“Organising festivals always brings challenges”, says Katja Lucker, managing director of Berlin’s Pop-Kutur Festival, “but this year’s edition has really tested our limits”. That might be an understatement. The past couple of years have been a tough time for everyone in the music industry, with so many of its normal activities having been made impossible for an unclear length of time, but festivals have been hit the hardest. Small gigs have been possible, depending on which country you’re in, and at what point in a virus wave that country finds it, but festivals, with their crowds, travelling and general chaos have always been at the back of the getting-to-normal queue. Even as I write this, in the generally better times of Berlin, September 2021, the news has just come in that Iceland Airwaves will be giving this year a miss, setting their sights instead on the hopefully easier times of 2022. So it’s been a season of struggle for festivals, and their absence has made the music landscape a more barren place.
This summer however, with things opening up again, there have been some signs of life. So what happens when a festival takes the plunge, and decides to get going, even in challenging conditions? Well, this year we tagged along with Pop-Kultur to find out. Pop-Kultur, a fun little festival that takes place in the heart of Berlin, prides itself on its adventurous line-up, finding musical gems in the places a lot of other festivals don’t think to look. For 2020 they were forced to go online, but this year they managed to get out there in the real world and make it a success, attracting over 6000 attendees over four days in the Kulturbraueri. On behalf of NBHAP I was there for it all, and I’ve spoken to the organisers and artists, and attended a lot of shows, to get to the bottom of putting on a festival in the FFP2 mask age.
Before things got going, we spoke to some of the people behind Pop-Kultur to talk about how they actually put this together, and the challenges they had to face along the way. At the start of the week, things were busy for the team. “To be honest, everyone in the team is overworked and stressed out”, says Lucker. “We can’t keep working under these kind of conditions that compound each other – home office, unknown factors, and constantly changing regulations, especially ones that concern travel to and from Berlin. I knew from the beginning that we would be implementing something, and of course I found it important to keep all the staff along the way. Once it became clear we would be doing some kind of live event and could get started, we had already lost a lot of valuable time that would have allowed for a more relaxed approach to organising. There are so many factors: arranging visas and travel, developing hygiene policies, managing venue capacities, staff being exhausted. And of course, too many Zoom conferences and not enough real-life meetings. For the bookers, the pandemic also posed questions, with constantly changing travel restrictions to consider. “
“From the start, we discussed how we could work in the given situation, where travel restrictions were changing every day”, said curator Christian Morin.
“What might look doable one day, would be totally impossible the next. So what we did was reduce the amount of international artist to one-fifth at a maximum, and we picked mostly artists from Germany and neighbouring countries, so that even if borders did close, we could still keep the majority of the festival’s programme intact. This, of course, has automatically led to a more local approach”.
But that local approach didn’t mean a poverty of talent. “If you look at the history of art, limitations have always triggered creativity”, he added. “If you have to work with less, you need to be more focused on what you do. I mean, we have always been a diverse festival, and we had strong local representation before Covid, so the pandemic did not bring out something new that wasn’t there before – it simply changed the quantity. The interesting phenomenon, though, was to gain a sense of just how international a line-up of mostly local acts can feel. That, of course, is thanks to all the expat artists living in Berlin”. In the end, a sense of the value of art was a strong motivator when sculpting the festival’s line-up. “We wanted to give very different artists a platform where they could express themselves again. It was not easy to plan, given the circumstances, but we wanted to show how important cultural gatherings and discourses are for society overall, as well as for the human individual. It is not just something ‘nice to have’. It is essential for our living as societies, and we need creative and critical input. Otherwise society dries up and falls apart”.
Elnaz Amiraslani has one of the most important jobs at Pop-Kultur in the current circumstances, as the Hygiene Protection Manager. There’s been a lot to learn in the last while. “I had to quickly familiarise myself with this very new field of work”, she says. “A few months ago, I thought we would just follow the government regulations and everything would be fine. But it soon became clear that our various infrastructures, as well as our ambition of having a place that is as safe as possible, required customised arrangements. It is an ongoing process that we have been shaping wonderfully with the entire team, a process with strict rules, but also a good sense of individuals’ perception of safety. Extra attention has been placed on the health and safety of our crew and artists, for which we developed a special concept”.
