DJ Louise Chen on leaving the industry on a high, and surviving ‘indie sleaze’ as a woman

Ahead of her final ever gig in Pikes, Ibiza, Parisian DJ and ‘it’ girl Louise Chen chats to HUNGER about tying up her career in music.

Louise Chen has been fighting the good fight for women in dance music for the duration of her 15+ year career. At the start of 2023 however, the Parisian DJ made the decision to hang up her decks permanently and officially wind down her DJing career. She subsequently embarked on something a goodbye tour which included stops in London, Berlin, New York, Barcelona, Tisno and Antwerp, with highlights such as soundtracking the Hermès show afterparty at PFW, festivals like We Out Here and Defected Croatia, and a stop at London’s iconic and dearly departed Printworks.

Chen’s illustrious career has included such peaks as playing for the Beckhams, collaborating with Tyler, The Creator and, perhaps most notably, setting up her all-female music collective Girls Girls Girls. Beginning as a club night she founded in Paris, the project quickly morphed into something bigger as Chen assembled an all-female crew of DJs and creatives to help. “I wanted to meet more girls who were my age in the club,” she recalled to HUNGER in an exclusive interview hours before her last ever gig. “I was 25, touring the world and I was like, how is it that I go to New York or Sydney, it’s all girls running the ship, and then I go to Paris and there are no women anywhere or they’re expected to be girlfriends and wives?”

Before she stepped behind the decks to play the final stop on her goodbye tour – a transcendent set at the legendary Pikes Ibiza for the last night of Beat Hotel 2023 – Chen kindly took a moment to sit down with us to talk all things retirement, “indie sleaze” and what, if anything, has changed for women in the club.

Louise! We’re meeting in the most idyllic setting imaginable, here at Beat Hotel on a rooftop in Ibiza during a classic Balearic golden hour, but the circumstances are a little bittersweet – we’re hours away from your last ever gig in Pikes tonight! Why did you choose Beat Hotel for your swan song?

It felt like an iconic moment to end on and a nice way to close a chapter and open a new one. I’ve been coming to Ibiza since 2016 and Pikes is such an iconic spot with all this history. You’ve got Circoloco which is a different type of iconic but Pikes is just a bit more me. I’ve always been more of a small, intimate club girl and Pikes is exactly that. It’s for people that really listen to music, who like dancing and partying a certain way, and it’s free of the outside world. That’s how I want to remember DJ-ing.

Talk us through the decision to wind down your DJing career.

At the end of January, I just thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I want to keep doing this’. I’ve loved the last 15 years but I had a breakthrough which was more related to my personal life. I want to settle down and start a family. I saw my friends doing it and all of a sudden, being away on weekends, missing birthdays and weddings and stuff started costing me more emotionally. It started feeling more isolating than it was giving. For a long time, I felt like I needed music in order to connect with people. But actually now it’s the opposite, now I just have lots of friends thanks to music and the music is like the soundtrack to those friendships.

How did you go about curating what would ultimately be your goodbye tour of gigs around the world this year?

I sort of just took what came through. There was definitely a moment though, when I played Printworks for Le Discotheque, when something hit me. It was great and it should have made me feel so special. It’s this iconic venue but it’s so big. It’s not me. So there was a shift where I realised I just wanted to play the shows which really feel like me, where I would meet my audience, discover new things to play or even promoters who are young and upcoming. Those things excite me more than playing big festivals. Beat Hotel felt like that. I’m a big fan of Shanti Celeste, and Roy Perez. And so to do this amongst friends felt very serendipitous.

What’s in store for your farewell set this evening?

There’ll be some surprises, a little bit of everything. Last time I played with the Beat Hotel guys was at Glastonbury at San Remo [a recent evolution of the original Beat Hotel stage] and I remember originally having this whole set in my head that was quite heavy, then arriving and hearing people singing along to like, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is the assignment? I got you’. And it’s one of the sets that people still talk to me about. I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna give. I’m gonna play the crowd pleasers that I know how to play mixed with some of my favourite house, techno and disco and see where that takes me. I totally improvised. That’s the brand and energy I want to hold on to.

So what do you think is next exactly?

I’ll keep my NTS show and that will be my number one musical outlet. I’ve been taking pictures of my travels the last 20 years, from my first music festival to my last. I want to compile a photo book of two decades. I go from being a teenage punter, to later being an intern, to then eventually being on stage. I feel like I need to do that, even for myself so I can be like ‘wow, we really did all that’.

As you find yourself looking back, are there certain individuals who stick out to you as being particularly instrumental or influential on your career?

