You could easily imagine a proud pair of plaits resting on his square shoulders. He would have a cape, armoured chestplate and black leather boots for wading through the cold waters of the far North. Rødhåd, formidable follower of Odin and Thor, whose spirits he shakes to life behind the decks. They call the man the Techno viking. There’s certainly something in that, for the Berlin producer’s signature sound seems to combine thunder and lightning with nightmarishly dark beats, and his performance at Lyon’s Nuits Sonores a few weeks back was no exception. But apart from the tribal tattoos wrapped around his arms and the fiery red of his thick beard, Mike Bierbach rather gives the air of a kind gentleman, not bloodthirsty nor warmongering for one second. Instead of the horned helmet, he wears a beret, and a peaceful smile that seems never to leave his lips. Rødhåd is no fighter. He is a lover. Under the cold, hard surface, his music rides the deep and delicate grooves of a more sensitive quest: his is a long path to an unlikely utopia. Rødhåd is a dreamer. At 32, the German just released a new EP, Sohne der Erde, which marks the seventeeth razor-sharp release from the Dystopian armoury, a label he founded in 2012.
A stamp and a name which signify Rødhåd’s fascination for these impossible mythic tales. Against a scene which all too often shows its bombastic, unrelentingly garish colours, Rødhåd leads a masterful resistance. The taciturn man, seemingly incapable of any sign of enthusiasm whilst in the mix, offers up a kind of techno that, when gutted, turns out to be deeply reflexive – like a new lens through which to see the world. Dance but think, Rødhåd seems to say between the beats of the kick drum. Perhaps because his career as an artist came from an environment shaken constantly and to the core by new ideas. Rødhåd is a man from Berlin. First from the East, where he was born, at a time when the famous wall of grey concrete divided the city in two opposed lands. And later from a reunified capital, which little by little saw a transformation into a hot house of world culture. Among the skeletons of soviet buildings and settings of past woes, people took up the paintbrush, the pen, and musical production once again. Rødhåd is the embodiment of just that fusion. In the booth, the man is, by very nature, bearer of a powerful history. Just as the Vikings were, aboard their drakkars.
Rødhåd, the gentle Viking
You’re known as a Viking.
They even call me the ‘Viking of techno’! But it’s mainly the French who use this expression for me. I think it’s because of my big beard and the kind of lumberjack look I give off. They take me for some sailor set for the far North. If I really had to be a Viking, I’d definitely be some kind of farmer, taking care of a herd of animals on a big bit of land next to a forest. The idea suits me well, I think.
In Viking mythology, there is a sacred place where the most valiant warriors go after death: Valhalla. It’s an afterlife utopia, a paradise that each man dreams of entering. The question of paradise, of the perfect place, for the living too, seems to interest you. Dystopian, the name of your label, makes a reference to these imaginary societies where everything seems perfect on the surface…
It’s something like that! Take my last EP, for example: Söhne Der Erde (editor’s note, ‘Son of the earth’). The title is taken from one of my favourite books, Ringworld by Larry Niven, an American sci-fi novel which talks about extra-terrestrials and space exploration. The story’s main characters search at all costs for a planet where they can find refuge, like a kind of mini paradise where nothing could happen to them, where they could supposedly live in safety. At Dystopian, we are fascinated by this concept of dystopia, the ideal society which turns out nightmarish in reality, like a dictatorship. The first EP I released was called 1984, like the famous George Orwell novel that explores a totalitarian future. Since then, each Dystopian project has taken its name from a film or a book with the same theme. Because it captivates us and fuels our creativity. And generally they are pretty great words or expressions. One of the songs from the EP, Verhängnisvolle Nebel, means ‘fatal fog’!
To describe the musical DNA of the label, you speak notably about the inspiration that the ‘post-industrial era’ and ‘factory noises’. So what are your first memories of these cold sounds?
A whole load of things stand out still. I feel like I grew up in a kind of constant commotion, as if I had been surrounded by noise for the whole of my childhood. The very first big din, a slightly dark one, that I can remember is that of the rattling train that passed not far from my parents’ house in Berlin. We always knew when it was coming: we heard the loud flustered noise from afar, the ground shook a little. I’ve always had this kind of racket in my head. I lived in a neighbourhood called Hohenschönhausen. At the time, it was a new area, which had been completely renovated after the fall of the wall. The flat blocks were huge, nicely designed but with a slightly soviet look. With toilets in each apartment, which meant something for my family.
