Norman Nodge: Berghain’s Part-Time Superstar DJ (extended interview)
“I never thought it would be realistic to make my living through DJing. I was thinking ‘it’s fine for me if I can make some money from parties to buy records, so I can afford my hobby’. I was happy with that.”
20 years after he first started DJing and 7 since became a resident DJ at Berlin’s uber-influential techno institution Berghain, Norman Nodge remains as unassuming and understated as when he first started DJing in early 90s Berlin.
“You have dreams of course when you’re young,” he chuckles, “but becoming a full time DJ was never a real aim for me.”
Though he now regularly DJs internationally alongside his monthly Berghain appearances, he continues to operate as a part-time DJ, spends his weekdays working as a local solicitor in Prenzlauerberg.
“I’m a neighbourhood lawyer,” he explains. “I do everything, some criminal stuff, some other bits and pieces.”
Growing up in the GDR (East Germany) he was 16 when the Berlin Wall came down, though, studying at a boarding school just outside the city, stayed away from the revolution as it happened.
“Of course, we heard the news on the radio and TV but for me my first impulse was to wait and see how things develop. I visited West Berlin for the first time one week later,” he recalls.
“I have my own thoughts about things and make my own mind up, I’m not a person who runs with everybody else. For me the wall coming down opened many opportunities in the end but I didn’t have a clear overview initially.”
That he considers all his options and trusts his intuition deeply is amply demonstrated by his unique career curve which has seem him become one of Germany’s most respected techno DJs while carving out his parallel career as a solicitor.
Chatting to Skrufff today over lunch in a Prenzlauer Berg pub that’s largely unchanged since the 80s, he’s softly spoken and friendly admitting that more than a few of his day to day clients don’t even know he is ‘Norman Nodge- Berghain resident DJ’. Not that he’s fussed, in the same way he was unconcerned in the 90s as his DJing remained purely a hobby, as others’ careers took off.
“Mostly I DJed at my own parties. I never made it to DJ at Tresor or E-Work or any of those big clubs from back then,” he says.
“I was never that kind off guy who goes to the club owners and says ‘Hey, I wanna play, blah blah blah’, it was never my thing to be like that.”
“They didn’t ask me either so it didn’t happen,” he chuckles, “But it wasn’t a big problem.”
Concentrating more and more on his law activities as the 90s progressed he reputedly quit DJing at one point as the decade ended, though today he’s quick to correct any misconceptions.
“I didn’t actually retire, no. I continued DJing after 1999 but just didn’t play very often,” he explains. “That was simply because I no longer had time to organise parties so since I couldn’t play at my own parties, I just disappeared (he chuckles again). I went to clubs and still bought records but I didn’t put any energy into promoting myself.”
While refraining from promoting himself, he did, however forge lasting friendships and bonds with future Berghain residents Marcel Fengler and Marcel Dettmann which resulted in Marcel pitching him to Berghain’s management in 2005 when the club needed a reliable warm up DJ for the main (Berghain) techno floor. Passing the test with flying colours, he became an instant resident and seven years later has become one of the most popular, though low-key of all the club’s residents.
Playing anywhere from 4 to sometimes 12 hour sets across warm-up, peak-time or closing he’s versatile in playing ambient as much as the brutally hard techno Berghain’s main floor is most renowned for, and he’s applied his flexibility for the club’s next compilation- Berghain 6. Including tracks from the likes of techno stalwarts Silent Servant, DJ T-1000, Planetary Assault Systems and Jeff Mills the mix is variously experimental, industrial and hard, though seamlessly mixed and powerfully effective, reflecting his experience and approach.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How long did you work on the compilation and where did you begin?
Norman Nodge: “Back in 2010 I was talking with Marcel Detmann to make a CD for a different label so we started collecting tracks then. But in the end that project never happened but I had some ideas. Then last summer I was sitting in a meeting with Ostgut Ton, shortly before the Marcel Fengler mix was released and he said ‘Norman should be next’.
Nick (Hoppner), who does the A&R for Ostgut said ‘OK, that makes sense’, so I started then focusing on this Berghain mix CD.I started with a few tracks that I’d planned for the earlier CD and started collecting more tracks from then. I did a rough mix in April or May, made a track0list and then we began to clear all the rights. Several tracks couldn’t be used for various reasons so I had to find a couple more then in the end it was done in a few days.”
Skrufff: How much did the fact it’s a Berghain CD affect your approach?
Norman Nodge: “I think it represents both Berghain and me. It features tracks I would play in the club, or did play and I think it matches with the spirit of Berghain.”
Skrufff: Did you record it in one take, perhaps with vinyl, or do it all on computer?
Norman Nodge: “I went to Berghain and recorded it there with 2 Technics turntables and 2 CDJ2000s. Then I mixed it and together with Marcel we did a few small overdubs. If you listen very carefully to the mix you’ll hear some incorrect moments but I think that makes the mix a little more vivid.”
Skrufff: Berlin is one of the few places where DJS still play vinyl, are you committed to vinyl long term, do you care about it?
Norman Nodge: “For me it’s a passion to play vinyl. I know if you sit down and talk to guys who play with Serato or CDs or laptops or USB sticks, everybody has some reasonable arguments explaining their choices. For me a record has more sex appeal than an audio file but that’s just my personal opinion, I love it and I want to continue playing vinyl for as long as possible. But I also play CDs and I’m not a person who’s going to be screaming at the barricades either.”
Skrufff: Nick Hoppner was talking recently about how being able to see the wave forms helped him work tracks better since he was able to identify cue and loop points precisely, how much do you think these technological advances are changing the DJing game?
