Image: Steve Bug
Steve Bug has been right at the heart of the meteoric rise of the German house/techno scene which has seen Berlin and Hamburg overtake London, New York and Chicago in the eyes of many.
Over here he was originally famed for being the founder of Poker Flat Recordings, but down the years has built up a great reputation as a performer behind the decks, as he looks forward to appearing alongside the legendary Sven Vath at Cocoon on Saturday November 22nd at Building Six in London.
One of the most likeable elements of his work as a DJ, producer and label boss, is that he could never be pigeonholed as having a typical German sound. While always staying relevant and up with the times, he has never deserted the roots of house music in more than two decades at the top.
So we talked to him about his early schooling in house music in 1980s Hamburg, and tried to map out the history of the German house and techno scene that we revere so much today…
So tell us about the beginning for you... mid eighties Hamburg, right?
It was more towards the end of the eighties. I'd been listening to electronic music before that but not like house and techno. At the beginning of the eighties I was listening to some early breakdance and funk stuff.
The first time I remember hearing house was when friends invited me to go over to a club in Hamburg, called The Front, and they were playing this new thing called 'house music' and I didn't even know what it was.
Before I went, I went to a record shop in Bremen, my hometown, and I found this very early compilation of house music, just to figure out what it was that I'm going to. So I bought the compilation and put it on at home and thought 'hang on, I already like it', but I couldn't quite predict what was about to hit me when I went to the club in Hamburg.
It was the first time ever that I witnessed a DJ mixing tracks. And I was just simply blown away by the mixture of the music, the energy of the people - it was just a very different feeling to any other club I'd been to before in my life.
Not only because it was a mostly gay club - in general house was rather a gay movement in the beginning, coming from the high NRG into the disco scene, so they were still playing some high NRG tunes.
How did this stuff reach Germany? In England we quite like to copy America - we'd watch the films with breakdancing in, bands like New Order would tour over there and their people decided to build The Hacienda after partying in New York etc. But Germany doesn't seem to be that kind of place. What was the link?
That's a very good question! Because I mean, I can only really speak for Hamburg… my hometown of Bremen had none of this at first.
In the late eighties there were two guys, Jan Helmerding and Matthias Heilbronn [Heilbronn had been partying at the Paradise Garage from 1986 and moved to NYC in 1989, working with most of the big US names of the time] - they're both from my hometown. They were doing club nights on a Thursday.
For me, what I thought was happening in Hamburg was influenced by the US. Klaus Stockhausen was a DJ I remember (hear below a recording of one of his sets from those times).
1986 - Klaus Stockhausen @ Front, Hamburg, Germany by Oldschool on Mixcloud
The club had existed since the mid or even early eighties, it was always a gay club so it had all the disco influences. I think the owners had been to the US a lot to the clubs and just tried to bring it over to their hometown. But really, it was a super-small scene of heads.
At that time, would you say that Hamburg was the leader as a party city in Germany?
It's hard to say. At the time, Berlin was still separated from the rest of Germany. I know from hearing what people say that there had already been underground parties in Berlin… Berlin was very run down for a number of years so there were always places that people could break in to and throw parties. And I did hear of some clubs playing house there but it was usually mixed with other black music like hip hop or whatever.
I don't know about Frankfurt or other cities, but as far as I know, Hamburg was the place where it was happening and the gay scene was super strong. It was where we'd travel to.
From my perspective today I wish I'd have been in the States before that and witnessed the party scene there. At that time the only other cities I'd been to party in were London and Amsterdam. They had strong scenes. London I went to Heaven which was amazing.
What year was it when you first remember seeing a DJ that had been flown in from the UK or the US where you thought, 'wow - this guy's a megastar!'
That's hard to say. I know it was very rare that they had guest DJs at The Front, because it was mostly local DJs. I can remember once or twice a year they'd have a bigger US DJ come in, but I don't remember being there.
But they were booking US DJs in the late eighties? Like the UK was?
I think really it was the nineties when it happened properly. One thing I remember in 1991 or '92, there was this party called Break The Limits which had Colin Dale over from the UK and some other UK DJs… I think Colin Faver as well plus some of the Hamburg techno guys.
So I remember it being one of those events where I thought 'oh my God - there's a big world out there, there's people not only producing music but people travelling around the globe to play shows'. It was also the year where I started to DJ.
In '91 I spent three months in Ibiza as well. This place kind of changed my mind! I used to be a hair dresser before! We usually went to the after parties at Space - they were the only place that were open at six in the morning, and you would usually find me on the terrace where Alex P would be playing and the others…
Yes! Brandon Block!
It's funny how Space is now seen as this international representation of underground music, but back then it was really London, like quite commercial partying.
Yes, it was on the terrace. Inside of Space they were playing this Belgian techno kinda stuff and some Italian stuff. Back then Italy was quite a big influence; I can remember a lot of people who would work in Ibiza in the summer would go to Rimini in the winter; like the promoters and the dancers and the flyer people. There were not many Germans there.
One of the big stories about the history of house music in the UK is how Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold and Nicky Holloway went on holiday to Ibiza and decided the vibe was so good, that they would try and recapture it in London and people would come; which they did.
Was there anything like this in Germany? A conscious copying of something from Ibiza?
I don't think so. Ibiza wasn't really a big thing for Germans at the time, and still, I think there are way more people from the UK and Italy than people who come from Germany. I don't quite know why that is.