So many. Obviously DJ Mehdi and Pedro Winter were huge in pushing me. Floating Points and Mafalda when Mafalda was running Melodies. Brodinski as well. He was actually the first one to connect me with a venue and was like, ‘Pitch Girls, Girls, Girls today’. It worked out but it was also a lot thanks to him in the background being like ‘Listen to her’. As much as I talk about sexism, I’ve also had a lot of men root for me and help me out. Then there’s obviously the girls I started off with who were huge inspirations for me because I was mostly a hip hop and R&B DJ.  I didn’t know much about pop or dance music. I just knew what I knew through MTV, the radio and cassette tapes. And then in Paris there’s all the record shop owners I would go visit and they would guide and help connect me with other DJs or people they knew through selling them records, like you guys should hang out.

On your Instagram earlier this year you gave a special shout out to Ed Banger Records for being such a pivotal cornerstone of your career, can you tell us about the relationship you have there?

Ed Banger, absolutely. Pedro Winters is my music uncle. He’s really watched over me throughout the years. In the beginning he was like an older brother, letting me do my thing but keeping an eye out. Then eventually, when he knew I had my brand and wasn’t going to be cannibalised, he could put me on line-ups and we could do things together. Symbolically, it meant a lot to me that he invited me to play for the 20th anniversary of the label back in March. The lineup was iconic. Sorry but Armand Van Helden? Playing with him was a true honour. And Pedro, Kiddy Smile. I’m a big, big Kiddy Smile fan as well. It was really fun.

I feel like Ed Banger is very closely associated with what people are now calling ‘indie sleaze’, so I’m curious to know what you make of this newfound interest around this scene and even the use of the term ‘indie sleaze’?

Well, I think it’s funny, because obviously I lived through indie sleaze. I remember feeling like more of an indie girl. I saw what they were doing but I thought that’s not me, like such a contrarian. But obviously I recognise they contributed so much, whether it was a sound but also aesthetically. They really introduced a kind of fun naiveté back into dance music. Before that, it felt to me anyway, like dance music was so serious. It was very controlled and minimal which I loved, but it’s quite nerdy and it felt impenetrable. Then they came along with Justice or like, Rage Against the Machine edits, and I was like, ‘Oh, I get this’. It was quite freeing.

I understand what you’re saying, especially thinking back to some of the visuals, like the sort of pop art music video of D.A.N.C.E by Justice, it had such a lightness to it.

And that’s what made it so infectious. And then of course, they had the hits, let’s be real. And Uffie! I remember in the peak MySpace era, discovering Uffie’s page and being in awe. At the time I was interning with Big Dada Recordings and we had a project called Spank Rock. They had this one MC, Amanda Blank who had the filthiest lyrics. I feel like without the likes of her, there’s no pussy rap today. That was 2006 and she was talking about being nasty like Kelly Bundy. She was just so raunchy, I was obsessed with it. Seeing a woman in that environment, despite it being mostly men, felt so empowering and made me feel like I actually belong in those parties just as much as they do. At that time it felt a lot more like girls in the club were expected to be either taking pictures or the subject of Cobra Snake. The rise of these underground party girls who weren’t manicured was powerful. They were smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, mascara running down their face. I definitely wore a lot of American Apparel, vintage 80s clothes, and army jackets.

There’s definitely been a lot of conversation about how, behind the gloss, the ‘indie sleaze’ scene was quite a vulnerable place for the young women who inhabited it. Would you agree?

It was vulnerable, they were being preyed on. Like, I’m not saying Cobra Snake was a predator, I don’t know him like that, but if you think about it, his entire business was photographing young girls having fun at festivals and parties, right? If you’re a 30 plus year old man… is there something a bit weird about that? And that was celebrated. That’s why I think a lot of that generation didn’t think they were doing anything wrong because the zeitgeist was promoting it so hard. I don’t think that deep down they were terrible men but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t have terrible behaviour. 

I know that protecting and empowering women in the clubs is a big feature of your career with Girls, Girls, Girls and everything. So I’m curious to know, what do you think has changed in the 15 years that you’ve been working for women? If anything?

What’s changed is that we now openly talk about it. We don’t feel like we have to submit ourselves to mistreatment. We allow ourselves to ask the question, would you treat me this way if I were a guy? Would you ask me to do this If I were a dude? By just talking about it with other women you get to draw new boundaries and borders of what you’re okay with. I think definitely in the UK, there was a real reckoning. I remember Sherelle posting an all male or mostly male line up and being like, are you not ashamed? Now we get to call them out. Are you not embarrassed that you pretend like there’s no female talent?

It reminds me of when Primavera Sound made a big fuss in 2019 about the fact its line-up was exactly 50% female, a commitment they seem to have quietly abandoned in subsequent years. Do you think a lot of the noise programmers make around diversity and inclusion is just for show?

