Paul Sullivan chats to musicians To Rococo Rot about punk, electronica and growing up in East Berlin…
‘This was where the main bohemian scene used to be,” states Ronald Lippok, gesturing out of a large café window in the general direction of Kastanienallee. “When we were younger, playing in punk-rock bands, all the rehearsal spaces were around Schönhause Allee and here in Zionskirchplatz. This was the centre of the art scene in the 80s. Places like the Wiener café and the Metzer Eck (on Metzerstraße) were where you’d find punks and poets hanging out together…”
Myself, Ronald and his brother Robert are perched on stools in a café on Mitte’s Zionskirchplatz. It’s around two in the afternoon on a weekday, and the vibe is mellow, a few people reading newspapers or chatting across the venue’s wooden tables. Robert sips a coffee (black, no sugar), his brother pulls slowly on a beer. As well as similar facial features, they both sport the same lank hair and relaxed, unpretentious air of archetypal echte (real) Berliners.
I’ve met them before, the Lippoks, along with fellow band member Stefan Schneider (based in Düsseldorf) for an interview in their Kreuzberg studio, back in 1999. The trio had formed To Rococo Rot (a cunningly palindromic name, in case you hadn’t noticed) in 1995 and already achieved acclaim for their 1997 album Veiculo. They were about to release a new record, The Amateur View, which would transpire to be a landmark release for them, underlining the uniqueness of their lolloping, melodic Krautrock-meets-Post-Rock-meets-Brian-Eno sound.
Ten years later and they’re on the eve of putting out another album, Speculation. Partly recorded at Faust’s studio in southern Germany, the album is rawer than its predecessors yet equally hypnotic. It’s the first major recording since 2006’s acclaimed Hotel Morgen, though the delay doesn’t phase them in the slightest. ‘We’ve been busy with other projects,’ shrugs Robert, whose recent collaborations have included Ludovico Einaudi and Barbara Morgenstern; Ronald, meanwhile, is part of Tarwater. “Things have their own pace. We didn’t want to put out something for the sake of it. We prefer to wait until there’s a reason to do so, until we have something to say…”.
A typically unhurried Berlin attitude, fully in keeping with the peaceful Platz outside. Dominated by an eponymous and striking 130 year old church, this square is where the brothers were raised. In fact Ronald still lives in the family house they grew up in, just a few doors along from our cafe. “Our grandparents told us lots of fun stories about how this area was back in the day,” he recalls. “There was a memorable story about a one-legged prostitute that lived in our block. She didn’t work for money but for things like coffee and stockings. She had a heart of gold, it was said. She took care of our father from time to time when he was ill. Slightly weirder were these two sisters that used to walk around with an axe. I don’t think they ever hurt anybody but they sounded pretty spooky…”
“Back then, just after the war, this here used to be a holding area for prisoners of war,” chimes in Ronald, pointing out of the window again towards the back of the Zionskirche. “There was a big fence around the church and the locals living here would go and swap cigarettes or food through it for bits of woodwork or whatever the prisoners had to offer. Then the Russians took over. Our grandfather had to step in and pull some strings to stop the house being raided at that point. Luckily he spoke some Russian and managed to get some protection.”
Before the wall came down, and before they made their name as acousto-electronica artists, Robert and Ronald were in punk bands. It’s no secret that being a musician in the former East wasn’t easy. It involved playing in front of a committee who would judge your band name, sound and lyrics and decide if you could have a license for public performances.
“The Stasi would come and knock on all the surrounding flats to ask about our illegal jamming sessions,” laughs Robert. “The old ladies who lived there would then come and tell us that they’d been. Our band name was Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime), a phrase borrowed from the architect Adolf Loos, which was fairly controversial in itself. Our rehearsals were often broken up. We would have to show our passports and sometimes people were thrown into jail. I was once banned from visiting the Alexanderplatz area, but in the end they couldn’t keep up with all the activity and kind of gave up…”.
So were the brothers happy when the wall came down? “Yes, we were happy,” says Ronald. “It’s not that our life was bad, but after a while we started to realise how much our possibilities were narrowed by not being able to travel and not being able to meet people from abroad and have interaction with other artists. We had West German TV and could listen to John Peel on the radio, but it was still like being in a box…”.
“When the wall came down everything changed for us as musicians,” rejoins Robert. “It right away became about getting a deal and becoming more international. We’d started working a bit with the noise scene in West Berlin before the wall and some of the bands would come and do shows, but it was always complicated to get permission and jump through all the hoops. Within three days of the wall coming down we’d moved into a rehearsal room in Kreuzberg. We didn’t really look back.”
The subsequent years have been well documented as some of Berlin’s best, or at least most decadent. Abandoned buildings were squatted and taken over for parties and DJs, musicians and artists flooded in from all over the globe to be a part of the history and partake in the optimistic, liberal atmosphere. Events like the Love Parade gained massive momentum. It was the beginning of the modern, international Berlin most of us know and love today.
“I don’t like to be sentimental but the early 90s were so good,” enthuses Robert. “The police from the East just had no idea what to do about all these underground clubs and random caipirinha bars that were springing up everywhere, so they just didn’t do anything. It was total anarchy for almost two years. It was great to experience it, to have that feeling that people could organise themselves easily and really well without any help, and that not everything would fall apart. You can still see a bit of that spirit in Berlin today, with clubs like Picknick and Kim opening right in the centre of town. Sometimes you sit back and think, ‘wow, how many other cities would allow that?'”
But Berlin has changed of course. “It’s a bit like the H.G. Wells movie The Time Machine,” says Ronald, “where he’s looking in the shop window and watching the women’s fashions changing rapidly from the 1920s onwards. From my perspective, as a resident, it’s been pretty quick. One minute Torstraße had nothing, the next it was lined with shops and galleries. And not all of the change is positive. In this area we had a lot of older people, now it’s more youthful and in a way more monocultural. A lot of people had to move out…”.
Yet the brothers confess to being deeply connected to their Kiez. Ronald never moved at all and Robert lives just a short stroll away. “We’re pretty lazy,” admits Robert, and Ronald smirks in agreement. “Even though we were born here we still need a map and compass if we go further than Mitte…”
To Rococo Rot disbanded in 2014. You can listen to their music on Spotify here.