By: Amanda Sandström Beijer
Photos: Zeina Idris
Already there when I arrive, with her notes, and a fruit smoothie - Wallis is not your regular Berlin DJ. She dreams of the future, wonders where techno music is heading, and why Berlin feels like a Gregg Araki movie.
Wallis gives a serious impression. The kind of person who likes to have everything neatly in order and done just right. Some people call it a ’Type A personality’ (and one of them is Wallis herself). Wallis laughs about it, saying it may not always make her an easy-going person. Right from the start she had asked that this interview be focused on ideas rather than history, and on the future rather than the past. Even if she's aware that her past made her who she's today, she's always keeping her focus on tomorrow.
Today, however, she's at a musical crossroad.
“It's weird, in the last year I got somehow bored with everything I used to love. All the music I used to find so intriguing two years ago somehow lost its magic. I guess I heard those sounds too much by now, and my mind is craving something different. I don't know yet exactly what kind of techno I want to make, or even how to create it. I just know it's time for a new chapter.”
Dancing in clubs during the pandemic she noticed that a lot of the sets started to sound oddly similar to one another, following somewhat of a template structure.
Each DJ is trying to play faster than the previous, and it feels like a race to keep up
”I've been missing this feeling of seeing an artist through their set, because all those sets started sounding the same. Same BPM range, same bass lines, same vocals, same rave stabs, same pop edits. Each DJ trying to play faster than the previous, and it feels like a race to keep up. I think the pandemic awoke a lot of fear in all of us, especially those that based 100% of their income on performing. Suddenly the number of gig opportunities got divided by ten, only five months out of the year on a good year. Headliners were agreeing to play for much cheaper, and promoters could make massive line-ups with nearly only big names, leaving not so much room for anyone else. Add to this that many governments offered little to no financial help to DJs, plus everyone spending all their time on social media, forced to constantly see what everyone else was up to”, she said and continues;
”It's no surprise that this somehow fueled a lot of change in our scene and unconsciously put some pressure on artists to conform to what others are playing, by fear of not getting any gigs otherwise. We even saw DJs going on public rants against other DJs, trying to destroy their careers, at a scale that was unprecedented. This was 100% the result of the pandemic and the fear it induced in all of us. This conformity was also emphasized I think by the amount of time we all started spending on social media. Never before were we so aware what everyone else was doing, watching so many livestreams or spending that many hours on our phones. I realized recently how addicted to my phone I am, and it scares me.”
Wallis watched what was happening within the scene and took a backseat rather than jumping on that same train, even though she used to drive that very same train herself before.
“Weirdly enough, when everyone is going faster, I am vibing hard to slower beats”, she laughs.
”Actually, I was recently playing in Spain and chatting with the promoter before the event, and I saw his face decompose when I told him I would start my set around 131 BPM. Because for him it meant I would play an unengaging set – which he quickly found out wasn't the case. You can reach just as much – if not more – intensity without over-pushing the BPM counter. My vision is that it’s not speed that conveys energy and power, but grooves. And most grooves actually shine through when the music is slower. When the music is 150 BPM you can basically only use a kick drum and a hi-hat, and that's it. But if you go slower, you have a much bigger room for creative drum patterns. Not that there's anything wrong with those that love hammering it out solely with 150 BPM music filled with totally unprocessed samples, following only basic drum patterns. I just find myself drawn nowadays towards very personal sounding music, which is more achieved through heavy creative sound design. When I say sound design, I don't mean only synthesis-based music, I really don't care how the music originally came, sample or synthesis, I just like it when it's unique, made super personal. The best pieces of music are the ones that convey emotion. After hearing them, you think ’Ok, I know this artist better now’.
Her new preferences as well as the late predictability of techno has made her very interested in sound design when searching for tracks for her DJ sets, and how to construct new intensity, yet creative sounds that are powerful, but more complicated.
Let's be honest there's no better feeling than hearing a track and wondering how the hell someone managed to create something like that
”If, after hearing a track, I can right away identify everything the producer did or used, which drum patterns there are, and sometimes even which samples they used, I am not very interested. I am always searching for something new, and – let's be honest – there's no better feeling than hearing a track and wondering how the hell someone managed to create something like that. And being left with absolutely no definitive answer to that question. I may not know exactly in which direction I’m going right now, but I know this is where I hope to go when it comes to my sound design process.”
What we hear is that Wallis is undergoing some changes, and is not yet clear over where she’s headed, although thankfully she’s still able to release tracks.
”I wouldn't call myself perfectionist, which is great because it allows me to actually finish and release music. I know some people who get stuck on tracks for ages, constantly making insignificant tweaks, trying to reach something that ultimately doesn't exist. I try to be a bit more down to earth when it comes to that, and I know that even when you love a piece of music, in six months, you'll hopefully have made so much technical progress, that you'll most likely be unimpressed with your previous work. So, it's a bit pointless to chase perfection in music – it doesn't exist. Maybe it’s also part of being an artist, if you don't somehow question what you’ve created before, maybe it means that you haven’t developed enough.”
“This is true especially now as the pandemic made the vinyl pressing process much longer than it used to be. We went from a duration of three to four months to a whopping eight to nine months. That means that, if you add production duration, and super busy label release schedules, tracks that come out on vinyl these days are at least a year old – and that is if the label was quick to send the music to the press. It just makes it harder for artists to still see the music as fresh by the time it comes out, because they have most likely finished producing it nearly a year and a half ago.”
Being creative and looking for creative outlets has always been part of Wallis. The level of artistic disciplines, activities or concepts that fascinates her is almost comic. She thinks it's all connected to the music she makes today.
