Notes from the Unexpected: The Rote Fabrik

Images and text: DB Miller

Another day, another train ride—and the whoosh of brick, graffiti and thicket still makes little sense. A constant of the commute and Zürich’s most unlikely landmark, the sprawling red jumble not only follows its own logic, but dares to do so on what is now prime lakefront property.

Then again, the Rote Fabrik got here first.


At one time a silk-weaving mill on the outskirts, the ‘red factory’ dodged the wrecking ball in the early 1970s to eke out a new life as a cultural center. Its real rebirth came in 1980, when throngs of the young and forgotten rejected the establishment definition of culture—which infamously excluded rock music and the more experimental youth arts scene. Words mattered when the lavish funding went elsewhere, mainly to the Zürich Opera House. But history ran its course: riots ensued, the Fabrik got its subsidies and, within a generation, unsuspecting opera audiences might catch some full-frontal before the night was through.

Today, the Rote Fabrik churns out a packed program of theater and dance, as well as reams of rock, indie, rap and jazz gigs. The organization behind the cultural center is also responsible for the themed events, from poetry slams to debates about the migrant crisis. With its bustling agenda, the place has its fans. Or maybe it’s just because the Rote Fabrik is the only spot I know where the heavily-inked, stroller-bound and chess-playing are equally welcome to grab some homemade carrot cake and mill around the still-drying tags. For some, it’s all a bit messy.


“Like the zoo,” says Sarah, one of 17 in the management team, “I think sometimes people see us as a zoo. As in, what we do over here is just about acceptable, but at least it’s contained.”

NFTU RF3 The site does appear unruly, with its concert halls, artists’ studios and sailing school, not to mention the bike shop, kindergarten, museum and restaurant. As much of this is tucked away or camouflaged by graffiti, extra time must be budgeted to find the right door. And then, there is the exotic way things run: as a collective.

Here, equal salaries reign and inexperience counts. As Sarah puts it, “It’s not as easy to understand as a bank.” But rules are in place—the team is adamant that tolerance not be confused with anarchy—and those who become a member of the Rote Fabrik get to shape it.

I look through the industrial-sized windows at the lake. Just out of view, a new multi-million-franc walkway juts into the water and connects the Rote Fabrik to more familiar shores. A marina, swanky restaurant and boutiques are only five minutes away—and their counterpoint, five back.

* Seestrasse 395, 8038 Zürich


 DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Piercing and tattoos à la Rue de Framboise

Images and text by D.B. Miller

Soft lighting, the strains of Celine Dion and a plush couch: all signs point to cake and coffee with a favorite aunt. But once the eyes adjust to the rings, skulls and list of body parts considered fair game, it starts to make sense. This is a full-service piercing and tattoo studio, and it unquestionably belongs to Beatrice.

brass door-knocker

She still remembers the moment, flicking through an edgy fashion magazine, when she saw body piercing, for real. The kind that caught her breath, touching something deep and ancient, and lifted her out of Thurgau, to the shores of Brighton and into the arms of the few who could pass down the craft—because that’s just how it works. After the hands-on English education, came the return home, piercing after piercing and, in 1997, the opening of the first Rue de Framboise.

If the name does not evoke pricks and pokes behind closed doors, that was the point. Beatrice says, “I just wanted it to sound more artistic, more feminine, more French, even if an English name would have been trendier, because we’re in Switzerland.” Yet for all of the soft touches, body piercing and tattooing were considered back-alley trades. Nearly two decades on, today’s studios are flanked by tapas bars and sneaker shops. 

NFTU Rue de Framboise - Beatrice 3 by DB Miller

“Many more places do this now,” she explains, “so it almost looks like mass production, but that’s a different mentality. Sometimes people come in and want what they want, right now, for cheap. We can’t work that way because we depend a lot on word of mouth. If we feel something isn’t a good idea, for whatever reason, we say so. The other thing is, we don’t really want our work to look mass produced. I mean, all this …”

With one sweep of her elaborately inked arm, Beatrice encompasses the lot of studs, spikes and barbells, the tattoo operations upstairs and the winged skeleton in the window.

“All this still needs to be a little Rock ‘n’ Roll, right?”


