Karl Bartos joined Kraftwerk in 1975 when they were looking for a drummer to tour their album Autobahn. Of course the German electro-pop eccentrics didn’t do anything so commonplace as put adverts in the music press (“Wanted: impassive drummer. Must have own suit”). Instead they rang up their local conservatory in Düsseldorf, where Bartos, then a young man of 22, was a music student.
Kraftwerk’s core duo, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, wanted a “stiff” classical drummer, Bartos explains, “to show up the German heritage. No pop music, just German classical music and electronic music, based on Stockhausen, Schoenberg and Wagner.” His professor, who hadn’t heard of Kraftwerk, simply said: “Karl, here’s a job.”
Bartos’s “job” lasted 15 years, during which time Kraftwerk produced their best work. Initially he combined his music studies with playing for the band; then, after graduating, he became a full-time member. Behind the walls of their secretive Kling Klang studio, his role became increasingly important. He co-wrote songs such as “The Man-Machine” and much of 1981’s Computer World, rated as the band’s crowning achievement, and after which they tailed off into stagnation and uncertainty.
These days Bartos, now 60, is a non-person in Kraftwerk’s official history. Other than the melodies he composed, he has been airbrushed from the band’s current “retrospective” at Tate Modern. He left in 1990, frustrated at the group’s inactivity. Since then he has released three collaborative and two solo albums. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk have managed just one: 2003’s Tour de France, whose title track was co-written by Bartos 20 years previously.
In the past he has felt uncomfortable discussing his life in pop’s most hermetic and highly conceptualised group. “It’s a mixed pleasure. It’s bittersweet,” he says, sitting in an alcove in the foyer of a London hotel. His ex-colleague Wolfgang Flür wrote an angry book about how controlling Hütter and Schneider were as band leaders. Bartos, however, deals with whatever grievances he has in a more subtle fashion.
His new album Off the Record is about his time in Kraftwerk. “For the first time”, he says, speaking in English, “I had the feeling: now is the time to do it.” He made it by digging out notebooks and cassettes from the attic in his Hamburg home and adapting fragments of melodies and song ideas that he’d notated years ago. The result revives the classic Kraftwerk sound of pulsing rhythms, optimistic synthesiser melodies and robotic vocals.
The timing of the release, coming as it does on the heels of his old band’s Tate shows is accidental. “I’m not synchronised,” Bartos says. Yet its Kraftwerkian nature could not be more pointed, underlining the real Kraftwerk’s dearth of new material. In an ironic mirroring of his old band’s fascination for mannequins and mechanical doubles, Bartos has created a Kraftwerk doppelgänger album.
“Well, Karl Bartos sounds a bit like Kraftwerk. And Kraftwerk sounds a bit like Karl Bartos,” he says. His tone is measured, but it contains a plaintive note of self-assertion – an echo of other underrated but key members of iconic bands, such as George Harrison in The Beatles and John Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin.
Kraftwerk’s place in this exalted pantheon is as pioneers of electronic pop. “I must say very honestly that Autobahn contains it all,” Bartos says of the 1974 album that introduced the band’s sound to the world. “It’s a blueprint for all further electronic music.” He didn’t create the blueprint – he wasn’t in the band when Autobahn was made – but he studied it closely.
“I was completely acquainted with the work of [modern classical composers] Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich,” he says. “I knew all about Debussy and Bach and harmonics. But I also knew about The Beatles and Chuck Berry, because I played them in my first school bands. This was the platform to bring it all together. It was like a culmination, a climax of ideas, at this particular time in Düsseldorf. It was perfect for me.”
Like the band’s founders, Hütter and Schneider, Bartos grew up in the West German city. They were older than him, and richer too – both from well-off backgrounds – whereas Bartos’s family was working-class. While his colleagues chose Kraftwerk’s name as a futurist tribute to the Ruhr Valley’s power plants, for Bartos the concept had personal significance: his father was a power-plant engineer.
He chose to study music in the face of objections from his parents. Being in a band “is the best experience in the world,” he recalls. “It’s almost like eternal adolescence.” But the freedom that Kraftwerk gave him turned into a prison as the group lost momentum in the 1980s.
The tipping point came as the band frittered away years tinkering with old songs for the 1991 remix album The Mix. “We are remixing our own material. Come on! The idea was good, but if you stand on that idea for like five years, it’s too long,” Bartos says. When he left in 1990 he was in his late thirties, anxious to secure a steady income – his parents’ concerns returning to haunt him – and ambitious to make his own music.
“It’s good if you’re young, if you’re in your twenties, you have brothers, they are more accomplished than yourself, you can learn a lot,” he says. “But then at one point in life you feel yourself being accomplished and then you want to make your own decisions. That’s all basically.”
Off the Record contains a lush Kraftwerkian song in which he sings about saying goodbye to the “showroom dummy” that used to impersonate him at Kraftwerk’s shows.
“This is the thing: everything must pass,” he says. “A band has to die as well. And if not, they become zombies like The Rolling Stones.”
How would he apply those thoughts to Kraftwerk, now reduced to a solitary original member? Bartos, who describes the Tate shows as a “really nice idea” – although he cavils at their being called a “retrospective” – shakes his head and motions his mouth being zipped up. “I have a very strong opinion, but it wouldn’t come across – I can’t, I can’t, it’s not clever, it wouldn’t be clever.”
Off the Record must do his talking for him: the Kraftwerk record that Kraftwerk, it seems, are unable to make.
Karl Bartos’s single ‘Atomium’ is out now on Bureau B. ‘Off the Record’ follows in March