So what, in practise, are the changes you’ve had to make to make the venues safe in terms of hygiene, social distancing, etc.? How challenging is it to make those changes?
“The government guidelines are very helpful for orientation. The Berlin government does a great job of giving local guidelines and examples of policies to put into place. We were able to adapt these into our own concept. This is something, by the way, that is not so well regulated by the authorities in every other city.
The biggest change has been the massive reduction in visitor capacity, as well as the fact that most of the concerts require seating rather than standing. Of course, this takes away a lot of the usual dynamics of a festival, especially the dynamic interaction of everyone present. Distancing rules provide security, but they are meant to create physical distance, not social distance.
We hope that the guests will have a worthwhile social experience even under these circumstances. Masks, testing and other health regulations are already standard for everyone here.”
Artist Interview: Culk
The album [Zerstreuen über Euch] came out in October 2020, how was it to release the album in that time-zone, when touring wasn’t possible, with all this uncertainty?
Johannes Blindhofer: I think it was necessary for us to move on with the songs, and we really had the feeling that they needed to come out as soon as possible. So we didn’t really spend too much time thinking about the pandemic, actually, when we thought about releasing the album.
Sophie Löw: It would have felt wrong, if we had put it on hold. It was sad that we didn’t have the chance to tour right after releasing, but two days before the lockdown started, we had our release show in Vienna, and a small release party. So it was amazing that that worked out at least.
Johannes: I think it was a bit easier for us than other bands, because we had this small time slot in Austria in October, where some small things could happen. For me personally, I didn’t really think about the future at that point. But as time went on, after the release, I realised it was a weird feeling that the songs were out, and weren’t getting played live.
Listening to the album, and comparing it to the first record, the sound is a lot heavier on this record, and a lot more muscular. Was something you were looking for with the sound of this album, that you wanted to move in that direction?
Johannes: Yes, but I think we wanted the heaviness to come from something else, than on the first record. We wanted to channel the heaviness into the vocals and the drums, so that they would be more direct. But we also wanted to make it cleaner in a way. But making it more muscular was something we wanted to have in there too, as balance a little bit. We really tried to get our message through more directly.
Sophie: That was our goal with the second album, to make sure the lyrics and their meanings would be given centre stage.
The extra weight of the music on the album, and the depth of meaning in the lyrics and in the vocals complement each other, and there are so many moments on the album where the sound and the vocals hit at the same time with a really powerful punch, words being backed up by this musical storm effect. Was that something you wanted when putting the album together, to have the sound and the lyrics complement each other in that way?
Johannes: I think that’s something we naturally attempt. It’s not something we really have talked about a lot, but it’s something we have in us to a certain extent. This dynamic between music and vocals is a central part of music in general, but how we do it is something we don’t really talk about.
With the lyrics on the album, it seems the themes that run through it centre on power, how it spreads through and forms into structures, and how it dictates who is allowed to say, do and decide what. And that comes through on songs like Dichterin, Jähre Später, Helle Kammer. Were those the themes you were exploring here?
Sophie: Yes, definitely. The topics I was singing about on the first album are the same as on this one. But on this one it’s more specific I guess. With the first album it was about starting to figure out these structures and abuses of power, but with the second it’s about what I have figured out. I also think the second album is more personal. And I wanted to make the connection between talking about the structures of society and talking about these topics from a personal perspective.
You guys have played quite a lot of shows live recently, since it became possible to do that. How has it felt, being able to play live again after so long, but with all these restrictions in place, like masks and seated audiences and things?
Johannes: I’ve thought about this a lot in the last few days, after our last few shows. Because I felt there was something missing, to be honest. It felt different. For the first few shows, the feeling of coming back overshadowed things a little bit, and I didn’t think so much about how the energy flowed.
