German electronic musician Kurt Dahlke has never stopped evolving. Having been part of an early lineup of German EBM group Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, or D.A.F., in the late ’70s, he went on to garner underground acclaim in the ’80s and ’90s with his solo project Pyrolator, and as one of the core members of pioneering Neue Deutsche Welle band Der Plan.
Merging industrial sounds with synth-pop and melody-driven electronica, Dahlke’s Pyrolator output has largely been released through his own record label and publishing company, Ata Tak. It’s proof that his decades-long motto – “more art in music, more music in art” – remains alive and well today.
Here, Kurt Dahlke shares his story from his musical beginnings in the West German city of Wuppertal to his multimedia art shows with Der Plan, experimental compositional work as Pyrolator and his fruitful collaborations with the Goethe Institut.
My idea of Wuppertal in the 70s is lots of free jazz.
What kind of music were you exposed to?
Well, the whole Wuppertal story started I would say ’77 for me. I was on kind of a road trip with two musicians, and we just had mobile equipment.
One of these points where we played was Wuppertal. There was a little, we called it “Tee-Stube,” this old hippie-style stuff where you drink tea and you had this patchouli in the air. There I met two guys for the first time, the one guy was Michael Kemner, and the other guy was Wolfgang Spelmans, and we became friends. I started to make music with them.
There’s this famous street in Wuppertal called Luisenstraße, where you mentioned this free jazz thing going on. Peter Kowald, the famous free jazz bassist, he lived on Luisenstraße. This was one of our points where we went, and even made at that time a summer camp together with these free jazz musicians. Peter Kowald, Peter Brötzmann and all these free jazz guys from Wuppertal, they taught their style of improvisation. So this was the starting point for me in Wuppertal.
But then we decided, as hippies at the time, let’s build a land community. We found a house which was totally in the forest. It had a huge green in front, like a soccer field. During the evenings, we tried to open up a restaurant or bar. Serve muesli and beer, things like that.
At that time, Düsseldorf became the hot place to go. There was this Ratinger Hof, this famous punk place. [One of the owners] Carmen Knoebel changed it totally, she threw out all the plants and all the sofas and painted the whole thing white and had neon [lights] on the ceilings. So in the weekends, we were traveling there, and there we met other musicians, and they came out to us in what was called the Grün Inn, the Green Inn. And so we met Robert Görl and we met Gabi Delgado.
Before, we were making improvised punk-jazz, rock-jazz. And then this whole punk movement in ’77, ’78 was really strong, and we decided to change totally our style. And that was the point where the so-called Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft started [with Görl and Delgado]. Totally different music, fast, punky. All these jazz elements went out.
It was not as simple as three chords, but it was pretty intense, improvised. We played some gigs. One famous gig was in Hamburg called “Into the Future,” one gig was in Berlin, at SO36.
And then Gabi went out of the group. We said, “OK, we have no singer. Let’s make an album without singer.” And in the bedroom of the guitarist in this Green Inn, we installed two microphones and a tape recorder and were improvising for two or three weeks, and this material was our first record called Ein Produkt der Deutsch Amerikanischen Freundschaft.
And this was sold out within two weeks or so. So it was a very quick success. And this was how the label was built.
There was a small punk gallery in Wuppertal called Art Attack. And three guys, Frank Fenstermacher, Moritz Reichelt and Che Seibert were running this gallery. There was a now-famous series of concerts and exhibitions there. The first punk exhibitions I can remember, actually. And we became friends with these guys. The gallery was called Art Attack but we didn’t like the impact of this name. And the children on the streets playing, they couldn’t say “Art Attack,” so they always came and said, “Ah, look at that, it’s Atatak.” And so we decided to call this label Ata Tak, which was the kind of childish speak of Art Attack.
Joseph Beuys was thrown out of the Kunstakademie because he said, “Everybody’s an artist,” and accepted over 500 people as his students. While escorted out by policemen, he made this postcard that says, “Democracy is funny.”
You have re-worked Conrad Schnitzler material, who was a student of Beuys, and you in this gallery – were there strong connections to the art scene in Düsseldorf?
Yes. I mean, that was the second step. The gallery didn’t have much success in Wuppertal. I mean, opening a punk gallery in a totally worker city, it’s nothing you can live off. I recorded my first solo album Inland, and the guys from Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft decided to move to London. I said, “I can’t do that, I wanna stay in Germany.” So I was the first of the five members who left the group.
