Sven Väth: Frankfurt and Ibiza

No other DJ embodies the history of techno in all of its diversity as fully as Sven Väth.

GROOVE Magazin Berlin

Sven Väth during the Ibiza Music Summit by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

On the one hand, the Frankfurt DJ uncovered an unusually wide spectrum of music. On the other, he also shaped the scene as a label maker, club manager, and event organizer. The island of Ibiza has a special meaning for Väth. 

Sven Väth at Cocoon's 20 year celebration at Ushaia in May of 2019 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

For over 20 years, Väth has been hosting his own parties on Ibiza. Väth has now been visiting the island as a guest for over 40 years.

The Amnesia club on Ibiza in the 1980s by Groove ArchivGROOVE Magazin Berlin

What did the Ibiza of 1980 spark in Väth when he was a teenager? How did the unique atmosphere on the island inspire him to get creative himself as a DJ, producer, and singer? How did Väth bring the spirit of the island into the mainstream, then later bring the sound of Frankfurt back to Ibiza?

Total Ibiza in 1987 in GROOVE #109 from 2007 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"I first went to Ibiza in 1980," recalls Väth. "Naturally the clubs were much, much smaller, particularly Pacha and Amnesia. Amnesia's terrace was open like a pueblo. There was a finca there, and in front of that was a terracotta floor which was the dance floor. At the center was a huge fountain with a glass pyramid, with a few lights here and there hanging from the palm trees. The DJ stood under a canopy on a balcony. Then there were the open bars."

Total Ibiza in 1987 in GROOVE #109 from 2008 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"The girls had a hippie-chic style. In the early 1980s, there was a lot of patchouli and marijuana in the air. There were bowls of mescaline. The girls wore revealing clothing and the boys wore long dreads and had handlebar mustaches, they sat in the corner of the room and often played bongos and congas. I was still under 20 years old. I was there at 16, 17, 18, to experience that when you're still so young and pure, for me it was a truly amazing kick."

OFF – Electrica Salsa (Baba Baba) vinyl cover 1986 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"It totally invigorated me. It infected me. It also fueled my passion. So I had the idea, the vision, the dream of taking it back with me to Frankfurt and transforming it into music. I produced Electrica Salsa for Ibiza. I desperately wanted the song to be played there."

Sven Väth with Underworld at Cocoon's 20 year celebration at Ushaia in May of 2019 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

On his first trip to Ibiza aged 16, Väth stayed there for 3 months. "I called my mother and she said: 'Are you OK, have you got everything you need?' I told her: 'Yes, mom, I'm fine. I'm being looked after.' My mother gave me a lot of independence even when I was younger. She let me do it and I very much appreciate her for it.

Sven Väth on Ibiza in 2016 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Even when I came back from Ibiza and she looked me over and said 'You look completely dazed! What happened over there, honey?' I then told her everything and at some point she said to me: 'I think you want to be a disc jockey.'

Sven Väth with Carl Cox at Amnesia on Ibiza in 2009 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I couldn't think of anything else to say. I just told her: 'Yes, mom, that's right, I'd really like to be a disc jockey.' 'Yes, then get started here with us right now,' she said. My mother opened a small club in Neu-Isenburg, the Queen's Pub.

Queens Pub by Stadtarchiv Neu-IsenburgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

That was in 1979. It really ruffled my dad's feathers that I was DJing there. I wasn't even 18 yet. But my mother was able to win him over, and I was able to as well. My mother stood behind the bar and I stood behind the DJ desk. Then I threw some records on the table. And the rest is history.

Sven Väth in 2013 by Daniel WöllerGROOVE Magazin Berlin

My father was a master painter and a keen dancer. He danced at rock 'n' roll shows with my mother. They later realized their dream of building their own disco. My father even did it all himself—every single brick, every bit of carpentry, he built and did it all. When I look back today, my parents showed me that it's possible to follow your passion.

Sven Väth at Amnesia in 2011 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I also had a go at things because I was inspired by Ibiza, of course. I went to record stores, searched and searched and found great music that I couldn't even play at all with my parents in the pub. Thriller [by Michael Jackson] had just been released.

Indeep – Last night a DK saved my life (1983) by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

My sets went from disco to Grandmaster Flash and Culture Club to Haysi Fantayzee and everything that was current at the time, mixed with a few oldies. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was the track my mother sung along to. It was really awesome. and gave me another boost about the whole situation.

Entrance door of Dorian Gray by Bijan BlumGROOVE Magazin Berlin

After I'd DJ'd at my parents' club, I'd still always go to Dorian Gray on Saturdays. I even spent the whole night on the dance floor. My parents' club would always close at 01:00 AM. I also did an incredible amount of promotion there. I told people about my experiences in Ibiza and just how much it changed me.

Afterhour of Cocoon's 20 year celebration at Benimussa Park in May of 2019 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I told people that we had to go to Ibiza to the opening parties, to Amnesia and Ku. And I was also bringing quite a lot of our Frankfurt sound with me to Ibiza. In the 1980s, I'd sit down around midday in Dorian Gray or Vogue and record tapes, and I took about 50 cassette tapes with me to the old town in Ibiza and supplied them to all the bars.

