Paul Kalkbrenner Finds Himself Between the Arena and the Underground


When the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989, Paul Kalkbrenner — who was thirteen years old and living in Leipzig, East Germany — did what any right-thinking teenager would do: He bought a hamburger. “The first thing I did was go to a McDonald’s in the West,” he recalls. “And when I was done, I took the paper home with me so I could keep smelling it.” Twenty-five years later, Kalkbrenner would celebrate the collapse of the wall in a somewhat more momentous fashion, by playing a concert at the Brandenburg Gate for 350,000 people to commemorate the anniversary of Germany’s reunification. “You couldn’t even go close to the gate when I was growing up,” he recalls. “Then, playing there, invited by my government, and in front of all those people…” He pauses. “It goes beyond words. What can you say? There were a lot of tears during that show.”

The concert at the gate is a good indication of just how far Kalkbrenner has come. After a trio of albums on Ellen Allien’s critically revered underground techno label BPitch Control, he was tapped to create the soundtrack for the film Berlin Calling, which documents the travails of a DJ — rather bluntly named Ickarus — as he disappears into a vacuum of drug addiction and psychosis. As conversations about the film progressed, it was decided that Kalkbrenner shouldn’t just score Berlin Calling, but star in it. The film would go on to become the longest-running film in Germany, staying in theaters for a whopping three years and gifting Kalkbrenner with his first hit single, the regal gospel-dance number “Sky and Sand,” featuring vocals from Kalkbrenner’s brother Fritz. The film made Kalkbrenner a bona fide star in his homeland, even if it cured him of the acting bug for good. “I decided that I should stick with what I do best,” he says, “which is music.”

Now he’s poised to do that on an even bigger scale. His latest record, 7, was released by Columbia Records on August 7, and, in a display of either tremendous faith or savvy marketing, the label granted Kalkbrenner access to its entire library and told him to sample whatever he wanted. “There were crazy things in there — unreleased duets, like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan doing ‘Girl From the North Country,’ ” he says. “But that wasn’t really what I wanted to start with.”

In the end, Kalkbrenner chose a more modest approach. Samples are used sparingly on 7, mostly relegated to a snatch of vocal here and there, more texture than anchor. The two obvious examples are “A Million Days,” which samples Luther Vandross’s classic “Never Too Much” at length, and the startling and revelatory “Feed Your Head,” which transforms Jefferson Airplane’s maudlin death march “White Rabbit” into a euphoric floor-filler, synths flickering like the Northern Lights behind Grace Slick’s pitched-up, panicked vocal. By the time it hits the climax, it feels less like a cautionary tale and more like a celebration. “I like the way it’s sung much better than the way pop singers sing nowadays,” Kalkbrenner says. “It was great to see that it can actually work half a century later.”

There’s also a sly bit of subversion taking place, with Kalkbrenner reconfiguring a song that originally scanned as a dark take on drug use and turning it into a six-minute party anthem for an audience whose views on pharmaceuticals are, let’s say, utilitarian. The only catch with that reading is that Kalkbrenner was entirely unfamiliar with Jefferson Airplane’s song before he received the raw vocal track. “I was looking for things that were the furthest away from what I would do,” he says. “I said to the label, ‘Send me just the vocal, don’t even send me the song.’ Because then you go somewhere you would not end up if you knew the song.” Similarly, “A Million Days” matches the emotional ache of Vandross’s original, but centered within Kalkbrenner’s moving piano patterns and steady, four-on-the-floor rhythm, it becomes something more cathartic — two lovers running toward each other across a field and collapsing in an embrace.

The obvious analogue for 7 is Moby’s Play; like that album, 7 uses dance music as a foundation for songs that are decidedly pop in aesthetic, fusing it with source material that is timeless and accessible. It’s the obvious move for Kalkbrenner, one that may finally turn his success overseas into something like international stardom. “The gap needs to be closed,” he says dryly. “I just flew in from France, where I’m the headliner [at a festival] over all the rock bands. Then I fly over the channel to the U.K., and I’m in a very small size on the poster.

“For some people, trying to basically start all over doesn’t make any sense. ‘He goes from appearing as the headliner somewhere for 50,000 fans — for quite a bit of money — at the end of a festival when all the other stages are already closed, back to doing club shows.’ It’s hard to say you’re loving to learn from that experience. But it’s not just all fun. Sometimes it’s necessary to do things again. I could have repeated myself with this album, let Fritz sing one song, and it would have been gold in Germany and maybe Austria and Switzerland. But I did this already. Twice.”

Instead, Kalkbrenner is concentrating his efforts on smaller shows in the States — like the one he’ll play at 562 Johnson Ave in Brooklyn on August 15. During his live sets, Kalkbrenner re-creates each song, bit by bit, on the fly, rather than using prerecorded tracks, which results in a performance where songs change from night to night. While that randomness would strike fear into other performers, for Kalkbrenner, it’s just another way to push himself. “I’m in between two worlds: going big versus staying underground,” he says. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, that’s not the old Paul anymore.’ But things need to change. I need things to change. Otherwise, I get very bored.”