"No use permitting
some prophet of doom
to wipe every smile away.
Come hear the music play..."
Cabaret – Music: John Kandor / Lyrics: Fred Ebb
BERLIN IS WARMER than usual for this time of year, with weeks on end of near perfect summer weather. From an Australian point of view this warmth is distinctly home-like, discouraging remnant thoughts of the Wall and Nazism or anything like the Cabaret shadows of the Weimar Republic. No, they all seem a world away, like an old movie, a distant song.
Instead, everyone here is on pushbikes and bells are ringing. The wide streets are drenched with sunlight and people are flooding into the parks of one of the greenest cities in Europe, designed in the open manner that the 19th century Prussian capital was intended to be experienced. The city is light. And it moves to a whirring easy rhythm that could sedate you with joy.
Above me blue skies are pinned to a gospel of brass green church spires. It’s only the memorials that stop you in your tracks; that stab with a tear and the unexpected weight of history. Their names alone tell the story.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas – is a five-acre block of blank cemetery slabs meant to represent each page of the Talmud. It has a small, often overlooked museum below it where handwritten notes and letters that survived the Holocaust are buried into glowing floor panels and translated for your sorrows: “goodbye father”, “what future”, “mud and blood in my ear”.
Across town the Topographie des Terrors documents the former headquarters for the SS and the rise of their infernal bureaucracy, a museum of photos and facts that looks like a Bauhaus aviary of aluminium and glass placed in a wide field of pebbly slag. Close by there’s a preserved section of the Wall for you to parade beside, the graffiti on it faded, but easy to read, and strangely alive: “fuck this”, “LOVE”, “mary was here”.
Old hands shake their heads and tell me Berlin is not what it used to be, that even the weather here has changed permanently. No one can imagine what it was really like. The bullet-riddled facades are plastered over now; the vacant lots like missing teeth in the skyline have been built on and filled in; the unremitting greyness painted in colour! Why, once upon a time…
IN A TYPICALLY SHADOWY hinterhofe (apartment block courtyard) a dozen or so adults and children are gathered round a picnic table celebrating the fine weather. As their talk echoes up the concrete walls, into a framed patch of sky – an archetypal Berlin ‘view’ – it becomes obvious this mix of Germans and Australians are musicians, artists, translators and writers.
They’ve dragged a boxy-looking television out into the open and mounted it on a bar fridge filled with beer. Football fever has the city in its grip. On the television Australia and Ghana are slugging it out in a preliminary for the World Cup and groans erupt as an Australian player is tripped mid-field on his way to what looks like a certain shot at goal. The free kick feels like paltry compensation.
“You can’t buy back momentum,” I say. A young man next me agrees with an intensity that surprises me. “You’re dead right there.”
This is how I meet the 30-year-old singer and songwriter Ned Collette, formerly of Melbourne, now Berlin. “Came here six months ago with my band,” he says. Pretty soon we’re talking about everything from To Kill A Mockingbird (“We’ve just discovered how good audio-books can be when we’re on the road”) to the virtues of an obscure Elton John album called Madman Across the Water (“back when he was skinny and cool”). He says he named his backing group Wirewalker after seeing the documentary Man on a Wire (2008), the story of Philippe Petit’s illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974.
YOU CAN'T ALWAYS TRUST a single blaze of light but when Ned Collette and Wirewalker finish their set a few nights later at a small bar on Schonhauser Allee it’s hard not to feel witness to something major. As he walks off-stage dripping sweat over his star-white linen suit I notice a girl retreating from front of stage after an hour of furious dancing. “I haven’t cut loose like that in six months, it was just fantastic,” she says. “They were like some kinda Melbourne Crazy Horse up there!”
The allusion is apt. Collette’s thinly bearded, white-suited look is pure Neil Young circa On the Beach and he has that same mighty guitar sound to incendiarize his songs at will. But his group Wirewalker don’t mimic Crazy Horse’s epic garage rock sound, nor does Collette limit his playing to Young’s levitating, fiery chords.
