Karl Bartos is best known to most as an ex member of the Godfathers of techno, Kraftwerk, and co author on such pioneering tracks as 'The Robots', 'The Model', 'Pocket Calculator' or 'Tour de France'. The Techno Nation never ceases to stress the importance of Kraftwerk's influence on their creative work and as such he enjoys something of a cult status amongst this new generation of electronic trailblazers.
Bartos’s authenticity as one of the founders of a particularly German genre has also meant that he has remained a la mode with his peers and contemporaries which has lead to fruitful relationships with myriad musicians including Depeche Mode, Electronic, The Human League, and contemporary electro producers such as Anthony Rother.
Black Athena got the rare, and incredibly propitious opportunity to speak with Karl whilst on a promotional tour of the UK to coincide with his solo album 'Electric Music', available on Soundjam, the result of our encounter however, has until now been hiding in the dusty archives. Now for the first time the interview finally sees the light of day. Here you will find the first of our two-part interview with the great man:
So what was the idea behind Kraftwerk? What was the mindset of you and the other members at the time?
Karl Bartos – Well we’re looking way back in the sixties and seventies now, and at the time Germany was occupied by English and American music, and if you wanted to make a statement about your background and culture, you had to come up with something else. Something completely different, otherwise we would have sounded like skiffle, or Lonnie Donegan or The Beatles, so we wanted to represent what the Bundesrepublik would sound like, the music landscape of our culture, which was destroyed within WWII.
How did all these different elements, the computers, the futuristic sounds, robots, new technology, and new society how did it all fuse together for you and become what we know as ‘Kraftwerk’?
It was really a case of the right people at the right time, in the right place. We took what existed around us and ran with it.
What were you listening to at the time?
James Brown! If you listen to him you’ll find it actually very synthetic, no melodies, but loops, cut ups and samples. Very repetitive. At that time we were also very into minimalist stuff like Steve Reich, people who use a very tiny piece of melody and then repeat it. Basically it is very annoying to do these things yourselves, so why not do it with machines? They do it for you and you get to take a back seat and listen.
So how do you feel about music now that you can see comes from a tradition of Kraftwerk? Do they inspire you or do you feel that you’ve already done that and people should be breaking their own boundaries and pioneering new ideas?
If I’m in a club and I hear Detroit sounds I really like it.
Do you relate it to what you did, because all these DJs say ‘Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk’ but maybe you don’t think they are doing what you thought they’d do?
No I hear it, I hear it in Afrika Bambatta for example. But to be honest I don’t care too much whether it is from us or not. I’m actually tired of these sounds for me personally, which is why I did my last record very organically. It was rehab to me to use different musical colours to keep me excited.
Your new record is very pop compared to the dark, synthetic sounds we are used to from you, apart from the aforementioned escapism what was the influence behind that?
I spent two years in Manchester hanging out with Johnny Marr, trying things. I’d helped him out with his previous album ‘Raise The Pressure’ and it had bought all the guitar culture back to me, and reminded me that I can play the guitar; it was the instrument that I started off with. In 1968 I was 16 and I was listening to Radio Luxembourg and I was listening to The Beatles and The Kinks. I started my first band playing all those sort of songs. So really I’ve done all this before, and Johnny bought it back to me. I couldn’t hear a 909 and more I couldn’t hear techno anymore – I was so tired after doing it for 20 years.
Electronic were borne out of New Order, who themselves claimed to be inspired by Kraftwerk; so it’s something of a circle isn’t it?
Yeah I know and it does make me feel claustrophobic, so I really had to work to do something different. To keep myself interested.
So was Johnny Marr the person who inspired you, or did your desire to try something different lead you to Johnny Marr?
Both I think, I was tired of dumtsch, dumtsch, dumtsch, as although some of it is good, a lot of it is not! Meeting Johnny took me back to my childhood, so it helped me break out!
When did you start playing with Kraftwerk?
When I was 21.
Was there anything about at that time that sounded anything like Kraftwerk?
No, we were completely fresh and new. I was playing opera at the time as I studied music, and they picked me up during their Autobahn America tour. It was my professor that got me the job. I met them; 2 weeks later I was performing Autobahn on Broadway. It reminded me of classical music more than pop, in the sixties and seventies we had a lot of classical electronic sounds coming from people like Stockhausen, John Cage and Steve Reich, so it reminded me of these very serious performers. We also considered ourselves part of the German culture above being part of the rock and roll culture. Although we knew about it, so in some ways we attempted to put both worlds together.
