Fritz Kalkbrenner press photographs for Blacklisted Copenhagen

Speaking with Fritz Kalkbrenner

The German DJ and Producer Fritz Kalkbrenner returns to Copenhagen to present his newest album 'Grand Départ'

Published: March 27, 2017Words: Helena Sokol & Fritz KalkbrennerPhotography: David RascheArtist Link:

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Berlin was a melting pot of emotions and culture once 1989 rolled about – and that out of that primordial soup of newly found musical styles, freedom of movement and art, clubs and subcultures would start to flourish. Like a rebirth, temporary frameworks like DJ-collectives would use old buildings as venues for new projects and DJs and thus be part of creating what Berlin would be known for – an atmosphere free of elitism, parties until well in the morning and an important force within the genres of techno and electronic music.

Take the Abspannwerk Buchhändlerhof, a stunning piece of architecture from the 1920’s near Checkpoint Charlie. It is one of the oldest surviving architectural examples of Germany’s electricity industry, but it didn’t gain wide international recognition before its interim use as the renowned techno club E-Werk. Not surprisingly, this is also one of the clubs where you would be able to find Fritz Kalkbrenner (b. 1981), and which would create a solid foundation of love for dance floor music in the DJ.

Ahead of his third visit to Copenhagen, I spoke to Fritz about his family, his music, and the concert in April at VEGA.

The city is, of course, going to influence your choice of music and attitude – what doesn’t, really, when you’re a social being, and you’re in a certain environment. Space forms thinking.

You may have heard the name in relation to Berlin Calling, an album production by Paul Kalkbrenner, Fritz’ older brother, which included a song called Sky and Sand. The song was an instant success, and extended the recognition of the Kalkbrenner name to another brother. Fritz took in the fame with a certain calm; he didn’t try to analyze why, but seemed to take it as a simple fact – that the world had now discovered his soulful voice and would like to hear more of it.

I don’t actually know why the album with my brother was such a success – it was just right on time, I believe. There was this movie, which was supporting the music as well, but maybe it just sort of hit a nerve in time.

Despite Kalkbrenner making music since 2010, the song came about not by conscious choice. As the bursts of energy that sometimes happen between creatives, it came about by chance. Isolated elements are put into a new context and suddenly given new and different life. While I had expected a longer collaboration with his brother, I was amused and surprised at the answer I got.

Seeing as Sky and Sand was that only track that we did together, it was actually kind of easy, because I was recording the vocals in my brother’s studio, because I didn’t have a studio at that time, and I was recording the vocals first. They had another, a different purpose before, but that’s another story.. I left for home, and he called me back a day or two later, and he was like “Hey, you left these kind of lyrics, and I worked a sort of production around it – and it works quite well, so I think you need to have a listen to it”.. And that’s basically the whole story!

It seems to me that it also sort of demystifies the process of creating something. I speak only for myself when I say that most of the time, I have no idea how music is made. I’ve played piano, but the process of transferring the music to an album, layering the instruments and recording the vocals.. For me, it is somewhat of a technical fog. That said, I understand that it is no bed of roses – it takes hard work and dedication to produce – and I do have an idea of the tools you need to do it. An incident like this just makes it more real, and a little more humane to me.

Fritz Kalkbrenner’s first album, Here Today Gone Tomorrow, which came out in 2010, still holds some of my favorite songs. It presents a wide array of atmospheres, ranging from the almost gypsy-like beats of “Kings in Exile”, to the melancholy of “Was Right Been Wrong”. However, throughout his career, he has always kept this uniquely warm undertones, which comes from the various influences throughout his life – jazz, funk, techno and house, to mention some. While it may seem difficult to combine these genres and get something other that electro-swing, Fritz Kalkbrenner has built up a universe that echoes palm trees, pain and something ethereal.

Somehow I always felt that kind of urge to negotiate between these two types of music, which are both so important to me – electronic dance floor music and all that warm soul and hip hop music which I like as well.. I always try to implement the warmth of the sound into the strength of the structure of dance floor music. Maybe it worked out somehow.

His later album Ways over Water introduces us to a world less narrated by his vocals, but far more complex in the structure of the music. There’s a far bigger universe of sounds used in each track, and with a solid foundation of a pumping rhythm, it is possible to explore new soundscapes and atmospheres.

He grew up in Lichtenstein, Berlin during the tumultuous 80’s, with parents being journalists within arts and culture and a brother four years older, who would later lead him into the club scene of Berlin. While he recognizes that it might be helpful to have an environment which does not actively negate creative pursuits, Fritz told me that he doesn’t think it gets easier to find your passion.

My mom and dad used to be journalists, so there is some sort of connection, maybe – they were pretty much down with the topics of arts and the like. But to say a creative family, I mean, what is that per say saying? They were journalists and good with arts, but that didn’t necessarily help me to find my touch of music.

It’s a tricky question, which I feel depends on the family and the kind of force they exert to get their children into a certain field. Parents that push for painting may as well lead the child to loathe art as they might lead it to love it. The balance between making your children engage in creative activities and leaving them to choose from endless options is hard, but Fritz’ parents obviously had some impact through their stance. While he started producing at the age of 17, he also took up journalism, and initially only had the music on the side. When I asked if he thought the work as a journalist in music may have influenced his shift to music, he told me that it didn’t have anything to do with each other, honestly.

