Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke were both important figures in the recent cultural history of Berlin. De Picciotto was one of the co-founders of The Love Parade, a long-running electronic music event, where the participants were part of a parade through Berlin that, within the first few years of its existence, included over a million people and helped to launch that music as an important artistic movement in continental Europe.
Alexander Hacke, meanwhile, was an early, and current, member of influential experimental band Einstürzende Neubauten. Throughout the '80s to the present, Neubauten was a direct influence on industrial music, and he was also an inspiration to the musical avant-garde worldwide with his band's uncompromising approach to making music so unique (and uniquely executed) that it pretty much could never really be imitated or reproduced. The best introduction to the band would probably be to pick up any of its Strategies Against Architecture compilations and explore from there. Or better yet, should you be lucky enough to have the opportunity see any of its absolutely unforgettable live performances for yourself.
This year, de Picciotto released a book entitled The Beauty of Transgression, A Berlin Memoir about the first twenty years she spent in Berlin. In the book, she discusses her experiences among the people and places of the vibrant arts culture that existed in Berlin during that time of the late '80s to well into 2000s.
She is currently touring with her husband, Hacke, who will perform some improvisational electronic music to accompany a multi-media presentation wherein de Picciotto will read from her book while showing pictures and short films she made to accompany the reading tonight Hinterland Art Space (3254 Walnut Street). We very recently had a chance to sit down and talk with de Picciotto and Hack, along with local music luminary, Jill "Razer" Mustoffa, about the book, The Love Parade, Neubauten, Berlin itself and how artists can survive and flourish in the current era of seeming scarcity.
Westword: Why did you feel compelled to write your book at this time?
Danielle de Picciotto: I started writing it in 1995, when I realized that I was starting to forget more than I thought I would. You think that you're never going to forget certain things but you do. The time from when I moved to Berlin in '87 to '95 already had been so amazing with the fall of the [Berlin] Wall to the development of music from Geniale Dilletanten and Neubauten, turning into Berlin's techno scene and stuff like that -- I was like, "I have to start writing things."
It took me about two years to figure out if I wanted to write it in German or English. Then I wrote for a little longer. Then I talked to my publisher and asked if it was interesting. He said it was interesting, "But you're mentioning way too many people." Because I had been mentioning hundreds of them. And he said I wasn't mentioning anything about myself. He said, "You have to become more personal because if you want to do a book only on Berlin; you have to be more scientific. But when people read this, they're going to want to know what you were doing." So I had to re-write everything. So the whole thing, basically, took fifteen years.
For me, it was basically, Berlin now, at the point that I am -- I've been there such a long time I've been thinking of maybe going somewhere else. And I've had that feeling now for the last five years. So I thought, "Okay, I'm going to write until 2005, that's twenty years, and that way it's really my Berlin Years; it's not my life's memoir -- it's my Berlin Years memoir. It was a very instinctive kind of thing. It wasn't planned, it just kind of happened the way it did.
What took you to Berlin in the beginning?
DdP: Back then, my life was very instinctive. When I was in New York, I was offered a job in Cologne to work there after I'd finished studying. My mother's German, so I'd been in Germany before. When I was in Cologne, a lot of things happened, and I decided I was not going to stay there, and I decided to go to Berlin before I went back to New York. I wanted to go for two weeks. Then when I got there it was like, "This is amazing."
It was as creative as New York in the '80s. New York was amazing in the '80s, but it was also scary and dangerous. I was studying there and people were getting killed all the time and getting shot. It was really expensive. I arrived [in Berlin], and immediately, I was in this amazing, bubbling pot of creativity. Every day, every night you were confronted with musicians, with art, with exhibitions, with crazy fashion shows -- it was non-stop.
It was like New York, but not dangerous at all. You were surrounded by a wall, and it kept everything from coming in and going out, so it was like an encapsulated space. And it was very cheap. I moved into an apartment that was huge like a loft, and it cost me like thirty marks, which is like fifteen dollars. Each room was as big as this whole space [editors note: Little India]. Back there, too. We had five of them, and I was like, "Okay, I'm staying."
Did you two meet back then too?
