Tuesday, October 30, 2007

M is for ...

The independent Berlin label Monika Enterprise is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a hometown gig on 4 November. This seemed an opportune moment to visit label HQ and chat with founder and owner Gudrun Gut, a long-time Berlin mover and shaker.

Having arrived in a still-divided Berlin in the 1970s in order to attend art school (that venerable training ground for musicians--does anyone study art at art school? Anyway...), she has stayed on and continued making music as well as acquiring many quirky artists for the Monika label, Barbara Morgenstern, Quarks and Cobra Killer among them.

Settling down in the kitchen with coffee and cigarettes, Gut, smoky of voice and eye, explained the label ethos: "It is more an artist-orientated label. We do more artist development and every artist has to have their own expression."

In 1997 when the label started, there wasn't much industry interest in the quiet Wohnzimmer scene that produced Morgenstern and Quarks and so Gut, who already ran her reissue label Moabit, turned her attention to new artists. With a handful of releases per year, Monika is a small concern, concentrating on quality rather than quantity.

In addition to solo albums, the label has also produced compilations and the series 4 Women No Cry, with four women artists from different countries. Gut explained, "Each artist has 20 minutes and they have to fit on one album. The idea is we get so many nice demos and lots from women, too, because they know we do lots of female releases."

The internet has proved a fruitful source of talent. "I mostly find the artists on MySpace, actually. It is a really good space for finding new artists."

Recent releases include albums by Milenasong, Chica and the Folder, Michaela Melián and Gut herself. "I was working on it for quite awhile. It was more a question of finishing it 'cause I never had the time." She cleared her throat and continued, "To finish an album you have to have some concentrated time to dive in to it and really finish it."

She works with a small studio set-up: "Oh, it's really simple. A big Mac and a good mic and a good compressor." Highly textured and multi-layered, the record draws from many genres and each song has its own inspiration and dedication. "I wanted it to have not too much of an electronic record. I wanted to have some more... atmosphere."

What with the labels and Ocean Club, her weekly radio show with Thomas Fehlmann, the record was a long time coming but as she explained, Monika pretty much runs itself now. "My assistants can do what I do, more or less, so I could do my own record last year. That was very good. I needed that."

Gut's previous work includes the bands Mania D, Malaria!, and Matador and spoken word collaboration Miasma. The eagle-eyed will spot these names all start with M. She explained: "in the '80s we just did so many projects and to have something in common, we did the M thing. That was really simple. M is for mother, money, moon and it's in the hand. You know, you've got an M in the hand." She held out her hand and one saw that the lines of the palm could be interpreted, by an imaginative art student, as a swirly M. "That's where it comes from," she concluded with a dirty laugh.

Over the last decade Berlin has transformed and Gut welcomes changes to the city, which was something of an island when she arrived. "You couldn't go out. You had the wall around it. You had to pass the borders and it was a pretty tough border crossing.

"Now the last 15 years what's changed the most is business is coming to Berlin. You see people in suits and white collars and we didn't have that before. It's like 'Wow! It's a real city now.' I think it's healthy. It needs that. Because we had it without it and it's a little claustrophobic."

Still, for her Berlin remains a place of boldness and creativity. "Berlin has mostly everything I like because it has this border feeling... The culture is really interesting. It has this underground feel always, kind of daring in the arts. I like that."

Ten Years of Monika, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin, 4 November, with live performances by: Chica and the Folder, Gudrun Gut, Michaela Melián, Barbara Morgenstern + short appearances by Quarks, Cobra Killer and Masha Qrella.

Michaela Melián is included in the art exhibit Same same, but different, exploring "minimal deviations from the status quo". Curated by Lena Ziese, it is on at Jet, Memhardstrasse 1, Berlin, through 10 November.

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