“Recently I discovered a concept called mind-mapping and I think this is genius. Putting different concepts next to one another to build mental maps of just about anything. I think this is what unleashes creativity. Learning new things constantly, about the most random stuff sometimes, and trying to link them to one another and include them somehow in your work.
Besides being a ’Type A person’. I noticed her interest in films. From the moment we started talking about the interview, it’s been a common subject. Now I’m finding out the way it influences her creative process.
”Definitely movies have had a huge influence on me. Recently, I was watching Twin Peaks and immediately noticed that the music I started producing got way too eery, so I just had to stop watching it, as I was on a short deadline at the time, and needed something finished soon, she laughs. For a more obvious connection between my work and cinema, there would be quite a few of my track names referencing movies, that I am sure cinema fans will easily spot. Undeniably cinema has had a huge influence over my work. People telling their story and sharing their perspective is always fascinating, be it in written or visual art forms, or via sound. Movies are made at the intersection of someone telling a story together with visual and music, and this combination is what makes movies, in my eyes, one of the most powerful art forms out there.”
Speaking of films, she mentioned how Berlin is reminding her of one and once you’ve heard it I bet it won’t leave your mind for some time.
Berlin is like a Gregg Araki movie
”Berlin is like a Gregg Araki movie. Moving to this city, into this massive gathering of misfits, expressing themselves loudly every day, it’s a bit surreal. It feels a bit like a dream, sometimes a bit absurd, not everything always makes sense. There's this prevalent nihilistic behaviour going around, with sometimes a bit of a sad and depressing vibe to it, especially in winter. In Araki's movies, it’s not mainly the characters that are doing horrible things, but the society around them, and maybe that’s also the case here. Many of those who felt alienated and felt like outcasts in their own society, migrated here to create something new. I guess the biggest difference is that in Gregg Araki’s films everybody dresses colorful”, she laughs.
”Besides that, even though the characters pretend they don't care, they do. Which I feel is the same in here. Berlin is also somehow romantic, once you pierce through the nihilistic facade everyone puts up. It’s in many ways the opposite of Paris, where I grew up that leaves you with this lingering feeling of social pressure. It's a pretty judgmental city, that doesn't really want you to become too unique as an individual. It sometimes felt like an ant colony filled with people checking each other out – so exhausting. In many ways, Berlin is the exact opposite of Paris. Berlin is a city where I felt given back the right of anonymity, nobody cares about what you wear or what you do, there's this freedom of doing what pleases you without this impeding sense of doom I felt in Paris. To me Berlin is the city of freedom, where everyone who have felt like misfits in their hometowns can gather.”
So far into the interview, no one could have missed that Wallis has a strong character. During the pandemic, she stopped drinking alcohol as she meant to stop drinking for a short period of time, to cut back on partying until her R-label EP was finally finished and sent to vinyl-pressing but ended up enjoying sober life so much that she hasn't gone back to drinking since.
“In the end it gradually happened, and wasn’t a very conscious choice, but many thoughts came together and suddenly I had created a completely new lifestyle for myself. Once I was in it, I could see clearly that alcohol didn't bring enough positive things into my existence to make it worth all its downsides. Even just one or two drinks makes me less productive the next day. I also found that drinking is actually not a necessity in order to have fun, at all. Of course, some aspects of alcohol I miss sometimes. But what I definitely don't miss are the hangovers or meaning to go out only for a drink and staying up until dawn and spending more money than I had planned. Or oversharing super personal details about my life with random strangers. And let's be honest never ever have I woken up in my bed, fresh with a clear head and a full night sleep, thinking ’Man, I wish I had drunk and stayed out longer last night’, she laughs. Cutting alcohol gave me full control over where I wanted to head in life.”
Alcohol didn't bring enough positive things into my existence to make it worth all its downsides
”No alcohol in bars, no ’after gig Gin & Tonic’s’ and all that went along with it was hard at the beginning. I'm a creature of habits and old habits die hard.”
Except from trimming the alcohol, the new lifestyle also led her to trimming her circle of friends.
”It got easier to notice who you actually connected with on a deeper level and not. I’m just not available anymore to the people whom I’ve noticed haven't been a positive addition to my life. I guess that was an awakening during the pandemic. I’m less and less tolerant of bullshit and need mutual respect. I’m also much more mindful of my time than I once was. I realized that I became uninterested in people with whom I can't connect with outside of the club. The small talk doesn't really flow in the same way when you’re sober, and I can’t do drunk talk anymore. Although I miss going on those funny little adventures at parties, when everyone is silly drunk, but that’s basically it.”
The gigs didn’t change much though as Wallis never drank alcohol when she played before that either.
”I know a lot of DJ’s drink as it helps with the nerves, but I’ve noticed very early on that having a drink during a set was not for me. I would play and feel less in control over what I was doing, and that just annoyed me, so I was never a gig-drinker. Not even at the artist dinner before the gig I would have alcohol. Your ears don’t work the same when you drink, which is a no-go for me, as everything that changes how you perceive things also changes your ears. So, I had just always waited until after my sets to drink anything.”
Although she has a new addiction:
”Caffeine. The last pleasures I have in life are coffee and Club Mate”, she laughs.
The rock star touring life is, as you can imagine, nothing she takes part of. When others go from the after party straight to the airport and the next gig, Wallis takes a nap and wakes up in time for her next flight.
”I was never as busy as I’m now when I used to party though.”
Wallis film recommendations:
Gregg Araki: Teenage apocalypse (1,2,3)