Depending on your generation and origin, you may recall the goth scene, those gaunt teenagers that would walk around with scowls on their faces. They usually wore black, tall Dr. Martens boots fishnet stockings on their arms or legs and loose T-shirts that bore the name of obscure 1980s bands like “Skinny Puppy” or “Christian Death.”
Though it’s been years since I’ve seen anyone sporting purple hair black trench coats, the goth subculture hasn’t disappeared—it has transmuted. In Turkey as elsewhere, today goth is less a subculture than a moody subset of indie music: darkwave. We can think of darkwave as gothic rock’s more pop cousin. From the late 1970s onward, especially in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, and The Cure combined a night-worshiping, moody aesthetic with radio-friendly synthesizer-based melodies.
Today, a third generation of bands combining the ethos of goth with the catchiness of darkwave has formed. It is a surprisingly international scene, with bands from Mexico, the US, Italy, Germany, and Russia. Turkey, in particular, has built quite a reputation for its scene. Darkwave-inspired bands like ELZ AND THE CULT, She Past Away, and Jakuzi have already gained a solid fan base abroad. And Istanbul-based producer and musician Brek appears to be next in line.
Last Saturday, I made my way to Beyoğlu’s Tomtom neighborhood to check out this musical scene more closely. It was the prospect of seeing Tuğçe Şenoğul perform live that initially convinced me to visit the venue and performance space Anahit Sahne that night. Şenoğul is a well-known figure in Istanbul’s indie music world from her time in the bands Seni Görmem Imkansız (alongside Gaye Su Akyol) and Kahinar, as well as her popular DJ sets in Kadıköy. In 2017 she released her first solo album, Gölgelerine, full of minor-key songs with doom-filled lyrics tied together by Şenoğul’s luscious vocals.
Yet it was Brek, that night’s opening act, that stole the show. I had been following the solo work of Berk Sivrikaya since his 2018 debut Tv Juice, which was named one of the best local albums of the year by Milliyet and Bant Mag. This album was followed later that year by an EP, Mikrodalga Sörfü. In 2019 Brek released a second, more mature LP titled ÖLÜPOP (DEATHPOP) which brought together cascading synths, electric guitar, melancholy piano, and electronic production into an album as gloomy as it is fun.
Still, I was unprepared for how powerful Brek’s live performance would be. With his tall black hair, long sideburns, and white T-shirt, Brek is the spitting image of a 1980s heartthrob. This solo producer has teamed up with an energetic team of young musicians. As Brek grips the microphone with his nails painted black, a shirtless guitarist writhes about the stage, the synth-player shakes her dark hair from her face, and the drummer and bassist play the snaky rhythms that keep the music together. The billowing clouds rising from the venue’s smoke machine only increase the sense of mystery that unites the band as a live ensemble.
In the crowd, listeners danced with that jerky side-to-side sway characteristic of the 80s. While most danced alone, two young men wearing matching white shirts proceeded to passionately make out on the dance floor for the entirety of the band’s set. Nobody bothers them. Everyone is in their own world. In his haunting baritone, Brek sings “Hold me from my death when dreams are lost / Kiss me on the lips when the streets grow dark.” It all feels right.
Neither goth nor darkwave has been exempt from the sexism, racism, and homophobia that has characterized the world of rock music—just as it does society as a whole. Yet this misty dance floor in Istanbul filled with people dancing alone together created a momentary space of freedom. While all the old struggles continued unabated and waiting for us in the streets outside, Brek’s performance that night gave fleeting glimpses of what it would feel like to remove the masks everyone needs to survive everyday life in the city—or else to trade those masks for more interesting and inventive ones.
It would be wrong to locate this possibility of hope in a single musical scene or cultural phenomenon. Yet thinking of the sallow young goths who used to get beat up for their weird clothes and taste in music, it is hard not to feel that there might be something particularly powerful about embracing the dark, the negative, and the dreamy in a situation of semi-authoritarianism—whether a high school or an entire country.
The venue Anahit Sahne that hosted this Brek concert embodies some of these contradictions. On the one hand, only a certain social class can drop 55 TL on a concert ticket. On the other hand, the space itself aims towards inclusion. The venue was named after Madam Anahit, an Armenian woman who was legendary for playing the accordion for drinkers in Beyoğlu’s Çiçek Pasajı until her death in 2003. The venue’s founders told Agos newspaper that they chose this name to symbolize their goal of creating a space of free expression without discrimination.
Anahit Sahne is not alone. Despite reigning conservatism, a megacity like Istanbul has more strange and shadowy subcultures than any single person can experience first-hand. Art and music provide a glimpse of some of these worlds. For example, in 2019 Brek’s darkwave colleague ELZ AND THE CULT released a suggestive music video titled “Dystopian Prayer” that uses ornate costumes, make-up, and elaborate sets to imagine Turkey’s queer art scene as inhabited by holy freaks, outfits, and misfits. Similarly, the photography of Çağdaş Erdoğan offers a rare window into the nighttime existence of sexual, political, religious Others living outside of the law.
There is both danger and possibility in the shadows.