The Forum: Cinthie

Since the early nineties, Cinthie’s life and passions have led straight to the heart of house music. Raised in Germany’s heartland, Cinthie experienced the cultural riches of a nineties electronic music boom, learning her craft as a local, teenage resident, finding fame on the circuit and then slowly but confidently earning a reputation as a rarely beloved figure on the club and festival circuit.

2020 should have been a seminal year for Cinthie. COVID-19 curbed an international tour and, more locally, a debut appearance at Panorama Bar, a venue so close to Cinthie’s apartment, that it’s often quicker for her to pop home from the club and use her own toilet on a Sunday evening. Nonetheless, house music ticks over, and Cinthie is there with it. Her record store, Elevate, still opens in Friedrichshain twice a week, constantly restocked with new house heat, with her own imprints - 803 Crystal Grooves and Collective Cuts - taking pride of place.

Most significantly, this summer saw Aus Music release Cinthie’s debut LP, ‘Skylines Citylights’, a twelve-track explorations of the luminescent strains of house and techno that have informed her career and reemergent studio process. Even robbed of dancefloors, the record feels loyal and optimistic, knowledgeable and unpretentious.

The same might be said of Cinthie herself, who was in a particularly forthcoming and reflective mood for this edition of Phantasy’s extended interview series, The Forum, recorded here in extended conversation with John Loveless.

How has it been running a record store and a label throughout 2020?

I’m old school and I like physical, personal contact and to talk to people. I think it’s a good thing as conversation is often misunderstood online, where people get sad and are having fights. It’s nice to be face-to-face with people, as that’s what house music is about. The community and meeting people, even if not in a club context, having to scream at each other the whole time.

What were the record stores you went to when developing your interest in house music? And did you encounter that aforementioned community or resistance?

I worked in a record store from 1999 to 2000 or 2001. It was really interesting when I started, I was 16, and it was the heyday of electronic music, and especially house music. We got so many records in from America and all over the world. It was the best place to be.

At that time I’d say I lived close to Frankfurt, although all my Frankfurt friends would say otherwise! But it was an hour between Frankfurt and the French border. I also worked in a record store near the border of France in a town called Saarbrücken, which meant we were also able to go to Rex Club in Paris, as it was only around two hours drive. I worked at ‘Humpty Records’, but then Hardwax had another store there at the time. So it was a great place to be.

We didn’t have so many women playing back there, but I had a residency every Saturday at this club called Culture Fabric in the earliest days, where I played for five hours, all vinyl. I learned a lot, and would occasionally play the main room, too. It was a very good exercise for learning.

That’s kind of a dream gig for a DJ learning their craft, right? Your week revolves around finding music for that appointment. It wouldn’t work forever, but surely you learn a lot?

Yes, and the combination with the record store worked. People would come in and talk about music, ask for a guestlist, so you had a small crew. Or, at the club, people would ask me what a certain record was and I would tell them to come to the record store in the week and I could give it to them. So this was the way I was selling loads of records, through this really nice circle. It was super natural and you dealt with real people. It’s different now, on the internet, it can be quite intense. But I must say, everyone who follows me seems to be really nice, and I don’t have many haters. People talk to each other and help each other out with track IDs, and it feels really mature. A lot of people can be misunderstood, but I really try and just treat people how I would want to be treated.

There are a few things I find refreshing about the trajectory of your long career. But, first of all, do you mind referring to it as a career? Or is it a passion out of control?

Well, to me, it definitely still feels like passion! I have three labels now, although it was five or six at one point.

Beste Modus is the label you might once have been best known for, and that ended, right?

Yes, Beste Modus ended as we took different directions. We felt after some time that it was not working as it was. It’s like, if you’re married, after some years if you’re not working hard on it, on the relationship then it’s tough. I was travelling so much and I told them I didn’t feel the fire anymore, that we should call it a day.

That’s very honest of you, and of course, saves dragging a fractured relationship out…

Yes, and I think it’s much nicer to die as a… legend? (Laughs.) At the peak! It’s probably better to let it die when it’s already dead.

Then you get the reunion tour?

Yes, like Take That! (Laughs.)

You’ve also had lots to take care of. We’re mainly here to speak as you have your new album, ‘Skyline City Light’ out next month, on Aus Music. What skyline is on the cover?

It’s Chicago, although it’s a bit customised. The idea behind the album was that often, skylines are the only thing when I get to a city, out of the window of a cab. I spoke to John, my wonderful graphic designer and proposed the idea, and let’s face it, the American skyline looks amazing compared to any German one. It’s no secret that I am very much influenced by that scene, so thought it would make a nice homage.

Yes, you definitely wear your influences on your sleeve in that respect. What are some of your best memories of playing in Chicago?

I never have!

What? How?!

