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Craig Judkins is one of Karlsruhe’s most multifaceted characters. As the proprietor of The Commodore Room he runs a co-working space alongside a home bar on steroids. It’s a place that seems like an oasis in the middle of the city’s grey backdrop. His passion for style and good drinks permeates through his whole appearance: The grey locks falling to the side of his face, tamed by a generous dollop of hair wax, the flecked Captain’s beard as well, and his great sense for vintage tunes. Furthermore, the American is an successful party host. With his Turtleneck Club, he’s organized happenings all over the world. Ironically, we met the registered Democrat in a not-so-crowed place he had eyeballed for years as his next project, but it was recently snatched up and turned into a variation of the same old crap: a sad smoker bar with listing patrons, nursing beers and corn. We are sat toward the front window, in the glow of the garish slot machines.
Q: As an American, what are you doing in Karlsruhe?
A: Well, for the last 20 years I’ve been trying to live a life that Willie Nelson refers to as, “getting away with it”. That means I’m always trying to live a life where it doesn’t seem like I’m actually working or anything, but instead on an extended adventure. When I was in college, not right away, but after a couple years, I sort of went for it, really hard. Not only at parties, but across all operations… which consisted mainly of parties, but to be fair, also going out and traveling around the United States, you know, for the hell of it. This was always done in an SUV (the American way), with like three other dudes. Those dudes were mainly consistent, but there would be the occasional other dude. There were even times when it was just two of us doing a leg from somewhere, like from Pittsburg to the Maine/Canada border – or a quick shot down from Omaha, where I went to school, to Kansas City. Myself and whoever would then drive back that same night with the intention of going to class the next day, but of course we wouldn’t. Or at least I wouldn’t.
I graduated with a degree, but it was a year later than I had planned. The main issue was I cheated on my final paper for one of my journalism classes, and was super lazy about it. I got caught. I was pretty sure I was going to get caught, too. I’m not sure what I was even thinking, but I can tell you, looking back, it was for sure wrong, but in the end it was just something else that happened, like the weather. Everything has a knock-on effect relative to where your life is headed, and back then it didn’t really matter. I didn’t even realize then that I would ever leave the midwest and had no idea where my life was headed. I could have been kicked out of school, but I wasn’t. I mean, I bragged about cheating to my classmates, which was the worst part. And at that point I could have kicked out of school. I was very lucky, despite how stupid I was. But guess what: staying on that extra year I met a girl and we fell in love. When we graduated a few months later, I chased her out to San Diego. I was only there a year, but it was one of the best years of my life. I can’t actually explain it now without making this answer even longer. I’ll just say it was great and it happened. And I really have no regrets about it.
So after a year of really getting into the California vibe, I had to pull the ripcord and make my way back to Iowa. I had worked, some, but nowhere that would actually pay me – fly-by-night Internet companies, etc. Back then it was all about working for shares. Or so I thought. Haha. I didn’t really care, to be honest. Bottom line, though, is I simply didn’t make enough money to sustain myself and I had to leave.
I always knew I was going back to California, it was just a matter of time. I tried to continue to live my newly adopted Southern California lifestyle in Iowa, as much as possible, but inevitably, that got weird. I knew I had to split again. After a few part-time gigs and one full-time desk job coding HTML, and one crazy garage sale that turned into a raging party, I packed up my red VW Passat and headed to Los Angeles. That same girl I was with in San Diego was going to Physical Therapy school in Long Beach, and I thought, why not. Things got weird there, too, after some time, and then I had to try to “dip out”, as the kids say these days.
I got a job at a Internet startup called eToys.com and worked there for about a year, living a fairly crazy life. One day my boss asked a group of us if anyone could move to London tomorrow. I raised my hand. I arrived in the UK and kicked up the party thing a notch or two, going all week long, then sleeping on the weekends – the whole weekend. One day at the offices in Piccadilly Circus I saw a girl walk through the door being shown to her desk – a new hire. I tracked her across the floor with a genuine curiosity. She picked up my gaze at some point halfway across the room, locked up with me and she fell deeply in love. And I’m totally not making this up. In fact, I married her.
Fast forward a couple weeks or months or something and we moved together to Karlsruhe when eToys imploded – the first major dot com busts. That was the winter of 2001 and I’ve been here ever since, save a year back in London at an office, which was weird and has plenty of its own stories, most of which not suited for polite company.
Q: I think people recognize that your parties connect the best of European and American culture. I think that a normal European guy could not really do what you do because, I think, us European people don’t think with that kind of vision.
A: Ok. I mean, I suppose that could be true. There has to be someone out there that does something like I do that’s European. I’m happy to say that my “visions” are rooted in my childhood. I’m a sentimental person and everything I project is some filtered version of what I’ve actually seen or some fantastical version of it.
