Saturday Mass: a new interview series that tips its hat to Larry Levan and explores the art of the resident with some of the best in the business. For more in the series, browse through the archive.
DVS1’s journey to sit at the summit of house and techno has been more eventful and arduous than most. Born to Russian parents in St. Petersburg, Zak Khutoretsky (aka DVS1) moved to Minneapolis at a very young age. As the child of Soviet immigrants, who soon divorced after coming to the US, his early days in America were far from easy. As a means of escape, he got into the dance music culture of Minneapolis at an early age, but also became involved in the illegal undercurrent of drug dealing within the scene. These ill-gotten gains soon caught up with him and he spent some time in juvenile correction, offering a baptism of fire that set him on the right path, as a sound technician, club owner and then full time DJ and producer.
With time to focus solely on his creative output, Khutoretsky met notoriety for his powerful productions, releasing first on Ben Klock’s Klockworks label in 2009. From this point onwards, his career has followed a steady upwards trajectory and, with the backing of several key tastemakers in techno, he now tours extensively while also holding down a residency at Berghain, as well as running the HUSH label and party, as well as the Mistress imprint. 2016 marks the 20th Anniversary of his HUSH and so, after two months locked away building his studio, we thought it a good time to catch up with Zak and go deep into his art.
We talked to him about the origins of his Berghain residency, his relationship with the dancefloor and approach to marathon sets, balancing work and home life and how to navigate his 35,000-strong record collection! Among all that, we’ve also got some exclusive scoops on forthcoming material.
You’ve previously cited Traxx in his approach to DJing – “I don’t play what you want, I play what you need”. Do you feel this ability to educate and challenge a dancefloor is an important skill for a resident? Are there any other qualities you can pinpoint?
When playing to the same or similar crowd on a regular basis, you have to challenge them. You have to dig a bit deeper, you actually have to have a story to tell in order to weave in and out of your emotions, experiences and current thoughts. If not, you’re just repeating yourself and in most cases doing a dis-service to your audience. This is where the “I don’t play what you want, I play what you need” saying comes in. Sometimes I run into the random fan who makes a comment to me about an expectation of my sets, or even telling me something along the lines of how to play according to their vision of my music/DJing. This is exactly why I never conform and do what I feel is right at any given moment. I remember how important it was for my dancefloor experience to be surprised and to be challenged a bit on my expectations. Those were life-changing moments when I just hung on and took a ride to see what the DJ was going to do.
How do you think the role and importance of the resident has changed since you first started?
I think clubs in general have all slowly lost the idea of TRUE residents, where they are the focus week in and week out or have monthly regular gigs that are built around them. I get it, it’s hard as competition dictates international guests every week and other things happening that would distract from a crowd really digging into a weekly/monthly following of just one local DJ. I think it’s important for any aspiring DJ to find a home, to have a place where they can grow and learn to play early sets as well as peak time energy. It makes you dig deeper when you are thrown into needing to deliver all kinds of moods. Without this experience we just have a bunch of “peak time” DJs and crowds that are only expecting the same. Over time this will wear everyone down.
We’ve heard about the running of your Resurrection and Ascension parties from through your RA video, but what was it like to actually DJ at those parties? Did you feel the extra responsibility that came with running the parties also limited your freedom as a DJ somewhat?
I think it was difficult to do everything and give 100% everywhere. I’m sure my DJing wasn’t at its best when I was doing the events because my head was in a million places at any given time. I will say that now, I do enjoy being an artist full time and having the freedom to really put in my time on searching for and creating music for the experience I’m chasing. The deeper I can focus, the more I can give.
Once you turned your back on promoting and sold your sound system business, how did the reduced pressure affect your DJing?
To say turned my back might not be correct as I still do a handful of underground parties in my city. I would say that after I stopped doing large events and owning a club, it absolutely made me a better artist to immerse myself into only doing music. I never truly had that freedom until about six years ago. I spent nearly 15 years doing everything to have the freedom to do music without the pressure of money. So I always had other jobs/hustles on the side that honestly distracted me from being fully present in my creativity.
How did your residency at Berghain first come about?
It just sort of happened naturally. I played there the first time in 2009 and then was invited back more and more until I was gradually playing almost monthly. A few years down the line, and at some point in conversation with the owner, he looked at me and said something along the lines of “You know you’re a resident here!”. It felt good to be acknowledged for the work and time that I was quietly putting in. I had never pushed this fact and even discouraged promoters from using it to sell my name when I was booked as I felt that this was something special and needed to just exist without hype.
Can you remember what your first set there was like?
