Shambhu- Berlin, Berghain, True Love & Tattoos (interview)
“I would tell them ‘go first to Kottbusser Tor, get yourself some pills from the people selling them there and go with the flow’.
Sitting in a nondescript virtually deserted Kreuzberg café on a rainy afternoon, Berlin cabaret queen and underground icon Shambhu Leroux roars with laughter as she reveals the advice she’d offer someone coming to Berlin for the first time and not knowing a soul.
“That’s exactly what I did,” she chuckles, recalling her own first adventures in the city after relocating from Paris a decade ago.
“The first time I went out by myself I was like a magnet and I ended up hanging out at Kottbusser Tor with all the junkies. It was fun.”
More recently she’s returned to the infamously dodgy Kreuzberg quarter to perform at uber-underground venue Südblock, wooing crowds with her David Lynch meets Screaming Jay Hawkins meets Edith Piaf flavoured selection of blues-tinged torch songs. (click here to listen to a recent set”: http://bit.ly/183DMjP )
Dubbed ‘the most notorious junkie hangout in Berlin’ by urban travel blog Gridskipper in 2007 (http://bit.ly/11HboVG), the area’s been considerably cleaned up in recent years, though the rundown roundabout retains a frisson of danger usually absent in most of the rest of Berlin. Not that Shambhu, with huge tattoos on her hands, knuckles, feet and face has much to fear, a fact she’s more than aware of.
“I’m from France, I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, kind of the nasty suburbs, what people in America call ‘the projects’, “ she explains.
“I started getting tattoos when I was 14 initially as a form of protection. Because being a girl like me, as outgoing as I was, was tough. I tried being not too attractive but it’s difficult,” she laughs.
“By having so many tattoos it deterred the bad boys, they didn’t cross a line with you. That was why I first started getting tattoos then after that I was like ‘fuck, fuck, fuck, let’s do it’. And I started to tattoo my hands (she has ‘lady’ inscribed across four fingers) because women weren’t supposed to have their hands tattooed.”
“I do whatever I want with my body. I don’t belong to a church or a cult, I do WHATEVER I want with my body,” she declares.
One glance at her tattoos shows she means what she says, in particular, the two tears inked beneath her eye, a symbol Wiki says almost ‘always has some connection to prison’ with folklore linking them even to murders.
“I didn’t kill anyone, not that I know of,” Shambhu protests, “I’m very much of a bluesy girl and I just like to have the tears for that.”
Tattoo talk aside she’s here to chat about music, specifically her latest project Shambhu and the True Love Hearts. Aptly described as ‘a luscious brew of underground gospel and lost blues, nailed down with garage guitar and spooky organ’ on her website, the music follows up from her earlier John Waters style band Sin City Circus Ladies, which imploded five years earlier prompting Shambhu to take a sustained break from playing live.
In the meantime, she maintained her Berlin profile hosting a bar at Berghain each weekend, culminating in a release on Ostgut Ton two years ago of her Steffi cover Sadness. Leaving Berghain last year she’s now focused wholly on her music again after a fortuitous knock at the door from a French musician friend.
“I’d been jamming with this guy with for a while when he knocked at my door ond day and proposed to me about putting a full band together,” she says.
”He told me ‘I have a full band for you, do you want to try us out?’ I felt very privileged and said ‘sure why not?’ So we met up and jammed a few old R&B numbers together and it was working pretty good. Except I had one problem with one of the guys, the drummer, he was a bit macho. In fact, he had what I like to call drummer syndrome, they have a problem with big women putting themselves forward and they do not like to be in the back. They just don’t like it!”
But Yves fixed everything, he said ‘no problem, I’m just going to find another drummer’, so he did and we started a year ago, playing our first show.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How long was your break for?
Shambhu: “Five years, and people had started to forget me, but not really (laughing). The show went great, lots of people showed up who knew me from before though I wasn’t quite ready. I needed time to feel secure, also with the boys. It wasn’t like ‘pow, here I am’.”
Skrufff: How did you start writing songs together?
Shambhu: “I started by wanting to be as free as possible, then you start to bond with your musicians with lyrics that you write together and music. But you’re always a little rusty at first. I wanted to initially do old R&B covers and blues and gospel but my way- in a rock n roll way. Especially gospel because I had an epiphany with gospel while i was waiting in my cavern, I was meditating and thinking ‘what the fuck am I gonna do? I decided i wanted to reach people in a different way, trying to touch them in an intimate way, emotional and closed.”
Skrufff: What was it like for you when you first moved to Berlin?
Shambhu: “I’m from France, I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, kind of the nasty suburbs, what people in America call ‘the projects’. I moved around a lot with my mother and had a quite unconventional childhood. My Mum was kind of a gangster so her life wasn’t very stable. So i had a very colourful childhood, very colourful.”
Skrufff: What brought you to Berlin?
Shambhu: “Oh? (laughing) it was kind of boring in Paris, I ran away from France to be honest. 15 years ago France wasn’t the best place to be really able to express yourself. People are very stuck up and can be small minded there. Berlin sounded like the San Francisco of Europe to me, there was freedom there and I wanted to go. Nobody knew me in Berlin and I could start from zero. That’s what I did. Nobody knew me here, and when I got here I discovered that you really could get whatever you wanted here, by snapping your fingers and having a big mouth. If you were funny you could really connect with people here and I did, I had a LOT of fun. I have no regret at all to move here.”
Skrufff: How did you hook up with Berghain?
Shambhu: “I had a friend I knew from squats who worked at the old Ostgut, and she asked me to try out there. That’s what happened, and I started to work there 8 years ago, almost as soon as it opened. I did my bar there and really established it there. I was very happy to work there for the first few years. It was a golden age then, we were almost like being cast. When I had my job interview they knew I was a rock & roll queen, I was a symbol of freedom and they hired me.I still am, I’m someone who’s come from France who’s living here without limits.”
Skrufff: What’s the goal with the band- to get a record deal and/ or tour the world?
Shambhu: “When I started I wanted to be involved in the music industry as little as possible so I really wanted to perform in cabaret clubs ideally but then we started to record and Ostgut asked us to do a cover and that was a lot of fun. But these days I don’t want to perform just for some beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels anymore. Something in between would be nice. The main thing is to perform a quality show where I can connect with the audience. The whole issue of getting a record deal and getting big isn’t my motivation. My motivation is to be on stage, where I can connect with people and do my thing. That’s it.
I’m not the kind of person who’s able to project myself into all the hype. For me it’s sometimes a big hassle to even get out of my bed and go the show. Everything will be a drama beforehand because this is the way I feel the emotions around me.”
Shambhu is the first guest on new Berlin interview series ‘GFS meets’, from Saturday May 18. Click here for the show’s trailer: http://bit.ly/10SUba7
Jonty Skrufff: https://twitter.com/djjontyskrufff