After over 30 years of sampling the artistic fruits of Berlin while visiting friends, alt-rock pioneer Bob Mould took the plunge and rented a flat in the city’s LGBTQ-centric Schöneberg area in 2016. Retaining his San Francisco apartment “just up the hill from the flag at Market Street in Castro,” the Hüsker Dü co-founder now calls two of the world’s premier gay-borhoods home. But it was in Berlin that he made his visceral, decidedly optimistic new album, Sunshine Rock (Merge). The city “had a lot to do with the overall tone of the record,” says Mould.
“Berlin was very sexually progressive a hundred years ago,” says Mould. “There is a little more history in a long-term sense.” He points out that the transition of the Castro from a working-class Irish neighborhood to an LGBTQ haven happened in the late 1960s during the Summer of Love, while “decades earlier, that happened on the streets that I walk every day in Berlin.” That legacy lingers in Berlin. “Businesses [are] named after people who made huge contributions a century or more ago to what we call gay life,” he says, pointing to places like Magnus Pharmacy, named after physician and gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld.
Mould notes that Berlin allocates money to help clubs with noise control, while American developers build condos in urban hotspots that promptly choke out the scene. “As soon as people have their first kid, they start complaining about that club they moved next to,” he says of San Francisco. “Berlin is being very protective of their nightlife. The city recognizes the value of these clubs for tourism, culture and identity.”
“As with any gay area in a world city right now, we’ve all seen a lot of changes. [Gentrification is] hitting Berlin now, but it hit in San Francisco earlier. People my age who made it through the ’80s left the Castro because of prices or whatever it is,” Mould says. “It still feels very gay, but [in Berlin], people have been there their whole lives. Rent control is a little bit tighter. People have gotten to stay.”
A big difference, he says, is seeing how many representations of queer identity show up on the weekends in Berlin — “young, old, Italian, Polish, Scottish” — which he says starts every Friday around 2:30 p.m. One thing common to every scene around the world? “A leather club is a leather club,” he says. Even so, Berlin is a touch more fastidious. “The Germans are a little more precise with it. San Francisco is very free range, but [Berlin] feels like a convention — everybody is absolutely perfect, head to toe.”