“My Life In Sound” Karl Bartos On Kraftwerk, And The Nature Of Music

"Culture is a kind of conversation..."

Karl Bartos is an intimidating figure. A profoundly intelligent musician, his classical training added fresh impetus to Kraftwerk, with his time in the group arguably representing the German band’s apex. Responsible for configuring the DNA of electronic pop music, he’s credited with songwriting on ‘Man-Machine’, ‘Computer World’ and ‘Electric Café’. Exiting Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang studios for the last time in 1990, his solo work includes collaborations with OMD’s Andy McCluskey, as well as Electronic, the project led by New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. As if that wasn’t imposing enough, Karl Bartos is also an academic, and he’s just written a new book.

Indeed, it’s the latter that takes Clash to Central London, ushered into a room on the top floor of the Omnibus Press building. In reality, Karl Bartos is far from imposing – an engrossing interviewee with a dry sense of humour, he’s open about his time in Kraftwerk, generous with his time, and incredibly passionate about music, and its role in his life.

New book The Sound Of The Machines is a tub-thumper – in in-depth excursion that looks at his time in the seminal group, alongside his myriad of other projects. Remarkably, Karl had no intention of writing it at all, until he was invited to give a lecture on Kraftwerk by his employers, the University of the Arts in Berlin.

“I didn’t know what to say!” he laughs. “So I ended up giving a seminar on the recording sessions of the Beatles in Abbey Road. And I skipped Kraftwerk!” 

“But I started to write the book anyway, because I’ve always had people asking me about Kraftwerk and my story, so I just wanted to analyse how everything happened. In the end, it took me years to analyse everything and to write it down. I wanted to do it right, to just write and step back and look at the whole picture.”

The process has deepened Karl Bartos’ appreciation of music, and of sound. His academic background enriches the conversation, with reference points flying between Stravinsky and John Cage, through to the Beach Boys and early 80s electro. “What really keeps me going is the nature of music itself,” he says. “So just mark Kraftwerk as one thread in my life. The other thread is my biography in sound, my life in sound. And the third one is the nature of music.”

It’s perhaps only apt that the process of writing the book started with Karl Bartos ruminating in a lecture hall on the values of The Beatles, and Abbey Road producer George Martin. In his new book, he recalls the life-changing properties of hearing the Liverpool band for the very first time.

“I was going through puberty. You gain new perspectives on things,” he shrugs. “My brother-in-law was from Yorkshire, he worked for the army. And he brought a Beatles record into the house. At first, I was like: who is that? The shaggy haircuts, and all that! And then he put it on, the first chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ rang out – like, drannngggg! I had no understanding of who they were, I just had the sound. And I wanted to feel like how they sounded like, as a little boy. My sister was laughing and dancing, and the three of us, we were just super happy! And that’s really the moment sound took on a new meaning.”

There’s a close link between Karl’s life and the industrial North of England. Kraftwerk’s output was adopted by groups such as Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League, while musicians such as OMD’s Andy McCluskey have become close friends. When Clash arrives at the Omnibus office, the press officer hails from Merseyside. “I feel comfortable around them,” he muses. “So many people in my life are from the North of England, and Liverpool!”

For Karl Bartos, music is life, and life is music. As a young man he became classically trained, until he was drawn into the orbit of Kraftwerk. Composition, as he puts it, is about representing the environment of your life, and transforming it into sound. “Culture is a kind of conversation on some levels, and music is a representation of how we think. We have thoughts, and we transport it into the world as physical sound waves. And for that reason, music imitates the world. If I create music, I mirror myself in sound.”

“With Kraftwerk, in the Kling Klang studios we would talk all the time about procedure, we’d always talk to one another. And we’d transfer those thoughts into the complexity of sound, and people who listened would become the receivers of those thoughts. They wouldn’t know exactly what we had been discussing, but they would gain the result of it, and in doing so would become the actual result of the process.”

We talk a little about Kraftwerk, and his work with the group. Karl Bartos’ period is arguably their imperial phase as a pop group, with singles such as ‘The Model’ becoming – albeit almost accidentally – international hit singles. For the German musician, however, it’s more about the canon, the work as a whole. “In his new book, Paul McCartney talks about his songs being in conversation with each other. And I have the same feeling – each Kraftwerk song was in communication with the next.”

“If a song starts with you starting up the engine of your car, then it’s part of that environment. In Kraftwerk, we would aim to design acoustic portraits.”

It’s a subject that still fascinates Karl Bartos. Whether discussing the impact of the iPhone or Abbey Road’s world-beating collecting of microphones, he remains intrigued by the way music is both made and consumed. “My students listen to music through their smart phones, just like a music machine. I’m not that type of guy, I prefer to listen to the environment I’m in. I walk a lot in the countryside around Hamburg, and I listen to my body, my breathing, and let my thoughts go wild.”

Karl’s entrance into Kraftwerk came at a curious time in his life. At only 22 he was several years younger than the other members, and in his new book he picks apart the class differences between his own background, and that of his peers. In conversation, he’s reflective and optimistic about the impact he had on the group, already almost a decade into their career. “When I joined Kraftwerk I was playing at the conservatory. I was playing at the opera house. And Ralf picked me up in his car, and took me to the Kling Klang studio. I have the feeling that I brought classical music into Kraftwerk! I was only 22, I had a childish view of the world, so I brought them back to childhood, in a way.”

Having spent his young adulthood in the symphony hall, Kling Klang represented a break with his past. “Oh I was in a classical music bubble,” he says. “I was really into John Cage. I listened to his music, and the way he would construct environmental landscapes, using tape recorders, and other devices. But when you’re in that classical music world, you have three centuries to choose from! Everyday you’re confronted with it.”

One of the most charming things about The Sound Of The Machines are the revelations about the inner workings of Kling Klang. For all their reputation as an austere, mechanically-driven project, the sessions are lit up by humour, chance, and humanity in Bartos’ new memoir. He’s sanguine, sometimes dismissive about the way it ended, but he’s also evidently proud of those achievements. “It started with us playing these music boxes. There was so much experimentation. But then the computers arrived in the studio in the mid 80s, and we became the music boxes. And then the fun was over, as we were just staring at the computer. Instead of making art, and trying to solve problems, we were staring at computers all the time! It just wasn’t funny anymore. It became a business.”

Yet their impact remains tangible on a daily basis. Kraftwerk’s output has permeated every aspect of music culture, from chart pop to underground hip-hop via house, techno, and more.  “That’s always been the way. Stravinsky listened to Bach. He also listened to Russian folk songs. We all listen to somebody else. Music is a conversation! Every song talks to another source.”

“Let’s just call it an exchange,” he says. “You can watch Shakespeare for the first time this year, and still be astonished.”

We end by discussing the future. Immersed in academia– “it’s inspiring, all my students are experiencing this for the very first time!” – he’s also tantalisingly close to completing a huge new project. An enormous work for a “digital symphonic orchestra”, the piece utilises the 12 tone scale, and brings together 300 years of music history. Long after his final exit from Kling Klang, Karl Bartos remains gripped by music’s possibility, and the endless conversations culture can offer.

The Sound Of The Machine is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Patrick Beerhorst

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