Ricardo Villalobos: 'Techno music melds the classes together'

The Chilean-born techno pioneer lets rip on the gentrification of clubbing, and why family responsibilities mean he’s now always home by 10… in the morning

It’s 7am when I walk into Fabric, and it smells terrible. The superclub has been open since 11pm, hosting an afterparty for the Lovebox festival where many of the patrons spent the day. With everyone’s antiperspirant a distant memory, the air is rich with a summery musk, a little like rotten peaches.

Until 11.30am, a period when most other Londoners are walking dogs, burping babies and pondering an elaborate fry-up, the dancefloor remains packed for what is one of the great techno pilgrimages: an early-morning set from Chilean-born DJ and producer Ricardo Villalobos. He has been on since 6am, and is now vogueing happily around the Fabric booth, long arms reaching this way and that as he pulls together a set of extraordinary, often contradictory grooves. Around the minimal techno he is known for, there are bits of flute, salsa rhythms, a commanding edit of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, and a 10-minute stretch of ultra-slow dub.

This five-hour set is his second shift of the day, and his stamina extends to his production work, too, with remixes and tracks that stretch to 30 minutes or more. “I’m a hyper-kinetic guy, I have a lot of energy – I can be a DJ even without drugs,” he explains to me backstage at the festival. His gestures are as elegant and pronounced as they are above the decks, flicking his hair from his face as he speaks. “I’m a dancer and I don’t want to dance alone – this is why I DJ.”

‘I’m a dancer and I don’t want to dance alone – this is why I DJ.’
‘I’m a dancer and I don’t want to dance alone – this is why I DJ.’ Photograph: Titia Hahne/Redferns

And indeed, Villalobos is no empty hedonist. He has a communal, utopian vision of club culture, after a life surrounded by leftwing politics. In 1973, when he was three, a rightwing military coup led by Augusto Pinochet toppled Chile’s liberal president Salvador Allende; Villalobos’s parents, a pair of university professors, were suddenly in danger. “They were immediately enemies of the state,” he says. “Many people in key positions were tortured and had to tell information about others. There was no choice – we had to leave the country immediately.” They fled to his mother’s native Germany, from where she had already fled amid the ruins of the second world war. It was a bleak time. “As a child, you’re always looking at your parents’ faces – if it’s time to be afraid of something or to be happy, you look at them to find out. If they’re not happy, you see it, and this is what I felt.”

But the family still had parties, and it was at these, listening to salsa and samba, that Villalobos had the first inkling of what his career would be. “I got fascinated with rhythms and with why people would start to dance, all the uncles in the kitchen.” He started buying records aged eight, and became a big Depeche Mode fan – the family saved up to buy him a synthesiser, and he started making music referencing their productions, alongside a DJ career that started at 15 and has never stopped. “People playing records have to be DJs their whole life,” he says firmly. “It’s not like you can become a DJ when you’re 20 because you think it’s cool. You are touched by it; you cry because of a rhythm. Me, I’m crying all the time.” Even behind the decks? “Yes, but everyone is sweating, and I have these Japanese eye drops I put in, so everyone thinks it’s just sweat or eye drops.”

He eventually acclimatised to Germany. “I now feel completely Chilean and completely German, even if my mentality is more Chilean,” he says. “I have a German wife and we have so many clashes – about being punctual, having a bank account, when the kids have to go to bed. I try to take it easy, but to participate in a country like Germany, it’s not possible. If you invite someone to eat at eight, it has to be at eight. But if they arrive at eight, I’m still in my underpants.”

Now 47, Villalobos’s work is among the most characterful and nuanced in techno. He interpolates and reinterprets European folk music, be it by remixing the Turkish psych band Insanlar or sampling a Serbian brass band for his 37-minute masterpiece Fizheuer Zieheuer (2006); crisp, multilayered albums such as Dependent and Happy (2012) or this year’s Empirical House are as rich as fat but light as foam. He has also released on the highbrow label ECM with Max Loderbauer – the pair play this weekend at the stately home Houghton Hall in Norfolk – and he has enough experimental cred to appear on the cover of the Wire magazine, but still plays booming techno bangers to the gurning hordes in Ibiza.

He sees no distinction between any of these spheres. “Sometimes you’ll have horrible situations, standing in a club with a commercial DJ playing before you – the expectations are different, and you have to transform the night,” he says. “But I try to find the common thing about all parties: dance, something that belongs to anyone in the whole world. It’s inside our body – you have six months listening to industrial techno inside the belly of your mother. Your heartbeat, the heartbeat of the mother, all these gastric waters surrounding you – together it sounds like [techno producers] Basic Channel. And the experience in the club is very similar to the experience in the belly of your mother: being enclosed, listening to this music. Music is responsible for us still being alive as humans – it really helps us not to kill each other.”

