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05.12.2019 | Words by: Jasmin Hoek

The first time I met Lena Willikens was in the summer of 2017. I agreed to interview her, as Lena’s Phantom Delia on Cómeme had become one of my favourite EPs of the past years. It was a warm afternoon in late June and we were supposed to do sit down for this, but ended up getting a beer and checking out her good friend Vladimir Ivkovic and Lena answered my questions over email instead. 2 months earlier I saw Vladimir and Lena in our basement, completely in sync in selection and movements. Not entirely surprising, this ended up being only the first of the many Willikens & Ivkovic sets that followed. A month after we met, I went to see her play in Berlin after Ben Klock, dropping the tempo down to a 100 bpm, and turning the huge dark hall that is Berghain into the setting of a beautiful horror movie. Probably an atypical set for the place, but a typical set for Lena: her cinematic sets are always daring and surprising, and smoothly shift through different moods and intensities. While staying true to her own distinctive style, she addapts to the moment and setting perfectly. Which makes each one of her sets of the many I heard, as exciting as the first time I finally got to see her live.

Two years ago, shortly after I met her, Lena moved to Amsterdam. Not only because of how much she liked our city and plays here regularly, but also because our location and airport is quite convenient if you have to travel every weekend– as she has been doing for a while now.

 I met up with her near her house on KNSM-eiland to chat about life in Amsterdam and on the road, and the impressive creative projects she keeps up next to her playing schedule, including a play she created and performs together with Sarah Szczesny, Phantom Kino Ballett.

Q: Any place you like to go to in Amsterdam during the week or when you have some time off?

A: What I do regularly, every three months, is go to het Stedelijk Museum. Sometimes I have a friend playing during the week at Garage Noord, it’s an easy place to just drop by. I like it. I must say, I haven’t gotten to know Amsterdam so well, I’m a very private person here. I need that. KNSM, where I live, feels like an island, an artificial island – it’s quite residential. I never bump into anyone when I go grocery shopping. When I come back from a weekend, had 3 gigs in 3 different cities, I end up being a zombie on Monday, so I don’t feel like going out. On Tuesday, I sit at home answering emails and working, Wednesday is the day where I might meet someone for dinner, but don’t party on Wednesday, unless I’m playing somewhere myself. Then it’s weekend again. Sounds boring, but I actually enjoy it a lot.

Q: Is there anything you’d say you miss in Amsterdam from your previous hometown, Cologne, either from the city or its scene? 

A: I don’t think I really miss anything from Cologne or Düsseldorf. I was more involved with the scene in Düsseldorf than Cologne, because of Salon des Amateurs. Honestly, I’m not a nostalgic person. I never missed the place I lived before when I moved to a different city. I never felt at home somewhere. Even my hometown, Stuttgart, is a place where I go to see my mother, but don’t like the city. I’d say I’m the opposite of sentimental. I miss people, I miss my friends sometimes, but Cologne is not that far away so there’s still the possibility to meet friends spontaneously – in 2,5 hours I’m there. No problem.

Although, there’s one thing I can’t find here, but I don’t necessarily miss it, it’s this amateur style of running a place and the style of playing. Like Salon des Amateurs, not only the name, but it was literally a bunch of artists trying to run a place: we were doing whatever, had no clue about finances, and were super naive about everything. All we wanted was to have a place where friends gather. Here in Amsterdam, I notice, which might have to do with the traders history of the town, there’s a professionalism in how to make money and how to make a profit within the veins of the Amsterdammers. It has its good sides and it has bad sides. For me it was interesting to observe; when I first moved to Amsterdam I thought of the city as liberal and open minded, they had an open drug policy and all that. Then you look closer, and you figure the liberal mindset might also be driven by the profit behind it. That doesn’t mean it’s not liberal, but the shadow side is that it might not always have the right intentions behind it. I guess that always happens, you start seeing a different side when you get to know a place better.

Q: Do you feel like this detachment is caused by the amount of traveling you do? As a touring dj you’re constantly moving around, and don’t stay in one place for long.

