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Tresor at 30: the evolution of a Berlin techno institution

One of the world’s most respected clubs, Berlin’s Tresor, has been at the forefront of underground dance music for three decades. Led by Dimitri Hegemann, Tresor has grown as a club space and record label; in making connections with core British, German and American artists, it has played a significant role in shaping what we recognise as real, underground techno today. To mark the anniversary, and its new, mammoth ‘Tresor 30’ compilation, Holly Dicker explores the multi-layered history of this iconic institution

Interfisching in outer space: the Dada years

Dimitri Hegemann wanted to change the world. His ideas were too big for the small village he grew up in, which is why in 1978 he moved to West Berlin. Four years later, while studying musicology at The Free University of Berlin, he organised the first edition of Atonal, a three day music festival devoted to the ‘Geniale Dilletanten’ movement, a provocative German subculture that evolved around bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Sprung aus den Wolken.

Throughout the ’80s, Atonal rose to the forefront of Berlin’s experimental art and music scenes, while developing a strong British industrial connection through bands like Psychic TV, Test Dept. and Bourbonese Qualk.Simultaneously Hegemann, together with Achim Kohlberger, established the ‘Fisch’ consortium, starting with the Fischbüro, which served as headquarters for Hegemann’s Dadaist experiments throughout the decade. There was also Fischlabor, more of a pub than a club, serving as a crucial meeting place for Berlin’s bohemian clique, and the UFO, Berlin's first (illegal) acid house venue, which opened in the basement of the Fischbüro in 1988. 

“The UFO was a hot private place, the second living room,” wrote Helge Birkelbach, for Berlin’s Hype Megazine in 1991. “Whoever lacked the spirit didn’t get in.” The UFO infamously hosted the afterparty to the first ever Love Parade, which took place on a rainy July day in 1989. The UFO closed down soon after due to noise complaints, relocating to a more legitimate venue in Schöneberg. 

Interfisch Records completed the consortium, and was set up to sign Sheffield outfit Clock DVA. After disbanding the group, lead singer Adi Newton formed The Anti-Group, or TAG, a multimedia research project that presented its first series of psychoacoustic works at Atonal in 1985. “This was the first time I met them, and I was really inspired,” recalls Hegemann. The score to a hypnotic film, ‘The Delivery’, was performed live and released through the festival’s own label, Atonal Records. 

A few years later, in 1989, Interfisch put out Clock DVA’s fourth studio album, ‘Buried Dreams’, a landmark record for its pioneering use of digital sampling and computer sequencing technologies. The live album ‘Transitional Voices’ came next; recorded in Bologna during a 1990 European tour, managed by Hegemann, before the band and label parted ways.

Nineteen-eighty-nine was a transitional year for Berlin and its budding electronic music scene: a mood siphoned through Fischlabor, the UFO and Interfisch Records. Big Sex Records — the real precursor to Tresor Records — was set up during this period as a platform for the emerging dance phenomenon, and to create distance from the guitar-orientated sounds of Interfisch. Here’s where Udo Heitfeld, a member of Hegemann’s short-lived art band the No Zen Orchestra, launched his ambient solo career as TV Victor with the esoteric ‘Moondance’ album. 

“In those days, we had the idea that we would have access to commercial holiday trips to outer space,” explains Hegemann. “We thought, ‘When we’re on a spaceship with a big window, how will we dance?’ Then TV Victor said, ‘We will do the Moondance’.” Choreography — a literal moon dance — was conceived alongside the record, as well as special ‘cosmic’ beer to drink while performing the Moondance in space. It was called Space Beer, and sold exclusively at Fischlabor. “The dada club Fischbüro, TAG hypnotising people, TV Victor’s outer space trips in spaceships with Space Beer and the Moondance; this was a special period in life,” says Hegemann.

The best ideas are born after 3:00 am: the birth of Tresor

On 9th November 1989, the Wall dividing East and West Germany fell. More than two million people from the East crossed over into West Berlin that weekend — and curious West Berliners started exploring the rundown and abandoned urban spaces of the East. Youth from both sides of the Wall were eager to meet each other, and the reunification happened on the dancefloor. 

In 1990, Hegemann organised his last Atonal — four months after the opening of the Wall. The festival now boasted an exclusively electronic music programme with acts like Cosmic Baby, 808 State and Baby Ford, as well as a “continuous dance party” hosted by DJ Mike Pickering. Another act was added last minute to the bill, who had travelled all the way from Detroit to perform: the industrial proto-techno band Final Cut, featuring a then-unknown Jeff Mills playing synths. 

Hegemann had just released the band’s debut album, ‘Deep Into The Cut’, on Big Sex, a signing that happened by accident during a trip to WaxTrax! Records in Chicago. Jim Nash wanted to license music by Clock DVA; while rooting through rejected demo tapes, Hegemann discovered this “rough, really dark” test pressing with a Detroit phone number. ‘Deep Into The Cut’ was a sonic departure from the “sophisticated” and technologically advanced ‘Buried Dreams’ album by Clock DVA.

“I like both,” explains Hegemann. “I always had this image; if you put these two albums into a blender, then you might have techno.”

On returning to Detroit from Atonal, Mills left Final Cut to focus on dance music, forming Underground Resistance with Mike Banks. Robert Hood joined the group shortly after.  “The Underground Resistance message was militant,” explains Hood in ‘Der Klang der Familie’, the 2014 oral history of the rise of the Berlin techno scene. “It was a message against the music industry, against dependence on big, corporate music, against selling your soul to the powers that be. Our attitude was confrontational: we make no compromises. We can’t be controlled. We take control.”

In 1991, UR brought their message to the New Music Seminar in New York. Carola Stoiber was also present, who had just graduated from university and was working as Interfisch’s secretary. By now, the Fisch team had discovered the abandoned Wertheim department store in Mitte and were in the throes of transforming it into East Berlin’s first proper club venue. Stoiber was in New York with the mission to find international DJs to play at the club, when a note was handed to her one day during a panel. It was Jeff Mills, armed with a test pressing of ‘X-101’.

Tresor Records was founded to release this harder, more stripped-back iteration of techno from UR. It was the record that made Stoiber — who was more into guitar music — fall in love with techno. That same year, UR played their debut gig at the newly opened Tresor club, bringing first wave Detroit artist Blake Baxter with them. 

UR were Tresor’s gateway to Detroit. For the first half of the ’90s, Tresor Records was almost exclusively a platform for Detroit’s second generation, with timeless releases from Juan Atkins, Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes, and later, UR-affiliated outfit Scan 7, Daniel Bell, K-HAND and Terrence Dixon. Tresor signed debut albums from Blake Baxter, Mills and Hood — after the pair left UR in 1992 — during the label’s early years. 

Moritz von Oswald, Mark Ernestus and the Hard Wax record store were also key in brokering Tresor’s defining Berlin-Detroit axis. The Basic Channel duo had already established connections with Detroit, and recommended Detroit DJs to play at Tresor when it first opened; when they did, they stayed at Ernestus’ flat. Here the 3MB — or 3 Men In Berlin — project was conceived. It put the Berlin-Detroit axis into practice and saw von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann collaborate with visiting Detroit artists. 

Starting with Ernestus and von Oswald’s remix of ‘Lyot’ by Hard Wax employee Vainqueur, and ending with a 3BM track featuring Juan Atkins, the second Tresor compilation — released in 1993 — officialised the Berlin-Detroit axis that was forged in the smoke-filled darkness beneath the streets of Berlin, enclaved within the concrete womb of Tresor’s club basement. 

Awkward and brilliant: the British alliance 

With its pioneering club-label dynamic, Tresor facilitated a unique relationship between its artists, releases and fanbase. Label artists could test out ideas directly on the dancefloor; DJs booked for the club would often be signed to the label; profits from club entrance and drink sales would go straight into advances for new Tresor records; and club events would serve as the ideal promo for new releases. But for Hegemann, the communal power of Tresor was, and still is, its greatest aspect: “We didn’t want to sell liquor, we wanted to have a meeting point for our friends and family.” 

In addition to the Detroit contingent, this blossoming family included upcoming Berlin talents such as Ellen Allien, and residents from the UFO days like Tanith, DJ Rok and Jonzon. Then, from the mid-’90s on, the Underground Sound Of The UK took over. This was the name of the monthly night run by Birmingham’s House Of God resident Terry Donovan. His first guest was Surgeon, who would go on to have his own three-year residency at the club, while simultaneously recording his career-defining triptych of albums for Tresor. But the first British artist signed to the label was the maverick techno genius Cristian Vogel. 

By 1994, Stoiber had been promoted from Interfisch secretary to label manager of Tresor Records, supported by Marc Snow as head of A&R. She remembers seeing Vogel DJ for the first time, at another Berlin club. “It was crazy,” she says. “When you think it’s taking off, he’s adding breaks, so it sounds like he is stumbling. I’d never heard this before.” He was instantly booked for Tresor.

“Nobody came,” recalls Vogel, “but I had a great time.” His debut album for Tresor, ‘Absolute Time’, came out in 1995; initiating a relationship that would endure for more than 10 years, and culminating in a rich catalogue of distinctly out of the box techno albums and EPs. 

Neil Landstrumm, a collaborator of Vogel’s, was signed next. Vogel helped produce Landstrumm’s first records after meeting in Edinburgh around Dave Tarrida (who would also release on Tresor) and Steve Glencross’ banging free party techno-inspired club night, Sativa. More influenced by the funky ghetto tech sound of Chicago than Detroit — and hip-hop, when he relocated to New York in 1997 — Landstrumm’s contributions to Tresor represent some of the label’s most subversive techno of this period, ending in the breakcore-indebted album, ‘She Took A Bullet Meant For Me’, released in 2001. “The UK artists had their own sound and their own energy,” explains Donovan. “They were interesting and introverted and challenging and awkward and brilliant, all at the same time.”

Up and down, bright and dark: the other sounds of Tresor 

“Upstairs where there used to be the Globus Bank premises and the Versina shop for diplomats and their hard currencies, you hear mostly soul and acid jazz. The so-called Globus Bar is a little club of its own,” wrote Klaus Mayer for Berlin newspaper TAZ in 1991, when the club first opened. “What gives you the kick about Tresor is the mix of up and down, Globus and Tresor, bright and dark, soul and techno.”

Globus started out as a bar with a boombox. It wasn’t long before DJs Clé and Terrible started mixing hip-hop in the elongated, tube-like space. Fast-forward a decade, and Globus had its own set of residents, crowd and housey sound, distinct from the gut-punching techno rumbling in the Tresor basement every weekend. The Globus CD mix series was launched at the end of the ’90s to give kudos to Tresor’s soulful side, but only ran for six editions — effectively ending with the digital revolution that would change the music industry forever. (This was before Fabric launched their own, game-changing mix CD series.)  

Tresor even had a house sub label called KTM, an acronym for ‘Keep Things Movin’, run by Chicago linchpin Marshall Jefferson. Again, this was short-lived. In the three years it was active, there were only nine KTM releases, including Jefferson’s 1996 debut album, ‘Day Of The Onion’. “I had no idea what I was going to do before I went into the studio. I wrote and produced the songs on the spot. It took me about a week to finish an album’s worth of music,” explained Jefferson in a 2017 op-ed for Electronic Beats. 

Blake Baxter was Tresor’s earliest house signing. Despite emerging with Detroit techno’s first wave — and being defined as such — Baxter was much more influenced by Chicago house. “At first Tresor didn’t want me to be on the label. We had to convince them,” he admitted to Spannered in 2001. “Dimitri gave me a chance to work in Moritz von Oswald’s studio, and I produced 10 tracks. I tried to use the UR sound, but my own as well, and we called it ‘Dream Sequence’.” Baxter would continue using Tresor Records to push his own pioneering fusion of house and techno — or proto-tech-house — alongside DJing regularly on both the Globus and Tresor floors. 

 

Tresor’s most crucial not-strictly-techno record arrived in 1999: also from Detroit, through Underground Resistance. When Stoiber presented Drexciya’s mythological masterpiece, ‘Neptune’s Lair’, to the rest of the team, she had to fight to get it released. “Nobody was convinced,” she says. “They all thought it wasn’t techno enough. I said it was something we have to do, because it is super good.” 

DJ Stingray, an artist closely affiliated with Drexciya, has more recently picked up the electro mantle for Tresor Records with his ‘Kern’ mix, an ambitious project initiated in 2012 as a “DJ diary” series from artists representing the more eclectic side of Tresor. Every ‘Kern’ mix comes with an EP of rare reissues, ‘The Rarities’, and new music, ‘The Exclusives’. Helena Hauff — who was tapped for the latest edition of ‘Kern’ — compiled a rarities release featuring crude breakbeat hardcore from Australian group Nasenbluten, heady tekno from Dutch underground legend Curley and pummelling ghetto tech from Detroit’s DJ Godfather and DJ Starski.

New futurism: reinventing the legacy

After years of circulating rumours of Tresor club’s impending closure, it finally happened in 2005. The venue celebrated 14 years and countless hours of dancing at the historic Leipziger Strasse location, with a closing party that lasted for two weeks. Chris Liebing and original resident Tanith played the first night, with Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos headlining the official close — which naturally lasted well into Tuesday. 

The event series was called The Final Cut: a nod to the label’s foundations, it coincided with the release of ‘Vol. 13’ of the famed Tresor compilation series. Aptly titled ‘It’s Not Over’, most of the artists featured also performed over the two-week-long closing party. A two-year period of “exile” followed as Hegemann tried to find a new location, eventually scoring keys to the mammoth power station, Kraftwerk, on Köpenicker Strasse — the same street as the original UFO club.

After a difficult period of renovations and issues with the authorities, which saw Hegemann enlist Tibetan monks to “cleanse” the space with a week-long ritual, Tresor finally reopened on 24th May 2007. Sven Väth, who performed some of the most legendary Love Parade afterparty sets for Tresor, topped the bill. But the comeback wasn’t easy, as Stoiber explains. “The big challenge was to understand that in the two years without Tresor, there was a lot happening, also in Berlin. The scene was changing, and changing radically.”

At this point, Berghain had opened to supersede Tresor as Berlin’s new destination techno club. Like any institution with a weighty legacy, Tresor had to reassert its cultural significance as a forward-thinking venture — without renouncing its past. Reviving Atonal in 2013 with a new young team behind it, and savvy label innovations that started with the Archiv reissue series back in 2001, have brought Tresor’s original ethos (and sound) to a new generation of electronic music lovers.

Juan Atkins and Moritz von Oswald’s dreamy ‘Borderland’ collaboration is a fine example of the label’s foundational Berlin-Detroit axis brought up to date. ‘Borderland’ premiered at the first reactivated edition of Atonal, rechristened Berlin Atonal, which programmed a mix of live concerts, multimedia installations and label showcases across seven days at Kraftwerk — a programme that was carefully attuned to Atonal’s experimental, noise and industrial roots.

Over the last decade, Tresor has manoeuvred away from the trappings of a museum by supporting new talent on the label and in the club. New Faces, hosted on Wednesday nights (pre-pandemic) by a roving troupe of curators like Esther Dujin, Reeka and Mareena, is a case in point of Tresor’s enduring dedication to emerging artists. New Faces is actually a continuation of resident DJ Niplz’s Headquarters night, which started in 1994. Some of the artists that rose to prominence off the back of HQ include Pacou and live act Alexander Kowalski (as DisX3), as well as Conrad Protzmann (Baeks) and Michael Wollenhaupt (Trias), who would go on to form Ancient Methods. 

“Nightlife lives on new people and new ideas,” says Mareena, who’s been a Tresor resident since 2012. During the pandemic-imposed club break, she’s revived her passion for production, and it’s one of her latest collaborations with JakoJako that concludes Tresor’s next milestone release: the monumental 52-track boxset, ‘Tresor 30’.

In terms of looking to the future, ‘Tresor 30’ is arguably the label’s boldest statement to date. Featuring only a handful of cherry-picked reissues, this 12-piece vinyl compilation, due in October, represents a “living and breathing new timeline for the label,” explains its curator Carin Abdulá, head of Berlin Atonal’s booking agency OUTER. 

Conceived during the pandemic, ‘Tresor 30’ includes fresh works from Tresor mainstays like Surgeon, TV Victor and Moritz von Oswald. But roughly half of the compilation is made up of new names, gathered from all over the world — artists that “embody this idea of ‘futurism’ right now,” says Abdulá. “These ideas of futurism were at the very core of Tresor. It’s the same story but it’s different, and it’s happening in a different time.”

A revision of the label’s definitive Berlin-Detroit axis serves as the backbone to ‘Tresor 30’, which kicks in immediately with UR affiliate Nomadico’s modern reboot of the group’s 1991 cosmic cult hit ‘The Final Frontier’, leading into a luscious piece of percolating techno that sounds like a long-lost Tresor classic. This is the sound of Huey Mnemonic, one of Detroit’s next generation of artists — and latest UR recruit, closing the loop on Detroit’s past and present. 

More than just an exceptional body of music that goes well beyond techno, ‘Tresor 30’ stands as a testament to the community-building power behind the music. What started in a small pub in Schöneberg and sweaty basement in Kreuzberg now has leylines extending right across the world.

Want more? Read about how Berlin's club scene adapted during Covid-19 here

Holly Dicker is a freelance writer

Photography: G.V. Horst, Camille Blake