After three days of, heck yeah, a lot of fun, a bunch of weirdos, and plain awesome shows, I sit back and resume.
The new festival Pop-Kultur is supposed to replace Berlin Music Week somehow. Organized by musicboard, Berlin Senate’s institution for supporting popular music in Berlin, this festival turned out, compared with Music Week, a true condensation of what a typical Berlin music scene could be like.
But what made the most difference, and gave huge meaning to the seemingly hollow new name:
This was not about music.
This was all about show.
The festival delivered virtually every type of show, from the autistically introvert weirdo crouching behind his synth (or guitar) via honest-to-god stage diving in flower costumes to contemporary music theatre using all available media from projection to expressive dance.
All the time, making the music not in the least less important. But asking for contemporary ways to bring the music to its audience.
As emphasized by the talk topics chosen, this festival was focused on the survival as an artist in the piranha basin of international music business. The only thing everyone was certain aboußt: You can’t survive anymore as an artist just selling CDs, or even downloads. And let’s just not talk about streaming.
So, again, this was about the show. Bringing your stuff to the people matters in a way it hasn’t for decades. And, different fro former times, it is not enough anymore to „just do a good show“. People expect something special, if they leave their screens and headphones alone for 2 hours, and they want to be entertained, enlightened, and to walk home with the feeling they have been part of something unique and special. Pop-Kultur showed, simply, different approaches to do this, and most of them are not even connected to money (like having huge technics, a big band, or a gigantic stage). Here’s some examples of what I have seen.
„We are at Berghain, and that means, it’s all about the kickdrum. And the thing with the kickdrum is: Once it starts – it never stops.“
With these words, and a few more, Matthew Herbert opened one of his sets. On a huge stage in Halle am Berghain, with (among others) a brass section and a m/f singer duo, and a simple but effective LED light show, he not only delivered a set right in the middle between his highly intelligent dance sets (one of which closed the festival), soul and pop music, including a bar-jazzy piano solo by Mr Herbert himself. Oh wait: not a solo. He was right. THE KICK DRUM NEVER STOPPED.
I was aware that Herbert, unlike no other electronic musician I know, is able, and willing, to tell stories with his music, to create images and atmospheres, scenes, while the bass is pumping. But what he did here was another level. In a simple, slightly narcistic speech (well, he IS a DJ, after all,so that’s ok) he announced – after an operatic opener with the full band – what people would NOT hear tonight (insert here: samples from his well-known works), what people would hear („It’s the sound from THIS tooth here pulled out-“ crack -collective cringe – „oh, sorry I didn’t hear that, can you go again?“ crack – cringe…), and, what people might not like to hear: „the sound of a boat of fugitives sinking before your coast.“ Sample, silence. Quick change of subject: What a kick drum can be. He loaded the samples he would use in the upcoming set with meaning, emotion, and stories. And then delivered a set which was plain perfect, from the simple, precise moments of choreography with his singers, to live-sampling the audience into the next tune.
If that is not pop culture – I don’t know what is.
The moral: Tell people what you are doing, it makes things big. Don’t be afraid of narcism because you’re on stage anyway and people WANT to love you. Simple show elements like synced freeze-and-freakout are the best.
Yes, she did „Manchild“. And „Woman“. And people freaked out. (How old are these? I remember having danced to them as a child. Between her songs, she made rude jokes, „glad my grandson isn’t here“.) And hell, that woman rocked the stage!
A souly voice that was able to do just about everything, crooning, shouting, rapping, accusing, joking. Somehow, she transported the meaning of what she was singing in a way I have never seen before. The program called her an „idol“, and if only in that aspect, for me she certainly is.
With Rocket Number Nine, a brother-duo with drums and electronics, her punk soul fit perfectly – also into Berghain. The show was created for this event, and the dark, buzzy version of „Woman“ came announced as a world premiere. Altogether, this was the one act I have seen that really felt „stadium“ – a world star rocking the crowd with every punchy line, rebelling fist-up, accompagnied by a live visuals set provoking the audience’s mindset in a disturbing way, and delivering her message:
„If everyone of us just took up a little responsibility, we could make this world a really big place.“
The moral: If you have a message, drive it home until it sits. And don’t stop.
