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Band Erdmöbel geben Konzert über den Dächern Köln, © KölnTourismus Axel Schulten

Travelogue Sound of Cologne


To the hub of the world and back

Cologne is probably not the coolest of cities. The money is shifted in Frankfurt, fashion is designed in Düsseldorf, the zeitgeist is decided in Berlin, and snootiness lived out in Hamburg. Cologne has its cathedral. Otherwise, foreign visitors might well be shocked by the city’s plainness. Last year, the editors of Vice Berlin wrote that Cologne is like the embodiment of Lothar Matthäus in a city: “Entirely convinced of itself even though it doesn’t have much reason to be from an objective point of view.” Nonetheless, the city on the Rhine attracts creatives: it offers fine arts and galleries, a rich theatre landscape, urban arts and film, and a lively avant-garde music and jazz scene. All too often, the attention garnered by the Beatles and subculture of Hamburg, Kraftwerk and the Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf, or the techno scene in hyped Berlin, has detracted from Cologne-bred pop music, which is both innovative and internationally admired. The cathedral city is undoubtedly the underdog of German music hubs. And in the very beginning, there was a band called Can. 

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Can Illustration, © Saskia Wragge
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Studio für Elektronische Musik Lawo PTR WDR Cologne, © McNitefly [CC BY-SA 3.0  (httpscreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

From Stockhausen to Can


The birth of German rock music

It’s Carnival Sunday as we walk into south Cologne to interview Irmin Schmidt. The same old carnival evergreens boom out from the pubs in Severinstrasse –songs by bands like Brings, the Höhner or Kasalla, which Cologne folk love but are virtually unknown in the rest of Germany. There is something odd about dodging drunken Carnival enthusiasts on the way to meet the keyboardist of the internationally acclaimed band Can to talk to him about Karlheinz Stockhausen, avant-garde jazz and experimental rock music. We are lucky to find Schmidt in Cologne at all. He has lived in Provence for a long time, where he works as a composer for film, opera and ballet. And he is actually in town to celebrate carnival with his granddaughter, as he tells us at the beginning of our interview.

Born in Berlin in 1937, Schmidt was already a fully-fledged musician by the time he came to Cologne in the mid-1960s. While still at school, he worked as a conductor before completing his studies as a piano teacher in Dortmund with distinction. He founded the Dortmund Ensemble for New Music, worked as a conductor throughout Germany and then studied in Essen and Salzburg. The Cologne courses for New Music by Karlheinz Stockhausen drew him to Cologne. “At that time, Cologne was a really exciting city,” he says. “It was the heart of the German gallery scene and free jazz. And also Stockhausen and the New Music scene, with the WDR (West German Broadcasting Cologne) and symphony concerts performing New Music. That was my world back then, and that’s why I came to Cologne.”

Parallel to his studies, Schmidt organised happenings and exhibitions, and remained an active conductor. For this reason, the German Music Council gave him a scholarship in 1966 to take part in the prestigious Mitropoulos Competition for Conductors in New York. There, he met and played with composers of electronic and minimalist music. The acquaintances he made, especially with Steve Reich and Terry Riley, changed his vision of music-making: “When I came back to Cologne, the separation of classical and popular music here seemed completely weird. Conducting Dvorak and Brahms is wonderful and I would still enjoy it today, but I wanted to do something – also as a composer – connected to the present. And I was interested in jazz, too, which I understood as being a part of New Music. Then came the first Zappa albums, Mothers of Invention, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart. Suddenly I realised that a kind of contemporary music was developing, which was just as important as the music evolved from the European tradition.”

In response to this insight, Schmidt, together with the free jazz musician Jaki Liebezeit, his classmate Holger Czukay and beat guitarist Michael Karoli founded a band that was a crossover between electronic and underground music. In extensive jam sessions at Schloss Nörvenich and from 1971 onwards in their own recording studio in Weilerswist, the musicians developed an impressively independent style of music that gave room to repetitive improvisations and boundary-breaking free-jazz passages, as well as influences from classical, contemporary, non-European and folk music.

Extensive tours throughout Europe, numerous soundtracks and an enthusiastic reception followed, especially in London and Paris. But the band was also a success in Germany, reaching the charts with the single “Spoon”. When, in February 1972, almost ten thousand spectators came to the Cologne Sports Hall to hear Can live and free of charge, it was clear that the musicians had broken down the barrier between classical and popular music for once and for all. To this day, many pop historians regard this concert as the hour of birth for independent German rock music. This was only able to take place, explains Irmin Schmidt, because of German history. “We were born in a country where a complete destruction of culture had taken place, comparable only to the Thirty Years’ War,” says Schmidt. “Of course that’s a formative experience. There was no German jazz music to fall back on. At most there was pre-war music. Everything else had been destroyed. So, we tried to create something of our own. But it was not based on imitations of English or American stuff. We felt the need to invent something from our own experience. And only something like Can could emerge from it. This was a kind of music that could only be created in Germany, a music where you could discover, if you looked for it, its origins in a totally broken tradition.”

