“Noticeably different, more free”
Over the last years there got movement in the problem child techno that had for way too long been swinging away in unchanging four-fourth-waters and minimal sleep. The monotony of every day life gave way to a new passion for experiments and sounds. Already established producers and DJs from Cologne like Lena Willikens and Daniel Ansorge (aka Barnt) are exemplary for this change in attitude and sound, but they are just the spearhead, there is much more going on behind them at the moment.
It is Saturday, just after 12 am. While the last weekend shopping is being done outside Topic Drift owner Christian Guntermann is warming up the coffee maker at his record store. But before the 24 year old can get deeper into the cosmos of his store, which was opened in November 2015, the door opens and a first customer enters the store: “A mate of mine is looking for something techno-like, do you have something like that? Hardcore- or speed core techno?”
Three months earlier. Wir are situated at an unremarkable industrial area in Cologne Deutz. The Cologne painter David Ostrowski is opening one last work-in-progress exhibition at his atelier before moving to the more central Belgisches Viertel. The “One Trick Pony” series is homogenous-minimalistic and kept very white, the oversized room supports the melancholy emptiness of the paintings – fittingly old school techno of the Munich School is being played by Cio D’Or, a rave veteran of the 90s, when we enter the room. DJ Brom aka Kieran, one of the most promising young DJs from Cologne, is playing after her. He will tell me later that he designs his sets depending on the setting and atmosphere he expects from a party and that he likes it when the music supports the overall atmosphere – but at this moment he drops a track with a lasting impact after a wonderfully gloomy-reverby Silent Servant Record. I do something I usually do not do: I enquire, or rather I let Philip Jondo enquire, who is standing next to DJ on standby modus. The answer: “Tsintener” by Friday Dunard, a nervously pulsating electro wave track that could trigger bad dreams.
The head behind Friday Dunard is the 29 year old Friedemann Dupelius, who moved from Karlsruhe to Cologne two years ago, where he officially studied musical computer sciences and unofficially music at ZKM thanks to constant visits to concerts.
A little while later, when I am meeting him and Philip Jondo for coffee, he tells me that what he has always liked about Cologne, from the distance, was the city’s eclectic musical scene. “From the WDR and the Studio for Electronic Music under Stockhausen, Kompakt, a-musik, Magazin to Lena Willikens and Barnt.”
Dupelius, DJ Brom and Jondo are three of a number of younger Cologne DJs that mainly call attention to themselves with DJ sets and parties. It’s not the case that a generational change would have taken place, the veterans of the local scenes, from Michael Mayer to Shumi and to Marcel Janovsky are after all more agile than ever, but new protagonists, who represent a noticeably different, more free techno sound, have joined. A sound for which dub, dark wave, krautrock, trance and electro carry as much weight as r’n’b and pop productions and traditional music from Africa and the Middle East. This isn’t a phenomenon that is exclusive for Cologne, techno became a lot more open that it was just a decade ago, all over the world, at chosen locations and on relevant festivals.
Dupelis directs the discussion towards the Cologne University of Music and its students of electronic music, whose orientation towards pop he likes. His label Syff, which isn’t as active as he would prefer it to be due to economic reasons, is devoted to the border region of club and avant garde – and thus he wishes for more local producers.
On the question what the two of them are perceiving as the most exciting thing in Cologne at the moment they are answering with a counter question which I am hearing often during my research for this story: “Does it have to be from Cologne? Because actually Düsseldorf and the Salon des Amateurs is an essential part of it.”
An important point, since an inspiring connection has developed from the café-bar-club melting pot Salon des Amateurs, which is attached to the Kunsthalle, to Cologne. It is from major importance for younger DJs like Jondo, Julian Bethmann (aka DJ Jules) and DJ Brom. At the Salon they have been learning how to get lost in the music under the non-hierarchic guidance of the local impresarios Lena Willikens, Detlef Weinrich (Tolouse Low Trax), Jan Schulte and Vladimir Ivkovic. By now Jondo is hosting his own nights and is “constantly learning in the close dialogue with his guests” like Jasss, Parrish Smith and Ron Van De Kerkhof – that is also the reason why he withdraw from organizing parties in the nightlife of Cologne.
A development that is also true for Jules. Fittingly I’m talking to him at the Salon while Lena Willikens and DJ Towie from Sweden are playing the first records of a Saturday night. “For more than six years I tested myself with the most different locations in Cologne and in the end I couldn’t manage to dissolve the gap between economic rentability and the persuasive power of the acts that I was interested in and that I was booking”, he explains. Bethmann’s reasons: “Cologne’s particular brand of cliquishness is prevailing, which means that people choose where to go not because of who is playing but depending on who else is going there. Accordingly parties who can book well known names work the best.” But the thing that seems impossible in Cologne is standard in Düsseldorf, emphasizes the 26 year old, who moved from Stuttgart to Cologne (with a one year layover in Bristol, thanks to its dub step scene).