It was nerve wrecking. My actual first scheduled set had to be canceled as I had a bad knee surgery and couldn’t travel. I was so devastated to cancel the gig thinking I had lost my only chance to go there. The gig was re-scheduled for about five months later and I was playing for Ben Klock’s CD release party with him, Dettmann, Hood and Ruskin. At the time Berghain would close in the afternoon and Pbar would stay open. I was scheduled to close from noon till 4pm. Having to play in that room for the first time, with that lineup was enough to make me question everything. I remember starting my set a bit slower to match the vibe of Ben and Marcell at the time (around 128-130bpm). But after about 30 minutes I started to pitch things up and play where I wanted (135). I remember Ben standing behind, checking me out as this was actually the first time he had seen me DJ (when we met I was playing live). I could see that he was a bit nervous to see how people would take to me as he had put his name on the line for me to play the club. At some point I looked at him and asked if it was ok and he said “It’s good, just really fast!” I think unconsciously I had to do what felt right in that moment. I had to find my inner rhythm and go with it. Looking back now, I realize that I made the right decision. I showed them my true colors as a DJ and didn’t conform to what I thought they wanted to hear. Too many people have come into Berghain and already had an entire idea of what it is and what they need to do. I just walked in and did ME!
If I had it my way, the DJ booth would always be off to the side and the crowd would naturally face the speakers or random directions.
You’ve spoken about Berghain feeling like a home and being the optimum environment for you to play long sets. Could you elaborate on this a little, about how important the different factors are to the success of your residency there?
One of the most important parts is knowing the room, the DJ booth, the sound system, crowd, staff, management etc. I feel comfortable there! I’ve played enough times now that I can usually let go and let things happen much quicker than anywhere else. When I let go is when the “magic” happens.
It sounds like you almost have a transcendental experience when doing these marathon sets at Berghain. Could you give us some insight into what goes on inside your mind and body, at such optimum levels of energy and passion?
I give my all when I DJ. I try to expose myself emotionally and just let happen whatever wants to come out. I treat it like an adventure, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I spend lots of time digging through music and basically loading up on every mood, emotion, color, energy etc. I try and bring every option to describe every emotion and then I just go for it. To be very honest, the way I mix requires me to have lots of tools, drum tracks, layers etc. Most of the time on its own, some of these things can get boring quick but, in the mix, they add nice layers and textures to everything. Half of the time I have no idea what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it an experience for me as much as for the people listening. As I mentioned above, it’s all about letting go and being in that moment and giving everything I have in me. I can tell it’s a good night when I don’t ever look at the clock. Then suddenly you look and six or seven hours have already passed. I’m very physical when it comes to how I play and how I mix. At times it’s a challenge to keep that high energy up and that’s where these long sets can be not only mentally and emotionally draining, but physically challenging as well. I bring fresh fruit, snacks and try not to drink too much alcohol! I’ve literally pushed it so hard that my fingers and arms started to lock up while grabbing the knobs on the mixer, I’ve felt the arches of my feet spasm from how tense I sometimes hold my posture. It’s like running a marathon for me!
How has your residency at Berghain changed the way you construct your DJ sets?
There are certain tracks that I will only play in that room. When I go through music I usually imagine or try and picture myself playing it there or in Pbar even for my housier side. If I can visualize it then I use it. I think having that as a reference allows me a vision to go towards when I’m between gigs hunting for my soundtrack.
When you do all night sets outsight Berghain, what sort of things do you like to ensure before committing?
I have to know the room first! I always make sure the DJ booth is exactly to my spec. Lights have to be low or off! Everything from the placement of the turntables and CDJs behind them to the monitors being fully stacked with proper subs and highs. In some places – like London at Village Underground – I try and get extra sound for the dancefloor so that people can immerse themselves in my energy even for the deeper, slower parts and maybe have a different experience from the last time they were there.
Speaking of all-night sets, you’re due to play an eight hour set in London this weekend. What sort of preparation goes into these longer sets compared to shorter sessions, like your set for Just Jack in Bristol (also this weekend)?
Music organization is probably the biggest factor. I’m digging extra deep for a long set, so I have that much more material to go through! On average I play 30 tracks an hour, so I have to be prepared to play a lot of music!
You’ve described your DJing technique as one where you play tracks, rather than just letting them play. Could you elaborate on this a little and explain why being such an aggressive mixing technique is important to you?