But that communality is under threat: gentrification muffles the noisy, freewheeling world of dance culture by pricing out venues or forcing them to close, while the conspicuous consumption of the VIP area is growing in nightclubs worldwide. “For 120 years in Europe, we have had a wide middle class, to the point where no one really knows what the classes are,” Villalobos says. “And then we go to Ibiza, and we have to pay €80 entry to a club and €20 for a water, and upstairs, on the gallery, you see the rich people who are paying €1,000 for a bottle of vodka. You think: shit, this doesn’t belong together! Suddenly you have a society with different classes, in the club. It’s a development that’s happening in wider society, too: we have private insurance, and your teeth are only good if you have money. If you’re wealthy when you’re old, you’ll stay alive – if not, perhaps not.”

‘I try to find the common thing about all parties: dance, something that belongs to anyone in the whole world.’
‘I try to find the common thing about all parties: dance, something that belongs to anyone in the whole world.’ Photograph: Titia Hahne/Redferns

Villalobos points the finger at the US, which had a hand in toppling Allende, for introducing this market-forces mindset. “My whole life was completely controlled by foreign US politics,” he says, “and the US now has the third world in terms of what they pay people. They give people shit to eat, and shit medicine, so they work 60 years and then they die. This wave is coming to Europe, and it’s something we have to worry about.”

Ever the leftwing idealist, he still has faith, though, in the dancefloor as a site for communal living. “The music manages to meld the classes together, as long as the dancefloor is bigger than the VIP area,” he says. “In a soccer game, you have the same. You have the president sitting in the place for wealthy and important people, and you have all the other people watching. But then suddenly everyone is behaving the same way – Angela Merkel is jumping around like a hooligan. And this happens in parties, too.”

Villalobos’s young family means, however, that he jets around fewer parties now. “My wife is not pushing me to earn more money – she says what they need is me, as a father, to be there. It’s really nice, it’s rescuing me from trying to be more successful. Because I really try my best to not be more successful. I’m anti-promotion, anti-internet.”

Come 11.30am at Fabric, there is chatter about Villalobos playing afterwards at an east London bar – somewhere he has played after previous Fabric dates, pushing the definition of “afterparty” into psychedelically sleep-deprived new territory. But he heads back to his wife and kids instead. “Socialising is even more important than mixing two records, to maintain a connection to the scene,” he says. “It is very difficult for me to go home, to not go on socialising. But sleeping is by far the best drug in the world, and children are a reality that you can’t escape any more – they are my social obligation, and also very healthy for me. They provide me with a limit, which, until now, I never had. I have to be a father – I can’t die now. I’ll say: it’s 10am, I think I should go home.” Perhaps most dads think: “It’s 10pm, I think I should go home,” but you take his point.

  • Ricardo Villalobos plays the Houghton festival, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, 10-13 August


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lotic: Power review – outsider electronics on the dancefloor
A hard-to-categorise club album of hyperactive techno, industrial R&B and power electronics, Lotic’s debut is a cut-n-paste thrill

Kieran Yates

13, Jul, 2018 @8:30 AM

Article image
Raves, robots and writhing bodies: how electronic music rewired the world
It started with white-coated boffins; now its figureheads wear masks and play Vegas. A new exhibition tells the story of electronic dance music, from old synths to a statue of Brian Eno

Alexis Petridis

15, Apr, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Actress: AZD review – a brilliantly twisted, introverted take on dance music | Alexis Petridis' album of the week
The fifth album from one of electronic music’s most admired producers comes with a lot of high-concept baggage, but the music speaks for itself

Alexis Petridis

13, Apr, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
More to the floor: the decade the dancefloor was decolonised
Collectives like NON and Naafi helped to loosen the west’s stranglehold on club culture – and now the most exciting dance music is coming from east Asia, Africa and Latin America

Whitney Wei

22, Nov, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
Wysing Polyphonic review – explosions in the sonic inventing shed
Moor Mother and Paul Purgas curate an inspirational gathering where electronic artists, dancers and poets freely test the boundaries of expression

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

02, Sep, 2018 @11:50 AM

Article image
The best underground dance music of 2019
Whether it was Conducta’s anti-nostalgic UK garage revival or the experimentalism of Shanghai’s SVBKVLT label, 2019 saw dancefloor boundaries staked out in exciting new territory

Tayyab Amin and Lauren Martin

23, Dec, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
'We're an open wound': São Paulo's underground music scene
Brazil has long had countercultural music, but Jair Bolsonaro’s repressive presidency has made this community more determined than ever

Philip Bloomfield

23, Oct, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Everybody get up! The dance crazes changing the world
Drake’s In My Feelings is the latest viral sensation to get people moving. And from black culture to queer identity to feminism, the global reach of pop choreography makes it the perfect way to change cultural perceptions

Lior Phillips

10, Aug, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Flying Lotus on his gross-out movie debut, Kuso: 'You’ve never seen black characters like this – ever!’
The LA producer and musician discusses his first feature film, an unholy mashup of stoner comedy, body horror and incest. But will it simply prove too disturbing for audiences?

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

21, Jul, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘It was the poor man’s studio’: how Amiga computers reprogrammed modern music
It was grey, ugly and had 0.0128% of an iPhone’s memory. But the Amiga 500 defied its limitations to power a series of astonishing dance tracks, from early jungle to Calvin Harris

Tamlin Magee

02, May, 2022 @10:20 AM