A: In a way yes, but it was already in me before I started playing: never attached to a city. In German you have a word ‘Heimat’ – it’s a place where you have a strong sense of belonging. It’s stronger than feeling at home – I never experienced this. With traveling so much, it’s getting worse of course [laughs].

Besides, I never have the desire to go back to a place where I’ve been and had a good time. if I had an amazing week with friends at the beach in Italy, I want to keep that as a memory. I’d never go back. I hate the idea of trying to recreate a magic time or a moment, because that’s what you automatically end up doing if you go back. There’s already some sort of expectation. It’s the same for me with playing; I never want to try to recreate something even if it worked well on the dancefloor, like a certain combination of tracks or a transition or a layer. It’s all a one time thing, I don’t do it again.

Q: So as you said, right now you often play 3 different cities in a row. In the Q+A that came along with your podcast for Discwoman you said about djing:“it never came to my mind that this could become something I can pay my rent with”. 

A: No, never ever.

Q: What was the moment where you realized that djing had become your profession?

A: It’s been a very long transition. I’ve been djing for over 15 years. My life was always more like working in a bar, in a recordshop, doing graphic design, working here and there. It was a long transition where I figured, ok I don’t have the time for this anymore. I felt too smashed on Mondays, and started to play every weekend. At some point, I even had to stop working in a record store because it had become impossible to keep working there timewise.

Q: So that felt like you had to give up on something you liked to dj “full time”? 

A: Yes, giving that up was not easy. I knew I was going to miss it. I started working at Groove Attack in Cologne, but as that wasn’t making enough money, I started working at a second one too, A-musik. I asked if I could help out with cleaning the second hand records. One time I was there, I saw the most amazing cleaning machine in the back of their office, and I knew I had to try it. Working with that machine was so nice, very meditative. For half a year I did nothing but clean second hand records one full day a week. Which I actually benefited a lot from as well; I was one of the first people to see the new second hand stuff coming in and got to pick all the good stuff right away before it went into the shop. A bit later I started working in the store too. So, for two years, I worked in two record stores, which I enjoyed a lot.

Q: How do you find time and mindspace next to playing and traveling for projects like Phantom Kino Ballet or making music?

A: Besides Phantom Kino Ballett and playing, it wasn’t possible for me to find time to make music in my studio recently. I tried to plan it this year, first thing happened when I took time off after a very busy period – I got sick. I made some demos but for mixing and finishing you need to take more time. For Phantom Kino Ballett I had to block weekends, we had 2 big shows this year. At first, I totally underestimated how much work it was. 

Phantom Kino Ballett is very important to me, the process is always inspiring and working together with Sarah [Szczesny] is very special. As an artist you can be super stubborn, and working together doesn’t always end well – you get stuck in your own vision. When I first met Sarah, it was so strange to experience someone I could work with so well. To both of us, the connection we have is really special and even precious. Sometimes we exactly have the same ideas at the same moment.

We always try to evolve and keep doing more things, and for each venue we create a new choreography. Last time we had Toulouse Low Trax performing live, slowly building up his minimalistic drum sounds over the sounds we already had, these were mostly spoken word, extracts from conversations from a movie or poems that came from boomboxes we were holding. I love art, that’s where I come from; my interests and my educational background, but I’m happy to not be within the art world anymore. It’s so business minded, almost like being inside a stock market. With Phantom Kino Ballett we operate in a different field, which makes it even more enjoyable for me. 

Q: I feel like your sound is always cinematic, there’s different things happening, twists and different sounds, as if it has a visual layer attached to it. Do you think this is caused by your background and strong interest in art?

A: I like that you describe it as cinematic, but it’s not something I create consciously. I don’t have a picture or story I want to tell in my head. I try to imagine the space, and most importantly the scene of the place where I’m playing. Obviously, it’s not always possible to get a full image of the scene, but I consider which things they like to consume for example. To reach a crowd, I try to imagine and adapt to their energy. I aim to bring different moods, colours and emotions into a set, which is just how I perceive life, my life.

Lena Willikens plays our basement this friday alongside nosedrip and Woody'92. Tickets are still available online and at the door. 
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