Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why I Can Never Return to (the) Womb

Last weekend we had a veritable slice of Berghain here in Tokyo. On Thursday night (Friday was a public holiday) Marcel Dettmann played at Module, an intimate club with an almost pitch-black dancefloor that was the perfect setting for the three-hour set of steel-edged uncompromising techno the Berghain resident served up. I’ve heard quite a few of the Dettmann sets that are floating around online and I’ve enjoyed them all immensely – but being able to totally lose myself in the darkness as the sounds carried me along at a breakneck pace turned the experience into something special. It reminded me of how utterly crucial context is.

The following night featured the killer double-bill of Ben Klock (DJ set) and Shed (live set) a mere 300 meters away at Womb, a club that is often touted as being one of the best in the world.

And I didn’t go.

I know. Klock. Shed. Part of me is still thinking, “Why the hell didn’t you go?” But then I remember why - Womb. I just can’t bring myself to go back to Womb.

Opening its doors in 2000, the four-floor superclub regularly presents many of the biggest names in house and techno. Extreme care is taken on visual presentation, with the club apparently employing its own art director, as well as boasting one of the biggest mirrorballs in the country and as many lasers as the Death Star. It came in ninth place for “Atmosphere/Vibe” in RA’s 2008 Club Awards, fifth place in DJmag’s 2008 Top 100 Club Poll, and usually receives rave reviews from first-time visitors. In other words, it seems everyone loves Womb. Except for me, that is. So why do I have such a problem with the place?

Womb has very carefully styled itself as a paragon of “cool” in Tokyo’s clubbing scene. From its visual aesthetic to its DJs (a selection of both big names and cutting-edge up and comers), everything is meticulously arranged to ensure a night out at Womb is a uniquely “cool” experience. In other words, Womb has branded itself – it is a “total club concept” that club-goers buy into. And not just club-goers – the club offers itself as a conduit that can put corporate sponsors in direct contact with the fickle and fashion-conscious urban youth demographic. (Although some elements are dated, such as the growth in Tokyo’s club scene, this article provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset behind Womb.)

The staff, as is natural anywhere “cool”, are generally rude and stuck-up. The bouncers are arseholes who enjoy throwing their weight around. (I should stress that this is extremely unusual in Japan.) And the crowd largely consists of cool kids and scene queens who have come to the club in sunglasses and casual-yet-expensive urban wear because they’re guaranteed a cool night out. They certainly haven’t come for the music – the music is merely the soundtrack for your evening of cool, pre-packaged hedonism. (One time in line outside Womb somebody behind me asked his friend, “So, who’s playing tonight?” His friend replied, “I dunno, but with such a big line he must be good!”)

That said, don’t imagine everyone coolly standing by the bar – the dancefloor most definitely fills up. Then again, it has to – Womb has a habit of being dangerously overcrowded. The dancefloor is murderous, a churning sea of bodies, elbows constantly in ribs, as the crowd whoops excitedly at every build, peak, and kick. This may seem exciting, and at first it is, until you realize that the crowd doesn’t really care who is playing, or what they’re playing, just as long as it’s loud and it thumps like a motherfucker. Usually this leads to DJs who would normally play more nuanced or subtle sets just “banging it out”. I’ve seen far too many great DJs at Womb reduced to “banging it out” because that was what the crowd responded to.

I know. I’m starting to sound pretty elitist here. I mean, hey, what’s wrong with just going out to a club because you know you’re gonna have a good time there, regardless of who’s playing? Well, nothing I suppose. But in the end clubs get the audience they deserve. Compare the audience at Womb to the audiences at such great Tokyo clubs as Yellow (sadly defunct), the Liquid Room in Shinjuku (sadly defunct), and Unit (sadly de – oh, wait, it’s still there). Certainly there were exceptions, but most of the people at those clubs were there for the music – not because it was cool. They were clubs that (in my personal experience) honestly were “all about the music”. The atmosphere was exciting and vibrant … and honest. It certainly didn’t feel manufactured or “cool”.

I know that Womb has plenty of defenders out there. And that’s okay. I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you like going to Womb. I’m not trying to change your mind – really, I’m just trying to explain mine. But, speaking for myself, I find that there’s something very calculated about Womb. I would usually leave in the early light of dawn feeling that I’d somehow been used. In the end, I just couldn’t take the dangerously crowded dancefloor, the cool kids, the scene queens, the rude staff, the aggressive bouncers, the shitty soundsystem (even though everybody tells me it’s great – this one really mystifies me), the music-as-fashion, the corporate sponsorship, and the DJs reduced to just “banging it out” anymore. Womb’s not “cool” – it’s just cold.


