Interview: Karl Bartos
Karl Bartos was a member of Kraftwerk, which makes for legendary status and then some. His tenure in the gob-smackingly influential German group ran from 1975 to 1990, and his contributions include melodies and rhythms in the midst of such classic albums as The Man-Machine and Computer World. It’s hard to imagine music sounding the way it does now without such canonical accomplishments, even if Bartos himself holds a certain ambivalence about Kraftwerk after the fact.
More recently, after a stint as a professor in Berlin, Bartos revisited archival sounds he made during his Kraftwerk years and refashioned them in the form of Off the Record, an album full of taut, allusive synth-pop songs that signal back to the past while peering toward the future. Over Skype from Berlin, Bartos talked about both with a mix of objective dispassion and palpable excitement — characteristics that play into the music he favors more than 60 years after he was born.
Looking back at your years in Kraftwerk, with so much accomplished and such profound influence put into play, what makes you most proud?
We had so much rejection at the time that there was really no time to be proud. We struggled really. I remember for the first concerts in England, for instance, we had this huge centerfold in the paper New Musical Express, and they made a collage with us sitting in the center of the Nuremberg Trials. We had to face a lot of rejection. Finally, in the end of the ’80s with MTV and especially in the ’90s, it was getting better all the time. But I was not really very proud of it. It was just daily work.
Did you not think the music significant, personally? Did it feel powerful and new to you, or not necessarily?
We felt we were always some sort of pioneers in terms of production. Before the computer arrived in the studio we had good analog machinery working, with sequencers and electronic drum devices. They were custom-made, and we always thought, “When will the black guys from America discover that a drum box can have a really groovy beat?” Finally, they did! I remember, when I visited, going down the streets of Manhattan and seeing a guy with a boombox, or ghetto blaster, and doing some weird dancing. Now I would call it “breakdancing,” but I didn’t know it at the time. They were listening to loops of Trans-Europe Express, a segment from “Metal on Metal,” and they were head-spinning and stuff like that. That made me really happy.
Did you breakdance yourself?
I tried it, once. [Laughs.] When I first came to America, it was 1975, and I remember being in Memphis, Tennessee. After a concert, all four of us — there was a cover band playing some rock ‘n’ roll tunes, and all four of us were dancing. It was a very happy time. It was one of the Elton John hit singles. The covers band played the pop charts, and they were really good players. This was pre-hip-hop, pre-club music, pre-Detroit techno, pre-all that stuff.
In reference to the cover band as good players and musicians, do you think of yourself, as an electronic-musician, as a good player, or is it something else, something different? Do you think of your work more in the language of programming and organizing, or is it all musicianship to you?
If I had to come up with one occupation, I would say “musician.” That’s true. But for the last 10 years or so, I stepped more into the convergence of image and sound. When I was a professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin, I was free to come up with my own curriculum, so I had a closer look at the history of filmmaking and what role sound played in film. All the theoretical stuff, people like [storied sound-editor] Walter Murch, came up. In terms of music culture, to me at least, it’s much more important how the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie is than the latest Lady Gaga record. I think all the intelligence, since the business model is no longer of any interest for a huge industry, the interest of music culture is in filmmaking: music in films and with films. And music is only one part of sound in movies. We have dialogue, we have the sound of the environment, we have the ambience, we have music. So there’s much more to talk about.
What is the earliest interesting use of sound in cinema that you teach?
I look at sound in a broader picture. Beginning of the 19th century, painting was getting abstract. Kandinsky was very jealous of what musicians and composers could do. He was drawing and it was very hard for him to get emotion in a picture. So he thought, “What can I do to bring music into my pictures?” He was desperate with this idea. He called his paintings like “Movement in Blue,” “Composition in Yellow” and so on. At the same time, there was this new medium of film coming up. People who read Kandinsky’s [journal] The Blue Rider had the idea of bringing abstract painting onto a timeline. So suddenly you have on this timeline rectangles, circles and so on, and those geometric pieces started to dance. Doing so, they thought, “OK, we have now what we’ll call Gesamtkunstwerk (translation: “a total work of art”). It’s really interesting how these media are talking to each other and how they complement each other. This tradition brought me into the kind of performance I do nowadays. During the ’90s, we had this movement of VJs — in any club they had VJ putting on the walls of the clubs visual candy, or whatever you want to call it. So I wanted to take early movements, from Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttman — these very early ideas of abstraction on a timeline — and treat them visually like music together with the VJ movement. This brought me to the kind of performance I do nowadays.
There was a fantastic exhibition of films by Oscar Fischinger at the Whitney Museum in New York recently.
Fischinger went to Disney and he took part in Fantasia. But he was never happy really in Hollywood.
Your new album draws inspiration from sounds sourced from your past. What motivated you to revisit them?
