Magda has been a formidable force on the international DJ circuit for about as long as she’s been a DJ. Her varied musical background and her nomadic origins have made a favourite amongst a variety of audiences with her instinctive flair for the dance floor underpinning her sets. In recent years she’s cut down on her touring commitments to focus more on production and leisurely pursuits, but yet you’ll still find her playing at least three times a week across the globe in clubs like Fabric, Spybar and OHM, just to name a few recent.
Born in Poland, raised in Detroit, and now living in Berlin, Magda has had an extensive DJing career that spans the origins and various different phases of the all-encompassing musical movement called Techno. Growing up in Detroit in the nineties, Magda experienced various different phases of the genre, but it would be in its minimal form, spearheaded by the likes of Robert Hood and Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman alias that Magda would find her musical niche as a DJ.
A chance meeting with Hawtin installed her in what would become the M_nus family and gave her her first residency. Playing around the states and eventually moving to New York, Magda cut her teeth on the US circuit. She made the ultimate move to Berlin after she played a Perlon party at the predecessor to Berghain, Ostgut. That night ended with her playing back to back with Ricardo Villalobos and sold Magda on Berlin for life.
Refining her style in the booth further after the move, she also set off on a reserved, but significant career as a producer, releasing her debut on M_nus in 2005 followed by her now legendary mix compilation “She’s a Dancing Machine” on the same label. Magda has been a label boss alongside Marc Houle and Troy pierce for Items & Things, a resident at some of the most impressive addresses in the world and has staked her rightful claim as a monolith in the booth today.
In recent years, her more reserved touring schedule has given her the opportunity to focus more on production and since 2016 she has been working exclusively with TB Arthur on their new electro outfit, Blotter Trax. It’s a project she is very passionate about and ten minutes before I call her up for our interview she sends me the latest release, which will be out via Frustrated Funk on the eve of her set at Jaeger.
The third release in two years from Blotter Trax is “completely different than the last” explains Magda over an email before I ring her up. Between the familiar electro/Detroit beat constructions and the minimalist approach to production, a processed bass guitar looms large. It’s an unusual feature in a track of this kind where much of the focus lies on the rhythm section, and breathes fresh life into the stale tropes that earmark much of Techno and Electro today. With those tracks making a fresh impression, I call up Magda who answers with an amiable hello before we delve into an extensive and all-encompassing Q&A covering Blotter Trax, her formidable years in Detroit and her truly inspiring career as a DJ.
We’ve just received the latest Blotter Trax. It’s very different from what anybody else is making at the moment in terms of Electro. How did those tracks come together?
We have been experimenting and growing since the beginning. It’s been about three years and it’s evolved into this release which I feel really captures both of our past influences well, especially Post Punk and early Electro. We have been working with a vocalist and we used a live bassist for this record because we wanted to make these tracks feel more like songs.
We spent a lot of time on sound design making sure everything sounds warm, rich, and as fat as possible and that each sound has its space
I was actually curious about the bass guitar, because I could hear that it was a live bass, but wasn’t sure if it was a sample. It adds a very distinct sound to the track.
We really like to sculpt our own sounds from the analogue gear we have, or incorporate other musicians. We gave the bassist an idea and he recorded a session with his own pedals and processing units, therefore you have this incredible sound. We then took it, edited it and processed it further.
The other part of the appeal of Blotter Trax is the electronic elements, which is also very interesting, because it’s not the usual Roland X0X sounds that you get on a record, but something more futuristic. How do you arrive at these sounds?
Well, you’d be surprised but we use a lot of processed guitar. We’re both influenced by bands like the Flying Lizards and the downtown New York sound from the eighties. To this day those records sound futuristic. We wanted to see what we can do with processing real instruments, so that’s where many of these wonky sounds come from.
How did you guys find each other and what made you want to start making music together?
I was obsessing over some TB Arthur records for a while and I was talking to my friend BMG (Ectomorph) and I said; “god, this TB Arthur stuff, have you heard it?” And he was like; “he’s a friend of mine, you guys should meet.”
We hit it off right away and decided to go to the studio to see what happens. We started to jam and in a week we had three recordings done. I’ve never recorded in this way, all analogue, jam session, recorded straight to tape. That was our first release and if you listen to it, its very different from the way we sound now.
