The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Karl Bartos Interviewed: Kraftwerk And The Birth Of The Modern
John Doran , March 11th, 2009 10:36

John Doran speaks to former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos about Autobahn and the birth of electro. Edits by the Lovely Debbie Corrigan

Late in 2007 when Luke Turner and I were feverishly planning an online magazine pitch over pints of deliciously remembered Eden Ale in the Mucky Pup in Islington, we were clear about what the site should do. In the broadest of brush strokes we knew what was necessary: a magazine that wasn't trapped into a cycle of canonical worship of Dylan/Beatles/Stones/Led Zeppelin. We wanted to celebrate modern music; the birth of electronic music, of hip hop, of punk rock, disco right forwards to the present day. But when did this defining moment occur? All music has an earlier precedent, so it would have to be a symbolic start date. It didn't take us long to realise that our year zero would have to be Kraftwerk's Autobahn, released in 1974.

The album came at the end of a flashpoint of creativity in German experimental pop and rock music, and was based around a beat that signified a march away from recent history. The motorik ('motor skill') beat was a minimal and metronomic four-four signal of the commencement of a propulsive journey into the musical future. This beat is the war drum of modernity and the signature of Neu!'s drummer Klaus Dinger (who rejected the term, preferring 'Apache beat'). We mention this because he developed the beat while part of an early incarnation of Kraftwerk along with guitarist Michael Rother, and it's especially noticeable on their track 'Ruckzuck'. The beat, perhaps obviously, is associated with the great transport networks of Germany, the railway lines and the autobahns. In fact the rhythm even mimics that of a car speeding along the open road or a train clattering along the rails: fast, measured, never ending. Neu! perfected the beat on tracks such as 'Hallo Gallo' but Kraftwerk pushed it on even further when they constructed the electronic rhythm of 'Autobahn' to sound like a car's tyres hypnotically speeding along tarmac. Recalling the genesis of the track, Florian Schnieder said: "We were on tour and it happened that we just came off the autobahn after a long ride and when we came in to play we had this speed in our music. Our hearts were still beating so fast so the whole rhythm became very fast."

The actual rhythm of 'Autobahn' was built around organic, musique concrète tapes of car noise, replayed on synthesizers and locked into place with rudimentary sequencers. The eventual 22-minute track was the first definitive statement that Kraftwerk had made. Its propulsive proto-electro groove was an important signifier as well. Its beat represented a metaphorical journey away from the recent past – a high-velocity transit away from the horrors of Nazism and World War II. The autobahn was inextricably linked with the dominance of the Nazis, who built links between all of the major cities in the 1930s and early 1940s. Hitler promised that he would eradicate unemployment and, partly through the road building programme, he nearly achieved this goal. The middle classes had better transport links and the mercantile classes had an abundance of new markets within easy reach. And for Hitler himself, there was the 'Totale Mobilmachung' or total mobilisation for the troops of the Wehrmacht. By 1939 3,000km of new road had been built, and as soon as the war was over the people would be able to drive wherever they wanted in the Volkswagens Hitler had promised to every family.

It took a band as forward-looking as Kraftwerk to re-appropriate the inherent liberating nature of the autobahn from the fascists. As soon as you hear the childlike refrain "Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der autobahn" ("We are driving driving driving on the autobahn") you realise that Kraftwerk have won and the song is as much a riposte to the previous generation as it is a nod of respect to The Beach Boys and American driving music. When discussing this theme at the time Ralf Hutter said: "We were born after the war... it is not much of an incentive to respect our fathers." Speaking about The Beach Boys he said: "In their songs they managed to concentrate a maximum of fundamental ideas. In a hundred years from now when people want to know what California was like in the 60s, they only have to listen to a single by the Beach Boys."

It is with great pleasure that we get, this month, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Autobahn by speaking to Karl Bartos, a key member of the group between 1975 and 1991.

How did Ralf Hutter and Florian Schnieder contact you to join the group in 1975?

KB: "At that time I was 23 and studying music at the Robert Schumann Konservatorium in Düsseldorf and they just called my professor at that time. They needed a classically trained percussion player. At that time I was close to my examinations and I was playing at the opera almost every day. So I went to the studio and we got along very well from the first day. They didn't really know that I was growing up in the 60s as well and I had a good concept of pop music in general. I started off playing songs by The Beatles and Chuck Berry – rock 'n' roll really. When I was 18 or 20 I went to the conservatory to study music and I was already able to understand the concept of pop music then."

