Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk)

Karl Bartos and the voice of technology: An exclusive interview with Karl Bartos

Some of weeks ago Karl Bartos toured a couple of cities in Sweden and Steelberry Clones, got an exclusive interview with the synth pop pioneer. Karl, being one of the four members of the classic Kraftwerk line-up and with several legendary compositions on his track record, i.e. Computer World, The Man Machine, Electric Café. To recap some of the more important activities it is worth mentioning that Karl founded the group Elektric Music in 1992, releasing the album Esperanto, and he have collaborations along the way with Bernad Sumner, Johnny Marr and Andy McCluskey. And since Steelberry Clones are in fact based out of Sweden it is worth mentioning his guest appearance with Swedish synthpop act Mobile Homes. After leaving Kraftwerk, some 25 years ago, the music that he and the rest of the band created is still a great inspirational source across numerous musical genres.

Karl has ventured into many different fields since the Kraftwerk days and has delivered highly acclaimed albums along the way, such as Communication – featuring such songs as “I’m the Message,” “The Camera,” and “Ultraviolet.

In awaiting his new album, due early next year, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the mind of Karl, by asking him about the music creation side of things.

The new album in the works

Karl is now producing a new album, but working in the studio is being like a scientist, tweaking and tuning – composing is the pleasure part! The production process involves starting with beta versions and then continues to work with the songs, improving them and making new versions – even though all twelve songs where set at demo stage. Here Karl adds a remark that stems from his German and Kraftwerk roots – “I go into the studio 8 hours every day”. Producing your own work requires making final decision, fighting yourself.

Being a director and the use of computers

Composing is being like a director of drama – there are roles and dialogue. Making electronic music is like making and acoustic film. For Karl melody and harmony are key ingredients. And while composing the sound is and integral part of the composition. Working with synthesizers for more than thirty years Karl has built up a pallet of sounds in his head which he uses as basis while composing. Whilst there are infinite sound possibilities using electronic instruments – “there are so many sounds, I can’t listen to all of them”, only adding new sounds occasionally. Regarding electronic instruments Karl hasn’t sold any of the his synthesizers and still prefers the old analogs. But just like computers – they are only tools. Like a craftsman that needs different screwdrivers but then he doesn’t love them – “computers are just eating my time”. Many musicians today turn to analog gear as they miss the tactile experience while creating but for Karl the important composing process is done in his head – not turning knobs or clicking on computers. That said the computers are used heavily during production of audio and video, sampling sounds.

Regarding computers, Computer World, the eights studio album to come out of the Kling Klang studio, in these Twitter days we can assume that all these sound bytes like “It’s more fun to compute” would make efficient and highly acclaimed Twitter posts today :-). However, what is more interesting to know is that at the time of the making of the Computer World album Karl and the others had never actually owned or used a computer themselves. “During the making of Computer World we had a closer look at those incredibly smart machines at the IBM affiliate in Düsseldorf”. Remember that the PC was just launched and home computers was if not science fiction very exotic at the time.

I robovox

The robot voices are a trademark of Bartos music and appears on all his albums where he uses both vocoders and synthetic made voices. They are used for the dramaturgic effect – as “the voice of technology it self, or like the voice God”. The robot voices are then not him self singing and can be used just like the narrator in a film. The voice technology has advanced tremenously the last years with products like Antares Auto Tune, Melodyne, Vocaloid etc and they are used in numerous pop hits, but few has put them as permanent tool on their artistic palette.

Audio information : Kraftwerk’s World Tour 1981
Live at Nagoya Shi Koukai Do, Nagoya, Japan, 13/09/1981

Cracking the code of music

Growing up in occupied Dusseldorf in the 60’s he was exposed to the likes of The Beatles and The Doors. Soon he wanted to make music on his own joining several bands. Already then Karl wanted to crack the code of music. Starting a solo career 25 years later it came as a surprise to him that he still had the same musical references. When searching for what’s the most important aspect of music the answer was – melody. And great melodies are timeless – a melody can touch a heart, makes people listen. “Clever production is not enough – you need the melody. The most important parameter in music is the definitive pitch.” The colaboration with Bernad Sumner and Johnny Marr seem obvious combining Karl’s guitar based roots and strong pop melodies.

A look into the future

The new album Karl is working on includes songs written recently and also some many years ago. His past albums like Communication and Esperanto have had a strong theme but the five years as lecturer at the Berlin University of the Arts where every thing has to be analyzed has made him tired of intellectualizing at the loss of creativity.

The Univercity years have been demanding in a way but it was also an opportunity to make some research into visual art to add some weight to his CV. Karl has been working a lot with films the last decade making them and investigating the convergence of vision and sound. “The photography is one of the most important innovations to society”. Pictures, film and TV have changed the world. The videos are an important part of the live shows and includes clips from his own as well as others films (e.g the 60s films Blow Up and Peeping Tom).

Following Karl’s interest of film in particular and media in general followed studying e.g the works of Marshall McLuhan and others. The album Communication elaborates on the subject with the songs like ”15 Minutes Of Fame” and ”The Camera” etc. McLuhans most famous sound byte is ”the medium is the message” introduced in his book ”Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. Asking Karl’s view on smart phones and tables as musical instruments or part of the creative process he concludes he hasn’t embraced them as artistic tools but that they appear to be more of an extension of man as anything else!

Concerts in Sweden

When I met with Karl back stage after his performance in Malmoe, Sweden, I’m pleased to announce that he admittedly had to agree that Malmoe probably has the most thriving electro scene in the Nordics and with excited audience listening to Kraftwerk songs, mixed with his own material – it was a pure joy to be there this evening. Karl performed a plethora of all these classic songs that I have been listening to since I was a kid, with beautiful cascades of video material to accompany the set. Somewhat disappointing though that he did not play anything from his upcoming album. On stage we saw Karl smile towards a blessed crowd of Kraftwerk advocates, singing the classic lyrics while at the same time managing the video performance. The only actual real synths seen live on stage was the microKORG doing its best to fulfill the need for vocoders. All in all, I dearly hope this was not the last time we saw Karl in town.

The new album will hopefully be released this year but also the back catalog is being remastered and will be reissued.

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