Thoughts Of A Man Machine: Karl Bartos Talks
Karl Bartos was, from 1975 – 1990, a member of one of the most influential pop groups to have ever existed. His discography with Kraftwerk changed the shape of modern music and helped birth hip hop, electro, and virtually every strand of electronic music, and it's a discography that has been well covered. Today Ransom Note is meeting Karl in the lounge of a plush Central London hotel to talk about something else; the reissue of Bartos's debut solo album, Communication. Originally released in 2003, Communication saw Bartos continuing with the synthetic explorations that Kraftwerk fans would recognise, intermingled with contemporary techno elements. It's a record that has held up well, stepping between the icy chill of Germanic electro and the arch pop of the British bands Bartos grew up loving; in many ways it's the quintessential electroclash record. In person Bartos exhibits a mischievous fascination with life, and a depth of knowledge that encompasses everything and anything. As such our conversation veered from the nature of language, to the history of pop (he went back 300 years), to his thoughts on Brexit…
Hi Karl, and I appreciate this interview is happening in English not German- have you ever found that there’s any Germanic expressions or phrases that you’ve never been able to fully translate into English?
No, it’s the other way around, hehehe. I just try to find the right word for ‘Englishness’ in German. It’s a very interesting aspect because Englishness is quite positive isn’t it.
If you say so.
Yeah, I was growing up in the 60’s and of course you had The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who, who all played with this sort of Englishness, putting the flag on things. Pete Townshend always wore his famous jacket, and when I was a kid I always wanted a jacket like that. It was so cool.
Did you ever get one?
Yeah, my sister made me one.
Did you try to play the drums like Keith Moon as well?
Oh yes! I grew up on the third floor of a house, so I came up with the equivalent of an air guitar, the air drum! I used to put curtains over the drums to quieten them. I always loved Keith Moon and The Animal from Muppets.
Are there any photos of you wearing that?
Yeah, but you can’t see it really. I was 12 at the drum kit and I wore this junior jacket. I just thought this Englishness was very well used, even by The Beatles. They used things like the expression, ‘to have a cup of tea’ in a positive way. But we could never use our German identity in the same way, especially with World War. The only expression we have, is Deutschtum, which means German seeming. But, it’s negative.
Yes. Like when someone has in their garden these little dwarves with red hats.
We have gnomes here too.
This is such a typical German thing, and this is what we call Deutschtum. Also, every German housewife is very proud of her curtains. There’s no expression for Englishness though.
That’s remarkably similar to lots of English things. We have the expression ‘little Englander’ and that’s tied up with ideas of someone being suspicious of their neighbours and twitching their net curtains in the suburbs.
You have lots of expressions, like stiff upper lip. We don’t have these in German. Our expressions are very negative. It’s very funny. If you compare both the languages the German soul makes fun of people that are suffering. Schadenfreude, if there’s a banana and someone slips on it… I read an interesting article that was saying the German black humour is very important for our country because it avoids solving problems.
Yes. Someone very highly educated wrote about it.
So you accept that the problem is there and you laugh at it, rather than solving it.
It helps, but we Germans are solving problems that don’t even exist. It’s very funny if you compare the German soul to the British soul.
All we’ve got is the language and the music. Music isn’t a language, but it tends to be treated as one. People observe music sometimes as if it would be a language. It’s not a language.
Why don’t you think it’s a language?
You can’t say that the tree is green with music.
So a language is something that allows for specificity?
Yes. You have to be able to say that this is a bottle and that this bottle is half full. Try to say that in music and come up with a melody that puts across this information. It’s impossible. Music can put across information, but it’s not specific, because every single one of us hears sound differently.
I think the specificity of language is a trick because you think that someone is saying something specific and the other person’s understanding might not be quite the same.
But you’ve got basic information. Every nation is using different metaphors in their language. But we still understand each other.
You said was that 60s British pop music could embrace this English identity in a way that German pop music couldn’t, or wasn’t allowed too.
That’s a point, exactly.
It’s often been said that this is a reason you’re music looked so far forward
Closing the gap to the beginning of the 20th century.
I want to talk about this album that you’ve just done specifically.
This album has a lot to do with media and how media is changing the way that people think.
You wrote it in the 90s, do you think music and media changed much since then?
I don’t think so. Nothing really has changed. One thing that did change music was in 1877, when music was first recorded. In 1877 Thomas Edison separated sound from the place and the performer, and from time. But since then, nothing has changed. The computer didn’t change that.
But if you say it’s all about sound and take the bigger picture, the only thing that made music anti-transient is to record it. The soul of music, the attribute that is most important, is that music is transient. Recording doesn’t change the music; it’s just like a film. You film sound, but it’s just filmed sound. It’s not life. Music is an equivalent to life. You have silence and then it goes into music and then returns to silence, so it’s the same as life. Then you come to the point of considering a film as the same as life. It’s a recorded sequence of life.