Two incredible dancers take their huge flower masks off and turn out, surprisingly, to be very male, nevertheless delivering more smooth androgynous, if not female moves. A punk guitar player shakes his mane over a bare chest back to his colleague behing the drums. A guy with sunglasses and a Trilby does the basses on his set of synths. And Miss Ebony Bones rocks the stage, first dressed as a rainbow feather duster, then a 70ies diva with a hat and just some black lace over her impressive breasts, finally a quarterback-dressing gown-Beat Street crossover. I told you, this was about the show.
What do we have here? An amount of energy all too fitting in the former elecrtricity station Berghain is. This woman, and her band, and dancers, did not stop moving for a single second, while delivering a punky Funk show deeply rooted back in the 80ies. Actress Bones held the audience firmly by their throats from the very first second, bouncing on stage in a whirl of colours, stage diving, singing a set that was always on top of her voice, pure woman power.
Although even she did not manage to move the all-too-stiff German audience with her simple let’s-do-it-together choreography… Still, we had a lot of fun down there. Topped by the encore when Miss Bones took the drumsticks herself, and for the final lifted half the audience onto the stage to dance with their last encore, including yours truly, of course. What a blast we had.
The moral: There is no such thing as too much energy. There is no such thing as embarrassing costumes when they come with said energy. There is no such thing as too weird. If you can do it, do it. And don’t be afraid of the audience.
The program says about Herbert: „And don’t forget, he’s also a DJ.“ So, he had the closing slot of the festival. And it was so worth waiting for that.
After several live concerts, where people (including yours truly, of course) literally danced their asses off, Berghain turned, again, into the electronic temple it is supposed to be. People stood all over the huge place, and listened, bouncing slightly. The set was worth it.
Herbert delivered an -as expected – intelligent, creative set with an incredible buildup –
– which was, tragically, broken by technical problems. Those occured already in Stephen Morris’ preceding set – Berghain was silent, suddenly! And even after a frantic search for the broken cable it took three restarts and, finally, a change of mixer to get first Morris, then Herbert, going again.
But soon he, and the crowd, recovered. The set held the promises he had set with his band set the day before: quick changes of ideas, samples just concrete enough to have a meaning that told a story (chalk on a blackboard, for those who have been there!) but clean and clear over Berghain’s incredible sound system, and the kickdrum never stopped.
The moral: The show does never stop. Keep calm, whatever happens. People will love you even more when you struggle, and win. It’s a story by itself.
Come back later for…
This was music theatre. And more. A true hybrid of pop and art music, video art, physical theatre.
The start is a canvas. Slightly transparent, covering the whole stage, projected with what you could call the ouverture, a danced/acted mask theatre between two black and white figurines, in parts associating early recordings from Martha Graham, in parts like a grisly pantomime. Sets the mood to dismal, awkward, inhuman. All the time the band is playing and Casady singing behind the curtain. A little too long maybe – people get nervous, thinking: is that it?
Then the curtain falls.
Revealing a smiling band of multiistrumentalists, a stack of amps, an upright piano and a table propped with typing machines, FX, more amps, and other stuff. And Casady in a white nightgown, a bowler, and a huge chain as a necklace.
The opener leads to the introduction of the dancing protagonist. Styled as a horror harlequin, on a block,in a lightfall, beautifulsimplicity. Followed by a danced story in a style that reminds of Brechtian theatre, yet full of imagery. Casady stays in the foreground but averted from the audience, at some point she starts interacting with the sad clown, all the time she conduces the band. One gets the impression that she is shy, and leaves the focus deliberately to the dancer. Why not, one thinks.
And then it happens: For the final, only!! and the encore, she lifts her head and addresses the audience directly. What a buildup of energy! Herbert does it with sound. Casady does it with her show.
Oh yes, the music? Interesting mix of cabaret, pop rock, classics, interpreted in a modern jazz style. Crowned by a piercing, unnatural voice, ultrapresent, expressive, controlled.
