Even when she’s playing to packed festival crowds on blazing afternoons—as she is on the afternoon I catch her at Dekmantel in Amsterdam—Helena Hauff’s crisp-yet-messy machine compositions feel inseparable from Hamburg’s Golden Pudel, the rowdy 200-capacity club where she’s been a resident DJ for several years. Technically formidable and cool as hell, Hauff could have been Hamburg’s best kept secret, her dark music never leaving the tiny dark club, if it weren’t for tastemakers around the world taking notice of her.
First, it was London auteur Actress, who booked her to support him at a release party in the UK before releasing her debut EP Actio Reactio on his Werkdiscs imprint in early 2013. Her somehow gnarly yet playful way with analog synths turned heads, leading to more releases for experimental Berlin label PAN (with fellow Golden Pudel resident F#X) and boutique Dallas label Handmade Birds, among others; this September, she returns to Werkdiscs with her debut album proper, Discreet Desires. Her most dramatic work yet, the album is a sensual playground of crisp synths, liquid vocal samples, and minimalist melodies that stretch out for what feels like blissful hours.
Hauff has lived in Hamburg since she was born, apart from a brief spell at university in the German town of Braunschweig. She didn’t like university much (“I never finished anything,” she says), but she did enjoy developing her own photographs for a short-lived Fine Art course. “I could spend hours and hours in the dark room,” she says. Her debut album’s cover is a photo she took during that period; it shows a near-featureless, bleached-white face that gasps at a reflection of itself. There’s humanity in the desperate emotion of it, but the face is alien; it’s somehow warm and cold at once, just like Hauff’s acidic wobbles.
She says that the image stuck in her mind for at least eight years after she took it, and that it gave her the idea for an album title, Discreet Desires. Once she had a photo and a name, she tried her hand at making tracks in response to them. She sent the first few to Actress, who emailed back enthusiastically, “This is an album!” At that point, she only had two tunes—but, as Hauff puts it, “If Actress says you’ve got material for an album, you’re not gonna argue with that.’”
After her set, we caught up at Dekmantel to talk about how she rejected formal education in favor of her own DIY way of producing, and why she hopes she stays niche enough to keep playing to rooms of 200 people. “People that I think are cool,” she clarifies in her typical straight-talking way. “Not like, stupid people.”
What was your main source of musical education growing up in Hamburg? Are you from a musical family?
HELENA HAUFF: Not at all—my family doesn’t know anything about music. They haven’t got a sound system, no turntable, nothing. My mum always used to tell me it’s a waste of money to buy records or CDs, so I didn’t buy anything. We didn’t have a lot of money anyway, so I always used to go to the local library and buy CDs and record them onto cassette tape. So I had a lot of cassette tapes with my own—you could say, ‘mixes.’ Those were the things that I really enjoyed, from The Cure or Joy Division to something like Arctic Monkeys. I was a big Nirvana fan; Bleach by Nirvana was one of my favorite albums. I remember my grandma bought me a CD from the flea market—she loves to go to the flea market and buy crappy stuff. It was “Pump Up The Jam.” And I loved that. I was 7 or 8 years old, maybe. It wasn’t underground music; I didn’t know the difference between mainstream or underground. All I knew was, "That’s what I like" and "That’s what I don’t like."
What do you think links the musicians you’re drawn to?
Well, one thing is, very happy music makes me really aggressive: I really can’t stand it. That kind of "summer" vibe. I love things that are funny—like funny in strange way, not funny funny. Dry humor. Definitely the music that I like is more—I don’t like to use the word “dark,” because it’s not dark for me. But it's stuff that makes me happy, so it’s very bright music for me.
You studied systematic music science for a while. Do you have any other formal music training?
Well, I learned how to play the piano, and I learned how to play the violin—or was supposed to learn how to play the violin, anyway—when I was kid. But I wasn’t particularly good at either. I didn’t really enjoy it; I just wanted to play in the garden and the woods. I didn’t want to be at home and practice an instrument.
But the thing is, with the piano, I always had a weird attraction to the keys. I always wanted to touch them. I finished my lessons, and I remember I started to write my own songs and just play very basic keys on the piano—very repetitive, actually, it’s not that different from what I do now on the synthesizer. So I’ve got that education... I don’t know if it really helped me for producing music. Actually, I think I’m quite glad that I never properly learned how to play the piano, because I’m very naive when I touch it. My studying of Systematic Music Science was just very briefly—I never really got into it. I realized that you don’t have to study music science to make music; you just have to make music to make music.
When did you start making your own tunes?
I started producing before I started DJing, on a computer with Q Bass [software]. I kind of enjoyed it, but I got pretty frustrated really quickly; I realized that working like that doesn’t work for me. So I stopped; then I met a guy, and he had a studio with a lot of machines, and I visited him a couple of times and realized, I like machines. I need to have my own machines. It’s just a very direct thing—you touch it, and it responds. When you work with a computer, you have to do everything yourself—you don’t really get feedback. If you want to get something random, you have to tell it to do something random. But when you have a synthesizer, sometimes it just comes up with random stuff, and you’re like, ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?’ But then you realize, "Oh, that’s actually pretty cool. Thank you very much!"
So is your music-making process quite improvisational?
Yeah. If you think about punk music—how it started with people that didn’t really know how to play guitars, playing very simple things, very energetic things—I’m pretty much the same. I know a lot about machines—I know how they work and everything—but I try not to pay too much attention to the theory and all that stuff. I just try to make music and be there in the moment, and keep it simple and make it energetic. When I’m in my studio and I feel like there’s some energy going on, it’s like, Yeah! That’s really good! Then I press the record button. And if it’s not happening, it’s not happening. The only thing necessary is energy. As long as you feel that there’s something there.
You’ve released a lot before, but this is your first album proper. What would you like to achieve with it?
Well, I just hope that there are going to be people out there that are going to like it. I don’t really expect anything—I just wanna keep on doing what I do. I just want to play at nice venues and nice festivals, and that’s it. To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to happen anyway, but I don’t want it to get too big. I don’t know if it’s that enjoyable, really. I think it’s really enjoyable when you play in front of a small crowd in an intimate place. As soon as you get too big, you can’t really do that anymore. I don’t know if I want to get there.