Dorian Gray Resident Bijan Blum on the 8th of November 1978 by Barbara KlemmGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In 1981, Ulli Brenner, the current resident DJ in the small club in Dorian Gray, talked to me. He'd watched me on the dance floor and seen how I'd create a buzz for hours on end. Then he asked me whether I could fill in for him one time, if I was able to DJ. I said: 'Yeah, of course I can DJ.'

Sven Väth with guests of the club at a Michael Strogoff's film ‚Kurier der Zaren‘ themed party at Dorian Gray in March of 1987 by JoppenGROOVE Magazin Berlin

And that was my gateway in. He then went on vacation, and I took over the small club and apparently left a great impression. (laugh) Anyway, the manager talked to me and said: 'Don't you want to start here permanently?' So I then had a permanent position in the small club in Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray Formula 1 Party by Jochen GüntherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I was DJing there four days a week. Then there were the special events, fashion shows, Formula One parties, Playboy parties. You often had to be there at midday as well. 

Sven Väth und Bijan Blum by Archiv Bijan BlumGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At the time, each club had its own repertoire, its own record collection. You went through it and put together your evening program. A lot of old music was played as well, a lot of disco, especially in the small club. It was different in the big club. It was a lot more experimental there. Michael Münzing and Bijan Blum were playing around that time. But they were all Ibiza fans as well! Ibiza inspired a lot of DJs at the time.

OFF by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Luckily I also got to meet some cool people through Dorian Gray who were happy to experiment. I met with them in the middle of the day to mess around with drum machines. We just wanted to be there. Dorian Gray was our playground. It was an insane establishment with amazing technical equipment like Studio 54 or Paradise Garage. It really motivated us to do our own thing.

OFF by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

We took baby steps and got ever closer to our first production. Then we managed it in 1985. There was also some experimenting going on at the same time in Chicago and Detroit where DJs were attempting to produce DJ music. We tried doing the same and were even successful in a relatively short space of time. This in turn inspired other DJs, and things took off the same way in Ibiza. That was in the mid 1980s, when DJs with big dreams and a lot of passion helped to once again redefine dance music.

Sound of Frankfurt in GROOVE #7 von 1990 by GrooveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I ended up becoming a singer on a whim. We were in the studio. I started to pick up the mic a few times and say a few lines. I actually did it because I wanted to say a few things when the mood struck me. I wanted to tell stories, fantasy stories. That was the case back then with Luca Anzilotti and Michael Münzing in the 1980s.

Club Vogue Frankfurt in 1988 by Frank SenftlebenGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I was later headhunted by Vogue. That was in 1984, I believe. In 1986, I was coaxed away again by Dorian Gray and became a resident DJ in the big club. At the time the Belgian sound was also kicking off—the new beat. I think our music was a mix of new beat and techno for the first few hours. With a sprinkling of pop of course.

Peter Mensing and Sven Väth in 1993 by Archiv Peter MensingGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Creating this connection, taking people on a journey, telling a story through music with a dose of humor… It can also be more heavy, more psychedelic, even hypnotic. For me, seeing it from the perspective of a dancer was always important. 

Sven Väth in the 1990s by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

When the DJ kept me glued to the dance floor, when he didn't let me stray away from the dance floor at all, it carried me away. With my selection of music I wanted a certain energy to take hold—this feeling of unity with a dash of love and passion. 

Adrian Sherwood with Bim Sherman by Kishi YamamotoGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At the start of 1988, it was very extreme. I changed Dorian Gray around entirely, [the industrial techno of] Front 242 played there, Nitzer Ebb performed live as well as Skinny Puppy. Even today I'm still a huge fan of Adrian Sherwood. All the industrial music by à;GRUMH… from A Split Second and Severed Head to The Clinic, I made it socially acceptable.

Sven Väth in 1993 by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Suddenly everyone was wearing just black and arriving in Dr. Martens. (smiles) At some point I became aware that, woah, what's going on here is really badass. I already had the idea in the back of my mind that I'd like to do my own thing. Together with two of my friends, who later became my partners, we offered to buy Vogue.

Sven Väth in the 1990s by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

It took a little while, but we reached a deal. I quit Dorian Gray and told them that I needed to take a short artistic hiatus. 

Sven Väth in the 1990s by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I also wanted to disengage a little musically from the whole industrial sound. Right then was the era of house music, and especially acid house music. I wanted to put more house into my sets in general. 

Sven Väth in the 1990s by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Then I took a longer hiatus—almost six months. We renovated Vogue during this time. I put the name Omen to use. We ripped everything out of Vogue and had Omen set up there with the help of our friend Amir Abadi. He was the architect behind the whole thing. Then in 1988, I think it was October 18, we opened the doors to Omen.

