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Photo by Julia Gunther

On the Edge of Hierarchies: Paula Temple’s Futuristic Approach of Techno Music

May 24, 2017
Text by Hannah Christ
Photo by Julia Gunther

Paula Temple elaborates on her personal development, the apocalyptic side of her experimental live sets and how techno can be political and finds its path towards an inevitable egalitarian future.

Paula Temple is a Berlin-based DJ, producer, label owner and a forward-thinking key figure at the forefront of evolution within the field of electronic music. Performing her unique hybrid sets all over the world, Temple’s work has forged her a reputation for a sublime and fierce performance style. Furthermore, with her label Noise Manifesto, Temple confronts traditional hierarchical structures and establishes a sensible way of collaborating. An interview by femdex founder Hannah Christ.

Hey Paula! I’ve seen you’ve played at Institut fuer Zukunft in Leipzig for the first time last weekend? This is a funny coincidence as I will have my debut there tomorrow actually. You hear a lot of good things about this club - how was your impression like? 

Yes, and I have to say, it’s a really special place. I’ve been very lucky lately getting to play at a lot of clubs and festivals. And I don’t always have huge expectations on diversity and really embedding that into culture. But at Institut fuer Zukunft you really feel the effort that they’ve made into creating their culture. It’s so genuine, in the crowd, in the way they run the club, in the way they’ve treated me, treat each other. So you’re going to feel it tomorrow!

Let’s talk about your personal development. You have been working in the field of electronic music for over two decades, starting out as a DJ when you were just 16 years old. What motivated you to get involved in the electronic music scene and choose this path over something else? What have your first steps into this scene been like?

Going back to when I was a tiny person, age 5, being able to hear for the first time after an operation, from then on I was just obsessed with music. I came across electronic music through Pop or what my parents were playing, stuff like Kraftwerk, and then I discovered Pet Shop Boys, moving on to 808 State. But I was just a 13-year-old teenager when the whole rave scene exploded in England and I was too young for that. So I liked this crossover music, like Nine Inch Nails. Finally, I discovered the underground, like Warp Records, R&S Records and started to buy records at a local independent record store which was heaven for me. When I was seeing a DJ for the first time and hearing two records been mixed together, it sounded like its own different story. That really excited me and that’s what got me turned on to djing. Before that I was also in an orchestra and after I quit this I got a Keyboard. Though I was just dabbling, making stupid noises, nothing serious. But seeing that DJ for the first time, when I was 15 or 16 I was like – “Yup, that is what I want to do!” It was a year later that I’ve got my first real synth and a drum machine. I had no idea what I was doing and was not really dedicated, just making bits of noises. So it was the DJ thing that was really vital to me first.

So when did you reach that point where you knew that this is getting a serious profession? What steps and feelings were involved in that?

I was just letting that obsession taking over. It got serious when I was 20. That’s when I was getting really noticed. I mean I already had started making tracks but I wasn’t seriously thinking about releasing them because I didn’t believe they were any good. But then someone I really respected in this scene, Chris McCormack, one of the best Techno producers at the time, showed an interest in my productions. So I sent them to him and he liked and released them on his record label Materials in 2002. I was also winning some magazine’s DJ competition back then because that just felt like the only way to get noticed. So that in combination with doing some radio shows where I was inviting international guests to record their sets. This radio show won an award then I’ve done a special mix for BBC Radio 1. And this all escalated in combination at the same time, so that’s when I really decided to go professional.

Do you believe in the idea that electronic music is therapeutic and cathartic? Is your work influenced by your current feelings or do you separate emotions from your performance as a DJ or producer?

I find it impossible to separate feelings and emotions from music. It is completely intertwined for me. So the only separation I give myself is when I’m doing a DJ set, or what I call my hybrid set. I mean I know the aim is celebrating and giving that sense of dancing your brains’ out. It’s bearing that powerful energy in a celebrating way. But it’s different when I’m doing an experimental live set like I just performed in Malmö at Intonal Festival.

That experimental set has been totally reflective of how I’ve been feeling. It’s been purely channelled into my creative output. So all my productions in the past year have been apocalyptic. It’s pure hopelessness in a way which is quite different from the productions I had on R&S or on my label Noise Manifesto. They have been powerful, but in a celebrating way still. But these experimental live sets have been totally dystopian, heading the wrong direction, and that kind of sadness and fire from that disappointment. So I actually felt sorry for the crowd that they had to listen to those experimental sets. I even had to ask my friends “is this really fair to inflict this to everyone?”. But my friends are totally into this apocalyptic music and said “yes, this is the catharsis that some people need.”

Your way of performing a DJ set is a hybrid of producing and djing at the same time, creating an outstanding powerful musical journey for its listeners. A very extensive approach of Techno I rarely experience unfortunately. How, when and why did you decide to expand your set up like this?