The jump couldn’t be bigger than between the the sound understanding trained by Salon des Amateurs and the PollerWiesen. Or maybe not. The large scale rave known way beyond Cologne shows the shift of the plateau techno. Michael Kastens, co-operator and marketing director of the event and also active as DJ MK Braun, explains the dynamics during our conversation: “While five years ago the headliner were the big four names Marco Carola, Richie Hawtin, Sven Väth and Luciano we know have added talent like Nina Kraviz, Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann. We are more and more noticing that the underground drift reached the big festival market.”
Kastens sees himself as “chameleon with many faces”. Next to PollerWiesen he is co-operator of Ki Records, the label for dreamy and experimental techno from Cologne and Hamburg, organises the Cologne Sessions at Studio 672 with Magnus von Welck and every now and then bunker parties. In contrast to Jules and Jondo his view on Cologne is benevolent (“more parties than Hamburg with its 2 million inhabitants”), but also realistic (“interesting city in the urban center NRW, but it can’t keep up with the international urban flair of Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels”) and characterized by the belief to be able to affect things.
Shumi, who in personal union takes up the positions of resident DJ and booker at Gewölbe, also sees a lot of positive developments: “In comparison to the 90s and the 00s there is considerably more variety. With the result that next to the Ringe there is now much more alternatives to party, for example the party area in Ehrenfeld.” He personally likes the “Schäl Sick” in Kalk and Mülheim with off locations like Baustelle Kalk, the Micro Galerie and the sadly defunct Klubgenau. On the subject of illegal open air raves he is speaking of “extents like Berlin”. Next to the infrastructure Shumi is also emphasizing the great booking of the many club nights of the city, especially “apart from the deep-minimal-house-tech-slurry” and the number of good DJs.
As a matter of fact now is the time to insert a short name dropping intermezzo and mention club nights like Isolation, Rise, rheinrhythmik and clubs like Jack Who and its associated Katzensprung Festival, Odonien, and of course Gewölbe. Labels like Noorden, Baroc and Baumusik tie in with the subversive history of the city with labels like Sub Static and Areal, and producers and DJs like Bryan Kessler, Jannis Hannover, Camp Inc., Annanan, Paperwork, Luuk, David Hasert, Esther Sillex, Alex Tackenberg, Sandile, Verena Glup, Ludwig Zibell, die Supermoll-Clique, Aroma Pitch (Live-Act and Dj-Trio), Julian Stetter (Vimes), Max Scholpp, DJ Schmusewelt, and Jeandado testify to the variety of designs of techno that has been cultivated at the various club nights.
When talking about the newer techno generation of Cologne you have to eye Magazine, the label run by Barnt with the producer Jens-Uwe Beyer and the artist Crato. The three of them, friends since their youth in Kiel, pursue with their label the ambition to approach electronic music as unpredictable and free as possible. Just as you would expect from people “who once moved to Cologne because of Can, Stockhausen and Mike Ink”, as Beyer relates. What this means can ideally been tracked with Cologne Taped, the superstar project of the label, in which among others Michaela Dippel, Ada, John Stanier (Battles), Axel Willner (The Field), Jan Philipp Janzen (Von Spar), John Harten and Jörg Burger are participating.
But as diverse as the scene might be right now, as much it misses a social meeting place that everyone can agree on. A place like this used to be the “Total Confusion” or the “Lost” parties by Christian S and Matias Aguayo. At least empirically exactly that place is once again very present in the night life of Cologne with Studio 672, which is standing for the world wide success story of Cologne like no other place as the home of the first “Total Confusion” years. But despite “Cologne Sessions”, “Rise & Kicking” and other club nights it does not catch fire with the same vehemence as in the olden days. “The magical simultaneity, in which place, sound and people are connected in a way like they used to, is missing”, explains Tobias Tomas, who once gifted the “Total Confusion” to Cologne, together with Michael Mayer and Ralph Christoph. “Places like Omen in Frankfurt, WMF in Berlin or Ultraschall in München don’t exist anymore. Sadly Berghain is not Ostgut anymore. Let’s face it.” His advice to the following generation: “To create something similar today promoters should relentlessly concentrate on their own nucleus and let it grow gently and slowly. No useless headline bookings, but strong, charismatic residents who invite transregional guests as friends.” Thereby Tobias Thomas, who is currently working as a booker for Kompakt, has pleasantly clear and well-hung words for the overheated booking market from which the new generation suffers in both roles, as promoter and DJ.
Saturday, just after 12 pm. It’s about time to stop by Topic Drift. The selection of the store can be described as a mixed calculation of zeitgeist, existing offering and personal ardour. It combines Berghain techno, IDM, dub and new wave with classical Chicago house and Detroit techno, but also soul, funk and cosmic disco. As the other record stores in the city (once again Kompakt, A-Musik and Groove Attack come to mind) are relatively solid in sticking to their program more and more of an empty space was appearing, Christian Gutermann is relating. “What’s happening there is not always timely, but it’s understandable from their position. It’s our ambition to only include labels into our repertoire which we can identify with and which are not offered yet anywhere else in Cologne. It’s about showing people that not just straight techno with four-four-bass drum has to be played.”
