Paul Kalkbrenner sat down with John Thorp to discuss his renowned live act, his Back To The Future concept, nostalgia, his acting stint and much more.
Last updated: 24th Oct 2017. Originally published: 11th Oct 2017
Image: Paul Kalkbrenner (Credit: @ThomasLohr)
Paul Kalkbrenner’s life changed at 14 years old, when the Berlin Wall tumbled down just a few miles from his home in Lichtenberg. Since then, he has been on a singular creative path to becoming one of the biggest stars of alternative electronic music in the world.
Internationally beloved for his string of anthemic hits, soundtracking the scene-setting 2008 film Berlin Calling (for which Kalkbrenner both wrote the music, and starred in), Kalkbrenner has nonetheless stuck to his roots, eschewing cheesy pop collaborations, dancing on a fine line between melodic sensibility and the lifelong inspiration of his youth exploring the revolutionary, alien edges of Detroit techno.
While he was always a technically gifted DJ, what set Kalkbrenner apart from an ever-increasing crowd was his insistence on presenting his music live. While he once used to schlep his entire studio to sweaty basements for a few hundred deutschmarks, Kalkbrenner's beloved, ever-evolving and very analogue live show is now a festival favourite, having found wide appeal on a somewhat tedious circuit of phoned-in, pre-recorded sets and fruitless button bashing.
Recently however, Kalkbrenner has (somewhat) returned to DJing with his ‘Back To The Future’ project, a hybrid-live DJ set that revisits the rave classics of his youth, each remastered, re-edited and contextualised by Kalkbrenner over a cassette and mix tape series that garnered over a million downloads.
Two years ago, you had just brought out Seven, and your face was plastered all over Berlin and further afield. It was your first experience of signing with a major label. You were openly excited and curious about the experience of going ‘bigger’ and breaking new markets. In retrospect, how did that go?
The thing is, we realised it was not changing so much you know? The platform we’re releasing the records on is just a small part. The live part was always the biggest thing for us, and now, even more so. Let’s say for me, it was new to work with a major, but also for the major to sign somebody who’s done something for so long.
After this album, we knew we had to make some adjustments, and we’re just about to move the operations to the Sony department here in Germany, not the London office, which makes much more sense. But it was such an international deal.
I think it’s interesting that you’ve done your Back To The Future project in the opposite way to your Sony deal, in that it’s entirely under your control.
I have to say that I think when I started with Back To The Future, that was before the big signing. And I knew that was quite a commercial step, but somehow, subconsciously, I reached out to what I could also do to get a balance.
At the end, it took up two years, and it’s actually a big privilege that I can do this sort of thing. But I actually feel better now, with Sony, going towards the second album, having this Back To The Future thing.
Playing exclusively as a live act, something that I think perhaps you don’t get enough credit for is that essentially, you are developing and testing out new musical ideas in a very public fashion.
I had to be very patient about that, but now we can see at more and more festivals, there are even people recording me on their phones. For the visual side of the show next year, there will be less designs, graphics and visuals and more of a camera feed. They’re so small now, you can put them everywhere.
Tomorrowland, and many other festivals, are just streamed directly from their different stages on YouTube. The more this takes place, the more people see what I do, and maybe see how little other people do there. And they’re the rock stars of today, EDM artists, so I think in the next years, people will get a bit more interested in who’s doing what on stage, and who’s doing nothing.
From what I’ve seen, people are already very enthusiastic about this topic in YouTube comments.
Yes, and I also was streaming Tomorrowland the day before I played, and Solomun was playing among these big EDM artists. So, things are changing there. And I don’t think that in five years we’ll be at festivals and hear 95% pre-recorded sets.
You occupy an interesting middle ground between what might be seen as ‘real’ techno and more populist stuff. You often share a bill with artists who I can imagine you sharing polite conversation with in the dressing room, but probably have little in common with otherwise.
Yes, and this year, with Back To The Future and also changing agency from William Morris to CAA, I met many techno artists who I haven’t seen in years, because I really just play all over at music festivals. I saw Sven Vath a few times year, Joris Voorn, Pan-Pot, The Wighnomy Brothers, Agoria… Like friends! I played much more with them when things were at the club level. And because I played mainly music festivals or my own concerts, through playing Back To The Future and smaller venues in 2017, it has given me the chance to get back in touch with people again.
You've previously said you don’t really listen to much music that you don’t create yourself, which is something I wish more artists would be honest about…
Yes, but since I have become a father, and the kids are coming to the age where all the C-Major songs of childhood are being sung, I can’t say that any more.
Knowing your own tastes, do you ever create music for your own personal pleasure? Like an ambient record, or something more experimental?
No, no. I have to use every second that I’m in the music studio for something to be released under my own name. There’s no time, like when I was 17, for all this stuff. There’s so much touring and a child at home. I know what I can do, but when I’m there, why would I waste time? I’m very happy and proud with the way I can do it.
What’s interesting about Back To The Future, is that those mixes were on cassette and also available as a free download, when it could have easily have been an expensive six-disc vinyl box set.
Oh, of course. And we were so close, at Sony, to try and get that shit licensed. But I think, in the end, it turned out like I wanted it to. Have you seen the Back To The Future live set? The incredible system I’ve built, because you know, it’s not so easy to mix that shit. And in a way, it’s even more live than the live show, and somehow, the entire project is more personal somehow than the records I do myself. Of course, the music I write myself is very personal, but I couldn’t shake that feeling.
What do you think brought you back round to that?
Nostalgia! At this point, in a man’s life, nostalgia.
When did that sense of nostalgia kick in?
It was Christmas 2014, and the Sony stuff was happening, and already, a thousand people talking at me! So I was just collecting, in a YouTube watch list, these songs I found nice. And I realised that actually, they only had nice parts. And the cassettes, I was only able to make a year later, in maybe November 2015, I had the edits I made for these songs, but we had no idea what I would do with them.