  1. i think cam is speaking for all the ssgs here. the first time i went to womb in 2002 i saw sven and had a ball. the last time, from memory, i went there was 2004. i cant go back. the only thing i'd add to cam's excellent post is that with many of the other key clubs disappearing in tokyo, more and more parties that used to be held elsewhere (eg fumiya's chaos parties) have been forced to womb. and that sucks. i'll be in tokyo next month. but i am not going to womb. no way.

  2. place sounds fairly shitty, but it's hard to imagine passing on that line up...

  3. I agree. But generally speaking, I do think there is a correlation between the size of a club and diminishing returns. I mean, I don't thing Fabric is that much fun either.

    Anyway - I was at Dettman last week too and it was ace. Proper uncompromising techno in a dark intimate environment. What more do you need?

  4. I also think age plays a part in it. The older I get, the more I crave an intimate club experience. But still I think it's a bit harsh to hassle Womb on being "too cool". The club business needs to tow a delicate line between being underground and cool(maniac love / yellow / Unit) and too corporate (Ageha). As we can see that the more underground of them don't survive. While some how Heineken sponsored, pat-down on entry souless Ageha, seems to inexplicably keep going...
    For all it's faults - most of which I think are inherent in the club business (overcrowding, punters who don't care as much as you in about the music) Womb still manages to do one the best jobs in the city at being a large club but bring cutting edge DJ's to Tokyo.
    While it's your choice not to attend, if Womb has the punch to can bring Shed and Ben Klock as double header - we should commend them for it.

  5. I think any club is ok with the right amount of narcotics

  6. Great post.

    As for the sound system, I've always had the theory that since they had licensing problems a couple of years back due to noise complaints, they limit the bass volume.

    I like Colors Bar in Roppongi. Had many a good night there.

    Can't believe I missed Dettman!!

  7. I totally agree with you Cam...

  8. honestly...can anyone give me the name of big (hyped) clubs the majority of people go for the music??
    i havent been to any real clubs outside of germany, but most certainly i can tell you, that the majority of people, that go to berghain are just the same...

    when i went to shed's record release at berghain hardly anyone knew him...they didnt bother checking line ups, etc.
    at the end of his set the floor was halfway empty...

    you cant blame people for just wanting a cool night out, but i feel the same sas you cam...

  9. @max: sometimes i feel a bit cold at berghain as well. and of course, the people who don't care about music and just wan't to be at the famous club is somehow higher as in the early years. but the main intention for berghain was (and still is) the music. you don't have a dangerous crowded dancefloor, you have an exciting soundsystem, the staff is mainly very friendly and is somehow connected with the music. at least no dj has to bouncing it out and there are still these great moments, where the atmosphere is exciting, vibrant and honest..

    maybe there is still a big difference between berghain and womb, even though some people are going there because it's cool.

  10. @Will Lynch
    Right? But I did. As did all my friends. That's gotta say how shitty it is.




    Now that I think about it, I can't recall ever hearing a decent set at Womb. Not that I've been *that* many times.

  11. i remember womb being much talked about years ago, hosting all night jeff mills sets and such, but module sounds like its much more my speed.

    and, if i read correctly, its basically the offshoot / sister club to yellow, which was always lauded as the best place in japan to play, so it can't be bad. :)

  12. About people being at clubs "for the music" or not: i think there's a legitimate middle ground that's not being considered. While there are certainly plenty of people who just want to party at famous clubs, there are also tons of people who truly love underground dance music, but only in a club context. I'm guessing a lot of people who go to Berghain all the time don't know who Shed is, but they prefer Berghain to other clubs mainly because of the music they hear there(I know at least one such person). Even if they don't feel compelled to track down any of this music to listen to at home, I don't think they're appreciation is any less legitimate.

  13. @ will: very good point. there is always the danger with slipping into elitism on something like this. and really, i'd say the people who occupy the middle ground that play a very big job in keeping all these places afloat.

  14. hey guys...well said...sometimes i get pretty caught up in this and even to some point angry about people caring not enough about the music, but your right.
    i was forgetting about the middle ground, on which actually a lot of my friends stand...

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  16. Yes, Womb is CLUB, it means the salon for fashion consious people in Japan. it's not for the music.
    Marcel played great set also in Future Terror. FT is perfect party for me...

  17. I have to agree with the consensus here - haven't enjoyed Womb much either of the times I have visited. Aside from the issues with crowding, both times I attended the musical policy seemed to be the same uneventful house and techno in every room. As far as I can tell there are at least three different areas, do they ever mix things up a little more? Was much more impressed by unit.

