"That's not Robert Johnson." Ata Macias and Flo Reinke tell Andrew Ryce why the beloved Offenbach club won't be holding any events until there's a Covid-19 vaccine.
The club's owners refuse to try reopening until they can properly reopen. This means no garden parties, no socially distanced raves, no designated dancing circles. In co-owner Ata Macias's words, "that's not Robert Johnson." The owners refuse to compromise on their principles, which is what made the small club such a gem in the first place. The team, then, have dug their heels in, relying on the kindness of fans, and a favourable relationship with their landlord, to survive. They've had a fundraising sale and are about to release the biggest compilation yet on their label, Live At Robert Johnson. Despite an uncertain future, they seem almost energized by the drive to keep the club alive.
Last week, Andrew Ryce spoke to Macias and Flo Reinke, the managers of the Live At Robert Johnson label, about the club's circumstances in 2020.
How have you been spending your time since the club closed?
Flo: The club closed a week before the lockdown. You know: not leaving the house anymore, taking more care of ourselves, focusing on the label, planning a few releases. It worked quite well for the first few months, less so once the summer months came. We have been working on this huge 21-year compilation. Then we started work on the SEE YOU SOON campaign. It was a lot of work to do, but it was successful—there's now a chance the club will survive. It's a weird time.
What was it like putting together the compilation when the club wasn't open? Did it feel different?
Flo: It was super interesting because we talked about the compilation in January. We sent out all the emails, we wanted to include people who were related to the club. We got more people than we expected who wanted to contribute. Then the coronavirus changed everything so we didn't have this straight timeline anymore. We wanted to release it for the birthday in June, now it's October. And that's okay. It was all about releasing music from people close to the club, 21 tracks for 21 years. And it happened, which is the important part.
Why did you dedicate it to Andrew Weatherall?
Ata: We've been friends for over 30 years. We started our relationship with Klang Elektronik and Playhouse and have been working together since then. For me he was the best DJ in the world. He was my favourite, and he was once a resident at Robert Johnson. I was totally shocked by his death.
The compilation has a relationship to our 21 years but also to Weatherall—"see you next time." It's not religious, but I was feeling that this was the only way to honour Mr. Andrew, to dedicate the compilation to him. This dedication is also not so important when it comes to press or anything. It's just for us. We love him. We don't need to put it on the big screen—that's what Kompakt did, that's not what we wanted. We wanted to make a good celebration of 21 years.
Weatherall was offered a gig at our birthday celebration this year. And one of the best stories in our history is that he was the last DJ playing at one of our other birthday parties, and when he played the last song, the subwoofers were burning. Like really, hell, they were burning. You know, 'cause they were going for three days. This is our relationship, and that's my relationship with him. So that's why we dedicated it—this masterpiece of a box set dedicated to the master himself.
Tell me about the SEE YOU SOON campaign.
Flo: We—Sandra, Patrick, Ata, Pascal and I—had the idea to give something back instead of just collecting money. So with the campaign there were posters and 21 club cards. The idea to work with artists who had a close relationship with the club, just doing something different than everyone else. There were 16 artist's multiples—the last one is out now, by Anne Imhoff.
Was it successful?
Ata: So many people were crazy about it. They were so happy to buy something and give a little bit more to the club. This is the only thing we could do to make money. We couldn't just ask for money. And we're happy because a lot of people are already asking when we're doing the next one, if we're doing it again. Maybe we'll do 12 items per year, because we think the clubs in Germany will still be closed next year. That's a big problem. Next year will mark one year and we're still dealing with all this closing shit.
What's the possible timeline for reopening?
Ata: There's no timeline. The government tells us nothing. We know what's going on worldwide, and we follow what's going on with the medicine and vaccine. We know that the clubs are the first things that had to close and the last things that will reopen.
Flo: Sometimes we think May will work. Minimum May to June next year, but it could be closer to October or November, depending on the vaccine. That's the only way you could reopen again with a full clubbing experience. We decided that we would reopen when we could have a full clubbing experience—it makes no sense otherwise.
Why is that so important to you?
Ata: A club, a dance floor, a sweaty dance floor, you know what it's like. Friends dancing together. For us that's really important. [Asks for translation for German word.] Sexual tension.
Flo: It's about the intensity of clubbing.
Ata: If you don't have the sexual tension on the dance floor, to get really close to each other and sweat, loud music, the light and the darkness. That's one of the key parts of having a good night. The good music, the intensity of the soundsystem, the people dancing. It's not possible to have a good club night if everyone is standing one metre away from each other with a mask on. That's not Robert Johnson.
