Lars Bartkuhn

We had the chance to connect with Lars Bartkuhn, a true underground hero who has been pushing genre-defying music consistently over the years, and who is responsible for one of the most distinctive sounds in dance music. He went in-depth about his motivations as an artist, the evolution of his compositions and his latest live project launched at Panorama Bar. His next release “Nomad” coming on Utopia Records is a beautiful composition that will certainly stand the test of time and make us move with our eyes closed.

The “come-back”

In an interview you gave a while back, you stated that you only make music when you have the feel for it. Given how your release on Neroli saw you shifting gears and making a change compared to the music you’ve put out in the years following the Needs “era”, can you talk about your current creative mindset with regards to these changes?

blackandwhite_test 030My “current creative mindset” is usually more or less the same all the time. Even though I am constantly learning new things about music, expanding my horizon through intense studies and practicing, my musical ambition remains a constant, rock solid factor in my life. You probably wanted to discuss the issue how different my more acoustic albums are in comparison with my electronic catalogue. Well, I can understand this interest in some ways, but for me there really is no difference at all. So whether I’m doing some MPC beat based music or something that is composed on my western guitar: I am the same creative being just using different tools to get in “the zone” to manifest my personal musical vision into sound. And yes, in recent years I followed a deep interest in organic, band based, orchestral, classically orientated, complex music – I ALWAYS had that. It’s just that on my recent albums it was the right time to focus on that and leave my drum machines in standby mode. Nowadays that I focus a bit more on electronic music again this interest is not gone at all; it’s just that I rediscovered some passion for my electronic setup again. I got rid of some old gear and bought some new thrilling machines. Ironically the main reason why I bought synths and samplers again was to integrate them in my band context – to expand our group dynamics and arranging possibilities. After touring with my Passion Dance Orchestra it was a natural instinct that led me to create some more sequenced music in my studio again, more like in the old days. But there is no general or philosophical aspect behind it. It’s all just musical instincts and decisions…

Music for The Golden Age was unanimously marked as a come-back, although you have never really stopped releasing music. Also you have recently mentioned in a social media post that some people even thought you had stopped making music.

Today in your opinion, how challenging is it for an artist to step out of their comfort zone, break new boundaries when inspiration and creativity take it there, and still be able to deliver their message in a fast-moving “underground music scene”, rather than rely on a working formula?

I don’t think too much about stuff like that, but I have to admit that it’s ALWAYS been and will ALWAYS be a challenge for me to create music. I am not a prodigy and thus have to put a lot of work to get to the results that really satisfy me. So that is the key to everything. I just wanna make music that has a decent amount of “right notes” in it. And music sounds about right for me when it’s challenging – both for the creator as the listener. My musical “message” (I don’t like to use that term, especially not for instrumental music) has a lot to do with getting out of the comfort zone (never existed for me), keep your ears open, get inspired, not repeat yourself, all these kind of things. I HATE repetition, haha! So when people think of a Lars-sound they probably associate these kinds of aspects that are omnipresent in all my pieces.

Because you mentioned it: To some degree we all have some formulas we rely on here and there, may it be a typical way to arrange things, to put focus on certain parameters (chordal, melodical, rhythmical, sound design, whatever). But people who try making the same record over and over again are people I don’t even follow. They usually pollute the sonic universe with useless material.

The live performance

Recently you presented you live project at Panorama Bar. Can you talk a little about that experience ?

I had a wonderful time there and particularly loved the crowd, the dancers. Very magical place. I had total liberty and felt like everything I did was understood and supported in its intensity and honesty. I am creating my set in the moment, programming beats, basslines, playing keys, guitars, singing, all that. Looping. Some things are prepared like building blocks (vocal snippets, percussion loops for instance).
I use Ableton Live, Push2, Maschine, a keyboard (to play loads of instruments in Live), some controllers, an electric guitar (even though I would love to bring various guitars), an Analog Four synthesizer and very important: The Octatrack. I use it that to sample my improvised tunes and work them like records in a dj set. Crossfading to make transitions from one improvised track to the next. Very happy about this particular aspect.

Did you work on music purposely for this project or is it a mixture of released and unreleased songs?

Preparing my new liveset was a good experience. My heavy practicing led to better results in “spontaneous composition”. Some of the tunes I perform are released but I perform them in new ways, sometimes radically changed sometimes closer to the original. Some other tracks are built in the moment, some other carry ideas I developped in my practicing sessions (that material changes all the time and keeps the set even fresher).