Niculin, one of the studio’s resident tattooists, has a bit of downtime before his next appointment. A fine arts graduate who long ago turned from oil paints to ink, he is working out the design for a new tattoo. 

Niculin sits at desk

“Tattooing has existed in every culture in the history of man,” he starts, eyes fixed on the fierce blueprint. “I think the role of tattooing in society today is the shaman. What did you need when you went to the shaman, priestess or guru? You went for healing, change, to express yourself or make something part of you that was missing.”

He pauses mid-stroke, lost in thought or distracted by the thrashing guitar one room over. Matt, another tattooist, has been cranking Earthless while hunched over a man’s nipple. The customer mustered up a pinched smile when Matt invited me in to say hello. 

Niculin goes back to his sketch. After a tangent involving Maori warriors and his library of cultural metaphors, he says, “Tattoos are more socially acceptable now, even fashionable. Still, it’s our duty to warn people that, yeah, people will formulate opinions about you based on your tattoos. Even five years ago, if someone wanted a finger tattoo, we’d call it a ‘job stopper.’”

He stops to study his own hands, a swirl of myths and legends. “People think they can walk into any studio and get the same thing, but that’s not the way tattooing works. There are apprenticeships that last two to five years, and you’re done when you’re good enough.”

NFTU Rue de Framboise - Window by DB Miller

Aware of the clock, he surges ahead. “Think of the Old Italian Masters. They had to make a hammer by smelting iron, banging two pieces of metal together until one gave, and then using the softer one—and human effort—to finish the hammer. People don’t know how to grind their own pigments anymore, solder their own needles or wrap their own coils. This idea of being able to make the tools to make the tools, of self-sacrifice and sheer human effort: that’s what makes a true master. The relationship between master and apprentice keeps the principles alive. It’s a trade, which is why we don’t look at ourselves as artists, just ‘tattooers’ …”

The doorbell rings, time’s up. I wind downstairs to the parlor and peek into the empty piercing room, which could be a doctor’s office but for the large framed photograph. It is hard to miss: a young girl, from somewhere far away, pierced, maybe just. There is no mustered smile for the camera, just the hard, quiet truth of ritual—and the labor behind it.

Three studios, a reputation to uphold and a brain logged with the tales of all those who have come to physically mark a passage, release, second chance or whim: it is no wonder Beatrice admits to feeling tired, at least until we step outside for a picture.

As she gamely poses, feet flat on the cobblestone, I ask what makes her most proud.

“My son,” she fires back, eyes alight, as if the only possible answer is the one that roots her to flesh.

* Spitalgasse 6, 8001 Zürich

Also in Bülach and Wallisellen

Notes from the Unexpected: Backstage at Kaufleuten

Text and images: DB Miller

Reflections Kaufleuten-styleUnder the glare of tube lighting, down the stairs off backstage left, the casualties from the weekend wait their turn. A red velvet stool rests on a table, its foot glued and clamped. Above a tangle of broken chairs, three chipped disco balls sag like rotting fruit. If the furniture could speak, oh, the tales! Then again, it’s just another day here in the Kaufleuten workshop—another reminder that for all the excitement of a Kaufleuten night, there’s always a morning after.

Kaufleuten“Something’s usually not working,” says Corina Freudiger, laughing but wary of the crystal chandelier that has been temporarily jacked up between a ladder and a speaker stack. The head of Kaufleuten’s cultural events and I are now in the concert hall, one of the lush spaces she and her team aim to fill—at least before bedtime. The Kultur department isn’t responsible for the nocturnal shindigs of the famed club, but rather the 200-odd concerts, author readings, cabarets and heady discussions the venue hosts each year. Ever since Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists graced the stage nearly a century ago, Kaufleuten has been pulling in a mix of hotshots, rookies and loose cannons. And then there are the performers.

The Kaufleuten touchFrom Patti Smith and Cat Power to Michael Ondaatje and Amélie Nothomb, Kaufleuten has a knack for booking legends, sometimes before they’re called that, but anything can happen when the lights dim. Meltdowns, mutinies and flashes of soul-searing perfection are possible on any given night, even the same night. Wing nuts in the audience, an impromptu striptease on stage—Corina has seen a lot over the years and, clocking in at over 40 events, so have I.

