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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Club review: Cocoon in Frankfurt

Club review: Cocoon in Frankfurt

Jeremy Armitage checks out Cocoon, Sven Väth's eye-popping concept club on the outskirts of Frankfurt.

Frankfurt is a business town. Arriving by train from Berlin, the contrast hits you as soon as you exit the station: instead of graffiti there is gleaming glass, instead of punks with dogs on the streets there are lost Japanese tourists, instead of apartment blocks that wouldn’t look out of place in communist Albania, the city center is punctuated by gleaming skyscrapers. Frankfurt is the hometown of Sven Väth and his Cocoon empire, nowadays one of the most successful ventures in dance music. From its humble origins as a monthly night at local club U60311 back in the nineties, Väth has built Cocoon Inc. up into a label, an Ibiza residency, a booking agency, a brand even. Since 2004, Cocoon has also been a fact on the ground: we’ve come to Frankfurt to check out Cocoon Club, Väth’s 1500-capacity nightclub and restaurant complex. Sven is many things, a DJ, a party animal, an icon even, but the success of Cocoon proves that he is also a very astute businessman. In that sense, although he’d probably deny it, Sven is terribly Frankfurt.

Cocoon Club is actually located miles from the centre of the city in a complex that from the outside looks like a cross between a gym and a furniture showroom. We catch a ride out there with Pig & Dan, Cocoon label regulars who fly in from Majorca to spin at the club three or four times a year. What do they think of the club? “Fantastic restaurant,” says Dan. “Of course we like DJing there, but the food – oh my god.” Pig, a mountain of a man who admits he got his nickname because he loves his food, nods in agreement. “I come for the free meals,” he laughs.

Yet despite its size and nondescript exterior, step inside and the club feels very much like a personal project. Like Väth’s album artwork, the interior is both conceptual and gleefully over-the-top: the club is decked out as the inside of a cocoon, complete with biological membrane walls, organic pods for seating and an oozing green and yellow colour scheme. Tonight is a release party for Väth’s Ibiza mix CD The Sound of the Eighth Season, so the kitsch factor is amped up to full throttle. We are greeted on the door by a gigantic fluffy bunny, while dancers on the podiums are dressed up Freakshow-style as Yoshimoto Nara-esque bad seeds or raver chicks with metre-long hammerhead pigtails. The circus has come to town.

DJ Booth
The DJ pulpit: Unusually for German clubs, the DJ booth rides high above the dancefloor.

Cocoon Micro
Micro: Asian/European fusion cuisine that turns, Cinderella-like, into a second club at midnight.

But first there is food to sample. The club has two restaurants, both of which are priced to appeal to Frankfurt’s gourmand set rather than your average raver (the hungry and poor can make do with the sausage stand on the other side of the club.) Open six days a week, one of the restaurants, Micro, doubles as a second room on club nights; they clear away the tables at midnight or so to make way for a dancefloor, where C-Rock, aka one half of Motorcitysoul, will spin tonight. Like in many second cities, Frankfurters talk about their town with stoic pride. Over dinner, C-Rock laments that his city doesn’t get its fair shake in official techno history, citing the nineties Frankfurt sound, the Eye-Q & Harthouse labels, and legendary clubs like Dorian Gray and The Omen as unjustly overlooked. In fact, the sceptre of The Omen, where Sven Väth made his name in the nineties, looms over the conversation again and again tonight, and over Cocoon Club itself, too: perhaps Cocoon Club is Väth’s way to reincarnate some of that Omen spirit.

Mr. Väth arrives and we order drinks. Champagne for everyone but Sven, who orders a coke, which the waiter, amusingly, presents to him over her wrist like it is an expensive bottle of wine. We’ve caught Sven, it seems, in the middle of his annual health fast – for the next little while he’s sworn off booze and everything else for that matter, no doubt to recover from Ibiza. But, you’re thinking, isn’t Sven a professional party animal? Not, tonight, it seems. Of course it is a stance that stands to reason: you don’t get to run a nightclub, label and booking agency if you’re on a permanent bender. I check my ridiculous assumptions at the door. “People have such crazy ideas about the lifestyle of DJs,” sighs C-Rock. “Of course we like to cut loose, just like anyone else, but most of the time you’re spinning records, getting on planes, it’s a job like any other.”

