Berlin is a city that’s always maintained an uneasy relationship with celebrity culture. It was here that David Bowie went to get away from the glare of the British press, a move that would have a profound creative effect both on his music and his personality. Its oft-brutalist architecture, dingy clubs, damp studios and derelict warehouse spaces might boast their own appeal, but they’re a far cry from the Hollywood Hills. While Berlin is a city that’s embraced techno like nowhere else on earth, it’s also not the sort of place that fosters hometown superstars. In spite of this, the German capital is home to a producer who’s most definitely deserving of this description. It’s a tag he’s reluctantly embraced, but when it comes to techno producers who have successfully crossed into the mainstream, few of those in the contemporary domain can touch Paul Kalkbrenner. The fact that he’s done so on his own terms, without compromising his sound, makes his story all the more compelling.
Born in Leipzig in East Germany in 1977, Kalkbrenner’s parents moved their young family to Berlin when Paul was still a toddler. He started playing trumpet at eight-years- old, and would later go on to study music theory at school. Barely a teenager by the time Germany was re-unified, the coming together of East and West would open up a new level of opportunity for Kalkbrenner and his peers. The country’s re-unification and its accompanying techno soundtrack is a tale that’s been recounted many times over, but in the case of artists such as Kalkbrenner, it’s also one that can’t be emphasised enough. To this day, his is a story that’s indebted to Germany’s re-unification, and in many ways his success speaks volumes for the entire process. In 2014, Kalkbrenner was even invited to play a special gig at the historic Brandenburg Gate to mark the occasion’s 25th anniversary. His was something of an obvious inclusion: after all, few other artists enjoy the sort of reciprocal relationship with their home city as Paul Kalkbrenner does with Berlin.
Though Kalkbrenner owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the wall’s crumbling, it’s a fictional Berlin story that helped catapult him to stardom. Following the release of his ‘Self’ LP in 2004, Kalkbrenner was approached by Hannes Stöhr, a German director and long-time supporter of his work, who proposed Kalkbrenner produce a soundtrack for a script he’d written around a fictional, Berlin-based DJ/producer by the name of Ickarus. Aside from the soundtrack, Stöhr also saw Kalkbrenner as the perfect person to bring his story to life. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Not only did Kalkbrenner deliver a virtuoso performance as Ickarus, but he also produced a dazzling soundtrack that encapsulated all that’s great and often terrifying about Berlin’s party scene. Released in 2008, Berlin Calling became an instant cult classic. Spurred on by the aforementioned soundtrack, it quickly set records galore, with Kalkbrenner’s track ‘Sky & Sand’ (produced in tandem with his brother, Fritz) spending a record amount of time in the German charts, and the movie itself spending 145 consecutive weeks at Berlin’s Kino Central cinema.
Although there is a sort of art-imitating-life, Spinal Tap-esque vibe to Kalkbrenner’s story, anyone who thinks Ickarus’ unfortunate plight is one that mirrors his own personal life is very much mistaken. Indeed, contrast is a theme that runs deep with Kalkbrenner: not only is he a live act renowned for portraying a DJ, he’s also very much a musician more than he is an actor. A superstar with a penchant for predominantly ‘underground’ sounds, unlike Ickaurus, he’d rather spend his free time with his young family as opposed to cavorting around Berlin nightclubs. When DJ Mag dials him up in Berlin, he apologises profusely, asking if he can call us back in 20 minutes before explaining that he’s busy looking after his daughter. When we do chat, we find Paul Kalkbrenner in confident mood.