Several times during our interview, Irmin Schmidt stresses that Can should only be seen very conditionally as a Cologne band. “It developed because I wanted to develop it and not because of Cologne. I almost ended up in Berlin because many of my friends were studying art at the HfbK (now the University of the Arts Berlin). And I swear, Can would have then started up in Berlin!”

Can - Free concert


Sporthalle Cologne 1972 / © SpoonRecords 1999

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Severinstorburg Chlodwigplatz Cologne, © Tourismus NRW e.V.

The navel of the world

We reflect on the influence of the city on Can’s music as we reach Chlodwigplatz on the way to the tram. For more than ten years, a new underground train line has been under construction here. As a result of this building work, the steeple of St. John Baptist’s church nearly toppled over, and the city’s archive centre collapsed in 2009. The area around Chlodwigplatz is the heart of Cologne, much more than the touristy old town. Here is Severinstorburg. Here winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Heinrich Böll was born. “I was born here and grew up within an eight-hundred-metre radius. Here I know every plane tree by name, every sparrow, every stone in the wall of the old city. My navel of the world is still Chlodwigplatz,” sings German rockmusic icon Wolfgang Niedecken.

We meet Niedecken, frontman of German rock group BAP at the band’s headquarters, which are hidden in a backyard in the centre of Cologne. Niedecken is very busy. He is playing concerts and planning others; he has promotion work to do for his band and solo album. The night before, the band played in Bonn. “I enjoy it immensely,” he says. “The worst part of the evening is when I realize, ‘shit, just one more number.’ I could play for eight hours.” After the stroke he survived in 2011, his energy is all the more impressive.

Niedecken’s BAP is probably associated with the sound of Cologne more than any other band. They have sold over six million records and recorded a considerable number of hits since they got together. But they had to travel a long way until they reached that stage. In the mid-1970s, the band’s style was as far removed from the zeitgeist as it could be. While the punk revolution was breaking out, Niedecken was writing songs in Cologne dialect that were more geared toward Bob Dylan or The Kinks than the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. But BAP’s fundamental attitude was not that far apart: “At the end of the seventies, we were a purely amateur band who could play two or three chords if we really put our minds to it. And we weren’t even on the musical map of the people in the city. But it was very good not to be stuck in some scene, because all those musicians somehow had a career plan. We didn’t have any kind of career plan,” says Niedecken. “We didn’t consider ourselves a punk band, but actually we were a lot more punk than some of those who strictly followed the punk code.” In various band formations and as a solo artist, Wolfgang Niedecken became a local legend, appearing at the Chlodwig-Eck bar among other venues, which attracted such huge crowds that their concerts had to be interrupted all the time to let the local buses get through. Because they supported the occupiers of the former Stollwerck chocolate factory and various civil society initiatives, BAP became a mouthpiece of the alternative left scene, more accidentally than intentionally.

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Wolfgang Niedecken Illustration, © Saskia Wragge

And in 1981, just as the German New Wave was beginning to roll out, BAP became the country’s best-known band. Their highly radio-incompatible, deeply sad six-minute single “Verdamp lang her” was a surprise hit, and the accompanying album Für usszeschnigge was only knocked from its No. 1 place in the charts by the band’s next hit, Vun drinne noh drusse. Far beyond Cologne, listeners now got to hear stories about the area around Chlodwigplatz (“Südstadt verzäll nix”) and the people in the Chlodwig-Eck (“Jupp”). Eleven number-one albums later, Niedecken’s source of inspiration is still the city centre of Cologne, a position from where he observes the world. On his 2011 album Halv su wild, he even had God himself wander between Chlodwigplatz and Severinstor. “Yes, for me it all started at Chlodwigplatz,” he says at the end of our conversation. “I know exactly what’s in each direction and this is how I’ve got my bearings since I was a kid. I knew southwards of Bonner Strasse, at some point the mountains start and beyond the mountains there’s an ocean and then comes Africa. And I knew that the trains on the South Bridge travelled eastwards and when they’d travelled really far, they reached Russia. I grew up there. I got my bearings there. It’s my navel of the world.”

Bap- Verdamp lang her


Rockpalast Grugahalle © pinki123able

What Niedecken does not say is that southwards down Bonner Strasse, there is a green belt that comes before the mountains, separating the old-fashioned inner city from the picturesque, affluent suburbs. And beyond it lies the sleepy village of Rodenkirchen. Students from south Cologne have been attending the red-brick secondary school here for 50 years. Posters announce school theatre performances. Soon there will be Abitur (‘A’-level) parties and the leavers’ ball. In a resolution on the school’s homepage, the class reps promise that during these festivities, they will “in no way disturb the peace at school, damage or endanger the reputation of our or other schools. Moreover, we respect the school’s house rules and under no circumstances will be on school premises between 10pm and 6am.”

