If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the same must be said about age. Just ask one of Germany’s biggest techno talents.
Paul Kalkbrenner is something of an anomaly in our corner Europe. After watching East and West dissipate into a gloriously unified new Berlin after the fall of the Wall in 1989, at which point his hometown became a playground for nocturnal experimentation, it wasn’t long before the man in question was forging his own electronic path. Did I mention he was 12 years old at the time?
By 1992 he was banging out sledgehammers in youth clubs alongside good friend Sascha Funked, with the pair still too young for the likes of Tresor, e-work and the German capital’s rapidly emerging techno scene. In the years that followed he honed skills in both studio and booth, funding expenses through a job in television, before a fledgling brand by the name of BPitch Control offered an outlet for his tracks. Yet another reason to give some deserving props to the lady in charge, Ellen Allien.
But while she may be a household name to clubbers in the UK, and her imprint the thing of legend, in contrast Kalkbrenner remains more on the up and up as oppose to a bonafide headliner on these shores. This is despite starring and soundtracking the much lauded nightlife doc, Berlin Calling, producing seven full-length albums under his own name, the most recent, ‘7’, being signed to one of the world’s majors, Sony - a new relationship that followed a stint helming his own label.
“The UK is a difficult one, it has taken me much longer to build a profile there than in other European countries and still it’s not at the same level,” he explains when I call ahead of his top-of-the-bill set at BPM Festival in Portugal.
“I’m obviously not as big there as I am on the continent and the UK music scene has always been a bit disconnected to Europe. Techno did not develop in the same way as it did in Germany. London has so much going on, it’s always a little bit different. A couple of years too late or too early for me perhaps.”
Having turned 40 earlier in 2017, you can’t help but wonder whether this may be his time to finally get the credit he has long deserved from Britain’s dance music scene. The passion certainly seems to be there. “I had to turn 40 now to realise that I can’t stop, I’m getting more of a feeling that I’ll have to do this on and on. If I stop doing it then I’ll die like a plant without water. It makes you think a lot when you reach that mark, though. But I’m much happier than I was half a year ago.
“Seeing that milestone coming, turning 40. I felt the same when I was coming up to 30 in my late-20s. Turning 30, it’s a new start. This time was even stronger. ’40, oh man!’ But nothing has changed, it’s actually much better somehow.”
Fittingly, considering the whole passage of time thing, this year Kalkbrenner realised the fruits of a project that’s at once a trip down memory lane, and, thanks to the number of years he’s been on the scene, an educational service for younger heads. Back To The Future began life as a mixtape series, charting the initial rise of techno in Berlin, with many of the tracks first introduced to Kalkbrenner via the DB 64 radio station (now Radio Fritz) when he was knee high to the turntables.
Productions from luminaries like Friends of Matthew, CJ Bolland, Voodoo Child, 280 West, 808 State, Aphex Twin, AUX 88, and Todd Terry all managed to pass the taste test, with more than 5,000 tunes sifted through in order to truly convey the sound of a city caught in the midst of a creative revolution, somewhere between 1987 and 1993. Off the back of the compilations came a full live show, which has since started to inform the classic Kalkbrenner stage performance.
“It all just happened step by step, which was wonderful to see. The live shows meant going back to smaller venues, club settings, which was very nice. There were some festivals too, so it was small and big, but yeah I think I was practicing, playing no shows, from January to March this year.
“Over summer I got comfortable with the live version of Back To The Future, so now it’s like the B show to my normal A show. It’s like a football pro who can play on one weekend, then play a basketball game. Somehow to me bringing Back To The Future to the stage from its origins is like the final part of the story.
“It was a long process. The cassettes for the mix series were made out of YouTube files, which were good enough for the cassettes but not for playing in venues. So we had to get the original tracks, and 90% of them were edited. So I had to do the edits again, and then all the parts went to the guy who usually masters my stuff. A very long process.
“But now it’s wonderful. When I was like 15 and I wanted to do this I didn’t have one record of these tracks, now I’m standing there at 40 playing them all to people who are younger, it’s like I’ve been in a 25 year time tunnel or something. Doing this, this year, when I was turning 40, it’s like it was designed to make me not feel sad about turning 40 because it’s something so youth related. It’s such a personal project.
“Of course the normal live show also has been improved due to Back To The Future. So I play differently now. I don’t know how, just more Back To The Future. The nuances. Also the productions, they have to be fast again. Not 124BPM and shit. Back to the Future is a new dawn, everything is fresh again now.”
Apparently reborn, or at least re-energised by that nostalgic adventure, I can’t help but ask how he feels about where electronic, and more specifically dance music, is today. Few people are better armed to provide an answer, given his heritage.
“This is the question. On the one hand we are not in a better place. When you hear the Back To The Future music you can hear the joy of the producers. There are no big PR plans about what to do next. But then we had to fight for that music to be acknowledged by people, which we don’t have to do now. It’s very big.
“That’s why I will never go on about the EDM thing because it has raised the bar, especially in the US and other countries where techno was not so big, it has raised the bar for other electronic music to come through. The ritual listening habits, how things are perceived, have changed. So in the US a four to the floor beat is now familiar to everyone. So in some ways we are in a better place now, and in others not so much.”
The subject of EDM is always a divisive one, not least when you’re talking with a techno DJ. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Kalkbrenner sees this end of the rave spectrum as another sign of just how strong the real underground remains.
“With so much money getting into things then of course it will happen. But like I say the actual charm was lost a long time ago. In Germany in 1994 music changed by a huge BPM count, suddenly children’s songs like Smurfs came in with a 170BPM techno beat. But this shows that techno is so vital that it can stand and survive several big commercial waves from within and still exist in so many forms around the mainstream.
“There are so many young producers now in Berlin, and of course their channels for getting work out have changed but really they are still doing the same thing we were as young boys in East Berlin. There’s no end in sight here. Even if EDM has been a big change I don’t see it as being big in another five years.
“And it doesn’t mean the actual techno will go, look at people like Sven [Vath]. No interviews, no nothing, just playing techno across the world. I just read about the Rolling Stones and Keith and how he’s doing, and there are some parallels. You just need to keep doing it. Just the fact that he’s still there - he’s still fucking there doing his thing!”
A fair point, who are we to argue with that kind of learned wisdom.