There are many young upstarts in club culture today, and many imitators and trend-followers who continue to turn ‘EDM’ into a dirty word; some even younger than the raver demographic they cater unconditionally to. This Papa, however, isn’t gonna take any of that, and he hasn’t been for over 30 years. Having recently turned 50 – marking it with a massive b-day bash with Richie Hawtin, DJ Koze and Luciano – this German Godfather of techno swung by for another voracious set at Zouk. We met him for a detailed perspective on his age and wisdom, his gripes with the contemporary dance industry, the magical isle of Ibiza and more. Papa always knows best!
You must be excited to play Zouk once more. How many times has it been now?
Oh, I always start my world tour here at Zouk. I think I’ve been playing here for 22 years now! I think since 1993 or 1994? When I was reading the news about Zouk’s closure, I was like, “Oh my God! This is an institution!” – so I’m happy that everything went well. Lincoln Cheng is an outstanding club owner. He always reinvests in the club; he shares art, which no one does in the club industry. He is a sound fetishist who loves his good sound. Today, I think it’s difficult to convince a club owner to have a musical direction where DJs are not in your Top 100 or EDM scene. I think Lincoln played the most important role in the Southeast Asian market for quality music in club culture. So yes, I’m happy to be back here!
Welcome back! It wasn’t long ago when you celebrated your 50th birthday celebration, which must’ve been rather special. Could you tell us how it went down?
I had almost 12,000 people there! My mother was there with me all night long, standing in the DJ booth at midnight; as well as my brothers and daughter, and even my little son – but only for the beginning. I invited Nils Frahm, the German pianist, as well as 500 special guests for a pre-event dinner. I invited my friends who are good chefs and they were smashing us with their buffet. Some of my friends gave some speeches, and then we went into the big hall where we opened the gates; then DJ Koze started at midnight. It was very emotional for me ’cos I was planning this for one year. Everything came together that night and it was so peaceful, full of joy and love and happiness. Koze played in the beginning, then I took over, then Luciano, then Richie Hawtin, and then I did the last hour. It was the first time I played a three-hour ‘classic’ set in the morning; meaning, I played tracks from the end of the ’80s to ’00 – from Aphex Twin to Underground Resistance, tracks we all knew! So that was a lot of fun; it was a very special event for me. From that point on, I was like, “Wow, I made it. I’m 50!”
Do you even feel like you’re 50? Does your Papa Sven nickname make you feel old?
I think the Papa Sven name came about 10 years ago. I think the first time it came up was when I was in India, and people referred to me there as a Baba – a kind of a spiritual guru. So I think some people mixed it up a lil’ bit. Some of them called me Baba Sven, more in the Indian way, like I was their spiritual leader. The younger ones call me Papa Sven, which means ‘the Papa’ – except, Papa in Italian also mean ‘The Pope’, which is also spiritual! So with all these meanings, I take it with a sense of humour.
How do you feel about the clubbing young’uns today?
Now that I’m 50, I’ve seen how the younger generation has grown up, and how they’re consuming music and nightlife. Somehow, I feel a kind of responsibility; I wanna show them the real thing. Not just touching the surface; I wanna go deeper with people. With my performance, I wanna show people that it’s about a state of mind; a hypnotic trance-y state of mind. And I’m not talking about trance music, I’m talking about the trance in you; dancing to repetitive rhythms and the state that you reach from that.
These days, I see that a lot of DJs who cater to the younger generation don’t know how to play music anymore. For them, the most important thing is for people to scream on the floor. I think that’s not important. What many DJs do is create artificial breaks – they play a record, and two minutes later, they break it down. Then they wait, and FX come in, and then the first bass drum comes in and everybody screams…that’s so f*cking boring! Techno and house music for me was always one beat all the time, no breaks. Of course, a good break is a good break, but not every three minutes! Let the people feel the rhythm and let them tumble into the groove. I still see myself as a dancer, and I love the feeling of dancing. I can make people dance for 12 hours if I want to; I trip them out with my music. I wanna touch my people somehow.
We can’t disagree! Have you ever had to accommodate to the shorter attention spans of the new-gen ravers, though? Especially those who only care about VIP status and spending money?
I’m fair; I’m not gonna mind if people wanna come in and spend a lot of money and have a good time in the VIP area. But what is VIP? ‘Very Important Person’? For me, an important person is like a top actor or a fashion designer or a model or an artist; they’ve done something already in their lives and stand for something! But many people think just because they can buy a bottle of champagne, that makes them VIP. Club culture has changed into this, including the behaviour on the floor in general, so we have to make the best out of it and accept the things that change, yet always try to focus on the essence of clubbing. The dance floor may shrink ’cos the VIP area is getting bigger – and I’ll be like, “Where is the dance floor?” – but as long as the music-lovers have their space to dance and have a good time, that’s okay. Don’t take away their space. The dance floor is holy.
Can we pleeeeease ask about your campy Italo popstar days in the ’80s? Do you embrace it till this day?
I’m proud of it! My hit single, “Electrica Salsa”, was released in 1986; it’s almost 30 years old. And I was 21; I was a super popstar! I was on stage with The Cure and I was number one in Italy, Spain and Germany. I was like, “What the f*ck is going on?!” When we did this song in the studio with my friends, it was a very spontaneous idea. The “Ba-ba-ba-ba” hook just came out; it was fun! I even directed the video, in the oldest jazz club in Frankfurt.
We love the video! How did you convince all those senior citizens to join in?
I was calling retirement houses and offering everyone 10 German Marks, a beer and a lot of fun. I told them, “I’m gonna pick you up in a bus and drive you to this jazz basement. It will take two hours and you’ll just have to dance with me.” They were like 70 years old and were staring suspiciously at all these amateur cameras. So I said, “Come on! Dance!”, and they were like, “Hmm…” So I figured I should give all of them a round of vodka, and then they were very, very happy. But that’s always been the idea – to have my music be inviting for people of all generations. That was, for me, the spirit of Ibiza.
Yes, of course, the magical island of Ibiza. It changed your life, didn’t it?
Absolutely. Ibiza was always the melting pot of all generations; from young to old, no boundaries. You could be dancing on the floor next to hippies, or models or Grace Jones; that was, for me, my Ibiza. I was just hearing rumours about this magic island in the ’70s. So at 19, I hitch-hiked from Frankfurt to Ibiza, and what I found there was mind-blowing – open-air clubs, people getting high everywhere, people dancing naked on the floor and playing bongos. I thought I was in the Garden of Eden! It was so special for me. It was the biggest inspiration in my life that this lifestyle of DJ-ing was possible. That was my motivation in the very beginning.
And fast forward 30 years later, you’ve not only shaped club culture, but you’re still looking ridiculously fit! We found this press picture of you and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Is this new??
Yes, that was recent! Brand new! I have had a personal trainer for 12 years, and I’m doing my Ayurveda; I’m trying to balance my crazy life. I tend to enjoy and have fun in the summertime; it’s very difficult to keep it altogether ’cos in the summer, I play five gigs a week. That’s why I wanted to make a statement with this picture on my 50th birthday: “Hey! I’m still in shape! And I’m still doing my thing.”
For me, age is just a number. I am a result of my experience of all the things I’ve been through. And I’m so happy that I still have so much to give and tell, and that my vision is not over. So when I see my young boy whose four-and-a-half and he’s scratching on the turntable, I’m thinking, “Maybe in 20 years, I can carry his records!”