Ken Parsons: Singer, Poet, Cabaret Artist

Conversations, Music
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Ken Parsons (1)Time Out refers to him as ‘The Maestro of the Underground.’ For over 30 years, the multi-talented Ken Parsons has been active in Berlin’s, as well as, Europe’s underground scene. 

S2S met the singer, poet, cabaret artist and Celtic harp playing musician who was a member of the cult group Who’s Rachel? which was based at Tacheles in Berlin from 1987-95. Recently, Ken recorded a new cd with the producer Sarah Brightman.  

S2S: You have encountered Berlin before and after the wall came down. Are there unique experiences that stand out in your memory?

Ken Parsons: Massive question. In short: before the wall came down and in the early 90’s it was more edgy, punky and had a huge squat scene in Mitte and P-Berg. It was like San Franciso in 67. Endless festival. Magic. These days it has got the ‘place to be’ label stuck to it. True but ‘trendification’ can be as bad as gentrification.

Also English has pretty much become lingua franca whereas before I was used to speaking German most of the time.

Kotti used to be a neighborhood tube station: now sometimes it seems like Bangkok International Airport. 24-7 wall to wall people.

On the other hand – I don’t want to be a grumpy old times Berlin resident spitting feathers about hipsters. There were a lot of bad sides to the 90’s: political violence, a lot of very psychologically damaged people, and deaths in the scene.

I used to hang out in the 36 Kiez, Kinderbauernhof and Volkskueche Schlupber in Waldemarstr. was our HQ in a way. I used to sit in a waggon jamming looking at the Wall and thinking: “Wow, I am IN Berlin!” Now, I sometimes cycle back from Mitte to the old Admiralstrasse WG where I stay when on tour (since 1986 there is the same graffiti I wrote poems about in 89) and as I get to the Adalbertstraße, I think “Wow, I am cycling THROUGH the wall – freaky!”

S2S: You were playing with the cult-group Who’s Rachel? and were a resident at Tacheles from the very beginning. How do you see the development Berlin has been experiencing in the last 15 years?

Ken Parsons: I was resident at the X B Liebig in Friedrichshain and later in Lohmühle Wagenburg not Tacheles but Who’s Rachel? was a band in residence at Tacheles. We built a practice room there and played several times every month to massive audiences.

Sadly, Tacheles is gone and Mitte has dried up pretty much at least for the things I like.

Fascinating: the area that was sarcastically called “Endstation Neukoelln” by die hard Kreuzbergers is now so popular. I joke about the hipster invasion but it is great to see the diversity of people. I am quite excited what will happen with the north part of P Berg and Wedding.

S2S: ACUD is an art club that’s been around since 1990. Just recently you played at Max Fish with the Spiritual Sessions hosted by Bennet Cerven from The Trouble Notes. What can you tell us about the cultural collaboration from back in the day? And how was it being back?

Ken Parsons: I played at ACUD with Who’s Rachel? in about 92, with Amsterdam based folk-rock band Nuclear Kazoo in 2004 and yes, a full solo set at Spiritual Sessions a while back: great the place is still there and part of the cultural scene in P berg and Mitte. The Max Fish gig was really nice with a super crowd. It was a packed evening and it was indeed like the old days. There were people there from the international family of musicians …NYC, Berlin, Amsterdam. Berlin is again a focal point for performers from the global village. Small world. Had a cracking set. Nice to see things are kicking and not just in Neukoelln. As I said- Wedding & P Berg still has a lot going on and potential.

S2S: How do you see yourself as an artist?

Ken Parsons: It is a vocation. A way of life. It is my duty to uphold a tradition of live performance art: music, poetry, comedy, and storytelling. I play sometime for the Bards and Druids in Glastonbury town and I do take these traditions very seriously. Music – and comedy- has helped me through very, very dark times.

S2S: You are trying to build the bridge between Berlin and Amsterdam? What exactly is your ambition and where do you see a connection between these two cities?

Ken Parsons: Berlin is BRILLIANT but I think people can get obsessive about their trip, over hyped, lost in a little Berlin bubble…maybe a bit Prussian….dare  I say :)?  Amsterdam’- like in the 90’s – is a wonderful release. It has a great music and performance circuit but it is more chilled, more Zen, and beautiful. I urge performers to come here and show the skills they have often honed in Berlin to a different audience.

Amsterdam is great but can be a bit suffocating and there are not as many outlets for creative mayhem as in Berlin, so: Amsterdam artists can benefit from time spent in the German capital too. Perfect little balance. We need a couple of flats for swops in each city, a vehicle. Working on a blog called Berlidammer.com and I will try and get a page devoted to concrete issues like shared flats, gig tips, travel, keeping band costs to a minimum and so on.

S2S: You write comedy, prose, short stories, poems as well as songs. What do you focus on within your writing?

Ken Parsons: Use of wide vocabulary. Comedy writing is like poetry, so it flows. I like modern fairy tales. Socio-political issues in a surreal framework.  I also am trying to work on a technique I call ‘Verbal Mime’ so no matter what language the show is in – people of all countries can follow it.

S2S: What is your project ‘nen Koffer in Berlin’ about?

Ken Parsons: Well – I needed a ‘forum’ or ‘informal embassy’ in Berlin and had the name in my head for ages. Typcial Berlin synchronicity (which would make ETA Hoffmann proud!): There is a bar called Koffer bar in the Fuldastraße in Neukölln!

We have set up a few cabaret and music nights. Rough idea is to BLEND different scenes and it has worked, bringing together: the new English speaking comedy scene, the German Kleinkunst scene, the music world, the punky autonome world, the literary world. I HATE cliques- where people just play to their own mates and form a self-congratulatory little group-  and I think you have to reach out. Not easy and at the start it is difficult but it is growing.

S2S: Do you personally have a connection to New York or see a connection between Berlin and New York?

Ken Parsons: Never been to NYC- but there are plans to meet up with the old NY- Berlin crew from the 90’s

New York was once ‘New Amsterdam’. Well, we’re busy cultivating the link to Old Amsterdam first but there is a massive and historical link between all the cities so in time Little Elf Records will no doubt develop a little scene in the Big Apple.

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