Defining Dresden: Ivan Smagghe & Manfredas talk starting parties
Dresden is an ambitious new club night fronted by old friends Ivan Smagghe and Manfredas. The pair discuss Soviet Lithuania, Hackney and what makes a party tick.
Starting a party requires a concept, a commitment and a degree of naivety. Ask any promoter and they’ll tell you about the trials and tribulations of running your own party – it’s no easy task.
Ivan Smagghe and Manfredas are old friends cut from the same cloth. The pair have recently decided to launch a new night called ‘Dresden’ – an opportunity in which they will be able to play long form sets back to back in clubs that they feel fit and appropriate to do so.
The pair don’t really need an introduction having each established formidable music careers over many years. However, there is always a degree of interest and intrigue as to the when and why behind two successful dj’s choosing to embrace the commitment of starting something new, something from scratch.
Tonight will mark the launch of the new party in Vilnius at the infamous Opium Club – a venue with which they both hold a close affinity. They reflect on the rationale behind the new project…
Ivan Smagghe: What are your musical memories of Soviet Lithuania and your immediate musical memories after its disappearance?
” My dad’s Zhiguli car with a cut muffler so it sounds more like a sports car. My dad wearing leather gloves and me on the backseat holding a little stereo that blasted Slade’s ‘Ooh lala in L.A.’. We were transcending into the other world already with that shitty car. Another memory is me being sent to the village during summers and Russian band KINO’s music playing through my uncle’s window.
The 90’s was a journey of my own and everything was a bootleg. Kiosks with Polish pirate cd’s with non existent albums and compilations. A big game changer was discovering a shop called “Zarazza records” in Vilnius. They were selling bootleg rap albums with only a 2 year delay. But yeah, suddenly I knew what A Tribe Called Quest was. Good audio quality was a real treasure and I was one of the bad guys switching the insides of the tapes after making a copy of somebody’s album. We had to work with what we had. MTV appearing on cable was big too. We were ripping music from the TV and playing it on a local radio. Ordering my first records and waiting for about three months for them to arrive. The first Lithuanian electronic band Exem emerging and the first ever foreign band concert – Boney M with a fake Bobby Farrell and convoy of cars leading them from city to city like they were a band of world leaders.”
Manfredas: Any special memories from your side on the first-time you entered this part of the world? I think you came to Vilnius for the first time around 2004. I look back at the pictures from that time, we’re all dressed so funny. What’s your first memory of coming here?
“I vividly remember the first club I played in Vilnius, Gravity. Looking back at now, it was maybe the most perfect ex-Soviet bloc cliché: a not too refurbished underground army bunker. You had to go down this long concrete corridor without steps to enter the actual club. Nothing was seen or heard from the outside apart from a few security guys. I know you told me you still do parties here once in a while. I’d like to see if the memories match, as mine most often don’t. I also remember the hotel just across the roundabout, another relic of the Soviet era. At a time when Moscow was deep down in its club mafia stage, Vilnius felt a bit more real and less glitzy, a great ground to build something on. I don’t remember what I wore then, I guess it was still the Suck My Deck/long hair days.”
Ivan Smagghe: I consider Opium, the newer Gallery and its crew as the best club in the world. Why do you think I do?
“When you landed here 20 years ago, people related to that vibe immediately. It wasn’t about our music education, because we didn’t know much, the feeling stuck. We just loved that darker-new-wave-synth-electro without almost knowing it. It could have been the sound of Defected or Giles Peterson or Dixon or Tiesto, but that’s not what happened in this town. It’s the wonky stuff that stuck. So it’s natural that you feel at home had a big part in shaping this scene. Now, you’re almost a resident, a 20 year relationship means something. Plus, you’re right, Opium is really one of the best clubs in the world for its management and architecture. And of course, Vilnius knows how to party, usually for at least 12 hours. You know you’re not gonna be leaving me at 7 am like you sometimes do, or did. We are talking some serious shifts here.”
Ivan Smagghe: I won’t leave, promise. What amazes me in Vilnius is the proper involvement of the crowd in the music. I still remember one party where my friends got told off by a 6ft5 guy for chatting on the dancefloor: “if you want to chat, go to the bar”. Makes total sense. I’ve rarely seen such a symbiotic relation between audience and resident DJs too, a relationship which is so often lacking. Talking of important places, do you miss Hackney and why?
“I definitely have missed Hackney during lockdown, but now I’m good, as I get to play in London almost every month. It’s my home… When we were flatmates, I really wanted it to be a permanent one, but love has brought me back to Lithuania. I like seeking new things, always, but more so I like going back to the places I know very well and, you know, order the same dish. Staying at your house, having morning runs at the marshes, lentil soup and some Tarama at the Turkish, a pint at the Spurstowe Arms, a book at Donlon’s and a little night out at The Gun – that’s a good ‘groundhog day’ for me.”
