Credit Karl Bartos’ neighbor with prodding the former Kraftwerk member into releasing his first solo album in a decade. Off the Record follows Bartos’ 2003 album Communication, though the music on his latest is actually much older: the songs on Off the Record come from an “acoustic diary” that Bartos began keeping in the Seventies when he was part of the seminal Kraftwerk lineup.
As it happened, Bartos’ neighbor owns a record label and kept after the musician to put out new music – or better yet, previously unreleased old works. Bartos was reluctant at first, in part because releasing archival material would mean combing through decades’ worth of recordings.
“After quite awhile, he convinced me,” Bartos tells Rolling Stone. “What he wanted first, his wish was that I would give him some old recordings and he would put it out, but I thought, ‘No, I can’t do it, I have to listen first properly.’ . . . It took me weeks to transfer all my old data into the computer.”
Once he had organized hours and hours of musical notes, jottings and ideas, Bartos realized he had plenty of worthwhile material to work with. The hardest part, he says, was reducing it to just 12 songs.
“I took maybe a snippet here, a bassline there, some melodies, and in the end I have a perfect picture of that period in time,” he says.
Bartos joined Kraftwerk in 1975 and stayed for 15 years, contributing to such albums as Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine. When he left the group in 1990, he kept busy with his own projects; in addition to releasing Communication, his Elektrik Music project remixed Afrika Bambaataa’s song “Planet Rock” in 1992. Bartos also teamed with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and the Smiths‘ Johnny Marr on Raise the Pressure, their 1996 album as the dance-rock supergroup Electronic, and wrote music for film. He even found time for a stint in academia, spending five years as a visiting professor as part of the “Sound Studies” program at the University of the Arts in Berlin.
Though Off the Record is very much a Kraftwerk-like electronic album full of synthesizers, robotic vocal treatments and glossy machine beats, Bartos is reluctant to draw parallels with latter-day electronic artists like Deadmau5 or Skrillex.
“If you talk about the state of electronic music, I’d rather listen to a Tarantino soundtrack and see what he does with the convergence of image and sound. It’s much more important to me,” Bartos says. “I have nothing against DJs, but music culture – it’s just a very difficult time for music culture to evolve, because the business model is not existing, and when there’s no money involved, there’s no innovation.” Kraftwerk were certainly groundbreaking: the group has inspired a wide swath of musicians, from Björk and U2 to Madonna and New Order, along with subsequent generations of electronic musicians.
“We brought together pop music with this classical approach, that you can record your environment, transfer it to the magnetophone and twist it, and organize it, and this you can call music as well,” says Bartos. “It was a revolutionary concept, in a way.”
The current Kraftwerk lineup drew widespread attention for a series of concerts the group performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012 and at the Tate Gallery in London earlier this year. The MoMA shows were billed as a “retrospective,” which Bartos says he found puzzling, considering that three key former members of Kraftwerk – himself, Florian Schneider and Wolfgang Flür – weren’t asked to participate.
“It was completely misleading,” he says. “Can you call something like this a retrospective without the people? Florian is still living, Wolfgang is living and I am living, and we are certainly part of this. We would be part of a retrospective 100 years from now.”