By that time Golden Pudel was heaving. The wooden venue's tiny interior has room for about 200 people, but maybe triple that number were there that night, spread out in the garden and up the stairs on the hill outside. They'd been waiting a while for Hall to show up, and now it was time to let them down. Ralf Köster, Golden Pudel's main booker and charismatic leader, took the mic to make an announcement.
Meanwhile, Hall's agent called Becker: "Where are you? Kyle's at the airport." He turned his car around and called the Pudel as he drove. By then the music had been turned down and Köster was addressing the crowd. "I said, 'OK everybody, Kyle Hall will not be here tonight, if you like you can get your money at the door.' Then someone shouted from the bar, 'No, Ralf! He's coming!' So I said, 'Alright! Let's carry on then.'"
When Köster and Becker tell me this story, we're sitting in foldout chairs with most of the Golden Pudel family on the club's empty dance floor. Köster, whose appearance has accurately been described as "Santa Clause on acid," rocks around in his chair as we talk, occasionally making weird outbursts that crack everyone up. Sitting next to him is his longtime friend and DJ partner, Tim Lorenz, a man with the look of a math teacher you might end up smoking a joint with. There's also Nika Breithaupt, who does a night at Golden Pudel called Next Time under the name Nika Son, and Kris Jakob, the newest member of the family, who just put out a record under the name F#X on the club's label, Pudel Produkte.
Interviewing the group is like having dinner with a big family: lots of laughing and lots of stories, with everyone stealing each other's punch lines. They've all been a part of the Pudel for different amounts of time, from less than a year to more than a decade, and they all share the labor involved in running it. The same people who DJ and host nights also serve drinks, man the door and help clean up the next day. All of them are in love with the club. "Sometimes I sit here at night and think, 'This is the best place in the world,'" says Lorenz.
It's easy to see what makes Golden Pudel special. It began as a punk club, and still has that spirit. Entry is always between five and zero euros, and there's no guest list. A former smuggler's prison, its slouching A-frame sits at the bottom of a hill, next to a busy road and under a pedestrian overpass. The inside is all wood paneling, plastered with stickers and remnants of old flyers. There's one small bar, a small dance floor, a narrow garden outside and a toilet not unlike the iconic washroom at CBGB. (Most of what is now the dance floor used to be a toilet, which explains the condom machine on the wall.) The DJ booth has two turntables, one CDJ and no monitors (one of the PA speakers can twist around if necessary).
Most importantly, the music policy is 100% open-ended. "That's the punk thing," says Jakob. "You can do what you want." If that means going ambient at peak-time on a Saturday, so be it. This is partly because of the atmosphere inside—with just a few red bulbs and a disco ball, nothing sounds out of place—and partly because of the club's expectations. "You can stand there and play records without caring about mixing, so if it works it works, if it doesn't, OK, next record," says Lorenz. "Feeling that free, it's part of the club."
"Some maybe fear the Pudel because it's so free," Breithaupt says, somewhat ominously.
"Years ago, Mix Master Morris said to me: 'This 4/4 stuff, it's fucking German marching music,' and I think it's true," says Köster. "I really like techno and house, but the whole night, it's really not for me." For him and other members of the Pudel crew, weekends at the club pale in comparison to weeknights, when the music is even more unhinged.
"You can play everything, a krautrock record, then something electronic, some noises, sounds of birds or whatever, some freaked out jazz," says Lorenz, who hosts Sunday nights with Köster. "And if you have a very bad crowd in," says Köster, "I play Venetian Snares records and 20 minutes later it's empty and we start again!"
"That's so fun!" says Breithaupt.
This approach, at once humble and radical, has given Golden Pudel a passionate cult following. In Hamburg it's a pillar of the community. Punters and artists stop by two or three nights a week just to have a drink, chat with whoever is there and see where the night takes them. And it's a favorite among DJs from beyond Germany. Ben UFO and Miles Whittaker have both called it their favorite club in the world (the latter lists his hometown as Hamburg on Facebook for this reason). After Objekt played there in the summer of 2011 he wrote on his Facebook wall: "a club built not of bricks and mortar but of vibes alone."