Blotter Trax 2.0 also sounded much more improvised than this latest release on Frustrated Funk.
Those were straight up jam sessions between the three of us; BMG, myself and TB Arthur. It was recorded over a period of a week and we probably cut five tapes, and used three of those for the record. I took those recordings and basically edited them down into tracks that made sense.
And I believe there’s a live show?
Yes. We have played about 8 times so far. Our first shows were fully analogue and improvised. I was on an old Roland synth which definitely has a mind of its own and TB Arthur was on the modular so we always had to do 2 hour soundchecks to sculpt all the sounds correctly for each venue. I feel like we’ve gone through different stages of experimentation and thrown ourselves out of our comfort zones to do these unpredictable sets, but also are now able to do more structured sets like the one at Fabric where we only had one hour and there wasn’t much room for much random experimentation.
Through what you’ve been telling me, it seems like there’s a constant evolution in your work, even just across the three records you’ve released together.
Absolutely and that’s what keeps it fun and exciting at the end of the day.
I want to ask you more about that editing process and the post-productiophase of making a Blotter Trax record; do you think your experience as DJ helps that aspect of the process?
I think my DJ experience helps me 100% in the way I edit.
I find there’s some relationship to the way these Blotter Trax records sound and your sets, in the way you accentuate a few simple elements in a minimalist way to arrive at a very big sound.
Exactly, that’s always something I have geared towards. We tend to start with many parts and end up reducing things quite a lot so each sound has its space and power instead of getting lost.
That’s why it was really difficult to edit those tapes because they were all 30 minutes long. (laughs) And it actually took me some time to get it right. At first I was like; “how do I do this” because the whole performance shifts and morphs and I wanted to make sure not to cut interesting movements and changes, but also keep the dynamics that would make the track interesting.
Working with TB Arthur and people like BMG, do you think It’s changed the way you make music?
Absolutely. I realise I really enjoy collaborating way more than making stuff on my own. I like the shared experience and exchange of knowledge. TB Arthur has a different approach to recording than me in some ways because he comes from an indie background so when we edit stuff, he’ll notice things I wouldn’t or vice versa. We learn from each other.
Are you producing more than what you’ve done in the past?
More than ever.
It seems that you are also finding more enjoyment out of it, more than you have in the past.
Yes, there was always a lot of touring and it became difficult to engage in the studio in a way I wanted. Now I really enjoy being home more and having time to record and living a more balanced life.
You mentioned early Electro as some of your influences in the beginning, and I certainly detect elements of Model 500 in there. You spent most of your formative years in Detroit. How much does that time still influence the music you make today?
If it had not been for me growing up in Detroit and having that exposure I would not be here right now. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to listen to not just one movement, but several at the same time. The scene was small, but you would go from an Underground Resistance party to a gay funk and soul loft party, to a new wave electro party and so on. That’s why from the start I wanted to mix different sounds in my sets.
How did you end up living in Detroit?
We emigrated from Poland to escape communist rule. My parents had a really tough time finding work in their industry; my mother is a graphic designer and my father is an engineer and that’s how we ended up moving to Detroit so my dad could work for the auto industry.
Do you think the history of the place had an affect in the way the music sounded?
Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of soul that’s captured when things are uncomfortable or scary and a lot of emotion comes out. Detroit has such a rich but difficult history and that definitely comes through the music.
I was watching a clip with you from ADE a while back, where you mentioned that it all started for you after going to Canada and experiencing some parties there. Obviously the Richie Hawtin and M_nus connection started there but was there a thriving scene there?
I don’t remember saying that. (laughs) Maybe the Plastikman parties, those were insane. I’ve never seen anything like that. They would cover entire warehouses with material. They had plastic tunnels that would lead to different rooms and it was pitch black inside except for a strobe. The music really sounded undefinable and from the future. That was properly mind-blowing.
Is that how you met Richie Hawtin and got onto the label, and started touring with him?
Actually we met through friends at a loft party. We really got along and he gave me a residency at his little bar in Canada, which had a capacity of 80. It was a really good way for me to practice and get into DJing a lot more. I started working for him, digitalising his vinyl when the whole MP3 technology started. That was an incredible job, just to have the exposure to all the promos being sent from all over the world. That’s how I discovered all the German minimal labels and a lot of stuff that changed my life.
