Ralf Köster - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Ralf Köster


He is older than God and also owns more records. This is one of the many myths of Ralf Köster going around in Hamburg and its surrounding outskirts. The friendly man with the snow-white strand of hair, whose age is hard to guess, works as a booker and DJ in the legendary Hamburg Golden Pudel Club. Already for 17 years, Ralf, who originally trained as a hairdresser and worked in advertising, throws every Sunday the prominent M.F.O.C (Musik Fetischisten Ohren Charakter) Party in the small wooden cabin, down by the harbor.

With this, Ralf is one of the leaders of the last subcultural fortresses within the music milieu – and all of this without beer sponsors or a mobile phone. One could also identify him as a personified middle finger who manifested himself through a dodgy, but talented group of individuals in the nightlife, in the middle of the infamous fish markets.

Ralf and Pudel create the happy counterbalance of the traditional, entertaining culture program that exists within the licked hansa town. We met the extravagant man on a Sunday afternoon in Pudel’s garden, right before the usual soundcheck. With coffee in the left hand and a comforting cigarette in the right, Ralf narrates about the birth of Pudel. Meanwhile mobile phones are being fished out of the toilet, 3 teenagers are searching for their wallet, and Ralf himself is collecting the needed records, while simultaneously directing some Japanese guests on the autobahn through the landline, the relaxed club owner reveals the big secret that lies behind the club’s success and why he is one of those indispensable individuals residing in Hamburg.

From hairdresser to booker: How did you get to the Golden Pudel?
It was the beginning of the 90s when I visited Pudel for the very first time. It was even before people like Pete (Lawrence) began to professionally dj with two record players. Back then, there was only one record player and a bottle of Jim Beam with a micro around it. From 1991, Micky Nice, Tim Lorenz, and I began to throw the first parties in different locations and this is how M.F.O.C was born. At the first party, mix-master Morris and Move D were our guests. After that it was Rephlex- and Warp-Gang. We are still very good friends with these boys till this day. I think it was around 1996 when eventually Pete, Zoran, Dave, others, and I decided to get the second record player for Pudel.

What is a normal day at work for you?
I wake up at 10 A.M., go to the office, answer a few emails, perhaps book a flight or a hotel. Then I go home, eat well, sleep and wake up again. I do this about 6 days a week, and I am about 2 to 3 nights at Pudel. To go to the club every day would be a definite early-arriving death for me. But Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays are possible. What counts are the pauses in between those days. The necessary days of relaxation.

Pudel is internationally famous for its unique ambiance. There is the saying, “Every DJ should play at least once in their life at Pudel.” What lays beneath the magic of this place?
I once came up with this phrase to convince everyone that they should finally do it. Just like the saying, “There is no money, but everyone should have tried it once.” We don’t possess a massive sound-system that turns your guts upside down in the Pudel club. Here, there exists the feeling of ‘living in a box.’ Since it’s very tight and the podium is right in front of you, one is extremely close to the audience and therefore is able to listen to the original sound – the very same sound the public gets to hear. As well, Pudel consists of a lot of wood, which creates a very warm sound. But the extreme nearness to the crowd creates this infamous magic.

How does the crowd influence the ambiance of the place?
A crowd can be better or worse. Of course the crowd is naturally an important factor within the club scene and automatically determines the mood. Since Pudel is quite small, it only takes two idiots to mess up the entire party. This would not be a problem in a bigger space. But in general, we have extreme luck with our audience and have no reason to complain.

I am under the impression that on weekends most guests have this imprinted idea of Pudel as, “Cheap, they always play electronic music,” often not knowing who will be the DJ for the night. Are you under the same impression?
I would love if people were more interested music-wise and perhaps would ask what record just played, etc. But one cannot expect this. It would be amazing if people knew beforehand who was playing, but it’s also great if they just come and let the surprise take them. Both is ok.

Probably every club claims to be the best in the world – but what’s your personal, fundamental difference in regards to Berghain, for instance?
The beforehand described setting, as well as the fact that everybody who works here knows each other very well. Also, there are no financial constraints. In bigger clubs, it’s necessary to have a certain amount of paid guests and sales in order to have a successful night and prevent the place of going bankrupt. But this is something we don’t really care about. Of course we must make a specific amount of money, but since we are open 7 days a week, we usually make the rent. If it wasn’t enough yesterday, then it will be today, tomorrow or the next.

Let’s talk a bit about Hamburg. Many think it is very difficult to accomplish something here – simply consider the lack of space and the absurd constraints in a city like this. How do you manage in regards to the political views of the city?
We luckily were here before the city even knew it was a club. Basically the mercy of an early birth. If you want to open up a club nowadays, one must have parking lots, emergency exits, and many other requirements. It was different in the 80s. After the AIDS-wave one would go to the neighbourhood, go to whatever shady place existed and hand the owner of the“Topless” bar a raunchy 200 Mark. And then you just established a new club.

By now, Hamburg has realized what the clubs are good for. The city advertises with those clubs in order to bring along the people of the creative atmosphere and through this provide a constant growth within itself. Even though they support it, at the very same time they also manipulate this specific scene, since the city wants to be in control of everything. The authority doesn’t like independent cultural circles who perform against the system.

