Amelie Lens is a techno phenomenon
The Belgian DJ and producer is completely unstoppable right now
Amelie Lens’ fans like to show their love. They crowd into her raucous, sell-out gigs, where she unloads her all-enveloping techno with the skill and sheer emotional engagement of a genuine lover of the genre. On social media her every post, video and pic is met with rapture. And, especially, they bring gifts to her shows: from bunches of sunflowers to local football shirts with ‘Amelie’ on the back (she has 10 so far), a pillow in Serbia, a big flag with ‘you are always welcome in our country’ on it in Uruguay, artwork by the score, from drawings to a hand-painted jacket with her picture on the back to a painting of her cats (she couldn’t cart the frame around South America so she cut the canvas out and has it proudly displayed on the wall at home), toys for her cats (in Belfast), a ring with a cat on it, “really touching letters” and a whole lot more.
“It’s unbelievable really,” she says, “especially as most of the things people do or give are things that I really like. It’s as though they actually know me.” For every action, though, there is a reaction, and not everyone is happy with Amelie Lens’ meteoric rise over the past two years. “I think I read somewhere that I’m the loved and most hated DJ ever,” she says, “And I thought, ‘It’s true, I am’.”
The criticism, that somehow her success is ‘unreal’ or ‘unearned’, cuts her deeply – particularly when it comes from those she looks up to – but she gets it. Older DJs grew up in a different time, whereas she had fans in countries she hadn’t even visited yet, thanks to social media. “It just happened so fast – too fast,” Lens says. “So I understand. It’s going to take me ten more years to prove myself, but I’m going to do it.”
Amelie Lens plays just once a year in her home town, Antwerp, and like every other gig she’s played in the past 18 months, this one is sold out. In a plain black T-shirt dress and Doc Marten boots, Lens stands before the adoring throng at Ampere club, dancing and smiling behind the decks. One girl near the front, desperate for Amelie to sign her T-shirt but tantalisingly out of reach, whips it off and passes it to a guy closer in – an apparent stranger – to hand to the DJ, and he chivalrously gives her his own tee to wear while Amelie scrawls her name, all three grinning wildly at the strangely intimate transaction. Following the show, after engaging with her fans for a few minutes, Lens, her partner and tour manager Sam will tumble into a taxi home to their beloved cats, Winter, Morris and Frank. Tomorrow morning, they’ll get up and do it all over again, heading to Florence and the next day, Lisbon.
It’s a typical weekend’s work for Lens, who in the past two years has gone from relative unknown to techno’s hottest property. The 28-year-old has played massive stages at festivals including Awakenings and Drumcode, released multiple EPs, including three on Pan-Pot’s Second State, and started her own imprint, Lenske. She has hundreds of thousands of fans on Instagram and Facebook who follow her every move. And, as Mixmag learns over a few hours wandering around Antwerp, her storming ascent has been a combination of extremely hard work and a few cosmic strokes of good luck.
Techno first grabbed Amelie Lens when she was 15 years old, attending Belgium’s renowned Dour Festival. “My friends had a list of things they wanted to see, but I didn’t really care,” says Lens, sipping a soy cappuccino at a cosy cafe. As usual, she looks Berghain-ready. Today she’s in a black sateen bomber jacket, baggy black Levi’s and black leather Adidas trainers.
Lens, an independent spirit from an early age, was wandering around Dour by herself one night when she walked into the techno tent. She doesn’t remember who was playing, just the feeling that came over her as the beats hammered out of the speakers. “It was just so dark and loopy, there were no breakdowns,” she says. “I was like, ‘What is this?!’ And I loved it.” Techno had Lens at ‘hello’, and she would spend the rest of her teenage years crossing Belgium by train by herself to attend gigs. “I didn’t go there to talk, so I wouldn’t really meet anyone,” she says. “I just went for the music.”
She remembers getting home at 10am the morning after a Boys Noize gig. Her grandmother, with whom she lived, was worried sick. When Lens went to Dour, she told her grandma she was going camping. “I was a horrible teenager,” she laughs. “My poor grandmother!”
A lot of her fans are familiar with her grandmother, having seen footage of the 80-year-old dancing to Amelie’s set at Pukkelpop Festival in August last year. “She didn’t really understand what I do,” Lens says; “she would tell her friends I was travelling the world singing.” So Lens decided to show her. The festival turned it into a vlog, which caused some to accuse Lens of pulling a publicity stunt. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Lens. “She’s one of the most important people in my life.”