Every situation calls for a different technique. With techno this is my style, to play the music aggressively in terms of always being in the mix, always working and manipulating the EQs. It’s all texture, beats and rhythms. I’m just up there sculpting and drawing out rhythms on the fly as I find them. It’s always an adventure for me in the sense that things could fall apart at any point when you’re always two to three channels up. Of course there are always exceptions and, at times, I let myself and the audience breath and reset, but in general I’m always working up there. With the housier side of what I like, it’s different. There is a skill in being more of a selector and knowing when to let things play on their own and when the perfect moment is to step back and let the music shine.
There seems to be a fixation on DJs acknowledging their audience when they play, but you’ve spoken about being hyper aware of the dancefloor even without physically interacting with them. How would you reassure those sceptics about your own unique relationship with a dancefloor and its dancers?
I would say two things: I’ve been on the dancefloor, I grew up there, and I’m fully aware of what the experience was like. From the booth, I think people have to trust me that I’m watching, I’m sensitive to what’s happening, and in general, I’m very empathetic to the energy in a room. When I’m locked in, I’m fully aware and extremely connected to the tension and emotion of the dancefloor. Some DJ’s connect differently and that’s fine, but it’s not for me to sit there and wave my hands around or make eye contact with someone. I’m in another place and time when I’m DJing and I don’t think it’s important to be “entertaining” anyone with my antics. If I had it my way, the DJ booth would always be off to the side and the crowd would naturally face the speakers or random directions. I believe this music was NEVER meant to be on a stage in the context of one DJ and a crowd staring at them. The real experience is a physical connection through the power of the soundsystem and music coming out of it. The DJ shouldn’t be a visual distraction.
Too many people have come into Berghain and already had an entire idea of what it is and what they need to do. I just walked in and did ME!
You’ve spoken about the challenges for a DJ who bares their soul to an dancefloor, sharing a powerful experience, only for it to end on your own in a hotel room. How do you keep yourself motivated through those peaks and troughs?
It’s tough, and honestly doesn’t get any easier, but I’ve learned to take breaks when I need. I’ve slowly figured out the right amount and timing of when I will need a few weeks off or, like I did this year, took almost 2 months off after a heavy 6 years of touring. I hadn’t been home for more than 3 weeks since 2010!
Away from the clubbing environment, we hear you’re rebuilding and renovating your studio in Minneapolis. How’s that going, and how would you say it’s affecting the way you’re making music now?
It’s done now! A few little things to finish, but in general it turned out great and will allow me to jump in and work when I’m home. The hardest part for me is living between two cities and not having everything be convenient or right there when I feel the creativity. Having these last two months off I finally feel like I made a HUGE dent into my process of clearing things out and de-cluttering so that I can put all my energy into going deeper. Now I just have to do the same thing for my life in Berlin. It all takes time, but in the long run I hope to have two lives that are set up for my productivity.
How’s progress going in your search through Thomas Spiegel record collection?
I finally finished doing the first run off digging through some 25,000 records while I was home this time. It took two and a half years of constant needle dropping and digging letter by letter every time I was home to reduce down to 10,000 records I’m keeping. It’s like mining for gold and diamonds. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I’ve uncovered some AMAZING music that will influence my future for sure.
As Hush reaches its 20th anniversary, what are some of your plans to mark the occasion?
HUSH has been the umbrella for all the things I’ve done, it started as a promotions company doing parties in 1996. I own and operate HUSH Studios which rents out rehearsal rooms (2002), recently restarted HUSH Sound (audio rental) and run HUSH (record label) to release my music. Although the label has been slow, I’ve finally got some new music to put out soon! To celebrate 20 years of HUSH I’m putting together a few events – the main ones being off-location parties in Minneapolis and in Berlin. I’ll also be doing a few more across the EU, collaborating with promoters and venues I trust!
What’s in the pipeline for HUSH, and your other label Mistress, in terms of releases this year?
Mistress is steady with releasing other artists. At the moment I just finished working with Nick Lapien to put together MISTRESS 08, which will be two records and out this summer. There should be two more before year end and maybe another compilation of various tracks when we hit the tenth release. With HUSH, it’s when I feel like putting out what I’ve made. I have a good amount of music now to pick from, but I’m in no hurry to put it out as I’m enjoying having some secret weapons! We just had two tracks licensed for a new fabric mix CD that I can’t announce yet. There will be something from Lapien’s forthcoming Mistress as well as one of my future HUSH tracks.
And finally, do you have any solo work forthcoming you can tell us about?
Finally found some time to finish a long ago promised remix for my friends at Indigo area (the first crew that brought me to Amsterdam to play) and my first ever collaborative track coming out with James Ruskin on his Blueprint 20 year anniversary compilation!