Sophie: Yeah, we were just happy to be able to play.
Johannes: But now after a couple of shows, you really feel the difference. It’s not the same unfortunately.
I guess, especially for a band like yours, where there’s so much energy in the music, you’re not like a classical quartet, you depend on getting some kind of feedback and emotional return for the audience, and you can’t really get that when everyone is seated and wearing masks?
Sophie: I think it’s very exhausting when you don’t get the energy back from the audience. I think that’s been the main problem.
Johannes: But funnily enough, some people who were in the audience said that they enjoyed seeing our show seated, because it let them concentrate on every little detail. And I know that as a concert guest myself, sometimes it’s nicer to sit and really be able to concentrate, rather than worrying about someone spilling beer on you.
For the audience, I don’t think it’s a problem to have shows like this, at least for a while, but for the artist it’s really energy-draining.
Especially when you look out at the audience and just see masks, and no real expression or emotion. And some people come to you after the show and say ‘oh, it was a really great show’ and you think ‘how come all that energy didn’t reach the stage?’. So it’s really weird.
Sophie: I think it’s something we just have to get used to.
Johannes: I don’t really know if it’s just the seating and masks thing. I think there’s something else. We played in Vienna at an outdoor live show, so people could float around and get a bit closer, but still there was something different than before. I felt it during our concert, and I felt it when watching other acts play. So I think people are just trying to find their way in this new situation, and if you’ve sensitive to this, I think you feel it.
So with all that work having gone into making it happen, how was the festival when it actually got started? Firstly, fate clearly didn’t think the Corona virus was enough of a challenge – so it also decided to bless them with some of Berlin’s famously temperamental weather, with guests learning to tolerate occasional showers, and some very long ones. But spirits from the audience were generally high – for a lot of people it was their first show in a very long time. The Kulturbraueri, with its large inner courtyard and warren of different venues housed in the buildings makes for a natural home for a festival, and the set-up was well-laid out. Guests could catch shows at a range of different locales – from the expansive Kesselhaus stage, to the soft, hushed Saal 3 in the adjoining cinema, to the simple outdoor Caystube. In the courtyard, in a nice touch undermined slightly by the abject weather, was a sea of deckchairs and sand set before a big screen. Guests could loan headphones, for a more relaxed way of watching the show currently taking place in the Kesselhaus. For people whose tastes extended beyond music, there were panel talks covering almost every aspect of the music business, along with art shows in the Dance Centre. A whole playground then, for visitors looking for some culture.
One of the highlights of Wednesday was one of the earlier shows, Andreya Casablanca at the Palais. Half of Gurr, she had only put out one solo single so far, so this was a little bit of a showcase of what else she has up her sleeve. There are some bands that have that quality where every song could easily be a great single, an effortless way with hooks and charisma. On the evidence of this set, Casablanca has that – her bouncing electro-pop songs, given a little spike by her guitar, work their way into your head and never leave. “You can’t dance, so I can dance for you” she promises the masked and seated audience, and songs like Serious Business and Brand New Number are so relentlessly melodic and loaded with energy and charm that they would make any audience, that hadn’t promised to sit still, move. Later on in the evening, the social-distancing advantage of outdoor shows met its nemesis in sheets of rain as Erika de Casier takes to the Pavillion stage. De Casier admits to not being in the greatest mood, and fluffs the start of one song, but she wins the crowd to her side anyway, and the power of her slippery RnB easily makes the show memorable.
Thursday is a little brighter weather-wise, and PAAR’s show at the Palais blasts the memories of the wet wind away. The Munich trio manage to mix post-punk iciness and power with a little rhythm and groove, and songs like Eis, as you might imagine from the name, just exude cool. CEL, with their carefully constructed, challenging sonic sculptures, are a band that reward paying attention, while Ava Vegas’s pretty, classical pop, built around her voice, which captures memories like an old photograph, and warms up an entire room – the spacious, silent Kino (Saal 3) provides it with the perfect home. Elizabete Balčus’ spiked crown gave her audience a hint of the avant garde experience they were in for, and her shapeshifting, experimental music (art pop would be under-selling it) delivers on that promise, along with some impressive flute-playing. By taking a trip up a winding staircase to Maschinenhaus we can check in on Discovery Zone’s performance piece Cybernetica, a mind-melting pop concert set in AI journey of self-discovery. And over at the cosy Franzz Garten, DENA’s irrepressible pop and R’N’B is impossible not to enjoy.