It was very simple. A guy from the label kept asking me, again and again and again, if I had any old tapes from the ’70s or ’80s when I was in Kraftwerk. I kept saying no, but after I stopped teaching I wanted to do a new record, and he brought me back to this time. Finally I decided to do this marathon effort — it’s nothing you want to do: to clean up your attic. It was all in boxes, huge amounts of material. I always thought, “Oh, maybe later, maybe next year…” But then, being German, I ended up transferring it all into the computer. When I was there in the computer, I only saw the dates — 77-8-2, 76-7-4, and so on. It looked like an auditory diary, and that’s when I thought I could make it concept and make it real. I delved really deep into all this material. I brought together pieces that didn’t belong together and stuck them together and worked them into a collage. Remakes [new simulations of pre-existing sounds] were done with old instruments: an old Moog, an Arp, all this old stuff. I recontextualized. I replayed the instruments, old synthesizers from the ’70s, with their pitch and so on.
The sounds go back to your years in Kraftwerk. Are you in touch with any members of the group still?
I just had a telephone conversation with Wolfgang [Flür]. My other colleague Florian [Schneider] is very happy not to be a robot for the rest of his life. So there is just one person left [Ralf Hütter]. But Florian, Wolfgang, and I are in contact.
Have you talked to Ralf?
[Makes shrugging gesture with his shoulders, beneath a suggestively sly smile.]
A press-release for your new album says “Forget about nostalgia in 3-D.” Have you seen any of the recent Kraftwerk shows?
I got invited by The Guardian to attend the Tate Modern shows [in London] and to write a review, but I turned it down. I don’t have the time. I have so much to do now. This record took me two and half years now, and I’m still working on it, because I’ve made six videos. I’m going to London to do screenings, and I’m going to big cities in Europe. I know all the material of the Kraftwerk concerts, so I’ve been there already, sonically.
In the history of Kraftwerk, you’re credited for making big contributions in terms of melody and in terms of rhythm. Often those are regarded as separate and distinct musical properties. Do they work that way for you, or are melody and rhythm one and the same?
Music is a time-based art, and there are a lot of ways to articulate time. In life, we came up with this concept of dividing time into years, months, weeks, days and so on. In music, we came up with this dimension of meter. We invented bars and can say this bar is 4/4 or 3/4 or 7/4, and within these metric devices we put our rhythms. But the question if I make a distinction between rhythms and melodies or not…Well, first of all, what we think of as rhythm is a formula, because we are used to a drummer playing a rhythmic formula and repeating it. So the “Numbers” beat is a formula. But if I compose a song or a piece of music, rhythm for me is how all the instruments complement each other. It’s very important that the bass line and the melodic line and the chords each all have a rhythmic quality. But in the end, it’s all a line that you can see in a score. The drum beat is just one part of it.
Do you keep up with contemporary electronic music? Do you go to clubs in Berlin?
I had the privilege for about five years to talk to young musicians in Berlin. They had a lot of respect because of my biography, so the first thing I did with them was take them to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to attend a rehearsal. Afterward, we talked about scores what [conductor] Simon Rattle does in front of the orchestra. We discovered all the similarities between a score and the timeframe used by a computer. In the end, all these young DJs and musicians got the idea that it’s all the same, and it really doesn’t matter where it comes from. If it’s from someone in front of a computer or 80 people onstage in an orchestra, they have the same blood in their veins. We are all musicians, and we are all doing the same thing. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all about how the recipient receives it.
When you speak of the audio-diary aspect of your new album, do you mean a diary in a soul-baring kind of way or was it more a store of archives?
The intention was not to write a diary — it was just a scrapbook to evaluate ideas. I had no emotional thing going on where I wanted to write down what was going on in my life or how I felt. Years later, when I put it into a computer, I decided to call it a diary because in the end, that is what it is, if I look at it as a whole. It was sort of like meeting myself as a young guy, innocent and naïve, and now, with my experience as a producer, I could speak with myself. I was not trying to patronize that young guy, but it was OK — I think he would have liked it!
In your song “Without a Trace of Emotion, “you sing “I wish I could remix my life to another beat.” What did you mean?
Everybody keeps referring to my former band because it got so important over 40 years of existence. But I’m quite ambivalent about it. Sometimes it’s nice, because people are interested in my work still and I have contributed to some famous songs that became evergreens. But sometimes it’s really annoying that I always have to work so hard to get even close to the same reception for my music now. It’s not that good — a song like “The Model” cannot be that good because “The Model” was written more than 30 years ago, and it has gone through so many filters of time. Maybe in 30 years from now people won’t want to be so picky with my solo stuff. With that song in particular ["Without a Trace of Emotion"], I was trying to work this out. I came up with a story where I meet Herr Karl, which was the name of Kraftwerk showroom dummy, and I start a conversation with him. I talk to him and he talks to me. “I won’t let go, I won’t let go,” he says. And I tell him, “Red shirt, black tie, you’re history, you’re history.” I made a video for it, and it shows Herr Karl in all of his costumes: a red shirt, a Tour de France outfit, acting like a model. It became really funny without being comic. You can see me walking on this famous street in Hamburg where the Beatles used to play — I live very close by. Then suddenly I am passing this Panopticon and see Herr Karl. I had to do it just once in my life, to make it subject of an album and especially one song. “Without a Trace of Emotion” sums it up for me very well.