Of course, I would hear records that I'd heard all summer in Ibiza being played all winter in Germany, and you're like 'oh my God, I heard this for three months, can you please stop playing it!'.
Why do you think Germany eventually became more famous for techno than house? Because as you say, in the beginning in Hamburg anyway, it was a disco-influenced, housey kind of sound, but in the nineties it basically became more about industrial techno.
I remember at the end of the nineties when I started my label (hear his first release 'Loverboy' below), I was in a bad mood about it all because the house thing was still around but was getting super cheesy and commercial.
Yes the french filtered house was sometimes cool, but you had one part of the scene in that direction, and then the other side of the scene was this super-hard techno and trance. I found myself in the middle, playing one club not hard enough, and then playing in another, not cheesy enough.
I remember saying to some friends, 'if this continues for much longer I'm going to have to stop'. I had to try too hard to make people dance and I couldn't really play what I wanted to play. And I tried, but if you have to go too far over your border to make them dance you kind of think you're in the wrong place.
I guess there were so many producers making trance and hard dance in Germany, but also I figured at the time that a lot of people used to listen to punk and metal and death rock or whatever you want to call it… they suddenly found the attraction in techno music. These were the kind of people that were going to the trance/techno parties.
That's a very good point - that makes sense. This is an interesting history lesson! Now you mention it, you can see in the look of some of the German crowds, that goth element to it.
So before it all went like this, when the scene was building, did you look at the UK and the US and think 'wow - there's something going on there.' Did you believe that maybe the scene was better somewhere else?
When I went for the first time to the UK to party in London, and seeing the people over there and the energy, I kind of had the idea that there was something that I was missing out on. And from listening to the records, especially the early Detroit stuff, and some of the Chicago stuff, I thought they must have amazing scenes over there.
But really, when I thought that, the scenes were already over!
Yep, that's right.
That would have been something I couldn't imagine at the time, that people were doing great music but that there would only be a few events every month. I only found this out any years later when I got to the States to play and I saw that the scene was so small and people saying to me that this was the highlight of the past ten years or something!
It's incredible isn't it?
Also, the Amsterdam scene was a big thing for us. I went there for the RoXY and iT club - they were quite energetic atmospheres. So sometimes I did feel like I was missing out on something, but that often wasn't actually there!
But what I had at The Front was still so special. What they had there was what I think every club should have, which is a dance floor without a bar. It was just a simple room. The next-door room was the bar. If you were in the main room you danced! Very few clubs are set up like this these days.
The Ministry Of Sound main room, The Box, that's just a big dancing space without a bar. That's one of the only major clubs in England that has it, and you're right, it's great.
Every dance floor should be like this! Let's start a revolution!
You're coming over to the UK again this month… we seem to think people like you that are part of the Hamburg and Berlin scenes are amazing and really cool.
At one point, you guys would have thought the same about us, but the balance seems to have shifted, where you see people from good English scenes like Leeds, London and Manchester moving to Berlin so they can make it. So how do you view the UK now? How relevant are we to the music?
From the music side I remember in the nineties there were Soma Records, Junior Boys Own, even 2020 Vision and I'd been following a lot of the UK labels. Suddenly everything changed for us Germans in about 2000, when minimal became a big sound. Suddenly everyone was looking at Germany, at least on the production side of things.
Even the UK dance press was pushing this music, and they'd been really hard for us to reach for a number of years. People would barely take any record for review from Germany before that.
But I think there is a slight switch back to the UK on the production side of things - there is so much good stuff coming out of the UK at the moment. It's such a big market for house music. And also I think the States are coming strong with a lot of good labels.
Party-wise, of course, Berlin has its status as having the 24-hour ability to open a club. And there is a club open pretty much all the time. Since the wall came down, Berlin was important in the German techno scene. And I'd been playing here a lot way before I moved here, which was 16, 17 years ago. There was a big movement towards Berlin to party at the weekends.
When they rebuilt the city the scene got strong, clubs were being built, it was easier for tourism, and then you have party tourism. I think even if every Berliner was to go out in the evenings you wouldn't be able to open all the clubs we have.
The other point, because of the special status Berlin had politically, it was cheap to live here, and it still is cheap to live here. That's a good reason for people to come here, make a good living, and still have time to party. Friends of mine in New York barely have time to party, because they have to work all the time to pay the rent. It's not only that there's a good party scene that people come to Berlin.
We're focusing our showcases on places like London because I think the scene in the UK is great, especially London. You have so many amazing locations. You just have to work with the right people to find them. The people have a different energy.
It's good to know that you still like what we're doing over here, because we often forget what's on our door step and just assume it's better in Germany, just like we used to with the US. As you were saying before, we'd find it hard to believe when US DJs would come over here and tell us how much better the scene is than over there.
They have this saying in Germany, 'the poet is worth nothing in his own country'. You know, even 'in his own city'. I remember when I used to play in Hamburg I would have such small crowds, but now I've left and gone to Berlin, whenever I come back loads of people come out and say that I'm 'one of them' and it's funny, really funny.
But the drive that people have when they go out in the UK is something different! A lot of Germans, when they go out, you kind of feel that you have to entertain them for them to become part of the party, but UK people, they just like to party!
If you want prove him right, you can get your tickets to see Steve, Sven Vath and Christian Burkhardt at Cocoon, via this link.
Interview: Mike Boorman (follow him on twitter here)
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