„The people of Cologne as such are not superficial“ – Bold claims like this one came up in the interview with author Ulrike Anna Bleier (also known as Greta von der Donau) and singer-songwriter Gunther von der Weiden. The artist duo from the district of Ehrenfeld talks about murder during carnival, about moving to Cologne and becoming a local and about obscure clubs with weird names.
Both of you are so-called „Imis“, which means you were not born in Cologne, but moved here. Gunther, where are you from?
Gunther von der Weiden: Originally I am from Saarbrücken. I studied in Kiel, then worked in an advertising agency in Frankfurt and then I was offered a Job in Cologne. That was in the year 2000. Anyway, I have always wanted to move here.
Why was that?
Gunther von der Weiden: When I was a teenager, I listened to the music of BAP [a band from Cologne]. And I used to read Heinrich Böll [Cologne author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature]. This shaped me. I first visited Cologne when I was about 20 years old. BAP have a song mentioning the “Millionendorf am Rhein” [“a village on the river Rhine with one million inhabitants“]. This describes Cologne perfectly. It’s a Metropolis, but at the same time, a district like Ehrenfeld is just like a village: When you enter a bar, people welcome you and some time later you know everyone of them.
Then one day you became a citizen of Cologne. How did you feel?
Gunther von der Weiden: During the first six months I couldn’t make anything of the city, because I worked a lot. I then quit my job and work as a freelancer ever since. This decision gave me a little more spare time, which I particularly used to resume playing music and that was just when I began to truly arrive.
So, your music helped you to truly arrive in Cologne?
Gunther von der Weiden: Yes. I play the accordeon, guitar and other Instruments ever since I was a child. But I actually had my first live gig in Cologne. That was in the year 2001 in a club named „L“, right here in Ehrenfeld.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: The „L“ has a Long history. It used to be located in Lindenstraße – hence the Name. Then it moved around and now it’s located in Hüttenstraße. It should be named „H“ now.
How would you describe the „L“?
Gunther von der Weiden: Well, it is….
Ulrike Anna Bleier: …obscure.
Gunther von der Weiden: An obscure place, where you can hang out. Yes.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: It used to be a new-wave-location. Everything was black and white and I think you could just stand. There were no tables, just a bar. Nowadays it is rather a punk-location, I think. I remember that when you were still allowed to smoke in clubs… Well…. Let me tell you: You entered the „L“ and you basically couldn’t see a thing.
Gunther von der Weiden: You didn’t have to smoke yourself anymore. The club did it for you.
And that’s where you first performed as a singer-songwriter?
Gunther von der Weiden: I somehow became acquainted with the owner and said „Can I play here as well?“ and he said „Do it.“
Ulrike Anna, where are you originally from?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: I am from Regensburg. Just like Cologne, many people consider it to be „the most beautiful city of Germany“. The difference is: It’s true. Regensburg has a fully conserved medieval city centre. But when I left, all of it was ramshackle. It wasn’t until later that it was refurbished. Anyway, I was just 17 when I flunked out of school and moved out.
Why did you flunk out of school?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: I just went there from time to time. In the meantime I hitchhiked to France, Portugal and Spain. I went out to see the world and thought school was dull.
How did you come to Cologne?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: During one of my journeys I met a woman from Bochum [a town about 70 kilometres north of Cologne]. She invited me to visit her during Christmas holidays – because in the meantime I went to school again. You can imagine that my parents were relieved. One of my friends from school was in Cologne at the same time. So i visited her on my way back home. That’s how I came to Cologne for the first time.
What was your first Impression of the city?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: I arrived at central station and just took the next exit, which was the rear exit to Breslauer Platz. There was a phone booth from where I called my friend. She told me to go back through the station and that she would fetch me there. So I went to the other side and I just wondered „Where actually is the Cathedral?“. And then I saw it and it felt like it would fall right down on me. I was utterly impressed by the size and the closeness of it. I had a strong liking for Cologne at once, also because it reminds me of Regensburg, which also has a cathedral and lies on a river.
What happened next?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: I took my A-levels in Regensburg and at that time a former flatmate of mine was living in Cologne. I wrote to her „You know what, I might move to Cologne as well. I’ll visit you.“ She lived in Gerolsteiner Straße on the fourth floor. We hadn’t seen each other in a year and when I came to her, she shouted through the whole staircase to me: „I have a flat for you already.“ So: I just wanted to visit and went back home with a lease contract in my hands.
Where did the two of you meet for the first time?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: That happened in a bar, that doesn’t exist anymore.
Gunther von der Weiden: The „Rombeck’s“.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: Exactly. During the street party in Venloer Straße. We both had a friend, who repaired music Instruments in a shop called „Musikchirurgie“ [music surgery]. That shop doesn’t exist anymore, as well. Anyway: Eddi sat between us and said „Hey, I have to introduce you two to each other.“ Soon after that, we began to play gigs together, a mix of literature and music.
Both of you live in Ehrenfeld for at least 15 years. The district is a bit hyped nowadays, don’t you think?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: How a disctrict is perceived can change ever so quickly. When I moved here in 1996, people said “How can you do this?“. Ehrenfeld wasn’t considered such a good neighbourhood. In the beginning, I lived in Subbelrather Straße and indeed, one Carnival Monday somebody was shot to death right in front of our house.
How has Ehrenfeld changed during the last 15 years?
Gunther von der Weiden: Back then, the part of Venloer Straße beginning at the Gürtel [a crossroad to Venloer Straße] leading out of town was not so busy at all. Nowadays, there are cafés and shisha-bars and people come there just to stroll.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: It used to take ages until a street was repaired here. In a district like Lindenthal everything was repaired at once. Whereas the people in Ehrenfeld didn’t complain so quickly – or so they were considered. That has improved.
Among other things, you are a writer. How did the city influence your work?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: When I moved to Cologne, I almost quit writing. But then I had the chance to join Literaturatelier, a group of authors giving each other feedback. That was an important step for me. I often used to talk about my writing in an ironical way. I improved on that with the support of the group. Taking my work seriously myself was crucial.
Gunther von der Weiden: Fair enough. As an artist, you want and need feedback. You want the audience to react.
How do you consider the audience in Cologne?
Gunther von der Weiden: It’s great. I once played a gig in „Connection“, that’s another Club here in Ehrenfeld. In the end, everybody was singing with me. I recorded that and it sounds really cool. I also played at Edelweißpiraten-Festival, that was great as well.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: There is a great audience, no doubt. But Cologne can treat artists very shabby, was well. Generally, I wish there were more people who advocate the more serious arts.
So you think the audience is too superficial?
Ulrike Anna Bleier: Cologne People as such are not superficial. But in Cologne traditions like Carnival are considered as culture as well. And that takes a lot of room. People tend to forget, that culture is not just something happy but that it can be a very exhausting thing, too. That’s a pity, because the more serious culture in Cologne also has quite something to offer.
Ulrike Anna Bleier: Like the artist duo „Katze und Krieg“ [cat and war]. They perform in public spaces with an incredible self-confidence. It’s breathtaking.