And then you moved to Berlin shortly after that?
Actually, I lived in New York for a while, and once I came to Berlin to play a Perlon party, I was sold. I realised, ok there are no rules here, everyone is easy-going and it’s definitely more chill than New York. It just felt like the right time.
Did you feel that you had to adapt your sets for European audiences?
It was a trip, because I realised a lot of tracks that worked in Detroit didn’t work in Europe.
Why was that?
I was playing a lot of broken, glitchy stuff and in europe they preferred steadier types of tracks back then.
It was a great learning experience, to adapt to various places. I’m very thankful for that and for Richie taking me on tour and throwing me completely out of my comfort zone.
I wanted to quit a hundred times, because it was so stressful to try and play in front of people who seemed so confused (laughs). I remember having to play everything on plus eight and the hardest records I could find, and still they seemed so mellow compared to what everybody was playing at the time.
It seems like it’s back again.
Oh, it’s back.
Do you find yourself having to adapt yet again or can you keep doing what you’ve been doing?
It’s not that I have to adapt again. I think it happens naturally. When you go out to listen to other DJs or listen to the records that come out, you get the vibe of what is going on. I think it’s reflective of the turmoil that’s going on in the world. You hear music that is edgier, faster and dirtier. I like that energy, and I like playing faster at the moment.
You would consider yourself a DJ first and foremost?
I distinctly remember listening to Magda mix CDs at a time when they were still these significant artistic statements. I think it was “She’s a dancing Machine” that was particularly prominent around that time and really put a lot of focus on the DJ as the artist. It seems that it’s something of a lost art today in the age of soundcloud and mixcloud with a kind of immediacy replacing the artistic reward.
Times have changed with streaming. Everything has become extremely accessible. Back then to make a mix, you would be asked by the label to do it and they would physically produce a disc and make the artwork so it was like a little album.Now everything is uploaded in one minute, and it’s a completely different mindset, not that one is better or worse, it’s just a different time.
Do you feel that it’s the same in the booth today, that you have to give people that immediacy?
Actually it’s funny you say that, I think it’s the opposite for me. In the past, I used to layer four tracks and mix that way and now I’m focusing more on the track selection, mixing more patiently and the edits I do.
I like searching for all kinds of tracks to work into my sets. That’s a whole process in itself and its fun to dig deep and into the past as well.
There must be some underlying sound to your set however. What do you look for in a track that sort of underpins all your choices?
I can’t say. I just look for something unique. I want something different, whether it’s Electro or Techno, or House. Something definitely with a sexy vibe. I like stuff between genres.
In Berlin where you’re playing these mammoth long sets, you can obviously take your time through a set. If you’re coming to Oslo now, you’ll notice it’s very different because of our short opening times. Is this something that your conscious of when you’re playing a new place?
I try to consider each set independently. It depends on what the venue is like and what the capacity is. I never plan a set. I usually have some folders with different genres of music and then just go with the flow.
Regarding the shorter sets, I’m really used to them, because that’s how I grew up in Detroit. All the clubs used to close at 2:00 and people didn’t really go out until midnight so it was two hours, full on.
Like every DJ out there today you have an agent that takes care of your bookings, but do you have the final say where you’ll play?
Absolutely, I think it is super important to have that relationship with the booker, where you share a similar vision and you make sure you play the right parties. For example a lot of times, people still associate me with how I played 15 years ago, and I’ve changed a lot since then.
Do you find that you can be very selective today and don’t have to take any set that gets offered to you?
And I suppose you enjoy it more if you’re playing less.
Absolutely, I just have more time and I’m more relaxed and can really engage and be more creative and also build more relationships with new people and connect with old friends. In the past when there was a lot of touring it was just one big ball of chaos all the time. For me staying connected to myself and the people around me these days is very important.
And when you do want to disconnect at home and you don’t want to connect with the clubbing world, what sort of music do you listen to?
Which is every Monday! (laughs) I listen to everything, but I don’t listen to Techno. I was just listening to Shabazz Palaces. I love stuff like that and other more chill music at home.
For the people that might have seen you the last time you were here in Oslo, how would you describe your set has changed since then?
I’m playing a lot more Electro and playing faster for the most part but still keeping it groovy.