The moral: Keep the best for last.
Cristobal and the sea – soon
Of course, one of the stars of the festival was legendary Berghain.
What a simple, stunning, and plain GOOD idea to host Pop-Kultur in Berghain! The club has become like a synonyme for Berlin’s pop culture over the years, and whoever I told last year I was from Berlin asked after Berghain at some point.
So, here’s the bad thing, to get that out of the way:
The sound was terrible.
Sorry, but yes, it was. I don’t speak about the electronic dance sound in main Berghain hall. That was simply perfect. At every point inside the huge space, the sound had the same energy and clarity without ever becoming painful. Hell, I didn’t even need my earplugs!
But, as for the bands…
Yes, Berghain, there IS such a thing as too much bass.
And as most bands were playing in Halle am Berghain, which is also huge, but not the least acoustically insulated as main Berghain, this bass became a power of nature all by itself, unstoppable and annoying. – If the bass is so loud you CAN’T HEAR THE DRUMMER anymore, something’s going wrong.
Also, Berghain technicians had not the slightest idea how to mix a voice, which was sad as there were some impressive vocalists on stage. Neither brass, or a piano. Most instruments and voices sounded shrill, and harsh, in the best case as that made them at least audible.
So much for Halle am Berghain. Ok, it’s huge, the atmosphere and optics made good for the compromise. About the show, remember?
But even in Panorama bar, which usually hosts music for listeners, even experimental, and classics,
– it was worse. Sookee is a high energy rapper with a very clear pronounciation, and still not only it was impossible to understand a single word, but her monitoring was so bad, that she left the stage (after still delivering a good set, excusing to her fans, and sharing her water and towels with them) too exhausted for an encore, and almost in tears.
Now the good things.
Berghain is an impressive place. Period. The building, and the surroundings, are beautiful, majestic, and, paradoxically, emit a feeling of peace, and glory, loaded with the legend this place holds. Temple-like structures inside, lots of space seemingly wasted to chill, talk, and admire. Beatuiful light design wherever you look. In the hallways, the halls, in the garden areas – all leading to the terrific light show in main Berghain during the DJ sets. They do the light LIVE in Berghain. I’ve never seen that, light technicians tapping their desk in accordance to the musical impulses, with their eyes on the DJ. Is this called LJ? Would be appropriate.
Also, perfect for the still warm weather but also appropriate for the Berlin-typical unexpected rain, different outside areas with places to sit on tables, chill in the grass, slump on concrete blocks, watch from staircases. All easy to overview, which made the security concept simple, easy, and relaxed.
As all personnel were! Though Berghain has the reputation to be difficult to get in, security (some of them as well known as the DJs inside) and hard-working bar personnel were without exception friendly, open, calm, helpful, and always had time for a joke. May this be a method of deescalation (which works) or the philosophy, it is just good, and makes you feel like what you are: a patron coming to have fun, a client being the purpose of everything, and an admirer of the institution and the art it hosts.
As a place for the festival, it was well chosen. Not just for the legend (as if that was not justification enough). Berghain and its facilities had all the infrastructure needed, and the festival was held close together as everything happened in one place. Even people able to afford only one module or just the talks could stay, talk, and feel part of the festival. It felt like one big party, Berlin saying Hello World!
I admit it. I am not very fond of talks. I am a bad listener, my thought drift off the moment I hear something that sets them in motion, and when somebody wants an answer from me, I am sure to answer to what was said five minutes ago. If I have to just listen, unstopped by the need to answer, it’s even worse.
But the talks are what the festival makes pop KULTUR, not just POP. Or so I thought. So I went to a few.
The essence I have mentioned above and won’t repeat it. Just some topics that got stuck, even in my brain:
– Doing more shows doesn’t help you earn more money. (I knew that, as all my fellow musicians, but it is nice to hear it from a politician as a matter of fact.)
– Social media doesn’t make you famous. But used in the right way, it can help you think, and be creative.