Given the importance of solos in your compositions, especially guitar work, how much room do you leave open for improvisation?

I try to give spontaneity more room all the time. Sometimes the arranging and composing perfectionist inside of me slows the improvising part of me down though. It’s always about finding the right balance. Solos for the sake of plain soloing though was never really important for me. It usually serves as a part of the storytelling process. Also in pure jazz I never got too excited about too much soloing.

Do you intend to develop the project further (i.e. other tour dates for example) or does it remain an experiment for now? Also, do you plan on having other musicians on board or will it always be a solo act?

Well I really plan to go on tour as constantly as possible. I am very thrilled about my new workflow I created with the setup. I am working now with a wonderful agency called “soundsfamiliar” and we are trying to get the music to many cool places out there. I am not limited to playing solo at all. Over the last years I assembled a beautiful band as well and I will try to integrate at least some of them over the course of time. For the beginning though it’s perfect in the solo format.

Going back…

In the late 90’s/early 00’s, during the inception of the Needs project, you had a brief but significant collaborative project with your brother Marek in the form of BoobJazz, releasing 3 original records on Frankfurt’s STIR15. Talk to us about this project and how it came about. Was that you first foray into dance music production?

Boobjazz was our first moniker. I started out writing electronic music much earlier though, not House but all kinds of other things. In fact my first instrument before the guitar was a synthesizer. The very project “Boobjazz” came together when my brother hooked me up on House, he used to dj on a regular basis during a time when I was hardcore jazz. Still I was always open minded enough to visit his parties and fell in love with the music pretty much right away. It was something we both could agree on easily and that music really connected us as brothers very deeply. We also loved all kinds of other music then, Drum&Bass for example, but somehow the House thing was something we felt the need to really share intensely. At that time I found studying jazz guitar at the music college a bit limiting as well, so expanding my horizon with these new production methods, like using samplers and mixing desks, was pretty hip and thrilling.

Unlike any dance music released at that time, how challenging was it to present this project to an external structure, and be able to trust them to deliver the message appropriately to the public?

Not challenging at all. Pure will and believe in ourselves left all doubts aside. To whomever we played our first tracks we always got some good response and Stir15 was luckily just the very next label to us, I mean really in a geographical way 🙂

We played it to C-Rock who is the guy behind it and he supported us from the beginning. All that went really smoothly and easy. Good times back then.

Needs (Not Wants)

The Needs label/group was born in parallel, where Jan “Yannick” Elverfeld joined the effort and help shape what has become a reference sound when thinking about deep and immersive dance music.

Talk to us about the name of the project. To what extent has the label emerged out of a necessity at that time?

Well the name is actually quite obvious I guess. We really thought it’s a nice idea to communicate how music for us is actually a real “Need”, kind of underlined how serious we are about it. It’s also a reference to the house classic Needs Not Wants. Many great label names are conceived in similar fashion, so we thought that’s really cool: A message combined with some historical reference.

We had to build up this label for one purpose: To make an artistic statement. Nobody was doing music like us back then (until now it hasn’t really changed). We didn’t want to compromise with nobody about anything, no discussions with a&r’s and stuff like that, you know. Just follow our musical mission. And it was especially me who had this kind of “let’s do this music and not follow any common rules” attitude. I guess no one would have given us this kind of musical freedom – so we gave it to ourselves.

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When listening to those records, we can help but feel the jamming/live feeling of the music, some sort of imperfection which you hint at when you describe some of your Jazz/Funk influences. Talk to us about this feeling and about how you draw inspiration from your favorite music…

Some of this music was created in “the zone” as I like to describe it. Pure energy, spontaneous joy, the studio as a place of inspiration and creativity. And yes: of course we listened to our favorite records here and there during a session, but usually we kind of expressed a “general” feeling and admiration for the music we loved. Not so much like concrete references but this “Ron Trent” or “Jazzfunk” thing in general. We also had this romantic and naive thing going how our music might bring us spiritually closer to our heroes – a form of communication (at least from our side, haha!). I also have to say that record shopping was a real joy back then. Every week great records by Blaze, Kerri Chandler, Anthony Nicholson, M.A.W., etc… So for me it was easy to get inspired.

