The weekend before we speak, Helena Hauff has played shows in Ibiza, Lisbon and Serbia. No stranger to playing three or four shows a weekend across as many countries, Hauff’s schedule is so jam-packed that she’ll turn down gigs that don’t allow for the requisite eight hours of sleep between exiting the booth and getting on the next plane.
It’s a wonder, really, how she’s readied an album in the midst of relentless gigging; Qualm will be released via Ninja Tune on August 3rd. “I don’t know how I’ve done it,” she laughs, with a softness that makes me want to play our conversation on loop to fall asleep to. Hamburg’s Helena Hauff may be a master of gritty, fiercely-analogue electronic music, but talking to her is an altogether soothing experience. Since the release of her 2015 debut Discreet Desires, Hauff’s rise has been meteoric, her high-octane, esoteric DJ sets earning her a reputation as one of dance music’s most exciting artists. Spanning thumping techno, blistering acid and raw electro, Hauff is a force to be reckoned with both behind the decks and in the studio.
Prior to starting the new record, Hauff had written the word ‘Qualm’ in a little book of scribbles that accompanies her on her travels, knowing she wanted to use it as a title for something. The German meaning of qualm translates loosely as ‘smoke’ or ‘fumes’, in contemporary English it’s ‘an uneasy feeling of doubt, worry, or fear’, and the traditional definition is ‘a momentary faint or sick feeling’. “I like the idea of having titles that could mean several things,” Hauff tells me. Listening to the record, there’s murky unease in ‘Primordial Sludge’, ambient introspection in ‘Qualm’, and there are fumes to be found in the mechanics of the production. “There’s that kind of gritty feel you might have with the dirtiness of industrial smoke,” Hauff explains. That haze of smoke carries into the album art too – a portrait shot by close friend Fabian Hammerl. It’s a classic album cover in its portrait format, but it’s a little blurry, a little smoky; Helena Hauff gazes from the gloom, shrouded in inky green fumes.
Qualm has been a year-long labour of love, and a chance for Hauff to return to a minimal approach to music-making, inspired by artists like I-F, Unit Moebius and the rest of Holland’s Bunker Records crew. “It’s the machine thing,” she says, also nodding to Detroit duo Drexciya as a key influence, “hearing the machine working.” Speaking of machines, Hauff’s studio contains “the classics” – the Roland TB-303, TR-707 and TR-808. Moving away from the layers and textures of her last album, Qualm is stripped back, allowing space for the machines to do the talking.
“I would probably say, ‘you’re not going to like it,'” Hauff giggles, talking about how she would describe her music to someone unfamiliar, “it’s rough, raw, and minimalistic whilst also being full on.” It sounds like the Dutch acid sound of Bunker Records that’s inspired her since the beginning. Early collaborations with local artists like RVDS and Phuong-Dan helped cement Hauff’s trajectory, and Hamburg label Smallville were instrumental too. Their offering of house and techno in the city was an alternative to otherwise fairly mainstream clubbing. Hauff names DJ Stingray, Lena Willikens, Nina Kraviz and Jeff Mills among her favourite artists, as well as Greek rising star Morah and Russia’s Nikita Zabelin, whose set she caught at EXIT Festival.
“It’s quite bad, but I just knew I could be better,” Hauff shrugs, explaining how she went to a student house party, didn’t like the DJ, and decided then and there she would quite like to be a DJ too. A fascination with club culture and a growing obsession with music meant that degrees in Fine Art and later Systematic Music Science and Physics were cast aside for a career behind the decks. That obsession is crucial, says Hauff, speaking of making it as a DJ, “you have to be so into it, a little bit obsessed, otherwise it’s not for you”.
“I would probably say, ‘you’re not going to like it…'”
As our conversation comes to an end, talk moves to London clubbing. As a DJ, Hauff loves playing in the capital for the open-minded and energetic vibe on our dancefloors. As a punter? She’s not so sure. “The bouncers seem strict, and you can’t smoke inside!” she says, “it’s no Berlin, I love coming here but I feel like the clubs and promoters are struggling… And the drinks are too expensive.”
Speaking of expensive drinks, my stratospheric vision of Helena Hauff joins me down on Earth momentarily as she laughs about the reasons she wanted to become a DJ: “I remember sneaking backstage at a party and there were all these free drinks,” she says, “I liked the idea of free drinks”.
Photo by Fabian Hammerl.
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