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Hypnotic post-indie hotchpotch: Von Spar | Photo: Christian Faustus

Back on the guitar trip

created by Lennard Itzler | |   urban culture

Cologne’s indie scene is flourishing again

Cologne’s buzzing indie scene bridges the gap between the krautrock legends of the past and the music of the here and now

The city of Cologne has left its mark on the history of music. From Stockhausen to minimal techno and of course rock in the style of bands like BAP, who sing in the local dialect. But Cologne-based indie rock seems to have had a problem with its public image in the past. And the stratospheric rise of the city’s minimal techno, also known as the ‘Sound of Cologne’, didn’t help matters either. But times have changed: the guitars are back.

Sure, the Von-Sparr-Strasse in the district of Mülheim may not be Cologne’s finest address. It’s not exactly the kind of place you would want to celebrate your wedding, put it that way, but thanks to the lack of competing attractions, affordable rehearsal space is its big draw. One of the best-known Cologne indie acts not only started out on this street, they even named themselves after it: Von Spar, a hypnotic post-indie hotchpotch that even dabbles in dance and trance. The band has reinvented itself many times in its 15-year existence, but all the more reason to consider them one of the figureheads of a new “Sound of Cologne”. The four musicians have long since abandoned their former rehearsal room on Von-Sparr-Strasse, but have hung onto the name, as well as their penchant for krautrock. At Cologne’s annual Week-End-Fest, Von Spar, together with Stephen Malkmus from US band Pavement, dared to perform an entire album by the band Can. Von Spar and acts like them bridge the gap between the local krautrock legends and buzzing new musical acts of the here and now.

The indie scene shows all the signs of Cologne’s colourful cultural diversity

Barrenstein, however, has less of a patina. The band, fronted by songwriter Max Barrenstein, released their first EP in 2017, but has already garnered quite a lot of attention. So much so that Max may well be able to soon give up his part-time job as a cinema usher. Because, in the meantime, Cologne has learnt how to rock — and the three twenty-somethings are putting their own spin on it. But if the mere thought of rugged guitars and German lyrics sends you running for the hills — think whiney men with emo-attitude — then you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Barrenstein, who prefer to focus on rock greats like The Jam, Motörhead, The Kinks and Tocotronic and play charismatic tracks with pithy lyrics.

Sweaty nihilists: Astairre | Photo: Anna Lisa KonradAstairre take more of a gloomy route with slogans that reveal a sweaty nihilism. After all, it takes a certain panache to pull off lyrics like “I hate my friends, and I think they hate me”. But they’re a perfect fit for the raw sound that adds even more emphasis to the driving rhythm than the howling guitar. Astairre, whose band members hail from Bottrop but have since moved to Cologne, have been highly lauded for several years now, especially when it comes to their genre of hyper-emotional, bone-dry neo-rock.

But enough of the testosterone for now — let’s take a break from the textbook set-up of sweat-soaked rock dudes. After all, Cologne is known for its colourful diversity. And a cultural alternative can be found hidden away in the wasteland of a re-purposed industrial site right next to one of the city’s architectural behemoths, the District Court of Cologne, a monstrosity of a building. At the AZ, the Autonomous Centre Cologne, you’ll likely bump into one of the scene’s most interesting local bands — when they’re not in their rehearsal rooms that is.

Sans Gene consists of four women from the LGBTQ community who play music veering between theatrical German pop, riot grrrl influences and screamo elements. By day, the lead singer Rike is an actress, but also regularly attends silence seminars. So it’s not exactly surprising to find this clash of contrasts echoed in their music.

A bit further out, across Innere Kanalstrasse, is Ehrenfeld, Cologne’s boomtown. The gentrification of Venloer Strasse, the district’s main thoroughfare, has brought massive change in recent years. It has certainly become more aesthetically pleasing, but the rising rents and realisation that a proliferation of organic wholefood stores and burger joints does not equal diversity is providing food for thought. Thankfully, the gentrification trend is less pronounced in the western part of the district. There’s plenty of scope here, with affordable rents and an authentic jumble of buildings. But if you manage to take the right turn between hardware superstores, industrial sites and the notorious Sonic Ballroom, you’ll end up in the back yard of Studio König where the TV show “Neo Magazine Royale” by Erdogan’s nemesis, comedian Jan Böhmermann, is recorded. And at lunchtime, you might even catch a glimpse of Albrecht Schrader in the deli around the corner. Even if his hair is thinning slightly and his name makes him like someone out of a World War II documentary, he’s actually (still) young. This year he took over as bandleader onBöhmermann’s show, where he sometimes joins in with nonsense intros and conducts a small, somewhat crazy TV orchestra. Away from the television stage, however, Albrecht Schrader is a serious pop musician who has just released a solo record with renowned Berlin-based label Staatsakt. The lyrics shift between surreal and melancholy, earning him a reputation as a Rhineland version of Andreas Dorau.

But the rumour that Cologne has so much more to offer than just electronic sounds has luckily spread far beyond the Rhine over the last few years. Moving to Berlin is certainly not the next logical step it used to be for the local music scene: staying put is now a viable option. Listen for yourselves.

(by Lennard Itzler)