The Blood Arm’s Nathaniel Fregoso pens this revealing Berlin memoir exclusively for Splendid Berlin Magazine.
Words: Nathaniel Fregoso
Main Portraits: Heike Schneider-Matzigkeit
‘I gave up everything when I moved to Berlin.’
I was born in LA. I love it, and I always will. It’s a magical place where Mexican food, umami burgers, Salvadoran gangs, the Korean Mafia, skyscrapers, drive-thrus, wax museums and movie theaters all come together and make sense. It’s a cultural traffic jam. But after 31 years, I needed to try something different. I had done a lot of traveling through the US, UK and Europe with my band The Blood Arm, but I’d never lived anywhere else. My parents are both immigrants – my mom from El Salvador and my father from Mexico – and the idea of leaving home to reinvent yourself in a foreign land has always had a romantic, and frankly predestined, ring to it. I was in constant flux between full-time jobs and the band, and when I left LA I planned on dedicating myself solely to music. Now would be the time to do it, while I was still young, ambitious and irascible. Our EP All My Love Songs was coming out and with a new label, new management and tour dates lined up, the future looked bright. I booked a one-way ticket and said goodbye to my parents, fiancée, job and peace of mind.
Why Berlin? I had friends there, I thought I could get by speaking English and Spanish, I loved its history. What fascinated me the most, though, was its rock and roll: Nick Cave, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed’s Berlin album and fine, even U2. I loved its more recent transplants such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre and King Kahn and the Shrines. I loved krautrock: Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk. I wanted to understand why so much great music had come out of Germany and I wanted The Blood Arm to be a part of that tradition.
I landed with two guitars, a suitcase, a small dog and no place to live. I stayed on our keyboardist Dyan’s couch for the first few weeks, and looking back at this time now, I think I went crazy. I stopped eating, didn’t sleep and I really took advantage of the no-rules drinking policy. I went to clubs, art openings, bars and parties, 24 hours a day. I kicked the city in the teeth and it kicked me in the ass. That was April 2011.
By July, my terror had tapered off. Our third album Turn and Face Me had just been released. The weather was warm and the pace of the city was slow, which helped soothe my anxieties. I spent the next few months hanging out with friends, meeting artists and other musicians, kissing girls. It was a great time and I still had cash. I had found a place to live on Flughafenstraße in Neukölln and reveled in its kebabs and kneipes. Every night a Turkish band practiced in the courtyard of my building. I could take my dog anywhere. I visited laundromats and graveyards on Hermannstraße, bars on Weichselstraße, a free German class on Niemetzstraße. I was obsessed with the smell of butter from the bread shop mingling with grease from the tracks in the U-Bahn stations. I absorbed the dirt and beauty of my newfound home.
There is nothing more fun in this world than touring. If you have seen our live show, I think that comes across. What’s really hard about touring though, is coming back to the reality of your day-to-day life. And my day-to-day was very different now. You’re not in LA anymore. It was the beginning of November and starting to get cold in Berlin. I had given up my flat before the tour to save money, so when I came back, I had no place to stay.
‘The little cash I did have was dwindling away, with no prospects on the horizon. You’re not in LA anymore. Needless to say, I was worried.’
I moved in with a girl I had been seeing who was living with two house DJs from Spain, in a flat owned by an Australian rock band. I couldn’t afford to do anything, so I drank €2 wine and watched endless hours of “How I Met Your Mother” to avoid the cold. I couldn’t even bring myself to read. I didn’t know where to begin to look for work because my German was still horrible. I would occasionally DJ at 8mm, Das Gift or White Trash for cash. I made do. I spent that first Christmas with a bunch of other orphans in Neukölln. We had a pot luck and drank whiskey until 5 in the morning. As my dog and I trudged through snow to Prenzlauer Berg, I remember thinking it was one of the best Christmases on record. I loved walking through the snow – such a novelty – and would sometimes meet our manager Grant Box for a beer at 8mm. A German actress moved into the flat and we would talk about theater and performance and drink wine until we were too sleepy to speak. New Year’s Eve came. The city exploded and I was in awe. The fireworks were like nothing I had ever seen, a drunken war zone. Children running through the snow, rainbows in the night sky, music everywhere. I was down and out, but hopeful.
I started to write again. Dyan and I would demo ideas on laptops, whispering, moaning and yelling, trying to get the basics down. We didn’t have microphones and had only a rudimentary knowledge of Garageband, but we kept at it, emailing each other the progress we made every night. Good songs are good songs and we found a groove. You can find a diamond in a tin can if you search hard enough and so we recorded anything that popped, working out the melodies and refining the lyrics.
‘Two months later we had 35 demos about love, loss, sex and bubblegum.’
Our drummer of ten years, who was still in LA with no intention of moving, quit the band. We pressed on, launching a Pledge Music campaign to secure funding for the record. We whittled 35 songs down to 17 and found Matthew Wheeler of the Rumble Strips, who had also recently moved to Berlin, to play drums. Zebastian, our guitarist, flew in from LA and we set a strict rehearsal schedule at Raumvorteil in Neukölln. We played the songs as a band does, over and over, working out the nuances, rewriting, drinking beer.
I met Simon Berckelman, who ran a studio called Golden Retriever in Kreuzberg, through the Australian band whose flat I was living in. He was a songwriter himself and liked the more “far out” demos we had sent him, so we thought he’d be a good fit to do the album. It was July, we had 10 days to do the record, the weather was warm again, but I was still broke. My bicycle had fallen apart and fantasies I’d had of riding to the studio “in the Berlin summer” were quashed.
‘I “black rode” down from Prenzlauer Berg every day, fearful that I would get nailed with a €40 ticket that I couldn’t afford.’
Zebastian had given me Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 as a birthday present and I hung on to it like a life raft/technicolor dream coat. I read it as I rode the U-Bahn, during downtime in the studio and as I rode back at night. The sun would shine through the big windows at Golden Retriever during the day, at night we would drink beer and listen to the work. Simon is a great engineer, calm and able to give good feedback. We played some songs live, we constructed others over time and some we recorded quickly and without too much thought. 17 songs is too many songs to record in 10 days, but Simon worked well under pressure, following our sometimes oblique whims, making sure things were played well without omitting any of the personality that makes us The Blood Arm.
We took 5 days in October to mix and whittled the final track listing down to 12 songs. We called the album Infinite Nights. It was released on June 17th, 2013 on our own RIP Ben Lee Records.
Someone once said to me, “We’ll have infinite nights together,” and I think the album captures the naiveté and the impossibility of that statement. We hope that everything will stay perfect forever, but realize that it can’t. But great things come from change. I gave up everything when I moved to Berlin, but after living here, I’ve found so much more.
Infinite Nights is available everywhere via RIP Ben Lee Records. The Blood Arm’s new single “Matters of the Heart” will be released digitally on September 27.
German tour dates:
27.09.13 Hamburg – Reeperbahn Festival
05.10.13 Wolfsburg – Indie.Disko.Gehen @ Sauna Club
06.10.13 Halle – Klub Drushba
07.10.13 Stuttgart – Keller Klub
08.10.13 Mainz – Schon Schön
09.10.13 Hamburg – Astra Stube