Berlin is a city where unusual things happen with such alarming frequency that everything starts to seem normal, no matter how weird. Then something crops up to remind you what truly extraordinary happenings this city can give rise to. Like becoming a techno DJ in your late 60s and using your proximity to death as a selling point.
Whereas most 69 year olds are content to draw a pension and relax, Robot Bennett (real name Robert Bennett) prefers to be behind the decks of Sisyphos’ Hammerhalle at 3am on a Monday morning. Not only does Robert not exactly fit the mould – he smashes it to pieces. We met with Robert in his Kreuzkölln apartment to find out more about his remarkable journey.
“I never thought I’d become a DJ; it was the furthest thing from my mind,” says Robert, showing us around his airy apartment as our photographer snaps away. Although it’s his first time being interviewed, he takes the attention in his stride and even performs a Sirsasana (headstand) for us. The yogi’s home is an oasis of calm despite its bustling location, and is lavished with eye-popping décor. The walls of his bedroom/studio are festooned with guitars as well as more obscure instruments, while a heaving bookshelf showcases a thirst for knowledge. Robert’s living room is awash with 1970s-esque glamour, decked out with a brilliant white carpet, two disco balls and a quality sound system, as well as a chillout cave, no less.
In many ways, Robert’s backstory is as captivating as his entry into electronic music at the veritable age of 67. Born in 1949 in South Africa, he grew up at loggerheads with the racist politics of the country’s authoritarian National Party. “I was thrown out of South Africa for political activities,” he explains. “As an activist against apartheid I was advised to leave, otherwise something would happen to me or my family.”
I never thought I’d become a DJ; it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Robert travelled to India on the hippy trail before following in the footsteps of many of his fellow countrymen to London, where he trained as a body psychotherapist. “It’s the occupation I’ve followed all my life. Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, it is strongly influenced by the humanistic psychology of Rogers and Maslow. We work with both mind and body, which can involve anything from talking therapy to breathing techniques and massage.”
Following spells in Wales, California, and a therapeutic centre in the Black Forest, Robert moved to West Berlin with his then wife in 1982. His eldest son stayed in London with his mother. The family then returned to the UK in 1985, where his daughter, the second of his three children, was born, but in 1987 they returned to the German capital to put down roots. Being fluent in Afrikaans helped Robert to learn German, and he never needed to take German classes. “It was like a little village back then, it was really alternative and a lot was happening in terms of art and music,” Robert recalls. He reveals that part of the reason he wanted to settle in Berlin was linked to growing up with the Cold War, as well as witnessing events unfold such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and Martin Luther King’s assassination: “I was really pissed off with the world. Like many people, I was convinced the third world war was going to break out. I wanted to be one of the first to go, so I chose West Berlin, as that’d be the first place to get levelled!”
Robert paints a vivid picture of a walled-in district where along with the more conservative residents, punks and leftist thinkers lived in brilliant chaos. He says that this vibrancy cut an odd contrast with the heavy military presence: “There were armoured cars patrolling all the time. I remember sitting outside a café on Lausitzer Platz when a jeep carrying a machine-gun drove past. Jokingly, I put my hands up, which made the GI on the back train the gun on me. I thought, ‘Oh shit’, but he just started laughing, waved at me and then drove off!”
In some respects, the divided city bore similarities to Robert’s homeland: “When I started visiting East Berlin I noticed this oppressive atmosphere that reminded me of South Africa. People were worried about being spied on but they were still so friendly. There was a sense of togetherness, which was the same among black people in South Africa. It’s terrible that you need to oppress people to create that feeling.”
When the Wall came down, the city was open and it was possible to have parties all over the place.
Robert’s return to Berlin coincided with the other major revolution of the era, when techno was beginning to storm the capital and replace its punk predecessor with zeal. However, it was the experiences of Robert’s eldest son at the forefront of the scene’s explosion in Britain that turned him on to this new beat. “He was living in England at the time and got into Detroit techno pretty early,” Robert explains.
“He’d started DJing as well as organising parties for 5000-strong crowds. He’d visit me with these cassettes, and I couldn’t stand them, they drove me mad! I thought, ‘What is this computer music?’ I found it soulless and heartless, just ‘bang, bang,bang!’” Robert describes himself as a “handmade music person,” a guitarist who grew up on a diet of Bob Dylan. But that was soon to change.
“I went on holiday with my kids and my eldest had his cassettes running the whole time. When we were leaving, I realised I had an earworm from one of them, so I asked if we could listen to it on the way home. I remember him saying, ‘It’s got to you!’” Shortly afterwards, Robert found himself on Kurfürstendamm for the 1991 Love Parade. “I was just blown away, I remember thinking, ‘The hippies are back! This is really weird music but I really like it!’ For me, that was the breakthrough and I’ve loved it ever since.” Robert became a devoted punter at clubs and festivals in and around the city. “There was a real spontaneity to partying back then; we’d go to spaces that were only used once. When the Wall came down, the city was open and it was possible to have parties all over the place. The Ordnungsamt had no idea who was responsible for them and couldn’t throw anyone out.”
I realised that being a DJ isn’t about being a power person, it’s about being a catalyst.
Even with the emergence of clubs such as Tresor in March 1991, the free-for-all vibe endured. “There was always a friendly atmosphere and anyone could get in. In those days, there was hardly any queue either.”