The will to change something brought Guntermann to open Topic Drift. “Not in the sense of making it better, just to breath new life in it”, he explains. “A record store that is positioned a step lower, where people can come without the pressure to buy something and to get connected with the music. A social venue away from club life.”
As if to prove it shortly after 1pm on this Saturday not just several of his friends who are actively help forming the store (one as a graphic artist, the other as Facebook “marketing” specialist …) are at Topic Drift. Friedemann Dupelius drops by as if on cue to listen to new records. Guntermann reports that the main clientele are 20 to 30 year olds. But every now and then kids younger than 18 years would drop by “shy and relaxed. Although they don’t buy anything they like listening to the music – that’s what I like, that sets the ball rolling.”
On cue Kieran aka DJ Brom enters Topic Drift. We had to reschedule our meeting several times due to the sickness-aftershocks after the “Good News” party hosted by him the previous weekend at a warehouse in the south of Cologne. After a long quest he and his comrade-in-arms Julian Menkhaus (aka DJ Menk) and Andreas Rohde have found the perfect location for their off-parties that from now on will take place there every few months. We’re starting with a subject that is long overdue in this article: The underrepresentation of women in club culture. “I know a lot of great female DJs, but they rather are playing at home or in smaller groups”, he says, continuing that the reason is the vacuum of places where you might take a chance and the generally rather male dominated club scene which doesn’t make it easy for women. “Most of the female DJs I know have a very interesting and eclectic taste in music that doesn’t fit most of the current club nights in Cologne. He references DJs and producers like Alisa Berger, Waltraud Blischke (A-Musik), Viola Klein, Lil Focus, the Gold + Beton Dj-Team Er & We (Meryem Erkus and Nicole Wegener, whose integrative ideas of cultural work he feels very connected to in general), as well as Sarah San, who together with Dupelius provided for the ambient floor at last weekends “Good News”, which due to the large crowd turned into a second dance floor.
Although he also produces music every now and then together with Friedemann Dupelius under the name Tearss and has released the tape “vvvvv” together with his fellow KHM student Hermes Villena as part of a art project, DJ Brom makes no secret of his criticism of the dogma of the producing DJ. He says it is “absurd” that your “DJ skills aren’t counting until you released a record and a lot is written on your music.”
We are changing the subject and are talking about the fluent borders of genres which are so typical for the current post-internet sound and which are being cultivated on labels like PAN and Janus. Janus provides a great attraction to him as the flagship of the glitzy neo-r’n’b-trap-movement. “I perceive this as extremely up to date. It’s typical for my generation that we constantly dabble with new things. Nowadays you find out so much more than DJs two generations ago, thanks to the internet. Thus things quickly outlive themselves. After 4 or 5 plays at the latest you wonder if a song still suits your set – although there are favorites that always work!” He explains that the stylistic eclecticism that propels him is taking care that he sifts out 1 or 2 details from quite a lot things. Where this will lead him, he doesn’t really know, but he reaches the likeable conclusion that he “currently is in a phase that is very interesting for him”, as he lately has been learning about so much new music, pop and r’n’b in equal measure to hardcore tracks.
When you are are listening to DJ Brom playing tracks you will realize how fluently this sound clash is happening. He manages to break open the familiar structures without relying on dull contrasts, but very naturally collaging the classic four-four techno beat with neo-r’n’b and ambient while always having an eye on the dance floor. “Nothing is worse than appearing preaching”, he notes. “If you are doing everything properly you can also play experimental stuff, it just shouldn’t be pedantic.” The ability to self-criticise his own actions ensures that Kieran can give a straight answer to the question which pretensions he is pursuing. On the one side he is tempted to professionalize playing records, on the other side he is driven by the fear that he then might lose interest.
The best way for him, and there he agrees with Tobias Thomas (“Own up the place where you live and love and work and connect to it synergetic”), will be to dedicate himself to Cologne for now and then behold for what comes along: “For me as native of Cologne it still feels as if I’m not finished here.”
Thanks to having a place for “Good News” to their credit Kieran is in cheerful spirits that the off culture way is the right one: “People who are into electronic music are ready to travel to the boondocks. They are tempted by it, you just can’t overstrain it – everything that occurs more often than once a month is club and therefor a habit for the people. That is similarly fast moving as with artists and music.”
The deduction is a pattern of diverse off-locations and clubs which if programmed right will embody a current form of fixed meeting points. If I’m not mistaken, this endeavour will work out and, so much guts for prediction is needed, hell would have frozen over if this generation will not make an similarly lasting impression on the world wide map of electronic music as the previous ones from Cologne. The symbiosis of talent and attitude glimmers too enticingly.
The article was originally published in German in Stadtrevue Köln.
Translation in english by Denise Oemcke.