Between Wild Sex Parties and Experimental Theater: The Double Life of a Berghain Bartender

Meet Roman Shamov—the drink-slinger with a colorful past as a drag queen, puppet vocalist, television actor, and breathing workshop guru.

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Apr 18 2016, 3:10pm

Photo by John Aigner

Come Sunday morning, when the sun is well over the horizon and bleary-eyed clubbers in other cities are staggering home, Berghain, Berlin's most notorious techno temple, is just getting going. The headlining DJs are launching into their sets, the bar is three customers deep, and the line snaking across the dusty wasteland surrounding the towering former power plant is nearly a mile long. At the cavernous core of the building, a crowd—dressed in everything from plain tees, to fetishwear to nothing at all—is dancing to the pristine rumble of the venue's Funktion-One system. Roman Shamov, a 48-year-old former East Berliner often dressed in short-shorts, presides over the main bar. A fixture at the club for nearly a decade, he greets many of the regulars by name. Occasionally, as a gesture of camaraderie, he'll down a shot of Kirschsaft (cherry juice) alongside guests getting loaded on Jägermeister.

"I'm not a bartender," he tells me over Thai food in the leafy neighborhood of Prenzlauer-Berg. Judging solely from appearances, one would never guess that this polite man with his neatly trimmed silver moustache worked in nightlife at all. He speaks quietly, but with the studied enunciation of a thespian. "I've tried to work in other bars and it didn't last long," he says. "I'm an entertainer." As Shamov sees it, the human carnival of drag queens, dominatrixes, and gawkers that passes through the venue every night isn't here for fussy cocktails, anyway. "And as entertainment and as a stage," he confides, "the catwalk of the Fassadenbar is quite good."

Berghain, which opened its doors in 2004, is known for having more to it than meets the eye. Though the club accommodates up to 1,500 revelers at a time, only a fraction of the brutalist building is open to the public. What the rest contains—yawning chambers only open on special occasions, dark rooms, hidden passages—is the source of endless speculation. The same could be said of the people who work there, many of whom lead successful creative careers outside the club's confines.

Photo by John Aigner

When Berghain hosted an art exhibition called Worker's Pearls in 2011, more than 40 staff members contributed paintings, photographs, multimedia installations, concerts, or other performances. Shamov, an accomplished actor and vocalist, is one such multifaceted talent. His resume would be enough to fill several ordinary lifetimes. He's strutted across the stage of Berlin's famed Maxim Gorki Theatre, both as an electrical technician and an actor; played everything from a drag queen to a medieval knight on celluloid; voiced a puppet on a long-running TV show; and worked with Rammstein's Christian "Flake" Lorenz. Currently, he leads breathing workshops in Istanbul and Tokyo; sings with an indie rock band called the Weird Fishes; and tours the continent as half of Meystersinger, a performance group that blends absurdist theater with classical vocals set to electronic beats.

The club has remained a focal point in his life throughout it all. "I'm very, very fond of Berghain," he says. "It really has been and still is like a home. I was already going to Berghain before it was Berghain. It used to be Ostgut [from 1998-2003], when it was in the old Bahn-Gelände [a train repair warehouse]. When [that building] was sold, they found that old power plant and just moved in. I went with friends to Panorama Bar and I thought, Oh, that's just beautiful. That's the first really worthy club since the 90s. Back then, E-Werk [a prominent techno club] was the place to be. I went there and danced my head off and had my first real drug experiences. That was my youth."

As a young person born to a Jewish mother and an Islamic father living in the aftermath of WWII, Shamov's youth wasn't exactly easy. Born in 1967 in East Berlin, he grew up in a small flat with his mother, aunt, grandmother, and her girlfriend during some of the city's most tumultuous times. His home harbored more than its share of secrets; his grandmother's sexuality was a taboo topic, and he never saw so much as a photograph of his father.

Roman as a young child.

"You have to picture not knowing anything else," he says of life in the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR). "There was very little connection to the outside world." He lived in a city that was fractured, but his mother and aunt—who'd fled the Nazis during the WWII—were grateful to have survived far worse. "I lived in a Jewish family that said, 'Thank God we live in a country where no one kills us just for being what we are,'" he remembers. "'We're safe here now.'"

While his mother hoped for security, Shamov wanted none of it. Although he loved literature, he had no interest in school and acted out for attention. "I was your typical class clown," he tells me. "I was the funny guy. I was also very, very sad and felt very, very lost. This is why I fought to be funnier than anybody else." Against her wishes, he abandoned a stable job as an electrician at Maxim Gorki Theatre in his twenties to work on a television show covering the local nightlife. During the late 80s and early 90s, when techno clubs and raves started infiltrating Berlin's abandoned industrial spaces, he plunged into the dark heart of the city's after-hours scene. After avoiding them for decades, it was also around this time that he began to parse through his family's buried secrets.

"I had an inkling at 25 that I had to work through my history, otherwise I would have been a very unhappy man," he says. "With the war and running from the Nazis, my mom never had the chance to see men. So, when she was 29, she went to Moscow. It was the first time in her life she was on her own." She made up for lost time when she met a young academic from Dagestan. "They had two intimate nights and on the second night, I happened." When she realized she was pregnant, she wrote Shamov's father, but never received a response. Years later, her former lover would claim that the KGB intercepted the letters. To this day, Shamov does not know whether or not that is true.

"I only met him when I was 35," he remembers. Despite the cultural differences, they understood one another on some level. Shamov even flew to Dagestan to visit his grandparents' grave together with an extended family he'd never known he'd had. "My father was over the moon," Shamov remembers. "He was so happy, so unbelievably happy to see that there was a son of his. He has no children, other than me."