But they leave you alone, right?
We are hoping for the best. Fortunately so far we have had no problems. But let’s see how the situation of St.Pauli will develop in the next few years. It depends a lot on the fact if people who are in the cultural setting will be able to afford living in this neighborhood. If I would move tomorrow, I would not find another place as affordable in the center of the city.

How has the scene changed in the past years?
Back then, everybody knew each other in the techno/house milieu. But in those times there also were not 50 new, great records every week. Then, there is also the Internet factor. People are not buying music anymore and if I tell a guy DuBstep is the new shit, then he would go home and download a yip-file of 30,000 songs and suddenly owns a collection that he never really had a connection to. In the early years, we would also by records for the covers and see it as an art-piece. We would check the credits on the back. This obviously doesn’t exist anymore. However, there are websites like Last.fm or Resident Advisor, through which the internet generation exchanges itself. Perhaps I know every record, but they are the ones that discover new artists much quicker.

How do you consume music and realize the bookings?
Back in the day, fax numbers were written on the back of a record. You would then fax that number and ask for their phone number. It would always take like half a year to receive those phone numbers. Nowadays, every artist has a SoundCloud or Myspace account. Still to this point, I visit about 3 to 4 times a week the record store. Of course I still listen to music online, however I often get very frustrated when the songs are not available on records right away and take like a month to do so. I am very grateful to my colleague Tim Lorenz and the others who keep me updated with these things on a regular basis. This is obviously very helpful for the bookings, since I don’t have to listen to everything and pick out the raisins, so to speak. The same happens within the record store – you have a dealer that picks out everything beforehand for his customers.

What do you think about the current copyright law discussion? Should everything have an access to everyone?
I am not the man who supports the idea that everything should be free for everyone. As an organizer I am naturally suspicious of GEMA, since I think their distribution list is not fair and has always been in need for a reform. It always goes to the bad ones. Marius Müller-Westernhagen, Madonna, the Coca Cola charts, and a big percentage goes to the administration’s share. This only keeps affording the management’s fancy cars and their absurdly high rent of flats.

I would actually love to give money to GEMA if I knew that the money would actually go to the musicians who played at our place. But since most of them are not a member of GEMA and are not registered, most of them don’t get anything. But of course there are also people who really try to live off their music, so it’s pretty hard for them being unable to sell records and receive nothing, even if their music is being played in locations. But I don’t know the solution. Probably one day it will all depend on the culture-flat rate and utter self-promotion.

As a musician you can establish your own label and advertise it pretty well through the internet. Besides, Westernhagen or the other white-trash albums should get stolen by people. White-trash for everyone!

A great transition to my next question. How do you define Subculture?
As soon as you work with a firm that possesses a management board, you are not moving within the subculture anymore. Small labels exist, who also have the potential to grow, but still are visually clear. Those are sizes I can deal with. But as soon as it comes to Universal or Warner, you immediately have an additional deal with Nike or McDonalds. There is no fun anymore. We are free from any kind of sponsors. I would never cancel an artist only because he has a major contract with one of those big fishes, of course. But if a list with 30 names on it is given to me by some promotion division, I immediately say no way. In general we don’t have a guest list at Pudel.

What was your most absurd moment at Pudel?
Absurd moments are usually always present within the Pudel. The young artists freaking out when I pick them up at the airport is already something typical. When a 20 year old lands in Fuhlsbüttel and a toothless monster with beard, who simultaneously gives the impression of Santa Claus on Acid, is waiting for him, the first questions are always: “Where are you taking me?” and “What do you want to do with me?” The third question usually consists of, “What, you are also a DJ?” The worst are the Americans, who are for the very first time in Europe. As soon as they get to experience the drinking on the streets, the unlimited smoking, plus the girls coming to listen to their music, they go completely nuts. They usually extend their stay in the good old Europe.

Currently many things are going into the direction of retro, again. For instance film, music, and photography. What do you think about this trend?
We live in the era of retro! The last five big youth movements were Rock’n’Roll, the ’68 generation, Punk, Hip-Hop and the Techno Summer of Love, which are repeated nonstop since the 90s. Ever since, there was never really a new elementary record. I don’ think this so bad since this allows to work on all the nuances of the past. But of course I dream of a 14 year old genius who invents something completely new and shocks us all. But one cannot force this and eventually it will also never occur again. There are only 3 good themes in this world: love, death, and hatred.

It is very unlikely that a new, original youth movement will generated from something sensational, since there exists too much information nowadays, seemingly infinite. Why were the hippies such extremes? They needed to revolt against the older generations and therefore caused a certain provocation. Today, you can say whatever you want with really causing a scandal.

How do you visualize Pudel in 15 years?
That depends on the evolution of music and of course on the club scene’s development. A nightmare would be for all the tourist busses to stop in front of the place and yell: “Look, this is how it used to be.” Then there is a record player, which hangs on the wall, my 20 year old, sweat-filled UR t-shirt lays in the corner, during all of which I tell stories from back then. Optimistically, the place stays fresh and young people continue coming in here.

What do you do when you are not at Pudel?
I am married!

Thank you so much for this colorful interview and introducing us into your world!

Interview: Lisa Van Houtem
Photographs: Pelle Buys
Translation: Lara Konrad