The percussive innovations of unsung electronic music pioneer Klaus Krüger

By in Features

From building his own drums, to having tea with David Bowie, Klaus Krüger lived through West Berlin’s creative heyday, recorded with Tangerine Dream and Iggy Pop, and cut his own tape loops by hand.

Such was the fertility of West Berlin’s creative underground in the ’70s and early ’80s, that many of the era’s trailblazing musicians still manage to sneak under the radar. As political engagement, radical lifestyles and technological advancements coalesced in the squats and studios between the Landwehr Canal and the Berlin Wall, a generation of young musicians and artists found freedom to experiment in ways that would lay the foundations for electronic music.

Among them, living in a Kreuzberg loft and making his own drums by hand, was a graphic design student called Klaus Krüger. Over the course of just a few years, he would cut two albums with Tangerine Dream (Cyclone and Force Majeure), record and tour with Iggy Pop, befriend Bowie, and pioneer his own brand of percussive tape sampling.

After collaborating with BBE on Sun Palace’s ‘Raw Movements / Rude Movements’ reissue, platform and label Halfway Ritmo has joined forces with Italy’s Early Sound Recordings to release a collection of tapes made by Klaus Krüger in the ’80s, under the title Advanced Dance.

Recorded between 1982 and 1989, the tracks showcase Krüger’s ability to balance complex polyrhythms, classic drum patterns and electronic sequencing, giving birth to an unconventional and avant-garde form of music that could easily be defined as a precursor of techno.

To mark the release, Halfway Ritmo’s Massimo Di Lena (part of Nu Guinea with Lucio Aquilina) and Flavia Lamprecht (editor of Kodizes Magazine) spoke to Krüger about his experience of living and working in West Berlin, sharing a studio with Tangerine Dream, and developing his own unique percussive sound.

You studied at Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Berlin. How did the atmosphere there help you grow creatively?

My time at Hochschule für Bildende Künste opened up many possibilities for me. I started my studies in 1971 and was part of the department of Grafik und Gestaltung [Graphic design]. I liked it there because they gave me the chance to look into other creative fields like painting, printing, photography and design, but my first creative activity was playing drums. I wanted to build my own drums.

How did the idea come about?

It all arose out of the thought that even if I rehearsed 24 hours-a-day, I would still somehow sound like everyone else with normal drums. It was about looking for my own sound by changing the material of the instrument. I had the idea of building the drum shells out of polyester. I built seven drums in standard sizes and it took me a year to build them. At that time I was living with six people in a loft in Kreuzberg. The apartment was on top of a factory building, and one room was shaped like a trapezoid. The acoustics in there were very particular and I was in heaven! I played the drums in that room every day for almost a year.

Did you record any of your drum sessions?

Yes, in 1975 I also started to record my drums to tape. I bought a pair of condenser mics and a Revox tape recorder. I cabled everything together and just played the shit out of my drums. The idea of recording onto a tape recorder was great because I suddenly owned a production tool.

What did you do with the tapes once you’d recorded them?

I started to cut tapes and structured pieces of music using a collage technique. I saw this technique used mainly at radio stations, and I used studio tape which has a thicker backside, making it more efficient to handle. I used a pencil and made a mark on the back of the tape where the cut was supposed to be, and cut the tape at a 45 degree angle so I could put different pieces of drum recordings together and experiment with it. If you’re good at it, you don’t hear any cut. It was just the beginning of a lifetime interest in the more electronic parts of music.

Tell us a little about how this evolved?

I got asked to go into the studio with Edgar Froese for the first time in 1976. He produced a demo tape for the British singer-songwriter Nick Whiffen in Berlin. This was actually my first professional studio job as a drummer and I used my custom-built polyester drums. A year later in 1977, Edgar invited me to play drums on his solo album Ages. This was the beginning of our musical working relationship, which led to a new Tangerine Dream formation later that year. I played my polyester drums on two of their albums and accompanied them on a big European tour in 1978.

Was there something you particularly remember about Tangerine Dream’s creative process?

I can still clearly remember one precise thing from when we worked on Force Majeure that still makes me admire Christoph Franke’s avant garde musical thinking today.

Instead of a clock (usually an LFO) triggering the Moog sequencer, Christopher placed a contact microphone on my hi-hat cymbal (usually playing 1/8 notes) and processed that signal to get a useful trigger signal. You can hear this experiment on the album’s ‘Cloudburst Flight’ between 5.30 and 7.20 minutes.

