Ask a local what the best club night is in Berlin, and there’s a good chance they’ll point you in the direction of Herrensauna. Growing from a small project amongst friends to a world-renowned brand in five years, Herrensaunsa is a techno fan’s sweatiest, punkest and gayest dream come true. As the doors of nightclubs around the world remain firmly shut, the founding members, Cem Dukkha and MCMLXXX, launch their new record label. The new vinyl EP, the first in a series of many, approaches electronic music with experimentalism at the forefront and transports its listeners to their very own club night for one.
Herrensauna is widely known as a staple of the Berlin club scene. Where did the idea for the club nights come from originally? What did you set out to create?
We've been involved in nightlife and DJing for so long and we were fed up with some of the conventional events taking place at the time in Berlin, so it came naturally for us to start our own thing at some point. We felt the urge to create a more intimate setting for our friends, and this kept growing organically, without a certain aim to go beyond the city we lived in.
Were you already planning on creating a record label before the pandemic hit, or is this project in response to the major disruption to the nightlife industry?
We don’t think that anyone in the scene could predict the severity of how much the pandemic would disrupt it and put many people’s existence on the line. So it may seem financially risky to initiate such an effort, but our wish to subsequently add more layers to the Herrensauna experience was always our goal.
Creating a music label that defines and also pushes the boundaries of what we sonically represent manifested very early on. In fact, we already had released three 10-inch dub cuts around 2016, which were limited to fifty pressings that were only sold to our guests at the events. It quite fit the DIY ethos that we still to this day pursue.
Berlin is world-renowned for its club and techno scene. What do you think sets Berlin apart from other cities?
The fact is that Berlin has offered the spaces and freedom for the scene to flourish while in so many cities, politicians and the police were giving promoters and clubs a much harder time. The chaotic times of reunification during the early ‘90s gave people the autonomy to establish a club landscape that is now inseparable from the city. Nowadays though, we can’t help but be rightfully worried about its extinction driven by greed and control forced onto us by our own government.
Herrensauna is very popular with the queer community in Berlin (and the world). Queer culture and rave culture in general are so intertwined. Why do you think raves are such a haven for so many people who identify as queer?
Many of us consider raves as tools to express [ourselves] freely. It’s where we find solidarity and acceptance, and while one can’t expect that from any rave out there, we want to work on making this a standard as far as we are involved, at least.
The name Herrensauna is in reference to saunas for gay men. It’s reminiscent of a time when queerness was still illegal internationally and almost exclusively underground. Do you think within the queer community, without romanticising oppression, there’s a desire to hold onto that subversiveness, to protest heteronormativity?
For us, that’s a lifestyle we never questioned. The rave is only one of the many ways to express an alternative way to live. The inspiring thing about Berlin is that it’s a place where counterculture is still practised. Being queer is a performative act that often involves appropriating the symbols and styles of the heteronormative to decontextualise them and ridicule them. The name Herrensauna was always a tongue-in-cheek reference for us that was never meant to be taken too seriously.
Techno music is designed to be enjoyed as a shared experience in intimate settings. Do you think social distancing is going to change how techno is engaged with, and perhaps even change how it sounds?
Electronic music has always evolved and restructured itself, so it is evident that such an impactful event would have profound consequences which we currently still can’t precisely predict. We obviously would wish to go back to how we first got into this music and environment, but so far, our optimism has constantly been curbed.
How did you decide which DJs to include on the first EP?
We wanted to initiate the label with a compilation series with artists who had performed for us already and eventually grew close to us. Hector has been one of our residents since the early days, so he obviously had to be on the first one. Similar to Sugar, who started his Fast Forward events in Denmark around the same time as us and quickly turned out to be a great producer who is now on the forefront of the new school trance infused techno craze. We also wanted to showcase special artist collaborations that blew us away with their rare live performances, such as Peder Mannefelt & Pär Grindvik as Aasthma, and Solid Blake & Ctrls as Historical Repeater.
When you were creating this EP, were you trying to replicate the experience of one of your club nights, or did you mean to show that techno can still be enjoyed privately?
What has always been important for us is to relate to the people we work with on more than just a business level, and it’s that work ethic we would like to continue throughout the development of the label. In this sense, you could say we are maintaining the level of intimacy you experience at the events as far as it comes to sound.
I also saw that for each EP you release, the Berlin multidisciplinary artist Mauro Ventura is creating a new painting for the album art. This collaboration, paired with the experimental sound of the tracks, makes me feel like you’re trying to challenge mainstream perceptions of techno, and show that it’s just as artistic as any other music genre. Is this a fair assumption?
We’ve always challenged mainstream perceptions of the fields we operate in, which lead to the development of a sound that words are not necessarily the best media to describe. You can see the EP as the prologue of our acoustic encyclopedia.
Herrensauna was already expanding from the Berlin club scene through your club nights in other countries like Russia. This record label is a further expansion. What do you hope for Herrensauna to become? Where else do you plan to go with this creation?
Summing up our present position after five years of existence, we can only hope to continue doing what we do best and aim to provide an interdisciplinary platform for artists to ignite new dialogues, connect, practice and philosophy of club culture, electronic music and fine arts.
Speaking of Russia, I was surprised to see you host a club night in a country with such a strong anti- LGBTQ+ culture. What was the atmosphere like on the night? In a post-Covid world, will you continue to host club nights in countries where queer acceptance is still so limited, such as in Poland?
Even before the pandemic, our focus shifted towards showcasing in countries and scenes outside of the usual party circuit to support their local queer scenes. The hospitality and appreciation we received have been quite overwhelming, and to see that we were able to create such free and loving atmospheres, which we are not even used to in the West, humbled us a lot.