostgut. And then when Berghain came, it was something different… but in a way there was something which combined the two clubs as well. I think life is changing, so if there are some changes in the club, why not? I am so happy about the new sound system, and I’m SUPER happy about the wooden dance floor — I could go down on my knees!

You know, it’s quite funny, because today I heard that there are many discussions about the how they changed the picture [in Panorama Bar]?

Oh yes, there are.

I guess there is one group who says, “We want the old picture back.” [laughs] But you have to do the same thing as a DJ as well. Try something new. I’ve been a DJ for 16 years, and I don’t play the same sound for 16 years. There’s still something around which everything new is defined. But the center stays the same.

Photo courtesy of Sven Marquardt

What are some of your favorite clubs and parties you’ve played as a DJ over the years?

There are so many. I love the Süd Electronic party in London a lot. Next to Berghain/Panorama Bar, which of course is my favorite [grinning]. This is a party that won my heart, due to a wonderful promoter, crowd and sound system. Also the party Club House I played in New York with the Underground Quality guys – Jus-Ed, Levon and Anthony I appreciate a lot for the same reasons. I’m really, really happy to know them and that they invited me.

Some other parties and places I’ve really like very very much are, hmm… La Villa in Oslo, Techstock at Reitschule (a kind of collective with a political background in Bern), Trouw in Amsterdam, Silo in Leuven, Pacotek in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Cassero in Bologna, Ego Club and Baalsaal in Hamburg, Robert Johnson in Offenbach, Inkonst in Malmö, Rex Club in Paris, Pulstar in Köln, and in Japan I like Unit and Module in Tokyo and Mago in Nagoya.

So now you’re a producer as well as a DJ. How do you feel about producing compared to DJing?

I like producing a lot. There were many years where I was a bit afraid of it, because I’m not very much into the technical stuff. But I have to say a big thank you to Prosumer. I think without him I wouldn’t have done it. He was the one who said, ‘Hey come to my house, let’s do it!’ And he forced me — he took away a lot of my fear about it — ‘Just try it!’

I always thought, ‘Oh, I have to know so many things,’ so his prodding was super helpful to me. At the moment we’re working on a new track for Ostgut Ton. I’ll try to work by myself as well. But I couldn’t at first because I didn’t have the knowledge, and I didn’t have the gear. I wanted to produce with machines, not just with a computer, but I didn’t have the money for it. But after the [Panorama Bar 02] CD came out I had a bit more bookings and I tried to spend some of this money on some gear, and now I can build up my own studio and work alone as well. At the end of last year I bought a synthesizer called Nord Lead 2 and a drum synthesizer, Pearls Syncussion. And finally some studio monitors! And I had a Roland 808 and 101 already – so I guess it’s a good basis now for making music that I like.

Despite all this, I always want to work with Achim because we’re good friends and it’s so much fun to work with him, so inspiring. So I think I’m getting more and more into the producing thing. But I have to say, I do NOT understand why in the music scene it’s such an expectation that if you want to be a DJ, you have to produce, and if you are a producer, you have to DJ. Because I think they’re two totally different things. One should have the chance to go without the other.

So when you go to a record store, can you describe what it is you’re looking for?

I prefer analog sounds — or a least analog sounding sounds. Because I know some producers can do a good job of sounding a bit analog but it’s still done digitally. I really like it if something is a bit dirty, maybe edgy or rough. I need some deepness. I need some funkiness. And sometimes, cheese for me is okay too. Or a bit of a pop attitude. Once in a while I need that. I think I’m looking more to old schoolish sounding things. I’m not really into minimal or much of the new minimal or loopy house sounds, for me, if it sounds very minimal it’s just not much an interest for me. I want some funk. Soul. Deepness. This is all what I like a lot. And some disco as well. And jacking things are always getting me!

What sounds turn you off? Ten seconds and you say NO?

Minimal, minimal house… everything which is only functional bores me to death. You know that it will work at the club when you play it, but there’s no really good idea behind it. It’s just working. And when something is too overloaded, I can’t stand it. I love minimal things in terms of what Robert Hood would do — focus on the important sounds in a track. I think there are a lot of tracks that sound as if they are made in two hours. I sometimes wish that people would spend more time in caring for the sounds, so something sounds more three dimensional, not two dimensional.