Few places seem less likely for a subcultural revolt than the school’s tidy assembly hall, built in the early 1970s as a studio stage and concert hall with tiered seating. And yet, here at the fever pitch of the Deutscher Herbst or ‘German Autumn’ in October 1977 with terror attacks by the RAF, the first history-defining punk concert in Germany took place. Performing on stage at a deafening pitch were Male (who went on to become The Krupps, among others) and Charley’s Girls (later Mittagspause and Fehlfarben). The concert quickly turned into a battleground between punks and the other students, who preferred classic rock music. And so, German punk established its founding myth as a wild opposition to stuffy, academic rock and prog rock. Even if Cologne never succeeded in becoming a real punk stronghold and Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Berlin became the centres of the scene, the innovative, subcultural explosion of punk is forever connected to this suburban housing district in south Cologne. As so often, journalist and musicmanager Alfred Hilsberg, the ‘great definer’ of pop terminology, coined a phrase that summed it all up. Half a year later, in an article for the magazine Sounds, he euphorically described the burgeoning punk revolution and announced the movement’s maxim: “Rodenkirchen is burning”. Meanwhile, the official school chronicle of 1977 noted: “During the Easter holidays the first student exchange will take place with Saint Quentin, France.”

A few days later we meet songwriter Wolf Maahn in the beer garden of the Kölner Stadtgarten concert hall, which has since risen to become a centre of European jazz. We want to talk to him about the early eighties, when Cologne began to transform into the pop centre of Germany. Maahn, born in 1955 in Berlin and raised in Munich, began his career in 1976 with Food Band, which he founded together with today’s TV keyboardist Helmut Zerlett and later BAP drummer Jan Dix. An English label offered the band the chance to record in London in the late seventies, which was a decisive event for Maahn and led to their wish to produce their own music. Despite performances at London’s Marquee Club, Food Band did not succeed in breaking through, especially when their label went bankrupt. Maahn dissolved the band in part because he was impressed by the beginnings of new German-language music. “I was inspired by the German New Wave,” he says. “All sorts of music styles suddenly became more common in Germany. I got the feeling that what I had learned from Food Band, and what I had in mind as some kind of R ‘n’ B, could work very well in German. I thought it might be something of a pioneering act. What appealed to me especially was proving it was possible.” Maahn released Deserteure, his acclaimed first solo album, in 1982. In the following years he became a central figure of the Cologne music scene with songs like “Fever”, “Roses im Asphalt” and “Ich wart auf Dich”, and as a producer of Klaus Lage, Purple Schulz, Anne Haigis and Niedecken’s solo album Schlagzeiten.

All these Cologne musicians met in the eighties in a city that was well-suited to being Germany’s centre of pop music: EMI, one of the largest record companies worldwide, WDR, the Deutschlandfunk radio station, and from the late eighties on, the TV channels RTL and VIVA, all turned Cologne into Germany’s leading media city. The good-quality reception of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which transmitted from a villa in the Marienburg district up until 1990, was also significant. Moderators such as Dave Lee Travis, Chris Howland and, above all, John Peel introduced new, innovative music on ultra-shortwave radio from the mid-1960s on, providing inspiration to local musicians. What’s more, well-known venues such as the Basement, the Roxy and Luxor existed, as well the large-scale Sporthalle. “There’s not another city that beats Cologne people’s love of going out. Cologne is a leader in that way,” explains Wolf Maahn. “Back then, you could easily fill seats for a variety of events and it’s still that way to this day.” The city’s studios added to its already leading position. By the seventies, Dieter Dierks in Puhlheim and Conny Plank in Wolperath had recorded the most significant German bands here such as Ihre Kinder, Ash Ra Temple, Tangerine Dream, Birth Control, Guru Guru, Amon Düül, Harmonia, La Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk. These studios increasingly attracted international artists to Cologne in the eighties. Stars like Ike & Tina Turner, Eric Burdon and bands like Boomtown Rats, Ultravox, Eurythmics, Les Rita Mitsouko and Killing Joke all recorded with Dierks and Plank.

But in step with the increasing internationality of city’s music scene at the end of the eighties, the pressure for musicians to conform grew significantly too. BAP is a good example of this. Attempts by the guitarist Major Heuser to gear the band towards internationally accessible pop music led to a conflict with Niedecken, a musician located in regional storytelling. The results were the weakest albums in the band’s history. Wolf Maahn too became sick of being marketed as “the German Springsteen”, refused to live up to expectations with his album Third Language and ended his production work. Since then, his albums have been far removed from any music scene and are the result of him working in his own studio as a self-sufficient musician.

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Chlodwigplatz Cologne, © Tourismus NRW e.V.