In certain countries, it’s more about the optics than it is about real change. In France, programmers at festivals are all still the same men from 15 years ago. Literally the same guys, who just want to work with the same blokes. In Italy, it’s similar. Unless you’re working with really young promoters who are more open minded and want to try harder, you’re just gonna be the token girl who, once in a while, opens the room. Unless you’ve been validated by the industry 15 million times or released a hit, you’re not gonna get given the opportunity to move up the line-up. 

In the UK, it’s different because it feels like there are more booking agents who are women and there’s more women or femme-identifying people in hospitality. Now when I go to events in the UK, I feel comfortable at all times. I see the change with Shanti, Moxie, Saorise, Peach, Lena, all the girls that I get to play with. We’re actually allowed to be girls. I don’t feel like I’m gonna have to adapt to some driver’s chat and talk about laddy shit I don’t want to talk about.

Do you feel there is often a pressure to adopt a sort of ‘Cool Girl’ persona, the girl who can roll with the guys?

Yes. Ten, fifteen years ago when I was doing Girls, Girls, Girls, we’d go somewhere, in a town in France or something and it’s all lads. Sure, they booked us cos I guess we were kind of hyped, but those guys really saw us as less than, and they expected us to pretend like we’re not effeminate. You have to adopt this misogynist behaviour which is shit because I love women. I don’t want to tell you this other girl is not as good a DJ as I am so you book me. That’s still the spirit of a lot of programmers in Paris for example. Peggy Gou and I once sat through a dinner with these Italian promoters, and one of the guys across from us was saying, ‘You know Ellen Allien, she’s an icon, she’s a historic DJ – but I don’t understand, she doesn’t need to be posting Instagram videos of herself in a bikini and playing in a miniskirt’. And we’re looking at him like, don’t you understand that you’re not allowed an opinion on that? She’s allowed to do what the fuck she wants.

Right, like she’s not doing that for you?

They still don’t get that, they still think women cater to this male interpretation of what merit is? And you’re like, ‘No, I really don’t give a shit. I really don’t care about your opinion’. It’s the same for women in hip-hop, where old hip-hop heads complain about Megan thee Stallion and Cardi B saying maybe if they rap less about their pussy….  Can’t they just rap about what they want?

Being a DJ, whose work often involves you working in environments like nightclubs or festivals where, as a woman you could find yourself in a more vulnerable position. In a post #MeToo era, we’ve heard a lot of talk about how the music industry has yet to catch up in terms of adequately protecting women. Do you think there has been any significant change that you’ve witnessed?

I don’t have a dramatic #MeToo story but, I’ve definitely felt #MeToo’d at a micro level. Imagine me, 14 or 15, as a megafan of a specific band that’s quite niche. I go to the show, meet a guy who’s wearing a band t- shirt, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I love them.’ We spark a conversation, nerding out about the band. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I finally found someone just as obsessed as I am’. But this guy is reading it like, ‘Oh, my God, this girl is interested in me and I’m gonna kiss her’. Then if he tries to kiss me and I reject him, it’s like a missed opportunity for me to meet people who are interested in the same things, right? Reverse that, if I were a dude and I spot his t-shirt, spark a conversation, who knows, maybe three months later, we start a band together. A year later, we have a label? When women enter the backstage, the first assumption from the men in that room is that she’s a groupie. Maybe she’s actually really into music and just wants to talk about that really rare track you played?

That’s where you feel like it’s so unfair, the odds are stacked against you because you’re not allowed to be as passionate about a cultural thing as a man is. You’re not taken seriously, you’re seen first as a sexual object.

You mentioned being friendly with Peggy Gou. She’s having a particularly big year, what’s it like watching that from a far?

I love it. It’s a tsunami for women, for Asian women, even for the crossover of dance and pop music. I really respect her because she’s at a level where she could just rock up to a gig and play like The Weeknd if she wanted to but she’s got a true ear and a true love for the underground. She gets to promote the underground at such a large scale and I really admire her for still doing it when she could just chill. Jamie XX gets a gig and he plays Radiohead and his own songs, and bless him for that, love it for him. But Peggy’s out there and she’s playing Sally C, she’s playing the latest or she’s signing new artists, really trying to promote and scale up whatever she loves. We need more defenders like that in pop culture. To me, she’s like Madonna in the 80s with Vogue, or even George Michael – shining a light on these subcultures they had the luxury of experiencing. Peggy is generous like that. She deserves all the acclaim, she’s a hard worker and she’s got amazing taste. She makes bangers, undeniably. I love watching her win, the same way I love watching Sherelle win, I love watching Moxie win. I love watching all these women, year on year, take on bigger beasts every time and win.

WriterGary Grimes