I’ve been doing it a long time now but I’ve been a vinyl DJ since I’ve started when I was 16. Then I got involved in co-developing a piece of technology, starting around 2000. It was called the MXF8 which is a midi controller designed in a “DJ way”. At the same time Ableton Live Software just came out. It was that revolutionary direction in music production and performing. So I got really into those new technologies; it just evolved and I’ve stayed with it. My passion for djing comes from wanting to transform other people’s music to tell a story by combining. And with this it seems to work very well and gives me the flexibility of trying new ideas. I can carve my own style with much more choice than just playing vinyl. So I really just skipped the whole CDJ thing. I keep asking my other DJ friends “should I’ve been switching to CDJs?” But no – if something works for you, just stick with this set up.

You took an almost decade long break from djing and releasing music as you felt disillusioned about the status quo of Techno culture and were teaching underprivileged children about music production. Eventually you decided to step back into the scene in 2013 with your EP for R&S records. Which reasons lead to this comeback? Did you feel Techno culture had changed to a better purpose during that time? What made you feel ‘connected’ again? 

Yeah, I was running an organisation in England that was teaching creative technology to young people and I was determined to keep running this organisation, but I was also feeling the itch to get back into music for my own creative sanity. Unfortunately, homophobia erupted against myself and my girlfriend at that time which led me to resign and also sue the people. This made me question what I want to do in my life, what’s important and what do I love. From that on, I went back into making music and I also made it with a different kind of energy because of these experiences.

Now you are touring quite extensively around the whole world – up to having five gigs a week. Furthermore, you have a lot more preparation than ‘normal’ DJs have due to the editing work for your hybrid sets. I wonder how do you manage to keep up such a heavy schedule? How do you stay dedicated and not tire out? 

There are some things I just try to ignore. Like being so tired all the time. But I also try to take care of myself during the week. Eventually it is an obsession, so I’m in my studio during the weekdays but of course there are some things that get sacrificed with such a busy DJ schedule. I am not able to spend as much time making new tracks which is quite frustrating but I still try. I’ve just recently been making a bunch of new stuff which I am happy about. So it’s just having to manage my time, my energy, my sleep in the best way possible. And sometimes I’m asking myself “should I do things differently?” Well maybe I should but then I wouldn’t be the way I am. The output would be different. So for now this is okay and I am really keen to clear my time to finish some new music.

Many crucial clubs or events in Berlin during the rise of Techno have been co-created by women and I also have been told by some contributors who have been around for many decades that female DJs haven’t been an extreme rarity during that time. On the other hand there have been feminist initiatives in electronic music – for example female:pressure – that have been active since the end of the nineties. So, I wanted to ask you as a quite constant and well aware protagonist in this scene for a long time, if you could elaborate your own experiences and perceptions on the progress of women in electronic music since the nineties? As I am in my subjective bubble and active in this scene less than 7 years, I can’t really distinguish anymore if things have been improving, worsen or didn’t really change much at all - are we maybe just stuck in a loop?

Before my long break – I guess you can call it my first DJ life – I wasn’t very aware. I was young but I knew I was facing extra barriers, but I couldn’t articulate what they were and I just accepted them. Not that it was a boys’ club but I accepted that in terms of gender I was often the only female and the gender ratio in line ups was nowhere equal. But at that age I accepted that, I didn’t have this critical eye to challenge it yet. After that break, coming back and remembering where the scene I had left was, which I’ve thought was progressing in my vague idea. I went to a club in England with a friend and I could not believe how I was turned into a piece of meat on the dance floor. I didn’t ever remember to be treated like that in a Techno space before. So I went to a few more Techno club nights and it was the same bullshit – hands on me, that I didn’t invite, me and my friends being surrounded like we have been hunted – it was fucking disgusting. And I thought – how the fuck did this happen? That alone made me feel just how regressive the dance floor space has become. I knew that the only safe space for me to dance would be back in the DJ booth as I could be protected by the actual booth. So as I started to reconnect with the music, looking who is producing and then finding these occasional names that looked female but finding out that they’re not. I was like – “what is this? The claiming of female names by males?” It is disappointing because these are also men diminishing the numbers of real female identified producers. Also seeing the same kind of line up ratios, or maybe even worse. But people were also pointing this poor representation of women out and then I looked back and people were pointing this out for the past few years. So it just makes you think that there are not many women involved in electronic music out there. Well, this is kind of true in a self-perpetuating way. Because the less women there are seen the harder it is to be in those scenes. If you feel kind of alone and facing a lot of sexist bullshit, you aren’t going to take this very long. I did notice that a lot of women who were producing or djing in my first DJ life were no longer active. But as I started digging deeper I found out that there were actually a lot of female identified electronic musicians. Since I’ve been back in 2013 to now, I’ve noticed that the more we have been spoken about it and pushed and challenged this, that the more actual changes are happening. This time I think we are determined to make sure that the changes are permanent and we are going in the right direction only. Towards the end of the erasing of women in this scene. We need to keep pushing women to the forefront. Because it shouldn’t be like this and there’s still a lot to readdress.