Dinner at the Micro is an excellent way to start the night, but you’ll need plenty of cash. I order hamachi sushi (17 euro) and the organic chicken (28 euro), which is – no joke – the best chicken I’ve ever tasted (And I’m not just saying that because I didn’t pay for it.) Between mouthfuls, I manage to ask Sven about the downside to being a public figure. Turns out it is cellphone cameras. “I like to dance with the crowd, to interact,” he sighs. “But every time you try nowadays, there are people shoving cellphone cameras in your face. And then they post unflattering shots on the Internet. I really, really hate it.” I’m too cowardly to mention that I’m guilty of posting a goofy photo or two of Sven on the net in my time for giggles, but I muster my best argument that people are not laughing at him but with him. “Yes, but some people are deliberately cruel. Nasty even. It’s really not on. I mean imagine what Ricardo’s mother thought of that photo of him.” It occurs to me that Sven Väth in the flesh is really nothing like his public image: behind his crazy press shots in leather turbans, he’s really the understated and humble sort. “I mean imagine if there were cameras at The Omen,” he laughs. “My god, we’d all be in prison!”

The tables get packed away, and it’s onto the musical entertainment. By now the Cocoon is packed with clubbers. It’s a much younger crowd than in Berlin, and also much more friendly, not to mention random. On the dancefloor, boozed-up bank clerks in collared shirts snake around in conga lines, while outside Dutch and Bavarian tourists pull up by the busload. I get chatting to a German soldier (“I’m learning to shoot machine guns this week in Hannover, so I thought I’d come out and have some fun beforehand,” he tells me cheerfully) and – lord strike me down – teenagers in bondage costumes (“We hate oonz oonz, but we love Sven,” they giggle.) A hardcore techno crowd this is not.

The Pods: The walls of the club are embedded with pod sofas straight out of The Jetsons.

Silk: Cocoon's Michelin star bed restaurant. We tried to walk through this, but got told off!

The other odd thing about the club is the DJ booth, a podium that lords it over the crowd from a couple of metres up. In Germany, the DJ booth is usually on the same level as the dancers, giving a certain democracy to the party, something you’d think Väth – a man who likes to crowdsurf on occasion – would have insisted upon. From the floor, peering up at the DJ creates an oddly detached effect: the DJ, not the audience, gets star billing at Cocoon. “When we built the club, I got a lot of criticism for raising the DJ booth so high,” explains Väth. “Maybe some of that is fair. But at least people with camera phones can’t get a good shot of me!”

No need to worry about embarrassing pictures on the net tonight. Sober as a judge, Sven is on his best behaviour, warming up with a set of harder, electro-ish techno that gets the job done, yet somehow fails to ignite the all-out rave spark you’d expect at an Ibiza-themed party. Maybe it’s the crowd, maybe it’s the coca cola, but Väth’s set raises a question: what’s the magic ingredient you need to create a hedonistic, all out vibe? I miss Pig & Dan’s set so I don’t know if they have the answer, but later longtime Cocoon associate Pauli Steinbach, the surprise of the evening, very much hits the spot. After the quitters retire for the night and the buses head back to Bavaria, Steinbach pulls out two crates of deeper records that are right up my street: Carl Craig, Lucio Aquilina, Jichael Mackson. For a while, all of the admittedly impressive trappings of Cocoon fall away in importance and you are left with what really counts: a dedicated core of dancers moving to fantastic dance music.

Against our better judgement, we end up back in the city for afterhours at U60311, coincidentally where the Cocoon Club night began in 1998. Musically, it is typical afterparty fare, moving progressively closer to shredding hard techno as each hour passes. Bored, I end up pestering the coat clerk, a mother of two whose name I forget to catch. Not exactly a techno fan, she tells me she moved to Germany a decade ago to support her two kids back in Ghana. “I’ve worked in this cloakroom nine years now,” she tells me glumly, obviously wanting me to buzz off and make her shift a bit easier. I try for fifteen minutes to get a smile out of her, but no luck. “Do you like Germany?” No reaction. “Do you like techno.” No dice. “Do you like Sven Väth?” That does it. She looks up and smiles.

Title photo credit: Frank Weyrauther