When Lens was five years old, her 32-year-old mother, who had raised her on her own, died of a sudden heart attack. Lens was there when it happened. For the next six years she was carted between her aunts’ houses as they tried to deal with their own growing families and a troubled little girl. Lens was sent to live with her grandmother when she was 11.
“In hindsight, those first six months after my mum died were crucial,” she says. “But no-one ever told me what happened; we didn’t really talk about it. My aunt told me she went to heaven but I didn’t know what that was. I was so confused.” Lens became “cold and closed”, too scared to get close to anyone in case something happened to them. “I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t eat well, I was pretty fucked up.” The thought of having children of her own terrified Lens for a time: the fear that if something happened to her they’d have to go through the same thing. “It impacted on so many things and I never realised it,” she says.
But the trauma of losing her mother also made Lens the person she is today: relentlessly ambitious and squeezing every last second out of life.
“Every week I think, ‘What could I have done better?’” she says. “Maybe if I had a more stable childhood and didn’t watch my mother pass I would be more chill, like ‘maybe I can do it next week’... but maybe I can’t do it next week! I want to do it now!” And if something is making me unhappy I take it out of my life because [I know] there is no time to be unhappy.”
As well as walking into the techno tent, another thing happened at Dour that would have a huge impact on Lens’ life. On the way out, the gangly 15-year-old was scouted by a modelling agency. “I was not the pretty girl at school, I was the tall skinny one. I was like, ‘Huh’?” she says.
But after an early job for Levi’s proved lucrative, Lens saw a way to help her grandmother make ends meet. “People give me a hard time about the modelling, but everyone had a job before they were DJs,” she says. “Before I modelled, I was cleaning toilets. Of course I was going to choose modelling over cleaning toilets.”
Lens didn’t particularly enjoy her 10 years of modelling, especially being told what to do, but like everything she applies herself to, she became good at it. She spent a lot of time in Paris and was a favourite of Jean Paul Gaultier, who called her ‘Ma petite Belge’. But the agencies always knew that DJing was her first love. “They found me at a music festival, so they knew,” says Lens, who also used to make soundtracks for fashion shows. One clothing brand that she never modelled for flew her to Beijing to play at an event, but when another client asked her to play pop songs in Berlin, she turned it down. “I told them, that’s not what I do,” says Lens, who was well into darker house music and techno at that point.
She used to turn down modelling jobs on Fridays to avoid clashes with DJ gigs. She remembers skiving off early from a shoot in London with the famous photographer Tim Walker, to see Raresh in Antwerp – only to find out the gig was the next night. And once, in fabric, while losing herself to the sounds of DJ Hell, she wondered who was trying to call her mobile before finally realising that it was her alarm clock. She had a shoot for Harrods that morning. “I went straight there from the club,” she says. “They didn’t know how talkative I usually am so they just thought I was really relaxed and chilled out,” she laughs. “They booked me again.”
Three years after she fell in love with techno, Lens started learning to DJ and produce tracks with the help of Sam. The two met in a club on the night of her 18th birthday and bonded over their shared love of the same music. “I went in the studio with him so many times because I could learn more easily from him. Instead of watching YouTube videos I could see how it worked,” she says. “I started making edits for myself, like old-school tracks with a different kick, and that’s basically how I started to produce.”
They started a party series in Antwerp together called Matterhorn and Lens began DJing under a variety of aliases, including Soren, with Rosalie de Meyer (they would end up playing a party with DJ Hell in Munich), and Renee, which was her mother’s name.
And, while still modelling, DJing and producing, Lens and Sam launched an oatmeal company, Baerbar. Lens is very health conscious. “I hate seeing mums buy their kids junk at the supermarket,” she says. “At first I wanted to make health bars that could be sold in schools, but we ended up going with oatmeal in a cup.”
The couple bought a three-story house in Antwerp. They made oatmeal on the ground floor, their music studio was on level two and they slept on level three. But almost instantly, the oatmeal was a hit. Their house wasn’t big enough to keep up with the demand for Baerbar. “We would do everything ourselves – I remember crying with exhaustion one night while I was putting fruit and oats in the cups,” she laughs.
