Sven von Thülen: 'House and techno have become the dinosaurs of electronic music'

Time Out talks to the techno historian ahead of his return to Beijing

It’s easy to forget that it’s only relatively recently that electronic music hit the mainstream. These days DJs are some of the top-selling artists in the world and any pop star worth their salt has five dance remixes of every single, but it wasn’t always this way.

Electronic music may not have originated in Berlin, but the city has played a crucial role in its development and assimilation into mainstream culture.

The multi-talented Sven von Thülen has witnessed and played an integral part in the emergence of Berlin as the world’s capital of electronic music. In addition to his regular appearances at legendary club Berghain since it opened, he has pioneered an intellectual approach to understanding the scene’s development. His history of the rise of Berlin techno – Der Klang die Familie: Berlin, Techno, und die Wende (The Sound the Family: Berlin, Techno, and the Turning Point) – has been translated into several languages, and his documentary, Wendeklang, on the role techno music played in the merging of Eastern and Western youth cultures after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is essential watching for any fan of the genre.

You saw the evolution of the Berlin electronic scene. Is there anything you miss about the early days?

Just to be clear, I didn’t witness the very early years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I came to Berlin in the mid-’90s. For me, it was still an unbelievable playground back then, and it felt intensely free. Since then a lot has been commoditised and gentrified, but there’s still enough people out there who are interested in experimenting and pushing the culture forward instead of just trying to make money off of it. So I guess one of the things I sometimes miss is the naivety and awe about what was then new culture and the possibilities that Berlin’s special political situation afforded.

How has the scene grown?

One of the greatest things about Berlin’s nightlife and club culture is and always has been its constant change. Everything is very transient. Lately those changes have become less obvious. Most internationally-known clubs like Berghain, Watergate, Salon zur Wilden Renate or about:blank have been around for years, in some cases over a decade. That is not to say that Berlin’s club scene isn’t still in constant transformation, but as house and techno have become the dominating and somewhat conservative dinosaurs of electronic music, these changes are very often found elsewhere in the world today. One of the great things is that it has become so international. The crowd in Berlin’s clubs are so diverse

You have a diverse portfolio of projects. Is there a particular sound or role you identify with? Musically, I like to keep things open, too. There’s no need to focus on one particular sound and it would bore me after a while anyway. There’s just too much interesting music out there. I like to keep different roles. It’s a luxury to be in this position, but it sometimes comes with certain risks as those different roles are seen as opposing forces. But I think first and foremost I am a DJ, then an author.

What inspired you to write and make films?

I’m a very curious person, and working with different mediums is always a great way to learn something and also challenge myself. The book and the documentary based on the book, which we initially didn’t plan on doing, were true passion projects. My friend and colleague Felix Denk who co-wrote the book with me just wanted to get to the bottom of all those amazing post-Wall Berlin stories we had missed moving to the city in the mid-’90s. We wanted to understand the roots of the culture, the urban myths and everything about them. We never thought about changing the perception of this specific history. The book was intended to be a time machine, to beam you back to the beginnings of house and techno and post-Wall Berlin.

What’s next?

Let’s see what the future brings and what stories there are to tell.

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