Interview: Karl Bartos talks Kraftwerk, synths and his latest album
Here’s a new interview with Karl Bartos where he discusses everything from vintage machines to his latest album:
Never meet your heroes, or so the old maxim goes, but FM is delighted to report that our recent encounter with bona fide Electronic music legend Karl Bartos put paid to the notion that meeting one’s heroes is inevitably doomed to end in disappointment. In the flesh, Bartos is a charming, erudite man with a philosophical take on Electronic music that reflects itself in the pristine synthesized contours of the music contained on his latest LP, Off The Record.
From his time as a member of seminal German Electro Pop purveyors Kraftwerk, through his consequent Electrik Music project and collaborations with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr on their Electronic albums, Bartos has been a key figure in the synthesised music story. Off The Record, released in March, saw Bartos revisit his ‘secret acoustic diary’ of musical sketches and ideas built up during his Kraftwerk days and fashion them into an album that manages to simultaneously sound contemporary and timeless. With trademark vocoded vocals to the fore and his keen ear for a digital melody line still intact, we met with Bartos for a whistle-stop tour of the gear he employs to such stellar effect in his ergonomic Hamburg nerve centre.
How did you set about the Herculean task of trawling through your digital media archive to begin creating Off The Record?
“Well, I’m over it now but it was a hell of a job! There were tons of cassettes, 1/4″ tapes and various other stuff. I moved my archive when we went from Düsseldorf to Hamburg and there was boxes and boxes of it and various rooms full of it along with old synthesizers. I always avoided going through the archive to put things in order until Gunther from Bureau B [Bartos’ German record label] said, ‘Karl, do you have any old recordings?’ I refused initially but finally gave in… I’d always wanted to do it, and knew I had to, but it took me several weeks and the sound quality was rotten with many tapes broken. Eventually, I managed to get most of it into the computer. I saw that everything was dated 1977, 1978, etc, and I thought, ‘That’s a diary. An acoustic diary.’ So I made it a concept. You do that kind of thing but usually just inside your brain – you refer to the things you’ve done before. It’s the way we organise our brains. I also had to write about the concept and where the songs came from.”
Were you quite meticulous about correctly marking or naming ideas back in the days when you were building your archive?
“You do what you do. I’d come up with a name, ‘Neon Piano’ or whatever, and I’d sometimes write the date. Sometimes not. Most cassettes had a name or a date on them. I also found a lot of stuff on Zip and Jaz drives but even some of those were damaged or didn’t work. Between all the different media I pretty much managed to retrieve everything eventually, though.”
Were there a lot of nice surprises?
“It was all such a surprise and funny to hear a song I’d done without a trace of emotion sitting beside something like Computer World [Kraftwerk, 1981]. It made me feel a little sentimental at times. Once I had them in order, it was easy for me to collate and collage them.”
Your first computer set-up was the IBM XT running Voyetra Plus sequencing software. That must have felt like going supersonic after using tape?
“It was a real revelation. We were recording Electric Café [Kraftwerk, 1986] at Kling Klang [the band’s private studio originally located in Düsseldorf, Germany], then we took it over to Right Track Studio in New York where François Kevorkian and Fred Maher introduced me to the Voyetra Plus software he had running on a laptop.