Twenty years in the bunker

Since early times, the hill under the Bratislava castle housed many tunnels. According to an old legend, an old pathway existed beneath the Danube, leading all the way to the Petržalka shore. In the late 18th century, a passage was rumored to exist all the way from the residency of by Maria Theresa to the house of her lover. Rifts and openings in the castle massif were used by the wine makers as cellars, serving as bunkers during war times and providing shelter to the homeless.

The gates of U.Club opened for the first time in March 1993. The former fallout shelter is situated 85 meters below the Bratislava castle and was built by the Civil Protection agency of the Slovak Republic. The club represents only a small fraction of the complex tunnel system dating back to the Theresan times and the communist nuclear scare era. The first oppidum was built already by the Celts.

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A small core group of enthusiast first attempted to gain access to the nearby Water Tower. Ultimately that didn’t work out, but they discovered the bunker. “We were not allowed to take a look inside at first”, reminisces one of the founders, Tibor Holoda, “the space was kept under a highly classified regime. It still served as a command post in case of a war or a nuclear blast.”

In the end, permissions were granted. “It was guarded by an obnoxious doorman, reportedly a former State Security officer. When I entered first, it gave me the chills – partially from its general ambience, but also from the excitement of doing something new and unique. The complex looked like a maze. We rented jackhammers and spent many days and nights demolishing walls and transporting bricks. It was unbelievably hard work which I wouldn’t ever do again. The drudgery of building the club was backbreaking work not unlike the prisoners who built the place at first. They had to – but we volunteered”, Holoda says.

At first, U.Club positioned itself as a place for underground rock and alternative parties. Its capacity was around 700 people. Chairs were makeshift flipped-over beer crates and drinks were served in plastic cups. Several parties were organized by an agency named 91 Ltd., which secured nights with acts such as Therapy?, Cranes or Ecstasy of St. Theresa.

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“Already at that point we’d mix in some techno, house, dub, jungle or even trance tracks into predominantly alternative rock sets”, says Dalo, one of the prominent local deejays. “At first we would assuredly clear the floor. A few seconds later we would play Nirvana and it was full again. However, people were increasingly opening up to the new music, so we shifted focus to the electronic material. The owners were fully behind us, we were given absolute freedom.”

In those times, people from Slovakia would seek out quality concerts in neighboring countries, mainly in Prague or Vienna. Top-tier performers were out of local financial reach and their agencies did not trust the new and unknown market. Justly so. During the wild nineties, there was a brief concern that Bratislava was positioning itself closer to the East than the West. Internationally reputed festivals such as Pohoda did not exist yet. At the same time though, deejays were already performing in the U.Club, often alone throughout the whole night – a unusual sight today.

The club’s double-wicket entrance and impressive dark tunnel evoked feelings akin to entering a closed fortress. The long graffiti-stricken tunnel leaned left at the end, immediately followed by a set of vault-lookalike metal doors. The arched rooms radiated a timeless charm, formed by the combination of military gruff and raw industrial architecture.

Radio Ragtime served as an important counterpart to the new scene. That’s were Tibor Holoda and Dalo came from. The two friends and disc jockeys were running their own radio show, titled Crystal House, the first such platform for mixed electronic music in Slovakia.

Tibor and Dalo were first to organize a house music party on September 2, 1994, bringing the musical revolution to the sleepy city. Progressively, they took over the entire dramaturgy of U.Club, playing every Friday for five consecutive years and achieving cult status in the process.

The underground dance music played in the bunker provided the young generation of the city with everything they were missing: an urban experience in an Eastern-European provincial town, an escape from mainstream culture and seemingly never ending moments of ecstasy. Repetitive sonic loops have lured people into dreamy states, the club, the audience, the strobe lights, dense fog and beats cumulatively contributing to a transcendental experience.

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A few of them wouldn’t survive the tempo. But at times when the rest of Bratislava would long drifted away into sleep, the underground bunker was just coming to life. The peaks came around two or three in the morning, the end at five or six in the morning, often immediately followed by after parties at other locations.

The tipping point in the local scene came in 1996, when U.Club hosted its first major foreign guest, Jeff Mills. At the peak of his career at the time, he was impressed by the unusual stark landscape of Bratislava, ushering in an era of electronic culture which survives to this date.

U.Club effectively put Bratislava on the world electronic music map. “Personal contacts proved as our advantage”, Holoda reminds, “Back in those days nor the Internet or e-mails were common. We used faxes and landline phones. There weren’t that many agencies actively putting acts forward. There were no low-cost airlines. The financial risks were immense.”

His colleauge Braňo Kŕč adds that they would consciously attempt to bring over talent with only two or three important releases in their discography. „They weren’t so spoiled and famous at that point yet, and they had a lot of respect for us asking them to come over. Many of them they loved being here and end up coming back for friendly prices“.

The list of foreign acts has since grown large: Andrew Weatherhall, Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk, Regis, Surgeon… U.Club earned labels as the „East-European Tresor“, attracted international media attention as well as a colorful audience.

U.Club officially closed in June 2003. After a summers worth of reconstruction work, it opened again under the name Subclub, establishing itself again as a meeting point for various subcultures. Even after twenty years, nights are often sold out. The club is open mostly from Thursday to Saturday with odd night appearing on other days on special occasions. The competition is fierce as the small city center houses several other places competing essentially for the same audience. Despite this, Subclub managed to hold its all-time most successful night recently on December 31, 2012.

„A handy feature of the place is the fact that it’s not located in the most lucrative area.“, says Holoda, who now cooperates with the club only sparingly due to his commitments related to organizing his own Wilsonic festival, also featuring cutting edge electronic music.

„It’s a shame that there are no financial resources available for a thorough reconstruction. It could be one of the most prominent icons of the city, bringing in more tourists and culture. It gets more media attention abroad than it does at home. For example, in Graz they have a similar complex nearby the castle. The city invested in it and today it functions on a much higher level, becoming a cultural symbol of city in the process.“

Translation: Attila Haraszti, Rawfare.com

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