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Photo by Steve Gullick
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Photo by Sigrid Malmgren
“People in Berlin are always late, aren’t they?” exhales Scottish musician/barkeep Barry Burns. “Even if I go to meet my lawyer here, he'll be half an hour late. It used to really freak me out. I'd be thinking ‘Has he forgotten?’ And he'd turn up, no apology, half an hour late. That's just Berlin.”
The vocoder-happy Burns has seen all kinds and all venues while playing keyboards and guitar for Scottish post-rockers Mogwai. But he’s especially fond of one bizarre, little Berlin pub.
“My wife Rachel saw it first. She walked in and was amazed that there was a tree inside the bar. From the roof to the floor was this huge oak,” Burns says of Das Gift, his nookish bar at Donaustraße 119 in Neukölln.
Burns didn't intend to perform in Das Gift – he aimed to own it. And he’s bartended there for over three years since moving here from Glasgow. Now his worlds are about to collide – from bandmate to bartender, from Scotsman to Berliner. On Feb 6, Mogwai will perform at Tempodrom on the heels of what Burns feels is their happiest album yet, Rave Tapes (PIAS).
"When ya come off a tour you typically take it a bit easier. But I have a bar."
“I’ve only been to the Tempodrom once, and to be honest it’s a pretty big venue. We’ll never sell it out. Well, I can sleep in my own bed after that gig, which will be nice,” Burns laughs. He’s mastered multitasking, despite the fact that there’s only one “transferable skill,” as he puts it, between his positions.
“When we’re on the tour bus we often get really bored. I bought all this stuff to make cocktails, all these mixes and spirits.” Boozing in both of those domains isn’t as fun as it sounds, the recently released Mogwai-brand whisky notwithstanding.
“It’s a bad idea. Because when ya come off a tour you typically take it a bit easier. But I have a bar. I get drinks for free there. It’s not good.”
Initially, little of Das Gift’s original space was endearing. “Other than the tree,” recalls Burns, “it was completely fucked.” Burns was especially bewildered by a room adjacent to the bar, now an exhibition space for local artists. The dust-coated corner of the establishment sported a beach hut, which the former owners used to throw bikini parties.
“We thought about keeping the hut there, but it was so dusty it was like toxic waste.” As the Burns’ have started serving haggis for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays, these concerns of health may be somewhat misplaced, though the rest of their traditional Scottish menu, including steak pie, sausage rolls and mac 'n' cheese, sounds somewhat less heart-stopping. Or not.
In contrast to the MDMA art vibe of the general Neukölln scene, the single-malt-slinging Das Gift comes off as a bit more... mature. “Yeah. I think a lot of the people that come to my bar are a bit older than that crowd,” Burns notes of the Kiez’s much-maligned addiction to white sunglasses. “So people like to come and chat – we don’t play music that loud. A lot of them say they’re glad there’s no hipsters in my place.”
Adding in heavy metal whisky night Taste the Doom (started at Das Gift in 2012, now so popular it's held at nearby NK) and record giveaways, does Burns fear an eventual bar stocked with keytarists and Shoreditch stylists?
“I don’t care if hipsters come. I have nothing against anyone coming to our bar. It's not making much money,” he says, adding that it isn’t as big of a problem as it sounds. “We did it more for fun and to meet people. Because it’s difficult to meet people in a city where you’re not from. I know that after three months of touring that I’ll be dying to get back to Berlin.”
Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.