Would you ever consider doing outdoor events?
Ata: It's the same problem. We're not a fancy club with multiple entrances or a big outdoor area. And you can still only have so many people and it becomes selective. We're not big fans of selecting people, or only taking people that have more money. We're one nation, we're one dance floor, we're one dancer. It's absolutely impossible to make a dance floor out of 250 people when it fits 700 people. It's a dance floor that you can't really dance together on. So it's impossible for me to even think about it.
Fundraising campaign aside, how can you keep the club alive for over a year with no business?
Ata: We are in a lucky situation that the owner of the building...
Flo: It's a rowing club.
Ata: The rent is not too much, and now we're negotiating to pay much less rent. The guys from the rowing club said it's possible, so we will talk about going really really low for one year. Then it'll be ok to have one year closed. Not like the other clubs, like in Berlin, where there are really big problems.
Have you had much support from the government?
Ata: Not really.
Flo: No, that's the main thing. We feel a bit forgotten by all the economic problems and resolutions. The clubbing, art and music industries, gastronomy... we have seen the income decreasing all over Germany. We saw yesterday, a decrease in spending by €17.6 billion, published in Der Spiegel. We all know that it's a big part of the economy, but no one really cares about it. There's not much support.
Ata: Electronic music is still in Germany—and elsewhere in the world—not "culture" for the government. They don't think of "culture" when they think of a good club. There are different kinds of clubs in Germany: some who mainly sell beer and gin and tonics, and others that have good programming, that keep culture, art and good musicians alive. We have a lot of discussions around this, like, "Berghain is not a club, it's culture." It's the same with Robert Johnson. You have ten to 20 clubs in Germany that are really serious clubs. They're not taken seriously. The government here, they don't go to the clubs, they're not involved, so they don't understand what we feel or what we do. That's the biggest problem.
Flo: The same problems exist with small theatres, venues, everything. It's now half a year in this pandemic situation and nothing. We'll see what happens.
There has been a lot of organization around clubbing and culture in Berlin. Is there anything like that in Frankfurt?
Ata: Not really. There are some people that have tried, but we don't have anything like the Clubcommission in Berlin. Although some people in Berlin say that the Clubcommission is bad, and then other some people say we need it. In Frankfurt, we've had some discussion with people at the Burgeramt, but nobody understands what's happening, really. We now have the opportunity to make four parties for ten clubs—so clubs can go work together—in a big centre, open air, but the regulations are so stupid. I'm like, "Okay, thank you never mind, I'll stay home and dance on my balcony with my friends, or with my kids, I'll have more fun."
Flo: It feels like doing something for nothing. That's just doing something in order to calm everyone down. It's not a real solution. If you think about it long-term, it doesn't work, it's going to get colder soon. And partying in view of the police, or other officials? That can't be a party in the context of what we understand as clubbing.
Have your ideas or feelings around clubbing changed after six months of not being able to do it?
Ata: Sometimes, I feel like, "OK, that's it." Other times you feel like you have to go dancing, go out and explode on the dance floor. Everyone's asking this question: what happens at the first party after reopening? Some people think it'll be like after the Second World War, like three days of partying. We'll see. It's impossible to understand. Like, not playing anymore on the weekends? It's crazy to have all this time on the weekend. If this situation keeps going on for another half year or one year, I'm not sure what's gonna happen to me as a 52-year-old man. Maybe that's it for me. Now I go home.
Flo: It feels a bit strange, and it's changing our entire routine and life. You know it as well as we do. Friday and Saturday, our routines have completely collapsed. There are small raves here and there, but I will not go because I think it's a little too risky. We'll see what happens with reopening. Clubs are closed for one or two years... nobody knows. It can't be calculated or predicted. Maybe people will get totally crazy or maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the club scene will need to just grow again, start over. But the most important thing is that people are safe at the moment. That's the most important thing.
The club isn't open at the minute. What's the most important thing to you about Robert Johnson or its legacy?
Ata: I think it's just a lot of special parties. People coming to us saying how much they love the club and everyone that works here. It makes you think that we did everything right, we did okay, so we can keep going on. There were a few parties where it's all just close friends dancing together, then you go home and have a good afterparty. It's a place to share music, a situation, a dance floor, friendship together.
Are you planning any changes to the club, or the programming, for when you reopen?
Flo: The club has survived for so long. There's a red line when it comes to how we do things, that's why it works as long as it has—21 years. We're not going to change the system.