"Hamburg is my home. This is where I’m me."
We meet Oliver Kowalski, aka KoweSix, on a morning in Pal, a nightclub right next-door to Hamburg’s exhibition centre. Oliver is a music producer and one part of the DJ duo Moonbootica, revered both nationally and internationally.
The calm of the club, the silence in a room usually packed to the rafters and bursting with high spirits and dance, is a stark reminder once again of the times we’re living in. It’s also had an effect on Oliver. Reflective, calm and collected, our questions prompt him to ponder his life in Hamburg and on the road, as well as think about the situation we’re currently living through.
hvv switch: How did you get into music? Where did you first come into contact with it?
Oliver: My first experiences of music were through my parents. As a kid growing up and as a teenager, music was an absolutely central part of my life. All the time, in fact, without me realising it. Music is everywhere during this time of our lives, it’s always with you and puts you back in touch with really intense memories, with things that moved you and that period of growing up.
Still, I could never have imagined being grown up and actually earning money professionally with music as I do. This idea and realm of possibility didn’t exist back then.
But relatively early on, at the age of 16 or 17, I got to know lots of people in the Hamburg area, including my current partner Tobi (Schmidt). Back in the beginning it was “The Tobi & the Bo”, “5Sterne Deluxe”, and so on. They were already earning money at the time with Deutschrapp. It only occurred to me then that this could be an alternative. Me and Tobi used to listen to a lot of electronic music on my decks and made our own music too. All of a sudden things started to get real and we ended up standing in at the last minute for DJ Koze in Hamburg’s Pudel nightclub, as he’d fallen sick. This came about through his and Tobi's girlfriends who knew each other. You know how these kind of stories go: Things just happen. They happen the way they should happen. That was back in October 1999 and from then on, for the first time in my life, it was crystal clear to me what I wanted and what I was going to do with my life, and everything developed gradually from there.
In 2000, we started our own event series here in Hamburg. We played at Pudel a lot, but once a month we have our own event in Hafenklang. That took off really quickly and since 2001 I’ve been able to make a living from it.
“If you ask me, music is absolutely central to all our lives.”
hvv switch: When did you realise that you were beginning to attract attention internationally? What was that like for you back then?
Oliver: I’d say it started back in 2003, 2004. We released our first album in 2005, but “June” came out in 2004. Probably one of the two or three big tracks that we’d brought out at that point, and it went down really well internationally. So that's really when the first international stories started coming out. But that’s still growing and growing to this day.
Looking back, the whole thing in a way was just too much: You just keep doing stuff and doing and doing, and your normal life gets pushed more and more to the side. At that time I still had a dog, up until 2010. But there was just so much organising of everyday life and being permanently on the road or travelling around. Always in new cities, disconnected from your friends and your surroundings. All things that are actually really important. You don’t notice it at first because you’re on the go all the time, and starting out is such an insane kick with a never-ending stream of new parties in new places, with new people, in different countries and cultures. There’s a different energy every time! It’s overwhelming, but at the same time definitely too much in a negative sense too.
hvv switch: When you talk about things being too much, was there actually a point along the way when you realised you were exhausted and things were out of control, and you thought to yourself you need a change of rhythm?
Oliver: It never really got out of control as I always instinctively knew what wasn’t good for me and what I needed to recharge my batteries. I’ve always done a lot of sport and I’ve never overdone it or just kept on partying for too long. That was never an issue for me. Right from the start I really did keep everything very professional – quite instinctively.
After the end of tours or a long weekend, I always managed to relax by sleeping in late or doing sports, travelling around in Hamburg and meeting up with friends. Feeling life around me: It’s enough to head over to my local supermarket and know the people or cashiers who work there. There are certain things like this that centre me again very quickly and have always helped me a lot.