Instead three-piece unit – guitar (Collette), bass (Adam Donovan) and drums (Joe Talia) – fan out into jazzier positions that hint at early 70s troubadours like Tim Buckley when his ecstatic performances went sea-like and experimental; the addition of some keyboards (James Rushford) also recalls the textured, ambient influence of one of Melbourne’s most under-rated musical icons, David Bridie. Then there’s the parched singer-songwriter on electric guitar stuff that implies Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt have been on Ned Collette’s record player at home, though his singing voice is so sonorous the results remind you more of The Drones at their strine-ishly articulate and devastating best. The dominant impression one takes away from the show is that of heat, a curiously Australian aesthetic signature.
Collette first made an impression back home as the leader of an improvisational and mostly instrumental Melbourne band called City City City. Towards the end of their run he began to sing a few songs. By the release of his solo debut, Jokes and Trials (2006), he’d evolved into your archetypal singer-songwriter – with a textured taste for arrangements that weaved electric Australian folk-blues in the grand tradition of early Paul Kelly, some beautiful finger-picking guitar that hinted at Nick Drake, and a pastoral psychedelic wash indebted to Pink Floyd’s original Mad Hatter, Syd Barrett.
The guy could obviously go anywhere and on his second album Future Suture (2007) he did. Collette’s electric guitar work developed a distinct Neil Young smoulder to it, orchestrated arrangements for trumpets and strings appeared, and a much greater use of tape loops and sampling suggested further ambient depths. The record was a triumph but it was hell to play live and Collette took to drinking heavily to calm his nerves.
Like-minded souls saw the possibilities anyway. Smog’s Bill Callahan invited him on a national tour of Australia; Joanna Newsome took Collette on the road to Europe; Camera Obscura invited him across for a series of UK supports. Holed up in Glasgow, Collette developed his most complete set of songs to date, backing away from the introspective singer-songwriter approach and seeking out something more observational. “You just get sick of yourself,” he says to me as if it’s a question rather than a statement. His broadening perspective was also entwined in the formation of a full-time band and, Collette admits, “letting go of the control I’d had as a solo artist”.
After writing off their first attempt to record his new songs Ned Collette and Wirewalker would turn to the American producer Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits; Sparklehorse; Elvis Costello). Over the Stones, Under the Stars (2009) emerged with all the astral spaciousness its title suggests, combining the intimate coherence of Jokes and Trials with the depth and range of Future Suture. The new record even loosed a memorable single in ‘Come Clean’, a tersely stroked ballad set in a “little town [that] has gone to sleep”.
Collette says he was inspired by seeing The Lives of Others and reading Stasiland to weigh up what it means to live an honest life in a compromised society. Poised to break through onto another level with ‘Come Clean’ in Australia, Collette moved to Berlin and left Melbourne behind him.
COLLETTE WORRIES AWAY at the band’s scope when we speak after the show on Schonhauser Allee. “I think our biggest challenge is limiting ourselves,” he says by way of confession. Both he and drummer Joe Talia graduated with honours degrees in modern composition and improvisation from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2001. “I’ve spent years trying to get away from it and really simplify things,” Collette says, describing the study as “disintuitive”.
One hears this struggle with sophistication across Collette’s records. Ambitions that can disperse the unity of the songs or, perversely, be suppressed just when you might hope for an even grander latitude to unleash itself. There’s also a self-conscious literariness that does not always hit its mark, puns. With Over the Stones, Under the Stars, Collette actually refers to songs as “chapters” at one point. I’m struck by the novelistic equivalent he is seeking to make on record.
“Inventing characters that are rich and deep seems like an excellent pursuit to me. And I’m trying to get away from me and my life,” he says.
Collette’s mother, New Zealand born Susan Hancock, studied at Oxford and taught English Literature at La Trobe. She has published a book of short stories, Sailing through the Amber (1997) and a Jungian study of children in literature and fairytales entitled, The Child that Haunts Us (2008). His father, Adrian Collette did his thesis on Henry James and also tutored at La Trobe, later working in publishing before becoming CEO of the Australian Opera.
Though Collette is an only child and his parents long since separated, he can detail half brothers and sisters from his mother’s earlier marriage and his father’s three marriages that “make it for a complicated family to explain,” he says with a laugh. It turns out that Collette’s Sri Lankan grandmother (on his father’s side) was a cousin of Michael Ondaatje’s grandmother, the one so startlingly depicted in the climactic drowning scene to that author’s travel memoir, Running in the Family. “It’s the same story and heritage,” Collette says of the Sri Lankan connections, “it was a pretty small community.”
