“You Can't Talk About Music," An Interview with Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos

The German percussionist speaks on the impossible task of remembering and recalling a lifetime in music.

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Mar 10 2016, 11:35am

For Karl Bartos, making music is a little bit like Fight Club. "The first thing," he tells me emphatically, leaning forward from a plush leather seat in the lobby of his Bayswater hotel, "is that you can't talk about music. Period." As a former member of the famously taciturn Kraftwerk, the sentiment may not come across as so surprising. But as a man who spent much of the 00s teaching music to university students in Berlin and is currently engaged in writing his autobiography, it's a little more apt to raise an eyebrow.

On the 25th of March Bartos will re-issue his unjustly neglected 2003 solo album Communication. In the meantime, we caught up with him in a reflective mood, knee deep in the "nightmare" of trying to write his life story and wrestling with his own theories about music and the legacy of his old band.

"It's impossible to say something about music because everybody listens to sound in a different way," he explains. "This is part of the secret of music." But anyone expecting Bartos's bio to instead reveal the secrets behind the austere Kraftwerk brand may be disappointed. "Oh no!" he says to me, almost chidingly, when I ask if he approached writing the book with some trepidation after the controversy that greeted his former bandmate Wolfgang Flür's own I Was A Robot. "He's a friend of mine," Bartos says of Flür. "But he wrote from a very, very emotional perspective."

I Was A Robot, released in 2000, was full of ribald tales of groupie sex and homosexual flirtations. Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider were not amused by this peak behind the curtains of their carefully manicured image and called in the lawyers. The matter was eventually settled out of court, with later editions of the book edited of a few choice passages. "My book is quite different," Bartos insists. "It's a combination of three books, really. One book is my biography in sound. And the second is the story of my former band. And the third book is a book on music."

Born in 1952 in the Alpine municipality of Berchtesgaden, Bartos clearly recalls the sound of his mother singing Bavarian folk songs to him as a small child, accompanied, sometimes, by a zither playing uncle. But it was the vrrangg of George Harrison's opening chord to 'A Hard Day's Night' that opened his eyes to the raw emotional power that music is capable of.

He told me how he came to first hear that legendary opening: "In my adolescence, we were living in a British occupied zone. This was, in fact, very cool. My sister is married to a northern guy, from Yorkshire. He showed up in his uniform. Very good looking, cool guy, in his Landrover. He brought the first Beatles record, and he put it on the record player. And this guitar chord – this chord changed my life. It was a wake-up call."

"I woke up to the sound of the sixties," Bartos recalls. His taste moved from The Beatles to the Stones to Motown and the blues. "We played in a cover band, to the English soldiers," he says. They toured all over Germany in a Volkswagen bus painted in psychedelic colours, playing Kinks covers to squaddies. "My sister had a guitar on the wall but she never played it, so I took it. I made a pick-up for it and plugged it into the radio and played along with Radio Luxembourg. Then I bought a drum kit to join other bands."

After a while, though, Bartos had to make a decision. "I had to decide what profession I was going to go into. I thought, fuck it. I love music. I want to spend my life in music. I want to live in music. I want to live in sound. So, being German, I went to the conservatory and learned classical percussion."

Bartos spent seven years studying classical music and playing with the local symphonic orchestra in Dusseldorf. Then one day, towards the end of 1974, "I got a phone call from Florian."

Up until that point, Karl Bartos's life in music had been divided between two worlds: the British and American beat groups he had covered in the working bands of his youth, and the high-flung Beethoven and Stockhausen symphonies of his years in the conservatoire. In comparison to the two musical styles of your upbringing, what, I ask, did you make of Kraftwerk when you first encountered them?

"It had to do with C.I.," he says, "Corporate Identity." At the time Bartos joined the group, Kraftwerk's distinctive identity was just in the process of solidification. "If you want to make a composition which stands on its own, you have to develop your own identity," he explains. "I could hear that Ralf and Florian were going through this process. Their first record sounds really like Pink Floyd, and the second too. But then the third, there is slightly another colour to it. When they came to make Autobahn, they started to develop their own identity. And I could hear that. They picked me up and we went for ten weeks to America [in April of 1975]. It all happened there, basically. It happened at a Beach Boys concert."

They were in Cleveland, Ohio, with a night off between gigs in the midst of a long and gruelling tour. The Beach Boys were in town, so Bartos, Flür, Hütter, and Schneider decided to go along and check them out. "The first song they played was 'Jumping Jack Flash'," Bartos recalls. He was astonished that such a big group, with so many hits of their own, would kick off their concert with a cover. "I didn't understand it, quite honestly." But looking back, forty years later, Bartos believes that in that moment, watching this American group play a song by a British band based on a second-hand version of American blues, Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider suddenly grasped the crucial important of cultural transfer in music.

"I think you can only be part of this cultural transfer in the world if you don't wear a mask," he says now. "You have to show your own face, but you have to find your face first." For Germans in the post-war era, finding one's own face was a particularly delicate task, "because our German identity was really destroyed and was just full of shit." Little by little Kraftwerk set about reconstructing a new kind of musical Germanness – taking bits from 19th century romanticism, the electroacoustic experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen, folk music, Volkswagen cars, and the German language. "This is a very important aspect of music," Bartos insists, "to look in the mirror, see your own face, and be part of this cultural transfer."

Bartos left Kraftwerk in 1990 and went on to collaborate with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner in Electronic, also co-writing with Andy Sumner several songs that would end up on OMD's Universal album and the Elektric Music record Esperanto. In 2003 he released Communication, his first album under his own name. But the timing was unlucky. "It never really came out," Bartos shrugs, "because Sony crashed down at this moment, really. It was actually on the shelf all the time." Dispirited, he turned to academia.

"I was a little fed up with pop music," he says of the time he spent teaching in Berlin in the mid-00s. "I thought, it's not interesting anymore. I don't know why, but I couldn't hear myself in there." He got interested in film sound, eventually going on to write music for the documentary Moebius Redux – A Life in Pictures.

So what was it that got you excited about pop music again? I ask.

"Again?" he says, apparently taken aback. "I'm not enthusiastic about pop music. I think, pop music was much better off in the 60s or in the 70s. It has to do with the value of it. With the value of a commodity."

But hasn't pop music always been a commodity? Even in the 60s and 70s?

"Yes! That's why! It's not a commodity anymore. Music has become a sort of fuel for other business models. It's not existing anymore. They're dealing with amounts of songs. Millions of songs for this and that. It's just about numbers. So-and-so million songs and you pay monthly this and that. Is this music? I don't like it. I think it's a big mistake. It's the future anyway, but I think I don't need it."

Karl Bartos is on Twitter.

Robert Barry is also on Twitter.