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“In Berlin, escapism is radical.”

INTERVIEW. Author of Berlin Sampler, Théo Lessour, dives into his reasoning behind writing a book about Berlin music, taking on the Third Reich, the GDR, punk, techno, and more.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

Théo Lessour’s acclaimed book on 100 years of music in Berlin finally gets its English-language debut.

From sipping espresso after class on Place de la Sorbonne to writing essays in a crammed communal workspace in Kreuzberg, Théo Lessour – his nom de plume – strikes the figure of an archetypal young French intellectual: rakish, clever and slightly wavering.

A law graduate with a small publishing house in France, Lassour took a long and studious journey through the German Music Archive in Langwitz to collect material on 100 years of music in Berlin, artfully and readably compiled in his book Berlin Sampler. First published in French to his compatriots’ critical praise, the book is being launched in English in Berlin this month.

Why write this book?

That is the big question. I’ve always loved music. I was a fan of Alec Empire and a lot of music from Berlin. I guess it all started with my local post-punk movement. I was really into it, and it brought me to Berlin music. I didn’t speak German, but even then when I was 18, I would find little ways to endorse people and their music.

Later when I researched Berlin music that wasn’t so interesting to me – like 1960s and 1970s pop – I discovered so much, and it was fascinating! Then I just had this huge fascination for Berlin as a city, like so many others. So I decided I would make a book that I wanted to read. There were histories of specific genres, but nothing more encompassing. A history of Berlin music didn’t really exist… until now!

Did you ever feel illegitimate as the author of a book about German music?

Oh yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about my illegitimacy. Who am I, some French guy, planning to write a book on Berlin music? But I guess that was my punk attitude: because I thought, yeah, it’s not “Who am I to do it?” but “Who am I not to do it?”

How post-punk were you?!

I was involved in punk in a totally bourgeois way. I had no band, but I was writing in fanzines, buying a lot of records, going to concerts and talking about punk with my friends. It was kind of frustrating to be post-punk in France because there wasn’t anything that great in the French movement, so you had to direct your ears elsewhere. It was just all these big French new wave bands that I just can’t listen to anymore.

For someone who doesn’t know anything about music history in Berlin, can you briefly explain the evolution of music here?

No, I can’t. That is what the book is for. It is not something you can sum up in a few words!

Something that sticks out?

What struck me most is the amateurism, and in Berlin amaterurism’s never been a tactic but rather an idealism. The 1980s are a good example, though it existed earlier, going all the way back to people like Hans Schrecker, the communist composer who did cabaret music in the 1920s. His shows involved characters that were not really singing; he tried to cast cool characters smoking cigars and speaking the song in a sultry way.

This nonconformism is seen through the whole history of music in Berlin. Little lies. Like Hildegard Knef: she was a big star in the 1960s, but she couldn’t really sing. There is this obvious resistance to technical ability that you see in a lot of places. But in Berlin it is deeper than that. The development of the radio in the 1920s, National Socialism, Communism and then the wars created this desire in Berlin to escape everything. For me it could be escaping modernism or consumerism, but for Berlin it is escaping Communism, Nazism or war.

In your book you talk about pop music as a tool to control the masses. Can you explain that?

With the invention of radio and the emerging record industry, people realised that there was a mass audience. Along with this realisation came Communism and Nazism. Every medium became an opportunity to spread propaganda, whether it be cinema, music or public radio.

Lots of musicians were faced with the question of joining the political fight. Were they to make, for instance, leftist music, or to try and educate people through the music? Music is a tool for big companies to make money. It’s a corporate tool and it’s an art form, but it is also a political tool because it’s delivering a message.

Can you describe the sound? What did music of the Third Reich sound like or music of the West versus music of the GDR?

What’s intriguing is the music that was in conflict with the Nazis and how they used it. There is a chapter on the Third Reich’s role in jazz. Just as National Socialism was rising, jazz was everywhere; people wanted to listen to jazz. It was new and it was the soul of the Western world.

In a way the Nazis should have been completely against jazz because it was ‘black music’, but, much to their anger, they realised it was so popular that they couldn’t really make it completely disappear, so they had to come to terms with it.

So they began by imposing all of these crazy measures: they forbade it on the radio, forbade the sale of records, but even the Nazis with all their power couldn’t completely destroy the soul of jazz. They were forced to do something with it, and by the end of the war they were even producing some jazz, some good German state jazz, which makes absolutely no sense.

If I were to talk about the sound of the Third Reich, I would definitely include this. They did delve into some folk but that is less interesting.

What about jazz during the GDR?

They actually did like it in the beginning, but soon it became another form of American imperialism, so they couldn’t support it. But they realised it was better to have jazz than rock ‘n’ roll, because rock n’ roll has a much more consumerist message. They tried producing rock, hoping this would satisfy the masses, but they soon realised that rock couldn’t conform and they had to fight it.

In 1965 they forbade all rock ‘n’ roll, bringing jazz music back. As for Soviet jazz, it was easier, because it was mostly instrumental and without lyrics, so no anti-Communist messages could be propagated.

The 1970s was a decade of left-wing terrorism. Was violence translated into the music?

The violence can definitely be heard in the music, especially in Germany. It is really wild. What comes in 1967 and 1968? Krautrock. It’s this crazy music that really breaks with all traditions. They don’t want to be technical, they don’t want to sing, and they don’t want ‘good’ recordings. In some ways it’s already like punk.

What was unique about Berlin punk?

Julian Cope, the English writer and musician who wrote a book about krautrock, referred to post-1968 music in Germany as the craziest the world over. It was bursting everywhere, but the Germans had this idealism, this crazy violence, but it was mostly against themselves.

I think it is exactly the same with punk – it was very idealistic. Punk is against the hippies, but in Berlin it was against your parents, your father, who was very likely an old Nazi – either a soldier or a sympathiser. No matter what, you were growing up in a very defeated country. This rebellion was extreme. When you listen to the music, you hear that there is a real emergency, and that is something you don’t find anywhere else.

Why such a change from the anti-establishment of punk to the escapism you describe in techno?

In Berlin, escapism is radical. If you go to Berghain there are no critics. There is no pressure put on you, and people stay until the bitter end. They take mountains of drugs and fuck like crazy. I think this shows the brutality of Berlin art: even escapism is taken very seriously and pushed to the ultimate end.

Techno is something I am completely puzzled by. I loved it in the 1990s, because there was a sense of future about it, but now seeing it as a reference to the 1990s, it is so odd. It’s this unexplainable retro-mania that I just can’t get into.

The whole principle of it was to go forward, so it makes no sense that it is now reviving the music of the past. While I am very puzzled by it, I think in a way people need techno; it’s a complex thing. As time goes by, the political and historical pain of Germany eases, and maybe the truth is that slowly but surely Berlin is becoming a normal city.

But I can’t predict the future, which is why I wrote a book about the past!

Berlin Sampler can be purchased in the Exberliner web shop.