I always wanted to and ended up playing in New York a lot. Once, I had a boyfriend who lived in Germany, but he was from Los Angeles, so I was going there a lot, as well as Minnesota. But for some reason, never Chicago. And then, last year, I had my first gig scheduled there. When I was about to leave, somebody was flying a drone over Frankfurt airport, which they closed. I was waiting and waiting, and got talking to two guys who happened to be high up in management at Lufthansa, who I was flying with. I explained the situation and they were checking whether they could rebook me on a different system. Then they sent me to London to make a connection, but it was just too late! In the end, I had to go home. I did make it to Chicago, but the gig was over and I was there for just two hours.

One thing I like about your approach is your quite explicit focus on house music. Some DJs are credited for their sheer eclecticism, but what you and many other DJs in Berlin are great at is this very textured exploration of one specific sound. It feels like that knowledge plays out on the album.

It took around two years, and in the last few years, I’ve really been concentrating much more on making music. DJing and the labels were going really well, but I knew I could put more quality into my own music. My tracks were getting better as well as my workflow and, you know, I’ve been doing this for nearly twenty years now and I felt I had the confidence to record an album. I did what they call ‘stockpiling’, collecting nearly thirty tracks and picking the best ones to work towards the album.

There are, notably, no ambient interludes on this album, which is kind of rare for an electronic LP in the modern format.

Yes, but I couldn’t do exactly what people expected of me. I collected ideas from friends who had previously produced albums, in order to work out how to make something that works in the club and also works at home. I couldn’t actually listen to it for a few weeks, especially after I listened to another friend’s album, and thought, “Mine is a piece of shit, just so cheesy!” But I always send stuff to friends, so, for example, and vice versa.

Well, you’re an A&R, and you’ve signed some very successful house records in the past. But this LP is out on Aus Music, where Will Saul is your A&R, working with you. Do you like that role switch?

I love it, yeah! I put some tracks together, and he said, “This is cool!” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” (Laughs.)

I want to go back to the very early days, playing and producing as Princess Vinyl?

The Vinyl Princess. This was not my idea…

And you were signed to the label of Westbam, who, for those unfamiliar, is very much an icon or a legend of German electronic music.

Yes, a star back then, and they organised the Love Parade and all these parties on the 1st May every year. I was signed to his sub-label, Electric Kingdom. Back then, my stuff was more breaky, and I was only eighteen or nineteen when he signed me. I always wanted to release as Cinthie, but everyone called me The Vinyl Princess, it was a nickname on an online techno forum.

Ah, so you were on the forums, very deep in the scene?

Yes, and I was so young. They put me on tours all over Europe and to Japan. I once played with Westbam and with Woody in Columbiahalle, New Years Eve, I think it was 1999, in front of five-thousand people. It was a super-good time for me, but I was very young and very naive. I didn’t know about rights and royalties and mechanicals.

How did it feel to be given that platform, a burst of musical fame, at such a young age? You’ve continued to be known and respected, but as Cinthie, you’ve built yourself back up in a different way. I have friends who had quite intense success at a similar age and sometimes the effect it has on their psychology and artistic ambition can be quite complex.

For me, it was just fun and a very nice experience. But if I had the knowledge I had now, I would have of course done things differently. When you think back twenty years, there were almost no women in the scene. There was Ellen Alien and Monika Cruz, and people liked me for my taste and knowledge, but I felt like I had to prove myself. I was touring with older guys, sometimes ten years older, and I was always the little one, always playing the opening slot. Which was still nice and a super chance for me, but then, I wasn’t ever offered another slot, or even the second one.

Dealing with DJ ego? A valuable skill to learn...

Yes, and I was quite shy at the time, and I’m still quite shy, but now I know how to deal with it. But, eighteen or nineteen, touring with these people, it was a big learning experience as to what I did and didn’t want. I also worked for Sony Music for a little, which was a major label, and all these good and bad experiences, I took and put into my own label.

There’s quite a wide gap of time between your first releases and when you started making music again.

I finished studying software development and had my first job. When I left Westbam’s label, I didn’t really feel like producing, I found myself wondering, “Is this really what I want to do?” I never thought of this as my main job, but of course, I was producing a little bit in between. When I started Beste Modus, I felt comfortable. Of course, when I look at my first track for Beste Modus, of course I would have done it much better had I done it now, but I was getting my knowledge back from back in the day. Each track got better and better. It was interesting to see it evolve and see how my mixing skills have evolved.

You live this process quite openly on Instagram. There’s no real mystery, you’re always in the studio showing yourself working things out. Then lately, somebody photoshopped themselves into your studio?

Yes, a friend sent me it, and at first, I was close to a heart attack. I thought somebody had broken into my studio, as she was showing the middle finger. Then, I posted it on my Instagram and Facebook, as I thought it was very funny. A friend of mine knew her. She even looked a bit like me!

Have you been in touch?

No, but then one of my friends photoshopped my face into her face, and another friend posted her into the record store and it got more and more ridiculous.

It’s a good looking studio, very modular. You prefer to work outside of the box?

