Herrensauna Dreams Its Way to Brooklyn

Herrensauna Dreams Its Way to Brooklyn

Story by Tobias Hess / Photography by Emilio Tamez
Apr 17, 2024

“The idea of the American dream still is so alive,” Nicolas Endlicher tells me, crouching animatedly on a small couch in Bushwick. The Austrian-born, Berlin-based DJ, known to most as MCMLXXXV, speaks about the US in a way I rarely hear. Wide-eyed and dreamy, the co-founder of Herrensauna — a roving techno party that has come to represent a certain queer futurity to dance music enthusiasts around the world — is smiling, his blue eyes ablaze with faith. “The struggle may be very hard, but at the end of the day, everything is possible.”

He’s surrounded by a cozy crew comprised of fellow Herrensauna founder Cem Dukkah (Cem) and DJ residents Mauro Ventura (DJ Saliva) and Salome Gvetadze (Salome). Modelos and cigarettes in hand, the conversation lilts in a familial patter. It’s mere hours before they’re set to perform at Basement, the labyrinthine club in Queens that has come to define New York’s post-pandemic techno boom. Sensing my surprise at his optimism, Endlicher looks at me before diagnosing Herrensauna’s disposition: “[We are] the German dreamers.”

If the description strikes you as potentially oxymoronic, you wouldn’t be alone. The cultural ideal of “Berlin techno” evokes expansive possibilities but also harsh and rigid boundaries which, to the outsider, can read as deadly serious. That Herrensauna exudes something much warmer and more joyous may, ironically, explain how they have come to represent the vanguard of global club culture.

Herrensauna started as the sweaty, chaotic project of Endlicher and Dukkha, who were teenage lovers in Vienna before they both moved to Berlin and became creative partners. “Now, we’re like family,” Dukkha tells me. He balances Endlicher's giddy buzz with something more coy and tranquil. “It’s really cute.”

Beginning in the dingy basements of Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood, the party, and its surrounding artistic offshoots, has grown considerably over the years. They have residencies at New York’s Basement and Berlin’s Tresor and tour the world, working like a magnet for techno enthusiasts from Tbilisi to Medellin. Their record label, which they started during the pandemic, serves as a hub for their expanding sonic explorations. And they have collaborated on clothing projects with brands like Buffalo Source and Carhartt. Though the familial ethos reigns, Herrensauna (the business, the brand, the community) has become something much larger than an intimate project between friends.

Today, Herrensauna is considered emblematic of a harder, faster sound, as well as a DIY ethos and a gender and sexual diversity that serves in stark contrast to the hegemonically gay and male Berlin scene of yesteryear. There’s nothing wrong with any of these pillars, especially the latter, but the Herrensauna crew is too fluid and impatient to find themselves stuck within an easy narrative.

“We started the label to showcase the different styles coming to our events,” Dukkah reflects. “Herrensauna became this techno monster.”

The residents are a key part of Herrensauna’s aim to expand what “Herrensauna” (the adjective, the idea) may mean. Gvetadze, who originally hails from Georgia, was the first resident to join. Her style veers towards electro, with her own production percolating with skittering synth arpeggios. “It was the most special thing because I was the first addition,” Gvetadze remembers. “It was unbelievable.” And Ventura works double-duty as a resident DJ and Herrensauna’s chief visual curator, helping to hone their look, which they define as “tactile, physical,” and in your face “like propaganda.” In addition to Gvetadze and Ventura, Herrensauna’s residents include SPFDJ, Jasss and Brazil’s own Silm Soledad, whose union with the crew was just announced in February.

After Dukkha jokes about the courting process for Herrensauna residents, I express my surprise that anyone would hesitate to join their ranks. Ventura responds: “It's also a burden. Once you start playing [Herrensauna], people really expect something. It's up to you [whether you] deliver that or throw a curveball.”

That service-oriented aspect of DJing can rub against Herrensauna’s free and flowing spirit. Though techno and club culture are often talked about within a lofty, philosophical frame, the blunt fact is there is a lot of money and a lot of bodies in this business. And in Germany, where cultural institutions are state-funded, artistic speech can clash with the government’s continued, full-throated support of Israel and its related campaign of censorship. “There are a lot of voices speaking out [in solidarity with Palestinans], which is great. But it's difficult,” Dukkha reflects. “We live in Germany. If we want to show solidarity [with Palestinans], we still have to work with these spaces.”