But of course there were a few moments, like the Love Parade 2010 in Duisburg. We were the last ones to play who were aware of what was happening. We didn’t want to play, in fact, but the organisers begged us to, as the most important thing at that point was to prevent mass panic. So you end up standing there in front of 350,000, 400,000 people, you’ve achieved one of the goals in your career, and at the same time you know what’s going on and you still have to deliver. Later you’re sat there alone in your hotel room, stone cold sober, and you don’t know which way’s left or right. Everything escapes you. I sat in this silence, in my hotel room, and watched the images on TV. Of what happened there. Watched us standing there performing. Those are moments when you struggle, of course. When you have so many different emotions inside you and realise you’re exhausted.
hvv switch: If you compare the outside world to your home, what does Hamburg mean to you? What’s your rhythm and how do you move around here?
Oliver: I can’t remember the last time I was in Hamburg for two weekends in a row. I live in St. Pauli where the weekends can be quite annoying. Of course, I didn’t notice at the beginning as I was never there. I live my own rhythm, which I’m really grateful for. Now, of course, the extent to which I move around between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon has been turned upside down by Covid.
Hamburg is my home. I wasn’t born here but I’ve lived here for most of my life, always in St. Pauli. Travelling and being on the road a lot is a great way to experience this city. This is my home, this is where I’m me. Of course I’m myself wherever I am, but I’m not an outsider here. Having said that, being in other cities is a chance for stimulation. There are some other places in the world that I feel at home in too, and where I spend a lot of time.
In our line of business, Berlin is of course the more at the centre of what is happening, both nationally and internationally. But I always have to smile when people say how beautiful Berlin is. I’ve never been attracted to it. There’s no competition with Hamburg, either in Germany or abroad, especially when it comes to the beauty of the city and the relaxed vibe of the people. My home is here in Hamburg.
hvv switch: Do you think you’ve become more aware through all the travelling you do? Do you feel you’ve developed an inner awareness of our resources and about sustainability?
Oliver: First of all, I don’t want to judge anyone else for how they feel or what they experience here. But I’ve personally found that travelling has taught me a lot. Maybe even more than anything else.
For me personally, this was first and foremost letting go and just letting myself drift along. Giving up control over things you simply can’t control. After all, control is an essential factor in our lives. Wanting to have control over things you can’t really control. When you travel, you just don’t have that and the moment I leave my apartment and hit the road, I now leave that control behind me, just letting myself drift, because I never know what’s going to happen. Here in Germany, most things happen the way you expect them to. Apart from a few minor delays that are sometimes annoying. On the train or taking a flight. But they’re rarely problematic. In other places though, various different things can always happen and fighting against them doesn’t help at all. Not resisting and just accepting that things are the way they are is a crucial point that has shaped me over the last 15 years.
I’ve also learned to get by without much baggage. This comes from letting go, in a way. These days I can get by with a small trolley case for a week or two in the summer. I no longer need a big suitcase or four pairs of shoes. Basically, I’ve understood that the easier I move through the world the more comfortable it is for me. Whether these are resources or things that are important to me personally.
To get rid of the excess luggage and let go is, metaphorically speaking, what has happened in my head. To really take a good look at what you need and what you leave behind. I can then just let myself drift, as I get lighter and lighter, and free from those things that aren’t relevant at all. Distilling things down to their essence.
During this pandemic, we’re all realising what’s really essential and that consumption in itself is nice but, at the end of the day, I want to see my friends and hug them, not constantly be checking my distance or flinching whenever someone coughs. I also want to be able to visit my mother without worrying about it. I want life around me to be loud and lively. Not tucked away behind plexiglass. That’s why I live in Hamburg; that’s why I live in St. Pauli. Because I want things to be loud and people to be full of life, relaxed and happy. Not full of fear!
“2020 has taught us that many things we might have thought are important are actually not as important after all. And that those things that really matter – when they’re suddenly gone – are missing and it doesn’t feel good.”
The other aspect that comes up with travelling is this idea that you get a different view of the world and look beyond yourself. We live here in Germany and in Europe with great privilege, but in Hamburg even more so. We live in a beautiful city that’s not as densely populated as other cities. Everything looks relatively good here, at least on the surface. That’s quite different from most places in the world.
