German Techno Deity Paul Kalkbrenner is Finally Coming to Conquer America
With the release of his seventh album, '7,' the East-Berlin native and live artist is hoping to take his famed minimal sound to more ears (and hearts) than ever before.
It's the Thursday before Paul Kalkbrenner, one of Germany's most recognizable techno stars, and once back in 2008—movie stars—is set to bring his brand-new live show to the United States, an undisclosed Brooklyn warehouse to be exact, for the very first time.
I'm told by Paul's manager that after arriving minutes late to the airport gate in Toronto, Paul's missed his flight. Waiting for the arrival of the East Berlin-born live artist (one must note, Paul Kalkbrenner is not a DJ) at the East Village's Standard Hotel, I worry if time constraints will inevitably result in a rushed, truncated interview, with a distracted, frustrated subject. But finally, as Paul arrives to our table sporting a shiny black Adidas shirt and even shinier sunglasses, introduces himself with a genial smile, and calmly lights up a Marlboro Menthol (he'll smoke two throughout our chat, with a confident lack of regard for NYC's outdoor smoking policies), my overactive mind is quickly put to rest. Not only is Paul remarkably humble (and effortlessly cool), but he wont let any TSA agent restrict a proper chat, even if it delays his appearance on Men in Blazers, the popular soccer podcast in which he'll be an on-air guest, discussing the upcoming Bundesliga season, and his beloved team, Bayern Munich.
In addition to waxing his expert soccer IQ, Paul's upcoming performance will be his first chance to unleash his brand new seventh album, titled unpretentiously, 7, to an American crowd. He'll also be unveiling a glitzy new stage production, which includes 12 rotating LED interfaces. Having released on independent German labels like Ellen Allien's B-Pitch Control and his own Paul Kalkbrenner Music for the entirety of his career, 7 is to be released via a label that's the very antithesis of those underground techno hubs—Sony/Columbia. His signing with the megalithic organization is part of a multi-year deal, and is ushering in a new chapter of his storied career.
"If I went to a major ten years ago, they would fuck me over," Kalkbrenner insists. "Since Berlin Calling, (the 2008 art film in which Paul plays a fictitious, drug-riddled techno DJ named Ickarus), we've had request for major deals, but this was like 'major.'" he says.
Although he's a superstar in his own right in Germany, where he was personally asked by his government to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Wall's fall with a live set at the Brandenburg Gate to 500,000 people, Kalkbrenner hasn't quite had the same type of widespread success in as many places outside of the Deutschland. Singing with a global label, he's hoping to change that: "I've got fans in places like Lithuania and Peru, but I can't manage it," he says.
As part of inking the new deal, Sony assured Kalkbrenner a larger global audience, especially in America, as well as an assurance he'd be placed far from the commercial stylings of EDM. "For my last album Guten Tag, I was playing for people at the biggest music festival main-stages, but selling only 6,000 albums. There was a huge gap, I had reached where I could with [my own label]. Signing with Sony was the next logical step—it felt right," he says. Like many artists who release on a major, Kalkbrenner's album deal also included some of regular stipulations of dealing with the big players, like having their album on Spotify. Though, he's not quick to villainize the powers that be, and supports the changes brought about with the streaming industry, maintaining confidence that his artistic image will remain untarnished. "The majors know where the wind is blowing from, and that this 'regular' record business will end someday. It keeps them creative," he says.
Paul performing live at the Brandenburg gate in 2014.
Like many German producer's, Kalkbrenner, who grew up in East Berlin, a teenager around the time of the Wall's fall, became enamored with techno soon after his country's unification. Making music with a schoolmate, Sascha Funke, another regular in the German techno scene, he developed a heavily minimal sound, which favored flowing organic melodies over vocals and the sparse, pounding kick that would become synonymous with a lot of dance music coming out of Berlin. For nearly all of his albums and tracks, sans ironically his most universally known song "Sky and Sand," which he made with his brother Fritz (another famed producer and live artist) as the title track to Berlin Calling's soundtrack, his productions would remain substantially vocal free.
While "Sky and Sand" went platinum and was the longest running charting track of all time in Germany, spending 129 weeks on the singles chart, Kalkbrenner speaks to how his relationship with the underground Berlin techno scene ended shortly after he became strictly a live artist. Choosing not to DJ, but perform and rearrange his productions live on stage through an array of gear and old-school mixers, the likes of which would be the first tools of his studio (he now produces using only a laptop), he distances himself from the club. "I don't go out to techno clubs anymore. I think Berlin has so much more to offer than Berghain, on the weekend it's like kindergarten outside the doors—that's bullshit—it's not my scene. I don't understand the concept of not letting people in because of their fashion or [what DJ] they know. I do concerts and everyone who's 18 can buy a ticket. My music is for anyone," he says. "I did the underground for so many years, but 'the coolness trap,' I'm out of that," he says.
While Kalkbrenner operates exterior to the sometimes exclusive scene of underground techno, with the exception of "Sky and Sand," he's not someone you'd expect to hear on the radio. With the release of 7 however, he gained access to many of Sony's legendary sound archives, becoming the first artist ever to get permission to sample some of the label's most timeless acts like Jefferson Airplane, whose classic "White Rabbit," provides the iconic vocal line to his album track "Feed Your Head." He attests part of the choice to use vocals, as what's actually a way to gain more commercial exposure, and hopefully some radio time. "There's often compromise to get out your comfort zone, and succeed somewhere where you're still very small, like I am in the US. Here, someone needs to sing on songs to have them run on the radio."
With the release of 7, which as of this week lies at no.1 on the German album charts, but has not yet cracked American or UK markets, Paul Kalkbrenner is in familiar territory in his home nation, with what's already a successful album. Still, and even after decades in the business, he's searching for more ways to not just repeat what he has done, but accomplish what he hasn't. Bringing his new live set to Brooklyn this month, selling out a massive warehouse to hordes of jubilant music lovers under a warming lights of immersive LED imagery, it's clear people outside of his nation love what he's making, in a live sense at least. Now the question is, how does he change his newer, more unfamiliar, fans' absorption of his music from a one-night stand, to something long term?
David Garber is THUMP's Homepage Editor - @DLGarber