Sunday, October 30, 2011

Berlin 2011

BASF: how east do you go?

Dusk and I were in Berlin last weekend for our first gig there and I thought I’d share some reflections before they fade. Getting to travel through DJing is a wonderful blessing, not just because you get to share the music you feel the most with a bunch of new people, but because you get to absorb new surroundings and environments.

Given the rich history and current vibrancy of the city I’m unsure if I’d ever be able to cover any meaningful amount of ground after a mere weekend, but I wanted to part what I’d adsorbed over a weekend through the medium of the shots I took.

My first experience of Berlin was a long, winding bus ride with one of my hosts, Mene, co-promoter of Zeitgeist Sessions. Busses are great ways to watch a city and it was even better taking one not having to be anywhere in a hurry. It snaked through fairly nondescript parts of town before offering up the kind of surreal experience usually only NYC affords, as you turn a corner and find yourself piecing together one new-yet-so-familiar ionic sight after another (“oh that’s the Fernsehturm ... ah there’s the Reichstag... oh hello Brandenburg Gate...”).

Yet I nearly missed the cities’ most famous landmark, the wall, having walked passed it with my guide without quite realising its significance. Standing in former no man’s land, it was hard to take in the full historical importance of the now much graffiti’d wall, not least because the club we were due to play that evening (reggae venue/compound Yaam – think the apocalyptic Black Swan in Bristol x the West India Centre in Leeds but with a beach) is literally built out of it. Standing in cold biting wind, absorbing the Technicolor graffiti and talking about the process of explaining to your Christian grandfather about converting to Sufi Islam (and about others that had), its difficult to imagine what had gone on in that space, decades before.  

While I’m interested in identity, graffiti, in the classic NYC tradition, isn’t really my thing. Sure it’s underground expression but there came a realisation in the last decade that it was the underground expression of the youth of the ‘80s – and it had dated. Part of me feels sometimes you need to reject certain canons to move on. This was probably accelerated by having to write about breakdance events at Knowledge mag and having Sadler’s Well’s PR try and sell me their graf backdropped event. Sometimes you just gotta let certain shit go and make the present your own. (I felt much the same, about 10 years ago, about the aging acid house bores who told us all at length how everything we experienced in clubs couldn’t possibly be as great as it was in ’88. In the privacy of my own mind, I told them to shove their mind blowing memories and went off to discover the seeds of dubstep and grime).

Either way, Berlin, it has to be said, is absolutely covered in graffiti and I’m not just talking about the examples on the wall that you see above. Every wall of every home or building has some kind of quickly scribbled tag on it. Most of it looks childish, the kind of thing you do in early secondary school and if that’s the case someone really needs to give a lot of 14 year olds in Berlin something else to do. I’m really into urban decay but mostly it makes lots of the buildings look grubby in an uninteresting way. These caught my eye though...

The latter wasn’t me, honest...

Next off was the compulsory pilgrimage to Hardwax records, the stairs of which you can see above. I first began buying Basic Channel records and hence dreaming about Hardwax, longer ago that I care to remember, so for my first visit to Berlin I simply had to attend, even though my personal thirst for actual vinyl now has diminished (I have a lot of vinyl now, I spend large amounts of time getting vinyl made but I listen to music mostly while on the move, I get sent more music that I have time on the move...).

I’d asked around and sent an email in advance, and Torsten (aka T++ aka Resilent  aka Various Artists) was kind enough to reply that he was in the shop that day and to come say hello.

We stood by the window and within seconds fell into the kind of conversation I usually have with old friends I’ve known for years. It was wonderful, uncannily akin in warmth and intensity to speaking with Mala. We talked about a bunch of things but I especially recall returning to a theme I’ve thought a lot about over recent years, about the relationship between money and music, especially as I’ve seen so many people I artistically respected evaporate all that was interesting about their music so they can pander to ever larger audiences and pay for mortgages and the like. (I’m all up for people paying off their mortgages, I just don’t want to have to listen to music that sounds like it was written while picturing someone’s bank manager).  Hearing Torsten’s passion for uncompromising music was great though as people buy sterile commercial music in ever increasing volumes, I fear his convictions were more familiar to me than most.

Now why include the two, fairly self-centred images of a Keysound section in Hardwax and our flyer for that night on their wall? Ego ting, no?!

Taking those shots took me back and reminded me of why I originally got into music, what my reasons and motives were. I try and think about that ‘me’ now and then, so I don’t lose sight of where it all came from and, well, end up writing/writing about music for my bank manager.