And of course Kraftwerk loved American rock 'n' roll and pop music. The Stooges and The Beach Boys.

KB: "The Beach Boys, yeah. And Andy Warhol. From the end of the 60s, Velvet Underground was taking off and all the bands from the West Coast, The Doors for example. That was a really good time for art and music, the 60s."

Do you think it was important to Kraftwerk's success that they came from Düsseldorf, the fashion and design capital of Germany? From around the time you joined, Kraftwerk had a much stronger graphic identity than most other German bands of the time and this is reflected in the close work with Emil Schult.

KB: "I can't tell you. The circumstances that we took and found... you can't change them retrospectively. It's not very clever to look back and think what would have happened if we were living in Berlin or Munich. At that time Düsseldorf was on British-occupied soil and my brother-in-law was actually a British soldier. And this guy, Peter, he brought into our house the first rock 'n' roll records. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It sounds like it's out of a movie but it's actually reality."

Was there a sense in which you were creating a break with recent German history, via rejecting German's musical history?

KB: "What do you mean rejecting?"

Well, I've interviewed people like Michael Rother [Neu!], Irmin Schmidt [Can] and the chaps from Cluster before and some of them have expressed the sentiment that they wanted to break from Germany's history by starting musically from scratch, and part of this was done by rejecting traditional German music.

KB: "I think it was rather the opposite. We felt that really World War Two had wiped out German heritage because of all the Jewish people who emigrated to the States or other parts of Europe. We all felt that Germany's cultural heritage was very strong in the 1920s and before we had this Nazi regime and everything went ridiculous. So we always thought we were closing a gap rather than playing the blues or imitating The Beatles – which we loved a lot of course but it's not in our genes and it's not our native language. And we don't have the blues in our genes and we weren't born in the Mississippi Delta. There were no black people in Germany. So instead we thought we'd had this development in the 1920s which was very, very strong and was audio visual. We had the Bauhaus school before the war and then after the war we had tremendous people like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the development of the classical and the electronic classical. This was very strong and it all happened very close to Düsseldorf in Cologne and all the great composers at that time came there. During the late 40s up until the 70s they all came to Germany; people like John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Pierre Schaeffer and they all had this fantastic approach to modern music and we felt it would make more sense to see Kraftwerk as part of that tradition more than anything else."

You mention how even though you loved black music it wasn't your sound. What's interesting is how, very early on, you were embraced by black America – or certain parts of the black American concert going public at least.

KB: "That happened not too long after my first encounter with Ralf and Florian. In 1975 we went over the Atlantic and spent 10 weeks on the road. We went from coast to coast and then to Canada. And all the black cities like Detroit or Chicago, they embraced us. It was good fun. In a way apparently they saw some sort of very strange comic figures in us I guess but also they didn't miss the beats. I was growing up with the funky beats of James Brown and I brought them in more and more. Not during Autobahn or Radioactivity but more and more during the late 70s. We took some black beats into our music and this was very attractive to the black musicians and the black audiences in the States. In a way probably it reminds me of what The Beatles did. They took some Chuck Berry tunes and they transferred it to our European culture before taking it back to America and everyone understood that. In a way that was probably what we did with black rhythm and blues. But we mixed it of course with our own identity of the electronic music approach and European melodies. And this was good enough to succeed in America.

At the time you were working right at the birth of sequencer technology, which was very rudimentary. Was it difficult to play Kraftwerk's music live?

KB: "Oh yeah because the machinery was so... they weren't perfect these sequencers, they broke in the middle of the songs! And if this happened we would have to play by hand. It was very, very basic then. And very expensive! The binary alphabet has changed so many things and made it so easy to play live. Which really is a wonder."

With Trans Europe Express was there a conscious effort to repeat the transport motif that you'd initially explored on Autobahn? And what experiments did you use to capture that propulsive rail travel rhythm?

