Paul Kalkbrenner on Staying "Inspiration-less" and How Not To Name a Techno Track
German techno producer Paul Kalkbrenner doesn't consider himself a DJ. In fact, he doesn't really listen to other people's music, let alone play it. His choice to keep things 100-percent original has clearly worked out for him, judging by his ability to garner over 2.3 million fans worldwide, the success of his record label, and his sold-out tours. He's even the star of Berlin Calling, a German film chronicling the ups and mostly downs of being a DJ. And despite all this fame, the 36-year-old is just now embarking on his first solo U.S. tour. We spoke with Kalkbrenner about growing up in East Berlin, his process of developing tracks, and why he doesn't like to be called a DJ. He headlines Mezzanine this Sunday, Dec. 15.
Since you grew up in East Berlin, what was your first exposure to English language?
My first exposure was really a non-exposure. I am from East Germany, so you had to learn Russian first, but in 7th grade you choose between English and French. So it wasn't until I was 13 that I started to speak English. I can still read some Russian. When I first went to England I still couldn't really speak the language, it was only when I started traveling that I really learned.
If you weren't writing songs, what would you be doing?
Tough question. I can't imagine life without it, or doing anything else. Thankfully I don't have to.
When did you know making music was something you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Very early in my life, so early that I never really thought of doing anything else seriously. Nothing else had a chance.
What attracted you to techno music?
I was attracted to the sound of techno music, not so much individual records. My first interactions with techno in clubs came in places like E-Werk in Berlin, where often enough I did not even know the records being played. The context of what was happening in Berlin -- with the wall coming down and both sides being united in clubs by this new form of music -- was very inspiring.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I don't tend to listen to much music. I enjoy some reading, spending time with my wife, and I have been enjoying Bayern Munich, my soccer team.
Because you don't really listen to music, how do your ideas originate? Is it a very organic process?
I play my own music and I try to tell my own story, so it's very personal to me. Of course we are all influenced by everything that is around us, but I want to try and say what is inside me, and to do that I try to stay as inspiration-less [laughs] as possible.
Because the lines between DJing and live acts are so blurred today, what is important to you in keeping what you've always done alive and different?
I play only live, and have never been a DJ. Because I perform live, it changes every time by itself. The show has grown, I now have more tracks I can play, and now the live set lasts three hours. As I make more music it will continue to change and evolve. No two shows are ever the same, as everything is arranged in a new way, live on stage at every show.
Your latest album was released on your own label. What is most liberating about doing this, versus having to release an album on someone's else's label?
It's more a platform than a traditional label. Obviously it's nice to be in control, no deadlines, I decide when I want to release the music, and I decide when the music is ready. It's a very good situation for me.
With so many fans on social media and sold-out tours, how do you manage to stay so humble?
I appreciate my fans very much and love playing live for them. For me that is where the interaction is -- live at the shows, so I don't pay too much attention to Facebook and such. I prefer to try and see and meet people when I can.
What are you looking forward to doing in the States for your first solo tour?
I am stepping out of my comfort zone. I am not so well known here in America, and this will be my first headlining tour. It's like a concert tour with my full production team -- bigger venues, so all this is exciting. I want to see how people react, if they are interested in hearing my music.
Do you have any advice for us Americans trying to pronounce your song titles like "Altes Kamuffel"?
Not only Americans, all people, as the titles often don't mean anything. Titles to me don't matter; a good song can be called anything. I do think German names are beautiful because on the one hand it shows my bond to my home country, and on the other hand not all techno albums have to be called "Energy" or "The First Rebirth" or names like that. That is just not my style.