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The world according to Lena Willikens

The Theremin-playing, Dekmantel-slaying German DJ and producer will take you on a trip through the dunes

  • Words: Aurora Mitchell / Charlie Case | Photography: Aníta Björk
  • 9 July 2018

Lena Willikens’ unique way of weaving together everything from post-punk to techno to obscure rarities from Japan has garnered praise in every corner of the electronic music world, the German producer bringing her varied tastes to Japan’s Contact, Glasgow’s Sub Club and Miami’s Trade in recent years. But it was as a resident at Düsseldorf’s Salon Des Amateurs club where she first made her mark – she’s maintained a close musical connection with fellow Salon resident Vladimir Ivkovic, the pair often playing together as Willikens & Ivkovic. She’s a repeat standout star at Dekmantel, the Amsterdam-based festival and record label inviting her to curate her own ‘Selectors’ compilation this year. She took this as an opportunity to stitch together unreleased music from friends and peers, including contributions from Cómeme’s Borusiade and rising Berlin resident JASSS. Here’s what makes Lena Willikens one of the most fascinating artists around:

She’s a true selector

Jumping from EBM to krautrock and into industrial noise is untouchable territory for a lot of DJs, but not for Lena. The recent Dekmantel ‘Selectors’ compilation is an insight into her vast, obscure record collection, as is her Sentimental Flashback show on Radio Cómeme where she swivels endlessly through unexpected sounds, like the haunting acid of Sysex’s ‘Deep Space’ or scrappy techno rhythms of Parrish Smith’s ‘Minima’.

Her sets are a trip in more ways than one

She describes her Dekmantel compilation as a ‘little trip through the dunes’, but that could easily describe her sets, too. “I want to wander around with the crowd, maybe stop and look at a lizard, or sit down and relax, then we can start rolling through the sand,” she says. There’s fluidity and a looseness to Lena’s sets that takes audiences on a journey with no definitive goal in sight. And for Lena, whether playing or listening to another DJ, music can be an almost “psychedelic experience without taking drugs” that opens the mind of the listener.

She has embraced her role as an outsider

Lena has always felt like an outsider; not only in music, but in school as well. “I never really felt part of the class I was in. But I didn’t suffer from it, it was just a fact,” she says. As a resident at Düsseldorf’s Salon Des Amateurs, however, she finally found a place where she wasn’t the only one to not fit in, connecting with fellow residents Vladimir Ivkovic and Wolf Müller while honing her skill as a DJ. “Everyone at Salon is kind of an outsider with a really unique approach to music,” she says. “When I started playing there, it was the first time that I was not the only one.” Now she’s inspiring a new generation of DJs and musicians working from the outer edges.

She’s taken the back-to-back to new heights

Lena Willikens and Vladimir Ivkovic have known each other for over 15 years, playing countless times together, and that’s clear in their instinctive sets as they constantly nudge each other in unexpected ways. “We share a curiosity. It makes it vivid, like a good conversation,” she says. These conversations have continued through London’s Bloc, Serbia’s Klub 20/44 and Amsterdam’s De School. Their four-hour set at Dekmantel São Paulo earlier this year was a masterclass in unexpected twists and turns as they outdid one another with increasingly weird records. “Sometimes something really personal happens and, quite often, we continue the conversation through the music,” Lena explains.

She loves combining music with visuals

Late last year, Lena teamed up with Sarah Szczesny, who designed the artwork for her debut EP, to make Phantom Kino Ballett. Descried as a ‘sound fragment and black theatre’, it’s an experimental piece that combines a live audio with video collage and had a three-month residency at the Goethe-Institut in Kyoto, Japan. It’s not the first time Lena’s worked with visuals. In 2015, she performed a special soundtrack for the film Japanese Girls At The Harbor with theremin, loop pedal and turntables. “Making visual art triggers different receptors than making music,” she says. “After art school, and getting more and more into music, I started to miss that activity.”

She used to be in a noise duo

Together with Melani Wratil, Lena used to spend every Sunday in a studio in Cologne as part of the group Titanoboa. Equipped with her theremin and various bits of hardware, the pair produced savage drones of noise at their improvised jam sessions, recording and rehearsing every week, and even made an appearance on the ‘Noise of Cologne 2’ compilation. Sadly, Lena’s hectic touring schedule saw her involvement dwindle over the years, and the group is now nonexistent. But you can still hear their work by visiting their SoundCloud page.

Her warped productions stand out from the crowd

Her releases might be few and far between, but Lena has carved out an unnerving, loose, intuitive sound in sharp contrast to the crisp, modern techno standard. Her debut EP, ‘Phantom Delia’ on Cómeme, was inspired by pioneering electronic artist Delia Derbyshire who, as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, created the Doctor Who theme tune; her influence can be heard in the EP’s slow, squelchy synths and rattling percussion. Whether it’s creating noise music or setting up an audio-visual experiment, or even one of her DJ sets, Lena continues to break new ground wherever and whenever she can.

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