I was working for something like 10 years as a freelance arts & music journalist, and the music on the side, as a hobby, became more and more important and I was able to play shows and such. I was, in fact, playing more shows and was working less as a journalist, so the shift was pretty much natural—if you can put it that way.

As a person, it was refreshing to talk to Fritz Kalkbrenner, because he is very blunt – the individual genius theory doesn’t hold here, and he gives the impression that all his success comes from hard work and dedication. Making the best out of what you can, all the time.
It’s no surprise I was rather curious about the music he made when he was young – I wanted to know how it was, what he would put on a classic Fritz Kalkbrenner-at-17 mixtape.

And does he still have it – for old times’ sake?

The mixtapes would be the stuff with attitude. He liked „De la Soul“, „Tribe called quest“ and so on. He also heard a lot of hip-hop, but it already coexisted with electro and it didn’t rebel against each other – it wasn’t one or the other.

The stuff I did back then was pretty shitty, I believe, I actually have no idea – you just sort of tried to put things together and make it work. There was a dance floor focus, or a wish or an attempt to do something like that, but it didn’t really have any form, any sharp outlines. I don’t think that that stuff still actually exists. I was recording that on MC tapes, so, I don’t think it’s still around.

There will be no embarrassing moments at family get-togethers, which would be a relief for most people. Besides that, I have a feeling that Fritz is all about what he does now and what he will be doing. Forwarding this into the present, the DJ and producer has just sent out his latest record, Grand Départ. Like the name implies, it feels as if he is taking off into a new era of his musical career. The mood is lighter than the last album, and there is a definite focus on the feel-good dance electronica – as with the rest of his albums, there’s a fine line whether it feels like the music fits into a dusty and dark industrial structure, or if it belongs on a beach. When I asked about the shift I felt he had taken, he told me that it wasn’t as much about the incremental movements that made the audio develop as it was reaching for a goal you felt you couldn’t reach before.

Grand Depart, I mean, it’s the fourth album now, and of course, from every album to the next, there’s always a shift, but like I said before, there is always a will to negotiate this balance. You’re sort of always getting closer to the goal that you want to reach and you become braver, so maybe you do more vocal songs or things that you didn’t have to guts to do before in the first albums – where you were way too shy to do a few more things. But I wouldn’t call it a shift, I would rather have it be called a straight drawn line, really. I mean, slow and steady as you go towards a point that you might now be able to reach whatsoever.. but as long as you try, the thing you do is good.

Songs like “Center to Center” really caught my eye – and my feet. It plants an immediate urge to dance with its alluring trumpet-like beat. Fritz Kalkbrenner is the Pied Piper of electro, just inviting you to follow him into the woods. When you’re finally there, you can relax to the reflective tones of “In this Game”, which is one of the pronounced songs by the artist himself, accompanied by the rather hard-hitting music video.

His concert in Copenhagen is naturally part of a bigger tour – an intense trip through Europe and China, leaving him little time for anything else. However, it seems that renunciation and anticipation runs in his blood. With the kind of passion he has, there is not a lot of other things he would want to do. While on tour, he furthermore processes his experiences into lyrics and sketches, which he later can use in production. The endless cycle of creation is an energy in itself, and pushes him to write and produce.

All I can say is that I just do it, you know. When you feel the urge of producing and playing back and forth with the ideas you were having, I mean.. It is so easy for me to just do it. When you are happy about it, you can make a little tiny production, and it sounds good and all.. and then you go on. There is no barrier for me which I need to take into consideration. It’s just something that I really really like.. And if I’m having some off time on the tour, of course, I do it. So I collect a lot of ideas even though I’m on tour, and I do not necessarily need to go to the big studio right after a tour because I mean, there is still time for everything, prior to the next album.

If you hadn’t noticed throughout the interview and his answers, it is it now easy to see that life for Fritz Kalkbrenner is music. Throughout his life, he has always had the finger on a pulse, and at some point, the urge to beat with it was too strong. And now, there is little else for him, which is both impressive and sort of terrifying for me. To get a better image of his life outside tours, I asked him about hobbies.

What I do besides it. Taking care of everyday life and business. I mean for a musician, touring and producing are only two parts of many. There also a lot of business involved.

From time to time, I’m really good with cooking, but yeah, I mean.. I don’t actually need more hobbies to fill up my time, because somehow it feels like I have pretty little free time in the first place, so the business schedule is always kind of stacked and packed, you know.

He has, however, found time to come to Copenhagen for his tour, and I am personally looking very much forward to it. He has graced both Amager Bio and Distortion, and I think VEGA is a perfect setting for the next concert. The acoustics are great in there, and it will be possible to feel a little closer to the artist. He has been a bit around town, gone to a few clubs, and generally like Copenhagen a lot, both for its compact size and the scene of electronic music. He knows the Danish audience and how much it gets into an artist and his music, so he is looking forward to presenting his newest work here.

And for the future – he’ll continue to be pragmatic in proceeding with his work.

We are already well into the tour, and the festival season is coming up, but beyond that, I don’t have any big shots in terms of plans – and I have to admit, I’m not even sure I would be allowed to talk about anything in terms of collaborations.