Former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos is back and fully charged. Phil Ward plugs in
Since leaving Kraftwerk in 1991, Karl Bartos has sought to establish more open links with the wider electronic music community. Forming a new band with Dusseldorf musician Lothar Manteuffel, Bartos realised this ambition through a guest appearance by Andy McCluskey on Elektric Music's debut album Esperanto, as well as in studio collaborations with English counterparts Electronic, Sheffield's LFO and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Phil Ward finds the former Kling Klang percussionist enjoying this new found freedom...
"Music is a whore," says Karl Bartos. Really? Well, these new found freedoms post-Kraftwerk certainly seem to have loosened his tongue. It's no secret now that Karl began to feel a sense of frustration within the ivory tower of Kraftwerk's Kling Klang studio Dusseldorf, the place where some of the most influential music of the 20th Century has been concocted. It wasn't just the rate at which the band worked - releasing two new albums in 10 years, one of which was a collection of remixes. It was also the lack of contact between the creators of this music and an outside world that was, and still is, obsessed with it.
What he means by this outburst is that music is a damned seductive little minx that will just as readily try and sell you something as reveal some cosmic truth. It may seem cynical, but it actually reflects a continuing concern with the mechanism of consumer culture. These are the themes which pervade much of Kraftwerk output, and Elektric Music's first album Esperanto doesn't let up, with its familiar regimented analogue bleeps and thuds harbouring messages of communication breakdown, materialism and media overload.
Mind you, if you want cynicism, just ask Karl about current fashions in the pop media for rootsy, acoustic showcases peddling an image of unelectric simplicity whilst in fact depending entirely on dishloads of cosmic technology. "MTV Unplugged is a lie," he'll say. "If you want 'unplugged', unplug your TV set..."
Quite. With its broadcasting themes, Esperanto picks up where Radioactivity left off. and is full of opinions of this kind. Significantly, the development is from radio to TV, from aural to visual. The first track, indeed, is the starkly titled 'TV'.
"The songs are like 'pictograms' of our information society," explains Karl. "Sight is the most powerful sense. For this reason visual images are much more believable than music - they have less abstract, emotional impact, but appear more objective, more 'true'. That is the power at the heart of television."
In a departure from Kraftwerk's researching and reporting approach to modern culture, Elektric Music take the opportunity to introduce more of an element of satire - of oblique warning.
"I still think that kids should learn how to just listen, to train in apprehending what is happening when music occurs, and not just to get completely absorbed in this visual information culture. I think in technology, there is no doubt that visual and musical information are coming closer together than ever before, but it would be a shame if the purely audio senses were forgotten."
Later in the conversation, I become living proof of this slippery slide into perceptual confusion by expressing an interest in seeing how the promised Elektric Music live shows will sound.
"I still think that kids should learn how to just listen, to train in apprehending what is happening when music occurs, and not just to get completely absorbed in this visual information culture"
"There you are," comes the response. "You say yourself - 'see how it sounds'. It's in the language already."
Because of the Kraftwerk legacy, Elektric Music occupy a very interesting position in the development of, well... electric music. Something about the very nature of synthesisers has always led them to be associated with some kind of 'futurism'; with some notion that they represent what's just around the corner when in fact they pretty much sum up what's happening there and then. Kraftwerk themselves enjoyed this irony, and repeatedly had fun with a kind of technological nostalgia - the way previous generations' visions of the future look to us now. However, this did not stop the band from acquiring, and then exploiting, a reputation for being several steps ahead.
And so it is with Herr Bartos, who has lost none of that sense of pioneering enquiry into the state of things. Even though, at times, his band may sound a little nostalgic for a previous generation's synthesiser music, he's anxious to remain at the cutting edge when it comes to subjects for his songs.
"The Dusseldorf artist Josef Beuys once said that when you talk to someone, you must always be saying something they don't understand. What he meant was that you must surprise them. It's no use if the person you are trying to communicate with turns away and says, oh yes, don't bother to continue, I've heard what you're saying before..."
The continuing association between synthesisers and futurism is, of course, an association between analogue synthesisers and futurism, founded during the first wave of those strange new devices. The advent of digital methods has scarcely dented this image, and for Bartos and Kraftwerk, good thing too.
"When we made Computerworld," reveals Karl, "we didn't have any computers! It was all still analogue. The cutting edge is not a piece of equipment - the cutting edge is in here..." He taps his head. "It's in the imagination. William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on an old typewriter."
"A sampler is nothing; it's like a radio, a receiver and transmitter. It makes no sound of its own. It's a storage medium, and it's just convenient for us on stage"
Neuromancer is Gibson's 'cyberpunk' classic, the book which fostered a new, more nightmarish image of technology in the mid-'80s. For Kraftwerk, the job in hand was to research the emerging culture of computer technology, but then to create their own interpretation of it - a vision, not just a showcase for its shiny new toys. That would have been too literal. Just as the images of ageing technology had placed a distance between the band and their principal subject, so too the use of analogue to 'celebrate' digital ensured a meaningful creative offset.
This is still true. Analogue synths are more popular than ever, and are still used by artists as diverse as Mixmaster Morris and ATR to evoke the heralding of some new era. As for Elektric Music, the aesthetics of sound are, without doubt, voltage-controlled.
"Ralf made a big mistake when he bought a Synclavier. Sorry, Ralf..." says Karl, referring to an event after Computerworld which marked the beginning of long periods of silence from the group. That silence, which in the long run so frustrated Bartos, has a wry analogy with the reasons he so disparages such an instrument: "A sampler is nothing; it's like a radio, a receiver and transmitter. It makes no sound of its own. It's a storage medium, and it's just convenient for us on stage. In the studio, we use mainly analogue sounds, with samples used only in the same way that we once used tape. So on tour, it's easier to load the analogue sounds into the sampler, because analogue synths are bulky and they go out of tune. And in the studio, it's easier to edit digitised sound than it is to cut up bits of tape and splice them together again. But to regard the sampler as a source of sounds is very misleading, and to base your music on these sources, especially when they are complete, pre-existing segments of somebody else's music, is very strange. Why take a page of Shakespeare's works and jumble them up? You are a writer - you wouldn't do that, would you? Start at page one with your own words.
"Sure, it's great to manipulate sound almost infinitely like you can with an Akai S1000 - but the medium itself is so clear that it's almost invisible. Which reminds me of a very good quote - I can't remember who said it. It's that technology, as it gets more and more perfect, is getting smaller and smaller, and soon it will disappear..."
Which is why, I guess, you have to keep using imperfect, bleepy old keyboards in order to be heard properly. We like the very sound synthesisers make. So does Karl. Let's face it, if music is a whore, analogue synths can swing those hips...
Esperanto is out on East West Records.
Interview by Phil Ward
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!