Creating the music in the moment is what sets Paul Kalkbrenner apart from some of the globetrotting DJs he is normally lumped with, writes Ed Power
WHEN Paul Kalkbrenner was growing up in East Berlin, the life of a high-flying international DJ and producer seemed an impossible fantasy. The Cold War was still raging and the Wall divided East from West. He does not romanticise the old days. For him they were deathly dull, a purgatory from which there was no possibility of escape. Until suddenly one day there was.
“Behind the Wall I was longing for West Germany,” he says. “After the Wall came down I experienced real freedom and could go anywhere. One of my first trips was straight to McDonalds — I even kept the paper the burger was wrapped in and smelled it before I went to bed that night.”
A composer of affirmative and accessible electronic music, Kalkbrenner is often lumped with globe-trotting DJs such as Avicii or Deadmau5.
But where many ‘EDM’ practitioners prep their live performances in advance and, on stage, focus on their show’s visual elements, Kalkbrenner (38) adopts a markedly different approach. For him, it’s all about the creating music in the moment.
“We work with the latest technology to offer a great live experience to our fans — we always did and that’s an important key to keep your fans loyalty,” he says.
“I play and arrange my tracks live on stage and it’s always a challenge and always different. That’s why my performance differs from DJ sets fundamentally. Every audience gets their unique show. It is similar to a rock band playing their songs live. It took some time for people to realise I was a techno musician and not a DJ. Nowadays it puts me into the lucky position playing at festivals along Franz Ferdinand or Blur.”
In this part of the world, Kalkbrenner remains a cult figure — though catchy new album 7 and a high profile spot at the weekend’s Electric Picnic may change that. In Germany, however, he has been a mainstream star since his hit 2010 single ‘Sky And Sand’ and routinely attracts audiences in excess of 20,000.
“Who’d have thought this song would break the record set by Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ [in Germany] and stay in the charts constantly for over two years?” he reflects.
Sky and Sand featured on the soundtrack to the movie Berlin Calling, an art-house drama in which Kalkbrenner, who had never previously acted, took the lead role as a DJ succumbing to drug abuse (he has no relationship to the fictional character, he would like to make clear). The film was a mainstream hit in Central Europe and turned Kalkbrenner into a bone fide star.
To this day in Germany, people who think ‘trance music’ has something to do with yoga stop him in the street to congratulate him on his acting prowess.
“It happened by accident,” he recalls. “Hannes Stöhr, the director, approached me to produce the music and also asked to share my insights of the techno scene. It was very important to him to create an authentic movie and I gave him some input for this fictive character. Then he came up to me and asked: ‘Paul, don’t you want to play DJ Ickarus?’
“For six weeks I got up at 4.30 in the morning — a very unusual time for me as you can guess — and then shooting for 10-12 hours was very tough for me. I think I wouldn’t do it again.”
Despite a growing international profile he remains based in Berlin — a place he is constantly thrilled and inspired by.
“Berlin is still always changing and that’s what I love about the city. To me it’s the best city in the world — it offers a very great variety for everybody.”
The album 7 is out now. Paul Kalkbrenner plays Electric Picnic’s Rankin Woods Stage on Sunday.
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