“A tiny parallel universe”: inside ELSE, Renate’s open Berlin party space, in mindset and makeup.

Nestled in between Berlin’s vast Elsenbrucke bridge, the city’s unifying S-Bahn railway loop and the unforgiving torrent of the Spree, you’d be hard-pushed to imagine a stranger and more unassuming geography for one of Berlin’s most-beloved party spots. But, over the span of six seasons, ELSE has managed to turn an obscure slice of land into a colourful weekly festival; one that downplays pretence to promote abandon, unity and, most importantly, an increasingly impressive schedule of superb dance music. 

ELSE is the sister-project of Salon – Zur wilden Renate, locally otherwise known as Renate, the key Berlin club, as well known for its exemplary house, disco and techno as its outlandish decor and offbeat style. Underground marathons such as Marlon Hoffstadt’s ‘Savour The Moment’ are a key focus of their programming, alongside notorious parties like the extravagant quarterly bash ‘House of Red Doors’.

As I’m showed round at the beginning of a Sunday afternoon, it’s clear Else is a different, breezier beast to the nocturnal atmosphere of its big sister. Under the late summer sun, the focus is refreshingly communal, with pizza served on the top lawns and steins of Pilsner beside the river (or indeed, inside of it, if you’re willing to brave a stretch of elasticated netting). Strikingly, the ratio of bright versus black attire is alarmingly low by Berlin standards (let’s estimate it at 50/50, to be safe). The party fills up gradually throughout the day as the heat beats down, before shifting inside to a formerly inconspicuous hidden dance floor through to the next morning. Frequently bathed in psychedelic red light, the atmosphere here is a suitably absurd cross between a sleazy basement rave and the galley of a ship.

For Renate’s founder, Tom Menzel, who began his club career throwing outdoor raves before establishing his more legitimate, but no-less-flamboyant empire, ELSE represents a return to his roots. Standing proud amid his creation, with a relaxed attitude, flowing long hair and eyes hidden firmly behind sunglasses, Menzel unfolds his approach to this uniquely al fresco space.  

“The first thing was to give ELSE a completely different look,” explains Menzel. “Renate is more historical Berlin in all its different facets. With ELSE, we wanted to engineer a fresh and bright atmosphere. To feel you are in nature within an urban setting”, he adds. “There are so many details and elements that can only happen from longevity, so now we have created a fun outside space, creating the feeling you have left the city for a festival.” As with any out-of-town weekender, it’s not just the atmosphere that marks it out from the club space but the increased freedom with sound, and this is also a key consideration for Menzel. “With our sound engineering we pushed it to the limits of what is possible within the city.” 

The team booking, programming and maintaining ELSE have enough shared experience that, to the untrained eye, the club feels like a flawless, fluid experience. In fact, the attention to detail behind-the-scenes never stops. As well as the monumental and formidable task of keeping the club clean and orderly (it opens in the week as an outdoor bar with DJs), there’s sound and lighting maintenance, and most vitally, the lineups. Berlin has more real estate dedicated to nightlife than any other city in the world, so competition is fierce.

“A few years ago this place was literally a dump between two bridges, a spot that was covered with briar and rubbish, and used as a toilet by some punks”, recalls Sebastian Voigt, booker and resident at ELSE and Renate. “Now it’s a world-renowned club, some of the biggest names in the game are approaching us to play because they have heard so many good things about it.”

This stellar reputation has been built from the heart up over the past six seasons. Although the 2019 season at the club saw headlining appearances from world-renowned names like Jayda G, Roman Flügel and Âme, Voigt stresses that he’s aiming to showcase what he considers “real artists with personality and a musical vision that goes beyond the top ten charts.” Despite its winning commitment to a kind of visceral lightheartedness in the face of more self-serious aesthetics across the city, ELSE functions equally well whether hosting disco influencers such as Todd Terje or serious heads-down techno like Sigha.

The individual leading the charge for ELSE’s versatility to all sounds is Florian Wozny, who’s good taste was established when he began working as a door selector at Renate five years ago. Before long, Wozny’s responsibility extended to the overall decor, and now he maintains the same role at ELSE. His work includes exploring visual concepts to ensure the club’s imaginative, free-spirited edge remains intact, as well as cracking into buckets of bright paint and heavy-duty cleaning products to guarantee those same, outdoors ideas stay looking fresh.  

“We create little fantasy worlds for various parties”, explains Wozny. “Often just with bits and pieces that we stick together. It’s like building a tiny parallel universe for our ravers to experience,” with each one catered to the music and crowd of individual events. “Wilde Renate is like an organism that evolves and grows all the time”, he continues, “influenced by so many artists and the guests passing through who left their mark.” At Else, he has adapted this same approach but made it “fresh and light” and, most importantly, “an open space for all.”

And while 2019’s summer season proved more successful than ever, imprinting the club on Berlin’s musical landscape, the future of the club is somewhat uncertain. ELSE, along with Renate across the river, about :// blank, and even a series of night-time venues further South in Neukolln, all face an imminent threat from an extension to the A100 motorway – the construction of which has already begun – as well as associated redevelopments. Although Berlin’s government has been more welcoming to nightlife than many other major capitals, the looming threat certainly signals a question mark above several of the city’s busiest dance floors. Back in May, the club did what they do best, and organised a rave on a neighbouring bridge in protest at the plans, garnering huge support.

And while only a fool could deny Menzel and his team’s commitment to club culture, the question mark hanging across the Spree certainly creates a sense of unease chipping away at the free-spirited ethos of ELSE. Still, Menzel remains determined. “We are joining forces with collectives and NGOs to bring awareness around these developments that are threatening us,” he explains, humbled by the “huge success” of the rave earlier in 2019. “We want Berliners and ravers alike to see what’s happening and that their voice matters. We want to make people aware that cultural places like us risk disappearing. And it’s not just clubs, but theatres and other spaces for cultural growth.”

Of course, Berlin is not only the city in the grips of gentrification and rapid change, but with the Berlin Club Commission estimating that the city’s nightlife culture generates around €1.5 billion euros to the local economy, it’s hard to imagine anything extinguishing the spirit of ELSE, Renate or the vision of its founder. “It still gives me goosebumps, and a fucking big grin when the dance floor is cooking on a Sunday”, adds Menzel, recreating the same expression he enjoys seeing in the dancers. Its this smiling spirit, running from top to bottom, office to dance floor, that gives ELSE an edge in Berlin. An open space in mindset and makeup that will take a lot more than a motorway to suppress.

Follow ELSE to stay tuned with the latest. Photo credit: Karim Molyneux-Berry.

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