Natalye Childress profiles the city’s best venues for catching local bands…
Among its many claims, Berlin likes to tout itself as the electronic music capital of the world. Be that as it may, there is more to the city in sonic terms than meets the eye — or rather, the ear.
While DJs and producers from all over the globe have certainly helped make the city a premier destination for techno, there is also a less-established but thriving live music scene.
The German capital is of course a necessary stop on most bands’ European tours; but what many people overlook is the burgeoning scene that caters for local bands, many of whom play venues that exist almost exclusively for them.
This local music scene consists of a set of small and contained but oft-overlapping circles. There is the Sinnbus crew, with fierce pop-duo Me and My Drummer, electro trio Bodi Bill, and instrumental math rock darlings Ter Haar.
Go-between electronic quartet ampl:tude is also signed to the label, and its members are involved in other projects, that make up another scene, with avant-garde artists such as Petula, Kid Ikarus, and pOnk, parading solo by day and moonlighting in bands like the onomatopoeically named *U*N*S or post-rock trio mOck by night.
Moving in quieter orbits are a powerful force of riot-grrrl inspired bands like old-timer The Dropout Patrol, or newcomers Crime, as well as acoustic singer-songwriter types like Ned Collette, The Great Park, and Our Blanket Skies, who can all regularly be found playing a circuit of smoky Neukölln back-room bars, such as Valentin Stüberl, Laika, or Ä.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Working together symbiotically, these musicians and venues make up a scene that is as eclectic as the city which gave birth to it.
Eschewing cover prices that reach into the double digits and beyond, Berlin’s tried and true local music venues are known for their cheap covers, generally in the range of €5-7, and — like the techno clubs – for their relaxed, easygoing vibe.
Aesthetic wonders they are not, but in lieu of pretension, they offer a creative, community-oriented refuge for Berlin’s artists.
Many Berliners know ://about blank for its off-the-hook About Party dance nights and parties that last well into the morning, and sometimes until the following afternoon.
But operating more frequently in the winter than summer, is About Band, which brings in live musicians a handful of times each month.
These bands, which come from Berlin just as often as elsewhere, play in an awkwardly-shaped and primitively-organized room. The space is nothing particularly spectacular, and neither is the stage, but the energy in the room is often undeniable.
Like so many of the best, under-the-radar spots in Berlin, finding ://about blank requires a keen eye. It looks like a condemned building from the outside, and feels like one from the inside too.
A front entrance like a loading dock hides a dank and musty room, but with the help of red and blue lights on the dance floor and stage, it’s easy to fast forget where you are.
About Blank, Markgrafendamm 24C, 10245 Berlin; S: Ostkreuz
Touting itself as an Audiovisual Laboratory, Antje Øklesund is indeed a place where the different branches of creativity converge, featuring wonders of the sound and sight worlds, grouped together like a gangly conglomerate of art school dropouts.
The informal, anything goes atmosphere allows individuals to experiment with varying notions and manifestations of art, with a dubious avant-garde gallery set up on white plaster brick that feels more like a college dormitory wall than a legitimate art repository.
From the outside, the building appears to be a vacant heap of bricks. But inside, a sloping ramp, a jumble of rubble and an elevated doorway all lead the way to where the action is.
Low lights, the obligatory disco ball, and no shortage of cigarette smoke intermingle, creating an intimate atmosphere of musicians who call Berlin home. Everything experienced here is far from conventional, but certainly not devoid of passion.
Antje Øklesund, Rigaer Straße 71-73, 10247 Berlin; U: Samariterstraße
The experimental music space ausland feels a bit out of place in contemporary Prenzlauer Berg, with its spic and span streets and community of polite couples, families and a handful of ageing hipsters,
Located in the cellar of a housing co-op, this non-profit, artist-run collective (all door charges go to whoever is playing) harks back to pre-gentrification (and even pre-Wende) Pberg, a lonely nod to the days when this part of town was brimming with punks, poets and DDR dissidents.
Signed by a tall sign plonked in front of the house, the venue tends towards the weird, the abstract, and the electronic/noisy. It prides itself on providing a space for the more atypical acts in the city, some of whom might not quite fit in at any other place.
The aim is often not so much to entertain, as to challenge, though this is far from a pretentious art/sound space. The vibe is defiantly lo-fi / D.I.Y., though the fact it’s been going for so long (since the mid-90s) means it gets some surprisingly big names amongst the newcomers and obscurities.
ausland, Lychener Straße 60, 10437 Berlin; 030 44 77 00 8; U: Eberswalder Straße
Bei Roy is one of Neukölln’s better-known, not-quite-legitimate venues.
While the district in which it resides is currently the centre of a cultural gentrification of sorts, Bei Roy still manages to stand out among the seemingly endless supply of new cafés, galleries, bars, and music spaces popping up, having established itself as somewhat of a driving force in the more obscure circles of the local scene.
The reincarnation of former squat Raum18, Bei Roy inherited the D.I.Y. persona, with makeshift everything, from the backroom bar area to the front-of-the-house stage, over which hangs strings of light spelling out the Bei Roy name.