Well, for a few years I worked with Ableton, but I began to feel like I was just sitting down, shifting around a mouse, when I prefer to move my hips! A friend of mine, Holger, who ran the Sense label, and is also from near Frankfurt, he helped me a lot wiring the studio and creating a space where you can really jam. I feel like I’m really making music in there, as I’m more of a technical person and less of a musical person.

That was my next question; as somebody also making music with no formal knowledge, is it sometimes difficult for you?

I know a lot about how machines work from my background. My whole family is very technically minded, which is funny, because my Mum played the saxophone professionally. But when we started learning instruments in school, I think I chose the triangle. She was very upset about that. (Laughs). I can jam a little bit on the keyboard, but it’s more about searching for the right key with my fingers in the right positions…

I’ve seen you do this on Instagram, and I appreciate the honesty, rather than pretending that it’s some sort of magical process or that you’re Mr. Fingers or something.

Exactly, but I have to say, I’m always very good at reflecting on what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. So, my technique is good when it comes to making a chord or a bassline, but now it’s about how to play it. And that is something that I was always doing by ear and by trial and error. But now, I’m taking piano lessons together with my daughter, and that’s really nice.

I wanted to talk about your residency at Watergate here in Berlin, between 2015 and 2018. You were also on their agency. Watergate is a house club, but as you’ve acknowledged in the past, it’s not necessarily always your type of house music… Nonetheless, I wondered if you saw that as a challenge, another chance to prove yourself? Do you like the idea of changing the culture of an institution from the inside?

Well, nothing has ever gone the easy way in my life. When they asked me if I wanted to join the club and the agency, I noted that the roster didn’t exactly fit. But I like the opportunity to bring a fresh breeze in and maybe bring the house vibe back. And also, they gave me the chance to host the Wednesday night, once or twice a month, which was great and I got to play with people who had been in the industry for a long time. Wednesday is a bit different, with one floor open, without the pressure to stick with the sure shots. But by the end, I think I realised that my thing was not necessarily their thing. I think it was ultimately a success, as I did everything the best I could, but for me, it was time to move on. I’m always a fan of listening to my feelings, and I felt like I wasn’t moving any more. It was the same case with Beste Modus; we sold a lot of records when we were told people weren’t buying them any more, we built a nice crew and following. But I felt I needed to swim on my own. Swim on my own… Is that a saying?

Dance to the beat of your own drum?

Yes, that’s the one! (Laughs.)

The level of your involvement in music is pretty extreme, you are seemingly, lost in music. There’s the shop, the label, your DJing career, your production career, collaborating…

Yes, in fact, I think the only time I don’t listen to music is when I’m going to the toilet.

I suppose that’s insulting to whatever promo you happen to be listening to. You need to give every record a fair chance.

But yes, I have my Spotify playlist, which I update every Monday, and I check which records I buy from the store are available and log them. But everything comes full circle, and I know my customers in the store and what they like. I would say the medium of vinyl works best for house music, maybe minimal, but not so much for techno. It sounds funny, but techno guys don’t seem to play as much on vinyl as house DJs.

Is that a cultural thing, respect to the roots of the format?

Yes, and I think techno comes from technique and technology, so there’s more interest in four-deck and FX, innovation and so on.

Whereas you’re more of a subscriber to the “red-light, basement and a feeling” spirit?

Yes, I’d say I’m more into smaller clubs with lots of hedonism on the dancefloor, rather than looking at you or their phone.

Going back to your absolute immersion in house music, I know you have deep roots with artists in the United States; Mike Huckaby, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year, even gave your daughter a Maschine lesson.

This was amazing, as he’s such a big influence. I’ve been obsessed with Detroit and Chicago since the nineties, so my production influences were him, Steve Poindexter, Paul Johnson… They’re still futuristic too, those Cajual or Relief records still sound amazing.

You’ve played with Paul Johnson too, right?

Yes. I knew him a little bit from the internet as we both remixed Jesse Saunders, ‘On and On’, which was the first house record. He was playing some years ago at Watergate on a Wednesday, and I went along with a friend, but I was too tired to stay for his set. When I left the club, I went for a kebab over the street and Paul was in there eating with the promoter. I was totally starstruck and had to tell him what a big influence he is on me, and how many of his records I own. He was like, “OK, that’s cool, but can I eat my kebab?”

There’s been a lot of conversation and motivation in 2020 on the subject of how to better pay tribute and elevate the lineage of black electronic music, especially from America. Has that been something that’s been on your mind

Well, as I have always said in the past, I have been so obsessed with this music, that I am basically just a copycat, and have always tried to be as honest about that as possible. There’s a sort of Cinthie vibe that’s hopefully my own, but all of my music is a tribute. I also think I’ve been inspired by the community aspect of those scenes, which is what having the shop is about and sharing studio ideas. I just love to have contact with people. There’s a lot of ‘elbow mentality’, which isn’t my thing, I’d rather have a big crew having fun together. I try and make sure that those records, whether they’re Underground Resistance re-presses or a new, young artist, are stocked in the shop.

John Loveless, August 2020.

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