Music & clubs

SO36: “It will be hard, but we can make it.”

We visit the legendary Kreuzberg venue to hear about the difficulty of preserving the punk spirit in pandemic times.

Image for SO36: “It will be hard, but we can make it.”

David Mouriquand visited legendary Kreuzberg venue SO36 to hear about the difficulty of preserving the punk spirit in pandemic times. Photo: SO36

Like other Berlin bars and clubs, legendary Kreuzberg punk club SO36 continues to fight for survival through a series of lockdowns, proposed curfews and delayed funding.

We spoke with spokesperson and bookkeeper Nanette Fleig about preserving SO36’s identity, how the lockdown regulations contradict the club’s punk spirit and whether cautious optimism is warranted for the months ahead.

Can you run us through the timeline of this disastrous year for SO36?

We started with the worst-case scenario, as we had three sold-out shows, including two nights of Slime, that were cancelled just before the first shutdown mid-March. The singer has actually left the band now, so that’s probably not going to happen anymore. Over the summer, we didn’t do much, as everyone wanted to be outside. We do have very good air-conditioning, making SO a safe place, so we had a few public events and we rented the place out for people who needed to meet officially. When the weather got worse again, we did a few small concerts, discussions and lectures with 60 people. In October, we started the beer hall and that lasted for less than one month. And then the second lockdown came.

It must have been strange to change the identity of the location, as SO isn’t about being a sanitised beer hall with an 11pm curfew.

I totally agree. It was very strange. It’s not what we wanted to do or what we want to be. In German, you would say it would be a cheap Abklatsch – we don’t want to be a bad, cheap copy of the original, something that looks like the SO but doesn’t have the spirit. Our idea was to offer something to our friends as a replacement. For example, the people who come to the Gayhane party (SO36’s HomoOriental Dancefloor events), which is so important for many people because it’s one of the few places where you can be yourself – if you have a Muslim background, if you are a queer person, there aren’t that many spaces where you’re safe. We had the idea to offer a Gayhane beerhall at least, for 60 people, so that people could meet and be themselves. The plan over the winter would have been to create an offer for our different communities, because our people are so diverse. And now there’s nothing left – Schwuz has also closed, and so many places are in danger.

On top of the difficulty to offer a replacement, compliance with the lockdown rules also contradicts the nature of SO and the punk spirit. How do you navigate that and at the same time support the SO community?

That’s a really good question. We thought a lot about this – how can we still be there for our community? How can we reach out and help and cause joy? In the first lockdown, we had some livestreams with United We Stream and tried to conjure up some of the community spirit. I personally think it’s not working well. It’s better than nothing, but the main thing with the community is the opportunity to meet, to network, to be around people who are like you. Being connected doesn’t work online. Many of our friends have told us how much they miss SO36, not just as an events location but as a safe space and a community room. So that’s really hard.

It must be tough to find a solution that allows you to celebrate subculture while protecting communities.

We haven’t found a good solution because we lack the methods, and we feel a little bit schizophrenic with these rules. All the rebel attitude and being against rules and embracing freedom… Everything shouts out against these regulations. It makes us angry and frustrated. But on the other side, we are too much into science. We’re not esoteric freaks – the evidence is there and many of our friends are in danger because they have HIV or other diseases. We feel the responsibility to protect our friends and not to join all these corona conspiracy, corona-denying crazy people. It’s really difficult to find a good position within all these conflicts.

When the lockdown started, there were demonstrations and protests from left-wing science-based people who said: “Yes, we see the evidence, yes, we understand this lockdown is necessary, but this is a demonstration in free air – we have masks, we have distance, so why shouldn’t we demonstrate?” And then they got beaten up by the police. Everything made us really angry, but on the other hand, you cannot go with the idiots and neo-Nazis who protest. What we tried to do was to show solidarity with other clubs, with our crowds, and with people who fight for civil rights. But it’s tough, because if you say “We want to fight for civil rights”, you’re so quickly pushed into that freak corner, which is something we absolutely do not want.

What would be a better option than this second lockdown, however long it lasts?

That’s difficult. I thought that a place like the SO, which is big and has a great ventilation system, should be so much safer than any kitchen of a WG where people will meet instead. I understand that it’s super hard to say something like “Kitchens are forbidden, but pubs are allowed”, for example, but on the other side, it’s stupid because they close down the things that can be controlled easily…

I don’t know whether it makes sense the other way around, to have a place like the SO open and people aren’t allowed to meet up privately. I’m happy I’m not a politician at the moment. I was talking about the future with a friend and the best solution would be to have these quick tests made cheap and available. This would help so much. If it’s possible to have these quick test kits, a cinema or a club can test everyone, and everyone who is negative can go in. It could be logistically tricky but possible. Even if it’s 50 people in a cinema or a show with 500 people, social and cultural life could go on. That could be a solution.

Image for SO36: “It will be hard, but we can make it.”

Since opening in 1978, SO36 has become Berlin’s most famous punk club, and a beacon for the city’s counter-culture. Photo: SO36

We talked to cinema owners about the fact that no outbreaks had been linked to cinema-going, because of the distancing and ventilation systems and masks. It’s not ideal, but it’s still doable to keep these cultural spaces alive.

That’s it. Did you read about the priests that went to cinemas to do ceremonies because cinemas are safer than churches?

That sounds like the beginning of a joke.

It happened! “Hello, politicians? Do you see what’s happening?” Churches are allowed to be open, but several priests rented cinemas to do their services because the air system is safer than a church. There are so many things that don’t make any sense, but that’s because there aren’t many things that make more sense.

