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“We can say what we do, but I can’t say what it is”

INTERVIEW: Watergate’s co-founder Steffen Hack. Celebrating its first decade, the club’s a magnet for fashionably disheveled cokeheads and Europe’s scorned “Easyjetset”.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

There’s a particular word that Steffen “Stoffel” Hack, co-owner of Watergate uses a lot: widerspruch (contradiction). It’s an apt term for the former radical who co-founded old-line punk hub Coretex Records in 1988, spun a label off of WMF’s fabled hard:edged evenings in the 1990s, and is now a mastermind behind one of the least underground clubs in town: Spree-side, LED-dappled Watergate. Celebrating its first decade, the club’s a magnet for fashionably disheveled cokeheads and Europe’s scorned “Easyjetset”―Schwarzer Block it ain’t. How does Stoffel feel about his creation? More importantly, how does one get into it?

Celebrate their 10 years all day long in the wide open air on Sunday, July 8, 12:00 at Rummelsburg.

What was the Schlesisches Tor like scene at the start of the Millenium?

The nightlife was going on in the East. All the people in the scene said, “You’re crazy, nothing’s going on in Kreuzberg.” But I lived in Kreuzberg, and it has a much longer tradition of an underground scene than the whole East. It was a hotspot before the wall came down. When you read these mags like EXBERLINER, they explain the monthly truth, but when you live a long time in the town, you just smile, because everything comes and goes. One year they say, Kreuzberg is out. Five years later, it’s in.

You’ve been in Berlin since 1982.

There has been the first “decade” being a squatter, a street fighter, a left-wing radical. I was one of the so-called Schwarzer Block guys, yeah [starts laughing]? It’s quite funny that I’m now running a popular club. The second decade was when I opened my record store, I would say. We were running it as a collective with four guys. I was running it six years, then I left. And then started the third “decade”…I’m not sure, it’s not so strict. I opened in the East the Toaster Club, a small underground club. Then I left and started the hard:edged imprint, and from the drum ‘n’ bass, we came to the club. There has been a logical progression — the center was always music. Even when I had been a squatter, I was playing in a punk band, and I was organizing parties.

But Watergate is where you ended up.

The clubs were always traveling, always temporary. We were sitting and discussing, should we join for the next opening, or start with our own club? After half-a-year of searching, we found this place. We started with three nights a week, searching for the perfect beat – we had a hard:edge night, a deep house night, Dixon and friends. It was London-oriented, not four-to the floor, a more open program. But the program didn’t work out financially. It was a little posh for people who liked drum ‘n’ bass. We added the terrace in 2004 and changed the interior around 2005 or 2006, added the lights. Around that time we stopped with drum ‘n’ bass, started playing only four-to-the-floor. We figured out that it’s easier to run a club with the same music each night.

You traded musical freedom for longevity?

You always have to compromise; you’re limited. People expect something, and you have to fulfill their expectations. It’s a bit sad, you know? When I was younger I was thinking it’s good to surprise people, but now I know if they order Currywurst, they want a Currywurst. When we started here in 2002, [co-owner Ulrich Wombacher] was going to the bridge and looking for young people. He saw three fellows passing by the club and thought, “Oh, customers! I should probably ask them if they want to come inside.” That’s the real situation, how we started. We didn’t know it would change like this. We didn’t know the government would change the whole town, that gentrification would go that fast this way. 

So what’s the sound of Watergate?

I always would say it’s mostly deep, soulful, intelligent: something like that? Intelligent sounds a little bit stupid. But it’s not mainstream, you know? It always has to be musical, very musical, whatever that means. Some people understand it, some people don’t understand it; that’s also how we divide our audience at the door. It’s not about keeping somebody out because we don’t like him. It’s positive — it’s to bring the people together who have the same feeling. It doesn’t work always.

Why do you think Watergate works as a brand, and not just a club?

We can say what we do, but I can’t say what it is. Most people probably think it’s hip, it’s posh, everybody’s going there, so I have to go there. Because people go where people go, and people are sheeps. Why are all these people visiting Berlin? There are so many big cities in the world. It’s authentic, different, more free, colorful, young, dirty.

Who has the least chance of getting in?

A big group of one sex. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big group of screaming girls – like chickens. Did you ever notice that big groups of girls sound like chickens? We don’t like that. Or a big stag party of fifteen guys, half-drunken and loud, all with open shirts…I mean, I don’t want to go too deep because always when you say something in that direction, people say, “Ah, so that means this or that guy is not coming inside!” It’s not that easy. There is a certain vibe between the people. When you work ten years at the door you understand your audience. You know that they belong to this group or that group or this scene. If you’re not sure, you can start a talk with them. “Hello, why are you here, who’s playing tonight?” It has absolutely nothing to do with nationality. If somebody says, “I’m not allowed to come in because I’m English, or I’m Turkish,” that’s bullshit. People, especially men…men have a problem with “no.”

Ever get the urge to abuse the power that comes with being a club owner?

We take it very easy. Do you feel like I’m a snobby, arrogant guy who sits on his club and feels like Puff Daddy? We are Kreuzbergers. It sounds stupid, but we feel probably like a Socialist club, with all the widerspruch that are in that sentence. 

But at the same time, people will do anything to get on the list.

I’m not sure. Sometimes I think people are too friendly to me. I can talk a lot of bullshit and still people are friendly. Sometimes I even test it, like, how far can I go, and people still laugh. Hahaha! But I’ve never said to somebody, “If you want to suck my cock, you can be on the guest list.” These girls who want to suck dick, you know, these girls who want to dress nice and think they look good, with their fake breasts and thin dresses who go to the super-super-hot “in” disco, they are manipulated, stupid chicks. Kreuzberg and Berlin still is not standing for that attitude. We really want to keep the Berlin style, because we think this is the only style.

Do you think foreigners are destroying Berlin’s integrity?

You can compare it a little bit to Ibiza. A lot of young Italians, French, Germans came to Ibiza to start a freaky life, and what was growing out of this freaky life? Ibiza, the Event Island. I don’t want to be the Event Berlin. I prefer to live with less money, I’d like to live with less tourists. I don’t like it when I go outside and there’s an organized tourist group, everybody with Photoapparats, with maps in their hands: you feel like you’re in a zoo! You feel like an animal. We don’t advertise any more. We are not the guys who make the marketing – Berlin is doing it now. 

Like it or not, you guys are a part of that.

What shall we do? We only can close the club. We have to do something new, probably one day we have to close the club. But here I have about 20 full workers. What do I do with them? Eigentum verpflichtet [Property is binding]. It’s like I’m the father of the family, the boss of the tribe. I’m not an asshole. We created it together. So I mean, we only can close it together or go on together. Look back to history. Do you remember a society that could handle a proper situation where everybody has everything, always? These societies always die from the inside.

To Berlin’s 17-year-old street fighters now, are you the bad guy?

We don’t meet each other. It’s not easy to come together because young people are much too dogmatic, too narrow-minded. There’s not many of them who are as open-minded as I am. I understand people on the street fighting, but I also understand people making money. For me, there is no widerspruch. It has been one of my decades, and this decade is finished, you know? When you’re nearly fifty, you don’t go out on the street and fight with the police. But I have a big sympathy for these people, because if you don’t stand up against the establishment now, you never will do it.

If someone played 17-year-old you the music you play now at Watergate, how would you react?

I would say, “Leave the room!” And I wouldn’t share my joint with him.

Ten Years Watergate and Circoloco Open Air, Sun, Jul 8, 12:00 | Rummelsburg, Rummelsburger Landstr. 2, S-Bhf Betriebsbahnhof Berlin-Rummelsburg