DdP: We met pretty early on.
AH: I was born and raised in Berlin, so I'd always been there. The apartment that Danielle had moved into on Ritterstrasse was also where my friend Roland Wolf, who used to play keyboards in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, lived, so we ran into each other pretty early on.
DdP: So Nick Cave and Neubauten were there all the time.
How did you get involved in a group like -- well certainly there's no other group like it -- Neubauten?
Alexander: I discovered music in general because I did experiments with my cassette recorder as a little boy. Then I discovered punk rock. When I was twelve years old, I discovered The Ramones. I went to my first Ramones show, actually, when I was twelve years old. Then I played in a group in school, and I took part in the organization of an anti-fascist festival, and that's where I met all these other guys that were much older than I was. I was like the only kid in this group of punk rockers, and hippies and activists and stuff.
That's how I met a bunch of people and among them were Blixa [Bargeld] and Andrew [Chudy] from Neubauten. I would skip school and hang out in a record store and met a lot of people. Blixa used to have a shop in Berlin, a clothing store, Eisengrau, from where he also sold cassette tapes.
DdP: With Gudren Gut. She's an important woman.
AH: Yeah, I would just skip school and hang out with these people instead, and that's how I started playing music with them in year zero.
Did it start out with the elaborate devices and noise-making objects, or did it start out very different from that?
AH: It started out as a pure improvisational thing. Nobody could play any instruments. I think out of that constellation of people, I am the only person that learned how to play music by now. [chuckles] In the early days, in Berlin in the '80s, there was just such an explosion of creativity in any field. People were just making up band names and inventing groups and artforms. Then all this crap was invented and forgotten and invented and forgotten again within weeks. Neubauten was one of many things. I played in twenty other groups in this era and was part of twenty other ideas at the same time.
In the late '80s is roughly when you co-founded The Love Parade. What was the idea behind that? What inspired you to do that?
DdP: I did that together, of course, with Matthias Roeingh, who was my then boyfriend, and it was basically the idea of...I mean Berlin was always very underground. There was nothing overground.
DdP: Yeah, there was either the dark cellars, where you'd have parties and everybody would sleep during the day...The end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s was definitely a turning point. I don't think you have that as extreme nowadays, but back then, every decade had its own music style. You could really feel at the end of a decade that something was going to change. I don't know why that doesn't happen anymore. You could feel that in Berlin.
When I came to Berlin in '87 and in '88, you could feel [people's attitudes changing]. They were doing '70s parties; they were doing rock things and hip-hop. But it was kind of like something was missing, something new had to arrive. When that new thing arrived, it had a just so completely different atmosphere than anything that had been in Berlin before because it was very colorful. From the very start, it wasn't this kind of depressed melancholic thing, it was more [celebratory and joyful]. You had the feeling you just had to go out, out of those cellars.
[Dr. Motte,] Matthias, came home one day and he said, "You know, I'm going to do a parade." He was a DJ, and he had his own club, Turbine Rosenheim. It was pretty legendary because they had good parties there and they were always trying out new musical styles. Motte, had also played in different bands, and he was also part of the Geniale Dilletanten scene, the "Ingenious Dilettantes" that Neubauten belonged to.
It was this scene in the '80s where all these different bands basically called themselves dilettantes, that didn't know how to play any instruments but did music anyway. He was part of that crowd a little bit, but he wanted to be a DJ, and he became a professional DJ, basically. He said, "I want to bring this out into the light. I want to do a parade."
I think raves were starting in London and stuff, and it was something that was new because you could do them outside. So I said I would do the visual part of it, and he did the music part of it. We got together a little bit of money. We didn't have any sponsors and we did it. The first time was funny people because people were like, "What is going on?"
AH: The first time it was a group of a hundred and fifty people and it was one truck with the DJ in it. I was there.
DdP: We had just gotten one truck, one turntable. There were actually more police than participants because nobody knew, they were like, "What are they doing?"
AH: And of course it started raining.
DdP: Everybody was just standing there. It was so funny. They couldn't believe it. It was just that truck with Mattias DJing and walking behind it were maybe a hundred twenty people, dancing.