All in all, it seems that the community spirit of the Cologne music scene crumbled towards the end of the eighties. The premature death in 1987 of one of its pioneering figures, Conny Plank, was partly responsible, as well as the lost battle for the cultural centre in the Stollwerck factory, which was demolished in the late eighties. But above all, the spirit of the times opposed Cologne-based artists: their politically committed, regionally flavoured German rock, which was injected with new vigour by Germany’s Reunification, was replaced by the public’s taste for stadium pop anthems about united Germany at the end of the decade, such as Westernhagen’s “Freedom”. From the late eighties on, Cologne’s music turned to carnevalistic Schlager and lost touch with the zeitgeist. And so, one of the most significant days in Cologne also became the symbol of the end of its community spirit. When, in November 1992, 100,000 people protested on Chlodwigplatz against xenophobic violence, the music on stage was sung exclusively in Cologne dialect. BAP and Bläck Fööss, Brings and the Höhner, Willy Millowitsch and Zeltinger all performed – musicians who didn’t sing in dialect, were not among the line-up. “‘This event was long overdue and very successful,” says Maahn in hindsight, “but even if the concept was a great hit, I don’t think it was a good idea. Because ever since, Cologne musicians have stayed in their own world. They decide a lot of things now on their own.” Only in the last few years have these boundaries collapsed. Younger bands like the brass and samba combo Querbeat have started demolishing the walls built by the old Cologne big names.

AG Arsch Huh - Arsch huh, Zäng ussenander 09.11.1992 (Chlodwigplatz Cologne)


© Stephan B

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Cologne Belgisches Viertel - LeBloc Kiosk, © Georg-Hopp alias Fänger der Zeit

It takes less than ten minutes by tram from Chlodwigplatz to the Belgian Quarter that extends around Brüsseler Platz in Cologne’s new town. Instead of Cologne breweries, carnival dive bars and traditional local character, hip bars, galleries, small designer shops and organic food restaurants typify the streetscape. The Belgian Quarter is currently the trendiest district in the city. Here, the “sound of Cologne” was created in the early 1990s by labels like A-Musik and Kompakt, with computer-generated music without any big names, choruses or hits. This sound transformed the city into a world-renowned Mecca for electronic music.

We talk to Jan St. Werner to learn more about the origins of this Cologne sound. Werner is one of Germany’s most internationally recognised and innovative electronic musicians, which stems from the work of his bands Mouse on Mars and Microstoria; from collaborations with artists such as Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier or Tortoise; from diverse solo works, multidisciplinary installations and multimedia projects; and from his work as a label manager. Alongside Wolfgang Voigt and Jürgen Paape of Kompakt, he is one of the pioneers of the sound of Cologne, even though Mouse on Mars’s eclectic mix of genres such as house, techno, minimal, ambient with krautrock elements and soundscapes has always been geared to the international scene and integrates influences from the Cologne-born composer Stockhausen as much as the Düsseldorf schools of Kraftwerk and NEU!

Mouse on Mars, which Werner founded together with Düsseldorf-based Andi Toma in 1993, was created in a special cultural environment in the early 1990s: “It was a time of a certain naive euphoria in society,” he explains. “Everything started to mix: styles and categories such as high and low culture, advanced and cheap technology. Hip-hop had established itself, techno started to burst open many doors and it brought different things together. The 1990s were a total breakdown of dogmas, borders and distribution channels.” Technical innovations such as affordable samplers led to the democratization of music-making, allowing Toma and Werner to try out new sounds in their own studios in Düsseldorf and Cologne without restraint. In clubs and record stores, a vibrant scene of electronic artists formed, made up of obscure musicians.

Werner tells us how A-Musik went from being a mail-order outfit to a record store and influential label: “At some point I shared a basement flat with Georg Odijk and Marcus Schmickler on Brüsseler Platz. Then we persuaded Georg to sort all the mail-order stuff in such a way on the shelves that we could open the door once or twice a week. Everything was sorted so that not only Georg but also others could find things, and twice a week we opened our door – and suddenly we had a record store.” Werner laughs and then continues: “At the same time, there was the record store called Delirium. It’s a chain, like a kind of mini-techno franchise for Germany. And at some point, the guys there said: ‘We’re going to do our own thing. We’re going to call it Kompakt and turn it into our own store.’ That happened almost at the same time. And from the moment that A-Musik was set up, all sorts of music had a home: Entenpfuhl, Gefriem, Erfolg, Monika Westphal and Hans-Jürgen Schunk, Schlammpeitziger, C-Schulz, Harald Sack Ziegler, my stuff. Before, they had all been free radicals, and then they came together. And it was similar with Kompakt and Groove Attack.”

This cooperation came about due to the proximity of clubs and bars in the Belgian Quarter. Every label had its local hang-out and music was played everywhere. “In the Six Pack, you could meet the people from Kompakt. The Hallmackenreuther was the home base of Whirlpool Productions with Eric D Clark, Hans Nieswandt and Justus Köhncke. Added to this was the improvised music scene, the music college and venues like the Loft, the Musikfabrik and the Feuerwache. And everybody somehow had something to do with someone else. It was like a relaxed explosion.”

Mouse On Mars Live (Palladium, Cologne 13.05.1999)


© Basi ley

This explosion quickly reached beyond the country’s borders. Mouse on Mars caused an international furore in 1994 with their first EP single “Frosch”, while their second album Iaora Tahiti was celebrated by Melody Maker as one of the albums of the year in 1995. The absurd “From Disco to Disco” by Whirlpool Productions became a European hit in 1997. Following Triumph, the first release by Kompakt, Jörg Burger, Jürgen Paape and Wolfgang Voigt, Cologne was turned into a bastion of minimal techno.

