Cover Story: The Rise of Mor Elian is a Testament to The Power of Taking it Slow
Cover Story: The Rise of Mor Elian is a Testament to The Power of Taking it SlowNovember 27, 2019
With a successful DJ career, label and party series, and a string of powerful releases to her name, Mor Elian’s rise has been years in the making. Emma Robertson finds out what it took to get here.
Mor Elian is in the right place at the right time. That’s not to say she’s lucky — she’s worked harder than most to get here. But after a decade of grinding, and a handful of years flying under the radar, it feels like Elian is finally getting the recognition she deserves. “I’m just doing my own thing,” Elian says lightly when I point this out. “I’m hesitant to say this, but sometimes I feel like in 10 years, I’ll be the artist I want to be, because technically speaking, it takes time!” she says, laughing a laugh that is big and contagious. “Some of my favourite DJs and artists are people that are much older. I feel like this experience and maturity — I love it. I can hear it in the music.”
Perched on the sofa at my flat in Berlin’s Neukölln area, Elian sits on the edge of her seat so she can lean towards me when she talks. It’s a gesture of friendship, and of affection. I’ve known Elian for a few years now, but even if I hadn’t, it would feel like I had. She’s an exceptionally warm person, and there’s rarely any small talk with her. Meeting with her always feels like old friends catching up.
Born in Tel Aviv, Elian moved to Los Angeles for university. There, she began immersing herself in the city’s rave scene as a DJ and promoter, founding the Into The Woods event series with fellow DJ Jimmy Maheras. A move to Berlin several years ago was an undeniably smart choice — her touring schedule quickly picked up, and this summer she played festivals like Gottwood, Dimensions, and Atonal. You might say that Elian has come into her own, found her place not only artistically, but in the wider music industry. But she would say the best is yet to come.
When Elian first started making music, she loved everything — electro, house, techno, classic rave tunes, hip hop, trance — and all of it went into her sound. Sure, maybe it was unrefined, but it was fun, upbeat, dynamic, and interesting. Like 2015’s “323 to Plaza,” it was music for the dancefloor, for better or worse. Her turning point came in 2016, when she released the excellent Drum Vortex EP on Hypercolour. The title track lays down thick, heavy kicks, while “Basma” is a throbbing slice of dubby techno. The EP introduced her to the world as a producer who’d hit her stride, and the following year’s Cymatic Ring, released on Fever AM — the label she runs with Rhyw — was just as well received. “I’ve reigned in my focus, you know, that happens naturally with time,” she explains. “But I also think the journey is so important. I used to think I regret my earliest releases, but I realized recently that I don’t. I just feel like these days I understand my own voice. I can see what I’m good at, and I accept it.”
A lot of Elian’s most crucial artistic development has come from what she calls “growing pains.” For example, Elian loves house music, but her earliest attempts at making it didn’t work. “I just don’t know how to do it. It’s not for me,” she shrugs. “Once I started experimenting with other stuff, it clicked, it worked. And there was more response, so I think people can hear what works better.”
These days, her goals are not to make a certain type of music, but rather to push herself with the music she makes — and what’s most important for Elian is quality. Technically, her sound is now better than ever. “I have more means to buy stuff, so I have a couple of pieces that are helpful, like the Elektron Digitone or the Waldorf Microwave,” she explains, “There are a couple of plugins that have really changed my sound, one that I used excessively on a past record. I was able to do crazy stuff, manipulate samples more. It elevated my sound,” she says. Experimentation also fuels her creative process; she picks out sounds and patterns from her everyday life — like a percussive element from a Mala set she heard at Griessmuehle’s Mother’s Finest this summer — and brings it into the studio with her. “No, it’s not mimicking,” she’s quick to add. Instead, she sees it as a jumping off point for exploring something deeper within herself. “I don’t even know,” she exhales, exasperated. “I just get excited about something and it inspires me.”
In September, Elian released Radical Spectacular, a three-track EP that came out on Fever AM. The title tune is a glittering synth piece, with buoyant energy simmering just below the surface. One Bandcamp commenter described the EP as sounding like “how falling in love feels,” and a journalist compared it to Warp Records-era IDM. I tell her it’s some of her best work. “But what is your best work?” she questions emphatically, leaning forward again, elbows on knees. “That track had a few lifetimes, but when it came out, I was so happy with it. It opened a new world for me. I didn’t even think about what it sounded like or what it was influenced by. Some people loved it, but then someone wrote that it was ‘done to death right now.’ So, who knows? You’re not going to please everyone.” But pleasing everyone is not the point. “That track evoked all the right emotions for me. If someone else doesn’t feel that way, it’s really irrelevant.”