I guess all musicians/bloggers/DJs probably have hopes, dreams or even ambitions and I suspect over time they may change. But part of me thinks they never should, that you should be as idealistic and devoted to the music as you were when you first fell in love with it. If that’s last week then you’re good but if that was quite some time ago then chances are other factors and forces have challenged you.

Personally, I don’t have epic ambitions when making music. I don’t wish to DJ to 50,000 people; some of the biggest gigs - like the one we did at the Roxy on Hollywood Boulevard – were some of the most soul destroying. And that's cool: we DJ with a Plastic People mindset and there was a disconnect. So when I see my records in Hardwax – a distant illusion of a shop I dreamt of as I first passionately began to fall in love with music many years ago – I took a moment to recognise to that old self of mine the milestone that had passed, and to recognise it as an important milestone – not dismiss it as trivial now peers have achieved far greater notoriety.  

[L-R] Pinch, Shackleton and Kuedo. 

When talking to Torsten about people who have managed to reach wider audiences without compromise, Shackleton’s name came up and thanks to a little advance planning, we were due to meet him for drinks that evening. I’d also contacted fellow Berlin resident Kuedo aka Jamie Vex’d (ex-Vex’d?). As fate would have it Pinch was also in town so we all met up.

It was great to see everyone again. As they sat there in the bar in Kreutzberg, it occurred to me that I’d met all of them – Pinch, Kuedo, Shackleton – at Plastic People... and look at them all now! Jamie’s written perhaps my album of the year, Shackleton’s Fabric CD was so zero compromise it’s not funny and Pinch, well to say I admire his vision and work rate is a total understatement. He reeled of a handful of amazing projects he’s working on or has finished, has collaborated with one of my all time hero’s and was off for dinner that night with a second. Respect where it’s very much due. 

My interviews with Pinch, Shackleton and Kuedo are, erm, there.

As for the gig, well it one of the ones that dreams were made of. When we entered the Yaam compound it wasn’t exactly rammed but you immediately got a sense of warmth from the place and everyone who was there stayed.

Over 90 minutes we played music by Damu, Sully, Logos, Dubble Dutch, Kowton, Champion, Act Raiser, Eastwood, SP:MC, Goth Trad, Visionist, Double Helix, Amen Ra, Footsie, LV, Trim, El-B, Wiley, Sines, Boogie Times Tribe, Omni Trio and of course quite a few of our own beats.  Everything we played people came with us: I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after.

The next day a few of us went on a tour of one of Berlin’s underground bunkers or to be precise the Flakturm Humboldthain. When the first Allied bombs fell over Berlin, Hitler wasn’t too pleased as this was never supposed to happen. He drew a medieval castle-esque sketch and insisted an anti-aircraft fortress be built to defend the capital. What was built was so vast and impregnable that they could house 15,000 people and held off the Russian army for 3 days (only falling when the commanding officer committed suicide). More impressively, several armies couldn’t destroy them and in the 1980s a demolition company wanted $20m to take it down.

Instead they buried them. It turns out – I’m paraphrasing from the tour guide here so geologists, please correct me if I’m wrong – that Berlin is built on ancient sea bed aka sand, so it’s flat and pretty difficult to build upwards on. The water table is super shallow so foundations fill with water and hence there are very few high buildings and almost all the hills are man made, including the Flakturms.

Deep inside them was all twisted steel and decaying concrete, accompanied by the tour guide who had mastered English vocabulary but not the intonation such that it was mesmerising to listen to as you had no sense of when she was about to stop or say something of any import or emphasis. Funny what a difference it makes.

Sadly there was no photography allowed on the tour but afterwards we wandered up onto the old gun turrets to admire the sun setting only to see a remarkable sight: some local climbers had strung a flat tightrope up between two of the turrets and, 30 foot over spiked fences, were attempting to traverse between them wearing harnesses. 

One girl began to edge round the fence - held from the inside by her boyfriend, before taking to the rope in bare feet, despite the ambient temperature feeling about 5 degrees. At first it was like hanging around to watch someone kill or maim herself i.e. quite unsettling. But as she fell and was caught by her harness time and time again, it became mesmerising watching her staring off into the distance, focused on gaining her balance enough to stand up high above the city.

I wonder what she could see?

Berlin: ready when you are for the rematch.


Anonymous said...

This was a brilliant article, especially the part about seeing your records in the record store, which I think probably hits some kind of nail on some kind of head for quite a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

I love Berlin. Been here three years. There are many, many sides to Berlin.. many. I have played out constantly for all that time too.

Berlin by push bike is the best.