While avant-garde, non-conformist electronic music was being developed in the Belgian Quarter, two streets further on, along the Kölner Ring road, a European hotspot for mainstream techno and dance music emerged from the beginning of the 1990s on. We realise this when we talk to Piet Blank and Jaspa Jones, who first appeared under the project name Gorgeous, and who launched their careers in Cologne from 1999 as the DJ duo Blank & Jones. “This ‘do-it-yourself’ punk attitude was passed onto a new generation at the time,” says Piet Blank about the spirit of innovation, which was also triggered for him by being able to buy an affordable sampler. “This made me feel like I didn’t need a band anymore. All of a sudden, you could sit alone in your bedroom, fiddle around with a track, take it to a club and test out whether it caught on or not.”

The Rave Club, the Space Club and the Warehouse became places where music was tested and exchanged, attracting international dance artists to play gigs in Cologne. “Music television VIVA was founded here in 1993, which caused a huge hype throughout the 1990s. All the creatives who made these shows gathered in Cologne,” says Blank. There was also Popkomm, which evolved from a local music fair into an international industry event after moving from Düsseldorf to Cologne. “During those five or six years, you could say without exaggeration that Cologne was the music capital of Germany,” says Blank. It was at the Popkomm that Blank and Jones got to know each other. The two DJS have gone on to sell over two million recordings, have collaborated with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Sarah Mc Lachlan and the Pet Shop Boys and – including remix and compilation albums – have released more than 100 records.

Blank & Jones - Desire


© blankandjonesvideos

When we ask Jan St. Werner why Mouse on Mars have moved to Berlin a couple of years ago, he explains that his move was mostly for personal reasons, but adds something striking: “In Cologne, it was always clear that you had a certain amount of time. When people started to move to Cologne to make electronic music, I realised that it was going to be like Seattle, that it was a hype and would eventually pass. And then at some point, these chic little designer furniture shops appeared.”

Popkomm 2003 was the swansong to the music industry metropolis of Cologne. In 2004, Popkomm moved to Berlin (where it soon folded completely), followed by the TV station VIVA in 2005, the music magazine SPEX in 2007 and EMI in 2013. Musicians and influential labels like Karaoke Kalk also moved away.

“At that time, no-one was aware that something dramatic was happening, quite typical of Cologne” says Ralph Christoph, co-founder of music festival and convention c/o Pop, its long-standing programme director and one of the city’s proven music experts. “We started c/o pop partly because a lot of exciting music wasn’t given enough coverage at the Popkomm and hadn’t been made visible in the years before it left for Berlin. That was why we wanted to set up a club festival based on the model of Sonar in Barcelona, with space for everything that was neglected at Popkomm.” The initial focus of c/o Pop, which took place for the first time in 2004, was electronic music. Its other goal was a better integration of the homegrown scene. Untypical venues were used for concert performances all around the Statdtgarten and Studio 672, representing a variety of Cologne labels, organisers and artists. “In the first year, c/o Pop ran for 17 days,” says Christoph with a smile. “It was insane. And almost finished us off.” Manfred Post and the city’s pop department saved Popkomm from the cashflow problems of its overly ambitious early days. Since then, c/o Pop has evolved into an important club festival and industry meeting worldwide, which is indispensable for the internationality of the Cologne music scene and discussions on current issues regarding pop culture. Each year, exciting, young Cologne bands like Vimes, Woman or Xul Zolar are showcased at the festival. In total, more than 160 acts can be experienced on more than 30 stages throughout the city. An accompanying conference provides the opportunity for a much-needed professional exchange.

Our foray into the music of Cologne is nearing the end. As a conclusion, we have set up meetings with a number of our favourite indie musicians to talk about the sound of the city, their music scenes and the lifestyle on the Rhine. First, we meet PeterLicht in an anachronistic café for little old ladies, where the waitresses wear aprons with bows over their behinds. His minimalist electro-pop single “Sonnendeck” was a minor hit in 2001. Since then, he has been producing his own quite unique version of postmodern political pop and has written and recorded six outstanding albums. He smiles in a friendly way, the very incarnation of unpretentiousness, and explains why he prefers to stay in Cologne: “True, many artits go to Berlin. And I think that this has a very, very good effect. It creates a huge space for creative freedom. For me though the idea of going to Berlin, the place everyone flocks to because that’s where ‘it’ is all happening, seems really stressful. In fact, it’s so stressful that I don’t think I could think clearly anymore in Berlin. Here in Cologne, it’s just the opposite. There’s air and space everywhere.” And PeterLicht, who wants to renounce any affiliation to a particular scene, needs his space.