AH: How many years later did it become one point five million?
DdP: Three or four. It went really fast. The whole thing started with that parade. The whole techno movement really started because clubs came up because of the parade. DJs came up and fashion came up. It generated money for the whole city. Within three or four years the city was earning forty-three point seven million marks a weekend. People would earn enough money in their clubs to survive a whole year with it.
Jill "Razer" Mustoffa: It was a zoo in Berlin when The Love Parade was going on.
So you were there at that time?
JRM Fucking hell, yes! Everybody in their fucking neon hair, neon tattoos, their neon-colored clothing. And everybody's tripping their brains out and they're happy. There were millions of these people running around. And you cashed in lots of money.
AH: And it was incredible in the way that hardly anyone ever got hurt.
JRM: It was a happy party.
AH: No violence, no arrests, nothing.
DdP: Until it was sold to greedy money people.
That happened many years later, like over a decade later wasn't it?
AH: It started to get commercialized and lost its original spirit when you stopped, basically.
DdP: I stopped about four years after. I don't like big, massive things, and it was becoming more of a commercial thing then. But it lasted for a lot longer.
AH: The last year the catastrophe happened in another city.
JRM: Then it happened at Tiergarten, and they had to re-sod the entire park because all those people just trampled it down to nothing. Also a lot of our friends made money off of selling watermelon to people.
DdP: It was impressive because it was something that was so successful and we managed to do that without money. For Motte and me, it was this thing that if you really believe in something and if you do it as one person, you can actually generate something like that. So in that way it was very inspiring.
JRM: I got there in 1990. I was trying to figure out when you first did because I swore I was there right at the beginning when it was just there, and all of a sudden it became The Love Parade. Because I'd never heard of anything before, and then it was just The Love Parade. It's like an entire weekend of insanity. A week, basically, because they come in a couple of days before then they party really hard all weekend, then they kind of trickle slowly off.
AH: People like me, who wanted to stay out at night and take drugs in peace and stuff. We would just try to get away from it all. The Love Parade was basically the "amateur week." [laughs]
Presumably your book spans the years after your direct involvement with The Love Parade. What did you do in the years following?
DdP: I started singing in a band, a crossover hip-hop rock band called Space Cowboys. I was with them until '95. I did music with Gudren Gut, who was one of the founders of Neubauten. I started doing music a lot more and starting in '95, I stopped working in clubs and started curating. There was this one famous club I was working in called Tresor.
There were two main clubs and one of them was Tresor. The owner was a guy who did a lot of things in Berlin, he opened a lot of clubs and bars and stuff. He said to me, "You need your own gallery." Because I was doing exhibitions at clubs of my own work and of other people's work. "Because you're always representing good people. I'm going to get you one. I'm going to sponsor it."
So I started doing a lot of event management and galleries and concerts and exhibitions and stuff. I did that for a couple of years but at some point you have to decide if you're the curator or the artist and I'm definitely the artist.
So I went back to doing music and art. Starting in 2000 [Alexander and I] started collaborating together doing multi-media shows. Which is basically what I do today. I do projects together with Alex then I do my artwork then I do film documentaries so I'm always going from one thing to the next. It's a good way to survive as an artist.
It helps if you don't have to rely on one art form. Berlin is still a bankrupt city and it's still very difficult to earn money there. So people that are only artists have a really hard time there. People that are only musicians, if they're not super successful have a hard time there. Filmmakers, everybody has a hard time. But the way I do it with one project here and the next project there, I can generate money by doing these different things.
AH: You feel like everywhere and in every circumstance the middle class is being erased out of all societies. And so you either do very quick and very successful things or you do things in the underground on a very small scale. And you cannot survive just doing things like that so you have to spread out and do many kinds of work in many different fields in the underground. Then you can sort of reach a level that is comparable to working in a middle class kind of environment that will support you.
You're showing an hour of that Neubauten movie, is that a movie that you made.
DdP: They gave me their archive, which was like three terabytes and said, "Okay, here, do something with it." For their thirtieth anniversary.
