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Artist Feature: Herrensauna

Click here to listen to the Carhartt WIP Radio Show featuring Herrensauna.

This month’s Carhartt WIP Radio show spotlights Herrensauna, a Berlin-based party collective and label dedicated to the harder, more hybridic edges of techno. Launched in Berlin in October 2015 by DJs Nicolas Endlicher (aka MCMLXXXV) and Cem Dukkha (aka Cem), the party quickly grew to become a mainstay in Berlin’s vibrant nightlife culture.

Already well-versed in hosting club nights in their hometown of Vienna, the duo approached the German capital with a clear goal of offering partygoers a safe, democratic space, unconstrained by conventional club rules and notorious Berlin door policies: "We wanted to create something very open that didn’t mean you had to stand in a long queue for hours. It was about creating something that was more intimate." From there, Herrensauna’s devoted following quickly grew, united by the ideals of fluidity, diversity, and hedonism.

The party soon found a permanent home in 2017 in Berlin’s Tresor after being held at various locations around the city, and later went on to establish a residency at Munich’s Rote Sonne club. In addition to featuring sets by founders MCMLXXXV and Cem, Herrensauna residents have also included the Spanish techno-punk artist Héctor Oaks, no-frills Italian techno veteran Freddy K, and the industrial sounds of Oliver Ho’s Broken English Club.

In the same year they found their permanent home at Tresor, Herrensauna also launched its eponymous record label, going on to release three 10” vinyls before the pandemic slowed their prolific output. Undeterred by the looming possibility of dancefloors falling permanently silent, they compiled a Herrensauna label compilation, featuring Cadency (aka Héctor Oaks), Danish producers Sugar and Historical Repeater, and Aasthma. During this time, the founders also tried their hand at making clothes, collaborating with independent Berlin-based brand SÖDERBERG on a collection.

This foray into design naturally led to their soon-to-be-released capsule collection with Carhartt WIP. Accompanied by a zine which shows the ideation and processes behind the collection’s artwork, the capsule features prints by Mauro Ventura, whose hand-drawn abstractions play with the Herrensauna logo and notions of an underground renaissance.

To celebrate the release of the Herrensauna x Carhartt WIP capsule collection, Cem and MCMLXXXV conducted a mix for Carhartt WIP Radio that features the galactic sounds of Icelandic producer Volruptus, and abstract electronics from Kenyan artist Slikback. We spoke to Herrensauna’s founders, and their long-time friend and designer Mauro Ventura, discussing the evolution of Herrensauna, how the pandemic reinvigorated underground scenes, and changing perceptions of queerness.

The Herrensauna x Carhartt WIP capsule collection will be available at at Carhartt WIP Store Berlin Mitte, Highsnobiety Shop, Voo Store and wearetaboo.co.

Before establishing Herrensauna, you were already making waves in your hometown of Vienna. Can you tell us more about this?

Cem: Yeah, we were already doing parties together in Vienna, at first individually, as I already had a party with my ex at the time. Then Cem and I joined forces. The name Herrensauna is actually inspired by a gay sauna in Vienna.

Nicolas: Yeah I had my own party called “Sodom and Gomorrah”, which grew to reflect its name more literally. In the beginning it was linked more to Electroclash.

Cem: This was all in Vienna. Nicolas was also already playing at local clubs like Flex, where he first started. Then clubs like Pratersauna came, and we began doing parties there.

So you essentially created your very own scene in Vienna?

Cem: Well, you probably couldn't call it a scene back then. You couldn’t be that queer like now. We always felt like there was something missing in Vienna. It was very corporate. And I felt like all the gays that lived there lived a very normal life, based on a good 9-5 job.

Nicolas: Yeah, plus they tended to like more commercial music. In general, it was more pop culture than techno.

Cem: But it’s changed a lot. In times of post-globalization and the internet, everyone seems so much more connected now. All these new art school kids that we know from Vienna are so much more experimental with their identities and the places they go to.

Nicolas: Social media has really helped progress things since we left, and it’s connecting younger generations so much more. We didn’t have such a voice before.

Then you came to Berlin, which has a long-running history in techno, and began running events. What did you want to add to that history when you started Herrensauna?

Cem: We didn't want to add anything. That's why the first parties were supposed to be really small. Everything was already there, we just wanted a little space for us.