“When I hear that bands go to another city especially to get the sound of that city or become part of some scene, it really amazes me. For me, the word ‘scene’ is the epitome of stress and demarcation,” he says. “I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted to be part of a scene, and never have been. All the things I associate with the concept of ‘scene’ are things that I don’t want in my life. Because if I am part of a scene, then I am part of a scene, but not myself. I am just perceived somewhere in that scene’s ranking order.” But hasn’t he recorded with the Cologne-based producer Jochen Naaf, who also produced Klee? And in turn, hasn’t Klee’s Suzie Kerstgens worked with the Cologne bands Wolke (whose keyboardist Benedikt Filleböck plays on PeterLicht’s album Das Ende der Beschwerde) and Erdmöbel (whose bassist Ekimas is the producer of “Sonnendeck”)? So, isn’t this mesh of collaborations a scene? “Of course, we support each other, we know each other, we value each other a lot,” says PeterLicht, as if this were the most normal thing in the highly competitive world of music. “But I don’t see artistic common ground with the other artists.”

PeterLicht - Sonnendeck


© cnrtft

Ekki Maas, alias Ekimas, confirms this notion when we meet him in the studio of his band Erdmöbel. “Yes, everybody does their own thing and that’s the way it should be.” he says. “The Cologne mentality is very laissez-faire, and that’s special. It’s much more hermetic and conformist in other cities. There are a lot of crazy people here,” he explains, explaining why this is precisely what drew Erdmöbel to Cologne. “We were originally a Münster band,” he says. “But we didn’t feel particularly loved there, and so we came to a city where we were loved automatically, right away.” He laughs loudly. “It’s not always great here either, but it’s somehow wonderful when no-one raises immediate objections to your work. People here in Cologne don’t do that. It makes you much freer, and you’re not always wondering the whole time whether what you’re doing is any good.” This sense of freedom can be heard on every one of the band’s eleven albums. They contain pop songs that pay attention to detail, in which brass pieces, melody-embracing bass lines and small-scale rhythms fuse with storytelling lyrics about the beauty and terror of everyday life. “What constitutes good music is when you hear something and you get goose bumps or cry,” says Ekimas. His attitude of understatement and his love of music, which gives room to emotions both big and small, is a feature of all our conversations with indie musicians in the city. It can be heard in their songs too — with Erdmöbel, for example, who unapologetically cover the easy-listening songwriter Burt Bacharach or sing “Das Leben ist schön” (“Life is good”). Pop is not a line of demarcation in Cologne, not a dirty word.

PeterLicht says: “There’s an attitude implicit in indie that you are not one of those spineless jerks who consume pop. That you’re one of the hard lads who walks the path of hard truths, who goes the full nine yards and is really living. It makes me laugh – I think it’s great. I want to be tough too, and I want to be relevant, but ultimately, of course, part of this idea is just our longing: not to be pop and yet be pop all the same.”

erdmöbel & judith holofernes: hoffnungsmaschine


© erdmoebeltv

Oliver Minck who, together with keyboardist Benedikt Filleböck, is the voice of the unrestrainedly soulful, minimal-pop band Wolke and who plumbs the depths of adulthood’s tribulations in his indie rock quintet Die Sonne, confirms Cologne’s preference for “relevant pop” in his conversation with us: “The sound of Cologne, if you want to describe it, combines pop’y-ness and radio compatibility. And a big openness to electronic instruments, as well as serious but not academic lyrics. I think it has something to do with the fact that the area of highly academic, highly complex music is completely covered by the New Music and jazz scenes in Cologne.”

Openness, freedom, understatement. Those are the key terms to understanding today’s pop music in Cologne. It is independent of trends in the best sense and it is pop without being truly popular: few if any hits come from Cologne these days. Bands and artists are not able (or willing) to join in the (over)stage management of pop. For the moment it seems very unclear where the future lies. On the one hand, the music scene is suffering from the pressure of gentrification. In recent years, many of the most important clubs, such as the Basement, the Underground or the Papierfabrik, have been closed down and others are struggling with rent increases, neighbourhood protests and changes in nightlife habits. Studio spaces are rare and competitive. On the other hand, the city is still a dynamic music city, with festivals like Week-End, countless club concerts every week or the ongoing establishment of many independent labels.

Die Sonne - Neu erfunden


© tapeterecords

A few hours later in a small café in north Cologne, Suzie Kerstgens is waiting under a disco ball to talk to us about her wonderfully wistful band Klee and the Cologne lifestyle. Klee, who were called Ralley until 1999 and renamed themselves after a serious car accident, are the co-founders of a new type of female pop (songs include “Erinner Dich”, “Tausendfach” and “Die Stadt”, plus several albums). Our planned 45-minute interview with Suzie Kerstgens turns into four hours, after which we believe we have truly understood Cologne’s lifestyle and the city’s love of music and its musicians. The openness of the city is also a decisive factor for her: “It might sound clichéd, but maybe it’s partly due to the Rhineland. And by that, I don’t mean the ‘cheerful Rhenish nature’, but the open-mindedness for new things, and curiosity in other people. People don’t take themselves too seriously, or themselves just as important as they take others. Perhaps people here in Cologne define themselves more through feelings and emotions than attitude. If you think of carnival and its music, it is emotionally charged and celebrates togetherness. You soak all that up and if you’ve decided to stay in Cologne, then you take part in it. If you can’t handle it, then you might find Cologne boring and provincial. Then you have to go away to Berlin.” Kerstgens laughs loudly and we realise that this is a perfect description of Cologne’s understanding of pop music. “Exactly!”, she replies. “Music not just for your hood. It’s really important when you make music in Cologne not to think that only a small, elite group and the people you allow are permitted to like it. That kind of attitude just doesn’t exist here.”