Am I right in saying that SO36 has not received any financial help from the federal government or the state of Berlin?

We didn’t for a while, but now we have. We applied to everything and anything available. We applied for money from the Senat, but got nothing. We eventually got money from Bundesministerium für Arbeit for the middle-sized company programme for the time period of June to August. We received the OK for that package at the end of October. It wasn’t the quickest, and that meant half a year without any income, but we finally got it. That’s quite new news. Hopefully we’ll get the second package, for the September-December period, before the year ends.

You’ve also set up a public donation system.

Yes, and that saved us at the beginning, because we had to pay rent and reimburse tickets. On the last evening before the first lockdown, we shouted for help. We were desperate because our last three shows were supposed to be sold out, and we had to reimburse those tickets. And it was amazing – on that last evening, we already had €1,000 within a few hours. Our friends were so supportive. So many people also reacted to the newsletter we sent out, and the next morning we had €10,000. It was the necessary glimpse of hope we needed to carry on. I get goosebumps when I’m talking about it.

That must have been so heartwarming…

Totally. When you do your job and you see people coming and enjoying themselves, you can still ask yourself whether what you’re doing is important. And it’s in those moments that you see that it’s more than an events location for people. What we do matters, and that felt great. We were so thankful, not only for the money but for the solidarity amongst the club scene in Berlin and the support of our friends. Because even if people only sent €5, they would attach messages telling us to keep going or to stay wild. Those sweet words mean everything. Even the neighbours got in on it – the wine place next to us, Weinhandlung Suff, even created a special SO36 solidarity wine package.

How long can SO stay afloat in this period of uncertainty?

If these help packages continue, we will probably get through. But I can tell you that it was quite tight. If that money had come 14 days later, we would have been officially broke. All of the wages of our people are paid but everything like rent or insurances isn’t. The money came last minute and we should be fine until the very beginning of January. Until then, we can hope that the second package I mentioned will come.

Without all the donations and support we got from the scene and our friends, we wouldn’t have gotten so far.

Without all the donations and support we got from the scene and our friends, we wouldn’t have gotten so far. But I think we can’t rely too much on donations and expect everybody to go on like that – people have similar problems and jobs everywhere are at risk. We’re also creating and selling a lot of merchandise, like masks and a 42 years of SO36 towel, as a cheeky wink to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, so we’ve mutated from legendary concert venue to online merchandise shop. It’s frustrating, and it doesn’t cover the costs, because the hole is just too big. It’s sad to say, but we are dependent on state money now.

Ever since the club opened in 1978, can you think of any other times when SO was in these sorts of dire straits?

Not like this. There have been several tough moments and it has been closed a couple of times. The first group who ran it didn’t last one year, and the next guy who took over had to give up because of financial reasons. Our association took over in 1989, and the ’90s were difficult because in the early ’90s everybody went to the East, which felt more attractive. Kreuzberg was seen as old fashioned then and the East was a playground with a lot of open spaces, half-legal bars and clubs. Financially, it was a rough time.

But then the queer scene took the space of SO36 for their parties. The band Die Ärzte would jump in from time to time to play some rescue shows, which was so great. They’re great people, and they saved the SO quite a few times. But I would say that the toughest test was in 2010 when a neighbour complained about the noise. Noise measurements were taken and we were about 4.2 decibels too loud. They came to measure the levels at The (International) Noise Conspiracy’s show.

Maybe not the best show to test decibel levels… The clue is in the name!

It was probably the worst show they could choose. So, the neighbour was right and we got a letter from the police station telling us that all events had to end at 10pm. As you can imagine, that was a catastrophe and would have ended the SO. It was a long struggle and the story has many twists and turns. We shouted out to our crowd and explained the problem, saying that we couldn’t solve it. The noise protection wall we wanted to build would have cost us about €100,000 and we didn’t have the money. There were campaigns, donations, and people wrote to local politicians so that some EU money could be used to help us. We were lucky because it helped – we found a way, there was an EU money pot that fit, and the whole thing ended with the noise protection wall being built. We came close to shutting down and that moment was the toughest… Until now. 

Do you think that the lockdowns have highlighted quite how lucky we were to have these Berlin scenes, how important subculture is, and how these spaces need to be kept alive?

Hopefully. Our big concern is what is going to be left. I really fear we will lose a lot of places and that many will go bankrupt. It will change the city. Whether it’s cinemas, political places… All the subculture which we love is highly endangered. For many people, it’s difficult to get state money, because they don’t fit the programmes. And as soon as a place is lost, it’s gone forever. If you look at other countries, a lot of subculture and interesting places are already gone because of big capitalist players like Live Nation, for example. For these big groups, culture is something to make money with. They harvest culture instead of living it and creating something new. The big threat is this growing monoculture.

But if people embrace these subculture and underground scenes even more, having been deprived of them for so long, is cautious optimism possible?

I really hope so. The solidarity amongst the clubs and the support of musicians and the SO community has given us hope. I hope that people, as you say, embrace what’s left afterwards. But I don’t know if we can save many places. When I see the reality of the capitalistic system we are living in, I’m not that optimistic. For SO, it will be hard, but I think we can make it. What I fear is how social distancing changes the scene itself. This distancing somehow makes you used to being alone, used to not being close to others. I fear that the isolation and loneliness will change people. I see how people start to get depressed, get aggressive, and become more negative, and I don’t see the end of that yet.

Support SO36 by heading to their website, where you can contribute to their donation platform or buy some (possibly Hitchhikers-themed) merchandise.