Helena Hauff on Qualm, rising status & Leicester

We catch up with Helena Hauff ahead of the release of Qualm, to find out how she combines making music with a touring schedule that’s almost as relentless as her DJing

Feature by Michael Lawson | 27 Jul 2018

It’s hardly uncommon for DJs to flit between two or three cities over the space of one weekend, taking multiple flights to headline parties across the continent, but Helena Hauff’s touring schedule is more strenuous than most. For the month of July, for instance, the Hamburg native clocked up an average of three shows per weekend, and the diary for August and September suggests there’s little chance of her taking the foot off the gas anytime soon.

This perpetual calendar congestion is reflective of Hauff’s unstoppable ascent through the ranks, towards her current position as one of the most revered DJs on the planet. It’s a somewhat unlikely rise, given the rugged, industrial-influenced electronics she communicates. Thundering acid, breakneck electro and Belgian new beat rarities are far from the easiest styles to market to the masses, but her snarling, uncompromising sets continue to strike a chord with an increasingly widening audience.

After landing a BBC Radio 1 residency, her Essential Mix being voted the best of the year and Crack  Magazine placing her top of their ‘50 Most Exciting DJs in the World (Right Now)’ list, 2017 seemed to be something of a landmark year for Hauff. But how well is she coming to terms with this shift towards fame?

“I love it!” she declares honestly. “If Crack say I’m the best DJ in the universe then fine! I find it cool y’know. I really, really love DJing and if people think I’m good at it then it’s nice to know. I’ve never pushed to be famous or had in my head that I want to become this big star or anything.”

In many ways, Hauff is the unlikeliest of superstar DJs: no inflated sense of importance, expansive PR team or even active social media presence. In fact, her self-deprecating demeanour makes a welcome change from the deadpan, black V-neck-wearing techno DJ stereotype. 

“When I was just DJing in bars in Hamburg I was totally cool with it, then when I started travelling more I really enjoyed that as well,” she continues. “Now events are getting a bit bigger and I’m still enjoying it and trying to take things as they come. So far I’ve not really felt there’s been a downside to becoming more famous.”

In amongst the gigs and the accolades, Hauff has also somehow managed to release her fourth record in as many years. Her second full-length album, Qualm sees her revert back to the raw, minimalist hardware jams she made her name with on earlier releases, after experimenting with more melodic elements on last autumn’s Have You Been There, Have You Seen It.

“I enjoyed making the last EP and coming at it from a different angle, but once it was finished I found myself going back to a simpler way of recording, where I’d just be using a couple of drum machines and a synthesiser to create music in a very stripped-back, minimalistic way,” she explains.

“When I first started making music I was really inspired by Bunker Records, and all that kind of stuff was very minimalistic. They wouldn’t use a lot of machines, they wouldn’t use a lot of sounds, they would just try to create something very powerful with not too many elements. One drum machine, one synthesiser and lots of distortion.”

The punk essence of Bunker and The Hague’s mid-90s electro scene is prevalent throughout the 12-track LP, as is a peculiar sense of Britishness. Tracks titled Barrow Boot Boys, Fag Butts In The Fire Bucket and It Was All Fields Around Here When I Was A Kid allude to both Hauff’s fascination with British humour, and, somewhat bizarrely, her regular trips to Leicester.

“I have lots of friends there and released music [on her Return To Disorder imprint] from a band called Children of Leir who’re based there, so I end up in Leicester quite often. It’s kind of the most boring city in the UK!” she laughs.

“I’ve spent so much time there but never DJed there or ever got an offer to play there – I’ve never even met anyone who DJs from there come to think of it. So hello Leicester, you boring bastards, I’m up for it!”

With its relentless acid workouts, sludgy synths and scuzzy electro basslines, Qualm is an LP that evokes images of a desecrated industrial dystopia. Countless contemporary artists have cited the current political turmoil as inspiration for making bleak, dystopian music, but for Hauff, the production process was more visceral.

“When I was making the music, I didn’t really think too much about the outside world,” she admits. “But generally speaking I do think about that kind of thing. The world is a cruel place, and one of the things that I find most interesting about electronic music and specifically electro as a genre is that it reflects on all of the amazing things we do as humans and how intelligent we are, but at the same time can convey the harshness of human nature.”

Hauff's agenda for the rest of the summer is underpinned by appearances at some of Europe's foremost electronic festivals. Dimensions, Flow Festival and Houghton all stand out, but it's perhaps a main stage-closing set at Amsterdam's much-celebrated Dekmantel that reiterates just how far she has come. And despite being far removed from Europe’s primary electronic hubs, Hauff is convinced that her hometown is ideally positioned to connect her to these worlds.

“Hamburg offers me everything that I need at the moment,” she asserts. “I couldn’t live in London and have to travel to Heathrow or wherever, it’s a nightmare. Hamburg is great, it’s just like a 15-minute taxi and you’re back home. Plus you can still smoke inside!”

When probed on whether the current concentration of gigs is sustainable in the long-term, she offers a typically grounded response. “I honestly don’t think it’s harder or more tiring than any other job – just so long as you try and take care of yourself – and right now I absolutely love what I’m doing.

“I really enjoy the touring and the DJing and seeing all the different places and meeting all the different people, and I’d love to do this for as long as possible. Maybe I’ll have had enough of it at some point, but I don’t actually think so. It’s just totally my thing.”

Qualm is released on 3 August via Ninja Tune http://helena-hauff.com/