“I’d work from six in the morning until 10 in the evening, in February, up to your waist in cold water in those rubber pants. You come home, eat your microwave lasagna and go and cry in your bed.” Fritz Kalkbrenner, techno-soul superstar, is on Skype in Berlin, describing working construction jobs after dropping out of high school at age 17. Presently 33, Fritz remembers Germany before the unification; East Berlin was never a fun place to begin with.
“Living in high-rises, everything looked like bullshit.” When the Wall came down, things got surreal. “The cops did not know what to do, what the law was. The government they worked for disappeared. We went from socialism to capitalism overnight. Suddenly, everyone had a gun, everyone was slinging.” Doing backbreaking work didn’t help his spirits much. “Times likes that you feel that Nina Simone is singing for you, and that’s something that sticks with you in your heart forever.”
That feeling first found professional relief and success when he sang the coy, seductive lyrics, “I can’t get up if you won’t get down,” on childhood pal Sascha Funke’s glassy, minimal 2003 hit, 'Forms & Shapes'. Since then, Kalkbrenner has been one of techno’s leading soul men.
Discussing his association with soul and why he identifies with soul over R&B, Fritz says, “When I hear R&B I think of someone like Raphael Saadiq, totally polished, full-on Motown R&B style. For me, that wouldn’t be me, it wouldn’t be right.” It’s a fair point. As smooth and deep as Fritz’s tech house sound is, it is hard to imagine him decked out in a slick suit leading sartorially coordinated backup singers in a synchronized dance.
For a similar reason, as much as Kalkbrenner loves hip-hop, you will never hear him rap. “I have a problem with that. I grew up on the New York/East Coast stuff. My English was pretty good. I could tell what they were rapping about. The most gifted white German rapper will never experience what it means to grow up across 125th Street. I can’t rap in German. And in English, it wouldn’t be real.” History also curtailed any aspirations Fritz may have had to be Germany’s next great MC or R&B crooner.
“When the Wall came down in 1989, it was instantly, out-of-the-box, techno. It was following the Summer of Love in 1988 when everyone was taking acid and stuff in the UK and the States.” His love for rhyme is not without release, however. “I rap in the shower sometimes. I could rap a whole Wu-Tang record if I’m left in there long enough.”
In 2002, tired of weeping into microwave pasta and freezing in wet pants, Fritz sought out a slightly more glamorous career in television, specifically music journalism. “I was like ‘How much effort do you have to put into that, from having the interview planned to having a shoot to having it edited and then done?’ I started going to TV stations and I kept bugging these guys to do an internship. It turned out I was pretty good, and I worked as a journalist for ten years.
I worked for MTV Germany, and a lot of public and national stations like PBS.” Gradually, reporting on music took a back seat to making music. It may have had something to do with a string of projects that catapulted him into the spotlight. In 2008, with his brother Paul, he soundtracked the nightlife documentary Berlin Calling, scoring a hit in 2009 with 'Sky and Sand' on BPitch Control. In 2010, Fritz was prolific, producing his debut album and a collaborative EP with label mates, Chopstick and Johnjon.
Since then, he’s released his sophomore album 'Sick Travellin' in 2012, and has been touring almost incessantly. “My journalism career, safe to say, is at rest. But, if no one pays me to DJ anymore, I am going to interview you,” he jokes. You get the sense that he’s not really joking either. “The music for me took off when I was 27. I had a few years of hard work before that and I’m very glad. It keeps me grounded, humble.”
Staying grounded and the ephemeral nature of ‘home’ are recurrent themes in Fritz’s lyrics and videos. “I'm looking for ways over water/I'm looking for ways back home,” he sings on 'Void', the lead single from his new album, ethereally titled, 'Ways Over Water'. As if the title and the lyrics weren’t introspective enough, the video for 'Void' features Fritz and an eagle, alone overlooking Lake Geneva. It’s not the first time we see the man in a wild state.
