Charlotte de Witte may be one of the hardest working techno DJs on the scene. The Belgian ray of black sunshine performed more than 130 sets in 2019, a good handful of them stacked two in a day. She runs her own techno label, for which she’s hosted a special stage at Tomorrowland two years running. Last year, she released three EPs and dropped another mid February 2020, and when she was enlisted to remix Jerome Isma-Ae’s “Hold That Sucker Down,” she turned in two distinct versions praised by trance and techno legends alike.
Her bio boasts a “no sleep mindset,” and trust that a little quarantine can’t slow her roll. Since being squirreled away in her Ghent apartment, she’s put together her long-neglected terrace and set off a few fire livestreams. There’s another planned for Thursday, May 7, a special back-to-back session via Facebook with Italian techno fellow Enrico Sangiuliano.
Billboard Dance caught up with de Witte during some very rare down time to hear more about her wild days as a young raver, how her supportive parents are to blame for her international career and what it is about dark music that makes her smile so bright.
Where in the world are you right now?
I’m at home in Ghent. The last tour that I did was the beginning of March. I got back from US on the 9th or 10th, and I’ve been home ever since. I moved to Ghent a couple of years ago. Now, I really took the time to decorate my apartment and my terrace, to make some music, do all the stuff that you normally don’t have the time for, clean out my mailbox, have a normal sleep rhythm, eat healthy, work out, to just be healthy in general. When all this starts again, hopefully sooner rather than later, it’s going to be very intense. I’ve been detoxing, just making the best out of it.
You are someone with a really hectic tour schedule. What’s the most surprising thing you miss about being on the road?
The energy that it brings, the vibe and the atmosphere of just being in a constant hurry, barely having time to sleep. Just being high on thrill. To see those happy faces in the clubs and the general lifestyle of it all. This is now what I’m trying to counter-work with sleeping a lot, but I do miss it. I miss sharing music and the people you meet and the food you eat while you’re on tour. Just everything.
Your Twitter bio says you “love food.” If there were absolutely no limitations based on geographical location or how much your stomach could actually handle, what would be your perfect fantasy meal?
I love a lot of things. I love the Japanese cuisine and Italian food, like a good fancy mozzarella or burrata. I love French cuisine. I love a good piece of meat that’s local. Peruvian cuisine as well, like ceviche. I’m very open minded towards anything when it comes to food, but I think it’s important to try local tastes. I’ve been home cooking a lot, and I’ve been working on my ceviche and taco skills. In Ghent, we have some nice stores that offer very fresh fish. I’ve been making my own sashimi, which is basically just chopping it in pieces the way I make it. I’m quite lucky in Ghent.
Speaking of Ghent, what is distinctive about where you grew up, and how did it shape you?
Well, Ghent is quite a small city. It’s very beautiful, and there was always music around. I grew up going to small raves held in and around Ghent. It definitely did shape my taste in electronic music. Belgium had quite an impact on electronic music back in the days with Bonzai, with Cherry Moon and all those night clubs that were around when I wasn’t even born yet. Soulwax lives just right around my corner. To me, it’s always been quite a musical city.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what did they think of what you do now?
My dad worked for EMI. He was probably the reason there was always music around. He was more into pop music when I was growing up, but there was always music playing. Maybe that also shaped my love for other types of music, besides techno. My mom had a modeling agency, but not typical high fashion. More for commercials, for a bakery store or stuff like that. She was scouting people for those kinds of publicity.
What they think of me? Well, they saw it coming, because I started this when I was 17. At the time, I was still studying, and it was actually my mom who told me at a point, “Listen, Charlotte. You cannot keep combining music and school anymore. If this is really what you want and if this makes you happy, just go for it. Stop struggling with school. Just go for it, and we’ll see what happens.” I’ll be always grateful for her gentle push in what turned out to be the right direction — and from the start as well. When I was 18, I was driving with my tiny car all over Belgium by myself with some friends to go to gigs. Of course, they were a bit worried, but they always trusted me and were always very supportive.
I was gonna ask, “What did your dad think of Pukklepop?” because I saw your Instagram post together, but it sounds like he knows all about festival life.
Yeah, he’s been to a couple in his life. When I play a big festival in Belgium, they try and join. Tomorrowland, they were there as well. I think it’s really cool to take your parents. When you’re playing in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people, it’s quite impressive for them. They’re super proud. The looks on their faces – it’s hard to describe, but it’s amazing.
What was the first piece of music you bought for yourself, and do you remember what medium?
It was a CD. I don’t know how old I was, but I was a huge fan of the song “Blue” from Eiffel 65. My mom said, “If you want it, you have to use your money to buy it.” That’s the one in my memory. Not the worst. [Laughs.]
When and where was the first rave you went to, and what do you remember about it?
We had some forest parties, but we also had a club called Minus One in Ghent. They used to play quite heavy electronic music, from acid to core, much harder than techno or hard techno. I went there quite often starting from 16 or 17. It was amazing. I’m not sure if the club is even still open, but that definitely had a very rave-y vibe to it. The forest as well, close to where I live. It’s called the Bunker Forest, because there was a bunker in the forest. It was more psytrance vibes happening there. I’ve been to a couple of them, and it’s really cool to look back at it now.
