Karl Bartos by a piano

Ohm is where the heart is: Karl Bartos on life post-Kraftwerk

GQ.co.uk, 2013

“Rick Waller? Fat fella on Pop Idol? Yeah, he was great. Kraftwerk? Never heard of them. Were they dancers on Britain’s Got Talent?” It’s easy to say there’s no hope for civilisation when educated people in top jobs speak this way. The ideal solution would be to take these ne’er-do-wells into a study, reach for a cane, and, while striking that sorry rump, repeat, “’Numbers’, ‘The Model’, ‘Pocket Calculator’, ‘Tour De France’, ‘Home Computer’,” hoping that a physical chastising in the quiet of your low-lit cultural headmaster’s office might open minds to music away from the ongoing Opportunity Knocks-plus karaoke pap of ITV1.

But you can’t lay hands on people these days, not in the workplace. All you can say is, “You want to get yourself on iTunes and open those big, flappy ears of yours.”

It’s staggering that a man of Karl Bartos’ standing, whose contribution to modern music is up there with Paul McCartney, James Brown and Bob Marley, can walk down a busy London street and not be recognised. From 1975-90, Bartos was a key contributor to Kraftwerk, the Dusseldorf four-piece who foisted synthesizers and pure electronic beats onto an unsuspecting world when most were gathering in sodden fields in the lee of Stonehenge’s monoliths, dancing like giraffes in labour to the whacked-out sounds of Genesis, Pink Floyd and Pentangle. Kraftwerk did as much as Sex Pistols to lift our tastes from the King Arthur-inspired, faux medieval dirge that masqueraded as cool music in the Seventies.

Kraftwerk were media-shy, barely uttering a word to journalists, focusing on the purity of whatever their project happened to be at the time. So an audience with Bartos is not to be taken lightly. Without Bartos, modern music would sound different. His compositions on Trans-Europe Express (1977) and Computer World (1981) would be lifted and pressed into the burgeoning hip-hop sound of New York. In short, there’s a valid argument to say that Kraftwerk were as important as the Beatles in shaping pop culture.

This evening, Bartos, now 60, is dressed all in black, the classic uniform of a scene-changer – which makes sense, as Bartos has worked behind the main stage of electronic music for decades. He has inquisitive eyebrows, raised in the middle that, at times, makes him resemble the rear of a Saab 96 estate from the Seventies – you’ll have to google a picture to make the comparison. Bartos is sitting in the foyer of a Hyde Park hotel, completely unnoticed by the passing guests whose existence is governed by the tastes of Louis Walsh, Gary Barlow and Dappy’s cousin Tulisa. Bartos has a new album out now, Off The Record, not so much a greatest hits – that would be too simple – but a musical autobiography.

In the iTunes age, where people only buy standout tracks, you’ve presented us with an album. Are albums now outmoded?
It’s true, most of the youngsters like to download songs instead of buy albums. I belong to this theory of making albums, writing a book with different chapters, different perspectives. I like the idea of having an album, and making an album.

When working on an LP, part of your creative process is – unusually – having the television on. Doesn’t it take up too much of your attention when you’re trying to concentrate?
No, you have to be an educated watcher.

Does that mean you watch educational programmes?
No, at the time [in Kraftwerk], we just had two or three channels. It was constantly on channel one, which is just the same as BBC1, and I watched the news, basically. Normally, I would switch the sound off and just use the television as a lamp. Today, in my house, if I’m in the kitchen or the basement or in my studio, I like to switch the television on. I prefer it to radio. I don’t know why.

Television is somehow more human – we use it for companionship.
People talk differently on the radio than the television. Try to find out for yourself – it’s true. People on the radio expect to be listened to, instead of television, where they just complement the picture. But usually I had the television on all day but the volume down.

I’ve enjoyed reading your notes that accompany your new album. Do you write often?
That’s good. I learnt the skill at the university. I got the call from the University of the Arts in Berlin in 2004. I was a professor for five years. It took a lot of my energy, and I learnt a lot, I must say, while I was there. If you have students, the first thing you tell them is, “Write down your thoughts.” They had to write their concept down while producing a piece of art. It’s interdisciplinary, the exchange of ideas. So I said to myself when putting the album together, “I’ll make it clear, so I’ll write an abstract [booklet] as well, and open up and reveal my sources.” I like the autobiographic books by the Beatles, where Paul McCartney tells us about concerts, where they played, “and we had a brass band there”. I thought, “Cool!” This is what I call professional creativity. This is what it’s all about: sources, influences.

When you write, you have a decent turn of phrase.  Have you ever considered writing an autobiography or a music history?
I’m not a writer.

