Sally C on Berlin, Dundee & Denis Sulta's FLY Open Air
Ahead of her appearance at FLY Open Air Festival in Edinburgh this month, Sally C explains how she's taking on Berlin's techno market by delving deep into house and disco classics
In true Berlin fashion, Sally C – aka Sally Caithness – is caught up in bicycle traffic when we phone through. "I'm playing in London this weekend, so I was going to pick up a nice little record,” Caithness explains once she’s arrived back home to her flat in the German capital. The gig in question is at the popular London venue Phonox, alongside the club’s resident DJ HAAi. “I'm really excited to play there,” she enthuses. “I played in London a couple of weeks ago, and I'm back again this week, so it should be good. I've never played in Phonox before, but I've heard it's a really good club."
Caithness’ profile is certainly on the rise. As well as bagging shows at the likes of Phonox, she regularly plays in clubs such as Griessmühle, Chalet and About Blank in Berlin, her adopted hometown since 2015. She has a number of festival appearances on the cards this summer – including the FLY Open Air festival this month, for which she was hand-picked to play by festival curator Hector Barbour, better known as Denis Sulta.
"Hector's one of my good friends,” says Caithness. “I actually met him in Scotland, I can't remember, it was probably at an after-party or maybe one time when he was playing or something.” Both Caithness and Barbour now live in Berlin: “Our friendship group is quite close here. We've spent a lot of time together and just want to support each other, really. Obviously he's seen me play a few times and really liked what I was doing, and wanted to encourage me. I think he had a lot of friends who helped him when he was like up-and-coming, so he wants to do totally the same thing with all his pals who are doing good things. He's a wee soul, a wee cute soul, Hector," she laughs.
Sister Swedge and DJing in Dundee
Though Caithness is Belfast-born, it was in Dundee that she cut her teeth as a DJ. After moving to the city in 2010 to study marketing, Caithness and close friend Rebecca B (Butler) began performing under the rather magnificently-named joint-alias Sister Swedge, dishing out a broad selection of vintage house and disco cuts. As well as playing the likes of Sub Club, they ran their own night at Dundee hotspot The Reading Rooms. “After about a year, we just decided we wanted to do our own thing. No woman ran a night at the Rooms, so we were like, ‘fuck it'," Caithness says frankly, "'let’s just do it’".
Despite the success of Sister Swedge, by 2015 Caithness was eager to take the next step in her music career. At that point, as a DJ still learning the ropes, Berlin was an obvious choice, she explains. "I just knew I needed to move somewhere for my music. It was great living in Dundee and I learnt a lot there, but I just knew I needed to be in a bigger city and somewhere where music was taken a bit more seriously, on a bigger scale."
She continues: “It was quite hard for me to move away from Becky, we were really, really close, and also DJ partners – I could have easily stayed in Scotland for another two or three years and done that, but I felt like I really needed to do my own thing. I just had a really good feeling about Berlin. I'm glad that I moved here, and that I stuck to my guns with my music. I had a pure gut feeling about what I was doing, so I guess I went with that instinct and just slowly built up a wee profile here."
Sally C and Berlin: Octavibes, Waffles, and the city's DJ culture
Caithness has wasted no time in maximising on that opportunity. She has been involved in various projects across Berlin, including the Octavibes collective, and collaborates with friends on a number of parties. “I’ve got a lot of friends here who I work with and they’re doing amazing things,” she confirms “Like Brame & Hamo, they’re a duo from Sligo, and Cromby – he’s one of my really good friends who I run a night with called Waffles.”
One obvious point we feel obligated to raise is that Berlin has become something of a cliché for wannabe musicians, with the city inundated by fledgling DJs and producers looking for their big break. When we put this to Caithness, she explains that her particular style – a preference for late 80s/early 90s house and timeless second-hand vinyl finds – is in fact a unique selling point in a techno-saturated market.
"For me, Berlin is the techno capital of the world. I don't actually own any techno records. All of the stuff that I'm playing is really old house and disco vibes. There's not so much of a market here for that," she explains, "but there is definitely a gap in the market for it. It's oversaturated in terms of techno, for sure, but in terms of house nights and disco nights, there's a wee gap to do that.
"If you get an opportunity to do a night at a club, you just have to take the risk and go for it,” she adds. And according to Caithness, if you’re looking to carve out a profile in Berlin, doing your homework is crucial.
“It just takes time to chip away at a scene,” she reflects. “You have to understand the scene. At first, I remember coming over here and going out a lot, sober, just by myself. Going to techno nights as well – I love techno, I think techno is amazing. I wouldn’t regularly listen to it, but I do love dancing to it! My eyes and my ears were opened so much to a lot of different music when I moved here, so that was really nice.”
With our time almost up, we close out the chat with a cheeky question about what the FLY Open Air festival audience might expect to hear from her set at the event. “Oh, well, I’ll tell you, I never plan my sets, ever,” she laughs. “Before I go to a gig, this is how I prepare: I have my friends’ tunes – like new, unreleased stuff; I’ll go record shopping and buy second-hand records from Bikini Waxx Records in Berlin – it’s the best record store EVER,” she near-shouts with enthusiasm – “and then get some maybe some new tunes that other people have sent me or that I’m on the mailing list for.”
“It just depends,” she sums up. “You can’t plan a set because you don’t know the crowd. I’ll probably bring quite a lot of disco. Hector’s curating it, and the line-up’s amazing – so you know it’s going to be really fun vibes all day.”
Sally C plays FLY Open Air: Sulta Selects at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, Sat 19 May 2018