Nicolas: We just wanted to have our own thing but then all of a sudden, just like that, it became huge. We wanted to create something very open that didn’t mean you had to stand in a long queue for hours and all that stuff, you know. It was about creating something that was more intimate.

Cem: That was exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to play a smaller role, dedicated to the core values. We wanted to make the party more comfortable and more accessible for our visitors. Not so much institutionalized. In bigger clubs you have certain principles that must be fulfilled. We wanted to avoid these things, like selection on the door, for example.

Nicolas: Yeah, total freedom. Which also means that the security leaves the guests alone, that must be assured. The security people must be okay with what's happening. You just can’t do a Herrensauna party in venues with conservative security staff, they would be shocked. Also sometimes, something as small as a look can make our guests feel insecure. We don’t want that at our events.

Has that been hard to achieve, both in and out of Berlin?

Cem: Well, we’ve even experienced intolerant behavior in Berlin, but we’ve spoken to the people in charge afterwards. We had one incident at our last party at Funkhaus where a member of security spat on a trans friend of ours and made transphobic remarks.

Nicolas: The problem with that was that she was the head of the security. But yeah, these things still constantly happen. We need to be aware of it and make conscious effort to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The good thing is you feel that most promoters all over the world are now putting these values on top. That's really beautiful.

Cem: We also never thought about promoting our parties with specific references to freedom. We thought that it would seem a bit opportunistic to do it that way. That’s why we also stood against putting out a manifesto. We always really wanted to just keep it very open.

Nicolas: Exactly. A lot of parties post rules on Instagram. We never did that. We only communicate rules with the club venue itself so that the people feel safe inside.

Cem: We don't use freedom as a promotional gimmick.

And now, after two and a half years of lockdowns and setbacks from Covid, how are you planning your return?

Cem: We are trying to get our events connected to more intersectional, artistic practices. That’s why we work very closely with Mauro Ventura, who has developed a new aesthetic identity for Herrensauna. Plus, we've worked on this collection with Carhartt WIP, and prepared a zine featuring all the artworks and their development, which will be sold together with the clothes.

Mauro Ventura: I feel like for me, for example, these kinds of drawings I did for the designs are always so vulnerable and can be difficult to do, so it’s good to have such a strong bond with Cem and Nicolas. I’m able to show elements of the process and how we worked together to evolve them. That’s why the zine was so fun to do.

What were your inspirations behind the designs for the Herrensauna x Carhartt WIP capsule collection?

Nicolas: During the first summer of the pandemic, we felt that underground scenes were really reconnecting, because all the big clubs were still kind of paralyzed. So we came up with this idea of an underground renaissance in Berlin, as so many people were working together again. We started to evolve the renaissance theme and view it through a Herrensauna lens. My favorite theme of the Renaissance was always Saint Sebastian, who has become the saint of the queers. Historically, he’s come to be associated with pandemics: first with the Black Plague, and then during the AIDS pandemic and with AIDS victims. So, for us, it was an interesting idea to take this figure and explore what it means in a contemporary context, where it becomes more universal.

Do you feel now that you’ve gained all these skills and experience, it can be difficult to re-capture that innocence and curiosity from when you first started?

Cem: This is a huge dilemma that we constantly encounter. Also, for me personally, knowing that we unintentionally created a monster with this heavier sound that's been unrelentingly pushed since we started, I now have the desire to really deliver something more eclectic, so that’s become a challenge. But that’s a lesson learned. And it's good because it allows us to get more creative and focus on maintaining a certain energy.

Mauro Ventura: I think that’s the spirit that you both carry. It’s like, no matter what, you always go for the uncomfortable option. I’m sure if the next big thing is being totally eclectic and hybrid, you will try something else.

The harder sounds you’ve been known to play are more common in Berlin. Is it hard to bring this sound to other cities?

Nicolas: It’s the opposite. Other cities expect us to play this harder sound, whereas here, people are more open to whatever you want to do.

Cem: It’s funny because my opinion always changes about it. But I agree that in most cities, except in places like France or in Amsterdam, they just want the music hard.

Nicolas: Some people go in with so many expectations that they might not even check if our sound has shifted stylistically.