Excerpt from the album booklet:

11 Silence
Don’t worry, I’m not about to write about silence. An infinite number of brilliant thoughts have already been formulated on this topic and it would be superfluous to attempt to add to or reproduce them here. Six seconds of silence – which, in reality, are not silence but ambient sound – provide a necessary division or distance before the final track of the album. This final track may not sit so well in the running order, but as an important element of my sonic biography, this is the place where it belongs. Still, you do find yourself wondering about silence sometimes, though, don‘t you?

You see, you’re very good.
Yes, well, you should read it in German. It’s a translation. We worked very hard on the translation.

So the new album is a musical autobiography.
It is, in a way. This label [Bureau B] in Hamburg, they kept asking me to go through old tapes, and I have many tapes, but I was too lazy to put them in order. I became like Bernard [Sumner, New Order singer] – I know him too long. After a while, I thought, “Come on, do it.” It took me some weeks to open all the boxes and to label them all.

Where do you keep all these boxes?
I have an archive in the studio, a shelf. Metal shelves, to the ceiling. There is one room with synthesizers and one room with media and record players and stuff you don’t need any more. But it’s all there and collecting dust. So I opened all these boxes and transferred them to a computer; “1977, August 7”. “1977, December 11”. Immediately, it came to mind that this is an acoustic diary. We always refer to what we have done before. If you have written an article about New Order, what comes to your mind is the one you have written before. So I called it an acoustic diary. It’s a bit like an audio biography. Sound biography.

We equate music with memory.
Music encapsulates time. You hear a melody and people get nostalgic in a bar, when having two lagers. Suddenly a song comes on and, “Oh, hey, this is our song.” It’s one of the secrets of music.

In your notes, you say that you are annoyed that people remember you with a red shirt and black tie, like it’s 1978.
I’m not really annoyed. It’s just a bitter-sweet fact. It’s not the worst thing in the world that someone has put a label on me. It’s OK, but sometimes…

The cover of The Man-Machine was such a strong statement, though. That’s why people remember it.
Yes, of course. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of it, but it’s part of my life, part of my career within Kraftwerk. And I was a musician before Kraftwerk. I was really accomplished when I joined the group. I could already compose songs. It’s 20 years since I left the group, so now is a good time to talk about my position. I never did it before.

In Kraftwerk, you never spoke to the press, did you?
No. Maybe, also, I needed some distance… It all fell together at the right place with this record. I decided to actually write a song about it [“Without A Trace Of Emotion”]. And there is Herr Karl. I have a showroom dummy called Herr Karl, and he is in my living room at home. I’ve dressed him with the red shirt, and I looked at him and I said, “OK, let’s take advantage of this fact, instead of feeling annoyed.” I focus on it instead of getting away from it. The more I focus, the funnier it gets.

You have a showroom dummy of yourself?
In my living room.

Who made Herr Karl?
An artist from Munich (sculptor Saskia Ruth). I’ve made a movie with Herr Karl. I decided we should have a conversation. He talks to me. He’s sort of patronising. He says, “Karl, we’re just family, I won’t let you down.” And I answer, “OK, you kill me, guy.” I wouldn’t call it a comedy, but it’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s real fun. You should see the movie.

How can we see the movie?
We will have a screening coming up at Rough Trade East soon [invite only]. We showed it in Hamburg last week. So I’m into making films, too. I made six films. We see Herr Karl in different places. He’s wearing a bicycle helmet, pretending he’s leading the Tour de France, and then you see him as a robot and having a conversation on an old German-style telephone, but he’s incredibly cool, without a trace of emotion. That’s what the song [“Without A Trace Of Emotion”] is all about.

How old is Herr Karl?
Thirty years. He’s my Dorian Gray. I’m getting older and sillier but he stays always the same.

“Without A Trace Of Emotion” will be familiar to Electronic fans, as some of the synth sound appears on “Imitation Of Life”, which in turn borrows from your 1980 Kraftwerk track “Bombast” (unreleased). Did you enjoy your time with Bernard and Johnny Marr in the Nineties?
Best time of my life. They’re really cool and we worked together many days.

You contributed to nine of the tracks on Electronic’s 1996 LP Raise The Pressure.
Yes, and two of them turned into B-sides. But you know, I had written my second solo album when they approached me in 1994. They came to live with me in Germany and it was really good with them from the first second. They are just a… convergence. They represent a good form of English pop culture: New Order; Joy Division; the Smiths.

Did Johnny know that you had an interest in guitar music?
The funny thing was, I went to Cheshire, so I was at Johnny’s house and I grabbed the guitar. That blows their mind. They didn’t know that I could play. It broke the ice. They wanted me to contribute some strange, crazy electronic percussion. We ended up with Bernard doing the percussion, I had the melodies, and I even brought some lyrics in, which I’m really, really proud of. So the “Time Can Tell” chorus, I wrote that.