I decided to move to Düsseldorf with these two guys from the gallery. And we found a very nice office there, and in one of the back rooms we opened up a little studio. We had at that time a two-track recorder, then we bought the first four-track recorder. And we had a MS-20 synthesizer and some rhythm boxes. So this is how Der Plan started. And we made our first album Geri Reig.
And this was also the time where these two guys, Moritz and Frank, they wanted to go to the Kunstakademie and study with Joseph Beuys, because Moritz and Frank are both artists. I would say I’m more of a musician, these guys are more artists. And Joseph Beuys was thrown out of the Kunstakademie because he said, “Everybody’s an artist,” and accepted over 500 people as his students. The Ministry of Culture threw him out. It was a famous scene where he was coming out of the Kunstakademie surrounded by policemen, and he made this postcard that says, “Democracy is funny.” I love that postcard.
There was always the connection between Kunstakademie, the Academy of Arts, which was like 200 meters from Ratinger Hof, from this famous punk place. So there was a strong crossover. Der Plan actually had this motto at that time: “More art in music and more music into art.” So we always saw ourselves in the fields of art and not so much into punk music.
What does it even mean to say that you’re more in the field of art? Is that another attitude to making music?
If you look at the International University that Joseph Beuys was founding and this movement at that time, then you see that the influence of artists and arts into the fields of politics and social movements was very strong. And the punk movement at that time was experimenting with a lot of styles. It was not this punk which was coming from Great Britain, it was not like the Sex Pistols or 999 or Sham 69 or something like that – it was much more experimental.
Moritz was a painter and Frank was more or less a painter and graphic artist, so their form of self-expression was more paintings than music. So when you see the photos of the first Der Plan concerts, there’s a very strong impact on costumes, on technical things. Provocation, not through punk music, but through other forms of art. When I see the first photos, I can see connections more to the Dada movement, Die Mechanische Bauhausbühne, for instance, or to Kurt Schwitters. This was more the things I felt connected and not so much to punk music.
You made one record with Der Plan and then you decided to travel to make Ausland, your Pyrolator record?
Before we made Geri Reig, Moritz was traveling to California and he met a lot of people there, which for him had totally mind-blowing new ideas: LAFMS [Los Angeles Free Music Society] for instance. He came back and said, “There’s this whole thing called ‘jerry rig.’ Make something out of the least. You have nothing, you have a microphone and a tape recorder, and you just hit some toy pianos and you stomp on the floor and that’s your rhythm.” And that’s Geri Reig. So we were pretty much influenced by that idea to making complex music with [the] least equipment, with not having much in our hands. I was possessed by the idea, so I went to LA.
I had the impression LAFMS were way more in like a Krautrock or hippie realm than punks in a way. In my mind, they were friends of Faust. Which is very different aesthetically to what you did.
How clear was your idea on how things needed to be? Were you strict or just very open?
Actually, in my youth, I listened more or less to English bands and not so much to German bands. Maybe ’82 or ’83 I discovered that there is Can, and there’s Schnitzler, for instance. In 1980, I was not aware of that. For me, it was like totally new to combine electronics with experiments. I was very amazed by it, by things happening at that time in LA.
I came back to Düsseldorf and wanted to make this Ausland record. That was the point where I met a guy, his name is Werner Lambertz, and he’s kind of genius. He invented an instrument – I think it’s the first digital sequencer ever built. He built it in the late ’70s. It was four-bit digital technology. We called it the Brontologic. It was a very flexible system, and I decided to make Ausland with it.
We went megalomaniac. We had success, we had a big hit on our label, we could finance a lot of stuff with this. But we didn’t see the bad signs which were appearing, that the big record companies were taking over.
At one point you started to get also into production. When was the point where you would say you achieved a certain professionality with sound?
At that time I had an MS-20 and a SQ10 sequencer and a rhythm box and an organ and a Logan String Orchestra – and I wanted to expand the possibilities. I was so much in love with this Brontologic, and I decided to build my own. I asked this guy, “How much would it be to build a huge Brontologic?” It took us three months.
The next album I did was totally made on the Brontologic 2: Wunderland. It was the pre-MIDI time, and when you want to sequence stuff, you had to have analog sequencers, like Tangerine Dream, or Klaus Schulze. And we were not able to buy this. So this first digital sequencer, which was so flexible, was our possibility to use sequenced music without spending so much money.