And yet, there are no regrets. It’s part of, as Corina puts it, the “magic of the live moment,” if not the strategy. Kaufleuten, after all, is a business.

“We’re here to entertain people at a high level,” she explains, but later cracks a smile and adds, “I would like to experiment more, especially when it comes to the readings. I think a writer’s words are between the reader and the writer, but how you present the writing is important. It doesn’t always have to be the author on stage, telling the audience ‘the truth’ … I mean, when people come here for two hours, something has to happen.”

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

The urge to liven things up also goes for concerts, and not only to compensate for the glut of backstage requests for vegan and non-alcoholic fare. Audiences are changing too and, for some, maybe an old-fashioned rush of euphoria no longer cuts it. This could explain the rise in themed events, such as the open-air literary festival in the Old Botanical Gardens (co-run with the Literaturhaus) and the new three-day offshoot of Zermatt Unplugged.

Kaufleuten moodAll good, so long as I can still get my swirl of velvet, brass and beer straight from the bottle while art—or someone’s vision of it—unfolds and explodes across the room. Corina says just as much: “Glamour is part of the Kaufleuten myth, but messy is interesting.”


By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: The floating venue with heart

Text and images: D.B. Miller 

Just up from Sechseläutenplatz, where 110,000 blocks of superior Vals quartzite can be trampled underfoot, there is a boat. It is spired, asymmetrical and, weighing in at 85 tons, as aerodynamic as a gingerbread house. But if it’s bobbing on water, it must be a boat. 

Herzbaracke by land

When November comes, and the “Herzbaracke” arrives via tugboat for its four-and-a-half-month Zürich run, any Alemannic reserve goes right out the tinted window—at least, once the 40-odd people constituting a full house come aboard for dinner and a show. On land, it can still take the “captain” a little time to re-adjust. “Even last night,” says Federico Emanuel Pfaffen, “I was told, ‘Don’t talk so loud! Don’t laugh so loud!’ I am so sick of all this uptightness,” he barks, unable to finish the mock tirade in his chair.

Image @libby_ol

Image courtesy: Libby O’Loghlin

Mostly, though, this is a story of love that seeps out of the plush quarters where every nook is spoken for (just ask the taxidermy owl), and love that pulls in the crowds. They cross the gangplank for jazz, classical and folk, for Piaf, tango and swing, or maybe because they can. Nearly two decades ago, after all, Herzbaracke was just a late-night, genie-in-the-wine-bottle vision—but not for long. Getting permission from the authorities for a do-it-yourself, Belle Epoque-themed floating venue was, to hear Federico’s account, a no-brainer. Just another one of his impossible projects made possible by a rather poorly-concealed weapon: “I really like people,” he confesses, stopping there because, every once in a while, less is more. 

Nicole and Federico

Nicole Gabathuler and Federico Emanuel Pfaffen

The “people” embraced by Herzbaracke not only include the cool-headed Zürich types who, undone by the kitchen’s famous soup or the blues in such close proximity, have been known to break character. Federico and co-director Nicole Gabathuler haven’t forgotten about those further down the lake, or out there yonder, who just don’t feel the need to grapple with Waiting for Godot or some such high culture, thank you very much. Different people, different problems—but no matter where the anchor drops, they manage to find each other and, under the right conditions, grow, thrive and create something much bigger than the upright piano dwarfing the stage.

For Federico, it’s just ecology. “We’re not event organizers,” he says. “We’re a biotope.”

“Or a habitat, like a pond,” adds Nicole, in a measured tone at odds with her art. For seven years, she has created the graphics that bring the Herzbaracke aesthetic to life—a burst of swirling waves, butterflies and sighs, an existence unfettered by logic. Over the faint cry of gulls, she says, “It’s a shame there isn’t more room in this culture for the unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s given us the clean design, the typography …” And, as Federico is the first to admit, the boatloads of Herzbaracke fans.

“Around here,” he says, getting worked up again, “everything needs to have a function. People don’t see the point of something that has no point … But,” he is smiling now, “that makes us exotic.”