“So I’m essentially a first generation Australian and my family doesn’t have a lot of history there, really. I guess I always thought I’d end up living overseas for some time.” There’s a sense that this drives the floating quality within his music. It’s roaming, dreaming energy.
“It does frustrate me that a lot of bands show up who are like contemporary copies of old things,” Collette says. “And in Australia’s case a lot of bands that have been successful over past ten years have often had one or two years of great success as nothing more than carbon copies riding a wave of nostalgia before they disappear again. I don’t want us to be associated with that.”
He talks by contrast about bands like The Drones and Augie March and The Devastations in particularly loving terms. “They’re bands who don’t fuck around. They’re complex and deep and thoughtful. That’s a tradition I am proud to be a part of, which is strange for me as I shy away from meaningless generalisations. But I do like to put my name to it when people here ask me where I am from and I can say ‘Melbourne’.”
The definitive evocation of that city’s rock ‘n’ roll dreaming for him is the instrumental group, Dirty Three. As a student at VCA Collette says he despised all the jazz nerds with their love of guitarist Pat Metheny and the endless complications and frills to their playing. On his own guitar case he pasted a picture of violinist Warren Ellis. “And people would still come up to me and say ‘Is that Pat Metheny?’” he laughs.
“There’s this aural quality to the Dirty Three, an Australian sound… whatever it is, they have it in spades! When I hear them it makes me think of 30 degree days and hot sunny laneways in Brunswick and North Carlton, and corrugated iron.”
Collette almost sounds homesick at this point. Sitting outside in the warmth of the night after the show, ne nonetheless compares his life in Berlin now to a potential one in London “where everyone I know has to bust a gut just to get by. Things are easier and cheaper here, slower. My work comes together haphazardly, so I need the time and space. A lot of people say Berlin is like Melbourne, so it’s not a terribly adventurous choice for me to live here,” he admits with a shrug.
“My routine here is pretty loose. The city feels vast and open… and there is a feeling of space and a sort of strange under-population,” he says. “There is that feeling of history, obviously,” he says, “but also that I’m 30 years too late for a crazy, interesting city. Sometimes it feels like a place where all these people have come without really knowing why they are here.”
IT'S CERTAINLY AGES since David Bowie evoked the mood of West Berlin in the funereal instrumentals that so startlingly filled side two of Low, or crooned and cried his heart out over Robert Fripps’s guitar drones to forge an unlikely Cold War love song for the title track to Heroes.
Ages too since Iggy Pop improvised a lyric about travelling through “the city’s ripped backsides” in ‘The Passenger’: an observation on a then divided Berlin’s post-War condition as well as his friend David Bowie’s capacity to take detached advantage of any situation as “he rides and rides” through it all.
Loosely known as ‘the Berlin quartet’, David Bowie’s Low (1977) and Heroes (1977) and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977) would form a sonic and imagistic template rich and risky enough to inspire vast swathes of the post-punk musical era to follow. Not bad for one year’s work in a foreign city.
Bowie would return to the city to perform a live set at the Brandenburg Gates in 1987. He made sure the PA system was turned toward the East as a 1000 people gathered out of sight and over the Wall to also listen to his show. When he sang ‘Heroes’ the voices of the East chorused above a listening West German audience: “And the shame was on the other side, and we kissed as though nothing could fall…”
U2 would visit the city in 1990 with Bowie’s other main confrere, the producer and conceptualist Brian Eno, to reinvent themselves as a post-modern rock ‘n’ roll band turning radically to the future on Achtung Baby. The Wall had just fallen; Germany, and thereby Berlin, were being formally united – there was an ecstasy here in the ashes of history.
Recording at the legendary Hansa Tonstudios had as much to do with U2’s renewed, deep, dark, alive-in-a-room sound as Eno’s ambient influences and lateral suggestions. Studio 2, or ‘Hansa by the Wall’ as it was more commonly known, was a former Nazi ballroom, a room freighted with ghosts and superb acoustic properties to match.
