Playing piano from an early age, Ben Klock had once envisaged himself as… a jazz musician! Born in West Berlin, he was 18 when the Wall fell, and discovered electronic music soon after in the raves which set the tone for the great German reunification of the 90s. It was on the Sonar Kollektiv label, run by the eclectic collective Jazzanova, that he released his first record in 1998. Resident at Cookies and several other Berlin clubs, he began to explore different avenues. Then Ellen Allien signed a few of his releases to her label, BPitch Control.
At the start of the noughties, he fell out of sync with an era veering towards electroclash. After different jobs as a graphic designer and working in a call center, he even considered giving it all up. So, in 2004, he was invited for a residency at a new Berlin club about to open up: Berghain. "The first time I played there, I knew I had finally found my place. The concept of techno must be presented and experienced in this way, and that's the way I had always imagined it", he recounts.
Since then, Ben Klock marked himself as one of the decade's most exciting DJs and producers. From the development of his label Klockworks – which will soon offer an online magazine – to the curation of a day at Nuits Sonores and a much-awaited return to production, 2015 brings a great many challenges for this icon, at once complex and disarmingly straightforward.
In the Nuits Sonores press profile, you are described as a champion of "raw and angular techno", while your music comes from a broad range of influences. Do you feel this style, the so-called 'Berghain sound', is something of a stigma attached to your name?
I've got to say that I don't really feel that kind of pressure any more. A couple of years ago, it was more present but I'm not hearing the term so much now. I think people have realised that my sound is more than just straight-up techno. I also reckon people would continue to follow and understand what I'm trying to express, even if I radically changed style. I don't feel forced to make pure, hard techno.
So you don't feel pressure? You feel free to express what you want?
Yes, and I'm having fun with techno. I make it because I like it. There are places where sometimes it's more difficult because the crowd is way up there (he raises his fist and widens his eyes) : "Come on, can you play harder?!' You get that from time to time, but at those moments I quickly turn my attention to something else. That's not my approach. I like to hit hard but not with that closedness of mind. When it comes to choosing records, I don't consider what the people will think. It's about having confidence in yourself, which is gained with experience.
"I don't feel forced to make pure, hard techno"
You recently played for more than ten hours alongside Marcel Dettmann for Berghain's tenth birthday. Can you sum up your feelings from that day?
It was fairly logical for both of us to do that set together. I had played in Tokyo the day before and it wasn't even certain I'd be there. I said to myself: "No, I cannot miss that." I finished my set on Saturday and went directly to the airport, then on to Berghain. I actually think we could have played better, but sometime it's hard to be at the top of your game when there's so much expectation.
In your opinion, what kind of impact has the club made over the last decade on techno and the club scene?
It was special, ten years now… But as you say: how has it influenced the scene? I think the club has played a major role in techno's return to rule. I remember that when we started, it had completely disappeared. In Berlin, we were hearing completely different music.
A few years ago, you said: "Techno is, in a way, without compromise, and the question of being famous isn't one you ask." What do you think about that today?
I have the impression that the more I get older, the more I move away from the scene and from what's going on. I think it's getting more and more professional but I always reach the same conclusion: the core of the music is so important that it's never a question of business. When I'm talking to peers I really respect, we all say the same: that we should never forget where it all comes from. We have a duty not to betray techno.
You have become, perhaps despite yourself, something of an icon. It's interesting that you talk about responsibility.
Sometimes, I don't think about it, especially at the moment. I was on holiday for six weeks, completely cut off from all that. It's a bit strange for me because I see techno like a community: we share an idea, it's not a question of stars. But I have to say that it makes me think a bit more, I have to stop for a double take before choosing certain directions. When you become better known, there are more opportunities to go this way or that way. So you have to make your choice wisely. It starts with collaborations, festivals you could play or not. Sometimes there is more money in certain ones but the place just doesn't fit.
It's pretty admirable that you refuse dates because they aren't suited or too commercial.
I have a enough experience to know that things can go wrong like that. You can get a bit of hype and then nothing, it's over. I try to keep a vision for the long term. It's the same when I'm making music: I ask myself if it's something I'd like in ten years time.
At the moment, you're on holiday, but normally your diary's packed with dates. It seems to me that over the last few years you decided to concentrate on DJing. Are you now coming round to production again?
Yes absolutely, I haven't produced for over two years. It's a complete reboot at the moment, which is really exciting. I feel like a little boy in a toy shop, I've bought new hardware and I'm currently rearranging my studio. I need to relearn lots of things, it's really fun.
Did anything bring about this new start?
It had always been at the back of my mind. The plan with this little break is to get everything ready and see if I'm inspired. I'm not writing music right now, so I'm entering into it afresh.
How has your daily life been these last few years? You weren't really producing, it was more a question of being ready and on form for each date?
When you're travelling that much, it's almost impossible to make music. If you're playing four days in a row, afterwards you have to take time to recuperate, take care of all the emails, meet your agent, and before you know it you're back on the plane. For a while, I also thought my musical creation was DJing and I put everything into it. You can almost see it like musical arrangement, production even, and I do edit lots of songs. But it's time to change and find a balance with production, and take a few weekends off at the same time.
You seem to be going back to analogue with all the hardware you bought. Are you looking for a particular quality, a certain warmth maybe?
I am looking for inspiration, no matter the means! I think returning to analogue hardware brings me that, even if I always tried to keep that sound when I was using digital, like on my album One. I think you can really add something in combining the two. For a long time I wanted to do a Total Recall kind of thing (he laughs). When you have these possibilities to change everything for good, there's a risk of going too far. With analogue, it's impossible, you can't save it all so you have to record. It forces me to be more spontaneous, to actually get things finished and down on record. After that, you can do the postproduction and editing.
"I like it heavy but I'm not closed-minded. When a guy says to me: 'Can you play harder?' I turn away instantly."
Do you have any plans for releases yet? An album perhaps?
Not really, it was really important to make a fresh start and to feel like someone making his first music. I have no plans, I am lucky enough to be free from that kind of pressure. I don't have to release something just to be like: "Hello, I'm alive!"
We touched on it a bit talking about your choices, and it's something I had thought even before meeting you: you put a lot of thought into your actions. Do you prepare your sets to find those trance-like moments or do you look to enter into that kind of other state, where you don't even need to think?
If I prepare a set with transitions and a dozen songs lined up, there would be none of the magic. When you plan something in your head, it'll have nothing to do with what happens in the moment. It's when you let yourself go with it and focus on the feeling the moment brings that there's a spark, that's when the magic happens. Sometimes you're struggling to find songs, you overthink it and it doesn't work. Suddenly, you stop thinking and follow your instinct and everything clicks into place. Each tune links together perfectly. There is definitely something magic about it.
Is that why you think techno is the music of the present?
It's a moment of zen, yes (he laughs).
Do you practise meditation, yoga, that kind of thing?
At the moment I'm doing yoga, but it never lasts long. Meditation, however, I do that almost everyday, I think it helps to keep a balance. It also helps to get to the root of things, what's really important. I think you've got to try to go beyond the superficial, to look for a meaning in one's life, and realise one's potential.