This a far cry from today’s scene, as Robert agrees: “Waiting two hours to get into places like Berghain is something that’s changed tremendously. It’s also harder to get into clubs and they’re much fuller.” That said, he’s not sold on the mysticism surrounding the door policies: “I think it’s a bit of hype. They just can’t let everyone in because of fire regulations.”
The fact that Robert was in his late forties when he started clubbing meant he was usually the oldest person in the room but says that he has “always felt welcomed.” He adds, “I get hugs from people and told it’s refreshing to see someone like me there.” It wasn’t until Robert had two decades of clubbing under his belt, however, that he went full circle.
In 2017, Robert was asked to host a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, a practice developed by Stanislav Grof that mimics an LSD trip through the regulation of your breathing. “During these sessions you usually use very powerful music, such as African drumming,” says Robert, “but I thought I’d use techno.” He had begun tinkering with the music production program Ableton Live to record his guitar playing and then started compiling techno mixes. “I didn’t have a controller at this point so I didn’t mix in real time,” says Robert. “However, I put one on during the workshop and it just so happened that one of the participants was a well-known DJ.”
The DJ Robert refers to is Tobi Dei, a stalwart at Sisyphos and one of the club’s bookers. “He loved the mix and asked me where I’d gotten it from. I told him it was something I’d made and he said I should become a DJ,” says Robert. “This coming from Tobi was quite a big thing for me, as I really respect him.” Tobi then made Robert an offer: “He said if I bought a controller he’d see if he could get me gigs. I did it. He’s really fulfilled his end of the bargain!”
Aspiring DJs seldom have such a simple route into the industry, but after acquiring an Ableton APC40 MKII controller, Robert was raring to go. “I started messing about with the controller to learn it,” he says. “It has actually come quite easily to me.” A mere eight months later, Robert was gearing up to play his first set. Although his first official booking was at Hammerhalle, his debut outing was at the Spree-side Rummels Bucht. He faced a peak-time, 3am atmosphere, yet he says he “didn’t make one mistake.” But the event left him with mixed feelings. “When I hit the button and the sound started, I remember feeling this immense power,” he says. “Afterwards I felt in two minds. I didn’t know if I wanted that responsibility.”
It wasn’t until Robert played at the now-defunct Jonny Knüppel that he resolved this quandary: “I realised that being a DJ isn’t about being a power person, it’s about being a catalyst, putting something out there and receiving energy back from the crowd. It convinced me that this is something I want to do.”
It is often acknowledged that the role of a DJ is to direct the energy on the dancefloor, working in conversation with the dancers in a way that could be considered similar to Robert’s work as an alternative therapist, yogi, and meditation teacher. And he reveals that for him, DJing is a spiritual pursuit. Robert likens his attitude to Eddie Amador’s 1997 Love Parade hit, ‘House Music’. “The track’s refrain goes, ‘Not everybody understands house music, it’s a soul thing, it’s a spiritual thing’,” he says. “It really is something spiritual for me.”
Whenever I’ve played in Hammerhalle I often ask myself whether it’s actually happening.
Getting into “a state of trance” is something Robert refers to several times. He says that when he started raving, the experience was about reaching total “immersion in the here and now, concentrating on the present and shutting out thoughts,” adding: “Some people say it’s escapism, but I say it’s the opposite. It’s about getting nearer to my true nature, losing my ego and becoming part of the whole.” And this is also something he achieves through DJing. “I reach this state of meditation when I’m behind the mixer. I have to, otherwise I can’t do it!”
Does Robert feel like pinching himself sometimes? “Yes, constantly!” he exclaims. “Whenever I’ve played in Hammerhalle I often ask myself whether it’s actually happening; I’m actually quite shy and get terribly nervous.”
This brings us back to Sisyphos, a club he has played a handful of times courtesy of Tobi. His first set there on 31 July 31 2016, accompanied by the breakdancer Kai Eikermann, was well received. “Having Kai dance on the table while my laptop was shaking was really fun,” says Robert. “At one point he started dancing in the crowd and loads of people were asking him how old I was!”
The DJing moment he cherishes the most came this Easter. Tasked with closing the Hammerhalle on Tuesday morning, Robert decided the time was right to try out his own material: “A lot of my friends were there, which I didn’t expect, including Tobi, who’d not been to a gig of mine before. I put on a remix I’d made of Can’s hit ‘Spoon’ and the crowd went wild! That was amazing.”
It is staggering that Robert has the stamina to grind out a set when most people of his vintage are asleep. “I have a lot of energy for an old person,” says Robert. “Sure, I have to rest more than some people but I’m always surprised when I look at the time and realise I’ve only got half an hour left to play.”
After spending the day with Robert, we leave feeling inspired by a man who clearly doesn’t do things by the book. “No, I don’t, and I never did; I think the book’s total bullshit,” he declares. “For me the book was racism, homophobia, conservatism, and the bullshit of South Africa. I’ve always wanted to do things differently.” Given such a bold outlook, will Robert be retiring any time soon? “My motto is: book me before I die. I really want to keep going as long as I possibly can; I don’t see myself stopping. I adore it.”
Keep yourself informed of Robot Bennett’s dates via Facebook and enjoy his sets on Mixcloud and Soundcloud.