Q: So what you are saying is your parties are retro, or vintage, or something?
A: More like retro-sentimental.
Q: So like, nostalgic?
A: Without a doubt. I’ve never really understood people against nostalgia. I don’t give a shit if people make rules in their minds about what is and what should be. I live in my world. I really, really don’t care.
Q: The style that you create, you call yourself the “Commodore”, there’s this nautical thing, but you also recreate the 60s?
A: Well, more like the early 80s. But you have to understand that in Iowa, in the early 80s, there were loads of places that hadn’t yet been redecorated, and the guys that I looked to as my heroes, they were still rocking the same styles they’d been rocking for 20 years, and it was super classic, so it worked. It was more or less still the 60s or 70s, for all intents and purposes. I used to go to dark bars with my dad, because back in the day, it wasn’t really a big thing. You could hang out in bars if you were like 9, or whatever. The world was different, and I miss that world. Maybe some of the nautical stuff comes from having grown up on the lake in the summers, paying for drinks with money soaked in lake water.
Q: I’ve honestly lost track of what you’re talking about.
A: What I’m trying to tell you is certain people are proud of themselves because of destiny. It’s not luck, it’s destiny. These people are all dead.
Q: Moving on, the Turtleneck Club is your, let’s say, most successful party? You already did it in a lot of places, here and there. Hold on, I forgot what I was going to ask… Yeah, so the thing going on there is people wearing turtlenecks, drinking expensive drinks?
A: Well, not expensive drinks. I mean, what’s expensive, 6 or 8 EUR? We’re going to bring people to serve these drinks from Berlin and London, because they are both dope bartenders, and they are good people who get what I’m doing. It’s actually ridiculous. The party makes zero money. It’s just a scene. A lovely, lovely scene. And we all deserve it.
Q: So the next party is on Feb. 6th. In Germany people take part in Fasching parties. What makes your turtleneck party different from some other theme party where people dress up?
A: It’s a totally different thing. Sven from Nick and Nora (West side) said to me: “People are having these parties and maybe it’s not the best time for you to have this party for those reasons”, etc. Whatever he said. And I said, I don’t give a shit. I don’t care. The people that get what I’m doing, or at least those who want to invest a few hours in something new, that’s who I’m targeting. Those are my people. My only sales pitch would be, you’ve been to Fasching parties, you know what to expect. What I’m offering is a particular evening. My focus in on high quality and giving people an experience they haven’t yet had. And I can’t tell you when it will happen again here in KA.
Q: So, can we agree that at a Fasching party you go and lose control, and maybe get embarrassed, but at a Turtleneck Club party you do the same, but with style?
A: Yeah, maybe. I mean, what I’ve always thought is the Turtleneck Club allows for people who might piss on fashion, day-to-day, who might be more punk rock, to allow themselves to celebrate fashion on their own terms, simultaneously making fun of it and celebrating it, with genuine creativity. And for sure we shouldn’t ever acknowledge the absurdity or horror other than just taking part. Like fashion itself.
Q: So, the coming up Turtleneck Club party – what’s going to happen?
A: I don’t know. We have components: We have the whole night running off of 7 inch vinyl with DJ Hank from Freiburg. We have guest bartenders coming here from two European capitols who are existing club members. We have the portrait studio run by our man Sebastian Heck. It’s a real situation. We have Coco from Hendrick’s Gin showing up with the goods. And I should say, all of the guests understand this is a joke, but they always look over their shoulder to see who just arrived and which character they decided to be based on a turtleneck ensemble. So my advice is, when you show up, show up big.
Q: You talked about being a “club” member, but at the moment when you walk in the club when you are wearing a turtleneck, you are a club member, right?
A: I don’t care about anything, other than that you wear a classic roll neck. Mock turtlenecks are not allowed.
Q: I just wanted to make it clear that everyone can come, right?
A: Yes, I don’t care who you are. I just ask that you conduct yourself as if this were normal.
Q: So, maybe, coming to the end, if you could, to personally invite people to the Turtleneck Club, what would you say?
A: You mean, to the public?
Q: Just if you see someone casually, what would you say?
A: I thought about having something printed, but it seems needy. I would almost want to hire someone that looks better than me to hand out postcards or something if I were to do that. But really, no one has ever said it’s shit, but it does require a bit more effort than some normal party you just walk into. And if you show up and act like an asshole, you’re out. But if you want to play along and come hang out and not take yourself too seriously, you’ll have a great time; fashionably, or whatever, this might be your scene. Or something. It doesn’t really matter.
If you are going to attend The Turtleneck Club on 6th of February, Craig kindly asks you to RSVP for better planning. Please follow this link.