AH: It's not a documentary in a way that it has a narrative or is in chapters. It's a collage of the last thirty years with time jumps back and forth and very different things.
DdP: We're not showing all of it, we're just showing one hour of it. I had to integrate their music videos, their performances with other artists, their interviews. There's all kinds of stuff and a lot of it unreleased so it's a really special occasion for people to see it because we're not allowed to release it as a movie because a lot of the stuff they don't have the rights to because there's a lot of TV stuff so we're only allowed to show it as a live thing.
When did you first see Neubauten and was your impression of them?
DdP: That's funny. The first time I heard about them I was in New York. I was staying at a friend's, who was a bouncer at Danceteria, and he came back home from a Palladium concert and said, "I saw the craziest band just now. They almost burned the place down." I don't know if you've been to the Palladium but was the biggest club. It's where Madonna had DJs play her songs.
It was a huge place and it had an iron curtain. It was like football stadium big. He just wouldn't stop talking about them. He was usually this super cool, stereotypical New York person, seen it, heard it. At Danceteria he would get envelopes of drugs given to him from people trying to get in. Cocaine or whatever. He was over everything. But this concert impressed him so much that that name stuck in my head. Also, he pronounced the name wrong.
But I was studying fashion, costume design and illustration, so I was just kind of like, "Oh, okay, crazy music." But when I moved to Berlin a couple of years later, I got to know them but I still hadn't seen their music. I had heard their music in the meantime in clubs and stuff like that.
But people always reacted so extremely that I [was put off]. I don't like people that are hardcore groupies. So I tended to stay away from them. Especially because it was so close. In Berlin, when they would enter bars, especially in the '80s, it was like some gods had entered. I don't like that.
It took a long time until I actually saw them and Roland Wolf took me because they were actually thinking of having him place bass instead of Mark Chung when he left. I think it was probably something like 1993.
AH: So you didn't see us for the first six years you were there?
DdP: No. Sorry. [laughs]
JRM: At least you know she wasn't a groupie. [laughs]
What did you think of them when you saw them?
AH: It was crap! [laughs]
DdP: No, I was speechless. It was still with Mufti [aka Frank-Martin Strauß] and Mufti was incredible. I was staying all the way in the back, keeping an eye on the merch. Mufti was illuminated in a way that he had this huge shadow. And you kind of had this feeling he was Hercules or something.
AH: Physically he was a very strong presence.
DdP: I didn't think anything at all. I was trying to understand it, when I saw the concert.
It's a lot of information to take in all at once.
DdP: Yeah. And especially because I had all these impressions before and they were so strong. In Berlin at that time you either loved them or, I don't know...
DdP: I think everybody just loved them you just didn't know them.
AH: We were hated by quite a few people too.
DdP: They hated you because they were jealous or something. It was super extreme. In New York, I experienced Andy Warhol and his gang. I saw Mark Jacobs. I met a lot of people who were known and had fans but I have never experienced anything like that because the whole city was so obsessed by this band. It was really weird.
After I got to know them better, the music, I started understanding it because it really, truly was, in a way, Berlin. They were the voice of Berlin in many ways. But I only understood that a lot later.
For the presentation you're performing music, Alexander?
AH: Mhm. I play electronic soundscapes while she's reading. So I'm doing like a live, improvised electronic soundtrack. I'm using a laptop and other electronic devices because my laptop is so old that I can't just work out for the box so I had to bring other stuff. [laughs]
DdP: I have to say I consider myself extremely lucky that he's accompanying my reading because it's amazing what he does. I read different chapters of the book and he does music during the chapters and in between the chapters he basically composes music live to what the time I'm reading about was like. Every time it's different. So I read about the 80s, 90s and 2000s and he interprets them musically in between the chapters.
AH: I have some stuff categorized, some stuff on the side, but how I put it together is different every day. And I work with making live layers of loops so it's pretty spontaneous what happens every time. I guess we're pretty good at what we're doing by now because this is the eleventh show and I think we know the tricks of the trade of that particular performance.
DdP: I also do film loops about the things I'm reading about. That mainly I did myself with Super-8. A couple of the interviews and shots are from projects I did. Back in the 80s nobody filmed anything. You weren't allowed to film in clubs. It was absolutely forbidden. So hardly anybody has any footage.