When you’re travelling somewhere in the Third World and see, for example, how rubbish is handled, you really get to thinking. And you quickly realise – if you’re honest with yourself – that it’s easy to point the finger and decide to educate the poorest of the poor that there are plastic bottles lying around. But I don’t have to fly to Africa or Asia. I just have to walk outside my front door. I can also see here how resources are used, whether it’s waste, energy or transportation. Just look at the cars in the St. Pauli neighbourhood: There’s almost always just one person sat in them. You’re right to wonder just how sustainable that is. You have to ask yourself whether it’s right though to be too quick to judge. At the end of the day we all have to rethink our behaviour, because it’s becoming clear to everyone that things can’t go on as they are at the moment. Thank goodness the youth in our society is speaking out so loudly! I might not be that young anymore on the outside, but in my heart I am.
So we need to rethink the way we’ve geared our society towards growth, consumption, resources – exploitation. There are always things where we’d like to claim there’s simply no other way. But slowly we all have to start thinking about what might be avoidable, and what we actually really need. Do we really all need our cars in the city, or would we get by with car sharing, public transport and even walking? We live in a beautiful city after all. This is definitely the right approach, instead of always focusing on some kind of technical miracle as the solution to our energy and waste problems. I think we’re at the point where we should be questioning our own double standards. This applies 100% to me too.
hvv switch: As a DJ and musician you set people in motion, you set people’s energy free. What’s your experience of this and how have you and the people around you responded emotionally to the current coronavirus situation bringing cultural life and all club life basically to a standstill?
Oliver: Well, for the moment, personally, we’re okay. In Hamburg there was more support than elsewhere, for which we thank you. Having said that though it’s sadly not enough.
I personally have to say that I’m in different minds about this. There are moments when I’m just glad to have this time to enjoy slowing down, as I’ve been on tour permanently for 16, 17 years. I’ll certainly be going on tour again as soon as I can, but it feels like a kind of enforced holiday is a good thing. I played one weekend after the winter break and then that’s been it with the music ever since! Then my priorities changed. We all remember just how crazy all this madness was and at times like that there’s no place for partying!
In the last few months I’ve realised that standing in a club and sending out a certain energy to people and getting energy back is only a small part of my life. The travelling and the organisational stuff take up much more time. I don't miss either of the latter that much and I think many people in my profession see things similarly.
“I want to keep doing exactly what I do because it makes me happy. But also because I’ve realised how happy it makes other people too! And that is a very intense feeling.”
This interaction with the audience, this exchange of energy in a room and the loud music is definitely missing from my life right now and cannot be replaced by anything else. I can do a lot of things that I don’t usually have that much time for, but the thing that lies at the heart of my job is missing, namely coming into a room, feeling the energy, and seeing these people, as individuals with a sparkle in each of their eyes rather than just as one big crowd. And I think it will become very problematic if this stays missing for a prolonged period of time. I can only hope that everyone understands we have to fight for it. In my opinion, it’s above all the world of politics that isn’t paying enough attention to those who earn their living through culture and the arts, compared to other sections of society. By this I don’t mean the nurses or cashiers*, but rather this emphasis on being an industrial nation.
Those who bring joy and purpose to people’s lives are not being recognised for what they do at the moment, and that hurts someone like me who’s been doing this for so long and has understood just how important it is to have this lubricant to keep the gears of life and reality in motion.
However, it’s also true for all those people who are treating the situation too lightly to ask themselves at the moment whether they really have to go on holiday right now, whether they really have to go to this illegal rave or head out to the pub. This is a responsibility that we all have and again I find it hard to point the finger at others because everyone has a responsibility and we all make mistakes and have moments when we don’t manage to do everything right.
The situation is very worrying, as there are people in culture and the arts who certainly couldn’t make as much of a living as I could although they might have worked just as hard. These people need to be protected! After all, their work is just as valuable and relevant as that of the airline or automobile industry, or anyone else in this country. So I’d like to see the money made available and distributed in a really fair way, rather than unilaterally by someone who has been a professional politician for 30 years and has no real connection with these issues at all – except perhaps when it comes to classical concerts or something like that. Politicians need to understand that there is more to this country than economic production and the consumption of goods. And they need to look closely at what’s important to people beyond that. I know that what I do, what we do, is important!