By this point, Lens had started DJing under her birth name and created an accompanying Facebook page and SoundCloud account where she posted podcasts. And one day, after months of sending her tracks to labels without a reply, Italian label Lyase told her they wanted to release the tense, atmospheric ‘Exhale’, with Lens’ trademark breathy vocals prominent in the mix. Berlin duo Pan-Pot heard the record and wanted to sign it too, only Lyase beat them to it. So they approached Lens and told her they’d like to sign her next record. They were taken with her “rough but fresh sound”, says Pan-Pot’s Thomas Benedix. “In my eyes, Amelie was bringing back the old acid sound from the 90s. I totally forgot how fun it was to listen to this kind of energised, fast techno from back in the day, and I love how she combines it with her own fresh influences.”
“I cried on our first Skype call, I was just so happy,” says Lens, who describes the Pan-Pot guys as “a family”. ‘Exhale’ found another famous fan, too: Maceo Plex. “I was still playing really small gigs back then,” says Amelie, “and someone messaged me [with a video from a Maceo gig] like, ‘Hey, isn’t this your track?’. I started crying. Sam came in saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I just said, ‘Look’!”
In September 2016, Lens was about to play one of her first gigs with Pan-Pot when she fainted behind the decks. They sent her home. “I was so upset,” she says. But it was the wake-up call she needed. She and Sam quit Baerbar immediately – “we didn’t make any kind of announcement, we just stopped,” – and she called her agency to tell them she was finished with modelling too. “They were so happy for me, I think they were popping champagne,” she says. “They were like, ‘Finally! You’ve made a decision!’”
When Lens turned her full focus on music, she rose staggeringly fast. Richie Hawtin remembers seeing her at a showcase at ADE 2017 and being blown away. “I saw that she was surrounded by a bunch of mostly male DJs and delegates all just stood there watching her. I know how much I hate it when you’re trying to play and there are people just standing motionless behind you – it’s so annoying! So I [decided] to go on the dancefloor and dance. I couldn’t see Amelie from where I was and was sucked into the music she was playing, a mix of old and new strong techno records, tough but not hard, fast and throbbing, hypnotic and energised. Honestly, it was really refreshing to hear a techno set that wasn’t too abrasive and didn’t make you feel like you should be marching instead of dancing. It was definitely intense, but there was an underlying groove that made it fun and infectious.”
Adam Beyer, who was reeled in by her work on Pan-Pot’s label, describes her as having “a unique pure form of timeless techno. You can feel the passion when watching her – there are only a few DJs with that energy, that ‘it’ factor.”
Like Richie Hawtin, Lens admits to being obsessive about controlling every aspect of her career. “I remember when my agent [Ugur Akkus of Labyrinth club in Hasselt] signed me, I told him, ‘You’re not going to have any work, because I say no to everything!’” It may be hard to believe now, considering her schedule, but in the beginning she would regularly knock back offers to play – especially if she didn’t think she had a strong enough following in a particular destination.
“Timing is everything to me – and a lot of times I’ve felt like it was too soon for me to play somewhere. I would look at my [Facebook] page and statistics and feel insecure about playing certain countries because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I guess I just didn’t understand where the requests were coming from, or how it could be possible to headline a gig in a country I’d never been to.”
The pressure Lens puts on herself is enormous. She is forensic about researching which artists are most popular in each city, modifying her sets to suit; she asks venue owners about the best ever night in their club. She wants hers to be better. That means preparation: researching who’s playing before and after, and the club’s layout and history; tailoring her set to the time she’s playing and even spending at least 20 minutes studying the crowd before she steps up to the decks. Nothing is left to chance.
In Antwerp, as her set finishes, the people at the front of the packed club are sweating; there are no lulls in Lens’ sets, just constant incentives to keep dancing. Her last, unreleased track combines steely drum clatter with rocky guitar lines and a vocal that competes with deafening cheers and whistles, hands raised overhead and faces that are the human embodiment of the ‘heart eyes’ emoji, as it fades out.
The DJ flashes a megawatt grin back at the crowd. Amelie Lens, self-confessed control freak, is having the time of her life – and it shows. That smile is real. Amelie Lens is real, and there is no stopping her now.
Amelie Lens will release the ‘Basiel’ EP on Lenske in November