I was lucky enough that this guy called me about two months before the tour and said, "Hey, I found a video tape." I hadn't spoken to him since '88. He contacts me via Facebook saying, "I've found this video of you. Are you interested in it? I filmed you in your apartment back then." So I actually got a little footage of the place I used to live in.
It's great because Alex is usually always busy and we had the possibility of doing this tour here for two months. For the first time in two years he actually had time off. Alexander: For two years we've been travelling the world because we've sort of been looking to broaden our horizons and actually to find a new place to live.
This is not like a regular tour like we usually do where you stay one or two days in each city. We try to stay a little longer everywhere to soak up the atmosphere of different places. Not really in order to find a place on this tour to decide where we're going to stay but in order to understand different constellations of different cities and how they work and how the atmosphere and the energy setting of different cities work in order to contemplate and build a vision of where we're going to settle down eventually.
Get an idea of what kind of thing would feel good about some of those places? Maybe, "This isn't necessarily the place I want to be but I like this element of this place."
AH: Yes, yes!
DdP: We're looking for inspiration, basically.
AH: Inspiration and also, I mean there's an emotional, energetic thing that you click with a city. It has to inspire you. If you are only awestruck by a place but it doesn't inspire you to do something on your own, that's not good either. Then the place has to have a certain structure that makes it possible for you to link to it in order to make a living, make money. That's very essential too. The two of us have our respective preferences in what is important in a place. Like I insist on being close to water of some sort. It's an on going research [project].
DdP: It's also got something to do with Berlin. Berlin was so amazing in the 80s and I think anybody that's experienced that is always going to think of that because it was paradise. It was an artists' paradise. Berlin has changed so much that many Berliners have the problem that they're always comparing the now with the back then. The back then was so great and now it's difficult.
So we're kind of trying to completely separate ourselves from that and become completely unbound and see what inspires me where. It could also be that we go back to Berlin after two years and go, "Ooh, wow, this is amazing. This is the city that inspires me." It could also be that we discover something completely different.
AH: Right now it's obviously a kind of paradox because we are reading from a book about Berlin and at the same time we're researching these other places.
DdP: It's a very strange trip, actually, because of that. You're reading about something you really loved on the trip that you're looking for something new.
JRM: Yeah, but that place is no longer. I mean, you can't swim in the same pond twice. You experienced the 80s, I experienced the 90s and it's completely different. And in '99 Berlin fell apart, as it did when the Wall fell in the late 80s, when it became the capital. Then you had the Euro and it imploded as far as I was concerned.
AH: The whole 90s was the process of making Berlin what it is now. Overcoming the dividing factors. I don't know who said that about what city but I used to feel that way about Berlin, that I don't like Berlin but it's the place that spoiled me for any other place. But I've learned so much about the world and social structures on this trip so it's very interesting. It might turn out that we go back...
DdP: Not at the moment.
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AH: Not at the moment. It might turn out that we continue to travel.
DdP: One thing we've noticed that it's difficult to survive everywhere these days. We've been surviving by travelling for the last ten years. Now we're really nomads because we've put everything into storage. Maybe that's how you have to be nowadays, maybe you have to travel all the time. The Minstrels did that in the Middle Ages. They'd travel the road. He used to sing from king to king.
AH: Absolutely. Nowadays the ultimate subversive life form is to be unbound. To be a moving target but the establishment wants you in one place so they can tax you, control your consumer behavior and stuff like that. As soon as you move around...It starts with the bloody regions on DVDs and you can't play European DVDs in American players and vice versa and all these things. So as long as you move around, you have the chance of staying in a state of freedom or liberty that is a lot higher than when you settle down in any place because then they know where you are. [laughs]
Danielle de Picciotto & Alexander Hacke with Jill Razor Mustoffa and Jeff Ross, August 31, 2011, Hinterland Art Space 3254 Walnut St. Denver, CO 80205, 6-11 p.m., 720-309-1764, $6 suggested donation, copies of de Picciotto's book, $25 each