    I dropped the ball a little and didn't see Dettmann or Klock and Shed.. I did get to see Lawrence standing in for Dj Koze in Osaka - he was good!

  18. what is this talk of sheds and wombs? how strange

  19. Yeah, have to confirm it was the now-familiar Kevin-and-Sharon-go-clubbing scene even at Klock/Shed, although not as grotesque as usual, and both sets were very doable, on balance glad I went. Very much an alcohol scene though (although not just Womb tbf). I don't get grooving to intelligent techno on copious alcohol. I should try harder, I suppose.

    Serious overcrowding at Womb and Unit is a(nother) fire-disaster waiting to happen. And does anyone else get the additional elbows and 'accidental' pushes from behind at Womb (and Unit) from hopeful clubbers who reckon that every blissed out gaijin must be a dealer? I'm guilty of additionally looking Mediterranean/Israeli, so I've learned to accept it to a degree, but Womb is the club in Tokyo where I pretty well get chased around the place...not conducive to going deeper places with the music.

  20. yes, womb sucks. it has sucked for many years. the crowding especially became too much.

    I've had a few good times there, but mostly the morning at the afters upstairs. Are they still doing them?

    But more to the point, are there any great new spaces in Tokers? I am looking forward to a visit in Sept!

  21. interesting post I although I have never being to womb I have some close friends that used to live in Tokyo and what they basically told me is....You dont go to Japan for clubbing. It doest really have the clubbing culture of other western cities.

    This post seems to in some degree affirm what my friend talked about and I think the fascination with womb is more to do with certain media in the dance music industry fascination with something that is decked out so nicely and in a 'exotic' location such as Japan...

  22. @ shortino: having spent quite a bit of time living and visiting japan, i have to completely disagree with you. liquid room and yellow were of the best clubs i've ever been to and i've had many special nights in tokyo. i found much more than in other places people there have a real enthusiasm and knowledge for the music. seriously, japan is great for techno, just not womb.

  23. I was at Module when Marcel Dettmann played, had a wicked time, the club is so dark, respect to the warm up DJ's Yoshiki and Ditch...Shed and Ben Klock were both there too and I had a good chat with all of them, cool guys, respect Berlin indeed. Incidentally I met a bunch of expats while dancing at Module: British, Canadians and Americans...if you remember that tall black guy that was me!

    Have to say Womb is a bit too big for my style and yes Ben Klock had to hammer it out just to satisfy the crowd, he played Subzero at a fast tempo, aarrrgh...Shed on the other hand played his own material, a bit more laid back.

    Japanese clubbing scene is nowhere near the version in Europe but overall I had a great time...its a pity I didn't get to go to Unit, maybe next time.

  24. your review of Womb could be replaced word for word with Circa in Toronto. What a disappointment.

  25. Hey Cam,

    great post and yes, Womb is a sad place. used to enjoy it, but that was quite a while ago.
    Then again, comparing it to "clubs" in Singapore, it's pure bliss. What they do to the concept of "a good night out" or "great music" or plain "clubbing" is very painful. I have stopped going to clubs- no way, I will ever enter any of these shitholes again (eventhough, if I can show my citibank platinum card, i get to skip the line- YAAAAAAAY).

    Back to Womb and the staff-discussion. Comparing them to staff at Berlin clubs, they are still friendly. I recall many nights in Berlin, where I or my friends would get serious shit from staff at clubs that thought they were way too cool for this planet. Especially at Berhain, where they all seem to deem themselves gods.

    Cheerio from Singapore! (and the last time I enjoyed good music? with my in-ear-plugs at the museum, listening to a Marcel Dettmann mix)

  26. Hey Madi, I was chatting with you for a bit at the Dettman night. Great set eh! I could`t agree more with the womb review. I went to the Sven Vath night in January and even the stairwell was too packed to move in. Ridiculous. I remember the crowd being decent when I first went there, but it has really gone to shit. Oh well...

  27. YES! Finally!

    Womb was fun the three first times I went, and it was my first club experience as a new comer in the land of the rising sun. But I haven't gone to Womb ever since I started caring about what sort of musical environment I immerse myself into.

    What finally put a nail in my coffin as far as Womb is concerned (I can't remember even considering going there for more than a year) was when one of the guys at the door charged me double of what I was supposed to pay when I was on a list for discount. Money is never a real issue, but acting like an asshole about it is.

    If you come to Tokyo and you go to Womb for your parties, well, I'd say you're missing out on far better experiences. Unit (in Daikanyama) was mentioned in the article, and is my current favorite. Extra points for wooden floor which makes dancing into the small morning hours even more enjoyable!

    Oh, I was at Module that night too by the way. :)


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