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Illustration Klee, © Saskia Wragge

In this way, the city has room for tricky electronic music as well as thumping carnival hits, rock in dialect and serious indie pop; in the 1970s, the bald punk Zeltinger, and in the 1980s the political anarchist Floh de Cologne; in the 1990s, the tender, introverted electropop of Donna Regina, and in the 2000s, reggae by Gentleman. For some time now, the post-Kompakt generation has been finding its feet, a group made up of young electronic musicians, who fuse an indie attitude with an electro background – from New Wave and the Italo sound of the duo Coma, to the bopping synth-pop of Roosevelt’s Marius Lauber. Around the German-Chilean techno-innovator Matias Aguayo and the uncompromisingly eclectic Lena Willikens, an artistically fascinating Cologne-Düsseldorf axis has developed. Willikens, a regular at c/o Pop and resident DJ in the Salon Des Amateurs, has a background in punk, appreciates Düsseldorf’s krautrock past and doesn’t shy away from mixing breakbeats, house, techno and obscure intermediate forms to make a wild contemporary sound.

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Fortuna Ehrenfeld Illustration, © Saskia Wragge

The last song of our playlist about Cologne sounds strange, touching, enchanting through the headphones, as we get off the train at Cologne Central Station. We have an appointment with producer and songwriter Martin Bechler. The electronically influenced Pop, which he plays under the name of Fortuna Ehrenfeld, is among the best music that has spawned the Cologne music scene in recent years. The songs of Bechler are hard to grab. They oscillate between subtle piano miniatures and excessive punk. Their compelling charm comes from the abundance of lyrics that one wants to tattoo in the heart. And from numerous moments of irritation during the performance, in which one can recognize Bechler's love of the theater. On stage, this is reflected in the fact that the songwriter appears wearing pajamas, a feather boa and bear paws on his feet. The concerts he plays with the two talented young Cologne musicians Paul Weißert and Jenny Thiele are an experience. It's fascinating to see how the audience's initially amazed giggles within a few songs become mouth-open listening and wet eyes. In 2017 he released his second album "Hey Sexy" on the Hamburg label Grand Hotel van Cleef. It is perhaps the quintessence of what can be the sound of Cologne in the present: Relevant, free-roaming pop without fear of pathos and emotion and with the knowledge of the rich Cologne pop history.

Fortuna Ehrenfeld - Das Letzte Kommando


© Clash Wien

Martin Bechler welcomes us in his studio close to the Cologne Cathedral. Here he works door to door with others in a studio community. We begin the conversation by asking where he would locate the beginnings of his passion for music. "Parents," says Bechler as shot dead. "My mother played piano very well, home music was still being made at that time and in my early childhood I was fed with two things: one was the Beatles and the other was Kurt Weill. The 'Threepenny Opera' got knocked on my ears until I knew it by heart. Luckily. "He grows up in a small town in the deepest mountainous country. 60 kilometres from Cologne. He starts learning piano at the age of five, until adolescence comes to his head. "For a while I really enjoyed going to piano lessons," he says. "That was a fascination for years to master such an incredible device. In the puberty years, however, there was also an incredible rejection of the conformist, conservative attitude of my piano teacher. And then, when the rock'n'roll brain was awakened, the yearning for chaos and loudness became enormous. "He begins to play the drums, deliberately without any guidance from a teacher. In the boiler room of his parents' house he hammers the pubertal frustration, the anger and energy into the drums and cymbals. AC/DC, the thirst for experimentation of Trio, the emotional turmoil of Beethoven's symphonies, the mixture of chaos and structure of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention become initial firings. "I was one of those tape-recording the radio at the time, always with my finger on the recording button," talks Bechler of a crucial moment. "At the beginning of the 80s, in the middle of the New Wave, on comes Jimi Hendrix! I could not even press 'record' because I was so superstoned. It became perfectly clear to me, that I heard someone doing something that nobody else did. It was a milestone. I knew then, I had to go out into the world and seek out those who are like-minded. "

Fortuna Ehrenfeld - Hundeherz


© Grand Hotel van Cleef

In the rural surroundings of the Bergisches Land he begins to enter the stage. "Hard on the verge of embarrassment, I gave my best to shake my long hair as a local hero in the local rock bands," Bechler describes this time with a wink. He comes to Cologne in the mid-90s. Here he works as a musician, lyricist, composer, producer, sound engineer for others like comedians Rainald Grebe and Hagen Rether, actress Anna Thalbach or pianist Hans Liberg, for the Kölner Philharmonic Orchestra as well as for TV stations. From these artists he learns what it means to develop an incorruptible independence. These years in background also sharpen his own musical approach. Away from a radio-oriented sounds of overpowering, his credo is: Less is more. "The main feature of a Fortuna Ehrenfeld production is: Delete! Let go! No one needs it! ", He explains. "I want to keep everything that you hear as simple as possible, so that you perceive the things that exist as intensively as possible. Whether the acoustic guitar sound can still get a cherry on top, passes my ass. It's about the song. All prominence belongs to the song, not any superfluous tonal details. "One can hear this approach in the minimalism of his single" Matrosen "or the enchanting love song" Gegen die Vernunft".

