The extended weekend singled out for my refresher's course certainly gave cause for optimism. Superpitcher, Sven Väth, Deetron, Surgeon, Kevin Saunderson and Agaric were to be the protagonists of a party play in six acts over three days. Even Erick Morillo was thrown in for good measure. An impressive schedule, I thought: a mix of respectability and room-fillers, hopefully splitting a plume of hairs along the house-techno spectrum. This coupled with a mid-September forecast that basically screamed scorchio, I was concerned I may end up ruing my decision ever to have left.
Tempering my excitement was the sober fact that Madrid, and indeed the whole of Spain, has largely failed to engender any kind of identifiable scene or sound to hold up alongside those of, say, Berlin, London or Paris. Postulations as to why this is have mostly painted a picture of a country still engaged in cultural catch-up following decades spent in a totalitarian wilderness, although, as I was to find out, there are in fact more immediate causes behind its stunted growth. "The main problem with Spain at the moment is the crisis," says Ulrike Schönfeld, a German national working for booking agency, FSM. "This is something that most of my friends back in Berlin don't understand: just how deep in crisis this country is."
Spain's current economic problems have of course been well documented, and I half-expected my nights out to be dispirited by broke, lacklustre attendances. It certainly felt this way one hour in to Thursday night's billing of Superpitcher at Mondo (handily located a few paces from the city's epicentre, La Puerta del Sol), though any early-door loneliness turned out to be more the result of my poor time-keeping than austerity measures. Despite strict, nationwide club-closing hours of 6 AM, Spaniards don't tend to file out until around 3. By the time the Kompakt star took to the decks at 4 AM (on a school night, remember) the place resembled a sardine tin, with plenty of wriggling and squirming to shell out the hefty sums of 5€ for Budweiser beer (not the cool sort, the watery American brand—a Madrid omnipresence unfortunately) and upwards of 8€ for anything else. Crisis? What crisis?
"It's no surprise Mondo packs out on a Thursday," Adrián de la Heras, also of FSM, assures me. "Most people get in for free on the guestlist." Indeed, the clipboards at the door looked like manuscripts for War and Peace, and with 50% unemployment amongst young people in Spain, Thursday seems as good a day as any to let one's hair down.
I arrived at Mondo not long after midnight, an error I shan't repeat in Madrid. For two hours I surveyed an all-but empty room—impressive as it was with a sunken dance floor, lit underfoot, and eye-catching symmetry in the layout—whose resident DJs seemed unfamiliar with the concept of the warm-up. Whether to one person (me) or 600 (the rest who came later), they banged it out as if every passing second were a brand new peak of its own. "Yes, we like it hard here!" retorts Adrián. Indeed.
How, then, would this melee of fist-pumpers react to Aksel Schaufler's oddball sounds? Perhaps the German would give in to the crowd and ramp it up some? Lo and behold, he began with breakbeat. And a drawn-out, slow number, too. There was a deflation on the floor as people adjusted to the new pace, but, interestingly, and without any sign of a compromise from behind the decks, it was not long before fists were pumped and whistles wolfed once again. Does Madrid really just like it hard? Or is that all Madrid ever gets?
"In Madrid you have to battle with the type of club owner who only thinks about making a quick buck," argues Damián Schwartz, one of the city's most venerable exports. "Someone who knows nothing about music, or what sounds are developing in other parts of the world at any given time. With this attitude, they've managed to drive the soul out of most clubs here. Everything is a question of marketing and names. No one cares about the long-term, about educating the crowd to create something lasting." His words sound damning, but it's a sentiment that crops up often in my conversations with local artists and DJs.
"Most of the clubs here are built to make money and not out of passion," laments Miguel Barros, AKA Pional. "In Madrid all you seem to get are big names from the tech house scene and this annoys me. I'm tired of it. I feel more at home on labels a long way from Madrid like Hivern or Permanent Vacation. They're more open, they like to diversify. I don't see myself as a Madrid artist at all. 99% of the people with whom I have an artistic relationship in Spain are from Barcelona." Both Schwartz and Barros, despite their international acclaim and demand, are barely ever asked to perform in their hometown.