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Friday begins with Dino Brandão. We’ve only heard his poppy, but ghostly single Bouncy Castle before, but he has a musical coat of many colours, taking in everything from snaky growling rock to bouncy indie pop. In the leafy surrounds of the Franz Garten, he puts on a real show, with a wonderfully expressive voice capable of bending into all sorts of strange shapes. Later on in the Kesselhaus, Stella Sommer’s sweeping, beautiful music makes the crowd hold their breath, especially during song Shadows Come In All Colours, which is adorned with a little flute that whispers like the wind against a meadow’s grass. Benzii is another with the task of fighting off the drizzle at the Pavillion stage, and she does it with electro pop anthems of heartbreak and anger with a broken glass emotional edge. And with a little help from her friends, who perform their own songs after she’s done to fill out a short set.
On Saturday there’s another early show in the Franzz Garten with John Moods. His new album So Sweet, So Nice, is packed with glossy, sweet pop songs, and he’s blessed with an easy charisma and stage presence that even extends to talking a little walkabout during the song So Sweet So Nice – and nearly failing to make it back to his mic in time for the final chorus. After game of venue-swap musical chairs moves his show to the Kesselhaus, Steve Mekoudja has a bigger stage to play on. With music as charming and vibrant as his however, that’s not a problem, and he even recruits the crowd to help with a sing along (which is tricky when they’re all wearing masks). Later on in the evening, Tara Nome Doyle fills the RambaZamba theatre with her performance piece Hall of Mirrors, which splits her songs vocally, from origami-delicate falsetto compositions to surging, chest-sung pieces that send electricity sparking through the reflecting columns standing around the stage.
Artist Interview: John Moods
Your new album, So Sweet, So Nice, is a combo of two EPs, the first of which came out in April and the second of which is out now. So how do you see this record? As two distinct EPs, that you just brought together for the vinyl release, or as more closely related?
A lot of people ask me. I guess it’s just because it’s an unusual approach, and a different way of releasing things. That’s also why we did it, just to try that kind of approach. But there is something about paradoxes. I’ve been listening to the Tao. Of all the things I’ve ever listened to or read, it seems to be the deepest and most spiritual. It’s about how something arises from nothing, and how the universe and everything is a game of paradoxes. It’s hard to encapsulate it, but I recommend listening, especially to the Stephen Mitchell translation, because it’s very enjoyable to listen to, especially before sleeping. I was listening to the Tao a lot at the time, and that inspired me a little to split it into two, a yin and a yang. But it’s meant to be an album, so it’s not like one side is the dark side and one side is the light. But two sides of the same thing.
The vinyl package also comes with a poetry book, Sounds Of A Clown. You said in the process of making this album, you felt that you lost your words somewhere along the way. Was this a challenging record to make in that sense?
Yes, there are a few songs on the album where even in the lyrics I’m talking about having nothing to say, or trying to say something that I’m so close to, but can’t quite grasp. It comes out through the subconscious, with the lyrics, you just choose these lines and it feels right to say, but you don’t know why. This record is quite old, I wrote these songs about three years ago. And last year, during the pandemic, I started to write poems and lyrics and they were flowing out of me. I would sometimes wake up in the morning and write a poem, and it would be like it came directly out of a place I suddenly had access to. Now it feels like I have confidence with the world of worlds, and it’s really amazing, I would have never dreamed in my whole life that I would be able to do this. I really love to twist language around, because once you remove the rational, logical, way of thinking, and delve into cryptic, enigmatic language, suddenly everything just opens, because this is where the real shit happens, and why poetry is so deep.
