Being an artist in Berlin Canadian sensitivity suffers

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin
Photo (detail):

A sunny day in July. A hot 30 degrees. People sit on a picnic blanket in La Fontaine Park in Montreal. The German guest is introduced. Nice conversation takes place. And what is the overriding subject after the initial phase of getting to know each other. The winter! They talk about the bitter cold and the rough days at the end when the city longs for the spring. Photos of snow banks and frozen lakes get passed around. In the middle of the summer!

Three quarters of a year later in Berlin. It is spring, pleasant 20 degrees, tshirt weather. A lot of Canadian musicians are here to live by the Spree river. Berlin would be a great city with a wealth of cultural opportunities if it wasn’t, you know, for this winter again : "We like being here but the winter is brutal" is the general consensus.

Scott Montieth originally hails from Ontario and his artist name is Deadbeat. He has been living now for several years in Germany. His conclusion up till now: "If I could change something, then I would take the winters in Montreal, that means the minus 40 degrees and sun over the minus 5 degrees and the grey here." In Berlin they say: if you have survived three winters there, you can call yourself a Berliner. All of this doesn’t sound too attractive. But what has made the German capital in recent years so interesting for people from Canada despite that?

Canadian Sensitivity

To understand that, you have to recall the history. When the wall fell in 1989 and East and West united, gaps and spaces opened up. The old houses attracted dancing and dreaming. The communists let their institutions off the leash. Dilapidated buildings were left behind that filled up with new life. Techno had just spilled over from Detroit and its fans set about breathing new life into it in Berlin. It was celebrated in old strong rooms, factories and apartments. And cheap it was. In the nineties pure hedonism ruled in Berlin. Freedom!

This feeling still lives on in the music scene although some of the old charm has been lost. Gentrification forced several clubs to close. Prices went up. Nevertheless Berlin is –still- reasonable compared to other major cities. It was this that Stephen Paul Taylor appreciated as well. With his project Trike and the video ’Everybody knows shit fuck’ the musician born in Montreal had a viral hit. It shows him with keyboard on a street corner in Berlin: "I went into these small clubs and bars in strange cellars that were sometimes hard to find. In Canada the walls would be nicely painted. Everything would be renovated. Here everything in contrast is run down. It has much more character and is more alive."

Alex Zhang Hungtai, too , sought out and found this atmosphere on arriving. His project "Dirty Beaches" has meanwhile become history but Berlin is part of it: "The Berlin electro scene had an influence on my psyche anyway, because I never really went into clubs in Canada. It was nothing for me. In Berlin I loved going out, however, because you can’t take photos on the dance floor. There was almost a meditative quality about it."

John Farah is a pianist, composer and sound artist. His first concert in the borough of Moabit took place unfortunately in a small jazz club before an indifferent German Stammtisch. In the mean time he has come to learn to appreciate the varied performance venues and the public. “In Toronto there were lots of great concerts. It was for me really the best city for original and modern music whether it was electronic, experimental, improvised, classical or jazz, too. The problem was: no one was interested.

It’s very different in Berlin. Here the people are curious but are also known for the so-called Berliner Schnauze. For Farah a completely new experience: "In Canada the people are all so friendly, of course, that important subjects are not broached. No one wants to be direct with you. And so a kind of protective wall comes about. Canadian sensitivity suffers when they say here: The third part of the song was shit. That really takes you aback.“

Poor and Sexy in Europe

If you are a musician living in the heart of Europe you profit in addition from one great advantage: Barcelona, London, Paris or Stockholm are only a stone’s throw away. Cheap flights allow touring throughout the continent without driving long distances. Scott Montieth fully appreciates that: “From Berlin in one or two hours you can be anywhere in Europe “

But how much of Germany leaves its mark on each one of them in the long run. English is spoken everywhere in the city. Many cafés and bars live off their foreign guests who either order in English or even work there often speaking little or absolutely no German. Alex Zhang Hungtai doesn’t find that bad. For him the Berliners are as far as this is concerned much more international than people in Quebec who according to him almost force the French language on you. And so he would in the future even prefer to learn German rather than French.

"Trike" in the mean time has picked up some snatches of the language and has been musically inspired by them. On his new album there is a track directly influenced by the Eighties new wave group Trio. Their best-known song ”Da da da “ was a hit world wide. "A girl friend told me to look at a live performance of Trio. I was totally impressed by the way they sang. I liked the style. On the new album I imitate it with a German and English accent."

But it’s not only Berlin that is having an influence on Canadian music. It’s also true the other way round. Feist, Chilly Gonzales, Peaches and Mocky, too, were a defining feature of the local scene. The bridge over the Atlantic Ocean still stands. Montreal especially is often compared to Berlin. Why is that? Many recently arrived musicians have meant that the two metropolises are booming. Creativity finds its niches in the structures of long gone days. Big money isn’t being made. But the quality of life has improved. Scott Montieth on this: "As the former mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit said: ‘Berlin is poor but sexy.’ That goes for both cities.“