From its vantage point a handful of stories up, large windows look out over the water, while manufactured white-brick walls and drab concrete floors make no attempt to hide the venue’s warehouse origins.
Situated behind buildings, through a courtyard, up flights of stairs, and down a long hallway, the actual space Bei Roy occupies is a small one, austere in its design. Yet the venue itself is a compelling force, personifying the versatility of Berlin music through its underlying activist homegrown philosophy.
Bei Roy, Ziegrastraße 11-13, 12057 Berlin; S: Sonnenallee
Though shows here are few and far between, when one does occur, music fans can rest assured that the lineup is top-notch. The majority of the bands that play Kastanienkeller are either from Berlin or somehow connected to – perhaps even once-removed from – the scene.
Sharing its space with leftist establishment Café Morgenrot, the only way to access Kastanienkeller is through the collective. Housed in a non-descript downstairs space, there’s no mistaking that the bands, and not the backdrop, are what make the space and create the ambiance – if you can call it that.
But aesthetics are no matter when it comes to the café and venue. Together, the two create an environment that supports liberal politics and cultural events under a self-governing structure.
When there aren’t shows occurring, nights feature vegan folks kitchens and movie screenings. On weekends, live music takes over, and naturally it follows that a typical lineup at Kastanienkeller includes bands from punk rock, hardcore, and indie rock persuasions who possess ideological leanings in common with the venue itself.
Kastanienkeller, Kastanienallee 85, 10435 Berlin; 030 44 34 02 13; U: Eberswalder Straße
In what is yet another case of the logical and literal use of the German language, Knochenbox is located next to a cemetery and housed underneath what once was the accompanying chapel—though you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from a mere glance at the unassuming red brick exterior.
Since 2006, the ground building has existed as Theaterkapelle, a cultural project turned performing arts center. Meanwhile, the underlying crypt somewhat ironically gave birth to a bar, and Knochenbox is now dedicated to promoting the local scene.
The guts of the building consist of unadorned and eerily cold brick, and attending a show here is not that far removed from going into your creepy basement storage area and finding a band – as opposed to your old photo albums or kitchen supplies – underneath.
Not an everyday venue, Knochenbox opens its doors on Wednesday nights, featuring lineups of old favourites and new up-and-comers from all over Berlin.
Knochenbox, Boxhagener Straße 99, 10245 Berlin; U: Samariterstraße
Former-brothel-turned-bar Madame Claude is not only the unofficial center for the singer-songwriter scene in Berlin, but also a self-appointed “bar for common people”.
The use of the word common, however, certainly doesn’t apply to the upside-down décor; all the tables, chairs, pictures, and household furnishings are situated on the ceiling, creating a nonsense reality à la Lewis Carroll.
Every evening at 9 p.m. the bar opens its doors to various musical acts ranging from anti-folk bands, solo artists and more. Many blossoming performers make their stage debuts on Sunday nights at Madame Claude, when the Open Mic L.J. Fox event invites any and every one to share his or her art.
The main rule here is that anything goes, provided it doesn’t include live percussion or exceed the low decibel limit.
Madame Claude, Lübbener Straße 19, 10997 Berlin; 030 84 11 08 61; U: Schlesisches Tor
The former Queen of France may not have been the peoples’ queen by any stretch of the imagination, but Berlin nightclub Marie-Antoinette most certainly is a choice location for the masses to congregate – that is, the masses who are in-the-know.
Because just as Marie-Antoinette lies directly below train tracks, the musical nightlife hotspot is also positioned, quite intentionally, under the radar.
By day, it’s an unimpressive sight. The walls are white and sparsely bedecked, giving the room a clean but relatively flat appearance. It’s when darkness falls that Marie-Antoinette shows her true colours; with lights illuminating the arched open ceiling and windows that peer over the Spree, the venue transforms into an intimate and sparkling wonderland.
Marie-Antoinette, Holzmarktstraße 15-18, 10179 Berlin; U & S: Jannowitzbrücke
Push past the heavy curtains concealing the entrance to Kreuzberg’s Multilayerladen and you might feel as though you’ve walked into someone’s living room. And you wouldn’t be far off.
Hidden in the courtyard on the ground floor of a tall, Plattenbau-esque complex just off Kotti, Multilayerladen is sandwiched in a retail mall of sorts.
A nondescript cornflower blue building on the outside, inside lies an amalgamation of quirky design: delicately patterned walls adorned with a rotating selection of framed art pieces; chandeliers; an assortment of wooden crates around rickety tables.
All the while, an overheard beamer focuses on the wall behind the bar, projecting images from video games and classic cartoons while a band – typically acoustic, or at the very least, toned down – plays against the front wall.
Space is limited, so arrive on time, even if the show starts late. Every seat in the house is always taken, with people sitting cross-legged on the floor, spilling over into one another’s laps. It’s mellow, it’s free, and it’s one of the most community-oriented show experiences you can expect to find in Berlin.