Although “Imitation Of Life” ended up as a B-side, it’s better than a filler. In fact, it was included on Electronic’s greatest hits [Get The Message – The Best Of Electronic].
I know. It has its moments. I enjoyed the connection with Bernard and Johnny so much. But for this track [“Without A Trace Of Emotion”], I went to the early version [“Bombast”]. I had to use different lyrics because I couldn’t sing that track, somehow.

Is your voice lower than Bernard’s?
No, it’s exactly the same. That’s why Bernard could take on the songs that I had written.

Bernard told me a while ago that he’d like to record a version of your fantastic 2003 track “Life”.
Well, I wrote it with Bernard in mind. It’s a Bernard track.

Do you know that Bernard and Johnny might work on some more Electronic material soon – possibly an EP?
I didn’t know that. I’m glad to hear it. I’m really glad, because they fit together very well.

Do you adapt easily to electronic equipment or do you sit there with the manual and plod through instructions very slowly?
Every now and then I have to do that but I’m very acquainted to sequencer software. It’s all software now, but I’m not a technician. I don’t really care about technology. I use it. It’s much easier to ask a friend on the phone, “Hey, how does this work?”

Do you keep all of your electronic equipment – you said you have a room where pieces are gathering dust. Are you a hoarder?
Is this GQ or Future Music magazine? I keep it because I’m too lazy to sell it. I haven’t bought equipment for a long time. I have it all.

Do you have one item of musical equipment that will always be close to your heart?
My heart is occupied with other things. I consider equipment as tools.

They’re working dogs.
I don’t care about them.

Are you one of these artists that works through the night or do you maintain a nine-to-five routine?
Normally, what I do in the morning is I go to the river for 90 minutes. This is my meditation. No matter, rain or shine, I go there. Do you know Hamburg? It’s a harbour, so you see big ships. Queen Mary 2 comes in now and then.

Do you walk to get ideas?
No, it’s to refresh my mind. I have to smell the country and listen to the sound of the trees and the birds and look into the distance.

You haven’t always lived in Hamburg.
I’m from Dusseldorf, but I was born in the Alps, in Bavaria. So my day is really structured. I work from 1pm-8pm, then have dinner, then I watch television or the chimney or whatever. The best time for me is the afternoon. I reserve the morning for communication, emails and stuff like that. When I enter the studio, it’s like I enter a timeless zone. It’s like when I was a boy and I was alone with my cars. It’s good to close the door, away from the parents. I get that feeling in the studio. It’s a timeless zone, which is funny to say, because music is all about time and the articulation of time. But I miss people in there. People don’t grow on trees.

Did you take much interest in the English electronic sound of the early Eighties, bands like the Human League and Soft Cell?
They were in the charts. [Sings] “Don’t, don’t you want me?” This was a No.1, it’s a fantastic song. If I hear a song that is close to what I do, I get it and I analyse it.

If you could get a supergroup together, who would you recruit? You can choose dead musicians…
Jimi Hendrix, Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr and Claude Debussy.

Why did you leave Kraftwerk? Are you happy to talk about that?
Yes, I’m fine. It had something to do with age and independence. I was 40 when I left Kraftwerk. I had worked for five years on Electric Café and the other five years for The Mix. I was quite unhappy with the state of what we were doing. I couldn’t see what we were going to do in the next five or ten years. I felt really accomplished when I’d reached 40, as a musician. I was accomplished before I met the guys. But being in Kraftwerk, I was unable to choose where I could go and what I could do.

The Mix was a 1991 updating of Kraftwerk’s classics. When you left Kraftwerk, The Mix was bringing the group’s sound to a whole new generation of listener. Was that the right time to leave?
But my songs are on there. If they play [live], my songs are used. Leaving Kraftwerk was nothing to do with art or not being able to express myself. I just didn’t want other people to say where I was going with my life. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to say where I worked, and I wanted to choose the people I could work with. I couldn’t have collaborated with Johnny and Bernard, for instance. I couldn’t even leave the studio.

Do you keep in touch with any of the members, or former members, of Kraftwerk?
Florian (Schneider) and Wolfgang (Flur).

Do you ever go back to Dusseldorf?
Every now and then. I was in Dusseldorf two years ago and met Florian at the Kling Klang Studio. He knocked on the window of my car: “Hey Karl, I’ve just left the band.” “Oh, congratulations.” It was a really funny situation. He felt young again. You know, it’s not fun being a robot all your life.

Karl Bartos’ Off The Record is released by Bureau B on 15 March.

“OK, ‘Autobahn’, you hum it and I’ll play it…” Me and Karl Bartos, 2013. 

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