In his twenties, however, Shamov was less interested in finding long lost family members than in escaping. Like many East Berliners, he fled after the Wall came crashing down. "A good friend of mine, Matthias, said, 'Let's go!'" He says. "I already had an acting agency in Philadelphia that was interested, so I said, 'Okay, darling!' I had my coming out [as a gay man] in the States. I had the most incredible parties and things—it was wild. Just walking through the streets of New York was a kind of like virtual reality for me. I love that city. But then, once I came back [to Berlin] in '98, I saw the TV tower and I thought, That's my home. So I stayed."

Photo by Sven Marquadt

Berlin had changed radically, but the more secure, grown-up Shamov quickly found his footing. In the process of finding himself, he discovered he had a knack for music. "I started at some stage to really look into myself, to really change something. That lead to being able to sing," he says. "To be able to sing, you have to really stand firmly on the ground and be in the moment, which had been absolutely impossible for me, because I was running, running, running from the past."

His newfound interest helped him reconnect with an old acquaintance: Roger Baptist. Though the two had met years earlier during a wrestling match in the dark room of a gay club, Baptist was all but unrecognizable upon their second encounter. The muscle-bound singer, who would later rise to fame as head of the Rummelsnuff, a popular band working in the Neue Deutsche Härte [a blend of industrial, alternative metal, and German New Wave], and Shamov hit it off again and began to perform together. During a concert at SO36, "one of the owners of Berghain saw us," Shamov explains. "And so he invited Roger, who was already working the door at the Lab.Oratory, to perform New Year's Day [2008] at 5 o'clock in the morning."

By that time, the former turbine hall of the power plant had been gutted and refurbished for maximum acoustic precision. Shamov instantly felt a connection with the place and wanted to be a part of it. Before his performance, he approached the owners to see if there might be a permanent position for him.

"When I went to the interview with the two guys from Berghain, they said, 'What do you think you could do?' I was like, 'Maybe door?' And they looked at me and laughed their fucking asses off," he says with a grin. Though he had been friends with Sven Marquardt—arguably the club's most famous bouncer—since the early 90s, Shamov's gregarious personality wasn't likely to strike fear among the hundreds of hopefuls waiting outside the venue on an average night. "It's not me," he says. "I would've let anybody into the club!"

So they started him on the bar at Lab.Oratory, a space within the depths of the building open every weekend for "gay fetish stuff," as Shamov describes it. "They asked me, 'Is there anything you would not want to be part of in the parties we throw?' And I said, 'Naked, no way... Joking! No problem. I've seen everything.'" He pauses to correct himself. "I thought I had seen everything. I said, 'There is one party I would really not like to work with.' I called it the 'Nutella' party.'"

Chocolate-hazelnut spread doesn't factor into this infamous orgy, but a decidedly more pungent brown substance does. Unfortunately, on his very first weekend, a co-worker at the Lab called in sick and they needed a volunteer to cover that very shift. "I had nightmares the night before," Shamov says. "I went to Hauptbahnhof [Berlin's central train station] and I bought myself Tiger Balm. It's very strong, as you know. So at the beginning, I went into the back and just gently, gently rubbed a little bit around my nose. My eyes were watering. And then the party was going on... maybe 20 minutes? Not even. Maybe five or 10 minutes. I went to the back, got my Tiger Balm, stuck my finger in and into the nose it went. It was beyond everything you ever could imagine," he says, shaking his head at the memory. Then, he flashes me a coy smile. "And I won't give away any more details than that."

In recent years, he's been clocking fewer shifts Berghain to make room for other pursuits. In 2010, he joined forces with Luci van Org, an ex-popstar whose catchy confection "Mädchen" still makes the rounds on radio stations, to create the theatrical/musical duo Meystersinger. The duo, which has released two albums and is currently working on a third, travels across the country performing skits and songs that pirouette between the gleefully goofy and the darkly tragic. Songs deal with loss, grief and loneliness; bouts of slapstick-heavy, theatrical bickering give way to lines about an internal pain that tears at flesh. Tellingly, the phrase "Am Ende aller Dinge werd ich lachen" ("At the end of everything, I will laugh") is a recurring feature on the group's posters and t-shirts. As Shamov sees it, Meystersinger is as much a form of exorcism as entertainment, a forceful expulsion of the trauma embedded in both national and individual psyches. It's also a form of personal catharsis for him and Org, one he's likened to "going to a psychoanalyst."

"Luci really pushes me to the limit," he says. "It's a funny twist between us, that love-hate relationship that you have that makes for a very strong dynamic and is very productive as well. She once said to me, 'We're very alike and totally different. I'm feeling with my head and you're thinking with your heart.' Thank God we both have such a screw loose."

As personal as the work is, Shamov is eager to share it with his Berghain colleagues and friends. He's quick to point out that many of his colleagues "are artists, singers, writers, or performance artists"—people who have played a powerful role in shaping his art. Meystersinger have performed at the club on multiple occasions and even celebrated their last album release with a party in the Kantine, a small, affiliated venue next door.

"For one [staff-only] Christmas party at Berghain, I performed with Meystersinger," he says. "It was very touching, because a few people who worked there had passed away, and so we sang a song that I wrote for my mom. I finished with 'Geht's dir gut da wo du bist? Hab dich manches mal vermisst... Komm zurück ein kleines Stück' ["Are you well, wherever you are? I've missed you sometimes. Please come back just a little bit"]. People were really happy. They said, 'Thank you for the honor for the people who have left.' It was a really nice situation, to bring your art into the place where you work. It has always been very beautiful to make that connection."

Diana Hubbell is a Berlin-based writer, you can find her on Twitter.