Paul Kalkbrenner Talks His Viral Techno History Lesson
Techno superstar Paul Kalkbrenner has dominated the German charts for well over two years with a single song, spun in front of a half-million people to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, and starred in Berlin Calling, the hit film about a DJ in the city's exploding techno scene at the turn of the millennium. Kalkbrenner, however, vows he's no longer a DJ, and has refused to play anyone else's music since 1998.
That is until this summer, as Kalkbrenner releases a trio of mixtapes aptly dubbed Back to the Future, parts 1, 2 and 3. Deep-diving for a year-and-a-half into the rabbit holes of YouTube, Kalkbrenner culled over 5,000 songs from his youth and assembled them into glorious mixes of techno history. And he's releasing them all for free, with downloads. These mixes aren't merely relics, rather he dissected the tracks, pulled them apart and reconfigured them into hour-long meta-retrospectives that any fan of EDM should enjoy. And many clearly have: Together they've been downloaded and streamed nearly a half-million times.
Rolling Stone caught up with the techno historian before he drops the third and final Back to the Future installment this weekend
What was the inspiration for the Back to the Future project?
It was Christmas 2014, really in the middle of hardcore producing [the album 7], my first time with a major label, and they were just breaking my balls. So many people into my stuff, I was not used to that. Before I did it all by myself. And I just started listening to some old techno songs from the late Eighties on YouTube, and how you find sometimes one thing, and then you go after another.
[When I was young] we all listened to this one radio show where DJs played. But because it was the first station where they played actual mixes … you never knew what song it was. Shazam wasn't invented yet! I just had them in my mind, and so I started clicking myself through YouTube, finding a lot of titles of songs from that time, 1987 to 1993. Finding out the names of the people who produced it for the first time in my life. So that made it all so magical for me.
Why don't you have any tracks after 1993?
I said sharply, 1993 has to be the end. Because then somehow techno lost its charm. We already had in Germany in 1994, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the Smurfs song done in techno clothing. So it got commercialized very quickly here. There was other cool techno records produced from all those years on, but this charm – I can't explain it, it's impossible. Like the imperfection of the production, somehow you can hear they're just doing it because they're having fun.
It's an interesting picture for an American to think of a 12-year-old kid in his parent's house, behind the communist wall, listening to a broadcast radio station from West Berlin…
No, no, you got it wrong. It was after the wall came down and they somehow changed one of the [communist] stations into one of those stations that still could continue after East Germany broke down. And on this station they played these mixes – and the funny thing is my studio now is where it was broadcast from.
I mean there was already a small techno scene in West Berlin, coming from the UK in 1989. But actually it only took off after the wall came down. When those old school West Berlin drag queens had to meet the Far East Berlin hooligan-style raver, and this mixture, this crazy mélange, was also a reason for this scene. You would not find a dance scene or any music scene anywhere else in the world like it – only in that city, only at that time, because of what happened historically.
Were you suffering from writer's block at all? Like did you do it to get the juices flowing?
No, I actually was in the beginning phase of recording, and I finished the album on time. But it felt good to have something else to do with music.
Since you recorded these tracks from YouTube, were you at all concerned about the lo-fi quality?
I was. That was the entire reason why everything was: "Let's commercialize it, and maybe do it with Sony. Let's see, maybe it's possible to license all those tracks." Which I really doubted, but they had the idea. But then I thought: Come on, we listened to it from cassettes and we loved it! And to be honest, the more I think of it, the less I have a problem with [the sound quality], because when I think of all this high-end techno and all this 192 kilohertz bullshit, I think of this overproduced EDM shit. So I like this music because it sounds so. … It has something so raw to it, just so fashioned from grassroots.
Was there any sense of duty? Like, "OK, as a chronicler of this scene, this is my duty to finish this project and to teach people who've never heard this music what the roots are."
Yeah. Especially when every five years, there's another wave of bands or electronic music that sampled the one from before. Like everyone who would like to know, "I heard that before in another song; I wanna know where it actually came from. …" Here, listen to these cassettes.
This is like the basic soup of everything. Like when the Earth was very young, when it was just gas and liquids. So yeah, I'm very happy that I could have laid it down like this. It's exactly how I thought in my weird mind, even when it was so far away from putting it together.
You've said that this project is in some ways more personal than a proper artist album.
When I came up with this plan it looked like a big, big, big mountain to climb. The listening, then the choosing, then the editing. Then this March I said, "Come on, now comes the actual most important step." This mountain actually felt as high as it was at the beginning, so I'm kinda proud, but also sad at the same time. It's now my last moments with Part 3. Because it's from my youth and so many years ago, that's why it feels so personal. Even though not one song is produced by myself, because of the very personal relation I have with this music. And it was so packed away, so covered and unseen by myself for so many years.
Was it like discovering an old version of yourself?
The more I got into it, the more I could feel it. It was so good 'cause I felt like being young and whoo!, just like I felt then. And I also picked some stuff up — the next music I will produce will definitely not be as slow as my seventh album. It will be definitely faster, thanks to these tapes.
That's an interesting concept, because it's like you went back in time to discover this old part of yourself.
Yeah. That's why everything we talk about, the name of the series, Back to the Future, phrases it the best. It's the future somehow. It is such a long bridge for me that I still remember those songs, the ones I liked — and here they are. Presented in a way that is new. All young people we showed it to, they fucking like it. Because it's fresh music, and fresh music never ages, you know?
Do you think this curiosity to re-visit the past, and the fact that you're coming up to 40 years old. Is it a musical mid-life crisis?
No, it's more the feeling of nostalgia, what we all get once we reach a certain age, because this is the time of life when we turn back and realize, "Hey, everything happened so fast! No, no!" That's one truth, but the other truth is also that we can look back and realize we have lived already quite a long time. Otherwise, this project wouldn't be possible. Come on, I saw my city [East Berlin] in the last 25 years. I mean, the eastern part, coming from the ruins to what it is now, you know?
Because you haven't played other people's music in so long, do you think that if you end up performing this project live that it will feel like a completely different experience?
No, I was always very good DJ, technically, when I was young, but I was never very good in letting the record run and not doing something. But yeah, I don't know, I think pressing them on vinyl and making it into a vinyl-only, old school set would be the most probable way to perform it.
A lot of people who've never heard the music live would be blown away. If you really feel a sense of duty as a historian and chronicler, then you have to share it.
Yeah, but that's why it's good. I bring something on like this three mixes, for the fans it's like three albums. And also now here when we release it, it's August, when the actual summer and vacation starts in all those party spots of Europe, Spain, and Italy and everywhere. And in every Fiat Cinquecento, and every little Peugeot, those tapes are running. So, of course, that's what I must do — like using my position and strength to dig [these songs] out again. To dig them out of the earth again. As I've found out, it's all too good to be forgotten.