If you look at the history of modern Western music, it’s three hundred years old, and it’s good to mark this point with the appearance of Johann Sebastian Bach. When he wrote down his The Well-Tempered Clavier in the beginning of the 18th century, he couldn’t record it, so all that we know is written down on paper. But in the 70’s or 80’s, especially Pop musicians, people were very much afraid of notation because they thought that if you write down music, it dies. But really, it’s just the opposite; if you record music, it’s dead. If you write it down it needs other people to bring it back to performance and reinterpretation. So the other day, some guy in Hamburg played this Bach, but he played it from our point of view. So he put into this written music his life and his point of view of music, and it’s completely different. Maybe Bach would be very surprised if he could have heard it. This is what music is all about though. It comes to life.
That interesting to me… So say someone wanted to cover one of your pieces, would you rather that they took a transcription of the notation and then worked from that, without hearing the original? Or would you rather they copied it by listening and repeating?
It’s two different concepts and I think that you should not dump one or the other. It’s two positive ways of working with music. I record music, so I’m not against it. I say that you have to know exactly what each is. I read the autobiography of Keith Richards and he said that the five lines of written notes are like a prison to him. I’ve learnt this system of five, and the dots, to me it was just a window to my future.
I love notation. There’s a kind of magic in the aesthetic of it.
When I understood the concept that one bar is just a slice of time, I was fascinated by this idea and begun to question what time really was. Then later on I discovered that it was just the articulation of time. As you grow up, you begin to understand all these different parameters, for a DJ it’s just BPM, or it’s just how the metronome cuts the time into pieces. I think it’s very interesting and rather that the combination of recording music, or recording our conversation and using it, is a very useful tool. If I record music it becomes something else and if I reinterpret something then I can write it down and get someone else to play it – which I do sometimes. It’s just a different philosophy.
Where does the media come in? When we started to talk about your album you said it was to do with the media and by that do you mean the format through which music is consumed?
No. There was this guy called Gutenberg and he came up with the printing press and removable type, and apparently this changed the way that people were thinking, it allowed thoughts to be printed and shared. Before that, you had to use rhymes.
Yes, or mnemonics.
This is the reason that we have rhymes, because people needed to make things stick in their head. So that’s where rhymes came in. But he could actually print down an idea, so when you had two different ideas printed down next to each other, you could compare them. It changed the way that people were looking at the world. So it went on and meant you could record the world and at the beginning of the 19th century people could make slices of time with daguerreotypes. Then 1877 you could record sound, cutting it from place and time and the person producing the sound. After that you had the telegraph and then the combination of picture of telegraph and the newspaper. Every time that you introduce a new media into society, things start to change. Then suddenly we had people coming up with the idea that if you add 24 pictures together in one second, they start to live. So then we had the movie and in 1927 we had the sound movie The Jazz Singer. Funnily enough, it was just a moving film that started this media. So suddenly we woke up and we had the combination of all these different movies in one, in the film. Then we had the computer and the television and so on. They both change the way people think very recently. Suddenly everyone is curating their life on social media and they change their personality.
When you recorded this album, social media didn’t actually exist.
So there’s a difference between then and now.
That was funny, but we had guys like Marshall McLuhan, who could see into the future. I read his book The Gutenberg Galaxy when I was in my former band, and it’s all written there. It was McLuhan that came up with all these ideas about how media is changing society and changing the way that we think. The media is the message. Now though, we’re not in a word driven society we’re in a picture driven society and that brought me to this concept of a record where I was allowed to work on it in a way that the world of pop music would allow me too, where it was the visual communication with the acoustic communication. To make it clear, I used symbols of pictograms because they are a visual language, which every one of us understands, no matter where we come from.
It’s funny that you say that, as the Emoji has now risen up as a new thing. It’s the fastest growing language in England and the way that kids communicate with each other now is almost becoming hieroglyphic- they can have whole conversations without using a single letter of the Romanic alphabet and can do it all in this pictorial thing.
I don’t know if I like it.
I’m not sure what I think about it. It’s a development and I don’t know where it’s going. It seems alien to me because I’m too old for it to be native to me.
Yeah. If you go on the train or the tube, you’ll see a six year old playing on a mobile phone.
My kid is three and he can unlock my phone.
I don’t know what to say.
But you’re the man machine!
I am the man machine, yeah. I don’t have kids, but I don’t what I would do if my son or daughter was there, three years old, and wanting to play on this phone. There’s no way around it really. All I can do is to work with it.
It’s about balance.
On this record I made a song in this direction, so even then I was aware of this. It’s called The Electronic Ape Man. I feel that the movement is too fast.
So are you the Ape Man?
Yes, I’m the Electronic Ape Man. We all are.
Maybe the kids are evolving.