Whatever happened to Raving George, a.k.a. your original DJ name?
He grew up. [Laughs.] Like I said, I started when I was 17. I didn’t think it through. I wanted to do something more with music, and safe to say it got pretty out of hand. After all those years, I was like, “I see no reason to hide myself behind a male alter ego anymore. This is who I am, and this is what I do. I’m ready to drop my cloak.”
I also like the idea that Raving George could be a real person who just wandered off into the forest.
Exactly, to one of those raves.
I also love the story of how you won a contest to open Tomorrowland. What do you remember about that experience?
It was in 2011. You had to submit a mix, and they picked three finalists who had to play live on Studio Brussels. I won the contest, so it made me a resident on their radio station. Nine years later, I have my own show on their station. I’ve been playing on Tomorrowland ever since. It was one of the biggest milestones in my life. I was super nervous, but it was an opening slot, so the people there were basically friends.
It wasn’t very crowded, but it was a massive opportunity, especially back in those days. The music they played on the main stage was more commercial than what I did. For them to give an opportunity to a young artist like me to open their main stage – and I think it was the first or second year that they actually sold out. That’s massive. I owe a lot to them. I’ve played on their main stage two times. I’ve been hosting my own stage for two years in a row. They’re amazing.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened during one of your sets?
A lot of crazy stuff happens, but it’s always so hard to remember. You always have drunk people doing stupid things or funny things or falling off stage, but it’s hard to actually think of one. I want people to do whatever they want to do on the dance floor, just connect to your inner child, be free and hopefully enjoy it to the fullest in the best way possible.
I was reading some of your past interviews and noticed quite a few honed in on your cheerful character. In the techno community, there’s this all-black caricature, a stoicness. To what or whom do you attribute your upbeat personality?
Oh, good question. Tough question. I just try to enjoy my life as much as possible. It is true that the darkness of techno doesn’t necessarily make you envision something that’s super cheerful, but to me, techno does make me happy. I do find peace and calm while listening to good techno music. I do get that [distinction] quite a lot. When people see me on stage, I’m often smiling because it’s really funny to see how people react, and it just makes me happy. It’s quite strange as I listen to such dark beats, but there’s no way hiding it.
When you started making songs, was it under your own name and in this techno sound you’ve come to embrace? Or did you get started with a different mode and evolve?
It was always more towards techno, because I started producing when I was already DJing. When I sit in the studio, it’s often on a subconscious level inspired by what I know works in a club. I know what a club is. I know what a club looks like, because I’ve been DJing in them for so many years. I can also release an ambient track from time to time, but it always has this dark, melancholic vibe to it — just without fast beats, for instance.
Do you work with analog gear?
I do a lot in the box, but I have my Roland TB-303. That’s a vintage synth, and I mainly stick to that one. You have VSTs of it, so you could do it in the box as well, but to actually touch the knobs is just, yeah, gear porn.
Your music is so luscious and minimal. It’s not doom and gloom music, yet it does have this darkness to it. Do you create your music in the dark to capture that mood?
Not at all. If I feel really sad or down and I start a new track, then probably it would sound darker and less happy, but I’m also a morning person. I love the sun, and I’m actually most productive in the early morning. I don’t need to be surrounded by darkness to create dark music, because to me, even though it sounds quite dark and aggressive, it isn’t — if that makes sense.
What’s a song you absolutely love that is just the complete opposite of what you make?
Charles & Eddie, “Would I Lie To You?”
What is the biggest challenge in running your label KNTXT, and what is the greatest reward?
The challenge is to support new artists, up and comers, or artists that have been around as much as we can. We want to do the best possible job so they can have a beautiful and artistic work. To see them happy is also the biggest reward. I cared about my EPs even before I had KNTXT already, but to see the other side of it, it’s quite mind blowing. We have a lot of people working on KNTXT. I’m super grateful for them. If I had to run KNTXT by myself, the label would look totally different.
You created two distinct remixes for Jerome Isma-Ae‘s “Hold That Sucker Down,” one trance and one techno. What inspired that?
There’s this massive trance-y lead in it. I’m a sucker for playing trance from time to time, but I realize that making the trance remix is so out there and open and happy that I also wanted to bring it closer to the stripped techno I love so much. I couldn’t choose which direction to go. It was a mind struggle, so I just decided to make two remixes. It made so much more sense. I could go on the full trance-y, more commercial, happy sounding vibe, and the other would stay much closer to the stripped, functional techno. I’m very happy I did it, because there was no way combining those two in one track.
Do you feel more trance in your blood now? Do you want to experiment with that sound?
I don’t know. Maybe. Some techno tracks nowadays do have a lot of trance influences. I do like that, but I think it would be nice to maybe once a year remix a classic track. Who knows?
In the grand landscape of dance music, what role do you play?
For these 10 years I’ve been DJing, things have been going very well. I’ve had a massive growth, which is amazing. It’s my tendency to just keep doing that and to try and offer good things to the crowd, to people who like the music and to the scene. I would not like to be remembered as an awful person who everyone dislikes, for not being in it for the right reasons or not contributing to the scene, for not being sincere on a musical level. I just want to contribute in a good way, in the right way to the scene; to just make people happy and dance their heart out.