how berlin’s hansa studios defined the sound of an entire generation
David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Depeche Mode have all recorded legendary songs at Hansa Studios. A new documentary reveals why.
What do David Bowie’s cult albums Low and Heroes have in common with the two hits Lust for Life by Iggy Pop and Depeche Mode’s People Are People? They were all recorded at Hansa, a legendary recording studio in Berlin. Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90 is a new documentary that tracks the history of the space where so much magic happened.
"It is the combination of the place, the people and the city," says Mike Christie, the British director of the film, about the magnetism of Hansa Studios. Mike started working in the music industry back in the 90s, as a promoter for bands such as the Pet Shop Boys and Suede. With Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90, the London-based director has managed to create an authentic and honest movie that speaks to both die-hard fans from back in the day, as well as younger generations for whom the story is totally new. We called Mike to find out about what drove him to document the story of Hansa Studios.
The likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Depeche Mode recorded major records at Hansa Studios. What drew them to it?
Ultimately, as Martin Gore from Depeche Mode says, “We knew about Hansa because of Bowie.” It was a bit of a snowball effect, bands going because the bands that they looked up to were going. And I also think Bowie ended up there almost by accident. But because he went there, a huge number of people went to Berlin. At that time, Berlin was an utterly unique place. It was an amazing studio in a unique city with a huge number of talented producers. It was an appealing place for visitors and very creatively free.
Hansa Studios By the Wall 1976-90 is your debut music documentary. What drew you to the story?
I think that a lot of directors and people have looked at the Bowie in Berlin story, I mean, there are whole books about it. We were looking at it and started wondering why no one told the Hansa story yet. So we started to explore that. It is quite important to acknowledge the role of German music in Hansa and not just Bowie. It was the German music industry and the Meisel family that created Hansa, not Bowie or Depeche Mode. It’s one of many classic untold stories.
Secrets about legendary songs are disclosed in your documentary. Did you learn a lot in the process of telling the story?
I learnt a huge amount while I was making the film, although I thought I already knew the story. I think the main thing I learned was why this happened there: it’s the combination of the place, the people and the city. But it was also incredibly lucky that all these things happened in one place.
What’s your personal impression of Berlin and its music scene back then in comparison with today?
One of the things that is really interesting is talking to the local people. It’s intriguing how small they say the scene was. Everybody knew everybody and everyone was in four or five bands. It was very experimental and challenging and that was a very positive thing. Now it’s much more international. Berlin still has an energy that has been lost in a lot of other places around the world. The world is becoming very generic, and Berlin has done quite well to survive that, which is difficult in the face of capitalism.
The film features exclusive interviews and combines them with archive footage. Why was it important for you to mix past and present?
When you’re making a film about a place, you have to try and communicate the place and the space. In an ideal world, at the end of the film the viewer should feel like they’ve been there. They should feel like they’ve been transported into the place you’re talking about because it unveils a feeling. Hansa still exists, it’s not a memory, it’s a reality and the whole end of the film is set in the modern day. The film should feel like a time machine and hopefully mixing footage gives a sense of that.
What changed for the studio after the fall of the Berlin wall?
It lost its appeal. While there were important German artists using the studio, it’s really clear to me that visitors and tourists were the people who were defining the city. It was a much more inspiring place, because it was so different. When the wall came down, it was about timing, it was also about the technological shifts. You go from analogue recordings through sampling in an entire digital environment.
If you had to describe Hansa Studios By the Wall in one song, which one would you choose and why?
People Are People by Depeche Mode. One of the things that struck me was that David Bowie left America for Berlin to find himself, to escape America and its music. And Depeche Mode almost did the reverse: They went to Berlin, found a sound that was heavily influenced by Berlin, and took it to America and became this huge global band. Ultimately it has to be People Are People because it’s heavily Berlin-influenced and probably used more of the building than any song ever recorded at Hansa. They used three studios and the stairway to create this distinctive sound.