It’s a healthy disposition for any artist. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand — hollow and creatively unsatisfying. But making yourself happy is often just as hard, if not more-so. Thankfully, Elian seems able to enjoy her creative success, even if only momentarily. “After Move Like Atoms, I felt like I’d found my sound,” she says. “But then I tried to take that sound to the next level and I struggled because I felt pressured by myself. I never feel fully satisfied with my creative process. I have fun with it, but I also suffer during it. It can be very frustrating because I care about it so much and I’m very hard on myself, you know? I judge myself, I hate myself, I love myself. The whole rainbow.” She laughs her big laugh again, and then, almost like she’s speaking to herself rather than me, she says, “I wonder if any of my heroes felt happy with every single thing they make, or if they also go through this?”
Even if Elian feels under-confident or unsure about the sounds she’s making, she puts it all out into the world anyway. “I release almost everything I finish! I think there is a lot of courage in putting things out, even if you’re not sure,” she says. “People are like, ‘Oh, you should really just put out your best work.’ And I think about this a lot. I think these tracks deserve to be heard, they deserve to have life, and one of them might mean a lot for someone else. On my record last year, the track I was most insecure about was the most successful, and the one I was happy about was the most controversial one. So why not put it all out there?”
In 2017, Elian put out a lesser-known work called Vapor Surplus, a cassette tape of original music released in collaboration with a Los Angeles-based magazine called Fondle. Each side features 45 minutes of previously unused material. It’s the best kind of ambient electronica, building slowly and bubbling with weird sounds and textures. Adorned with only a plain white cover and Elian’s name in blue text stamped across the front, it’s an unassuming bit of music — and some of the best in Elian’s catalogue. “Basically, what happens when I make a track is I record, record, record. And in the end, I have a bunch of parts — bass, textures, strings, pads, leads. But when you arrange your track and kind of play all the parts together, they don’t all work. You have to pick the good ones, and then just kind of forget about the other ones,” she says. It’s those forgotten pieces that she used for Vapor Surplus, which didn’t garner as much attention as her other releases. But she sees the value of its existence, and prides herself on being able to find a home for just about anything. Myrrh, the jewellery line she runs on the side, is a testament to this mantra, as she finds clever ways to repurpose pieces that come out flawed or don’t sell. She likes to recycle, and this thinking has slowly leaked into her music. “It’s like, why would I let this disappear?” she wonders out loud.
In an interview about Vapor Surplus, Elian describes how the idea for the mix came to her in an effort to be less stressed about “making it bang.” Her early releases mostly focused on the dance floor, and she wondered what it would be like to just let things flow, to make her music more subtle, more understated, less danceable, and weirder. Vapor Surplus, with its delicate atmospheres and underwater bleeps was, as Elian puts it, guided by a feeling. It was more grounded in emotion, and is all the better for it. Her tunes can still bang, but it’s not the end game. “I’m trying to cultivate everything, all my memories and experiences, and bring them forward into a new sound,” she explains, “It’s still techno, but it’s a memory book of my life.” It seems like a very introspective way of thinking about music, a suggestion Elian shrugs at. “It’s introspective, but it’s also driven from this moment. I am part of the zeitgeist; I am influenced by the zeitgeist. That’s inevitable. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you try to put the blinds down, music is influenced by everything around us. It’s an energy — to me, at least.”
In electronic music, and especially techno, the energy is getting harsher, harder, and faster. Pockets of this music are cropping up all over: Berlin, Copenhagen, and a handful of cities in the US. This lightning fast music is by no means new, but it’s very of the moment. Elian calls it “instant gratification,” or music for an instant generation. “Honestly, sometimes I wish people would slow the fuck down,” she sighs. “I can still play hard, but I try to pace it a bit, there’s still a journey, a story.” It’s not that Elian wants to give other artists a hard time, it’s simply that she appreciates music that offers a challenge. She wants you to listen. She wants you to be in the moment with her. “I like to keep things weird when I play, not only because that excites me, but because it draws attention. It’s a way of getting people to be more present on the dance floor.”
Elian has always been a bit different in that respect. She’s avoided pigeonholing herself in any crew, with any genre, or even any musical trend, Elian feels her place in the music industry is a little on the fringes, a bit un-pin-down-able, and that’s the way she likes it. She calls it being “in between places.” She’s never been cliquey; at school in her native Israel, she was comfortably nestled in between the “cool kids” and the “outsiders.” She floated amongst friend groups effortlessly. “I’m lucky that I can connect with a lot of different people,” she says, “And it’s nice to keep playing with the same people that I love, even if they’re from different genres.” Today, Elian plays often with a wide cast of esteemed peers: Helena Hauff, DJ Stingray, Shanti Celeste, and Bicep. But her favourite artists to play with are people like Rhyw. Not only is he a talented DJ, but he pushes Elian to be a better DJ herself. Elian is, after all, at her best when she’s reaching for that next step.