That the Hansa building was still half ruined from bombing during the war, leaving it standing alone amid overgrown, vacant lots, only added to its symbolic power. Once upon a time West Berlin too had been an island of capitalism and democracy within the East German totalitarian wasteland. At Hansa you could lean out a tiny window as David Bowie once had and look over the remains of the Wall where he had seen the lovers kissing who inspired him to write ‘Heroes’ most famous lines.
Synth popsters Depeche Mode became a seriously moody and credible stadium act by recording in this studio throughout the 80s. Nick Cave practically owned it over that same decade, first with The Birthday Party in their death throes (‘It’s a Wild World’), then across a string of acclaimed solo albums with his backing band the Bad Seeds – recordings stained in Weimar reds and blues and clouded in the exile of heroin addiction. No one caught the German Romantic ethos of ‘sturm and drang’ (“storm and urge”) quite so deeply in a modern context as Nick Cave, manifest not only in his bohemian lifestyle but also a cinematic, spiralling depth in the Bad Seeds music that U2 would feed off for textural innovations of their own.
Come to Berlin, all these artists seemed to say, to be born anew and journey darkly. Everything from Wim Wender’s 1987 film Wings of Desire (in which Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds appeared) to Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland continue to reinforce that font of inspiration for Australians. But it’s the Nick Cave connection that has proven particularly enduring. Indeed it’s hard to meet any Australians in Berlin today who are not from Cave’s hometown of Melbourne.
FORMER BAD SEEDS like Mick Harvey and Hugo Race continue to visit Berlin and play to devoted local followings to this day, maintaining connections that go back three decades. But Race is sceptical of any ongoing Melbourne-Berlin axis. “Personally I think the two cities no longer have a real bond,” he says. “In former times they had the commonality of being isolated – one by politics, the other by geography – leading to the creation of these intense, introspective scenes. This is no longer the case.”
“What I see are foreigners under the illusion that Berlin has something for them, and what these musicians need is some imagination. For example why not move to Kiev or Skopje instead of Berlin if you are looking for inspiration and new stimulus? Berlin used to have the kind of edge and appeal that these cities have now. But who is going there from the next generation?”
Grand Salvo’s Paddy Mann has recently been performing around town for the past few months. He delivers some of his cracked and tender country Death songs in a final intimate gig at the Sofa Sessions, a showcase afternoon event held at a private apartment where underground folk acts and poets converge and artists hang everything from photos to animated illustrations on the ‘gallery’ walls.
Speaking in what seems like an assured murmur, Mann says he was “attracted to Berlin mostly by its atmosphere… a kind of protected and livable existence that at the same time vibrates with this dark intrigue and restlessness. It’s welcoming in a strange aloof way, and also a little Melbourne-like while being utterly different. In fact it’s lots of things at the same time, often contradictory: dirty and clean, easy going and rigid. Boozy idleness flourishes but so does a rigorous artistic integrity and exploration, often in the same people! No one’s here to make money, everyone shares ideas and time. Perhaps I'm romanticizing it, but I’m leaving [now] with a vague sense of regret.. ... I have to admit I've never owned a Nick Cave album. He's just 'been around' so much over the years I feel I haven’t really needed to.”
“And yes, Berlin has associations rich in death and it’s hard to avoid constantly ruminating on its past, particularly with the ‘stolpersteine’ [literally ‘stumbling blocks’: brass name plates created by the artist Gunter Demnig which he places among over a cobblestone to commemorate where people lived before they were taken during the Holocaust] that peer up at you on any given street.”
“But my record Death is coincidentally about guilt and an effort towards redemption, which I think is more about what Berlin is today. It’s a very self-aware city and is very open and active in coming to terms with its role in World War Two atrocities. I think it’s a positive and important attitude, particularly coming from a country that can’t even admit its own humble efforts at genocide.”
IT TURNS OUT the Sofa Sessions in Berlin are run by another young Melbournian singer-songwriter called Sam Wareing, who performs under the moniker of Ms. Sam. In trying to explain the Melbourne-Berlin axis she’s far more enthusiastic than Race, talking about “an aesthetic sympathy between the two cities. Melbourne’s the most European of Australian cities. Broadly speaking, I think they [Melbourne and Berlin] share an intellectual, melancholic, angular, monochromatic, anarchic feel. Long, grey, grim winters….”