But the label was doing very well at that time, and we had a visit. Daniel Miller from London called and said, “Oh, there’s this guy who wants to come to Germany. Would you provide him a bed?” And this was Boyd Rice. And he was really strange. He went out in the night with a cassette recorder in graveyards to record voices and stuff like that.
He was saying: “You in Germany, you have such a great history of music. Why did you allow that the Nazis took this all away? And now the whole German music is like Anglo-American music?” He played us Schlager music from the ’50s. This was also a kind of eye-opener for me because I had never heard it before – this was music of my parents.
Shortly after there came this 15-year-old guy from Hamburg called Andreas Dorau in our studio. And he presented us “Fred From Jupiter.” We said, “Great, that’s new Schlager! A rhythm box and cute girls singing. Let’s put this out.” And we didn’t expect at that time that this was actually the start point of the so-called “Neue Deutsche Welle.” We were very much criticized by all these punk bands in Düsseldorf for putting it out, but this record sold.
This actually started a movement of Schlager music in Germany. Der Plan was pretty much influenced. You can hear the difference between Geri Reig, which was very much experimental, and the next one which was called Normalette Surprise, it was pretty much influenced by Boyd Rice and his perception of German music of the ’50s.
So Boyd Rice was actually responsible for the rise of German Schlager?
That’s my theory, my strong theory. Boyd Rice is actually one of the guys who is responsible for Neue Deutsche Welle.
That’s amazing, I had no idea. There’s this aspect of irony – almost like hipsters later – where punks would incorporate Nazi symbols in an ironic way, and you would incorporate Schlager in an ironic way. Obviously Neue Deutsche Welle went into another…
Yeah. At which point were you like, “Oh, that’s shit. Let’s not.”
Actually, “shit,” I wouldn’t say. At that time when this Neue Deutsche Welle really took off, we were somewhere else. This was not interesting for us anymore. It was not shit, it was nice Schlager but nothing more. It was not like putting art into music, putting music into art. It was commercial music. And we were not interested in that.
So what were you doing?
We started building up the label. We had, at that time, quite a lot of money because Andreas Dorau was very successful with this album. And we decided to sign other groups.
So we were bringing out the first records of Holger Hiller, Wirtschaftswunder and Die Tödliche Doris from Berlin. We said, “If we want to really concentrate on art, we have to make an art project.” There were two artists, Mike Hentz and Karel Dudesek, coming from a very strange Austrian performance movement, out of the “Nitsch Klasse.” They made really tough performances. Dangerous performances. The group was called Minus Delta T.
The first performance I saw of them was in Ratinger Hof. They had these huge guys which were blocking the doors so you couldn’t get out anymore. They poured water into the room; ankle high water. Then they threw plaster in huge amounts so you were standing in white mud. And altogether with very loud electronic music. And then they would throw dead fishes, everything started to stink and the people went very aggressive and wanted to go out. But there was no way out. So it was very intense stuff happening. Minus Delta T was really something else.
I attended a few performances of theirs, and you always had to decide, “Is this too dangerous for me or not?” They called it “body performances.” Like, you were confronted with your own body.
They decided to make a project which was called the Bangkok Project. It was bringing a stone from Stonehenge, the oldest history in European religion. Like the old, how you say, animistic…
The pagan stones from Stonehenge. Taking one, bringing this stone to all religious leaders in the world, and then to the Himalayas. And they financed it with a shareholder company. This was launched through the art market, through galleries. And they said, “Do you want to make a record as a documentation of this trip?”
And they went with a huge van to Stonehenge and for sure they couldn’t get a stone there, but they got the information on the places where the stones were made. There was a half-ready stone from Stonehenge, and they took this. They traveled through Europe to Rome to the Pope. The Pope blessed it. They wanted to go to the Islamic capital. They were not allowed to go there, actually they [were] stranded in Jeddah. They all converted to Islam to go there. I mean, they were really straight on their performance to have the blessing of the highest Islamic leader at that time. But they got the blessing from an Islamic leader in Jeddah. I don’t know where at that time the Dalai Lama was – in India somewhere – and they went to the Dalai Lama to have the Buddhist blessings. They went to the biggest Hindu temple in India with the stone, and they had those blessing there.
But actually the stone got stranded at the Ganges. The whole thing was not completed; they ran out of money and gas and things like that. But we made a record out of it. This was all field recordings, tape recordings. Two times they were thrown into prison. They wanted to go to Syria through the Turkish border, and these guards they saw the stone and saw the performers and couldn’t believe it.
But they always had their tape recorder with them, and it was all recorded and we decided which recordings we took. So this was one of the projects we did with Ata Tak at that time to see art and music and these connections.
