Words: DANI DEAHL Pics: CORNELIA THONHAUSER & LEANDRO QUINTERO
It’s early in Chicago when we dial Magda in Berlin. The time difference means our 8am is her 3pm and while immediately chipper, she’s sympathetic to the plight at hand. “Holy shit!” she exclaims through Skype.
“You got your triple espresso going on?” We’re immediately laughing, which swiftly turns into chatting away like a pair of old friends. With a giant smile that never leaves her face, Magda is one of those rare people who can make anyone feel special in a conversation.
It’s quickly evident that this woman (no-last-name-required) cares greatly about what she does musically (that's a given, i.e. Cher, Madonna, Prince, Sting and other no-last-name artists), and also her connections with other people. This is reinforced by the fact that she prepared her own notes for this interview – a first for us. Dance music scribes rarely experience firsts of anything these days – we welcome one.
The way she tells it, Magda’s passion and eventual rise in techno are the result of her episodic childhood. It’s the kind of tale that makes you think, “What would have happened if one thing had gone differently?” Where would she be and what would she be doing?
Born in Poland, her family fled while she was young from the Eastern Bloc’s martial law imposed by the Communist Party, her father going through a camp in Austria while she and the rest of the family later bribed a priest. They first landed in the States by way of Texas for two years, but eventually settled in Detroit.
The then-hardly pubescent Magda hated it. “It was like that…” she recalls, peering through the screen and behind our head to the snowstorm happening outside. “It was complete gray slush, and we were moving into a poor immigrant community on top of that, so it was very depressing.”
As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and Magda found herself years later making friends in high school, searching out the underground scene and falling in love with the Motor City. “Some of these parties, the venues were abandoned buildings, somewhere in a basement, super dark…” she draws out each word for dramatic effect, as if telling a spooky campfire story. “It took effort to find these parties and you never knew what to expect. As a youth, that’s exciting. I felt so tough and badass.”
She eventually discovered her love for DJing, joining Detroit’s all-female collective Women On Wax, then was plucked by techno elite Richie Hawtin’s Minus label. It wasn’t soon after that she began touring with him as his official opener and the rest, well, is history. Since those early days Magda’s found herself touching every part of the industry.
She’s started her own label with Marc Houle and Troy Pierce called Items & Things, indulged in several collaboration projects, including Cornerbred with Daniela Huerta and DTR with Nyma, has had a hand in creating a custom DJ controller with Faderfox and carries heaps of releases and mixes on her discography.
On this cold, winter morning that harkens back to the city that started it all for Magda, we speak with the techno empress about her stance on women in the industry, what it was like to live with production demi-god Hawtin, her upcoming event series called PERM and… her tequila brand. Wet your whistle.
You pay close attention to the pace of a set, the ebb and flow. Do you think that careful consideration in the art of DJing has been lost?
“Well that is very sweet, thank you. Electronic music has gotten so huge, and there are so many possibilities with how to do it – you can even DJ with your iPhone. That said, that kind of old-school DJ has been lost, the kind where you work on a full set, the peaks, the highs and lows, how everything comes together, the kinds of emotions they build.
But with this younger generation, I see a lot of them going back to old-school ways. They’re playing vinyl, really digging deep and finding records. It’s very refreshing. It’s a counter to the whole mainstream ‘anyone can DJ’ attitude.”
Didn’t you digitize Richie Hawtin’s vinyl collection?
“Maybe infamously! I was this gnome, locked away in the upstairs room, surrounded by vinyl and promos. That’s where I learned about a lot of stuff like the whole minimal house movement of the late ‘90s and all these small labels I would never know about otherwise. Richie would get promos from all over the world and I was one of the first people with him to learn about Traktor’s technology – back when it was called Final Scratch and it came with this UFO-looking thing that worked half the time. It was fun; it was exciting.”
How was Richie as a roommate?
“Oh! He was non-existent; he was never there [laughs]. He traveled so much. We shared a flat in New York and in Berlin. The one in New York was funny, it was barely furnished so I slept in the kitchen on a mattress on the floor. We had a lot of afterhours there, playing records and drinking a lot, throwing vinyl off the balcony… those were the days!”