KB: [laughing] "This is very, very funny! Nobody pointed this out! You are one of the first journalists to point out the repetition of the concept of transport but it is true. In a way it was a repetition of Autobahn. But on the other hand by using the train motif we were following the path of someone like Pierre Schaeffer who made the first piece of musique concrète by only using the sounds of trains. That was in our mind also. At that time being around with Autobahn and Radioactivity we'd had enough of creating from our German heritage and rather we were considering ourselves as European musicians. If you came to England or America everyone was putting us in the field of Nazi Germany of course. We had this centerfold in the New Musical Express which was really no fun. And at that time the idea of the European community by using the synonym of Trans Europe Express we had the feeling that we could do it; that we could succeed by using this symbol. Eventually we went to train bridges and were listening to the sound the train would actually produce and by using the final rhythm it was just a little faint because a train doesn't actually sound like this! Because on a train you have two wheels and then the next wagon is starting with another two wheels and if you cross the gap on the rails it makes the sound "da-dum-da-dum Da-dum-da-dum" but of course you wouldn't be able to dance to that! So we changed it slightly."

How did you record the organic rhythms of 'Metal On Metal'?

KB: "With a hammer! On pipes. It was very easy."

You got your first writing credits on the Man Machine album. Which song are you most proud of coming up with the riff or the rhythm?

KB: "I don't know. [sighs] In the start it was like Lennon and McCartney but from that time on we got the credits for all songs but I didn't get credit for Trans Europe Express or Radioactivity unfortunately so I had to earn it.**

At what point did you become aware of how influential your sound was being on black electronic music in America, whether that was Chicago house, Detroit techno or New York electro?

KB: "Well it happened actually when we were in New York and we were in the street and we saw a record shop full of our records and black people stood in front of them making jokes about the covers and about how strange we were looking, but people were making loops out of 'Metal On Metal' and dancing to it. These loops were going on forever! Made from just these heavy metal sounds! They were breakdancing to it. Then we were aware that we had access to this culture. Then of course there was the 'Planet Rock' thing."

What was the actual train journey like that you took to launch the Trans Europe Express album in France?

KB: "Drunk journalists! People getting lost in the lavatory for a long time if you know what I mean."

Christ. Nothing ever changes.

KB: "It was fun. It was great! I think we were the only straight people on the train!"

Kraftwerk were unassailable for such a long period of time. Was it an easy natural progression for you to head in the more techno pop direction after Man Machine or did that movement come about after internal conflict?

KB: "What can I say? During the 80s the digital revolution was happening. There were so many hit factories coming up in American and London with producer teams who had bought two or three synclaviers and Fairlight computers and would produce one hit after the other. The overall output in the music industry was really, really strong. Simultaneously we had this MTV thing happening. So our overall pace was running slow then and we had produced like Man Machine or Radioactivity or Computer World in a very short period of time, one after the other and I think looking at my two colleagues who were just eight or nine years my senior but they were slowing down really. Not on purpose but it happened."

You think there was too long a gap between Computer World and Electric Café?

KB: "Yeah. It was between 1981 and 1984 the gap. Of course Ralf had this terrible accident when he fell from his bike and he almost died when this happened. This had cost us almost two years and by then the concept of techno pop had disappeared."

Didn't Ralf want to do the entire Electric Café album about cycling?

KB: "No. Coming from Japan in 1981 we had this idea of this genre which was supposed to be called techno pop and 'Tour De France' was just one track off this record. Although the front cover was originally the four of us riding bicycles which eventually became the cover to 'Tour De France'. The record was almost finished and Ralf went to New York for a mixing session and he brought the final tape with him but we didn't put it out. [sighs] I don't know why... it's too complicated to put it into an interview you know? But that's what happened."

With Radioactivity, did you have time to repent at leisure about your fascination with the concept of the clean energy source of nuclear power?

KB: "We never got back to that topic in the 70s and 80s. How we got back on that topic was when we had this idea on The Mix [here the song is given an ominous twist by a vocodered voice talking about the environmental impact of Sellafield]. Then we had the ability to change it a little but I must confess at that time in '76 we didn't have such a general concept about nuclear technology, or at least I didn't myself. But that was just one half of the concept, the main concept was radio activity; a play on radios and radio stations. We found this very interesting, how radio worked in the United States at the time. You could break or lose a record only on radio play. It was the main tool for breaking records at that time. 'Autobahn' was successful through the college radio scene. We should give this topic a try."

Despite all this stick you used to get about being Nazis, Kraftwerk have always been interested in European integration...

KB: "Yes that's true. We were much more interested in it at that time than being Germans because we had been confronted by this German identity so much in the States, with everyone greeting us with the 'heil Hitler' salutes. They were just making fun and jokes and not being very serious but we'd had enough of this idea."