Yes. There is this fantastic movie by Stanley Kubrick called 2001. In the beginning there is this Ape Man, and there are people fighting each other, because they are like us. One of them is grabbing a bone and he throws it up in the air and it turns into a spaceship. This is our evolution in one second. Then we are suddenly in 2001 and in this spaceship and it’s actually the ape-man in the spaceship. I think we have to consider ourselves here and we have to stay human and not become a user. I think if I just consider myself as a user and I’m just using things without knowing what I’m doing and just following what Google tells me to do, I feel sorry for us as a race. You’re working in the media, and what now happens is that your profession seems to be dying away. Now if you want to become a journalist then you just need to act like one. Post up anything that you have… We now have films available on our mobile phone and we can film any situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tsunami or a violent act, or even if it’s over in America.
Phone footage has almost become an aesthetic in itself. People are more convinced by it.
But I don’t need to know that somebody has killed ten people in America in a school. I don’t need to know, it doesn’t change my life. There was a student of McLuhan and he wrote a fantastic book called We Are Amusing Ourselves To Death and it’s all about television. He considered TV to be one of the main think-changing instruments in our society, because the media works best through entertainment.
I’ve just come back from the States and it always amazes me how crazy their TV is…
In ’75 I went there for the first time. It was the New York of the taxi driver. I was 22 and I was there for ten weeks. I went from coast to coast through the south states and saw the real musicians, the real Blues. America is the most beautiful country in the world, but they have a problem. They’re divided into two, the fundamentalists and modern people.
It’s like they’re heading for civil war if they continue this way. They’re pulling apart. You have a figure like Donald Trump, who to an outsider is laughable. He said that he could shoot someone and people would still vote for him. You’ve got to think that something has gone wrong if that’s a front runner.
I was watching on TV a debate at your parliament where they actually had the discussion about whether they wanted to let Trump into the UK or not.
Yes that was a particularly British response to Trump
That’s what I mean, humour is part of British culture. But also whilst being very serious.
Yes, it was making a serious point in a silly way. The fact that we can get our MPs to debate something that was clearly a joke was funny to people.
I love this way of discourse. In Germany we are pseudo-serious.
But now we’ve got to think about the fact that we might be leaving the EU.
The chance is 50/50 right?
I’m worried. I don’t want us to leave the EU.
I’m not, because it won’t change anything.
Well, it would make it harder for me to go to Europe, on a basic level.
I’ll tell you the truth. It wouldn’t change anything. The Europe that I love existed before we had the money. Europe has nothing to do with the money.
That’s true. There is the freedom of movement as well though.
Europe is the invention of the world generation, of German politicians and because they had this serious thing of the nightmare of the War. But then it was taken over by businessmen and it’s not happening at the moment. The currency is nothing. Nobody has anything. It’s cool if I don’t have to change money to go to France, but it doesn’t separate us, because you still have Pounds Sterling.
It’s more of a symbolic thing though. I don’t have a great love of the institutions of the EU, but it’s almost a victory for a certain mind-set if we pull out of the EU. It’s an isolationist mind-set that worries me.
I have to repeat, that it’s not based on money. Money represents not even 10% of the society. It’s just the upper crust, the rich people and companies. To me even if England is out of the EU, it doesn’t change anything. It’s like the Swedish guys. I wouldn’t vote for the Euro now. It was much too early. It was completely the wrong decision.
Greece got punished for being part of it.
It was a complete romantic, business driven decision. It was too early. You can’t have a Europe existing of 27 different countries. It’s impossible. You can’t build Europe without the French, English or German speaking English. There wouldn’t be Europe…
You can’t see these things from a business point of view. From a business point of view it would make more sense to have a good Europe where everyone is in and we have one currency, but as long as we don’t speak English all over Europe, we don’t have one united TV program.
Where do you live now?
In Hamburg. Hamburg is like England.
In what sense?
It has a very strong connection as we have a harbour and so if it’s raining in England we take out our umbrellas.
I always think of it as the place that The Beatles went to to become The Beatles.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time though, I was too young. It shaped them apparently. Although it could have been anywhere.
I don’t know. Maybe the harbour brought something into it.
It’s the ships and the harbour and so on. Like the Mersey and Liverpool… There are lots of prostitutes as well.
On the music side of things, are you going to be doing more of your solo projects now?
Of course. I’m writing my autobiography at the moment. I have a deal and I have to finish it by the end of the year, and I will. I’m in the glad situation that I wrote a diary. I’ve been writing it since ’69, so I know what I did every day. When I started writing I transferred my diary to the computer. It took me three months to transcribe it, every day. But after those three months I had my whole life on the computer.
How’s that been going?
Oh it’s a nightmare! It makes you aware of how short life is.
Talking of which, our time's up – thank you Karl
Karl Bartos – Communication is out now on Trocadero Records