You were part of Detroit’s Women On Wax collective.
“Yeah, that was cool. DJ Minx – who I love to this day – always did everything she could to push the scene, and especially women in the industry. She found me somehow, gathered a few of us, and encouraged women to become more involved, which was very nice. She was so funny; she always made me laugh. She would get behind the decks and turn the bass down and say ‘I’m gonna make you guys dance! I’m not bringing the bass back until your asses are on the dancefloor!’”
Access to so many women role models at that time was unusual. Did it impact your early career as a DJ?
“Definitely. It was nice to see other women doing well and no one had attitude or problems with each other, they were just trying to unify. For example, Dayhota would bring me to Chicago a lot and it was great to have that support network. Even though there weren’t many of us, we all tried to help each other.”
Being a woman in the industry has been a hot button topic in the past year.
“For me, there was always too much focus on gender and it is annoying. It can be an advantage or a disadvantage. Some women take it to the wrong extreme – they think they have to be gimmicky or play with their tits out – then there are others who just do their thing and push their craft.
I don’t think the focus of someone’s success should be ‘oh, is it because they’re a woman?’ I don’t think that point should even exist. Every female artist rolls their eyes at the question ‘what’s it like to be a female in the industry?’ It’s ridiculous, it’s 2016, come on. Maybe it’s different in EDM.
“EDM is more of a pop approach to brand someone a certain way for commercial success and with what I do, it’s not that way at all. If someone suggested I change my look I’d punch them in the face. For me personally, gender has not been an issue for many, many years. There are so many women here in Europe doing amazing things on par with men.
I’m glad to see that’s happening and no one cares anymore. Obviously it’s not even by any means, we still have a long way to go, but that’s not necessarily due to one factor. I think I have just as many female DJ and producer friends as I do men.”
What do you think of all female events?
“I don’t agree with the concept of separating ourselves. Why? If you want to be seen as an equal, it should be based on merit and skill and not your gender. It’s too much to me.”
But you were part of Women On Wax.
“I was, I was. But it became this thing, this gimmick. Everyone wanted to throw these all-female parties and it felt like ‘oh, look what these girls can do, they can DJ too!’ I think it’s nice to be supportive but when it becomes a thing, it changes the point.”
So how else do you propose getting female artists greater visibility?
“It’s so hard to say because for me, the scene these days is something completely foreign from what I knew in the past. Everyone has a team of people from management to logistics. You never know who’s saying what, and there’s all these negotiations and talks… it’s so different. I don’t know if that’s the result of management or something else. I wonder about these things.”
DJ Frontliner said about the lack of women on the Top 100 list, “maybe they spent too much time in Sephora and too little time on producing.”
“That’s just so intelligent of him [laughs]. Amazing. It’s ridiculous, it’s just sexist, and it’s sad, to be honest. It’s a total lack of respect for women in general. Luckily in Europe I don’t hear these comments from anyone I know, but it might be more prominent in the more commercial ‘EDM’ scene. Reading though a lot of the comments in that same article I was quite shocked.“
There is also the European term “DJanes” which we don’t use here in the States.
“I always found that word kind of funny. It’s silly. I don’t like it. Why differentiate. Though I don’t find it problematic because people should do what they want to do and I don’t have to be a part of a certain scene. If something bothers me, I just go away. I don’t need to harp on it, and think ‘oh they’re just doing it because they’re pretty.’ It’s not my place to say. What if that person really does love it and they do something amazing.”
Speaking of doing amazing things… you also collaborated to create the Versus DJ controller. It’s almost a new market to have such a high-end controller.
“I don’t think there is a market for that! I don’t think anyone would buy it. If I looked at that price tag and was looking for a controller my jaw would drop. Being on the other end and making it, with very high-end materials and a small company, the manufacturing cost was very high.
It’s unfortunate it can’t be more accessible to people at a lower price and I understand why companies have controllers that compromise certain elements or use plastics but this was something more for me as a learning experience, to have something of my own so I can play the way I like. I use it all the time and it’s a blast, and it’s really versatile.”
Why do it to begin with? What was missing out there that prompted you to want to make it?