The jamming aspect was sometimes a bit too much in my opinion and that’s obviously my fault. Sometimes it was born out of the fact that we did instrumental music and the soloing and jamming was something we knew how to use as a good ingredient for our personal storytelling.

Do you believe that being truly inspired by someone else’s music is to seek what they sought at that particular moment rather than try to copy their sound?

That’s an interesting thought; you might be right about that. Inspiration vs. copying might be exactly that. To some extent we were sometimes like: “How do Blaze get in that zone”? These kinds of mysterious aspects, not so much how exactly they program and do stuff. But true inspiration needs to go further, further away from your idols. One needs to find his/her own personal voice – the hardest thing for any artist in this world. It’s a very complex issue.

One other aspect that underlines the depth in the music is how a record often contains an extended or “full experience” version and two alternate versions that give the song another breath. Indeed, we believe it always shows how you can tap deeply into a certain feeling through different dialects. What can you tell us about this in particular, especially since it is something you’ve offered on the Music for The Golden Age as well…?

This aspect of doing versions is something that I not always agreed a 100% on. Early on my guys told me that my tunes carry so much stuff, so many layers that one could do 10 mixes or versions out of it. For me there usually only was THE version, the final statement. But with the time I learned how important it is to offer to the listener these different kinds of angles and perspectives. They are also good exercises for me to learn and understand the process of reduction and focusing on the important aspects of a composition. I tend to overproduce my stuff a little, so the “dub” is quiet a purifying experience.

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One of your few outputs on other platforms was the Laurentius record on Clairaudience. That opportunity must have been a turning point for you personally. Can you tell us a bit about this collaboration as well as your relationship with Anthony Nicholson?

Anthony is a very good friend of mine. We listened to each other’s music from the beginning. It was obvious we would support each other because we speak the kind of same universal nonverbal language. And Clairaudience at that time was my personal holy grail in that music form. My personal “Prescription” back then, really. So it was of course quite an honor to make this record. And of course I gave my personal best – I always try to give my best. But I felt some more freedom in terms of certain musical parameters when working for Clairaudience. I am still happy about the results.

I visited Anthony a few times in Chicago and we made some great music together. But it was also hard work because somehow there is so much musical energy, will power and need for expression that it almost becomes a burden. Still we had the greatest fun collaborating, I mean real FUN! great times. Until today he remains of the very few people out there who really understand what I’m doing and I guess he thinks like this about me. We are brothers.

The New Continent album on Sonar Kollektiv seems to be the point where you took a break from dance-oriented material. Can you talk to us about that period and your artistic choices?

As I said above already I don’t think too much in periods, phases or categories. Still I am about progression and finding new ways in expression. Back around that time House music became very tiring for me. I got no more inspiration from it, even the dj’s I used to love played horrible music around that time. I suffered quite some time from it but then quickly decided: Well no problem at all, I have million other ways to express myself, doesn’t need to be based on a House beat, right? Anyway I know much more about Jazz, Brazilian or classical music than I know about Dance music to tell you the truth. So I decided to explore a bit more my other roots and make something that I thought might be the right thing at that stage. The truth though is I already had two other albums released at that time that already showed my interest in this kind of freestyle approach. So it was nothing radical doing The New Continent except for the fact that there was NO house beat going anymore at all.

From the footage available online, you were accompanied by a few other musicians as well…

Yeah, I had a band for my live shows and I have it to this very day, although the setup changed a bit. The album was done completely alone though; I played all the instruments myself.

Your next release Nomad is coming out on Utopia Records, and features different aesthetics than Music for The Golden Age. Can you talk to us a little about the idea behind it?

“Nomad” might be one of my top releases of all time until today. I love everything about it and I’m really very happy with the music. It’s not that different from other releases I did in the past though, I guess. When comparing it to the “Golden Age” the instrumentation might be still a little more organic, more acoustic in a way. I also love using some African and Arabian influences recently, may it be vocal snippets, rhythm ideas or just ambiental things. On the flip side is a track called “Tokyo Burning” which is quite different. Very intense, piano house with loads of chords and crazy layers, synths and melodies. It’s quite a complete record for me with a pleasing spectrum of sounds and ideas.

I got more stuff like this coming out in the future. I really feel thrilled about my recent musical excursions and I wanna follow this path and see where it goes…

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