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Karl Bartos on Scoring 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' Visiting America With Kraftwerk, and His First Introduction to the Beatles

"To me, I feel like composing and playing music is like breathing. If I would stop playing, I would die, probably."

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Karl Bartos: In Your Face

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In 1974, German musician Karl Bartos got the opportunity of a lifetime: Kraftwerk needed someone who was a classically-trained percussionist, and - what luck! - he just happened to be available. In short order, he was off and running as a member of one of the most famous German bands in the world, an adventure which would last for the better part of 15 years and would take him and his bandmates to the top of the UK singles chart with "The Model." After leaving Kraftwerk in 1990, Bartos started his own group - Elektric Music - and later kicked off a solo career, all the while collaborating with other artists, most notably Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner on their second Electronic album, Raise the Pressure.

For the past few years, however, Bartos' predominant creative endeavor has involved writing a new score for the iconic 1920 German horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It was a unique career move, to be certain, but you can't argue with the results, which make for enthralling listening on their own and prove even more captivating when actually accompanying the film. In advance of the album's release, Bartos was kind enough to hop onto a Zoom call with Q, offering up a highly entertaining and illuminating conversation in which he explained his fascination with the film and what led him to embark on the mission to compose a new score, and he also talked about his time with Kraftwerk, the first time he toured America with the band, and how he feels about the state of the band in 2024.

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Karl Bartos invites you to have a seat and enjoy the chilling tale of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

So where are you today?

This is Hamburg. This is my studio here. One room. My control room. [Gestures to his computer.] I changed my huge mixing console to this machine in front of us!

Well, whatever you're using, you continue to do good work nonetheless. I was able to listen to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before hopping on the phone with you.

You received it! Good! You know, it's rather hard to hear the music at first without seeing the pictures.

I was able to do that, thankfully. They passed along a link so that I was able to watch the film with the new music attached.

Oh, really? Cool!

Yes, and I can confirm that it's still just as disconcerting in 2024 as it was in 1920.

[Laughs.] And I have also made a little so-called "making of." Did you see this one?

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I did. If I was sent the link to it, I missed it, but by happenstance, I stumbled upon it this morning and watched it.

Okay! Well, I tried to make it a little fast for people who don't know the movie, so that it's really modern. But it is modern. It's a modern film, even though it's from the 1920s, as you said before.

It was staggering to look at it and know that that's when it was made, because it certainly doesn't look like it was made over a hundred years ago.

Exactly! Especially all the themes. The hypnotizing of people and the use of power on other people and the disappearance of reality.

The look of it... I guess "off-kilter" is the simplest, best description.

Yes, I know! That's why I was so excited to make a soundtrack to it.

What was your familiarity with the film? When did you first see it?

I went together with my musician friends in Dusseldorf in the '70s, We transposed Fritz Lang's Metropolis into music on a record we did together called Man Machine because we were into this oscillating thing between man and machine. Then I started to read a couple of books about the Weimar period, because for us in Germany it's apparently super important to know everything about it. And the movie was produced in 1920, but they started it in 1919, the production. And people living there in Berlin in this Weimar Republic, they were just traumatized. And the movie reflects somehow this psychologic situation in Germany, although they [set it] 100 years before.

It's so easy to forget about the historical context during which a film was made, but in this case, being just after World War I, it causes you to consider that aspect.

Yes, well, think at the time of World War I, they invented a thing called the industrialization of murder, killing people! They invented the machine gun, tanks, we had planes where you can drop bombs. They had submarine for the first time. And gas! So it was the industrialization of killing people.

When it did strike you that you wanted to try and pen a new score for the film?

Well, the movie kept growing on me. I was quite young then, in my twenties and my thirties. And when I left Kraftwerk, I had a job at the University of the Arts in Berlin in auditory media design, and because there's no sound on a silent movie, it's just beautiful to give students the opportunity to create sound on a silent movie. So I started off... I can remember from Metropolis, the situation where this mad professor made a robot, the Man Machine. And if you have all the machinery sounding suddenly, it becomes so real. And then I thought, when I'd be able to make an old movie really real, accessible, it would be a step forward in the reception of the movie. So I had this idea to recreate all the sounds they make in the narrative. So I recreated this. I became a Foley artist! [Laughs.] So I started with the footsteps and handclaps and everything, and once I started... In one minute, I was addicted to it! If you hear it, you can't get rid of it anymore. We are so used to it! And people at the time, they didn't think of creating a silent art movie. We had sound recording at the time - there was a phonograph invented, so they were listening to song recordings all the time - but it was impossible to get the picture and the sound on the celluloid. So I found out it's much better if the people get drawn into the narrative.

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And you've done a remarkable job with it. Even though I know it's a composition that was done in present day, it matches the tone of the film remarkably well.