Cem: Yeah, most of the regulars at our parties know that we represent a variety of sounds. Even if the main floor is quite techno-focused, we do have other floors, where we book so many different artists that don't have that association. It’s really important for us to keep a diversity of sound.

Would you say that Herrensauna events have pushed people into being more creative?

Cem: Yeah, that’s happening for sure, and we’re keeping an eye on it. It might not be in a direct sense like, ‘Hey, we want you to become something.’ It's more like an observation. It's really important to just quietly observe what's happening around us.

Do you also feel that people who regularly attend your events are more compelled to explore queerness and fluidity?

Cem: Sure. I've seen so many.

Nicolas: Yeah, people also tell us this a lot. Especially when we travel. In smaller places that are usually not so queer-friendly, they are very grateful to us, and they share their happiness with us.

Cem: I mean, we even had one guy that wrote us this huge message, where he said that he basically came out at our events, went through the whole coming out process, and is now openly gay.

Nicolas: Yeah, those moments are so beautiful.

In addition to hosting parties and DJing events, you also run a label. How did you balance this with what you’re already doing?

Cem: That's definitely something we had to learn the hard way. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of back and forth, a lot of communication. I’m glad we have some helping hands with these things. But I mean, I think we started just when the pandemic hit so we were also intentionally a little slow, because we were waiting for things to reopen. We also want to release vinyl, which currently takes ages. But we want to stick to releasing records.

What’s next for the label?

Cem: We have a compilation series which I think is nice to keep going, because it invites a lot of unknown artists to participate. And then we have one full EP in the pipeline by Volruptus from Iceland. He makes remarkable electronic music, kind of edgy, microtonal trance music in the Aphex Twin direction. The idea is to get more proper features out, more EPs. But also, the compilations will continue, because it’s fun to create this kind of base.

Nicolas: It’s a great way to do curational work. We're constantly on the lookout for new artists, which is also a by-product of DJing. And it’s great because you get to meet and know a lot of new people, while constantly digging for new sounds. So there's always a bit of fun involved when searching for the right people.

Do you plan to release more music that falls outside of standard club rhythms?

Cem: Yeah, of course. Our musical tastes are so much broader than what gets played at our parties. My desire would be to open the doors and widen it a bit more. I think we're already trying to step away from solely four-to-the-floor music. It’ll still be dance music, obviously, just more experimental, more hybrid.

Mauro Ventura: With the label, we’re trying to do something that’s pushing the boundaries of dance music. Pushing the boundaries of genre, and that's exciting.

When you host your parties in other cities, do you have input on the space itself, and its overall design?

Cem: It’s hard to say, it depends how deep the collaboration is.

Nicolas: Sometimes it’ll feel more like a showcase where the party is about the music. But we try to ensure that there is the right attitude within the space. Sometimes we also just produce our own event.

Cem: For example, in Amsterdam, we collaborated with Draaimolen festival for Amsterdam Dance Event 2021. This was a full-on collaboration. The event was in a warehouse in the outskirts of the city next to Garage Noord, and the space hadn’t been used for a party before. So that was pretty exciting. We did the curation and interiors together with Draaimolen.

Nicolas: Yeah, we like that. We recently started hanging textiles and artwork around at our parties, and we always try to have good lighting to create an atmosphere.

How would you describe your crowd?

Nicolas: Fabulous. That’s why we’re ambivalent towards no-photo policies, because the people at our parties look amazing! Photos, in the right situations, when people consent, are fine. Not when explicit things are going on, however.

Cem: I think capturing moments is great. It’s appropriate to just document how people dress up. It’s totally fine when it happens without invading other people’s privacy.

Do you feel that the open-minded Herrensauna spirit also inspires people in other countries?

Cem: Yes, totally. So many clubs now have guidelines where they clearly state something against homophobia. Statements that we hadn’t seen before when we started touring. We see these a lot now, and it's good. It's good to know that there’s a growing awareness and support, especially for those who feel threatened. Places like Bassiani in Georgia have always placed such huge emphasis on creating a unique safe-space of their own in a very Orthodox country. I think it’s great that they’re standing firm.

Nicolas: Instagram and social media have also made such a huge change, by allowing these values to be transported around the world. And it’s also good that we have such a big straight following, you know. Hopefully, all their kids will have it so much easier to live openly queer if they want to. It’s a big honor for us to be able to change people’s perceptions on queerness.