Karl Bartos: ‘Just like us, music comes from silence’

As a founding member of Kraftwerk Karl Bartos was a major influence on electronic music but now he feels that the digital revolution in making records has gone too far

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“They say that music and art have two faces. One face is looking at the time and the other is looking to eternity,” states Karl Bartos in the becoming manner of a wizened cultural sage. “If I listen to Bach, it is music which is looking to eternity. In Kraftwerk we were very much looking at the time – using the latest technology and so on. But there is also all the craft of designing music in there. We were using chords, counter point, harmonics, melody and rhythmical formulas, and that’s maybe one of the reasons why it still sounds
OK. The message within the music is very classical.”

It’s now 42 years since the release of Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s seminal breakthrough album. Since then the group’s reputation has gone from Teutonic novelty act (“keep the robots out of music” dismissed Melody Maker in 1975) to near musical deities, whose pioneering electronic symphonies – or elektronische Volksmusik (electronic people’s music) as they termed it – are credited with laying the foundations for hip-hop, house, techno and synth-pop and have been sampled by everyone from Madonna to Afrika Bambaataa to Coldplay.

“I didn’t want to leave Kraftwerk. It’s still my biggest regret that I had to go.”

“It went really over the top,” says the ever humble Bartos of the band’s elevated status as The Beatles of electronic music. He’s in a good position to judge, having joined the pioneering Düsseldorf group in 1975 and remaining part of their classic line up – alongside Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider and Wolfgang Flür – until the late 1980s. During that time, he played on and co-wrote a succession of classic albums, including 1975’s Radio-Activity, 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, 1978’s The Man Machine and 1981’s prophetic Computer World, which envisaged a digitally connected society long before the home PC became a reality for most people.

“I bought my first computer in 1986 – it was organised like a score with a timeline and all the instruments laid out along the vertical. Stravinsky would have killed for it,” recalls a still giddy Bartos, who played in a covers band and studied classic music before joining Kraftwerk as a fresh-faced 23 year old.

The year 1986 was also notable for the release of Electric Café, Kraftwerk’s ninth studio album and the last to feature Flür and Bartos, who quit, frustrated at their creative inertia. “I didn’t want to leave. It’s still my biggest regret that I had to go, but I can’t change it,” says the sanguine 64 year old from his home in Hamburg. “Can you imagine – in 1981 we played 80 dates all over the world and then throughout the rest of the 1980s we didn’t play one concert. Unbelievable! This was the decade of MTV and we didn’t play anywhere for 10 years. It was like being locked away from society, so I had to make a decision.”

After leaving, Bartos teamed up with Lothar Manteuffel (formerly of Rheingold) to make two records as Elektric Music and spent a period of time in Cheshire working with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr on Electronic’s 1996 album Raise The Pressure. His debut solo album, Communication, came out in 2003, but its release was overshadowed by Kraftwerk’s Tour de France Soundtracks, the band’s first new work in 17 years, which was released to huge fanfare the very same year. Bartos’s debut duly fell through the cracks, seemingly destined to be forgotten until recently unearthed, re-mastered and re-released on the Trocadero label.

“It was on the shelf for a long time collecting dust, but when I heard it again it felt like it had not really dated,” says the composer of the enjoyably upbeat album, which veers from Pet Shop Boys-style Euro pop to euphoric dance grooves and was originally conceived as a concept record about how electronic media shapes our view of the world. “I was writing my first email in 2000 so what you hear on Communication encapsulated this moment when the new millennium really started. I didn’t know then that we would have social networks and all that we have now.”

In the years since Communication’s original bow, Bartos has only sporadically released new music, notably the soundtrack to a film about French cartoonist Jean Giraud and his second solo album, 2013’s Off The Record. He’s also worked as a visiting professor at Berlin University of the Arts, but for the past several years his focus has been on writing his autobiography, which he works on for between six to eight hours every day in his Hamburg studio and intends to split into three volumes. “One is my biography in sound. The second is on the electro-pop combo I played with and the third one is about music in general.

“It’s a nightmare. I’m almost 65 now and if you look back on your entire life and see yourself as a 22-year-old student or a young kid, the meaning of life really unfolds to you. You get an idea of how transient everything is and you learn that life seems to be a collection of mistakes,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Looking back, your entire life becomes like a play. You see so many characters coming in and disappearing again. Some you lose for 10 years and then they pop up again. A lot of people die unfortunately, but overall the concept of life has much to do with music. Just like us, music comes from silence and goes to silence.”

After the book he intends to start work on new music. “That and playing concerts is what I really love. Sometimes I’m just alone in my studio and I feel so great dancing in front of the speakers when nobody is there. It’s like being in a secret music garden somewhere in a timeless place.”

For a man who played such an integral role in popularising electronic music, Bartos professes to be ambivalent about the global dance music explosion that he helped spawn. “I’m interested in music and it doesn’t really matter if you play it on a violin, guitar or computer. Music is all about feeling. It’s an amplifier of what’s inside you.”

His own listening preference is classical, especially Bach, and he says that the 1970s were a particularly fertile time in the history of popular music because “the balance between man and machine with analogue sequences was fine. With digitalisation everything got distorted because the computer took over the communication part.

“Most of what we hear now on the radio is music that sounds like music from the sixties, seventies or eighties and the best that you can say about it is ‘They sound like The Doors’ or ‘They sound like New Order.’ I would put this in connection with digitalisation. You can’t top three people in a room playing a song together.”

So can he foresee a time when he will ever make music again with Kraftwerk, who continue to intermittently tour under the guidance of Hütter, the solo remaining original member? “I’m friends with Wolfgang, but Florian left also [in 2009]. It’s just Ralf putting the show on wheels, so there’s no way to go back” is his well-practised answer.

Not that he harbours any ill-will towards his estranged bandmates. Looking back on his 15 years with Kraftwerk, Bartos says his overriding emotion is one of happiness and pride.

“If ever I hear [1982 UK number one single] The Model on the radio or see The Robots on television it still brings back memories of the time when we made it. It makes me happy that the music is still present and people are still referring to it. It’s a really good feeling,” he says, before offering one final – and characteristically modest – prediction for the future. “The songs will be with us for at least two or three years more.”

Communication is out now on Trocadero

Photo: Katja Ruge

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