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In the techno den of Mama Snake

The lucent DJ talks (safe) raving, community and radical change.

Gurus on a spotlit stage in front of marching tribes of ravers and the fearless figures of the underground—DJs are their own distinctive breed, and there’s few that equally embody reverence and obscurity. With her slamming beats, a hardcore fandom of devoted dancers (count us in here) and an aura of enigma, Mama Snake (real name Sara Svanholm) is definitely in that bunch.

Hailing from a climate colder than the one her moniker suggests, the Copenhagen-rooted DJ and label boss-lady’s music preference is just as stark and cutting, if not more. Mama’s bag of vinyl is an explosive mix of high-energy techno tracks and trance anthems that keep one going well into the early morning. As a member of the multidisciplinary collective Amniote Editions—together with the crazy talented Rose Marie Johansen, who’s the mastermind behind Amniote’s artwork, and designer Alexis Mark—while also being trained as a professional surgeon, Mama Snake is uncompromising when it comes to technical skill and all-round excellence to everything she puts her name on. Her Boiler Room set at last year’s Dekmantel Festival is the sonic embodiment of her mastery as a selector, and her vocal stance on issues around misogyny and exclusion in the electronic scene have stapled her as someone, whose opinion and actions are part of the progress towards safety on (and beyond) the dance floor.

Backstage at Horst Festival, and just before her memorable appearance at Spielraum Amsterdam, Mama Snake let us take shelter in her den for a brief but meaningful chat. The techno matriarch talked us through being ‘in the moment’, her anti-establishment beliefs and dancing as community-building practice.

Hey Sara! Interesting to see you here at Horst, since it feels like you don’t like to play festivals that often…

Well, a lot of festival are during the day time, and the music I’m into is not necessarily that suitable for sunshine and open air. I prefer clubs and warehouse spaces any day. I just feel more ‘in the moment’.

How so?

I think that due to social media and everyone having a camera on them, clubs and festivals can offer differing experiences, in a way that clubs—where people normally refrain from phones and cameras— can offer a more ephemeral journey. And I’m not trying to preach a No Phone policy everywhere, but certainly, in clubs that have it, it just forces people to engage more and just be in the moment. Also, at most festivals, you’re on a big stage far away from everyone, and I don’t enjoy such type of spotlight for what I do. In the club, you’re on the ground, same level as the people you’re playing for, so that it doesn’t turn into a big show but more of an interactive experience where we all vibe off each other.

What’s interesting about the stage here at Horst though is that it offers a very clubby vibe, no?

Indeed. The stage I’m playing at today is literally an installation in itself that has a DJ booth in it. This creates a visual side to the music I play. The biggest mistake both clubs and festivals make is lack in their attention to light and visual environment for the music to live in. What spoke to me about Horst however were its art installations, design labs, and so on. I mean, there’s nothing better than being at a festival where you’re visually stimulated in such a way.

Beyond the attention to light and other visual stimulations, how can festivals and clubs offer a safe environment for the music to live in?

I don’t have a golden answer to this. But what I find to be the most interesting and effective tool is communicating with people in their own manners and behaviours. Don’t force strict policies on anyone: No this, no that. But rather, construct your night or event in a way that simply motivates the crowd to reflect on their behaviour, to consider the vibe they’re bringing to the crowd, what space they’re taking up and allowing for others to take up. In this way, we can make people question their own behaviour instead of giving them strict sets of rules.

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I’m loving this anti-establishment vibe!

I mean, I’m definitely a bit anti-establishment, and at times it feels those rules in clubs and festivals simply re-enforce establishment. I do realize certain rules are vital and that we live in a time when we really need to be vocal about certain intolerable behaviours. But I also appreciate when spaces make people question themselves instead of dictating what they should do. ‘Safe spaces’ has also become a buzzword, and we need to beware of those who brand themselves as ‘safe’ simply because they realize that today you cannot be a respectable event if you’re not liberal. I’ve been to many ‘safe space’ branded parties that definitely weren’t keeping up their promises…

But I’m so happy these problems are in everyone’s mind and mouth. Conversations are vital, and even us talking about it now is great. There’s so much more work to do. I myself, as a white, privileged, cis woman, I have so much soul searching to do with respect to my own internalized behaviour. If you can have people consider their internalized behaviour, that’s a great approach.

Obviously authenticity with regards to building a safe space is a top priority for you, but what else do you look for in a booking?

For me, interesting venues are super important. I recently played a friend’s festival in Finland at the exit house of a ski lift where the sun never set. That was out of this world. Also, personal relations are key. Many times I become friends with the people running the nights and events, and it’s then nice to come back next time, feel part of something larger than yourself. It can also sometimes just be fun to say yes to a booking just for the sake of trying out something entirely new.

Speaking of being part of something larger, festivals and clubs are the current way of coming together as a community, especially for those who can’t find theirs in day light or on the streets. Why are these communal occurrences vital, and can they contribute to actual change outside the party?

It’s definitely about both escapism and radical change. When I first started going to festivals outside Denmark, I found out they were much more about creating a village, sharing experiences with others. That shifted my perspective a lot through me simply going to another country for a festival or a club night, and meeting the people there. That can really bring people together. And even if the festival or club night is all about simply getting fucked up, if it serves its purpose of providing escapism, it’s a job well done.

Words by Valkan Dechev
Photography by Maxim Verbueken


Follow Mama Snake on Instagram and Soundcloud
Special thanks to Horst Arts & Music