Don’t make the mistake of calling producer Paul Kalkbrenner a DJ. The musician has a distaste for the term, which, he says, “theoretically mixes two audio sources together—regardless if it is two records or files or CD players.”
Kalkbrenner—who came of age in Germany’s electronic scene after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989—is proud of the fact that he has, from the beginning of his career, played his music live. “That way I can arrange my songs in a new way live on stage. And that way it is much more fun.” After starring and creating the soundtrack for the tragicomedy Berlin Calling, Kalkbrenner became an EDM cult figure beyond Deutschland. This year, he’s headlining gigs around in the United States, starting with Sonar music festival, which brings the famous Spanish EDM fest stateside, to promote his latest set, “Guten Tag,” out on Nov. 30.
Was growing up in East Berlin a huge influence on you musically?
I was 12, 13 when the wall came down, and in West Germany nothing changed so much, but for us [in East Berlin], everything was different. There was no techno music in the east; even in the west it had just arrived, over from the UK. When the wall came down, the kids had their freedom, and so we just jumped onto the scene. So maybe that was it; like this strange mixture of everything and everyone—from West Berlin drag queens and East Berlin hooligan kids—this united people and that was why it was so unique. There never was anything like it.
What was that scene like?
It was so new and fascinating. The club scene when I was a teenager, it was more about the DJ scene. From the beginning, Berlin was a city really into electronic music so that was what we wanted to do. But I remember in 1992, there were a thousand people in my school, and [my friends and I] were the only ones interested in this kind of music. It was very, very underground. It wasn’t comparable to any other form of underground music.
What did you listen to a lot then?
A lot of the music from Holland and Belgium, lots of artists from Rotterdam Records . . . within a year people were doing tracks that got faster and faster, from tracks that were 150 BPM to 180 BPM . . . it started then. [My early listening choices for EDM] was more like childlike view, not so educated yet. It was just opening my eyes and [made me] want to move forward.
I’ve read before that you dislike being called a DJ . . .
It was clear for me early on that I wanted to do more than mix records into each other. I thought I would just produce my own songs and would just play those onstage and play them live there. That was always what I wanted to do and that’s why I’m so happy because that’s what I’m doing right now.
What was the first machine you used to make music with?
The first thing I used was Amiga computers, you remember those? It was a sequencer, and it was two-bit that you could cheaply find here. Very rudimentary equipment. They were for gaming but they were able to sequence.
Was that what everyone was using or was it just what was around?
I think even 15-years ago it was impossible to make music on equipment a private person could afford. Regular people couldn’t go to a studio to do this [create music], so there was a democratization of the process of the production tools, and now everyone can do it. I like this development.
What do you use to make music now?
I only use Ableton Live. That’s everything I use. It’s a setup anyone can have at home, just a $500 program and a computer.
What’s your music-writing process?
They always say don’t ask the artist how they do things . . . I can’t put this into words, it’s just what makes me more advanced and more experienced is following a path. Also I’ve been using Ableton Live since 2001, so you acquire some skills when you concentrate on one thing. It takes experience, experience, experience. You draw from your fundus, your foundation, so it’s like an archive in yourself of working situations.
Which of your contemporaries do you like and listen to?
As a musical artist, I have to admit I never listen to music. I never even watch TV because I know I hear myself best and make music when I have no audio-visual influence. That may be strange, but that’s the privilege of an artist. If you’re a DJ you have to hear what’s hot—what’s new, what’s out there, but I don’t have to.
Not even other genres?
Sometimes I listen to classical music, when I want to relax. But I found out that listening to silence at home can be even more important than music.
And when music comes, it’s like a trace of dust inside me, and I don’t see it but [it will get inside me] and I’m not [pure] anymore. I have to keep those channels free.
What would you say was your big break musically?
Everyone would say it was the movie [“Berlin Calling”] but for me it was a big break when I was able to afford the first real equipment for writing songs in 1998. For me that was a bigger breakthrough than that movie, which has multiplied everything I’ve done before.
Did you have any special life experiences that went into creating your latest set, “Guten Tag”?
I just did it the same way I always do my music, nothing special. There was no major inspiration. [It was just] sitting down, making music and doing your job. It may sound trivial but that’s how it is.
So are you excited to perform at festivals in the United States?
I will be at Coachella next year and I’m looking forward to that because I’ve never been there. But first let’s see how Sonar goes; I don’t know what to expect and I think the Sonar people also don’t know what to expect.