First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

this is an article I did for the now defunct magazine State. It still exists online but you will never hold it in your hands again. Shame. The picture is of Nina and her daughter who was as quiet as a lamb the whole way through the interview.

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First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

It’s when you walk into the first bar you see and are met with a sensible looking kraut instead of a moustachioed gimp pointing you in the direction of a feely room that you turn around and wonder why all the fuss about Berlin? How come I haven’t seen anyone defecating from a swing top, why’s the bus driver not offered me drugs yet and where was Peaches when my plane landed at Schönefeld?  You see, 95% of the time Berlin functions like any other city. There are traffic-jams and taxi-strikes and Polish plumbers just like Dublin. Some people even say Berlin is just a fat version of our fair capital, and you know that’d nearly be true, if it weren’t for the liberalism, efficiency, cheapness and generally conducive atmosphere for creativity that permeates every last avant-garde inch of Berlin City.

U2 discovered it in 1990. They got caught up in the industrial dance sounds being created there and wrote an album that nearly killed them. Since then more Irish musicians have been making it their home. It’s easy to see why. You can make a living recycling glass bottles there. A sit-down meal with starter and a drink costs you less than a fiver. And chronic alcoholics, which, when compared to the Germans, includes most on this tipsy island, get their rent paid for them.

“There’s something in the water,” says Nina Hynes of Nina Hynes and the Husbands. She’d know. She got pregnant on her first night in town. “It’s like being in a hot bath,” says Roy Carroll of electronic improv band Double Adaptor, and “It’s ridiculous, it’s so good,” says DJ Mano Le Tough, breaking the cycle of aqua analogies. They’ve all been living in Berlin for over a year now, and none of them plan a return anytime soon. In spite of the fact that the average Berlin gig nets a band about €20, these artists would rather stay here, and duke it out amongst the other million starving creatives, than go back home to Ireland.

“It’s that trip from the airport into Dublin City that’s the biggest pain in the ass,” says Keith O’ Brien, the other half of Double Adaptor, reminiscing on the joys of spending time on the N1. When it came to getting away, they were pushed more than pulled. You know when bands complain about playing a gig where no one turned up, and what that really means is twenty people, not including their girlfriend, her friend and their six cousins came through the door? Well, Double Adaptor organised a gig at the Boom Boom Room and apart from the bartender no one else set foot inside the place all night. “In Berlin,” he says, “You’ll get people to come out and see you play on a new project, but then you need to take it out of Berlin.” So Double Adaptor play abroad. In three years Keith reckons he’s made about €500 from gigs in Berlin, and half of that he banked in one night playing a show organised by the Irish embassy.

DJs do better. Mano makes minimal techno. Before Berlin he was living in a house outside of Dundrum that was basically a squat with a rent book. Hang Tough as it was called, ran parties that turned into sessions, that went on for days and caused drug droughts throughout the city. Mano came to Berlin a year ago to get out of Dublin. He’s now opening for Santogold, running his own nights and has Laurent Garnier playing his songs.
“You’re really looked after if you’re a DJ here,” he says crossing his legs. He’s wearing a pair of hot bowling shoes. Yesterday they were in an alley and cost €5 an hour. “Promoters take you out for dinner. You get a fridge full of drinks beside the decks and the pay’s much better compared to Ireland where a lot of the time you play and don’t even know how much you’re getting paid.”
The most famous club in the world is in Berlin. Panorama Bar opens on a Friday evening and closes sometime Sunday night. Richie Hawtin, Ricardo Villalobos and Sven Väth are regulars. Their line-up for a weekend is like a wet dream for promoters in any other city. Kids wake up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, have breakfast, get dressed, take pills, speed or GHB and go dancing till teatime. It’s wild. DJs play five-hour sets as a matter of course. In Irish clubs a DJ is lucky if he gets half that time. They can’t build anything or take the crowd anywhere slowly. It has to be banging immediately, there’s no time for foreplay in an Irish nightclub. Mano’s plan for next year is to play Panorama Bar, and to learn some German. When one in four Berlin residents are non-Germans and the rest speak English better than RTE presenters, learning the language is about as much a priority as buying a baby elephant.

Nina Hynes doesn’t do clubs. As liberal as Berlin is, no three-month-old baby will get past the doorman at Panorama, and Caia, her daughter never leaves her side. She still tours, but with a babysitter. Unlike Double Adaptor who once had a policy of only leaving a bar when the barman did, or Mano who I interview just before a four-day bender that includes a trip to Melt Festival where he’ll empty Franz Ferdinand’s rider, Nina is an image of clean living and sobriety. “My perception of Berlin has been altered as it’s famous as a party city and I’ve never really gone out,” she says. Nina came to Berlin to meet more people and be a small fish in a big pond. Unlike Double Adaptor, she actually had some success back in Ireland. She was nominated for a Meteor and toured the States with David Gray. Still she came to Berlin. “There’s no money here,” she says, “so it’s more creatively orientated. People don’t do things for money here.”
If you spend an afternoon flitting around the packed terraces of Kreuzberg or Prenzlauerberg or Friedrichshain, you’ll see it’s true. No one works proper jobs in Berlin. Who could when the local cinema doesn’t put on movies until 12:30 on a school night? Living here is a little like dropping out.
“It’s a total cop out,” says Kevin, “that’s the idea. But I’m busier musically then I’ve ever been in my life.”
Nina’s busy too. She’s recording an album of baby songs. She has the titles worked out: ‘Lets go sleepies now’, ‘mange, mange, mange’ and ‘lave, lave, lave’.

“Ireland is a great place to create, it’s just hard to live there,” she says hopping onto a tram in old East Berlin. The tram is covered in graffiti and creaks along like an old man climbing a staircase, but it’s bang on time. It could be an analogy for Berlin. The city looks like it’s crumbling but for some reason it works. Some times they’re sticklers and other times they flaunt laws like Neapolitans. Like it’s illegal to jaywalk and it’s illegal to smoke in bars. You can watch a Berliner hovering all afternoon staring at the redman on an empty street, and then find yourself in a nice bar where you can’t see the exit for cigarette smoke. It’s a town planned by teenagers, but with some health and safety advice from their parents. Mad Max with harnesses and crash pads.
“People in Berlin are actively living the life they dream about,” continues Nina, “They’re confident people because they’re living their dreams rather than dreaming about them.”

Berlin is an artist’s playground and a hipster’s fantasy. But that element of cool that might turn people off say Brooklyn or Hackney, is non-existent in Berlin. Everyone’s in a band, and everyone’s a designer, and maybe they do mime or interpretative dance at the weekends too, so why act pretentious? Ambition is different here. The only competition is to see who can do it cheaper, more efficiently and better. When oil runs out and food supplies dry up and we’re all forced to live off tarmac and rust, the Berliners will be the ones doing it in most style. And if you don’t believe me, just go check out Berlin house swaps on Craig’s List and count the amount of Williamsburg kids trying to catch a piece of the Berlin action.

You can check it out online with all the pics here:State.ie

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One thought on “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

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