Trouw – The sum of its parts

TrouwWith Trouw’s door firmly shut and the last of their neon lights sold off to the highest bidder, the deliberation around the end of the nightclub has garnered momentum again. The Dutch club will leave a significant hole in Amsterdam’s music scene and I for one will surely miss it, but it begs the question, why? Why do four walls and a sound system have such a significant impact on electronic music’s landscape? Trouw’s location and aesthetics certainly made it distinct from many of its functionalist European neighbours, but there’s no reason to suggest it was an anomaly with the likes of Berghain and that secret east London location re-appropriating the same type of industrial spaces some time before it. Even in its hometown, places like Paradiso and Studio 80 boast similarities with Trouw: innovative use of lighting and space – Paradiso’s stained glass windows and cathedral qualities – and inventive programming – Pieter Willems’ residency there as head programmer of Studio 80 has signalled a new and exciting era for electronic music in Amsterdam. Unlike Plastic People, who brought the likes of Dubstep to the world and who has incidentally also closed last month, Trouw didn’t have any real trend synonymous with it, but yet it stood out amongst many of its peers as a leading light. So what made the place so special? The answer to this question is tracked back to the start of the modern clubbing experience.

Back in the seventies a man named David Mancuso opened up his New York apartment to a select few invited guest and started a series of parties that soon became infamous amongst the city’s partygoers. With little more than a sound system, Mr. Mancuso turned his humble abode into the legendary Loft parties for those who wish to unravel in the nocturnal embrace of music and consequently narcotics. It spearheaded the disco-trend and formed the basis of what was to become the essence of the nightclub: seamless constant music played through a good sound system to a reciprocal audience. There were no headlining DJs or trend-informed playlists, and it worked because the people that managed to get their hands on the exclusive invites made up a strong community with in the confines of Mr Mancuso’s house, firm in the knowledge that they are part of something unique and special for those eight or so hours they were present. (I might just have paraphrased here, but there are countless documentaries and books out there that re-iterate this sentiment and if you need defining proof of the statement, read Last night a DJ saved my life, an excellent portrayal of clubbing culture accounted by its initiators.) It’s exactly that same sense of community that made Trouw such a significant force in my opinion, and although this might be from a bias vantage point, I doubt that there would be many who disagree. Trouw was built around a core group of artists, DJs, employees and audiences that all seemed to work in effortless cohesion to achieve a collective vision. Olaf Boshwijk might have been the principle figure around the club, which also featured multiple financial backers, but Trouw was a result of its many parts. Even though it was more closely informed by the structure of a super club like Berghain and Fabric, it still managed to elicit a sense of community amongst its revellers. Many of the resident DJs could be found on the dance floor on their night off, while some of them found their way into the DJ booth from the other end of the main room by the end of Trouw’s career. And behind all of this was the reciprocal audience. It was a remarkable anomaly considering the venue’s size, one that Mancuso would have certainly recognised.

By the time venues like studio 54 appropriated the essence of Mancuso’s parties and extrapolated it to magnificent proportions to exploit the trend, the sense of community was lost in the thick of post-modern capitalism. The core of the nightclub became about hedonism and extravagance, where celebrity trumped the general public and headliners superseded the experienced DJ. Nile Rogers was inspired to write Le Freak from the debauchedness he’d witness first hand at 54. In a way this is still prevalent today as large venues still rely on big headliners to draw an audience in the hope that the atmosphere will follow. Instead they employ extravagant marketing strategies to imply a unique disposition that rather closely resembles the status quo more than anything. Any sense of a community is lost and these ‘nightclubs’ are little more than music venues today. Trouw avoided this by not succumbing to ridiculous marketing ploys and followed booking strategies similar to Berghain, where fame is negated for skill and the DJs could be free to explore the boundaries of that skill. During my time at Trouw as a blogger there was a unanimous opinion shared by every DJ I interviewed and that was the significance of the venue for each of them. Longer set-times meant they could really get involved in the night and there was no pressure from the promoters to play anything but the music they wanted to hear, and the audience invariably came to listen and dance to. It’s a far cry from the start of the super DJ back in the early nineties.

We had had such a good run in the late eighties as the sense of community returned to the dance floor when House broke in North America. I have to quote Sadar Bahar here, in one of my first interviews for Trouw in order to explain the significance of this genre.  House wasn’t just the music; it was more like a culture. You could look at a person on the bus and be like, ‘ah he’s house’, and there be no music playing. It was a lifestyle.” It wasn’t about following a particular DJ or even playing a certain style of music, it was about a community. DJ’s like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levin were champion selectors, capturing a mood rather than playing the hits, often playing everything from Jazz to Disco. An audience, made up mostly of gay individuals at first, came together at places like the Warehouse in Chicago under the banner of house music, to express their identity as a culture. It soon came to include a broader audience and formed a big portion of youth culture, which also had circumstantial connections to drug culture. It was this connection with drugs that forced the same scene out of London’s city limits when it reached the UK and gave rise to the M25 parties. Here, the size of these parties and attendance increased radically from anything that came before it, but the sense of community was stronger than ever as the disenfranchised youth gathered around music and drugs as a form of peaceful protest against the UK’s totalitarian rule. These parties however gave birth to a new type of DJ. Superstar DJs like Pete Tong and Sasha you demanded extortionate fees from the promoters for short sets. There is a legendary anecdote from one such rave, where Tong refused to extend his set even by a minute unless the promoter called up to the booth and secured the terms of an extended set. These DJ’s ignored all sense of community behind the decks in favour of the handsome fee they demanded. Although their skill was accounted for, unlike the celebrity DJs of today, it formed a rift between the DJ and his/her audience. A rift that grew as time went by, to the point where some DJs are referred to as brands by their representation today. But, with the influx of DJs on the current scene a balance seems to be in flux as young DJs return to the essence of the nightclub.

Trouw had no shortage of these DJs and although they could easily book crowd favourites like many of their contemporaries, they stuck to an informed list of DJs and nights that each brought something unique to the table, whether it was a label night or something a little more left-field like a S&M party. It also nurtured a host of talent within its vacuous space, DJs like Job Jobse and Jean Pierre Enfant will follow in the footsteps of Mancuso and Knuckles as DJs that that encapsulate the essence of the nightclub. But the DJ is only a small part of the nightclub experience, and even if you bring headliner after headliner in, you still need an audience that will complete the balance. Trouw’s main room was often only half full, but the people that were present always seemed to create a sense of community around the artist or DJ rather than be a passive audience. The sunken booth with the platform behind it, made sure that the crowd was the centre of attention and in response the atmosphere was always electric for those present. But, even if someone else were to recreate Trouw in that space, I sincerely doubt that they would be able to capture that same atmosphere, because as I said before, Trouw was the sum of its parts. Even if Olaf were to try to recreate Trouw at a different venue – something I doubt he will even consider – I won’t believe that it would be the same. It was significant not only for its place but also its time. There will be another Trouw though, something that captures the essence of the nightclub again whole-heartedly. It could be a series of Loft parties or a disused industrial space, but it needs a community to make it happen. Like the club kids of the early nineties or the dubstep enthusiasts that poured through the FWD nights, Trouw had the essence of the nightclub at its heart and although it will be missed it should be remembered as such.