Thank you! The idea... If I analyze the movie, it was made in the 20th century, but given the time period in which it's set, I recognized that I couldn't get away with using anything other than a symphonic orchestra to make it coherent. I had started out to make an electronic soundtrack with mini-Moogs and with contemporary rhythm, but if you were to put a funk rhythm to it or even a dancefloor rhythm, it doesn't work. It sounds tacky, in a way. So I refused the trap of being contemporary. I just tried to recreate a world without time. [Laughs.] I think that people will see the film a hundred years from now as well, so I tried to catch this timeless sound.

I was intrigued as soon as I got the press release and the CD of the score. I was, like, "Okay, a former member of Kraftwerk doing the score to a silent film? I need to listen to this now."

[Laughs.] Well, i must say that the film is so famous, but it's also so good somehow, and I think it's because the first artwork of a new kind - reproduceable - and what was the first thing with this new media was the coming together of creativity. There's so many people involved. It's usual for us today. You have a Coppola film, but you have other people working on it, and the creativity comes in from many people. That's the secret why this artwork of a new kind is still working so well.

I can't remember if it was you who said it or if I read it elsewhere, but it's been described as the first cinematic psychological thriller.

It is, yeah!

Which is still a very popular genre even now. So I can see why people are still able to latch onto it even this many years later.

Yeah, and also, the figure of the killer, Cesare, the... [Hesitates.] How do you say it in English? "Somnambulist"?

You're pronouncing it better than I ever would. But, yes, that's the word. Sleepwalker.

Yeah! David Bowie was really a fan of Cesare. He copied him, actually, in the '70s. And in his last video, Lazarus, it's an impression of Cesare! When he got back into the cupboard, the cabinet. So it's a popular film. And I'm glad that I'm actually finished, and that I'm able to do these interviews and say that we're ready to go. Today we got an invitation to play London as well. It'll be in London in June, I've heard. It's wonderful.

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You mentioned Bowie a moment ago, and this completely off-topic, but it reminded me of something I wanted to ask. I've read that Bowie actually invited Kraftwerk to open for him on tour, and the band said "no."

Yeah! At the time, I didn't understand. I just would want to do it! But looking back from now, from this perspective, I think it was the right decision, because what he did, he just played our records. [Laughs.] So we saved some time!

And still got the exposure.

Yeah! So I never met David Bowie. But I'm absolutely a fan, of course!

So how did you find your way into Kraftwerk? Because I know you weren't a founding member. You came in...just after Autobahn was realized, correct?

Yes, at the time, I studied music at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf, and I studied three or four years. And in '74, when they recorded Autobahn with [engineer] Konrad Plank in the studio, it wasn't released, but they had some offers to play America. And they wanted to have a classically-trained percussion player, and they called my professor at the university: "Have you got a classical percussion player?" "Yeah, here: Karl Bartos!" So I went into the studio...from the opera! I played in the opera at the time. So from the opera into the Kling Klang studio. And then, after a couple of weeks, I spent almost three months in America...and it was exactly the America of Taxi Driver. [Laughs.]

We had so many months in America, and it was the best time in my life. I was really, really young, and it was just the pure America. So we played all over the country, and in Canada as well. Vancouver, all around the border. And on a very small level: just four people and two roadies. We were so young, and they were very free in America at the time. We didn't get so much from the war and from politics, but the music culture was so beautiful and so brave. We heard so many good musicians play at the time. In the south, in the religious belt, so many bands, and they were all so fantastic. We saw in a club in the south of America, we saw Muddy Waters, playing for 10 people in a bar. It changed my life, I must say, really.

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It must have opened your musical horizons to some extent, to experience all of the sounds that were going on in the States at the time.

Also, we were not on vacation. We were working. We were musicians. And we had grown up on the Black American music, of course. And to be in this country where pop music was invented, it was just an eye-opener. And we met so many fantastic people, musicians and artists. We loved it so much, America. And I still do! But there's this former President who wants to become President again, and this is really, really a nightmare. But then again, we are back to Caligari, because the disappearance of reality, alternative facts... It's all in there!

The hypnotism, unfortunately, may be accurate as well.

Yeah, that's true!

So how was Kraftwerk received by American audiences when you came over here on that tour?

We were really strange for them. In their eyes, we were strange, because there was no guitar onstage, no drum set. We all had custom-built electronic equipment, a Moog synthesizer, an ARP synthesizer... Both American! And we played a mixture of pop music, European folk music, classical music... But the rhythms we played, they were Black! [Laughs.] But if you transform a rhythm played by a Black drummer into an electronic song, they don't sound the same. They become something different. So it was an odd mixture. But the main song, "Autobahn," was quite happy. In a way, it was an ideal American song. You know, "Your daddy took your T-Bird away," all this car culture. In the '60s, the cars were top. I just wonder how many babies were produced in cars at the time. [Laughs.]

Quite a few, I expect.

But, anyway, it was an eye-opener and it changed my life, being in America for so long when I was so young.

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As far as the Kraftwerk material that came out while you were part of the group, are you surprised that "The Model" has had such staying power as a popular track?