Why is that?
I was born in Prenzlauer Berg, in what was for a long time East Berlin. That’s where my parents spent a good part of their lives. There, they lived in an old and completely dilapidated flat block dating from the Second World War. The walls seemed as though they could cave in at any moment, there was no real electricity, nor gas to cook properly. And the toilets were on the ground floor, in the communal part of the building. It was pretty grim. In fact, for my parents, life in Prenzlauer Berg took on a rather dystopic appearance when Hohenschönhausen promised a kind of real-life utopia. To have one’s own toilets, it’s as though, in a certain sense, a dream became reality. And hearing the train far off, it was a taste of the world turning round.
But what was the first concrete influence that gave you your passion for the dystopic?
It was a film I saw when I was young. Running Man, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the story of a good cop who ends up in prison then becomes, despite himself, the main character of a TV show. I have seen it dozens and dozens of times. Back then, I could watch it several times a week, I played that videotape on a loop. I think it’s the first dystopic work that really inspired me. In the film, the community is divided into two distinct camps. And then, with the television, there is also the idea of Big Brother. And whilst we were living in East Germany, we also felt like we were constantly being watched and surveyed by a Big Brother. It was the political police, the State Security. What’s more Hohenschönhausen was the area of Berlin where they had put their biggest prison. The way in which people lived in East Germany, their financial difficulties, the pressure of authority are things which always moved me and that I call upon when I’m working.
“I didn’t use to go out often in Berlin. And then I discovered Berghain. The first time, I went alone. I remember climbing the great staircase and hearing the bass from the sound system. It seemed I had found my paradise.”
What kind of childhood did you have in this reunified Berlin of the 90s?
My father was an engineer and my mother worked in the business sector. It was a good time. I was never far from my friends. We did skating in the city parks, and BMX too. And we would smoke weed after school. It all seemed easy to us. We didn’t have much to worry about, unlike the older generation. At the time, I was already coming across techno music. The majority of my friends were older than me, they went to parties and started taking me along. There was a lot of drugs. I tried a fair bit when I was quite young, I would say. And very quickly I started DJing. I liked it but it wasn’t my priority. I was also quite wise, I wanted to work hard at school, get a degree. It was a bit sneaky really: with a degree, I could find myself a job that would give me enough money to buy the records I wanted. I wouldn’t have imagined myself becoming a DJ at that point. It wasn’t part of my plans. In reality, after college, I didn’t have much of an idea what to do. I scraped by in drawing so I did art school and became an industrial designer. I had that job for ten years.
Do you remember the first time you went clubbing in Berlin?
I remember it perfectly. I was 14 years old. It was December 31 1998. Well, it wasn’t really a club, but a big party at Columbiahalle, a famous concert hall in Berlin. Hardy Hard and WestBam were on the decks that night. It was a party in homage to the famous techno club E-Werk which had just closed in 1997. Before that night I had celebrated New Year at my friends’ houses. But that night I think we took every drug we could get our hands on. We barely knew where we were. So at Columbiahalle, I spent all night sat on a bench. It lasted seven or eight hours. I was full of all kinds of things, completely stupefied by the experience I was having. The drugs, the loud music, the lights, all those people… I couldn’t manage to get up and dance. For a long time, I kept a radio recording of that night.
After embarking on your career as a DJ, you became a regular on the decks at Berghain. What do you remember about your very first night at Berghain as a clubber?
I set foot in Berghain for the first time in 2004. At the time I went out very rarely to clubs in Berlin. Everyone glorified the city, already saying it was the ‘techno capital’ of Europe. Honestly, that wasn’t the case. The techno that got played there was in reality very cheesy, commercial and almost poppy. I didn’t like it at all. There was only one place in Berlin I went out: the Casino. It was an old disused railway station where the label BPitch Control put on its first nights, where Paul Kalkbrenner played before he was Paul Kalkbrenner. As the rest that was going on in Berlin didn’t appeal to me, I would travel further afield. I often went to party in the North of the country, in Mecklemburg, near the Baltic Sea. Then I discovered Berghain. I knew it was the place to be, that it was the old Ostgut… The first time, I went alone. I remember climbing the big staircase and hearing the bass from the sound system. It seemed I had found my paradise.