Sven Väth in the 1990s by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Together with my friends, we had the vision of doing something all our own. Somehow I felt that the time was right. I was 24. I'd just turned 17 when I started out as a DJ. At 22, I was a pop star with Electric Salsa and killed it with my gala shows, sung at the Arena di Verona in Italy, and got to meet some incredibly amazing people. But I'd only ever worked as a DJ in Frankfurt. That changed in 1988 when I had my first booking in London.

Club Omen in Frankfurt in 1993 by Falk OrthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Omen was intended to be a fresh establishment, not dark like Dorian Gray. It also delivered hip-hop. Then came Snap! with The Power, that was by my partner Michael Münzing. Then came R&S, NuGroove, the labels from Detroit and Chicago, Strictly Rhythm, and so on.

Ravers at club Omen during the 1990s by Ernst StratmannGROOVE Magazin Berlin

For me it was a sign to say that we're switching to strictly techno and house music in Omen. That was in 1989. I had my own evening on Fridays. For Saturdays I brought in Dag, and Dag did his Saturdays. 

Sven Väth at club Omen during the 1990s by Ernst StratmannGROOVE Magazin Berlin

My vision became flesh and blood. The people felt it and were there and were all part of it. That was a very intense and extravagant time. There were no limits—we gave it our all. We were dripping with sweat. 

Ravers at Club Omen in 1990s Frankfurt by Ernst StratmannGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Richie Hawtin had his first residency in Europe in Omen. Jeff Mills played here at least four times a year for sure. I was getting more and more international bookings. But I always made sure I was there on Fridays. 

Sven Väth and Cocoon in GROOVE #107 from 2007 by Alexander KempfGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In 1998, I sat down with my partners and told them: 'I think we should close Omen now.' The parking garage where the club was based was putting us under pressure one way or the other. Sooner or later, they wouldn't want to extend our contract anymore. So I pulled the plug. It was also a change. It finally paved the way for our Cocoon vision. For me, change was always welcome, and always brought new beginnings.

Sven Väth and Cocoon in GROOVE #107 from 2007 by Alexander KempfGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The first Cocoon party took place in 1996 with Underworld live at the Union Brauerei on Hanauer Landstrasse [in Frankfurt]. Before that I was in Berlin at the Tempodrom at a La Fura dels Baus event—they're an action theater from Catalonia. I saw one of their shows and it was about metamorphosis.

Sven Väth at club Amnesia in 2011 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

That's where the name Cocoon came from. It made a lasting impression on me. Because there was no more club and no more labels, I was already at the point of reinventing myself. India and what I experienced there resonated with me, as well as the Love Parade and the musical changes. I was actually already looking forward to creating something new again.

Sven Väth at club Amnesia in 2012 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

And in the nineties, Ibiza didn't interest me at all anymore. I was exploring India. At the time, Ibiza didn't inspire me at all anymore. At the end of the nineties, I played at a Bugged Out party in Amnesia and Space approached me. I then played a lot of opening and closing parties in Space.

Club Amnesia on Ibiza in the 1990s by Groove ArchivGROOVE Magazin Berlin

That was until the son of the owner of Amnesia, Martí [Ferrer], asked me if he could see me sometime. So we had a meeting, and they offered me an evening there. That was in 1999. I thought it over: 'Now it's your turn. Now you have to make some changes here, or you'll never be coming back!'

Sven Väth and Cocoon at club Amnesia in 2015 by Groove ArchivGROOVE Magazin Berlin

So in 1999 we ran four experiments in Amnesia with our own self-organized Cocoon party. I didn't go straight into a full season because I knew it was already a huge venture financially. Naturally I wanted to find out how the event was actually received first. We had a lot of fun over the first two years. It was experimental through and through.

Cocoon Afterhour at Benimussa Park in 2019 by Alexis WaltzGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Our guests were mostly German at the beginning. Then the Spanish discovered us. Techno was also kicking off in Spain at this point. They were our first true supporters on the island, and they all came. It created a unique dynamic. 

Sven Väth during afterhour on Ibiza in 2015 by Archiv Sven VäthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Word also spread that we held our unannounced after-hour parties on the spur of the moment. We went to the beach guerrilla-style, hastily agreed something with the beach operators, set up a system, and got started. It was legendary. No other promoter was doing it. Free beach parties for decades.

Sven Väth and Cassy at club Amnesia on Ibiza in 2019 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

To this day we've had the widest variety of nations on the dance floor at Cocoon. There are quite a few parties on Ibiza, you know, with just Italians or just the English. For me, Ibiza is and always has been a colorful melting pot. Music lovers, ravers, artists, and flamboyant partygoers all meet there.

Afterhour of Cocoon's 20 year celebration at Benimussa Park in May of 2019 by Frank WeyrautherGROOVE Magazin Berlin

I've known the island since 1980. I've really taken the island to heart. It's a part of me. I've uncovered so much inspiration here, I've lived it up here, and that's why I've been able to give so much back. 

Credits: Story

Interview Sven Väth: Alexis Waltz

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