In January, the Berlin Senate introduced a law that would require any recipients of public funding to declare themselves opposed to “any form of antisemitism” as defined by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), which controversially categorizes a “manifestation” of antisemitism as the “targeting of the state of Israel.” Notable DJs and collectives who were vocally opposed to the Israeli government’s policy of bombardment and starvation in Gaza were barred from playing in German state-funded institutions, including some of Berlin’s most respected clubs. The Berlin Senate would go on to drop the policy, but only after pushback from over 5,000 cultural workers in various open letters, including the likes of photographer Wolfgang Tilmans and DJs Arabian Panther, Lydo Li and CCL.

That environment of censorship and suspicion remains, though, and the public conversation regarding the limits of artistic free speech in Germany has done immense damage to the image of Berlin as a bastion of multiculturalism and liberatory expression. Endlicher, whose mother is Jewish, even found himself moving back towards Vienna after Palestinian solidarity protests were violently beaten down by the police near his home in Berlin. The decision was informed by personal factors as well, but the stifling atmosphere didn’t help. “I was like, Maybe, it’s time to leave,” Endlicher tells me. “Germany changed the narrative, but a certain kind of xenophobic, conservative resentment is still there. It just hides behind a wall of inclusivity, of open-mindedness, of progressiveness.”

And on top of that, there is Berlin’s institutionalized club culture, which brings with it a set of more rigid expectations, stylistic guidelines and, at times, general thoughtlessness. “[In Berlin, where parties] go on and on, you become so jaded,” Dukkah notes. “Berlin facilitates so much consumption.”

“It’s very spoiled,” Ventura adds. “It’s the opposite of Tsibili, [Georgia], for example, where people are thankful for every bit.”

All of this has led Herrensauna’s gaze to wander. Increasingly, they think of New York and the States as fertile ground to grow.

“[New York] is like a seed that is breaking out,,” Endlicher tells me, his eyes widening again. “[Parties here] attract an interesting crowd. You have to have a particular interest in [techno] and make an effort to go. It's not something that you just take for granted.”

There’s also a stereotypical American gregariousness that informs Endlicher’s faith in the States’ potential. “[In the US], people will randomly have a conversation with you on the subway. In Europe, people would be suspicious,” he shares. “I was the same when I came the first time to the US. I entered a store and they asked me, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I was like, I know you don't care. But actually, it's sensitive. It sets a nice tone.”

That tone, they tell me, extends towards what they describe as New York’s more generally collaborative ethos. “In Berlin, there's a big mystification of the art scene,” Ventura notes. “All the characters and all the workers and all the artists and everything [in New York] seems much more transparent.”

Jaded New Yorker that I am, I had my suspicions that Herrensauna’s glowing review of the States was colored by their already triumphant status in the global scene. The highs here are certainly high, but in a country with a nearly voided social safety net, the lows can be hopelessly, dastardly low.

But the paradoxical promise of Berlin could also spell why America calls. In Germany, clubs have the gift of state funding, but there are strings attached: explicit state censorship. In America, what do we have but the sink-or-swim chaos of gasping meritocracy: the promise, no matter how shaky or disproven, that all you have to do to “make it” is just keep going? I don’t believe it, nor would most if asked to debate it in a seminar room, but that dreary tenacity seems to jive well with the Herrensauna crew’s big-hearted chutzpah.

Their faith can be intoxicating. I felt it that night at Basement. I’m a frequent patron of the club, and, like many, have experienced the full spectrum of queasy queer experience inside its dim interior. Few nights there, though, have ever zipped with the buzz of Herrensauna’s. The music was vivid and playful, especially in the main room where sets tend to skew harsher and austere. I was knee-deep in the bender when Endlicher (as MCMLXXXV) finished his set with a plot twist: Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away.” The song ends with Peaches delivering the titular line over and over again, like a mantra, a twin testament to release and the insatiable urge to numb oneself. As her voice droned on, though, I felt something more akin to transcendence. Fuck the pain away.Away. Away. After a solid two hours of techno hypnotics, her simple poetry hit me. Away. Away.Away. The word spun around my mind and I realized I was repeating it as something more akin to “up.” I felt elevated. I felt good.

I moved through that night with a hopeful sway. As the evening churned on and four turned to five turned to six, I found myself settled in the green room. It was my first time in that exclusive cave, and I sat around the couches with the Herrensauna DJs and a trove of notables, including internet pioneer (and PAPER family) Blizzy McGuire and playwright Jeremy O. Harris I blinked at the scene around me. In that moment, Endlicher’s rumination on America’s possibility and promise felt fleetingly true. But then I blinked again. The conversation moved with zip and my words were turning to mush as the sky hued purple and then blue outside. I couldn’t see it, but the sun had begun to shine. I decided it was my time to leave. I suppose the day had started.

Photography: Emilio Tamez