I want to speak to the master conspirator who forced me to choose between The National and Bon Iver. How close are the stages I wondered? I knew the sets were usually 15 minutes apart, and maybe I’d be able to catch the finale if I made a run for it, but then I wouldn’t be close to the stage. The best sonic experience is a few feet in front of the sound engineers, right? There were so many strategic decisions to make and so many people. Artists flew in just hours before for a quick sound check, waited around, performed, and then took the first plane out to their next show.
Two years ago, I stopped my thumb on my phone screen, dragged down a few centimeters and took a second look at the National’s Instagram post about a weekend of music at Funkhaus in Berlin. A university friend had recently moved there, so I instinctively messaged her asking for a place to crash. She complied. We arrived at Funkhaus thirty minutes before the doors even opened, not really knowing what to expect.
Excited and a bit unsettled, we took our wristbands and received the schedule on a sheet of paper. It was incredibly ambiguous, nothing more than times and hall numbers.
I didn’t know it yet, but this weekend would forever change the way I perceived music.
Erlend Øye played his ukulele outside in between shows to a crowd of twenty people or so. He then passed his ukulele around and asked if anyone else had a song they wanted to share. We didn’t know if an event like this would ever happen again.
Luckily it did, twenty-three months later. This time around Vincent Moon captivated our minds throughout the week, sharing with us the moment songs were conceived, and how harmonies unfolded in emails to ticket holders. Audio clips of rehearsals were also sent with raw insights into pitch changes, chord additions, wrong vocal entrances — the audience was experiencing the music right alongside the artists. It was an incredible peak behind the curtain.
Throughout the weekend, groups of a few hundred people would rush into small recording studios and pile around heaps of guitars, trumpets, saxophones, violins, amps, microphones, and a grand piano. Even when artists would wade through the crowd, it was difficult to know who you were watching unless you were a dedicated fan. Kyle Resnick may be on the trumpet, Ben Lanz on the trombone, and Zach Condon holding down the vocals — you never really knew — but then there would be a departure from Beirut with a vocal accompaniment from Laura Jansen, percussion by Tatu Rönkkö, David Chalmin chiming in on his guitar, and the orchestral collective — stargaze — adding undertones of classical music that would morph the sonic vibrations into a celestial body of harmonic bliss.
We made friends with a neurosurgeon while sunbathing in between sets. “Who did you see?” we kept asking other people we met, until we eventually realized we didn’t even know the answer ourselves.
Walking out of those studios trying to conceptualize what we had just experienced, made us realize just how lucky we were to be in a room with such special artists who typically tour solo. It heightened the experience, especially having no prior expectations.
I started to wonder if the security and barriers between fans and artists at typical festivals was what actually caused irrational hyper-fandom. Everyone here seemed to respect the artists who were unimaginably accessible and vulnerable.
“I’m going to perform a song for the first time that I wrote this week. That’s really scary if you don’t know.” Feist said to the attentive audience who didn’t dare to take out their phones and interrupt such an intimate moment. Except me, for I had to steal just a few seconds to remind myself that I was in music heaven.
The last set we saw was an artist who told a story about Feist who hosted a workshop on songwriting. “You’ve already written this song five years ago; you just have to remember it” she said. Before he began playing this song, another artist said he would join him on piano. They shook hands, meeting for the first time and composed something brand new right before our eyes.
PEOPLE was born out of Michelberger’s Funkhaus event in Berlin back in 2016 and has evolved from there. It was co-founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Keep up with the festival on Instagram.