Naturally, much of the vibe is down to Golden Pudel's crowd, which the club's cleaner describes as "explorers, students, Pudel freaks, art freaks, fashion freaks, homeless people and over-40s." ("And wizards," Köster adds.) Everyone is down-to-earth. The last time I was there, I spent most of my time in a corner by the DJ booth. My neighbors were someone doing an Ian Curtis dance and three young hipsters—two girls and a boy—who took turns making out all night. After a while the Ian Curtis guy suggested we all introduce ourselves. "We are the corner family," he proclaimed.
Meanwhile, Helena Hauff, a resident at Golden Pudel, played a set that instantly made her one of my favorite DJs. She started the night with dark and cosmic ambient, slowly introducing dreary rhythms as the room filled up. For hours we heard mostly darkwave and electro, occasionally augmented by an acid house track. Her guest, D Cosmo, followed suit, sometimes upping the pop ante—Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" came sometime past dawn. Most of it was as seamless as a techno set, but neither DJ was scared to raise or drop the tempo dramatically, forgoing beat-matching when they needed to.
A big part of what makes Golden Pudel unique is its willingness to keep changing. In the 24 years it's been open, a revolving door of staff and ideas have kept it fresh. "Pudel opened in '89, as a squat pub where there were some punk concerts," says Köster. "Back then we had just one record player—"
"And the microphone," says Lorenz. "There was one turntable, and a microphone taped to a whisky bottle, so you could say something in between the songs while you changed the record.
"The original owners were Rocko Schamoni and Schorsch Kamerun, these iconic punk guys from Hamburg. They invited us. In the '90s they could see this trashy punk attitude didn't work anymore, they needed some new, fresh blood and they asked guys like me and Tim to make events. Since then we've always brought in more of our friends, too. It's very important for a club, to have fresh ideas every time. It never freezes, it is always moving. That's very important, the evolution in a club and also in the music. We started playing ambient sets."
"Or we are playing breakcore," says Köster.
"Sometimes. Or really cheesy happy hardcore. Or dark industrial noise, drone noise."
"Lawrence also slipped in around this time. It was him who said, 'Listen, we need to get a second turntable.' So the second turntable was his fault."
"It was then, slowly but surely, that electronic music started to invade the club."
You could say the reverse happened as well. In the '00s Golden Pudel quickly became not only Hamburg's best club, but also a breeding ground for some of the city's most-loved musical exports. Once he'd wrangled in that second turntable, Lawrence launched a weekly Dial residency with Carsten Jost. "They did such a good job," says Breithaupt. "The room would just be dripping in sweat." Years later, the Smallville crew would earn their chops there as well. Before long, Golden Pudel had a reputation that lured in artists that should have been well beyond the club's means, such as Four Tet, Modeselektor and James Blake.
But even as Golden Pudel's clout increased, its ethos stayed the same. "We pay no big fees," says Köster. "We pay the people that work here, we pay them very fair, but it's not possible to pay a normal DJ fee, so we have to make a deal with the artist directly." Most artists who play the Pudel stay at Kogge, a punk hostel where you can rent a room for less than 50 euro a night (I had the pleasure of staying in the "show room," which gives people on the street a clear view of the guest in bed).
when they know that nobody here is
doing it to make money."
"We never sign contracts, never, ever, ever," Köster says, and admits that most DJ riders are ignored. When Jamie Lidell asked for a private room where he could warm up his voice, he was advised to find a secluded spot down by the harbor. If someone asks for a special entrance, they are instructed to climb through the window behind the DJ booth.
Most artists are more than happy to oblige. "Because of word of mouth, because of all the DJs telling each other that it's really great to play here, they'll play for much less than normally," says Lorenz.
"And everyone knows we only take three or five euro entry, when it isn't free," says Köster. "Artists are willing to play for less when they know that nobody here is doing it to make money."
In this sense, Golden Pudel represents an ideal: a place where money isn't an issue because everyone involved, from the staff to the crowd to the artists, loves the place so much. Köster says that Golden Pudel quite simply operates "with no financial constraints." That this is even possible for a nightclub, most of which endure crushing overheads, is extraordinary. In fact, the idea that you can create an exceptional club that's loved all over the world precisely by undermining all of the trappings of the industry—booking agents, contracts, publicity, DJ fees—is pretty radical. Punk, even.