In your view, how can electronic music itself be political? It lacks of extensive lyrics and operates in many regards different than other music forms can. How is it possible to produce electronic music that implies a strong political statement without spoiling the music too much and moving too far from the driving and rhythmic approach? Is your platform and label Noise Manifesto a way of coping with that?

There’s so much ground in many ways of being political with non-vocal music or something as powerful as Techno. I think there’s lots of space to give a political message. The power of the music itself and even the distaste to conservative people, to controlling people who would sooner have all music shut down. Just the fact that it exists and that we’re pushing it. The spaces that we’re taking and the people that we’re bringing together is part of the politics of what this music can do. I also use the labelling of my tracks sometimes to direct some attention to politics. Furthermore, the way of collaborating can be political, like I do with the Decon/Recon series and Noise Manifesto. Just by taking into consideration: How do we work and produce music together, how do we present it, how does it sound? Who does it appeal to, who would reject it? Is it gaining freedom for more than just myself?

You will be playing in Vienna at Hyperreality on the 25th of May – a festival dedicated to club culture that particularly highlights the idea of a diverse, discursive and paradigm-free space of possibilities and that has a gender balanced line up ratio. What are your thoughts on event approaches like that? Do you think events with a cultural policy like that can serve as the necessary intervention to change the predominant lack of awareness for diversity and freedom?

I mean, we’ve given electronic music scenes long enough to get there by themselves and they didn’t so I think an appeal to interventions of consciously pushing forward to create and awareness and better ratios is what’s needed right now. Then we will get through this phase, get it to be where it should be. So yeah, I totally agree and advocate with this kind of festival policy.

Let’s speak about club culture in general – a term which is used all too often and sometimes pretty recklessly in my opinion. What does club culture mean to you? Do you think we overestimate the power of clubs and electronic music to foster social inclusion? Is club culture and electronic music even something that can operate without elitism, hierarchies and archaic codes as its primary vision pledged? 

I think the power can be in our hands. We just got to not let things slip away. We start off with the vision and the ideals that club music and space is for everyone but we end up operating this not carefully. That’s because the scenes are normally controlled by cis-men who then they only see other lists of men. And we still seem to be stuck in the same sort of hierarchy, like “who get’s the headline”, those kind of power structures and games. We actually don’t need this kind of stuff. I would prefer to see scenes, and I think that is totally possible, who are more aware and take more control of it. This is where we get bills equally. There are a lot of festivals where they just present the line up by alphabetical order. And of course then you start to think about “should I have an artist name to start with an A?”(laughs). But that doesn’t really matter as long as the sizes of letters and where you are on the poster, that all of that is not necessary. I have so much more respect for an event or festival that presents artists equally. At the same time, I know I’m part of the game because of my profile, the way it’s growing and the way people are celebrating me. I end up getting billed on the headlines as well and I know that my agent has to operate in this kind of hierarchical way in order for me to continue being at the level I’ve been received at. So I know that impact, the world I’m placed and the role I play in that hierarchical game. It seems like at the moment at some events, I have to do that in order to reach my audience, in order to gain some influence with a stronger profile. And I know I can do some good with that influence.

Furthermore, especially on the wider scale of the bigger festivals, the issues of how much a DJ can get paid (and some fees are fucking crazy) should be distributed a bit better. Because quite often the headline DJ(s) at some events use up all the budget so that the supporting DJ(s) get nothing. They have been told instead: “Oh well, you know, you can do it for profiling, it can be good for you.” It’s all about positioning and who’s top. Fortunately, I can play at events where I largely don’t get involved in those things. But on occasions I get booked to those big festivals and I see that happening.

What is one advice for expanding the opportunities for underprivileged actors in this business?

What I’ve noticed for myself is that sometimes it’s really hard to say ‘No’ when you know you are being exploited. You even get punished for standing up for yourself. Some of these players and promoters in this scene who have so much power can actually block you. I’ve had that experience at the beginning. But I decided I would sooner starve than let myself being exploited. I know that I have been very fortunate in my whole path in Techno music, the people I have been supported by, being on R&S records, which does mean a lot to a lot of people, so it gives an instant kind of credibility without really knowing much about the music. But what I’ve noticed happening right now, that there are collectives and they are gaining ground because they’re strong together. So make sure that you don’t feel alone, find like-minded people and that you stick together. When issues come up, bombard whoever is blocking your way as a pack, you know (laughs). Furthermore, collectives are a way of branding yourself, but it’s also a way of branding being strong together. And I see this as really working.

Totally agree with you. So one last obligatory question: What’s up next for you on your music schedule?

I’m working my ass off right now to try and finish some new material. I’d like a new single to be released soon. I’m also working on a new album. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I feel good about the direction it’s going at the moment. But I really would like to get a new record out in the next few months. It’s nothing specific really. The last release was Decon/Recon #2 on Noise Manifesto which is a collaboration with three other people (SØS Gunver Ryberg, Aïsha Devi, Rrose – ed. note), which was just fantastic. So yeah, it’s nothing concrete right now.

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Foto von Laura Schaeffer

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

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