Multilayerladen, Adalbertstraße 4, 10999 Berlin; 030 25 05 59 15; U: Kottbusser Tor
Berlin has a knack for giving rise to venues that are not entirely easy to uncover, and Naherholung Sternchen is once such.
Hidden behind the Mitte city hall and Kino International, concert-goers have to walk around the block past a run-down City-Apotheke and a deserted Plus – the former discount retailer – to encounter the demure exterior.
There, inside the nondescript building, lie remnants of whatever various spaces existed before, with pretty much nothing to tie them together. The many rooms have little redeeming interior design quality, but the hit and miss nature of the space is what makes it so interesting.
During the Cold War, the building existed as a political dwelling in which individuals in the former GDR could meet. After the Fall, it was home to local bar, but has recently been transformed into a continually-shifting art space which hosts everything from free movie nights to live shows with afterparty DJ sets.
The main goal of those behind Naherholung Sternchen is to offer a place for musicians considered among the ranks of the avant-garde and fringe scenes to play their music, in a space equally as eclectic.
Naherholung Sternchen, Berolinastraße 7, 10178 Berlin; U: Schillingstraße
This former chocolate factory, which closed down in 1971, was converted into multi-use artist space in 1990.
Sparse lighting illuminates the dark panels, red wallpaper, and rickety floorboards of the ground level. In the main room, a stage is nestled into the corner, while bleacher-style benches, which give the continual illusion of collapsing under the weight of concertgoers, line the wall opposite.
Head through the connected bar area to find a backroom boasting a football lounge, or pass through the men’s restroom, turn right down a wooden plank, and find yourself outside in a haphazard courtyard.
Although Schokoladen has experienced its fair share of adversity, with repeated attempts to shut it down, it is a resilient and integral part of the scene.
Today, Schokoladen is a registered association (eingetragener Verein) committed to providing a place where, in addition to live shows, locals can use the provided artist studios, practice rooms, and recording studio. The venue opens up its doors nightly with themed evenings, ranging from readings to concerts to dance parties, always with a low door-price and inexpensive drinks.
Schokoladen, Ackerstraße 169, 10115 Berlin; 030 28 26 52 7; U: Rosenthaler Platz
Nestled next to neighboring better-known venues, Festsaal Kreuzberg and Monarch, West Germany can only be found if you know what to look for – and if what you are looking for is an environment more akin to a squat.
As the name suggests, the venue lies close (less than a kilometer, in fact) to the border of the former divided Germany, nearly as far East as West Germany stretched. Today, this former doctor’s office exists namely as a haven for underground indie and noise bands.
The scene is the opposite of mainstream, the décor far from fancy, and the sound system anything but quality. The interior appears as though a bombshell has ricocheted across the grimy tile walls, with glazed acrylic window blocks demonstrating a well-intentioned but misguided attempt at class—all in all, a far cry from any kind of aesthetic wonder.
And should you wish for respite from the tropical climate indoors, a graffiti-strewn balcony provides fresh air and little else. Yet cut-rate cover fees and dirt-cheap drinks make West Germany one of the top choices for hearing local music.
West Germany, Skalitzer Straße 133, 10999 Berlin; U: Kottbusser Tor
White Trash Fast Food
Behind the a bold green exterior, emblazoned with a loud font announcing its presence, and gold dragons guarding the entrance façade, this chintzy simulacrum of a cheap Chinese food restaurant hides – well, more garishness.
But that’s the WTFF shtick. And if you make your way through the Disney-ish simulacra into the maze of multi-levels, dark wood, and smoky surroundings, you find yourself in one of its two venues.
There’s the ground-level restaurant, which – when it’s not run over by DJs and go-go dancers – showcases acts of a small size. Far below and in the back is the Diamond Lounge, where traditional bands playing rock music or some derivative of it, can usually be found.
Whether it’s a Future Days Festival or a local label showcase, White Trash is a venue that should be taken at more than face value by local music fans.
White Trash Fast Food, Schönhauser Allee 6-7, 10119 Berlin; 030 50 34 86 68; U: Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
Wild at Heart
While the kitschy atmosphere of Wild at Heart is undeniable and overwhelming, the venue is seriously legitimate. First opened in 1995, it’s longevity alone testifies to just how essential it is for music in and from Berlin.
Covering pretty much everything under the umbrella of “alternative” music, Wild at Heart books bands that play hardcore, punk rock, surf, ska, rockabilly, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Performers here come from all over the world, yet a vast majority of musicians on the concert bills are from Berlin.
The surrealist, almost Lynchian décor nods to the venue’s name, which itself refers to David Lynch’s fifth feature film. To that end, the room is a bizarre homage to pop culture, with a reddish-orange glow emanating through.
In addition to booking shows here, bands can rent out the building for an entire evening for a special concert or a particular event. Wild at Heart also offers professional live recording services.
Wild at Heart, Wiener Straße 20, 10999 Berlin; 030 61 07 47 01; U: Görlitzer Bahnhof