Such impressions were hardly going to be dissuaded by my next whistle-stop—Sven Väth at the 1,500-capacity, Sala Macumba. This is the party that my lunch companions from earlier, Ulrike and Adrián, were curating. Their company, FSM, is responsible for bringing a lot of the oft-discussed big names to the city, which is understandable, given the size of the venue it is tied to. "Competition is fierce," says Ulrike. "During the last few months (of crisis) a lot of places had to close and most of the others are just fighting to survive. Everybody wants to have the biggest names. Even the smaller clubs are trying to bring in the stars, just to fill up the clubs."
It's hard to imagine any of them putting on as impressive a spectacle as Sala Macumba. The one room it comprises is a sizeable beast. Oval-shaped bars dot the space, but all attention is drawn to the altar at the far end—a raised stage of impressive proportions behind which shapeshifting visuals are beamed from a mammoth screen. Size clearly matters here, but Macumba's trump card is what it does with it—namely, the soundsystem.
"There are lots of rules governing noise pollution in Madrid and these have become a deciding factor in dictating which soundsystems are used and how," Pional informs me. It's certainly understandable: Madrid is a densely populated metropolis, and most of the clubs are located in the thick of residential districts. Consequently, of the things to write home about from this trip, sonic satisfaction is not one. Macumba, however, is an exception. Located a healthy distance from downtown in a nocturnally derelict shopping arcade, its sound is unrestrained and fully utilises the room's acoustic potential. If ever there were a showman to max this place out, it's Väth. Predictably, it went off.
Defiantly humming the words "Yo soy como soy y no voy a cambiar"—etched on my brain by the thousand-strong unison clearly delighted by Sven's penchant for the Hispanic—I made my way from Macumba and headed back to the centre. Deetron was playing at Pirandello II, a stone's throw from the Plaza de España. The night was called Playback, helmed by residents Simón García (of Supplement Facts), Txetxu Lacroix and David Ponziano, and it has brought the likes of Dixon, Lee Curtiss and D'Julz to the city in recent months. A more intimate affair than the preceding behemoth, the Swiss DJ played an excellent set for a willingly bendable crowd. After yet another round of fist-pumping to the tune of Alexander Robotnik's 'Les Problèmes d'Amour," my mind was made up: tech house bangers are no more a part of Madrid heritage than they are anywhere else.
"In general, it's the DJs themselves who tend to take the risks, promoting their own parties to bring in artists from outside of the norm," claims Simón García. "These people would probably never come if it weren't for our private gambles, which are vital in maintaining a less business-like scene." Playback clearly stands out with its attitude here. They're a hospitable bunch, too, and as the bell tolled six, instead of being cast out into taxi-pumpkins with the other Cinderallas, they whisked me away to the bête noire of Madrid clubbing—the afterhours party.
The word tapa in Spanish literally means "cover," and derives from the old practice of using saucers as lids to protect drinks from fly-infested bars. The more creative barmen across the land soon began to garnish these saucers with morsels of food, giving rise to the bite-size free-for-all we now know as tapas.
Staples include: tortilla española (Spanish potato omelet), ensaladilla rusa (lit. "Little Russian Salad"—tuna, peas, egg, potato, mayonnaise), morcilla de Burgos (a Spanish variation on the black-pudding theme), patatas bravas (chopped potatoes in spicy sauce), chorizo frito (fried chorizo), albóndigas (meatballs), pimientos de padrón (deep-fried, salted chili peppers) boquerones en vinagre/fritos (pickled/fried anchovies), pulpo (squid), oreja de cerdo (fried pig ear).
Typically most bars will offer a small portion (un pinchito) of one of the above for free each time you order a small beer (una caña) or glass of wine (red/white—vino tinto/blanco). Visit enough bars and dinner is taken care of, though if you'd rather avoid having to top up with booze at every mouthful, branch out into the world of raciones—portions to be shared amongst friends. But, with the whole mundo and his hermano claiming to serve the best, the question is: where to go?
