Perhaps no other city in modern history has seen more changes than Berlin. Aside from its well documented political shifts, the German capital has also undergone massive changes in economics, music and culture. However one thing is for certain, over the past 40 years there has been an underlying independent spirit to the city which is still going strong today
Ahead of this year’s Krake Festival, we were able to meet with five different artists from a myriad of backgrounds: Oliver Chesler aka The Horrorist, Philipp Strobel (owner/operator of Aufnahme + Wiedergabe), Mark Reeder (musician/producer/director of “B Movie”) and Petra Flurr & 89st (musicians/artists). Each individual has such a unique connection to Berlin and together they span not only decades past but each plays an important role in the present and future as well.
Oliver Chesler aka The Horrorist is no stranger to the electronic music world. Beginning in New York City in the 80’s/90’s he has been an influential force across multiple genres from EBM, Hardcore, Gabber, Techno and more. His label, Things to Come Records, has also been at the forefront of the releasing all different types of music and he admits regardless of the scene in New York, much of what his music is about began here in Berlin. The past few years is actually Chesler’s second stint in Berlin, first living here between 2004-2007. When asked what is different now he notes that the neighborhoods in the middle of the city have certainly changed but the music scene has too. “At that time Philipp (Strobel) wasn’t active here yet and all it takes is one person to hold the candle and change the whole scene. Also, Berghain wasn’t even around back then so techno didn’t have the same type of home either”, he reflects. He also adds that while many neighborhoods have transformed, there are still areas which maintain the feel of the old Berlin, which is important as well.
Moving to today’s sounds, I mention the genres he’s been operating in for years have seen a major resurgence. Chesler replies that in some ways he kind of just got lucky that the music he chose years ago is “back”. He comments, “I always have about 5 hardcore tracks at the end of my set and never know if I’m going to play them all but now when I perform those people lose it.” We also discuss hardware, software and the effects they have on the music being made. “With vintage gear, you have pre-contextaualized sounds and analog sequencers allow you to create something that resembles much of what we love from the 80’s”, he explains. “Also, around 96/97, Macs allowed you to record and that’s when I started experimenting with more vocals as well.” On a final note, he adds that the beauty of being in Berlin is the sheer volume of producers and in turn gear available. “If you go on ebay Kleinanzeigen toward the end of the month, you’ll almost always see some great gear for sale.” With the vast amount of software available as well, all of these things combined allow those making music to keep experimenting and continuing to push the sounds forward, regardless of background. Chesler remains as upbeat and enthusiastic about the music as ever and its this energy that continues to keep him at the forefront of whatever he’s doing.
Philipp Strobel is a promoter, DJ and head of groundbreaking record label Aufnahme + Wiedergabe. With well over a decade in Berlin he has been one of the most important figures across the post-punk, industrial, goth, EBM and techno scenes. As Chesler mentioned earlier, things were much different before he became active and it’s easy to see why. While not only releasing a steady stream of records, his regular parties and events showcase not only local talent but often feature artists from all over the world in both club and live settings. Originally from a small city in West Germany, I ask him about the music community there when he was coming up. “In the late 90’s and early 2000’s there was a significant post-punk, bat cave and death rock community where I was living” he recalls. “Growing up, that was basically my second living room as I would go to the those parties nearly every weekend. Now when I go back, I basically see the same people except we are about 15-20 years older.”
When he arrived in Berlin, Strobel brought some of that same sound and energy with him but was always intent on creating something new. “We (with an old partner) originally began doing parties at a now closed club in Prenzlauerberg, then moving to Mitte and other locations before landing at Urban Spree around 2012.” he remembers. His Death Disco events would become one of the most recognizable names fusing different genres together and creating a community of different sub-cultures as well. When asked about the influx of new people to Berlin in the last 5+ years he says overall it’s a very positive thing. “It used to be that different sounds or groups didn’t want to mix but that’s not the case any more and that is important for the music to keep evolving.”
Meanwhile, Strobel began building his label, Aufnahme + Wiedergabe, which recently celebrated 8 years of existence. “At first we were focusing on post-punk and minimal synth and really had no idea it would evolve into what it is today,” he says. Over those 8 years A+W has become one of the leading imprints in the modern EBM, techno and industrial genres. But like all those who thrive in Berlin, Strobel is not looking to stay within the same confines forever. “I never want to be associated with only one sound or genre”, he explains. “Recently, we just put out a record by Ilsa Gold which is more 90’s rave/gabber oriented. This confuses people but confusing people is a good thing.” I couldn’t agree more and it’s this ethos which will continue to keep A+W interesting for years to come.
Few have been involved in Berlin’s music and cultural scene longer than Mark Reeder. The Manchester-born musician and record producer left the UK and arrived in West Berlin in the late 70’s and quickly became engrained in the local community. His film, “B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989” is essential documentation of the time and basically required viewing for anyone interested in music of that period. Reeder would also go on to be an influential record producer, manager and more, championing the early electronic music scene and helping to give rise to DJ culture in Berlin and across the the world.
