Last weekend, I joined a friend for an illegal club experience in Malmö, Sweden. I was sure I was going to see shit hit the fan. Interim brothels, drug nests and casinos for half-assed gangsters are rife in Malmö - the city wasn't labelled "the most dangerous city in Scandinavia" for nothing - yet despite being staunchly underground, these illegal clubs (svartklubbar, or "black clubs") are ridiculously easy to find.
Only a few minutes walk from the city centre, Norra Grängesbärgsgatan is a vast landscape of run-down buildings, factories, car washes, clichés - and svartklubbar. In a recent attempt to strangle the area's activities, Swedish police are running a sting called 'Operation Olivia'; set up after numerous killings and explosions on Norra Grängesbärgsgatan. Considering the police have their own task force dedicated to tackling illegal clubs, it would seem confounding that the clubs are as common as they are, and so easy to access.
Andy Roberts, the police chief in command of the operation, says that he can understand why clubbers flock here. "It's crazy. It's wild. It's different. But unfortunately, we see a big flow of narcotics, illegal taxi services, physical abuse and rapes. Our role in this is to inform people of what risks they take when they join these parties." He may have a point, but having gone to the toilet in a legal club, I know the bullshit can happen in the course of five minutes anywhere - and none of which I found in Norra Grängesbärgsgatan.
I meet a friend outside the club before opening time. "I'm stepping outside to smoke a joint. I don't wanna share it with anyone else". He takes me around the corner and into a studio, a cellar which his friend "conducts business" from. His friends are discussing the husband-potential of an amphetamine addict one of them has a crush on. After finishing his joint we walk through the grim surroundings, down a staircase behind a brick building, and into another cellar of concrete and neon lights.
The club is part bunker, part illegal liquor bar. The gallery of characters consists of the usual Malmö suspects: people who look like they're primed to audition for a chewing-gum commercial, and token stoner hippies losing their shit on the dance floor. Although the promoters prefer to remain as anonymous as the venues, and they claim to not accept people openly taking illegal substances, many do anyway. Still, the overall impression from clubbers and promoters alike is that illegal clubs in Malmö are more a necessity for dance culture, than a hotbed for drug culture.
Inside, a couple waltz towards the floor dressed in matching kaftans. The DJs deliver a pounding set of industrial techno. Smoke machines obstruct the view, and the only light source is from some crazy, atom bomb-style visuals from behind the mixing table. It's packed by 2am - which seems strange to some of the clubbers I talk to, since the club is competing with a big rave across town tonight called 'Trolldans' (Troll dance). Malmö might be small, but the blessed sting of Fear Of Missing Out is never far away.
Since no one is killing each other on the dance floor though, I'm left thinking that one of the more interesting aspect of these illegal clubs, supposedly rife enough with violence and drugs to merit Operation Olivia, is their resemblance to legal venues elsewhere in Europe, or the UK. I have to wonder: what's the fuss?
One of the anonymous svartklubbar, before doors.
Illegal house and techno clubs are nothing new, but Malmö is a city where the music is been forced underground - back underground, even. "To understand why the illegal clubs are still in high demand, you have to go back in time", says the We Manage With Love promoter, former journalist, and long-time raver Behrang Kianzad. He refers to the time when the UK passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 to kill off rave culture - which Swedish Police took inspiration from, initiating the 1996 'Rave Commission' to combat rave parties such as Docklands in Stockholm.
Also a law student, Kianzad points to the bizarre law commonly known as "Danstillståndet"; an old law being used in new way to prevent many clubs operating. The law states that you need a "permission to dance" in order to prevent public disorder and traffic disturbances. The permit is mandatory to apply for if you are running a club with a dance floor, or even if you have a DJ playing in a bar. "You need a license because dancing will 'cause public disorder'? Why the hell do I need a license to dance?", Kianzad shouts over the phone. He gives me the story of Swedish rave culture and how fucked up the law enforcement used to be - and to some extent, still is.
Last effectively used in the late 80s, Danstillståndet birthed the Swedish tradition of excluding techno and house music from legal venues because of the misconception that the music was a byword for drugs, and so facilitated the push towards illegal venues. Basically, if you want to hear Malmö-label Kontra-Musik, Crime City Disco or Detroit techno, you have to go to illegal clubs such as Kontext, Sing Sang, Borgen, Kontrapunkt or Sorgenfri HQ.
It is a niche, admittedly, yet looking over to metropolitan Europe, it's hard to imagine the tightly-knit cultural identity of cities like Berlin with house and techno music happening on the same scale, and with the same ferocity, in Malmö. Malmö's legal scene is castrated, and anything but functional. This is in part due to Swedish alcohol laws that forces anyone who serves alcohol to also serve food, in turn forcing your average club to look like a bar-cum-kitchen, and unable to cultivate the atmosphere and function of a typical club. "Commercially run clubs are doing a poor job. They're lazy, greedy and all they want to do is to maximise the profit", Kianzad says. "We, on the other hand, know we are losing money."
Being illegal and anonymous, photography in the club wasn't allowed. We tried.
Kianzad tells me that the legal clubs have a tendency to continue after they're obliged to close, so they (quietly) cooperate with illegal clubs for after-parties, and sometimes even featuring the artist the legal venue booked that night. This is, of course, all done under the table. They rarely brag about it, but everyone here (again, quietly) knows how it works. "There's a 150% probability that the venue owner knows what the artist he or she has booked does after the gig at their venue", he says. The aforementioned anonymous club promoter confirms that this is common practice. "We have also arranged for after parties for the legal clubs, and thereby helped each other in marketing".
One of the anonymous club promoters insists that the underground scene is filling a very real cultural need in Malmö. "Long nights of dancing in inaccessible spaces is a part of the entire house and techno music culture here. I think people feel more relaxed in our club. Without the underground scene, the community around the music would disappear". Police chief Andy Roberts agrees to an extent, although specifies that he's no specialist on the area, and understands the general sentiment of house music being at it's best in an underground club.
Whilst illegal clubs claim that by taking advantage of a legal loophole in registering clubbers as members of the "association", and arranging club nights as "private parties", the police should go easy on them. The police say that this loophole is bullshit, since it's "open for everyone. If you are granted membership straight from the street, it's not particularly serious", Roberts sighs, "but we can never stop them. If we close one, another club opens".
At least the police and promoters agree on one thing. "They can't shut down the music scene", Kianzad says. "We are a nation of millions who want to dance. The police have tried to shut us down, and failed miserably. We've been doing this for 15 years, every weekend. They can't do jack shit."
Karima Furuseth is a staff writer for Norwegian magazine NATT&DAG, DJ, and booking agent for Øya Festival in Oslo. She currently lives in Malmö.