Hamburg newcomers Der Ringer are soon to release their first album. In advance of the five-man band's appearance at the Reeperbahn Festival, we took a stroll around St. Pauli with them, played Playstation in the Beatles' old flat and talked about Diskursrock.
Photos: Torben Weiß
Why are we meeting at the Kitty? The pub on St. Pauli’s Feldstraße won't be open for a few hours yet. “It's quiet here, and we have a key,” replies Jannik Schneider. We fling the windows wide open to dispel the cigarette smoke from the night before. Jannik, mid-twenties, dark fringed haircut, is normally to be found behind the bar here, tapping beer. Today's his day off and he's waiting for his fellow band members.
Jannik is the vocalist with Der Ringer – one of this year's most interesting musical projects. Their first EP appeared under the Hamburg label Euphorie in 2013. Their debut album is to follow in the spring. We've arranged to take a walk around St. Pauli with the band before their performance at the Reeperbahn Festival. Even today, the Hamburg music scene congregates around the Kiez, St. Pauli's entertainment district, at clubs and concert venues – and pubs like the Kitty.
The other band members gradually drift in: guitarist Jakob Hersch, bass player David Schachtschneider and his brother Jonas, who forms the electronic heart of the band. They became friends through the then-popular music portal MySpace, all of them thought the others' profile songs were cool. They were 15 years old and looking for musical soulmates in their home city of Hamburg. Percussionist Benito Pflüger, originally from Marburg, joined later.
Their first rehearsal room was in the cellar of a squash club in Krupunder, the no-man's-land where Hamburg and Pinneberg meet. “It was cold and we got incredibly ripped off somehow,” recalls guitarist Jakob. Today, Der Ringer still rehearses below ground, but at a more central location in Hammerbrook. “Right below the car park under the track of the city railway. Where it looks like it could be Brooklyn”. Somehow or other this secluded location suits their sound, which is vulnerable and emotional, but not whingeing. At times it sounds spheric, electronically alienated, then come these sudden, brutal moments that challenge everything. The band invented its own genre for it: soft punk.
We leave the Kitty, cross Feldstraße and approach the former flak bunker on the other side. This colossus, almost 38 metres tall, was completed in 1942 and has never shaken off its menacing World War vibe to this day – even though the subculture has been playing for years behind its thick walls. In addition to the online radio station ByteFM, the flak tower houses the music club Uebel & Gefährlich. Der Ringer has been on stage there before, and will play there again in the future as the support for the Indie band Isolation Berlin.
“Uebel & Gefährlich is a genuinely exciting club. The bookings are extremely diverse,” says Benito. They were there yesterday to fine-tune their sound with the new sound engineer. We take the lift to the top floor to look down over the city from the roof terrace. Bass player David knows every inch of the way – ever since the time when he locked himself out on the terrace by mistake. In winter. He had to walk along the broad parapet to find people who were looking out at a window and would let him back into the warm.
We won't have to suffer that fate today: the air still has the balminess of late summer and the roof is locked. The Reeperbahn Festival is in frantic preparation mode, the terrace is not accessible. Over a period of four days, the largest club festival in Germany will stage 50 concerts at 70 venues around the Reeperbahn, with a fringe programme of conferences, art events and readings. Acts include Der Ringer, who will be performing at the Prinzenbar.
Our next stop is at the “Corner” in Thadenstraße. That's where vocalist Jannik lives, in a shared flat with beautiful wooden floorboards and a view of the Italian restaurant where rap crew 187 Strassenbande often hold their business meetings. “The Beatles used to live in this flat,” he tells me. How fitting.
In his flat-mate's room there’s a lava lamp beside the bed and a big TV set in front of the sofa. Jannik and Jonas play FIFA 16. The virtual space is one of the themes addressed by the band in its lyrics. The question “What is the digital world doing with our humanity?” is a thread that runs through the songs on “Glücklich” (“Happy”), their latest EP. It's about virtual identity, human robots and big data – not exactly the classic themes of guitar music.
Benito: “Indie and rock are always a bit backward-looking. Everybody takes Polaroid snaps, heroin is cool but laptops are not. But we don't think the here and now is at all bad”.
Jannik: “For many people, there's something cold about things like the Internet. But there's totally a lot of romance in it”.
Jakob: “What's warmer than a laptop on your lap?”
Jannik: “E-mails have also developed as a form of communication. There's just as much love in them as in letter written with a fountain pen”.
Benito: “A Facebook chat is nice as well. A big emoticon says a lot more than “Best regards, George”. I get goosebumps with these things”.
We move on, loafing along the Wohlwillstraße (St. Pauli's front parlour), past the Kleine Pause pub. At this point the Kiez is a cosy village. Generally speaking, Hamburg isn't a bad place for a band to develop, says Jonas. “You don't get lost in the throng here, but there's still plenty going on and people who want to do something will find each other more easily”. A lot happens in the city centre, in St. Pauli and in the Sternschanze district (the “Schanze”). “But the club culture is now moving to other places, it's decentralising,” says David. “Then exciting, sometimes temporary concepts materialise, like the Kraniche bei den Elbbrücken or the Moloch at the Oberhafen”.
These experimental locations in Hamburg's nightlife aren’t all that easy to fit into popular categories – something they have in common with Der Ringer's music. Is this Hamburg School “Diskursrock”, a German genre of lyrics-focused music, because the sound is heavy on guitar and the lyrics are intellectual? “That’s easy to say,” says Jannik. “But we would reject the idea that words are the sole distinguishing feature of a discourse”. The music is often dismissed as a vehicle of lesser importance. “With us, the two levels have to interact. The lyrics only take on meaning through the music”.
We go on, along Clemens-Schulz-Straße. Just another 250 metres to the Kiez. At the corner of Hein-Hoyer-Straße, Jakob points to Larsen's driving school. He passed his driving licence with them – at the third attempt. “But to be honest it's not that easy when your evening drives start practically on the Reeperbahn”. We cross the Kiez. The Spielbudenplatz is jam-packed, the Reeperbahn Festival already under way. There’s a queue of visitors at the information point, beside them vendors of elaborate screen-printed posters made for bands like The Black Keys or Muse.
We turn off left after the Davidwache into Kastanienallee and head for the club where Der Ringer will be performing. The entrance to the Prinzenbar is ringed with outdoor broadcasting vans. The five musicians peek through the crack in the door. Very quiet. But all the same, there's more going on than when they last appeared here. “That was about five years ago. And only ten people turned up,” Jakob says with a smile. This time, the joint will probably be packed.