You made the last album in quite a lo-fi way, when you were hiking around Spain and recorded the demos onto your phone. Did you want to take a different approach with this one?
Yes, I wanted to try something new. I was listening to a lot of really slick 70s productions, and was thinking about how nice it would be to have a real band playing the songs, with really nice drums and production. At the time when I started making it, I only knew the DIY way, so I started trying make it myself, but there was something about the feel that wasn’t right, when I was just programming the music. Then I got in touch with my friends, who have now started a band called The Zenmenn, Ben Anderson and Magnus Bang-Olsen, they were very involved in this record, along with the producer Joni Reiter. I really had to beg people to help me, as I had no money at the time, no funding, so I could barely pay them, but they were so kind, and believed in the songs.
Something that you capture really nicely on the album, and I think that the song All You Got To Do Is Wait is a really nice example of this, is the way the songs have these wandering momentum and rhythm, they go where they want to go. Was that freedom in the songwriting something you wanted to go for on the record?
With some songs yes. With others, I was trying to compose pop songs without getting too experimental, because I have a tendency to deconstruct things. With the pop songs, I just wanted to make things flow really nicely, make the verse flow into the chorus, with what I felt was the best musical progression. But All You Got To Do Is Wait, it’s a bit of a standout song, it’s got a different feel to it, it’s more murky and mystical even. It’s inspired by Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and the eternal river that symbolises all of reality, and how it’s all part of the flow. This book is so beautiful. I had some weird reservations about reading it, and then my friend just bought it for me and told me I had to read it, and I loved it. It’s like with the Tao, the search for the way.
And I guess So Sweet, So Nice is the example of a pop song on the album?
Yeah, exactly. And that one is about mortality. Embracing the mystery of life, and just accepting death as a part of everything. If you look into it, the deeper you go, you may get to a point where you can see that there are these very fundamental things about existence that you can never rationally conquer, and this lack of control is so nice – you may start laughing like a madman, and after that, you can go ahead and enjoy your day. You may look at the flowers, remember that you’re on a ball spinning through infinite space, and think ‘well Jesus, I don’t know, this might all be pretty cool’.
You’ve played a couple of shows already this summer, and you have some more coming up soon, so how has it been getting back to playing after so long, and coming back with all these conditions attached.
It’s been beautiful. The conditions are not so great, but they are different in every country. I played a sold-out show in Warsaw with 250 people indoors the other day. It’s weird [with seated audiences and masks], but on the other hand, I have been enjoying almost every show, no matter how weird, because I have been deprived [of playing] for so long. So just to be able to play, no matter how awkward it feels, is a privilege right now.
So in the end, how was it, being back at a festival after the end of the world? There are maybe two obvious points that need to be gotten out of the way first. First of all, just being back at shows again was an obvious buzz – it’s been a long, long drought, with only intermittent breaks. And then the negative one – obviously, shows with masks and obligatory seating are really only methadone for the real thing. Music isn’t like the theatre or the cinema, something you watch in silent, stationary appreciation. At the best shows, there’s a whole lot of energy that’s supposed to flow around the room, with a decent chunk of it coming from the audience themselves – that’s not really possible in the current conditions. Hopefully that changes relatively soon, but until then there’s nothing much that can be done, and in the circumstances it felt like Pop-Kultur was a success – some great shows, a lot of very talented artists, and a lot of fun.
After the festival, we caught up with Lucker again to get her view on how things had gone down. “[Overall], we’re very happy”, she says. “It was a major success! The best part was seeing the reactions from the artists, who were thrilled to be able to share their work in a live setting, and from the audiences, who could experience it, physically, together with other people. I’m hoping that the vaccination rate will continue to rise, as I think it will. Proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid is likely to become the new norm, and I think our festival on 24th-26th August of next year will be much more like the pre-pandemic editions”. Needless to say, we’re all crossing our fingers for that to happen.
All photos courtesy of Pop-Kultur.