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When first I set out to spend a month in Berlin, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know anyone, I didn't speak the language, and I had the vague sense that my beloved live music was subordinate to "EDM," which isn't really my bag. Of course, I eventually grew to love the city for the unique and scrappy place that it is, what with its dirty parks, omnipresent graffiti, vegan junk food, excellent club drugs, poo shelf toilets, Turkish vagina pizza and laid-back attitude. I even came to appreciate techno (more on that later). But along the way, I saw as many rock bands as I could, most of whom came from North America, because Berlin doesn't have much of an indie-rock scene of its own. And because I'm a flag-waving xenophobe.
As my own homesickness helped me empathize with touring musicians who have to be away from home for months at a time, I asked them each to show me what essential item that they must bring around the world with them. I also asked if they spoke any German, to varying degrees of success.
I'd never heard of this Canadian-bred, London-based synth-pop duo before I saw them open for Bear in Heaven, but they turned out to be a great discovery, gloomy yet pretty, dark yet danceable, a fitting soundtrack to my idea of Berlin. I noted with some surprise that a good portion of the audience was dancing, and this held true for pretty much every show … in Berlin, everybody dances. (Maybe the bad dancers feel less self-conscious because Germans are so nerdy.)
When I caught up with them after the show, I asked David and Elise Commathe (they're siblings!) if they knew any German. "All the German we speak is from The Simpsons," said Dave. "Ina minutten. Die Bart, die!" confirmed Elise.
Awesome. Was there anything they always brought on tour? Dave said it was definitely his cowboy boots.
"They're beat to shit. They're real cowboy boots -- I bought them from a cowboy in a parking lot in Texas. It was the day after SXSW. We were wandering around and there was a cowboy accessory sale, there were hats and belt buckles and a whole bunch of boots. I tried some on, they fit magically, and they were only like $50, so I'm like okay, I'm buying these boots. So I go up to the guy and tell him I want to buy the boots, and he's like, 'you gotta talk to that guy over there.' And he points me to like, a guy over there, and he's dressed like a cowboy but he's literally rooting through a dumpster. He's like 'yeah, that'll be fifty bucks.' He puts it back in his pocket, and then goes back to rooting through the dumpster."
"Do you think he found them in the dumpster?"
"Maybe. I got these boots from the crusty cowboy!"
Only in Austin.
Bear in Heaven
Despite their attempts to rouse me with some geographically appropriate Krautrock/psych/synth music, I was less excited about Brooklyn's Bear in Heaven; blame it on my newfound love of Au Palais, jet lag or the affected way singer Jon Philpot pronounces his syllables. Nevertheless, I appreciated the noisy crescendos that ended songs like "Sinful Nature.”
When I tracked down Philpot, he was resting on a couch in the basement green room. I asked if he spoke any German. "How do you say 'The sky is blue?' he asked a nearby friend, who told us. "There, I said it." What item did he always bring on tour? Jon held up a green handkerchief.
"This is a very, very important piece of tour equipment," he said. "It can be an eye blouse [he demonstrated]. It can be a scarf [demonstrate]. It can also be a mask in case you wanna rob somebody [demonstrate]." "In the '80s, you can put it in your back pocket to let people know what you're into, sexually," added guitarist Adam Wills.
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The Eagles Of Death Metal
It doesn't get much more American than the Eagles of Death Metal. Their masculine brand of stoner-glam (or, as some might call it, cock rock) draws on stateside greats from the New York Dolls to Little Richard. Hence, it comes as something of a surprise that frontman Jesse Hughes is the only person I talked to who knew any real amount of German.
Their show took place at Lido, which is essentially a large, poorly ventilated concrete box with a bar at the back and a stage at the front, a setup generally reserved for smaller venues over here. (Europeans don't seem to believe in air conditioning.) The packed crowd seemed happy enough to sweat it out, as it's not every night a great rock band plays in Berlin. Hughes hammed it up, telling all us ladies in the house we looked "fucking amazing" (thank you) and having everyone sing "happy birthday" to one lucky audience member.
Hughes doesn't like to drink, but he does like to do drugs (as his onstage references to "jazz cigarettes" would attest). But more than anything, the mustachioed rocker likes to talk. He spat out several impressive German phrases for me (most of which were related to the discussion of hot girls), and then we got to talking about love and life.
It would take a whole separate column to cover everything we discussed, but my voluminous takeaway included:
Jesse Hughes thinks the Bauhaus movement was cool.
Jesse Hughes is an "anti-communist … I want my money and my guns and I don't want anyone to tell me what to do."
Jesse Hughes has a hot Mexican girlfriend who used to model for Hustler but gave it up for him. He also carries a photo of her vulva with him, which I can confirm is very pretty.
The speed in Berlin is very terrible, and I should come to L.A. if I want to try the real shit.
Jesse Hughes has been arrested under California's "suspicion of mayhem" act, and the cops have all of his tattoos on file. "That's what happens when you date a vice cop's daughter, and then break up with her."
Jesse Hughes has multiple fake badges, which he uses to mess with people because he looks like a cop.
Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme are just starting work on their new album.
Jesse Hughes supports Israel.