Was there ever a pull to start to make more money? Because a lot of money started to appear in the art market. Painters like Kippenberger, who had an approach that was rooted in punk, made a lot of money. Or were you just underground?
No, I have to say, we went größenwahnsinnig [megalomaniac]. We had success, we had a big hit on our label, we could finance a lot of stuff with this hit. But we didn’t see the bad signs which were appearing, that the big record companies were taking over.
There were three distributors in Germany: Zensor in Berlin, Rip Off in Hamburg, and Eigelstein in Cologne. Ata Tak was doing its own distribution, but we decided to work with these three distributors together. Alfred Hilsberg in Hamburg had this motto, “Better more than less.” So he was bringing out one record after the other, and as distributor we couldn’t handle this anymore. And the famous group from Cologne, BAP, left Eigelstein and went to EMI, and this was breaking their neck.
So two independent distributions, Eigelstein and Rip Off in Hamburg, both went bankrupt. And we were not a GmbH [limited liability company] – we had no limits in going into debt. The distribution was over. Our label wasn’t, but we had a lot of debt. Actually, exactly 109,000 Deutsche Mark.
That’s about half a million euros today, probably.
We were lucky. We were connected into the art. Friends of ours were getting really successful. And one of these friends was Katharina Fritsch. She is an artist with a high reputation and she sold a lot of art pieces to famous museums. She came to us and said, “I have this big job for you. I make a multiple [limited edition work] with a very ancient technique from the Middle Ages. You have to make Madonnas out of plaster. I get over 100,000 for this art piece, and you get 30,000 if you do this for me.”
And we worked for three months and we had 30,000 in our account. And then she sold another one, but this time with brains, not Madonnas. So within one and a half, two years, we got this money and we found a way of getting out of this huge debt. So there’s kind of a little break in the history of the Ata Tak label. You’ll see a break between ’86 and ’88 or something like that.
How did that situation influence your own musical creativity, what you were putting out? Der Plan existed until the early ’90s.
Right. I think our best show we did before that, ’85 or ’86. One was presented in Japan. It was called “Evolutionary Striptease,” which was very hard to play because we had five costumes over each other. We started as stones, then plants, robots, mutants, and humans. So it was this evolutionary striptease. And insects, I forgot insects. It was hard to play this because every show you lost, like, two kilos with sweating, because putting five masks over each other, and six costumes over each other.
In the ’80s, dance music started to get some recognition in Germany – there were DJs etc. After Der Plan, you did a trance project with Frank at one point, right? How did that make you feel, that electronic music suddenly became this other thing that was related to... taking lots of ecstasy?
Yeah, I mean, Andreas Dorau and Moritz came from Hamburg and said, “Oh, look in Hamburg what’s going on there.” And [so we said,] “Let’s make dance music!” We decided to take pseudonyms and make records under different names.
The early techno music I liked a lot, but we were not so much into the scene. In the early ’90s I changed totally the topic of music. I made a music for a ballet in the Netherlands. It was a very strange project. It was called Target II, and it was a huge robot arm, which was 1.2 tons heavy, hanging from the ceiling. I was doing the music for that.
That was seen by a few guys, one from the Goethe Institut. And in 1988, the Olympic Games were happening in Seoul. So the guy from the Goethe Institut said, “Would you like to do music for the Olympic Games? We make a German pavilion there, which is called the Art Disco, the KunstDisco.”
We tried to make the crossover between art and techno. We invited the young Westbam. He was not famous at all at that time as a DJ. We had, I think, altogether 26 artists writing music for that event and we had these performances in the KunstDisco in Seoul, which was pretty amazing, because it was the most expensive thing a German government ever financed for [the] Olympic Games. Everything was designed from scratch. The music, the light, everything was designed, and it was a few million going into that project.
At that time in Korea, discotheque was like prostitution. It was like men going into a dance club picking up girls. There were no forms of techno discos and things like that existing in Seoul at that time. The whole discotheque opened up at, let’s say, eight in the evening, and it was filled up immediately by thousands of teenagers dancing to techno music.
This was like a feast, a techno party for over two weeks for everybody. This was the first time I worked together with the Goethe Institut. Then they said, “Would you do another project? We want the future of disco. This is the thing which is coming from Germany: Techno. We have to bring this into the world.” It was called Ficción Disco, ’91 in Buenos Aires. It started off with workshops, and concerts in different locations – then, as the high point, the discotheque itself. The question behind this was, how would the discotheque look in 2010? Like in 20 years.