Manfredas: Your first big club-night was Pulp in Paris, right? Why did it stop? What indicates that a club has run its course?
“Let’ say Kill the DJ at Pulp was the night that made me who I am, musically or not. It still means so much in terms of the way I play, the way I party, all the ways really, a certain ethos maybe. Stopping when we did felt natural really, we were just a little bored and dragging it would have been the opposite of the sense of urgency we had. It was also a night that stood firm in a musical moment. Some will call it Electroclash but it was not that really. It was just the simple idea that club music was not only disco, house and techno and that you could have a raw synth punk live band in a club.”
“We were seriously trying not to be serious if that makes sense. When this attitude became a thing in and of itself, it was time to move on.”
Manfredas: Is Dresden, our new night, a change in a direction or more like coming back to where we started? What’s your definition of Dresden?
“It’s neither or both. I guess we know each other, and maybe ourselves a little better, to know where we stand in terms of putting on a night. How to define what Dresden is is tricky, it is just us:
“Where difference remains the same, standing strong yet never still, where you become what you are, where we become who we always were.”
So yeah, may be a little retour aux sources as we say in French, or a recentrage, finding a place where we can have free fun without too many musical rules. Same with the name. Strange name maybe but that’s voluntary. A Shrimp cocktail? A party?
Manfredas: Strange is good and it’s a good sounding word. Sometimes that is all that matters. It can bring many different associations, when the real story is me and you having a shrimp cocktail in a bar in LA, named The Dresden while trying to come up with a name for our party. But if it makes someone open a history book or look into the map, there are always interesting things to be learned. Just like Japan is a great band, or Joy Division is the world of its own, Dresden is an ephemeral place and the sum of things we both like. Anyway, I’m glad we got away easily with the name this time. Often if it doesn’t come quickly it can become a torture. You’ve had some great names for your parties and your tracks. Where do they usually come from?
“I love words, titles, names… I have eternal lists for songs, t-shirt slogans, bad tattoos, they just come to me I guess or I read something, see something, hear something and it sticks for another possible use (like Dresden). All meaning comes from the rift between meanings.”
Manfredas: We both appreciate artwork and the visual side of music. Personally I was kind of missing more fun and humour. What is nice about going back to Xerox aesthetics?
“It’s the same than with the name, it’s a sincere provocation. It’s not retro but a reaction to the invasion of post-psychedelic mushroom design. That really annoyed me. Luca Lozano, who does the artwork, really got that DIY punk ethos, and the freedom that goes with it. Freedom of design but also freedom of interpretation, contradictions, double-entendre, bad or good jokes. I mean look at that t-shirt…”
Manfredas: You’ve got a lot of stuff at home, man, maybe that’s where all the ideas come from. What’s the most prized thing there? Cats and other living beings are excluded..
“Oh wow, I don’t know. Maybe my Red Army PPSh41? My Gareth McConnell prints? My Klimowski movie posters? My first edition of A Perfect Spy, I don’t know man… I like a clutter of things, I always find stuff I had forgotten about.
Manfredas: “Back2back” is a tag to sell more tickets and usually it’s not so great. Can be sloppy or even worse – competitive. You had quite a few lasting ones with Andrew and Vladimir. Just maybe tell me what makes it work for you? What makes or made these collabs significant? Right amount of compromise? Personal bond? Ecstasy?
“Playing with someone is an act of either intimacy or pure detachment. It really, really depends on the relationship you have with the other and all the ones you mentioned function or functioned in their own way. With you, it’s definitely an act of ecstatic intimacy because we know each other so well (lol) and I guess we are not too serious about the other one playing a bad record or a cheesy one. We both know the seriousness needed to get away with these records, as we know the seriousness needed to go deep. We also have some common hits which is always funny. I remembered when you played that Raymond Barry track at 10 am last time. For now, playing just the two of us works, then may be we’ll get some other people in?
Manfredas: You’ve been around clubs for almost 30 years. If there was a time when you were really bored of it, tell me about it. Did you ever have a serious consideration of doing something else?
“Apart from finding names and titles? Many, many times and I have no problem with that. The peak of big room minimal house was a tough one to ride out, I was so bored by the music and the outfits. The pre-Covid peak of Instagram DJ competition was also quite hard (I don’t care anymore). Then personally, you go through ups and downs of course. The past 18 months have been a great reset for that: from now on, more pleasure less rat race. It works this way: when the weather is stormy, you have to find those vital places, those good parties that keep you going for another 3 months. Smala was one, some in Tel Aviv have been along the way too. I guess the fact that DJing is not my whole life really helped at some point. Reading books, watching movies, food, simple life kept me going when the nightlife didn’t. I know you can relate to that. If this is not your everything, you think less about dropping out. So did I ever consider doing something else? I’m not sure actually. I had fantasies maybe…