As one half of tonight’s entertainment tunes his cello, Federico fiddles around on stage. A couple pops in for a look, taking a minute to get their bearings. Then the boat rocks, someone breaks into song and the lure of solid ground, in all its enduring, enlightened beauty, slips away.

In Stäfa, Zürich, Rapperswil and Thalwil

(In Zürich until mid-March)

By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter
 Herzbaracke by 'See' 2

Notes from the Unexpected: Gitarren Total from the ground up

Text and images: DB Miller

Gitarren Total - Duncan James and Tyko Runesson BW

Down in the basement, where half a dozen guitars hang in the corner like spiders, Gitarren Total general manager Patrick Geser and I are talking metal—or, more precisely, nickel, chrome and whatever else was galvanized for weapons and parts in this very space. That was a long time ago, back when rock ‘n’ roll was new and few of the amplifiers now stacked against the cinderblock had reason to exist. The room is still equipped with Cold War-era dials and knobs and enough power, as Patrick puts it, “to blow up the Eiffel Tower,” but today it serves a different industry. Not that anyone around here would call it that.

“Certain sounds can’t replicate very easily,” Patrick continues, delving into a comparison of tube amps with the more modern transistor and digital models. After a cheerful tangent about the U.S. Army’s radio transceivers, he pauses, maybe aware of my struggle to keep up. “Every single thing you see here,” he finally says, “somebody really likes.”

Gitarren Total - Patrick Geser BWThis is both understatement and code. Only a steady surge of earnest, pre-Facebook likes could have taken a business that started off “repairing crap guitars” this far. It is also clear that somebody may very well include the people who work here, all serious guitar players involved in multiple bands. Patrick has cut back to two, what with his ten hand operations and re-prioritization around work and family, and they both are doing well. His punk band even opened for Dead Kennedys’ legendary frontman Jello Biafra a few weeks earlier, though this he only mentions when I comment on his shirt.

“It’s really terrible music,” he says, quick to keep my awe in check. “We only do two or three gigs a year because nobody wants to hear it. It’s not like one-two-three-four dugga dugga dugga dugga … But it’s a lot of fun to play.”

We wind past the bass nook and guitar-case cranny, which used to store the building’s coal until Patrick cleared it out. A few steps further, and we’re in the place where fantasies are fueled. Hundreds of guitars climb the walls and catch the light, each burning with promise. After another factual interlude about technology in the service of craftsmanship, Patrick informs me, with no less authority, that guitars get “mojo and soul” only after years of play. They can lose it, too.

Gitarren Total - Guitars ALT BW

“Some of my guitars I put away for two or three years… I can’t get a sound out of anymore. Even if I toured with one for a few years, if I take it out of the case today …” he pretends to gag, “I can’t play it.”

“Maybe you’ve changed,” I offer. “Or do you think the guitar has?”

He stops, quiet for the longest stretch since my arrival. “Well, yeah. Both. Absolutely.”


In the workshop one floor up, the Les Pauls give way to orthopedic shoes and fumes. Duncan James and Tyko Runesson are on duty today, tending to repairs in uncustomary silence. Duncan, who grew up fixing his guitar with fork and knife, first came to Gitarren Total with a broken neck – his guitar had been caught in the unforgiving doors of the Paris metro. That was fifteen years ago, and he joined the team not long after.

He is hunched over the task at hand, which involves an Allen wrench and a Rickenbacker pick-up. The job is one of the 1,500 the team handles every year, though a few are turned down at the door.

Gitarren Total - Workshop BW

“(It’s) when a customer asks for something that’s against our ethic,” Duncan explains, eying the shelf where the disabled guitars line up like patients. “He brings in a really nice old vintage piece and says, ‘I want this repainted …’” Duncan gives me a moment to grasp the severity of the offense. “But, no … You’re only borrowing that guitar while you’re here on Earth, and when you’re gone that guitar will go to somebody else. So, if you go and do that to it now, you’re destroying it.”

This comes across more as hard-earned wisdom than bluster. Like Patrick, Duncan and Tyko have been playing in bands and overlapping side projects for years. Duncan says, “Here, you have to.”