You ended up behind the decks of the club for its closing sets, on the Monday. How, as a DJ, do you approach that kind of moment? What kind of tone and techniques must you bring into the booth?
Back then, it wasn’t very common to play until Monday morning. The club decided to do it on the Sunday night, when they saw plenty of people still dancing, who weren’t quite ready to leave. A closing set is a moment of complete freedom, where you play more spontaneously, without asking yourself if you should match your set to a certain tone or trend. You don’t really think, you play by instinct. You can try new things, broaden your range of records, play music that’s not necessarily intense, more to float along to because the crowd are more chilled than at a normal clubnight. When I come to that point, I am almost overheating. I’m no longer really paying attention to what is happening in front of me, I’m simply trusting my instinct. There is nothing other to do than letting oneself go.
At the time, you were working in an architect’s firm. Where did this interest for design come from?
My father, who was an engineer, liked it a lot. He must have passed something down to me. I’ve always done drawings, even in nursery. When I was five, I came up with sketches from different perspectives and at a young age I started to graffiti on abandonned flat blocks in what was then East Berlin. The architect’s office was a little studio. I was the only designer. The point of my job was to create visualisations of the architects’ plans, to ‘digitalise’ them in a way. It was mostly fairly classic modern architecture. But I found myself doing unlikely things. Once, I had to develop the blueprints in three dimensions for the destruction of an old power plant from the 70s, in the North of the country.
“Techno is music for feeling, it dives into us, you forget everything around you, the people, the city, the daily routine, and discover new dimensions. That might seem over the top, but at the end of the day, it’s reflective music.”
When did you decide to leave the job?
In 2013. I could have left earlier than that, I already had quite a lot of bookings, but until then I had my worries, I didn’t think my career was likely to take off, I thought I might lose it all overnight. It was the famous German anxiety, no doubt. Die Angst, as we say. The Germans always want to cover their arses, to make sure nothing should ever happen to them, no surprises. What we need at all costs is a fixed job, a good pension and a good retirement. I am no different. I am German, that’s it. So I carried on my job as a designer as long as I possibly could, all the while racking up the shows. I wanted a safety blanket to pay my rent and the rest of it. At that point, my earnings from DJ sets were like pocket money that I used to treat myself: buying records and hardware, synthesisers… Eventually, I started to travel a lot as a DJ. Each weekend I was somewhere else, more and more often abroad. It became fairly difficult to keep up the jobs I had to do for the firm, I couldn’t keep on with the late hand-ins. I was only working with the architects Monday to Thursday. Since I had lots of gigs, this time I wasn’t afraid to leave my job. I had enough to live on, so I left. I began a new chapter of my life. I have to admit that I was quite afraid, despite it all. I still wasn’t sure it would work! I said to myself that there was even a chance I would return to my old job. I was lucky.
Let’s go quickly back to your music and style. Beyond the factory noises, you paint a fairly sombre, melancholic picture…
I have always found that feelings of this kind were much more powerful and deeper than happy ones, which are equally fairly easy to present and interpret. In fact, harsh and low tones have always caught my attention more. I quite like the kind of atmospheric music that goes along with intense films, where there are fights, the songs which seem to tell of an oppression of the body and mind. That’s what I’m into, for me it’s more powerful.
What kind of feeling do you think these nuances offer to those who come to dance to your music?
On a dancefloor, you have a bit of everything, so I think there are people who are happy to hear this kind of music. Let’s say that it conveys a strange kind of happiness, different from that of pop. It is music for feeling, it dives into us, you forget everything around you, the people, the city, the daily routine, and discover new dimensions. That might seem over the top, but at the end of the day it’s reflective music.
What is this dimension you talk of? Who do we find there, what does it look like?
It could be anything. Like an extremely light place, with a great plain. But also a dark cave, a disused metro station buried deep underground. Down there, there would be a concentration of all who live on earth. The good and the bad. I come back to the books and films of dystopia: each time, there are two enemy camps. One is a rebel community, which fights against the established authority, and the other dominates the world. I would be part of the first group. I see myself as belonging to a kind of anti-establishment underground. And my music would be the soundtrack to this revolt.