Wareing hesitates, reaching for something deeper to explain the seductions that still draw so many young Melbournians to Berlin over twenty years after Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds evacuated the city. “Perhaps it’s a peculiarly middle-class Melbourne rebellion [that leads us here],” she admits, “like all the kids memorialised in Dogs In Space. Berlin seems more ‘real’ for the incredible, fractured and living history in every street, more ‘dangerous’, mythical maybe, and a lot more free than Melbourne too.”
“Somehow it's a city of hope and collaboration, not [dominated by] sad old losers bitching about the past. Except the ‘Friends of Nick Cave™’, my friend’s term for all the hangers-on that litter Berlin,” she says.
It wasn’t so long ago that Rolling Stone Germany cited The Devastations for debut album of the year in 2004. The Melbourne group have gone on to do a film soundtrack with Alexander Hacke of with Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), without doubt Berlin’s premier avant-garde musical act. Ironically enough, Einsturzende Neubauten’s legendary guitarist and singer, Blixa Bargeld, is best known outside Germany as one of Nick Cave’s most critical collaborators during his tenure (1983-2003) with the Bad Seeds.
As for Ned Collette, his experiences of the city don’t necessarily conflict with Race’s contempt for false nostalgia or Wareing’s more impassioned insights either. “Songs are starting to come here – I mean I always have things bubbling away, but I don’t know if they are a result of the city as such. They aren’t about Berlin,” says Collette. “They are a result of having some time alone though and that’s that sort of enforced exile coming into play I guess.”
It’s in comments like this that Race’s word “introspective” flares back up. So many artists responding to Berlin have been forced to turn deep inside themselves for inspiration. Songs like ‘Heroes’ and ‘One’, brilliant as they are, are actually anomalies; the Berlin aesthetic is more usually withheld, distant, solipsistic, hedonistic, mysterious: Bowie’s post-apocalyptic instrumentals on Low; Iggy Pop’s sado-masochistic jive (“love’s like hyponotizing chickens!”) on Lust for Life; Nick Cave’s enclosed universe of grotesques, murder and gnawing blues across albums like The Firstborn is Dead, Your Funeral…My Trial and Tender Prey.
Lou Reed could even put together an iconic rock ‘n’ roll album called Berlin (1973) without ever having visited the city, drawing on the Brecht-Weill flavours of the Weimar era and connecting them to his suite of songs about a drug-withered love affair. “Hey honey, it was paradise.”
THOUGH HE CURRENTLY plays bass for Ned Collette, Adam Donovan is better known as the guitarist for Augie March. Donovan is only filling in while Wirewalker’s original bassist Ben Bourke stays at home in Melbourne with a newborn child. Once Bourke rejoins the unit at the end of 2010 Donovan will then shift to guitar and the band sound will naturally expand.
Donovan tells me he calls the rest of Augie March “the four wives”. They weren’t happy with how their last album and have “taken a hiatus, I believe that’s what it is called in the industry,” he says tartly. “So with the burden of having to be in the same place as the other guys removed, I thought I had to go somewhere.”
He decided on Berlin because he wanted to learn German, and he’d heard the city had an interesting music scene. Simple enough. “I remember when I told a friend of mine, who had done this before, that I was making the trip his only words were, ‘Good Fucking Luck.’”
Musically Donovan can’t see much of a happening local music scene at all. In fact the most interesting thing he has seen in Berlin was Grand Salvo. “Moving from Melbourne, which has one of the richest music scenes I’ve seen anywhere in the world is going to mean any other city will be slightly disappointing,” he says, as if to console himself.
Wirewalker’s drummer Joe Talia has not bought into the mythology of Berlin at all. He says, “the city feels lazy to me, like a big playground”. So much so Talia prefers to stay in Melbourne and visit Berlin as touring and recording with Wirewalker necessitates, though he’s attracted to the city’s experimental musical history which takes in everyone from Neu! To Einsturzende Neubaten, bands that don’t so much influence Wirewalker as encourage a commitment to something bolder and singular.
Ironically this feeling of being on your own in Berlin is something that seems to offer Donovan respite as well as disappointment. “Trying to make a start in a new territory is always difficult. And when you arrive with hardly any contacts and support you have to rely on the music. What do you do but have faith in your music?”
