20 years of techno
Paul Kalkbrenner's demanding compositions are full of energy; they exist to take listeners away from the everyday, from the weekly grind, into rapture—into art, ecstasy, absurdity friendship, hope and love.
Just 12 years old when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Kalkbrenner watched as East Berlin became an anarchic playground for a previously oppressed generation, recently freed from an overbearing state. Techno music became a way of expression and for many, Paul included, the soundtrack of Germany's reunification. In the autumn of 1992, together with his friend Sascha Funke, he started DJing at local youth clubs. Very quickly Paul and Sascha were either DJing or obsessively collecting records as electronic dance music's first tidal wave spilled over dance floors in Berlin's soon-to-be legendary clubs Tresor, Planet, Walfisch and e-werk.
At 18, he took a job at German television, spending his days sitting and editing suites watching as staid German political parties held national conferences. This would make him enough money to buy equipment to produce his own tracks. As much fun as DJing was, Paul wanted to play his own music live.
His first tracks were released on Ellen Allien's newly founded Bpitch Control label in 1999. In contrast to the darker, monotone sounds that characterized techno at the time, Paul's music was more melodic and enriched with a warm, dubby feel. After a number of 12" singles, Paul realised he was better suited producing albums. In 2000, he released ‘Superimpose’, followed by ‘Zeit’ one year later. His third album, ‘Self’ from 2004, resonated beyond the dancefloor and took the cinematic quality of his music to new heights—an indication of what was to come next.
In 2004, Berlin-based film director and self-confessed Kalkbrenner fan, Hannes Stoehr, got in touch with Paul. He was planning to make a movie about an electronic musician in Berlin's techno scene and wanted Paul to produce the soundtrack. As the script for the film developed, Hannes suggested Paul might be perfect in the starring role.
Together with his old friend Sascha Funke, he moved to Aix en Provence for six months. There, far away from Berlin's dreary winter, Paul produced some of his most diverse and mature compositions yet, which would later make up the soundtrack for ‘Berlin Calling’. He started shooting the movie upon his return to Berlin, with the result being an unconventional but outstanding performance. Somewhere between Paul Kalkbrenner and his character Ickarus, an intimate dialogue developed between actor and audience.
‘Berlin Calling’ became a surprise hit, and a German cult movie in its own right. It drew audiences all around Europe and stayed on the big screen at Berlin's Central Kino for several years. The soundtrack went platinum and the single "Sky and Sand", featuring his brother Fritz Kalkbrenner's vocals, spent over 121 weeks in the German singles charts—a German record.
At the end of 2009, Paul split with his longtime label Bpitch Control to form his own independent imprint, Paul Kalkbrenner Musik. A sold-out European tour and a documentary followed. Made with the help of the ‘Berlin Calling’ team, Max Penzel and Hannes Stoehr, ‘2010 - A Live Documentary’ featured an 8-camera shoot of 15 live shows, with computer graphics created by Pfadfinderei (who also worked on ‘Berlin Calling’). The documentary remains an intimate insight into Paul's life on the road, sprinkled with his dry, deadpan humour.
Between June 2011 and November 2012 Paul released his fifth and sixth studio albums ‘Icke Wieder’ and ‘Guten Tag’. These two self-released albums are Paul's bestselling albums yet—both went top five in his native Germany, with ‘Guten Tag also topping the charts in Switzerland.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Paul returned to the studio soon after, but this time made a conscious decision to take his time and explore new avenues of his sound. While working on new tracks, flipping samples and experimenting, Germany's Federal Government asked him to play a headlining live show in front of the Brandenburg Gate in a historic ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was another milestone moment in Paul's career. The framed thank-you note he received from the Government afterwards has a special place in his apartment.
After 15 years of releasing on independent labels (ten years at Bpitch Control and five on his own label), Paul decided to take the next step and signed a long-term deal with Sony International/Columbia in March 2015. Enthused by this new chapter in his career and incited by the pressure a deal like this is usually accompanied by, Paul went back to his studio to finish his seventh studio album and create a new live show.
The album, aptly titled ‘7’, was released through Columbia Records in August 2015, and it saw Paul work with vocals for the first time since his chart-topping, record-breaking single "Sky and Sand". In an unprecedented move by the label, Sony and Columbia provided him total access to their Legacy vaults, allowing him to incorporate vocals from previously-unsampled music icons Luther Vandross and Jefferson Airplane. The album was a success across Europe, hitting No. 1 on the charts in Austria, Switzerland, and his native Germany; and earning plaudits from the New York Times, Village Voice, Mixmag, and others.
Following ‘7’’s success, Paul continued to blaze new milestones, becoming the first techno artist to grace long-running European institution Tomorrowland’s main stage in July 2016. At the end of the day, though, he always comes back to his underground Berlin roots, which he celebrated with his “Back to the Future” mixtape series, a trilogy that chronicles his personal history of electronic music’s arrival to Germany as heard on the radio during his teenage years. The series went viral, amassing over 490K downloads and 502K streams, prompting rumors of a live experience in 2017.