Today he still lives in Berlin and still has his finger on the pulse. Whether talking about his past or currently working with a great Chinese band called Stolen, he is a wealth of information. When we meet at Urban Spree, I ask him about “B-Movie” and if he ever thought it would still hold so much relevance. Reeder explains at the time they were just using a Super 8 camera to capture scenes of Berlin so they could show the next generation what the 80’s were like. He says there’s tons of footage which will never been seen but it was really about documentation and he was initially brought in to enhance the music. Reeder also says, “when I came to Berlin in 1978 I did things in the west but also went to the east and B-movie is only shows a small section of that. After that it was the 90’s when things came together and then I was into the whole techno thing.” It’s fascinating to hear about Reeder’s experiences and I can’t help but ask him how it was traveling between east and west back then. He says it was rather easy with his passport but you had to dress conservatively. “If you were dressed like a punk they would not let you into East Berlin.” He adds, “Blixa Bargeld stated at one point he had no interest in going to East Berlin but the fact is they wouldn’t have let him in anyways! But for me, It was important to know what East Berlin was like. I was told all my life they were the enemy but I felt it was my vocation at the time to bring music to East Berlin.”
Reeder continues to captivate me with stories about playing in East Berlin and how just having a tape player in the east was pretty much the holy grail because that meant you could record West Berlin radio, listen to John Peele and just be exposed to something completely new. One of my favorite stories he tells is about setting up a Die Toten Hosen gig in an East Berlin church in 1983. He gives us some context that back then, the church was not necessarily seen as a holy place because the Soviet government didn’t condone it. At the same time, there were so many Catholics that they couldn’t just get rid of all the churches either. “Being in a church was actually a form of silent protest at the time”, Reeder explains. “We were also able to show people that you could just use the hall as a concert space and do a show there. We only invited about 30 people to the first show but that gig would prove to be really important for the whole East Berlin scene.”
I then move on to Reeder’s interest in electronic music and ask what his punk rock peers thought of it at the time. He tells me, “I was always interested in different types of music and never just into one scene. I was alway infiltrating different groups with different music. In the 80’s I was going to Metropol, which was Europe’s biggest gay disco and they were playing underground disco records and Hi-NRG music which would eventually lead to acid house and techno. I always wanted to bring all different sounds and people together.” Once the wall came down he explains that it was the first time kids in the east could listen to whatever they wanted. Since the Nazi era, they were told what they could and could not listen to officially. He recalls, “It’s funny because kids in the east thought the clubs in the west were these massive, vibrant places with hundreds of people, but in reality it was just a shitty little room with maybe 50 - 100 people there. Once the kids in the east finally came west and saw this they figured out they could just do their own parties.” Reeder talks about using the death strip and derelict buildings in the east, bringing in generators, sound and suddenly you have your own club. It was also around this time that people in the east had access and could use drugs and then everyone was using ecstasy. “At that time everyone from the staff to people in attendance were all on the same plane and this makes a massive difference. Today, everyone is fucked up on different drugs which really changes things. People doing parties started demonizing certain drugs and pushing others to get people to drink and spend more money. If we are going to survive, we have to work together to get back on the same plane and in the same mentality.”
Ultimately, if there is one thing we can take away from Reeder’s experiences it’s that he and his collaborators did all of these things without any money, any internet or industry infrastructure. It was simply about having a good idea and figuring out ways to make it happen. Reeder is still fond of the city today and says, “In Berlin we live in the last bastion of freedom. People come here to flee the rest of the world and we really do live in paradise.” When bringing up gentrification and other hot button topics he remains unfazed. “The people are who are building these luxury apartments for millionaires are really just creating spaces for the next generation of squatters”, he says. “Berlin is a volatile place that is always reinventing itself. People are always coming here from all over the world bringing new ideas and changing the landscape and this is important. The fact is if you have an idea just do it. Don’t worry about what the neighbors say or anyone else. Just fucking go for it.”
We now move to Petra Flurr & 89st. Petra is a Berliner who moved to Madrid in the early 2000’s. He mentions there was a strong music scene there at the time but he was still finding his way within the scene. In 2009, the first Petra Flurr release came out and he felt it was a good time to come back to his hometown. At that time he got involved with Philipp and was DJing at the former King Kong club but the scene was still very small. “Each year though it was getting bigger and bigger and growing very fast.” he says. Around 6 years ago 89st came to Berlin from his hometown of Mexico City and saw a Petra Flurr gig. He was throwing parties with his partner in Mexico and they invited Petra to come play. Petra tells me, “it was amazing and I love playing in this part of the world because they have such great energy there. Very different than Berlin.” While in Mexico the two collaborated on a track that turned that they both loved and soon after decided to keep collaborating.
Still living in Mexico, 89st says he would love to move to Berlin permanently in the next year or two. “For me this is still where the music I love is but I also want to find other ways to contribute here while still maintaining the connection with Mexico as well.” Petra also gives some great insight as to being in Berlin in the late 80’s. He recalls, “at that time it felt like an empty place. It was grey, buildings were destroyed and it was quite ugly for most people but for me, I always loved that. It’s interesting to see it today and how much color has been added to the city.” All three of us agree that the city has not lost its appeal and its always great to see like minded people moving here, which is something that Mark mentioned earlier as well. Now the two can be found touring together before 89st returns to Mexico but we look forward to having him back here for more music making and beyond.
Thank you to all of the artists for speaking with us. It was a real pleasure to hear so many different insights, stories and more which all add to the magic of the city. Krake Festival starts July 22nd in Berlin and you can catch The Horrorist, Schwefelgelb, Mark Reeder + a screening of B-Movie and Petra Flurr & 89st at Urban Spree on Friday, July 26th after the annual independent label market which is always worth checking out as well. For more information and tickets visit: https://krake-festival.de/