In her early days in LA, when she was first learning the ins and outs of production, she had a small group of people she could rely on for help. They weren’t necessarily people that knew one another, but they were all connected to Elian in some way — some as mentors, others as sounding boards for ideas or thoughts about producing. She asked a lot of questions. “You need human connection to evolve,” she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She leans in again. “So even though I can be very isolated, I also love people, I love connecting with people, I love human contact. In LA, I was really lucky to have these meaningful relationships around music because they helped me figure out who I am in that path.” In Berlin, Elian is trying hard to fill that gap by helping and mentoring other young producers. Now she’s the one fielding questions and providing answers, or giving feedback on tracks and helping with technical problems. As the owner of Fever AM, she’s actively seeking younger or lesser-known artist to help them be seen and heard. “I am in a privileged position now, at least in some ways,” she explains. “And I think it’s really important to give back, because you can’t just take, take, take. You have to put things back in the community because, really, it helps all of us. It creates work and jobs and longevity for all of us, it keeps us moving forward.”
A few years back, when Elian was giving an interview about Into The Woods, she talked about a goal of inclusion in much the same way. Elian and Maheras, who continues to run things on the ground for Into The Woods in LA, wanted to “turn the dancefloor into an unsegregated place.” They brought in DJs like K-Hand, Derek Plaslaiko, Noncompliant, and Convextion, artists who rarely made appearances in LA but were well-loved when they did. Their parties were open for anyone, as well. From that place of privilege as a promoter, Elian worked on being more open, more inclusive, and more involved. Into The Woods follows the same ethos today, in turn becoming a local mainstay. “Into The Woods was born from this perfect moment when me and Jimmy Maheras came together with this idea,” she reflects. “I’d done parties before that, but it wasn’t really natural, a lot of them were really difficult. Into The Woods really gave me confidence in throwing a successful party. But these days, I would only throw another party to cultivate something even more meaningful.”
Her most recent venture is called Fluid. The first event took place in May at Berlin’s tiny OHM club, and was billed as a collaboration between Elian’s Fever AM, and two agencies, Higher Ground and Arab DJ league. The line-up featured Elian, Minor Science, and two Palestinian DJs — Sami Zibak, resident of Palestinian club Kabareet, and Rojeh from the Jazar Crew collective. “I am Israeli, and my friend Sami, who runs Fluid with me alongside John Humphrey from Higher Ground, is Palestinian. I was emotionally suffering from the Israel-Palestine conflict, even though I’m on the privileged side of it,” Elian explains. “Sami and I had a connection where we were both in pain about it, so we got together to do something. We wanted to help uplift suppressed dance communities, so we’re bringing in DJs that come from difficult situations. The more the merrier, the more we reach out and welcome DJs from all over, the better our community will be.” Their next event hosts Oramics, a queer collective and DJ crew from Poland, where a right-wing nationalistic government is going into power. “It’s now more important than ever to actually do something. We can’t just talk about it, we need to be of action, and that’s why we were doing these events.”
But the fight doesn’t start and end there. Inclusivity isn’t solely up to industry figures like Elian, but the entire music community. I wonder aloud what we can do to help, and she starts to give her thoughts, but stops mid-sentence to tell an anecdote that will better answer my question.
Elian recently took part in a panel discussion about a similar topic and got into a discussion with a fellow booker who said that booking big names at festivals was essential to bring people in. Elian claps her hand to her forehead. “That is the oldest thing in the book! Of course, book these people. But make it more interesting. For every big name, book an unknown name and pay them fairly. Use their privilege to help someone else,” she says, before rattling off more suggestions: hire more minorities, not just as DJs but agencies, record labels, in magazines and media, behind the bar, wherever. “For people of colour in every industry, people instinctively relate to you in a different way, even if they’re not prejudiced at all. It’s just harder for them to place you when you’re…” she pauses, searching for the right word. Unfamiliar, I offer. “Right, unfamiliar! People gravitate to what they know. When you look different, you don’t catch on quite as well.” She hesitates again. “It’s a hard subject to talk about. But we need to embrace artists who are less privileged or who are struggling.” Elian knows what her hard-earned success has allowed her, and instead of reveling in it, she uses it to help others. She knows how far the industry has come, but recognizes that there’s a long way to go. She sits back on the sofa, seemingly thinking about what to do next. “How else are we going to bridge the gap?”
Emma Robertson is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. Find her on Twitter.