I made them through YouTube files, but we needed to remaster them, as they were too fast, or too loud. So we had to do a lot of reducing, remaster them. So, yes, very personal.
And then I had to play them live, and we had to rearrange those records, which took two and a half years, making different edits, not thinking of the cassettes, but thinking of the show. So they had to be warped, as I wanted to play them live with a computer, an 808 drum-machine, effects and stuff.
And after that, one-hundred tracks made it to the live show and went off to mastering. A lot of kicks were too high for modern-day hearing habits. A lot of those records don’t sound like they should. Twenty five years of hearing things mean bass drums were not low enough. And then, three months of practising this year to be able to perform on stage!
There are some obscure tracks and sounds in the Back To The Future mixes. Have you had any feedback from the original artists?
Only from Orlando Voorn. He asked if we could make an official remix. I would do it, but we can’t find the stems, as it’s been more than twenty-five years.
Those records are quite wild and wacky and primitive, in some cases.
You know ‘Transformer 2 - Pacific Symphony?’ It’s not really mastered much, and not really edited much. Some of them are, let’s say, a handful by sound and a handful by editing and did not to be touched and were just timeless, unbelievable shit. I’ve no idea how they made it.
When people don’t know exactly how to make something, there’s always a charm to it.
At the time, there wasn't any techno records coming out of here, but I just remembered those songs. I have no idea where they’re from, as I didn’t have them on records. This was a time when I was just sitting on a Saturday, not even able to go to a proper nightclub, waiting for a radio show to record it. Two-and-a-half 90 minute tapes if what you needed, every Saturday.
I learned over many months on Discogs about all this stuff, and that this music either seemed to be coming from Belgium, or from the United States, where this music was barely even recognised. And Berlin was the place where these records were mixed together for the first time in one DJ set. The first big output at this time was Frankfurt, where they had the tools to make this stuff, but Berlin was for the party. We had a very good record store here, Hardwax, where the music was very well organised.
What age were you when you first went to a club? You were 13 or 14 when the wall came down, right?
Yes, 14. And I’d started to DJ in a youth club in Lichtenberg, from Saturdays, six till midnight. And then we’d try to get into (legendary 1990s rave) Bunker, and we’d get inside maybe one out of four times. The other times they would ask for I.D.
Has revisiting the music of your youth influenced whatever you're working on at the moment?
Yes, after completing Back To The Future, I had a better idea of how those songs are meant to be. Also, I turned 40 this year, so I feel really cleaned up inside myself. I know exactly what to do. To combine everything I know now with that feeling I felt again.
I was playing this summer, playing in a twenty-five year long time tunnel, playing on a super modern system this old music, remastered. And, I had a stage of course. I don’t like to play inside, and the very small venues I play sometimes, they make me nervous. When I have to go through the people.
When I was younger, I used to turn up with my equipment and all these people were just pouring beer, just losing it on ecstasy and thinking they can be in the booth. It’s much better now! And I’m also much safer.
When did you first play live on that scale?
1999. I turned up with basically, a huge studio. I had to go there in the afternoon, setting everything up, and tearing apart the studio. I only played four or five times a year for about 300 deutschmarks.
I understand that you were always a technically brilliant DJ, even though you’ve played live for so long. Did you get bored of DJing?
Well, Back To The Future is kind of like DJing, but it’s also a small live act. Usually I would ask, “Can I do this, with faders here, and knobs there?” But the Rane mixer, it’s brilliant, with knobs I don’t even need so I can use midi shit from a computer, and have those early 90s vocal samples.
“Cut the midrange, drop the bass!”, is the most famous of them. And it’s fun, you know? But there’s no big PR plan of what to do that. Somehow getting this feeling through to my productions, that’s my big spin. But of course, faster! 130 BPM, plus! Not the 124 I was at on Seven. You have to stand up and dance sometimes in the studio. Not just sit and smoke weed, and get slow.
You have a very dedicated Facebook base of 2.4 million fans, and a lot of anthemic tracks in your back-catalogue, that mean a lot to people. I was aware of you in the UK, but it wasn’t quite the same connection.
Yes, but in the UK, I’ve only just started to make it, you know? It’s only since 2010, and even then, the fees were smaller. London and the continent, they are apart in time. There was the acid rave scene, and then that came to the continent, and things got very techno. And in the UK, not so much really.
There are of course people, who just want to hear you play those anthems. 'Sky and Sand' is like your ‘I Feel Love’ at this stage.
Oh, of course, and we had our 10% of people during the Back To The Future shows in April and May, who should have opened their eyes before buying their tickets. That was also a new experience to me. Or you have these huge gigs, in Turin or Pukkelpop or something, where I thought had I played live, it would have been like, “Boom!” But that is what a B show is about. It’s not the live show.
And especially for me, it’s nice to break up a weekend and play live, then DJ, then play live again. It’s like being a football pro who can play basketball once in awhile.
‘Berlin Calling’, the film which you soundtrack and starred in as a hedonistic DJ, is ten years old this year, and really took your popularity to a new level. It’s interesting how you played with expectations of yourself in that film; I don’t think DJs in the social media age would do that. Do people mistake you for that character?
Not anymore. In the first years, even until 2010 when I did the ‘Berlin Calling’ tour, maybe it became synonymous. But I mean, come on, we shot it ten years ago now. Fellini often shot movies with absolute nobodies surrounded by professionals, and always said that a real movie, you can only do with a new performer.
If a big-time, famous actor is playing a lead role, then somehow he’s not ready anymore. Of course, the public often want the opposite, and want to see the same guy in the same role again and again. But in this, it was once in a lifetime role.