DJ Vladimir Ivkovic
“What are mistakes?”

DJ Vladimir Ivkovic Foto (Detail): Julia Mayorova © Hitsville

During his long tenure at the Salon Des Amateurs, a bar and club in Düsseldorf, Germany, DJ Vladimir Ivkovic developed an unpredictable style. His sets are characterised by slower tempos, a basic psychedelic mood, and wide stylistic openness. A conversation about the significance of mistakes.

Thomas Venker

Vladimir, what was the first mistake you made?
When I was little, I stole chewing gum at a supermarket. My mother took me back to the store and I had to return the chewing gum. I was so ashamed that I never did anything like that again.
It’s interesting that you are spontaneously bringing up a mistake that violates the rules of society.
It raised many questions. You ask yourself – do I have to accept a rule like that? And of course, you can find arguments against it and just say, “Let anarchy rule!” But it was a fact that the chewing gum wasn’t mine. I did not have the right to determine that the chewing gum should become a commonly owned good.
Those were highly philosophical thoughts for little Vladimir. In retrospect, did you think about this incident for a long time?
I was about six years old at the time and being confronted with my own mistake was painful. So, I took the time to reflect: what are mistakes? Was this a mistake?
The fear of being exposed leads us directly to the question of artists being on display on stage or behind a DJ booth. Do you still think about this when you play records?
No. Because being a DJ is my own responsibility – and also my freedom. Playing records is about existential ideas and questions such as: are we free? Are we afraid of our own freedom?

When mistakes happen on stage, you always ask yourself: who defines these mistakes? For whom does a specific mix fit, and for whom doesn’t it fit? Of course, it’s embarrassing when the needle skips, when something that I envisioned for a particular moment doesn’t work out. But this is artistic freedom; I would not categorize it under the strict definition of a mistake.

Humans and technology

When technology fails, it’s certainly not your mistake, but people could view it that way.
That’s right. But I cannot take responsibility for everyone’s perception and life. Moments that appear faulty at first sight create odd ruptures in the continuum of a night of partying – and sometimes this wakes people up from the lethargy of nightlife, from the lethargy of consumption and entertainment, which for many follows a very similar routine weekend after weekend.
As a DJ who has been around for a long time, how do you feel about the era of the computerised synchronization of two consecutive tracks?
I view it as a negative development. It brings us closer to being human machines, a vision I do not share. You might as well play a previously recorded perfect mix. The artistic expression, the language that you want to develop and seek, is missing from the start. Since there is a precise speed reading, there is no longer the need to listen in advance... This means I don’t focus any longer on the content but on the perfect transition. There are no bumps, there is no off-beat – and the result is a huge trivial mush.

Of course, you can also play good pieces that way, but personally, I am much more interested in being confronted with the unexpected. I don't want to spend my night in an automated swamp.

Doing it wrong to make it right

You are known for not always playing records at their intended speed. You play records with the wrong speed of 33 revolutions per minute much faster, at 45, and vice versa. You see something in the texture that is developing, you want to share that with the audience. So, in your eyes, it’s not a mistake.
Yes, exactly! Sometimes it feels like someone in the studio intended a piece to be played at the wrong speed. And sometimes, strange frequencies arise, mistakes where I am not sure whether it is okay to play them like this. It’s a subjective feeling, a situation where you expose yourself to the public and communicate that feeling to others. Now this sounds like esoteric hippie bullshit.
So sometimes you do indeed think, “That was the wrong thing!”
Of course – and I don’t have to do it again. But I don’t necessarily view that as a mistake, rather as an opportunity. In the 1990s, there were a lot of records that simply didn’t specify the playing speed. Back then, there was no YouTube, there was no Spotify, you couldn't listen to the master files anywhere and get that confirmation. That freedom was a happy moment in time, shortly before the big Internet boom when everything became predigested.
True, today you can quickly research the guidelines, and as a result, it’s easier to perceive something as wrong because you do it differently, or at least to perceive it as unintentional.
Where does your interest in playing records the wrong way originate from? Can you tell when it started?
In the 1990s, there was this great record store in Essen named Important Records. It was frequented by so-called crusties, the socially trancid types (editor’s note: modern electro-hippies) who went to the salesperson with their stack of records to take a listen (editor’s note: the store had no private listening stations, so they were played over the loudspeaker). After listening to three or four records, my brain was deep-fried because of the horrible 150 bpm sequencers, this very fast and hard synthesizer staccato. I was often no longer able to focus on which records I wanted to buy. But one day there was a young guy who had selected eight or nine records. The salesperson played the first record at slow speed, and I asked myself, “What was that?” He apologized for the mistake and immediately played it at 45, which threw me back into psytrance hell (editor’s note: very monotonous hard trance style from the 1990s). I asked the salesperson to play that record again at the wrong speed, and it sounded so fantastic and so new and obviously so right. From that day on, I checked out the psytrance collection on my weekly visits to the record store and listened to all of those records at 33 to see what effect they had on me.