In Madrid, the secret to good tapas lies in staying off the beaten track. Prepare to be accosted by enthusiastic, well-dressed waiters lurking on every street corner, but learn to stay strong and decline their luring advances. They're invariably the front men to overpriced tourist traps, whose establishments may look authentic but normally serve industrially produced garbage. It is behind the less conspicuous, often tacky-looking, doors where special family recipes are guarded and tall tales of tapas begin. The following places are recommended:
Cabo Finisterre (Calle Chinchilla, 7) – This small Galician restaurant, a short walk away from Sol, is a cave of delights no matter the time of day. Breakfast includes arguably Spain's finest pan con tomate (two lightly toasted half-baguettes smeared in a deft blend of tomato, garlic, salt and olive oil—served with coffee); for lunch take the bocadillo (sandwich) de tortilla (served thin and slightly runny—the two surefire signs of quality in a Spanish omelette) and dinner is all about their signature dish of pulpo a la gallega (Galician-style squid served on a wood board with various herbs and spices).
El Tigre (Calle de las Infantas, 30) – A tiny bar in the Chueca district, complete with cutre (crappy) airbrush artwork to complement its tiger theme, El Tigre is frequently packed out by devotees to its secret salsa brava recipe. The three brothers who run it are generous folks: simply by ordering a small beer you are served with a hearty plate full of sautéed potatoes, meats and cheeses all drenched in the magic sauce.
Casa de Asturias (Calle de Agumosa, 4) – Located in the colourful Lavapiés district, this restaurant specialises in two things: scrumpy cider (traditionally poured from an acrobatic height in order to oxidise the beverage before it reaches your glass) and eggs. Huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) might sound like a fairly inauspicious dish, but these Asturian combinations including wild mushrooms (setas), cured ham (jamón ibérico) or hake (merluza) make them taste anything but.
The fun, for me at least, lasted till around midday. Fortunately, Madrid is a fascinating place to be if you can't sleep. If you are looking for tranquillity to allow the temporary tinnitus to subside, I would recommend a day-pass to the Golden Triangle of Art—three world-beating galleries located in close proximity to one another, perfect for the weary partier. First is the Prado, home to masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez and Titian.
It's big enough to warrant a weekend of its own, so perhaps stick just to those three before heading off to the Thyssen-Bornemisza, which boasts as comprehensive a collection of styles and periods as you are likely to see in Europe (Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Hopper are among the many highlights). Last but not least is the Reina Sofía, the current resting place of arguably the 20th century's most important work of art, Picasso's Guernica, though this is not especially recommended the morning after the night before.
So, with the balance of wholesomeness at least part-way readdressed, it was back to work. Saturday night was to be the famous Fabrik club with Morillo, Surgeon and Kevin Saunderson (the latter two in its neighbouring "Satellite" branch), but here I must make a confession: I never made it. The round-trip taxi ride costs upwards of 100€ (they bend the truth when they say it's in Madrid) and, after two nights of dubious sleep, I had neither the energy nor the money to get there.
The next time I visit, I shall make sure it coincides with one of Fabrik's legendary "Goa" parties (the first Sunday of every month), as everyone I spoke to, regardless of stylistic persuasion, singled out its 15,000-strong mini-festivals as a must-see. In lieu, I was ably catered for by Agaric performing at club Maxime, before rejoining Pional to see his friend, Baughman—a veteran of the scene with long-standing residencies at places like Mondo and the wistfully remembered "Low" parties—who was playing the sort of records back at Pirandello that were seemingly tailor-made for my last hurrah in Madrid to end on a high note.
"The clubs here had more identity in the past," Javier Orduña, the promoter and DJ from Maxime, tells me. "The residents were key and their work was incredibly important. Now only the big names sell, and the local DJs have fallen off the scale." There seems to be a certain longing for times past among the Madrileños. Pional is similarly nostalgic: "I actually have Mondo to thank for my career! I was inspired to start making music ten years ago at the age of 16 after sneaking in to see a relatively unknown Nathan Fake play there. Back then it was more open, there was a lot more variety."
The financial crisis has evidently hit Mardrid's clubbing landscape hard. As the struggle to survive intensifies, so does the scramble for instant bankability, all of which comes at the unfortunate expense of local imagination and character. When we leave Pirandello at 5 AM on Sunday morning, however, it's only to be met by a rambunctious traffic jam. The streets are still littered with merrymakers, making it clear that one thing most certainly has not been shaken: Madrid's fondness for the fiesta.