– Media people do hate geoblocking (for those not living in Germany, that means we are not able to watch most YouTube music videos here because of copyright issues) and filling in PRO lists. No surprise there. But then a famous host, Silke Super, anecdoted she played her first ever non-PRO act only some weeks before. THAT came as a surprise. When I asked her why she then did not play in her (newcomer-focused!) show only unpublished acts without a PRO contract, she had no answer (and no, „they don’t play shows I can announce“ is NOT a correct answer), she was even surprised, too. I suggested then she should, maybe, think of that avantgardistic idea as “musical Darwinism“. Let’s see if those things change anything. Honestly, I don’t think so.
I asked several Berghain personnel about what they thought about the organization. Every single one of them gave me the thumbs-up at once and said: it’s so well organized, it plain works, and they haven’t forgotten a single thing. Everybody has fun non-stop, even the personnel, and that for a first try!
I think this says it all. Thumbs-up from me, too. And I am glad that those musicboard people I met seemed not to drown in work at all, but also had fun, and even got the opportunity to see some shows themselves. Very, very well done.
Part of Berghain’s outdoor area was fenced off as a VIP area. As a stipendiate, I was invited to go there, meet&greet, get free booze, and a goodie bag. Yay!
So I spent a lot of time there, and actually DID meet some interesting people. Instead of boring you or embarrassing them, I will just quote a little.
„Berlin has a very high Night Time Economy Index.“ (Dimitri Hegemann)
„Fulfilled my expectations exactly, and thus I am dissatisfied.“ (Andreas Gebhard)
„You don’t sell CDs anymore. They are just expensive business cards.“ (Richard Cameron)
„Berlin is the most exciting place on this planet. You know that, do you?“ (An artist from Kalkutta, whose name I have, sadly, forgotten.)
The festival offered, as a new concept, modules instead of buying tickets for a day, or a single act. Meaning,with most tickets, you got two or more acts, but not a bunch of them. Mostly this meant a Berlin or newcomer act, some of them stipendiates of musicboard like me from the last years, coupled with an international star. What an easy way to help those acts to get going!
Because those acts were not placed (nor announced) like supporting acts but like peers. Halle am Berghain as well as Kantine was more or less evenly propped at all times. Of course, if you get a ticket for an important festival with only two acts on it, you will not want to miss the first one just because you don’t know them!
Programmation was set in a way which made it possible to see almost every act at least half, so people made it their task to do so and at least get a glimpse of every show. Again, this was possible because of the location, everything close together.
So, in three days, I got electronic music of different styles – modern music theatre – German Hip Hop – Punkpop – Indie Rock – Latin Pop – Funk – Soul Pop – Electronic Jazz – … and more, I will, maybe, add what I have forgotten now later.
And just in case you haven’t noticed: the festival put a huge weight on female lead artists, at least concerning the concert modules! This festival actually DID feel balanced.
Also, several of the most important acts have crossed the magic 4, even the 5 as the first of their age digits. AND NOBODY CARED.
The only point I consider negative is part of the announcements before the festival started. I had difficulties to find out what was supposed to be what exactly as descriptions were cryptic and indecisive in style and information, and how the ticketing worked. Maybe I, as a festival-newbie, am the only one, but several things I learned only when I got there. (This, in turn, was easy, everything was beautifully and light-heartedly colour-coded and easy to find.)
Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as I liked the surprises I got. But still I think this will smoothe out next year, as it gets easier to describe what you are doing when you have done it already. Trust me.
As for choosing Berghain as a location, I am quite sure that several artists tuned their shows to fit into that place, making them more bassy, having additional electronics or drumming, or creating an entirely new show together with musicians that did dance music anyway. Nothing wrong with that! It’s the show, folks!
And the strange thing, it all fit together somehow. If because of the altered shows, of the location itself, of the general atmosphere of fun an exaltation that spread from the stage to the audience and to the personnel, or just because of an audacious and conceptually decisive programmation, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Because, the SHOW was perfect, overall.
If that is the summary of pop culture in Berlin, I am even more proud to be a part of it.
Thank you, musicboard. And rock on!
My application for next Pop-Kultur: