“Bringing old and new audiences together was the start of Dark Skies over Witten”

CARSTEN FRAUENDORF of Dark Skies over Witten festival talks to Nick Awde

Alhambra Live Magazine #010

Support independent writing, buy me a coffee at buymeacoffee.com/nickawde

— Dark Skies over Witten VII 2023: CLICK HERE

Carsten was interviewed at Alhambra Live’s goth festival Bats in the Attic 2022.

—Alhambra Live’s next goth festival is Bats in the Attic, September 8-9

ALHAMBRA LIVE is one of the biggest grassroots music venues in the North West. Based in Morecambe on the sea Promenade, its adaptable spaces (and unique Lake District views) make it a vibrant hub for all-dayers and weekend festivals (Goth, Mod, Ska, Northern Soul…). It is also a home and hub for gothic music with Corrosion club night and the CorrosionFest & Bats in the Attic festivals. For more info, contact Fiona +44 (0)7771 200 873 / fiona@alhambralive.com

Nick Awde: So what exactly led you down your particular music path?

Carsten Frauendorf: It all started with songs I first heard from bands like Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy, and I got more and more into all that goth music. As I grew up in Witten, my interests grew up too. In the earlier years we had more variety. Music was a mix of everything. There was the gothic scene but also the new wave scene was a big thing in my youth, bands like Depeche Mode or Eurythmics. You had so much good music all the time around you as you grew up. That was pretty cool.

Was it a challenge for you to move over to putting on gigs and festivals?

It wasn’t a challenge or difficult. It came first through the parties we did with everyone bringing a mix tape – people thought my mixes were good so they asked me to do more of them. I was really close to making it as a DJ, but I was also playing football here to a good level and my time was filled up with training and matches. So it was very late, in 2000, when I did my first official DJ job at the legendary club Zwischenfall in Bochum (West-Germany). It was the oldest gothic club in Germany which was in the neighbouring town and it was a really lucky break to be able to have that sort of start – which I did with my good friend Ralf ‘Gawl’ Gawlista!

So what was the next step?

We faced the same problems that every gothic club had at that time because the audiences were always looking for new music styles. We were very old school and we had to look for other ways to put music on. We did new types of nights playing more modern goth music like Rammstein and Covenant and because that went down well, we started to put on concerts at the Zwischenfall. They were sometimes successful, sometimes a little less successful, but what we reached was our target of finding a new audience. 

That was really important to us and it pointed the way for more concerts and DJing until we came to the point where we realised we could do more in this direction. Our old club Zwischenfall had literally gone, because there was a big fire in the apartment on the top floor. They sprayed it with water for 25 hours and downstairs everything was like a swimming pool. It sounds funny, but it wasn’t. That was our living space and we were completely shocked as we walked through the ruins. It was so hard for our Gothic-Family.

Dark Skies over Witten 2023

We had help from other clubs – Bahnhof Langendreer for example – and we tried to work in them, but it was never the same. So we started thinking about how we could bring our old audience and our new audience together. That was the start of making a new festival, Dark Skies over Witten and A Hidden Tune. We started with our three families so it was a family thing. In Germany we call it a ‘Schnapsidee’, a ‘schnapps idea’ – the sort of idea that sounds brilliant when you are drunk but crazy when you are not.

Our crazy idea was to invite only the bands we like! That was really a risk. So we started in a small location, the Excalibur in Witten, thinking, “All we need is to have 60 or 80 people, that would be brilliant, because it’s all old school goth rock and post punk.” We immediately sold out by the second time and it grew and grew and got bigger and bigger. Now we hold the festival in WerkStadt, the largest location that there is in Witten.

We are very proud of what we have accomplished. It’s now two families – Jörg ‘DJ Tuxxedomoon’, from the Lost Sounds Party, and his wife Steffi and me and my wife Renate – and we also have big and good helping hands from everywhere to make it happen each year, and our team is Olli, Enrico, Frank and Dominik. It’s always a family thing and that’s really important for us to keep it that way.

The concept of volunteers making local festivals happen is really key to their success in some countries – like Belgium’s municipal support for ‘vrijwilligers’. We don’t have the system in the UK, but can things run that way in Germany?

We don’t have exactly the same thing here. It’s really an outstanding part of festivals in Belgium – I know the promoters from Sinner’s Day and W-Fest so I know the system very well and we also know that the metal festivals in Belgium and the Netherlands work that way. In Witten, we are very happily surprised to see what the young people our community do in order to make this festival happen in their town. Their engagement as volunteers creates a really successful system and without them it can’t work. They don’t earn money but it’s good for networking and also community which is important for young people.

I always speak with the volunteers and they’ll say things like “all my friends are here” and “the crowd is unbelievable”. We always wonder about this, but we honour it a lot, because it’s a fantastic thing to make festivals happen in this way that could not happen otherwise. But because we have 2,000-3,000 people, we are still a comparatively small event, so we want to keep that sense of family as long as we can. 

Then Comes Silence at Dark Skies over Witten 2022

It also helps that clearly everyone at Dark Skies believes that bigger is not always better. But there’s always the pressure on you, isn’t there, of people saying, oh we can make this bigger, we can find the financial backing, we can get a bigger field.

Exactly. And of course we don’t do it for the money, we do it for the music. Every cent we earn more than our costs goes straight to the bands and sometimes to supporting charities and good causes. The main thing is ‘Save Our Music’. And that is more important than ever now, because we are growing older and older and our bands are growing older and older. I don’t see many new people coming into our scene, and we need to save our old music by bringing in new music and getting new younger people into the scene. 

A lot of people don’t see this, I think. A festival like Dark Skies is not a thing to make money, it’s a thing to make our music safe for the generations that come after us. We need the old bands, we need the middle old bands, and we need the young guns. We need a new audience, a younger audience. Every young person you see at a night, a concert or festival, go up and say to them, “It’s brilliant that you’re here!” Let them know, hey, this is a scene which can change and bring a new experience every time – there’s old bands, there’s new bands, there’s old bands playing new stuff, new bands playing the old stuff, we have a dynamic in our scene, and it’s brilliant!

That’s why we love to go to the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Poland to meet the people who run festivals like the Corrosion people here in Morecambe and the promoter of Sinner’s Day in Belgium. You see the growing context for bands and audiences, and you feel it connecting all over the world. We must see that this is a gift, we must grasp it and know that we have something fantastic and we must be aware of that. That’s my thing, why I do this.

Because of its size and infrastructure – and the evenly spread of its big town and cities across the countries – Germany has a particular advantage in bringing genres like goth into the wider landscape of culture—

—SUBculture! Underground!—

subculture! So Germany has the biggest concentration and variety of goth festivals and clubs. Obviously I’m not comparing with North America because (a) it’s an entire continent and (b) Americans/Canadian bands tend not to come over here.

It’s interesting, because we have better contact with South America, than North America. I know for example, Nino the singer from Aeon Sable very well, he’s Portuguese and has good contacts with the underground scene there. One of South America’s main gothic clubs is the El Under in Mexico City. Fer Salas (DJ VINIL) who manages the club has given us videos from his sets and that sort of thing helps us all to connect. We play on a video like that on a club night or the festival and people go, “Hey what’s that? It’s brilliant. Who is it?” It’s a great way to show how another culture, another country is the same and it creates better contacts. We want to do more like this.

I especially want to mention Carfax Haddo of Last Dusk from Costa Rica. The band played the Bats in the Attic festival [August, 2022] at Alhambra Live in Morecambe and we are very hopeful that we can invite them to play at Dark Skies. Carfax gives us so much context for goths in South America – I hadn’t realised that they had such a good scene there. I know about North America, New York and Los Angeles, but it’s the same in South America. In fact there are brilliant bands everywhere, like the Awakening from South Africa for example.

The Arch at Dark Skies over Witten 2022

How does bringing in the new generations work? As you said, it’s not just the young guns onstage but also younger people in the audiences, and to make sure that there’s vertical integration. Which probably sounds terribly corporate-speak.

No, ‘vertical integration’ is a good word for it. It’s very important that we old ones must show the young ones that they’re welcome on our scene. Not be arrogant! We must try to open our arms and say welcome. [laughs] Pay for a beer and invite them. Only over a conversation can we imagine what they want and what they’re searching for – because maybe they’re searching for something we have no idea about. 

Here’s an example. Some months ago a very young gun comes to me at a club night and requests a song. I don’t have the song. I’m an old school DJ. I don’t work with Spotify. I bring CDs with me. So I don’t have the song but he was really polite about it, so I said, “Okay the next time I will have it” – and the next time, I had the song on a CD and he was happy. It’s very simple to listen to people, to hear what they want to hear. Then maybe you can go from a song request to inviting a band from the wishes from the younger people. That way you make a big big step to join with the younger ones. Say welcome, but play their songs as well, and hopefully also invite a band that they want to hear at a concert.

It’s easy for people to say it, but you are actually doing what you say, aren’t you?

We are doing it. I can only can speak for myself and for my partner Jörg – who, as DJ Tuxxedomoon from the Lost Sounds Party, has a good understanding of what younger people want to hear and see, and he does it in the same way. It’s the same with the international connections that I’ve mentioned, like Donna McLeod and Mike Murray of McGothicfox Promotions and Alex and Fiona Wetton of Alhambra Live. They all are an inspiration for us and they think the same way, so step by step we will all reach our target.

Do you find the younger bands or do they find you?

I often find them. The best example was bringing Auger to appear at Darker Days. I saw one of their first gigs and knew we had to have them in our festival. They did more gigs and when they played Darker Days a year later, they were clearly more confident on stage. People were so impressed by their performance, and they earned it. That was a great context to see a younger band. I think they will have a good chance to become a big band in the scene.

We talk about music with everyone in the smaller festivals, they come to see our music and we come to see their music. We find new things, they find new things, and that way we don’t miss things. I can’t be in Great Britain all the time, so when people say they have a new band and they think we’ll like it, we’ll come over and see them play. That way we find a new band and then I invite them to us. This is the same for Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, all over Germany – when we have time we travel, of course. And in the meanwhile, yes a lot of bands write to us that they want to play our festivals and concerts. But this context has grown over the years. It was not there when we started.

The Foreign Resort at Dark Skies over Witten 2022

Which edition of Dark Skies are you on now?

In 2023 it will be our seventh edition. I don’t think the Corona period was handled the right way in Germany and they were very hard years for us. I think many countries around about us worked out clever ways to come through but Germany has been the only country who is still making restriction now for autumn/winter this year [2022]. So many of our autumn festivals are gone for 2022 and I wonder how many festivals will be able to happen in 2023. Of course we have had big problems with Corona but our restrictions are still hard. 

During Corona we did our fifth and a half edition. When you invite bands you have costs, so it was not a successful thing because of the restrictions, but what I saw was the shining eyes of the audience because they had their music back. For me the fact that they were happy was my applause, my money, my success. It’s not just an audience, it’s our Dark Family, and when they saw that we had problems in covering costs during Corona, they set up a ‘Sparschwein’, a piggy bank, to help us. It was so helpful and kind. They honour us and we honour them.

Do you have any thoughts on what the next couple of years hold for goth music now that we’re still facing the challenges of post-Covid recovery?

That is a hard question for me because we have no idea what has really happened because of Covid. The larger festivals everywhere were only able to start in the summer of 2022 but the smaller festival and the regular clubs have already had big problems in Germany and also in the UK. The two years did a lot of destruction to culture. It’s not only things like the gothic or other underground scenes, it’s also the painters, sculptors, writers and so on. The whole artistic scene has taken a very strong hit from Covid and a lot of people have forgotten the things that cultural people actually do. When you can’t show your products, it doesn’t matter if it’s music or art, you will be forgotten. 

This is a really bad situation to find ourselves in. I hope that Dark Skies can help to fight against this, to invite artists who can exhibit their work or writers to give short readings of their work. We’re thinking about a lot of other things in the meanwhile that we can do. We need to understand what has happened in 2022 and in 2023 we’ll try again. 

I think the concerts will definitely be smaller, which is a natural development. In Germany there is also the problem that at our three or four large festivals, the line-up is always the same every year. That’s the reason why we travel to other countries and cultures to see other bands. As I’ve said, when we find a band we like, we invite them, and that will be the big way forward for us. It makes us all richer!