“I felt like everything was the same. Everyone was using the same controllers, the same methods, the same effects, and it all started sounding too similar to me. Also, a friend of mine had already worked with Faderfox to make a controller for himself.
I thought it was really interesting, it did all these things I hadn’t seen in other controllers so I suggested we talk to them to make a few units, something just for us to use. Developing the whole process together, coming up with the precise design, even down to hand motions and where everything would go, I loved it. We spent months and months on it and then to see it realized and manufactured was a feeling I’ll never forget.”
With projects and releases it seems like collaborations have been important to you, but 2016 shows a lot of solo projects.
“Something changed. I feel like this year I’m going to be in the studio a lot more than I have been. I was with Minus for a long, long time. It was the best and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Then I started the label Items & Things with my two friends, which was also amazing… but then I got to a point where I wanted something to call my own. That’s what made me want to start my event series PERM.”
Let’s talk about this upcoming event series PERM – what makes it different?
“Clubbing has gotten safe. A lot of parties these days only happen in clubs or at festivals and everything is very regulated. The focus is only on the DJ with huge LED displays. When I recall first going out in Detroit it wasn’t like that at all – you had to walk through a haze of fog and strobes. You couldn’t see who was playing, or even where the music was coming from.
I remember all these elements and I wanted to do something similar and also support the creative people around me to create a new concept away from that club format. There are a lot of artists, established and new, who don’t have the opportunity for exposure because of current club culture.”
Why call it PERM?
“When I first started going out in the early ‘90s, promoters introduced me to the world of underground loft parties and I saw amazing queens, amazing outfits and artists who would paint and change the space of the event in interesting ways. From there, I learned about the Detroit Hair Wars and it’s so fascinating to me the amount of creativity involved. This stuff is crazy! What they can do with hair – and the fact that it came from Detroit – it’s always inspired me. PERM is a silent tribute to the Detroit Hair Wars in a way. When I was researching different hairstyles, I discovered all these amazing perm machines from the 1920s, and it looks like ‘Metropolis’. The images reminded me of the industrial part of Detroit, the machinery and the raw energy. I also had my first perm in Detroit [laughs].”
You also have a tequila coming out called Maria Pascuala?
“Yeah! It took a while to make, so that’s exciting. I’ve always been obsessed with Mexican culture and one day at BPM Festival my friend came from Oaxaca with these giant jugs of mezcal and said we should make some. She said she had all the contacts and so we tried that first, but it’s not regulated enough and it was too complicated to bring it to Europe. But, I’ve always been a huge fan of tequila, so we looked into that and all the pieces fit. I found a partner who’s from Jalisco, and we found a producer where the ground is amazing, the agave plants are old, and everything seemed right.”
Richie’s got a sake collection, right?
“Yeah! Maybe that’s the new thing, DJs coming out with their own lines of liquor and food. We’ve been lucky enough to be taken to the best restaurants and drink the best liquors in various countries around the world. It’s a nice break from music, but it still relates. I like that it fits with the lifestyle we lead – music, food, booze and travel.”
What’s your best tequila story?
“The one that I remember? Oh, I know my first tequila story. When I came to Chicago for the first time, I was staying with Dayhota and went to meet Derrick Carter. At that time, none of us in Detroit drank tequila that much – we drank vodka or 40s – but in Chicago, everyone was drinking tequila. Derrick was on a mission to put me down so we started matching each other shot for shot. I woke up the next day face down with my winter jacket on and Dayhota’s entire bookshelf was knocked over. He definitely initiated me into the world of tequila.”
People say tequila makes you crazy but there’s no hangover.
“A lot of tequila has chemicals in it, but if you have good organic tequila, you really don’t have a hangover. Going to Mexico I learned a lot about the process. The thing I found most interesting is that during the fermentation process, they play classical music to the tequila. It’s based on a Japanese theory of plant growth – they did this experiment and found that plants grow better and faster when exposed to certain frequencies. It was very surreal to go into these factories and hear the music played above the bins of fermenting agave.”
I wonder how different it would taste if they played your music.
“I actually asked about that! They were like, ‘uhhh… no’. The agave would freak out!”