Paul Kalkbrenner on how he keeps his sound pure by not listening to anybody else's music
When the Sonar tour (an offshoot of the prestigious Barcelona festival) hits Denver tomorrow night, the lineup is going to be killer: Die Antwoord, Azari & III, Seth Troxler, Tiga, Gesaffelstein, Nic Fanciulli and Paul Kalkbrenner. Kalkbrenner, who draws crowds numbering in the tens of thousands in his native Germany, where techno is a way of life, is especially noteworthy, and he's kept his smooth, melodic sound from changing with fads while still keeping it cutting-edge relevant. We caught up with him to talk about the live-PA format (wherein Kalkbrenner builds his tracks and sets live on stage using assorted equipment) versus slinging discs, keeping his sound pure and what's next for him.
Westword: What drew you to the live-PA format to begin with?
Paul Kalkbrenner: Because very early as a teenager, I wanted to do more than just mixing two records into each other. I wanted to produce my own songs and to present them live on stage, very early, as a dream myself. Twenty years ago, the thing was buying records and deejyaing in the clubs in East Berlin, but quite early, this plan began to form that I had to do more, especially on stage. And I was never a good DJ; I could never wait, and I would mix and mix and mix, and you also have to let the record run...never my thing.
What are some of the challenges to the format? How do you go about building a cohesive set, and what's it like trying to respond to the crowd in the moment?
It makes you much more open and flexible, and sometimes it can happen where one song arrives with the audience so well -- I play a version that nobody has heard ever before, not even me, just driven by the specific venue. After a year of playing a song like this, it goes far from where it was on the record. As people look for feedback from the other living people, it's just an extreme form of that.
With new technology and equipment, the landscape of electronic music is changing pretty rapidly; where do you see it going in the next ten years or so?
The borders disappear. Toward digital deejaying, so especially more and more, all the hardware and software is done for this, so that people can mix two tracks into each other. There's no equipment that can improve my life, because what I do, it's very special, and my equipment is self-built; but it's good because nobody else does this. At one point, actually, especially now when -- I'm also one of them -- they call them "button pushers," and I'm one of them, but I do more. And they occupy the very big stages with lots of cameras, and more people will actually see who is doing what. I have a good thing.
There are a lot of musicians who try to cross over into acting and vice versa, but you've actually been successful at it in Berlin Calling. What are some of the similarities between acting and making music, and would you consider doing film again?
I have a job already, thank you [laughs]. But I think you have to have a certain feeling for timing and drama. That's the similarity. At the moment, I have no plans to do that again.
You live in an area known for its amazing electronic music; what's the last show you saw that blew your mind?
The last show of mine that blew my mind?
No, the last show that someone else put on.
I don't do that. I don't listen to other people's music. I have to save myself. A DJ can't do what I do, because a DJ has to be informed of what's new and what's going on. It's not that I'm ignorant and stuff -- the more I listen to other stuff, it influenced me in a long way, it came in a form of dust on top of my work, a layer of other people's dust. That's why when I make an album, I try to avoid all audio-visual input; it helps me be more myself. I have had to find that out for years, and I felt shitty with it, but I never want to hear what other people do. And people say, "How can you be so ignorant?" It's only that I need that. I don't listen to anything. You cannot close your ears; it's getting in there anyway.
With the evolution of new sub-genres like dubstep, remixes with pop artists and all of the other new things happening in electronic music, I find it interesting that you've managed to experiment strictly within the parameters of techno. Can you talk a little bit about what it's been like to see the genre explode and where you might or might not be going with it in the future?
I just had here, today, a Berlin electronic music magazine in my hands. They showed a cover from 1993, and it said that electronic music was going toward breakbeats and trance -- like all the times, from deep sounds to bass music, the genres were actually competing about dominance and into older styles of dance music. I see, the older I get, the more things that are happening in the development of the kind of music. And the things happening, I more and more see them coming and I less and less wonder about it. It more and more goes also like I'm expecting it to do.
And with the EDM music, I'm not surprised about this kind of music, what makes dance music popular first -- the singers, hip-hoppers, reggae music -- that's why I take care to make a fully instrumental album, nobody sings or has anything to say. That's a good side effect of never knowing what's going on, the sound of today, this autism, locking myself away takes me away from having any idea of what could be up-to-date or modern. All the rappers who rap as a feature on David Guetta's music -- they're being used for a feature.
You've had a very successful career so far, but what are some things left that you'd like to accomplish still?
I was very interested in music, football and politics, so I have to do this in my life after each other. Maybe I can apply somewhere to work for the German Football Association, in the media or something, to accompany the German national team. That's my next big step. Because with techno...I'm in my mid-thirties. I'll do it till forty and then see what's next.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.