Last month I started talking about some of the things I have learned from working in groups and collectives. I had wanted to write something about the absurd and unique experience I had at Katarameno Syndromo, so, after my rather short column last month, plan to rectify. I know running a gig space vastly differs from place to place, so I believe sharing my shenanigans might be of some use to some punk out in the sticks somewhere. It probably won’t, but hell, you gotta try right?
To start with, some people found this concept absurd and could not imagine why anyone would want to spend their precious free time running about for a crummy old basement, and what, for free!? We wanted to get away from all the paid/bar/club shit and make our own space, with our own rules. We weren’t making a space for other people, we were making it for us. No bouncers; no sexism; no racism; no rockstar shit; no violence; no hard drugs. Bands that floor without the use of a stage, merely a brick-high platform and a roomful of happily drunk and cheery punks. No moshing that could give you a concussion, just lots of dancing and cheering. No astronomical entrance fee, even when European bands were visiting from abroad or Japan or the US; just a bashed-up donation box and a well-stocked bar. There were ten of us involved; some more than others, and for three years we ran some of the best shows in the country—no shit.
Katarameno Syndromo means “cursed syndrome,” as we were all cursed in some way or another. It was located in one of the dingiest parts of town—we were, after all relatively illegal. It was however close enough to downtown activity, so as to remain within easy access. We were located a few blocks down from the main Polytechnic University in the centre of Athens and just a couple blocks over from Villa Amalias squat. KS was within seven minutes walking distance from buses, trains and the underground. It also created for a handy triangle of support in the event of trouble—which was always within seven minutes walking distance from KS. We were situated on the corner of a small crossroad, between a couple whorehouses, an Egyptian kebab shop and a motorcycle repair shop that could have potentially been a dumping ground for stolen motorbikes, but I could be wrong. Almost across from our entrance was a paved pedestrian road, lined by half a dozen semi-abandoned buildings. One summer, one of them had been turned into a crackhouse, and one day we were astounded to see our street corner on the evening news under the headline “junkies with Kalashnikovs occupy building.” Boy am I glad we didn’t have a gig the day the cops decided to bust that place!
The surrounding area was not only rather dodgy, especially at night, but it was incredibly filthy and so smelly you just knew something, or someone, was decomposing in those rubbish bins. In fact, our main entrance would often be used as a toilet, by cats, dogs and humans alike. I also remember once the rubbish problem was so bad we had to call the health department to come take care of it—the rubbish collectors were on strike and there was literally a rubbish heap about three metres high in front of the building. In addition to health hazards, there were also other dangers. People would often come to the basement and go back to find their cars broken into, or their windows smashed. In some cases punks would get followed or chased by fascists, who roamed the area, mainly looking for vulnerable immigrant bate; something to call in to their pals the cops, then they could have a clobbering gang-bang. Across the street from us about fifteen immigrants from Bangladesh lived in two apartments that overlooked the road. When situations got really tough, usually around riot season (May, November and December) and we needed to have people on guard on the roof, they would often smile at us through their broken windows, perhaps comforted in the knowledge that, whoever we were, we disliked like the cops as much as they did. We made sure to maintain a very, very low profile and when asked we responded by saying we run a music studio.
It was a 100 square metre basement, with one window, one tiny bathroom and no ventilation. It actually used to be a music-recording studio and consisted of four small rooms, but, by the power of DIY and by the light of a single, bare bulb, some of those walls were torn down and Katarameno Syndromo was born into grubby existence. Fifteen white steps below ground level, a bamboo bar welcomed you right as you got to the bottom. Coat hangers with dead rocker names above each one lined the wall on the left. To the right was a recording studio, another small bar counter, which was used as the distro area, one “lounge balcony” (an elevated corner where we placed a coffee table and some armchairs we found on the street) and a platform where the bands played. The space in between easily filled up with sixty people. It was small enough to be cozy, with surreal dark corners and exotic decorative touches, but big enough to make it easy for 80% of the people to circle the band and lift the guitarist in the air. For the first year and a half the floor was dusty concrete; so every time someone would drag their feet or dance, a small puff of dust would form beneath their feet—sort of like Pig-Pen the Peanutes character. The next day our boogers would always be black. From the outside, you never would have guessed this tropical paradise dwelled six feet underground. I say tropical not only because in the summers it got so damp and hot that nicotine, dirt and sweat would literally drip from the ceilings and pipes; but also because it was an exotic haven in the middle of all the grey misery and bland depression.
