Female Macho

Rory MacLean meets Heike Suermann

© Heike Suermann
© Heike Suermann
Berlin’s club scene brings to mind vast venues like Berghain, the converted power station with the loudest sound system in Europe. On its dance floor up to 1,500 party people move to the techno beat, and couples often seem to make love without removing – or even unzipping - their clothes. Its atmosphere is charged by raw lust throbbing from one corner - muscular torsos, braces, blindfolds, bondage – and the cold concrete walls seem to amplify both hedonism and carnality. In this world DJs like Ben Klock, Ellen Allien and Richie Hawtin are like minor gods, worshipped on their hi-tech, turntable dais.

But what of more intimate venues? What of the clubs where those-in-the-know like to begin or end their evening? In Berlin night clubs have always come and gone, from SO36 to Grex, Turbine Rosenheim to Bar 25, but over the last fifteen years Female Macho – or Heike Suermann – has remained one of the most loved, and respected, small venue DJs.

‘Music lit up my life,’ Heike Suermann told me over a pot of green tea in Kreuzberg, her home for more than two decades. ‘I grew up in small-town Munster. My childhood wasn’t bad. My family wasn’t unusual. Life was simply boring, until I was rescued by Delta 5 and Fad Gadget.’

© vahakn.co.ukIn the 1980s tens of thousands of independent-minded West Germans moved to West Berlin, drawn by the city’s radical politics, cheap rent and a vibrant arts scene. Suermann was especially excited by singers and musicians like Inga and Annette Humpe as well as Die Tödliche Doris, and movements like Die Neuen Wilden. ‘In those days Berlin was an island and lived by different rules from Munich or Cologne. I loved its rich mix of people, its bold music, the whole post-punk/New Wave scene. I found an apartment not far from here for 200 DM – about 100 EUR – per month, started clubbing, and hung out at Café M. on Goltzstraße where Blixa Bargeld used the pay phone as if it were his private line. And I thought to myself, this is it. Now I am in the right place.’

Suermann first found work as a theatre costume designer and then as a stylist for music videos. When in 1989 the Wall cracked, and the severed halves of the city were rejoined, a third of all buildings in the east stood vacant. Techno activists stormed across the Spree to Ostkreuz and Friedrichshain, improvising new clubs in abandoned basements, warehouses and fuel depots. Their music – born in Detroit, revved up in Berlin to be both futuristic and rebellious - swept through the gaps in the Wall, beating out a new pulse, drawing together young people from both sides of the old divide.

Suermann went with them, living a ‘happy, euphoric dancing life’, clubbing the nights away at Tresor, VMF, Planet and Fischlabor. ‘Then at Fischlabor I heard the remarkable Maria Colours, and for the first time I saw the DJ as a creative person,’ she recalled. ‘When Dixon and Mitja Prinz brought House music to Berlin, I started arranging parties for them. One night I was asked to play a set in the back room of the local Kreuzberg bar Mysliwska.’

‘By that time I’d grown bored with the pure style “diktat” of modern techno, and so at the turntable I started to mix old school-no wave 80s singles (like ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal and ‘Sex Machine’ by The Flying Lizards) with electro, techno and even disco records,’ she said with a laugh. ‘My intention was to break the rules, but also to reach back to the music which had first excited me. Of course some DJs were angry at me, but clubbers loved the sound.’

‘Today I still like to grab sounds from every era: grime, dubstep, Turkish pop, hip house. Whatever comes to my ears can end up in one of my sets. Artists like Peaches, Hanin Elias, Sick Girls and That Fucking Sara are big influences on me. Playing so many different styles works best in small venues, in a private and intimate atmosphere.’

Suermann works with vinyl and CDs, and no computer, mixing by melody or intro/outro, never by the beat. ‘I need an analogue feeling,’ she told me. ‘I don’t make a playlist. I simply need to grab a record, to feel it in my hands, and go.’ Her method makes every set unique; a never-to-be-repeated performance.

As well as monthly residencies at Berlin’s Soju Bar and .HBC, Suermann tours the Berlin-based DMY International Design Festival ‘Klublabor’ (‘Laboratory of Music’) around Asia. ‘Travelling gives me the chance to grab weird hip hop in Japan, to discover new Korean pop.’

© Heike SuermannBefore we parted I asked her to explain the origin of her DJ name. ‘Female Macho?’ she said. ‘In the early 1990s the craziest clubwear came from a shop called Groupie deluxe on Goltzstraße. They stocked amazing couture clothes from Sabotage, Mecca, Beam Me Up and 3000. I bought a simple white t-shirt printed with the words Female Macho. I loved it, and was wearing it on the night when I first started to spin. Somebody asked me, “What’s your name?” I spontaneously said Female Macho, and so the name became my own.’

Female Macho will next appear on 3.2.12 at .HBC and on 18.2.12 at the Soju Bar.

Rory MacLean
February 2012
Related links

Weblog: Rory’s Berlin-Blog

Rory MacLean Weblog
Settling in Berlin: Travelwriter Rory MacLean gives an amusing and insightful account of his new home.

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