Around the end of the seventies there was another band close to your sound called Telex..
Yes, they were French, no actually Belgian, which is worse!
They were also very influential and have been remixed and re-edited by the likes of Carl Craig. Were you connected with them at all?
Not really, if you play similar instruments you sound similar that’s all. If you play a guitar you sound like The Beatles, if you play very fast people call you heavy metal, so certain sounds are simply similar.
What do you think of the current musical scene in Germany?
Well there’s a lot of techno, a lot of machine music. There’re some clever guys in front of a computer getting a black female singer to sing over the top and in some cases that’s it.
Do you think there is an inherent German ness about Kraftwerk that would have meant that no three or four other people from another country could have done what you did? Is there basically something about your country and it’s societal culture at the time that led to this as a natural progression?
Definitely, we were a post war generation, there was no German music anymore, and we had to do something about it. Have you heard of the Comedian Harmonists? There was a male vocal group in the thirties and forties, and apparently a few of them were Jews so they had to ‘leave’ Germany during the war, and basically they were considered to be the last German group, everything got cut off during the war and all the good musicians of the twenties, the Berlin scene, the classical scene was all destroyed by a small Austrian man.
He was very fond of music though reportedly.
Yes but Wagner, he got it all wrong.
Did you ever feel that you were part of the Krautrock scene?
No, we don’t belong to that, there was never any connection between Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, or Kraftwerk and Can – especially Can – they didn’t even play electronic music. The only link is that we were all from Germany! In this country you can come from Liverpool like The Beatles, or Manchester like Herman’s Hermits and you are considered to be worlds apart – we came from simply the same country, and suddenly we were all the same!
So how did you expect people to react to Kraftwerk when you first played it? Did you expect them to dance, or sit around listening?
I really have forgotten, I’ve not had to answer this question before and now I really can’t remember. Don’t ask me! You’re really so immersed in it when you are doing it that you don’t even really think about it.
What was the reaction to start with, expected or otherwise?
Well when I first entered America some guy said to me ‘Heil Hitler’ and I just thought, where do I come from? What do I represent for these people? And when we first came to England we had a centre fold in the NME and it featured a swastika, then over the top it said ‘Kraftwerk, the final solution of pop music’ so obviously they also considered us to be Nazis, because we were German and because we were using machines. David Bowie also did a song ‘V2 Schneider’ about Florien. So there were all these comments, some jokes, some not. People were afraid. Ralf joked that we were the sons of Marlene Dietrich and Eva Braun, but eventually people did get to understand that yes we were German, but no we were not part of that.
Do you think your generation suffered any war guilt then, or this a myth?
I don’t feel it, but it’s like a suit, you can choose to put it on or not, and I don’t. I was born in ’55, the war was over, and I grew up in the British occupied zone. My brother in law is from Yorkshire too!
Is there a resentment on the part of the German people that there was a direct Americanisation of their culture after WWII? Did this lead to the taking back of the German identity by members of the arts community such as yourselves? Did people want to regain a German ness do you think?
No, only idiots were talking about these things, right wing movements, which unfortunately are still going on everywhere. These people think for some reason that being a nation is important. I think it’s important to try and keep your identity but we always considered ourselves Europeans. Hopefully pretty soon everybody will become modernised with shared language and currency.
Is that why you sung in English a lot. Did you like the idea of it being a universal language then as well?
Exactly, and although I’m now back after this last really organic record, to making electronic music again – using cut ups and big beats - before I was making pop songs, and for me these things only work in English. After spending two whole years in Manchester, I started thinking in English anyway, and coming up with lyrics in English and they sound better. I mean ‘Together we can do it all’, ‘Zusammen wir konnen es schafen’ it just doesn’t sound as good!
What do you think about experimental bands like Atari Teenage Riot that are somewhat obsessed with the concept of German ness?
I like them a lot but I can’t abide this obsession. Germany is such a weird country, if I wasn’t a German I wouldn’t want to live there. It has good history, and good artistry, but now that the wall has come down you see that there are strangers to us from our own land. There is a language barrier between us the way there is between the English and the Americans! They are good people there, but I can’t understand them, they are really slow. It will take at least two generations to put us together!