Are there some records you never leave home without? Any labels or artists that are always hiding somewhere in your crate?

OK, there is no record which I have always with me. But… It’s so funny. Maybe Marcus Mixx? I usually have one of his records with me. I often have a Soundstream record with me. And for sure records from Achim and Steffi, and I always have Shed with me — I never go anywhere without a Shed record. Shed or Wax or Equalized, one of them.

What else? Hmmm. Some of my most loved labels and producers that I would usually have with me for a set are Ostgut Ton, Uzuri Records, Madd Chaise Inc., Deconstruction/Novel Sound, Underground Quality, Third Ear, Restoration, UniRhythm, Sound Signature, Beautiful Granville, Rush Hour, Delsin, Metrolux, Strength, Soul People Music, Fachwerk, M-Plant, Purpose Maker, FXHE, Dolly, Dekmantel. And I never leave the house for a gig without a lot of old house and techno records from Chicago, Detroit and New York.

Obviously music is your main deal, but in a city like Berlin, I can’t help but wonder if there are any other artforms that inspire your work.

From all the different artforms, I guess movies or video installations inspire me the most. I like movies a lot, especially the small independent ones, and I’m sure that sometimes atmospheres or music in films are also an inspiration for me as a DJ and producer. Achim and I once worked for a documentary TV project and were asked to choose the music for it — we loved that, because it’s a different and very interesting approach to music. Just as well as our work for fashion shows for which we also choose music. Projects like this also have an influence on my DJ work — maybe less concerning the music selection itself, but more the way in which I’m looking for music.

So what’s on the horizon for you?

Prosumer and I did a remix for Mount Kimbie, the track “William,” for Hotflush [to be released April 26]. And then we’re working on a new Ostgut Ton release, a 12 inch, which includes a remix by the Oliverwho Factory from Detroit and which will be released 31 May. And then we have a Japanese gay pop group, they live here in Berlin, and we were asked to do a remix for them as well. They once gave me a CD, and I like what they are doing, so hopefully that will work out. And then there’s an Ostgut Ton compilation coming out later this year. Steffi was asking if I want to do something for her label, but I think, as I said, I’m quite slow. So maybe that’s not for this year. Let’s see.

lerato  on April 23, 2010 at 12:54 PM

thanx tama !!! :-) the interview makes for a great read . !!!
feel so honoured and privileged to know you .
thanx so much for the inspiration ! :-)

Jamie Slater  on April 23, 2010 at 1:59 PM

Thanks Kerstin and LWE for this insight, top notch!

harpomarx42  on April 23, 2010 at 3:12 PM

I had the pleasure of meeting Kersten when she played in New York back in January. One of the friendliest and most humble artists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She played an excellent set as well.

Anne Onymous  on April 23, 2010 at 4:02 PM

Great interview, really enjoyed reading – thanks

ferrispark  on April 25, 2010 at 9:52 AM

great interview, great girl, great DJ…Super SOLID!

pablo/beaner  on April 27, 2010 at 4:03 AM

the tama/prosumer remix of mount kimbie is GREAT! been playing it for a couple months now. the rimshots on the left and snaps on the right have such great interplay.

Levon  on April 27, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Tama Sumo is a true talent. Wurk! I was happy to read this interview- she really speaks with heartfelt words and sincerity, and the answers she provides show an experienced and wise DJ who has paid her dues, and won her prize.

Alistair  on April 28, 2010 at 1:06 PM

What is wrong with minimal house, minimal techno???

Joseph Hallam  on May 1, 2010 at 8:07 AM

Great feature on such a talented DJ.

lerosa  on May 26, 2010 at 10:52 AM

really cool interview Kerstin. Love that b&w picture, the hotness!

alanisnotadj  on July 16, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Pure class…she is untouchable at the moment…sessions after sessions she is delivering the goods…amazing talent, impecable tastes, lovely person!!! Tama is amazing!

peter chen  on September 28, 2010 at 11:24 PM

Tama Sumo is a talent, enjoy on this

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Tama Sumo Interview « The Hipodrome Of Music  on April 23, 2010 at 12:44 PM

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