Harry was a very laid back sound engineer and did sound at the shows, along with Mike who knew how to set up the PA and figure out what each band needed, and hence what other equipment we had to borrow. To book a gig there needed to be, either a) group consensus, or b) enough people from the group to agree on it and run it themselves. The later rarely happened. Depending on the gig we booked, and which one of us booked it, jobs would rotate. When Panos arranged Crude, Ermis and Peio managed the bar. When Mike and I arranged Bernays Propaganda, Nodas and Skaf took care of the door. And when Alekos booked the Movie Star Junkies we all just thumped our feet and pounded our chests and drank until the night turned into day.
Our donation box looked like the head of a cardboard robot and we had a suggested donation of three euros—of course we found buttons and Canadian pounds in there too and so oftentimes Gareth, the hearty Welsh bikey, or Vaggouras the obscure-hardcore-lover would take over greeting duties. We had a sign above it that said, “Your donation helps touring bands with their expenses.” Everyone ignored it. The money from the bar helped pay for the electricity and water (which were higher than normal, as that seedy basement was on the books as a “business space”), plus the two hundred beers we would need to get for the next gig, cleaning materials, and other space-related expenses. Peio, Ermis and I would cook, and champagne and cake would be a frequent phenomenon.
The rent was covered by the studio room. Four to five bands rehearsed there, so their collective rent was pretty cheap, given that each band had an average of 4.3 members. They were in change of keeping the studio tidy, which usually meant finding the carpet drenched in beer, ashes all over the console and things missing or laying about in disarray—ha ha ha! It was hard to control and I laugh about it now, but we appreciated them very much nonetheless. That studio has spawned some great acts, which would probably still be in some dingy basement in Athens right now, were it not for KS.
Ideally four of us had to be there to open up, sweep and mop, clean the bathroom and bar, and scrub the main entrance and pavement area with as many buckets of bleach water as possible. The stench was so bad, it was vomit inducing. But better shit that cops, you know? Four people at least had to close up; put the booze away, pay the band, give a quick sweep, make sure all the equipment was back in the studio room and all seven locks were tightly shut. Of course, things will go wonky if they can, and people have different priorities, so it was usually the same few buggers doing all the dirty work, starting at four in the afternoon, going until three in the morning. But it was still pretty damn splendid. Sure, not everyone pulled their weight, and sometimes we had communication difficulties, but you stuck your neck out. Not only because you couldn’t be sure someone else would do it, but ultimately because you really cared about what you were doing.
I can remember many a night, stumbling out of there, drunk and happy, locking every door and heavy duty padlocl, only to get to the top and realize someone had forgotten their phone or bag. There was absolutely no signal down there, so all our phones would be lined up by the single bottle glass window behind the bar, the big pirate flag hanging above it. Gig posters and a hologram of Jesus hung just to the left of the bar, a hand-made collage of naked men hung on the right, below a framed collage of old punk photographs, made especially for KS by one of its trusted friends. We also had a backstage area, where we stored all our crap, booze and guest band equipment. It was connected to a tiny dirt yard (more like a hole in the ground!), which was where we cooled off on hot summer nights, or smoked up, or just took a break from the marvelous mayhem inside.
There was a handful of people would help behind the bar, or stay late to help clean up; they donated their art for posters, and their time and money or other random things we needed. Some people would leave ten euros at the door, then they would pay twenty euros up front at the bar and just drink for the rest of the night. In the beginning we didn’t even have drink prices, just a sign that said, “Pay what you want for this drink, for your drink.” By the end though people were just too confused (dumb?) and asked us to name a price, so we suggested one euro for beer and three for drinks. It all worked out fine though and by the third year, we were saving some money for future plans. Things were going great until one day they weren’t. In the summer of 2012 Katarameno Syndromo closed its doors. My last memory of it was my going away party, which I organized with my favourite local band Hibernation. I was not around when it eventually got locked up for good, as I was already here in SF. But, I admit, I’m actually glad I was not there. Even though it went out with a bang, it would have been too sad.
Maybe it was the unique combination of the people involved, or maybe we had just stumbled upon a golden section of time and space. Despite all the troubles and stress, the hour-long meetings and countless emails exchanged, we did it. And in spite of it all, whacky landlady, the fascists, the drug dealers and shit outside, we loved it. The memories created there will be with me for life, as will the lessons learned. One of the nuttiest people I have ever met once made a poster for one of our gigs. She was a regular and often cooked treats for touring bands and obsessively cleaned up empty beer cans after shows. It was a drawing of a cyclone and said, “thou will be safe in the eye of the tornado.” And it was true; for a few hours a week we had our secret getaway. Even though we didn’t feel much safer from the savage world outside, it was, in its decadent and disorderly nature, rather fucking glorious.
Until next time… who gives a shit?