Yes, of course, it was No. 1 in England. We were the subculture. A bit like David Bowie. He always was the subculture, but then when he had "Young Americans" and "Let's Dance," he became mainstream. I just read an interview with him where he was so surprised by it, because he was so used to always being in the subculture. And the same applies to Kraftwerk. I always felt we were a tiny part of the European development of music. Just a tiny little part. And I thought Kraftwerk would have just a millisecond of time in that development. And now I'm in the Hall of Fame! [Laughs.] I don't know what to say.

What was your reaction that Kraftwerk was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Well, they didn't ask you if you wanted to be in there. They expected that we wanted to be. Actually, it's a great honor to be next to all these heroes of my youth. It also doesn't change your life if you're in a Hall of Fame. But it's good to talk about it and to reflect about fame and life in general.

I wanted to ask you about a couple of collaborations you've done over the years. You worked with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner on the second Electronic album (Raise the Pressure).

Yeah, there are good songs on it! I'm very proud of that, and it was a privilege. Every now and then I'm on Zoom with Johnny. Usually he sends me an email: "So let's catch up!" [Laughs.] And then we talk for a week, non-stop, every day. And then he goes to America and plays with the Killers or somebody. But Bernard and Johnny, they are Northern people. And this is very special, because I love being in Liverpool and Manchester and Yorkshire. People are different there than from London.

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Recently I got into so many conversations with Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo. It was really funny. He wanted me to write some songs for his new band, but I was so involved with the Caligari project - and have been for four years! So I had to say, "I'm working on Caligari!" And he said, "Caligari? I know this movie!" And he sent me a picture of his mother...and she was dressed like Cesare! And he said that when he was a little boy, his mother went to arty cinemas, and they loved this movie. But they turned the sound down.

Why was that?

Because usually the sound for Caligari is very, very abstract, because normally composers think the demonic is minor and dissonant. But how does a killer sound inside? I don't know! But if he kills people, maybe he is not sad about it. It's just the opposite: he feels like having succeeded, if you're crazy. So I thought a lot about how the killing would sound inside the killer, and all these thoughts guided me to find a way to write the soundtrack.

So when you're not occupied with something like Caligari, do you still enjoy the opportunity to collaborate? I know you've also worked with OMD.

Ah, with Andy McCluskey! Well, with Andy it would be easy. But with Zak Starkey... In England, he's so super famous because he's the son of Ringo, but he's a really fantastic musician as well. He played with the Who! For many years he's been the drummer of the Who, replacing Keith Moon. To me, I feel like composing and playing music is like breathing. If I would stop playing, I would die, probably. He's the same. He grew up into music, and his first drum teacher was Keith Moon! So he's part of the pop music development as well. He's great!

Since you were talking about his dad, I know you were exposed to the Beatles early on in your life. Did you have an opportunity to interact with any of them at any point?

There was a moment when my sister fell in love with a British soldier. We were in Dusseldorf, in North Rhein-Westphalia in the western part of Germany. We were occupied in my youth by the British army, of course. But they were really cool people, because they knew the process of occupying other countries, I guess. [Laughs.] But this guy, Peter, from Yorkshire, he was super cool and very nice, and by the time he was in love with my sister, he brought a record with him.

It was A Hard Day's Night, the long-player, by the Beatles, of course, from their first film. And she put it on the record player... [Singing.] "It's been a hard day's night..." And this ringing at the beginning...This changed my world. I didn't know who the Beatles were, I didn't know about this music, and I didn't know English, so I didn't even understand what it really meant, "A Hard Day's Night." I didn't understand that it was not grammatically right. [Laughs.] So I had really no idea. But the music talked to me. And I wanted to feel like the Beatles' music sounded. And for the rest of my life, I became a musician!

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I have one last question that I wanted to ask about Kraftwerk. You're no longer in the group, of course, but they're doing some dates in Los Angeles later this year. Does it surprise you that they continue to pop up and do these sorts of dates?

I...don't know. When I left the band and the computer arrived in the studio, we stopped being contemporary. Kraftwerk became an institution and thought the computer would create new music by copy and paste. But only with the coming together of creativity was Kraftwerk able to create this music. And my former musician friend [Ralf Hütter], he bought the trademark. Before Florian Schneider passed away, before the MOMA gigs [in New York], he bought the trademark. And that's why he is able now to play under the headline "Kraftwerk." Because he had the money. He plays our music, which we invented together, and it's even cool for me, because I hold the copyrights for 30 songs. So it's okay. Although... [Pauses.] Would you understand if someone of the Beatles - John Lennon or Paul or George or even Ringo - would have continued as the Beatles, would make concerts as the Beatles?

It would be weird.

Yes! But my former musician friend, he gets away with it! I've no idea why. But he can sell tickets with the name and the trademark "Kraftwerk." He became - what is the word? - the traveling salesman of nostalgia.

Well, I appreciate what you're doing currently with Caligari, and I have nothing but the highest of hopes that it will be well-received.

I hope so, too. And I thank you for your interest!


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