In the video for 'Back Home', Fritz was similarly hiking over mountains and across streams. On the cover for the US release of 'Ways Over Water', Fritz stands in the woods, gazing in the distance, like a hirsute boddhisatva perched on the precipice of satori. It’s a familiar stance. There is a long tradition of city slickers romanticizing the countryside in poetry, art, and music. The forest, particularly a German one, conjures especially potent supernatural fantasies prone to thrusting pagan-minded ravers into pastoral reverie. Fritz laughs. Predictably, he doesn’t go in for this kind of bloated sentimentality. “There is a certain attraction to the house in the countryside. A lot of Germans, Europeans and Americans are coming to Berlin and then they go out to the country and realize it’s boring.”
Another insight that stuck with him from his days as a journalist is the importance of focusing on details. “I can remember when I was working for a very picky Berlin music newspaper, back when they were stuffed with CDs. The editor was going through a stack of CDs in like 30 seconds, tossing most of them in the garbage. This other guy would skip through a whole CD in a few seconds. Having seen that side makes me pay attention to every detail and maybe put that little bit extra into the arrangement or the production, so you don’t end up being one of these CDs in the trash can.”
'Ways Over Water', like 'Sick Travellin' and 'Here Today Gone Tomorrow', is unlikely to end up in the waste bin. Both of those albums were top sellers with positive reviews and on his third, Fritz does not deviate from his electronic soul hybrid. Instead, he relaxes into it, allowing elements of jazz, world music, and funk further range. “Trumpet, flute, saxophone, lots of brass and woodwinds. I had sketches ready. I hooked up with these musicians here who do scores.
I was speaking to them how much I love cinematic orchestra. There’s a lot of live instrumentation on the album. And it all fits.” Among the ideas that fit best on 'Ways Over Water' are the polyrhythmic Afro-beat be-bop jam, 'Front of the World'; the punkish reggae vibe on 'Three The Hard Way'; the effusive anthem 'Back Home'; the dark, spacey electro on 'Pitch Perfect'; and the Marvin Gaye-haunted soul on 'Every Day'. Fritz’s beats hover in the 120bpm sweet spot, the arrangements of his tracks are more like a song’s, and his voice – not professionally trained, deep, a bit nasal – fits in with a tradition of male soul singers in house music that includes heroes like Robert Owens and Byron Stingily.
“Role models like Romanthony made it really easy for singers like me,” Fritz says. Also close to his heart is Al Green, whom he posits is not so far removed from house music. “If you listen to Al Green’s records with Willie Mitchell, Otis Jackson played the drums pretty much four to the floor. If you were to come up with some really sophisticated house drumming, they would dig that feeling.”
The feeling is kept alive not only Fritz’s own album, but on the entire Suol roster. One example is Tender Games, a duo that leans heavier into straight up R&B than Fritz would. “The Suol label is run by Chopstick and Johnjon. Tender Games [Ulrich Harrison and Marlon Hoffstadt] came along, and they had their stuff together. They kept telling me a lot about ‘90s hip-hop, and that’s always a good start. They said, ‘We have 200 tracks in the back.’ Marlon, he’s doing the whole production, he’s like 21 or something.
He’s not going to waste his time. When I was 21, it was all party and bullshit. I was trying to figure out how the MPC works. Harrison is a great singer and he plays keys. I asked him where did you learn to play keys? And he said, Youtube. I said, Really? These guys, they’re working, working, working.”
When he’s not working, working, working himself, Fritz has a peculiar hobby. “I’m a vintage watch nerd. Watches from Switzerland in the '60s. My grandfather was into them. In his last when he knew his end would come, he got very cinematic about it. ‘You have to come upstairs to open the watch box.’ He was telling me for more than twenty years about this collection.” Just when you can hear the tiny violins cueing up in the distance, he pauses. “So I come up for this big moment and then I realized – he only had cheap stuff. But he never realized that.” Tender soul he is, Fritz didn’t tell him.
words: JORGE HERNANDEZ
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