I can tell you, this was totally crazy. The bar, for instance, where you could buy alcohol – to go to this bar, it was a labyrinth. If you were drunk you couldn’t go there, because you couldn’t find the way. This was one of the things which I really liked. Then there were different rooms in the discotheque, which were sound-proof. The first one was a fortune teller. One room was a lawyer. You can go to a lawyer in a discotheque, and ask about your legal problems. One room was a hairdresser. One was a library.
Actually one of the guys, Michael Fahres, went to a Dutch medium to ask her how would the discotheque look like 2010? She was 75 or so. She went into a trance, and said, “There is going to be a big depression, and after this depression, there is a big invention in Siberia. It’s called the Frozen Laser. You can touch the light. People go to dance, and they touch the light.” That was her imagination of the discotheque in 2010.
We tried to realize all these things, which came to us, and there were very intense and strange performances, with an Argentinian group – it was called La Organisation Negra. Working with nudity, with fire. In the discotheque was a huge aquarium, where the go-go girls were wearing oxygen mask and danced underwater. This was one of the biggest projects I did in my life.
Everything is possible, and everything is acceptable. People are so much open-minded, much more than in other cities. That’s Berlin for me.
There’s an interview with Fehlfarben where they’re saying, “Wir wollten keine Goethe Institut Rente” – we didn’t want a pension by Goethe Institut. Was that hinting at what you did?
Yeah, Fehlfarben was never involved in the Goethe Institut. I made a lot of projects with them. The next project was called Sun Wheel. It’s a 16-hour concert.
This was connected to the sun. We were part of a huge land-art object by Robert Morris in Flevoland, Holland. We had eight PA systems standing in the field, over a distance of 250 meters from each other. We worked with a spatial soundsystem, where we could let the music travel in huge dimensions, and over 16 hours. The guy from the Goethe Institut said, “This is amazing, but let’s think big. Let’s make this even bigger.”
Two years later he found a partner in Israel and we did it in the desert of Negev, at the Masada. We had this German director, Werner Herzog, who showed a premier of his film Lektionen in Finsternis at the Masada rock. It’s a film about helicopters making huge curves around the burning oil in Kuwait. He had Wagner music under that, and actually our concert was the first time Wagner was ever played in Israel. This was a totally political aspect of the whole show. But we went through with it because it was “thinking big.”
For all these years, until you released Neuland [in 2011], you didn’t do any records?
No, I was concentrating on installations and doing live projects.
What made you curious again to just release a record? To go back to this simple format that must have seemed tiny to you, compared to all these massive events?
It’s pretty simple. Between 1998 and 2005 or so, I produced a lot of electronic music in my studio for other groups. When the internet came, and MP3 came, musicians made their techno productions as bedroom productions. I had all my material in the studio, and [decided], “Well, I can do that on my own,” and I decided to make Neuland. When I look at it now, I would say it's more or less an album of collections of music I did for two or three years of music I produced for somebody else. But I still like minimal techno a lot, and so that was the finished product at the end.
Your move to Berlin coincided with your last solo release. Followed by the Conrad Schnitzler record, Con-Struct. How did that come about?
There are two guys, Wolfgang Seidel and Jens Strüver. They are kind of keeper of the music of Conrad Schnitzler. When Conrad Schnitzler died in 2011, they saw this huge collection of tapes in his studio, and said: “What could we do with that?” They decided to make a series of records, which is called Con-Struct, where they asked artists to reconstruct the single tracks. In the ’80s, Conrad was doing recordings for eight-channel installations. He has a lot of tapes with eight channels or more, like up to 13 channels on one tape. He was mixing them together.
They were never meant to be one piece of music. They were always meant to be mixed in certain ways. It’s kind of a very nice adventure because you have these tapes from Conrad and you can take whatever you want. You have absolutely freedom. It’s not a remix. You don’t remix this stuff because it’s no song anyway. You start from the scratch. You have this raw synth material, and you can do whatever you want.
For people from other places like LA or wherever who are big fans of what you did in the past, they might imagine all this generation of musicians now being in Berlin and hanging out together. Knowing, for example, that Holger Hiller lives here too now. Does this actually happen?
Yes, for sure. We founded one year ago a little club which is called the POP, and we organize every week one concert. That’s Berlin for me. Everything is possible, and everything is acceptable. People are so much open-minded here. Much more than in other cities, I would say.