Vladimir Ivkovic at the Flow Festival Helsinki Vladimir Ivkovic at the Flow Festival Helsinki | © Thomas Venker Is it common for people to tell you that you’re playing the record at the wrong speed?
Yes, that happens. But most people don’t realize it. Especially with the big trance hits that hardly anyone could avoid in the 1990s, the Eye Q stuff for example, where people hear the familiar melodies but are unable to classify them.
This is why people aren’t even able to find the tracks with the music-identification app Shazam. Today, you can find the right thing immediately. But identifying the wrong thing isn’t so easy.
And that’s actually wonderful. I often receive emails about live recordings and inquiries via Soundcloud. People asking for details about the tracks, and I always politely deny those requests. There are no secrets at the club – anyone who wants to can come and take a snapshot, record it, write down the information. But I can’t support people recreating these special experiences effortlessly at home. If you have questions, then venture out – you know where to find us. Places like the club are the last retreats where there isn’t too much surveillance, there’s a certain degree of freedom. I don’t want to destroy that by facilitating that experience elsewhere.

Having a big ego is a mistake!

What happens at an event when the location and the music don’t fit?
When it’s time to put together the records for an event, I try not to anticipate or gather too much knowledge beforehand. Because if I know too much, then I might as well stay at home because it turns my gig into pure entertainment. I’d arrive at the venue and I’d play records that don’t really mean anything to me. And afterwards I’d ask myself what I have done with my limited time on this planet. It is disrespectful to think people are stupid, and presumptuous to claim that I know what they want.
I had this gig at a new venue in Munich. The instructions were explicit, no typical club music. But a friend of mine who had been DJ’ing there shortly before me said he had been required to play groovy, fast dance music. What am I supposed to do in a situation like that? The records I had brought were totally wrong.
So did people approach you and say things like, “You realize that people are leaving the dance floor because of your music, right?”
Yes, of course, that happens every so often. 20, 25 years ago that would have bothered me. I don’t want to torture my audience, but I also learned over the years that there is always someone in the crowd who feels misunderstood or even insulted by my music, and there is also always someone who goes home happy and is likely to bring five friends along next time. In that respect, the Salon des Amateurs in Düsseldorf has played a big role for me.
Do you often feel that you notice errors in other DJs’ sets or in live acts?

The only thing I view as wrong is when I have the feeling that it’s nothing but a performance without any connection to the time, location, or audience.

And this brings us back to the theme of mistakes. Having a big ego is a mistake! Arrogance is a mistake, too. When I can’t scout people’s feelings, I’m in the wrong place.
What was the last artistic mistake you made?

It happened four years ago at the Kraftfeld, a club in Winterthur, Switzerland during an all-night set. The organizers sent me the witty announcement flyer beforehand. The graphic artist had drawn my face with smileys in my eyes instead of pupils, very psychedelic. I took my cues from that and brought music that I associate with this kind of image. It turned out to be the completely wrong type of music. An angry guy ran up to the stage and asked me if it was going to be like this all night or if there would also be techno. And it was only ten minutes before midnight.
But the 30 people who stayed until the end were all on the dancefloor, and the night turned out to be a profound experience for all of us. Even years later I run into people who were there that night and who took away the encouragement that there is a different kind of life beyond the pre-programmed standard stuff.
After the party, I walked back to the hotel with the booking agent and apologized. I told him that I understand if he’s angry because bar sales tanked when everyone left. I offered to come back another time for free and make up for it. He just looked at me and said that it had been the best night of his life. After that, I did three more gigs in Winterthur, and each one was wonderful.

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