Jesse Hughes’ favored tour item is a magic wand. "My dad gave me a magic kit when I was seven, and it had a cool little magic wand in it, and I always bring it with me."
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For the hotly anticipated La Sera/Thee Oh Sees bill, I headed to restaurant/club White Trash Fast Food, which is decorated with an awesome embarrassment of kitschy, retro Americana. Kickball Katy's solo project was in fine form that night, starting off with a version of "Break My Heart" that was faster and louder than the one I'd heard when I saw them at SXSW, and finishing with a flawless cover of Nirvana's "Drain You," delivered in Katy's lovely soprano.
In the crowded backstage, I discovered Katy's tour talisman is none other than the Game of Thrones books. "I'm on the fourth one now. I'm only like 200 pages in and it's fine so far, but I hear it's the worst one."
"Dude," I replied. "Every night that I don't go out, all I do is watch Game of Thrones. I can't believe they [redacted] so soon." "Spoiler alert!" she shouted.
Katy went on to tell me she doesn't speak much German, but she's been to Berlin quite a bit before and likes it there. The thing that seemed to occupy her mind first and foremost, though, was her concept for a new tattoo: an orally bleeding Cap'n Crunch, because that stuff is murder on the roof of your mouth.
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Thee Oh Sees
What can I say about Thee Oh Sees that hasn't already been said in past columns? They're one of the top five acts that I've ever seen live, an unstoppable maelstrom of pure rock and roll passion. It would have been enough just to hear them play some excellent, psych-inflected songs off their latest album Putrifiers II, but they went the extra mile as always with sick solos, head banging, mic swallowing, etc. The kids, of course, ate it up, crowd surfing and hanging from the low ceiling.
But for all their insane talent, the members of Thee Oh Sees are pretty normal when not onstage, subject to the same concerns as everyone else. As previously established, John Dwyer can be shy around girls he likes, and as I found out that night, guitarist Petey Dammit! is concerned about losing friends.
"I always bring my iPhone," he told me. "I pretty much lost all my friends cause I'm always on tour…everyone just dropped me…so the friends that I have left, I always email and stuff."
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DJ Tin Man
Feeling I had to make some concessions to Berlin's DJ culture, I made a pilgrimage to the city's most hallowed techno club to see Johannes Auvinen, a.k.a. DJ Tin Man, play a thing called "acid house." My criteria for selection were simple: I read some nice things about him on the Internet, and he emailed me back.
It's hard to describe just how great this place is. A club within a club (the larger club being Berghain), Panorama Bar consists of a large dance floor with a wall of metal shutters on one side and a semicircle bar on the other. Even further on the other side are some study carrel-like cubbies you probably don't want to walk behind, unless you want to see people having sex. (Not that they always confine their activities to there; on a separate excursion I saw two leather daddies I nicknamed Klaus und Deiter enjoying some fisting action in the foyer.) There's a balcony overlooking the whole thing and a room to lie down and chill out in, and pretty much everything else you might need while clubbing for 24 hours straight.
When DJ Tin Man went on, a sensual kinetic tension swept the room, with some people clustering around the DJ booth and sort of dancing at him. When his dark, throbbing music built to a crescendo (or "drop", as they say), someone opened the blinds, flashing the whole place with sunlight, and everyone cheered. Hooray, it's horribly bright out and we're degenerates! I may have had a bit of chemical help, but I found the lights, the music, and the general "good vibe" arresting in a way I never have in America.
After his set, I brought Tin Man into a stairwell to talk a bit and found him to be a nice, smart, normal guy with an interesting pedigree: born in Sweden, raised in California, and currently residing in Vienna. "CAN YOU TEACH ME SOME GERMAN?!" I asked.
"Sure," he replied, then let fly a string of nonsense language that apparently meant "if you want something, you have to ask for it."
Changing topics, I asked what item he had to bring on tour with him. All business, he replied, "I always take my 303, a basic live synthesizer."
"I HEARD THAT! IT SOUNDED GREAT!"
We talked a little bit about electronic music, the Berlin scene and the differences between LA and Vienna, and I hoped my giant pupils, incessant gum chewing, and idiot grin would not make him think me a dumb tourist. (In retrospect, I may have been talking a wee bit louder than I needed to.)
The conversation turned, as many do when you're on drugs, to drugs. I asked him what he thought of Deadmau5 running his mouth off about Madonna's "molly" comments.
"He's a really good troll … but as far as his music, I think he's all right," he replied thoughtfully.
"I don't know…he was trying to take the hardline stance, like be responsible about what you say, but it didn't come off very well…you can't take yourself too seriously. The whole thing about dance culture is do as you wanna do, do as you like, feel free, it's fine, have fun. On the one hand you have responsibility, on the other hand you have freedom.
"DO YOU DO DRUGS?"
"I dabble … electronic music and drugs, they fit together well."
"THEY DO! THEY REALLY DO! I APPRECIATE IT ON A WHOLE OTHER LEVEL! I MEAN, IT WAS NEVER MY THING, BUT NOW I GET IT."
Dear Tin Man: it was nice to meet you, and I'm sorry I shouted in your face. You are a fine, upstanding and supremely reasonable man. I’LL MISS YOU MOST OF ALL.