Fortuna Ehrenfeld - Matrosen


© FortunaEhrenfeldVEVO

By now it is more than 20 years that he has his home base in the cathedral city. He is currently building a new studio in Cologne Bickendorf. And yet he does not like to see his songs being associated too much with the city and its pop history. "Of course Cologne was inspiring for me, when I came here as a small town kid. There were clubs we did not have. There was a tram here that we did not have. That was a great fascination. But I really can not say that Cologne is important for my work. All I need is a dark basement studio, a power outlet and a train station. "

Bechler is a free spirit. Belonging to scenes, genres or the sound of a city does not interest him at all. When we ask him about the sound of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk, but also the strict rules of the Hamburg scenes, accordingly, he gives an answer fully to the twelve: "I realized very early, that I completely don’t care about categorizing music. Forgive me, it’s the journalists who need something like that. Someone who listens to music couldn’t care less whether it's indie-trash-speed-country or not ... My logic is that the real, incredible gift of music is its diversity. "He takes a breath and adds," So far, that did not really happen to me, but if anyone should try to get me into a scene or rules, then I will smile confidently in his the face and ask him not to steal my time. Whoever is involved in such camp formations, out of nerdiness or coolness reasons or making himself important, he for me is a hackneyed, miserable philistine. Please leave me alone with that ..! "

Despite this uncompromising autonomy and the contemporary sound of his music, , the songs of Fortuna Ehrenfeld are knee-deep in Cologne's pop history. If only because the two previously released albums were co-designed by René Tinner. The Swiss is a producer legend often overlooked by the public and has directed the legendary Can studio in Weilerswist from 1978 to 2007 following work with Can, Trio and Lou Reed. That is why we ask Martin Bechler about Cologne’s most prominent band. "Can is very special music that I can listen to sometimes and sometimes not," says Bechler and then explains what the inspiring thing about the band is for him: "Can was a Cologne band that said very early on: we do it This is the way we want it and the rest can lick our asses. Also internally there was a great freedom to allow things. That had an incorruptibility. And that's what it’s all about.. And in the Cologne region, of course, there were also René Tinner and Conny Plank. Such people show that there must be something in the air in Cologne, that turns the city into an environment in which things could be invented and driven forward without prejudice. Things which then triggered many other things. "

But just as Martin Bechler does not want to be tucked away in a genre-drawer called “Cologne Sound”, he opposes any kind of local patriotism. Immediately after complimenting Can and Conny Plan, he continues: "At the moment we rest too much on the history, which has already happened here in Cologne. The fact is: Today the places are taken from us at a rapid speed. Keyword: gentrification. That's what I associate with Cologne today: a massive loss of quality of life, because there are fewer and fewer places where live music can happen, because no one can afford the rents, because of the crappy vegan ice cream parlors. Fewer places, because all the beautiful industrial areas where the artists' studios were and the illegal clubs existed, get taken away. "

In his own artistic way, he counters such developments. The project Fortuna Ehrenfeld can also be understood as a resistance nest of nonconformity. The song "Das letzte Kommando" puts it in a nutshell: "What happened to the punks? Everyone is doing web design. It’s better to be screwed, than to be one of them. Holy fuck, there must be something else. "

“That’s a distinguishing feature, I think. That so much can happen and develop and live alongside each other and everyone still knows each other and there’s cohesion. That there are no walls between groups or genres. I like to think that Cologne folk – not Cologne the city – can be proud of it,” says Kerstgens. We drink another coffee and then another, discuss Cologne’s pop history, complain about the Kölsch cliques, have another coffee and talk about Cologne’s constant longing for recognition, its enjoyment of popular culture, its sympathy for the uncool underdog and its special “Levvensjeföhl” (attitude to life). “Yes,” Suzie Kerstgens concludes. “Here in Cologne you can be uncool! I think it’s great. There is no pressure here to keep saying: ‘Oh, I’m so hip, I’m so cool.’ No, people here are just uncool, because nobody needs to be cool.”

Closing and Playlist

This text is the revised, abridged and supplemented version of the chapter “Cologne: The Navel of the World” from the book “Sound of the Cities. Eine popmusikalische Entdeckungsreise”, Kein & Aber 2016, ISBN: 978-3-9540-3091-0. Reprinted with kind permission by courtesy of Kein & Aber AG, Zurich. Translation by Lucy Jones, Transfiction Berlin (http://www.transfiction.eu).

https://keinundaber.ch/de/literary-work/sound-of-the-cities/

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