Tyko, who builds acoustic guitars and folk-dances on the side, agrees. “Then you know when it’s finished. Otherwise you have no real feel for it. By the book, it’s not enough.”

Gitarren Total - Duncan JamesDuncan adds, “You’re always holding some kind of Platonic ideal of what a particular model could and should sound like, and you’re comparing it to the one that you’ve got in your hand …” He points to the table. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of how that Rickenbacker should sound, and I won’t be guessing. Everybody here has amassed a huge library of sounds in their head.”

Tyko begins dismantling a sparkly turquoise number near the window, and Duncan walks over to take a look. Tyko gingerly probes the innards and points out the jack plugs, not unlike those used in old telephone switchboards.

Duncan goes back to the pick-up. Over the pulse of soldering, I ask him what a good day is.

“A good day is getting up in the morning and, while I’m eating my cornflakes, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got to do that today,’ and I’ll immediately start thinking about it with a little part of my brain. And when I get here, I pick up the guitar and it’s just a complete, seamless kind of transition from coming to work and picking up the thing. You know exactly what you’ve got to do with it and you’ve actually planned the whole thing out. But I guess practically every day’s a good day.”

The soldering stops. Tyko lifts the jack plug to his face and squints. For a few seconds, the only movement comes from the swaying leaves outside the window. All these tools and scraps, all these machines and parts – but, sooner or later, it’s only about wood and wire and, in the right hands, the power of something much harder to name.
Aemtlerstrasse 15, 8003 Zürich

By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Veit Stauffer and a record store with roots

Text and images by DB Miller

It makes for the perfect Zurich triangle: REC REC, the Volkshaus and an outpost of Hooters. Or, a bit wider out: REC REC, the Swiss stock exchange and King’s Kurry. All are places where dreams can come true. And all are institutions in their own right.

REC REC 1 by @DBMillerWriterBut not all get a shout-out from the mayor and visits from touring rockers. REC REC owner Veit Stauffer, however, has little time for fawning. “I take it cool,” he says about the fame of his CD and record store. “Of course, I’m a little bit proud that the shop is the most reviewed in Switzerland. But I still need my daily cash and sometimes I worry.” From his folding chair next to one of the store’s listening stations, he assures me this happens only four to six times a year. Continue reading

Notes from the Unexpected: Daniel Nufer and Pile of Books

Pile of Books shop window detailText and images by DB Miller

On a quiet Zurich cross street, where the most colorful buildings resemble skin tones, Daniel Nufer stands on the sidewalk with a cigarette in hand. As he talks to a young couple from the apartment block next door, he begins edging backwards, past the glass storefront and vintage suitcase stuffed with books, until he reaches his ashtray. It shows signs of earlier use which, by extension, suggests the table and empty chairs aren’t there for show, either. The whole scene is dated, almost pastoral, and for a moment I am confused. Because the last time I checked, I lived in a city of bankers and the year was twenty-fourteen. Continue reading

Skipping the barrier

Text and images: DB Miller 

On the dark patch of pavement between the club and a line of shopping carts, my friend and I take a moment to talk strategy. The crowd is thinning, but we’re pretty sure the band has not yet left the building. We’re also pretty sure that if two starry-eyed, rain-soaked brunettes ask a roadie about the band’s plans tonight, it won’t look good.

The stage: blue light

Earlier, about the time I figure Stereophonics are rolling into Zurich, I am one big knot of words. It’s hot, almost too hot to eat, but I’m darting around, tripping over lyrics, discussion prompts, biographical minutiae and the black pug we are dog-sitting. Her snorts compete with my one-two’s as I test the pocket recorder, and her unflinching bug eyes close in like the heat – like the words. I don’t even think about the music.

In her memoir, Patti Smith describes the pull, way back when, “to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll”. I’m no rock and roll star, but I need the attack as much as she does. For the moment, I’m still on the other side, locked out, and stuck inside the noise of my own head.


As the evening nears, I try to be optimistic about my chances of an interview with Stereophonics’ lead singer Kelly Jones for this very publication. The odds are long, but we’ve been hoping the musician-writer-director will want to share his perspective on storytelling in diverse creative formats, or just, you know, talk. After some Continue reading