“The songs are what holds bands together and the industry is what tears them apart,” he says with some zeal. “So yeah, essentially we could be in any city in the world.”
“Berlin just allows us to be creative without spending much money and still enjoying what the city has to offer [including easy access to the rest of Europe]. Ned and I are still checking it out, trying to get a feeling for what transpired here. From getting lost on the way home after a night of cheap beer and cigarettes to visiting Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp on the edge of the city which is now a tourist attraction. But the words ARBEIT MACHST FREI on the entrance strips any inkling of it being just another tourist attraction away.”
“We also went to the old Stasi headquarters museum. Great furniture but poor policy as it turned out,” he says. “I can’t remember where I heard the quote but it was something along the lines of, ‘You can’t build a Wall unless you are prepared to kill people.’”
"IT IS REALLY HARD not to get caught up in the many stories Berlin holds,” Collette says as if there’s a trap to all this. “It has seen so much in it’s relatively short life and that is impressed upon you all the time.”
“Last night with some neighbours I got up on the roof to watch a storm come in and saw the whole city spread out under a very dramatic Berlin sky, and it occurred to me how strange it must have been for people to do that thirty years ago realising that half that city was completely inaccessible to them. It’s very affecting.”
Collette talks of the way “the city feels vast and open. I like to take advantage of it by just riding around. There are so many galleries and museums and monuments, and this feeling of space and a strange sort of under-population.”
Perhaps it’s the intensity of the history that also creates a sense of some ghost city parallel to the present one? Collette is not sure, but his new songs do deal with questions of identity, something he connects to the way people now live online. “There is a theme emerging of how roles are played out in society rather than actually inhabited,” he says. “Roberto Bolano keeps coming back to that idea of ‘semblance’ in [his novel] 2666; and I recently saw the Australian opera 'Bliss', from the Peter Carey novel, where the protagonist feels like he is surrounded by actors in hell rather than real people.”
The after-show crowd is slowly thinning out around us. Characteristically of Berlin, everyone is jumping on their pushbikes and whirring off along the Schonhauser Allee. Collette happily nurses a beer but his conversation runs deep. “I did a TV interview in Austria recently,” he says, “and the interviewer asked me why my songs were all so sad when I didn’t strike him as a particularly sad person. The question flummoxed me a bit and my response wasn’t very insightful.”
“I've been thinking about it a lot and it occurs to me that an artist doesn’t have to be in a particularly dark place to be able to comment on the abyss that we all walk beside, as humans, throughout our lives. Life can be perfectly pleasant on a day-to-day level while at the same time revealing there is a massive void beside us, and that void can be totally unrelated to the happy and immediate events that occur in our lives.”
Collette motions his hand, to the dark, to the city maybe, to us. “I think the void is essentially death, which is unknowable, and which all the terrible things that we encounter in the human race essentially leads towards - our terrible treatment of each other on a grand scale as a result of manifestations of power, corruption, betrayal, etcetera. And for me, all good art dares to look into the abyss, and songs don’t necessarily have to sound sad to address it, and if they do ‘sound’ sad they aren’t necessarily futile - sometimes they can just be an acceptance of the uncertainty we all face on a bigger scale than the small things that make us happy, or at least make us seem like fairly relaxed people.”
“And even if you can’t offer a solution, just to accept this is important,” he says. “At some point it seems to me that his was the domain even of pop music, though I rarely encounter that these days.”
While he is talking Collette has set down his beer and started strumming his unplugged electric guitar lightly, as if to help organize his thoughts and get nearer to whatever it is he means. It’s the encore tune to the set he just played, ‘Somewhere in the Middle of the Road’. Collette doesn’t sing the words, of course, but they float up into the night sky on silent thoughts anyway: “O my heroes take me towards the light.”
- Mark Mordue
* An edited version of this article first appeared as a cover story for The Weekend Australian Review on October 23rd, 2010
CREDITS: Leading colour portrait of Ned Collette by Anna Steele. Portrait of Ned and Adam Donovan, and black-and-white shot of Ned, both by Esther Michel. Painting of hinterhof sky view by Heinrich Zille, early 20th century German artist described as 'the purest incarnation of Berlin'. Other images sourced from internet.