Norman Nodge: “From the pure aspect of DJ skills these changes definitely make DJing easier, it’s definitely easier playing with Ableton, or with files than it is with vinyl records. But I don’t know if that means a better set necessarily. I don’t want to say I love it if someone crashes a mix, but if you hear nice tensions it makes it more energetic, I like it when a DJ isn’t too perfect. Sure you can have a 1000 tracks on a USB stick or a laptop but I think you have to be really careful not to make a mix that ends up being one solid waveform.”
Skrufff: When you’re going to Berghain each month are you taking 100 or so records and a bunch of CDs, is that a fair guess?
Norman Nodge: “The week before I’m due to play I’m usually informed if I’ll be playing the beginning, middle or end of the night, and it depends on the time I’ll be playing which records, and how many, I take with me. For early sets I bring more ambient records usually which I couldn’t play at prime time. In the past I used to carry two or three hundred records with me, but now even if I’m playing 8 or 10 hours I don’t take so many these days. I have an idea of what I’ll play and I’m fine with 100 to 150 records.”
Skrufff: Are you still going record shopping every week?
Norman Nodge: “I try to go to Hardwax every week but I don’t always manage it. I particularly try and go the week before I’m playing at Berghain- I certainly spend a lot of money there.”
Skrufff: Is there someone at Hardwax filtering tracks and putting them aside for you?
Norman Nodge: “No, I have a shelf where some companies who still distribute promo vinyl copies send me their music. So I get promo vinyl, and Hardwax also keep a few records for me if they think I’ll like them and they don’t have many. But there’s not someone there making a pre-selection for me.”
Skrufff: There are thousands of tracks being released now . . .
Norman Nodge: “Which makes it a lot more complicated to find a good track. I don’t buy digital tracks. I get digital promo and I preselect from those; I don’t have the time or inclination to listen to all the digital promos I get sent. Maybe I miss a good track but that’s OK. Over the years I’ve had thousands of digital tracks and just the other week I deleted loads from my hard drive. I don’t go to Beatport to check the new releases, I just check digital promos and records.”
Skrufff: How did you first get involved in rave culture and DJing?
Norman Nodge: “Before the Wall came down I was always very interested in music but we had problems to get records. The normal GDR citizen couldn’t get records so we would tape radio broadcasts. I had the opportunity to go to Russia before the Wall came down and they had some licensed records there so I then started trying to collect all the records I could but it was pop music, not techno. Then after the Wall came down for us it was really interesting to go to record stores where, if you had the money, you could buy all the music you wanted. OK I did not have the money, just pocket money so I was really limited but I bought techno very quickly- and I loved it.
Then we started going to Berlin to parties, not just techno parties, also clubs that played EBM. At the beginning of the 90s we started going to clubs like E-Work, I was buying records and that was the point where we decided ‘OK, I have records, why don’t we start throwing our own parties’. That was when I started. I didn’t have turntables because it was always a question of ‘do I stop buying records for a few months and save up for turntables’ and I always preferred to buy records.
When we threw our first parties, I had no idea how to mix at all. We rented turntables from a company together with amplifiers and speakers and I hired them for a few extra days and started to practise. I couldn’t mix at all at the beginning, it was funny, lots of train wrecks.”
Skrufff; How long did it take you to be able to buy your own decks?
Norman Nodge: “We worked together with one company hiring their loudspeakers and stuff regularly and after a while they made me the offer to buy them.”
Skrufff: When and how did you meet Marcel Dettmann?
Norman Nodge: “We were making parties together and had some nice parties with headline DJs and Marcel would play sometimes, just to give him the opportunity to play. It was like that for me too. We met before that, we grew up in towns quite close to each other.”
Skrufff: When you started at Berghain did you have an idea of how big it would be as a DJ gig?
Norman Nodge: “I recognised how big the Ostgut thing was, sure, I’d often gone to the Ostgut club as a guest (clubber). Of course, I knew that if I had the chance to play there regularly it would be a really big deal. I was really excited about having the opportunity to give them a mix.”
Skrufff: What was that very first gig like, how did it go?
Norman Nodge: “I was booked to play a 4 hour warm up set which made things a bit easier. I’d been to the club many times before so I’d seen how it worked which also helped. When I started the club was totally empty because I started as soon as it opened, so I could start in my own way. Which made things easy: people came and started dancing and I gradually built up the crowd. I felt great from the very first moment.”
Skrufff: What makes Berghain so special and pretty much universally popular?
Norman Nodge: “It’s so special because of the combination of many factors- it’s a great venue, the great PA, the great organisation. I played at parties back in the day where the promoter would say before it ‘OK, you’ll get this much money’ then after it they’d say ‘we had to rent some equipment so we can only pay you less money’. You never have these kind of discussions when you play Berghain, you shake hands then everything happens exactly correctly. It’s really German actually. And of course the door policy and the crowd is important. Bu if not so many people wanted to come in then you couldn’t afford to be so choosy on the door.
Skrufff: Have you ever been turned away on the door at a club?
Norman Nodge: “No, never, luckily.”
Skrufff: how much attention do you pay to other DJs and competition?
Norman Nodge: “None, I don’t care. Of course, I’m happy to play lots of gigs in interesting places but I don’t compare myself to others.”
Skrufff: Have you had any disastrous gigs?
Norman Nodge: “You sometimes have gigs where you think, ‘OK, I don’t want to do that again but never sooo bad. Sometimes you have problems with the turntables, and sometimes you feel like you’re in the wrong club because it’s full of 18 year old kids expecting a Schranz DJ. But up until now I can say, they’ve usually been either great or at least OK.”
Berghain 06 (by Norman Nodge) is out on Ostgut Ton on October 22.
Jonty Skrufff: http://listn.to/JontySkrufff