Most of Christopher’s analogue synthesizer equipment was a modular Moog system (modules like clocks, oscillators, filters, mixers and sequencers) which was connected with cables. The basic impulse for running a sequencer was a voltage-controlled trigger signal from a low frequency oscillator which also controlled the tempo. So the idea was that I would play the role of the “LFO” and trigger the sequencer, which was a lot of fun. In general this method was not often used in pop music production, because most producers favoured the consistency of a mechanical clock.

During that time you also started working as drummer on a few of Iggy Pop’s albums. How did that come about?

In December 1978, I was invited to record with Edgar Froese, and at that time Iggy Pop was living in Berlin. I met him at the studio where we recorded. Iggy Pop and David Bowie were in the room where I was playing the drums. It was a coincidence that they were there, they just drove around town and stopped by, because Edgar knew David already. I didn’t even notice them while I was playing. I don’t know why, but they asked for my telephone number. So I was like, “Yeah, there you go – have my number and let me get back to playing!” They were probably looking for someone who didn’t treat them with any kind of special admiration. A few weeks later Iggy Pop called me. We met up and started to hang out a little bit, went to nightclubs and so on.

What do you think attracted them to come to Berlin?

At that time Berlin allowed you to be who you were, the way you wanted to be, but without the pretentious touch you felt in other big cities. For me it was normal, as this was the world I grew up in, but for others who came from one of those hectic places and saw Berlin, it was an idyll and a retreat. There wasn’t much going on and it helped you to decelerate, and concentrate on what you were doing.

What other kind of encounters did you have with the two of them?

David Bowie invited me to his apartment in Schöneberg and showed me around. The whole apartment had a sand-coloured carpet and five big rooms. Some of them were completely empty, and in other rooms there was just one item, like an Arp synthesizer or a stereo. The kitchen was full of stuff though. We sat down in the kitchen and chatted. David even made a cup of tea for me. Iggy Pop was living just around the corner in the back building. I met him from time to time while he was writing music. There was something cute about the way he worked with demos and cassettes. He had a mountain of cassette tapes in his living room and played me several of them. At that time, I still didn’t know that he wanted me to play drums on his next album.

And when did you find out?

David Bowie asked me later if I was interested in playing drums on Iggy’s next album. The deal was fixed pretty quickly. Iggy only had a pretty vague idea about the drum parts. Honestly, he never told me what to play. Later in the studio in Los Angeles, I worked mainly with the two other musicians – Jackie Clark and Scott Thurston – on the basic tracks. This was in December 1978.

How did this way of working differ from Tangerine Dream?

With Tangerine Dream it was more like everybody had their own place and studio, and worked by themselves, except when we rehearsed and played concerts. With Iggy Pop there was more travelling and live playing, which I really liked at the time. We toured Europe, and at that time, I was living together with Martin Kippenberger in Kreuzberg. He and some friends opened up a club called S036. On that tour we also played in Berlin, and after the concert we all went together to S036.

Having moved on from Iggy Pop and Tangerine Dream, how did you make your solo projects a reality?

Even though I stopped working with Tangerine Dream, Christoph Franke remained a good friend. Christoph gave me the opportunity to use his studio, which was located in Spandau. The studio had high walls as it was previously a cinema. Christoph’s idea was to have the recording room and a control room together in one space. As Christoph was travelled to the US regularly, I used his studio for many weeks by myself. His studio became the room in which I could record my music. I was the producer, engineer and musician. I wasn’t really thinking of my career, but rather my own enjoyment. My intention wasn’t to record rock songs, but just to come up with something different, where I could put all my experiences together. I can definitely say that this was a very creative phase in my life.

Together with friends from the studio community “Fabrikneu”, we had an idea to publish a single by ourselves and sell some of the 100 copies to smaller record shops in Berlin. I can still remember having to hand-glue hundreds of covers, because the records only arrived from the pressing plant in white envelopes. I went from playing the drum beats to bagging the individual records with genuine handicraft!

In 1981 and 1983, you released two albums on German label Innovative Communications, One on One and Zwischenmischung. Your music was ahead of its time and was characterised by complex polyrhythms.

By that point I had really got into using analogue sequencers. I ordered different pieces to build my own percussion synthesizer with which I could realise more complex, rhythmic tracks.

You’re now releasing Advanced Dance, which is a collection of unreleased music that you composed between 1982 and 1989. Tell us a little about that.

All the tracks on the album were basically created, played and recorded in the ’80s, from my perspective on the change from analogue to digital, which revolutionised almost every detail in music production. My working relationship with Edgar Froese und Christopher Franke led me to have access to musical production equipment for my own experiments (to call them “compositions” would probably be a slight exaggeration.) So all this represented my foundation when the ’80s came along, with digital sequencers, the first computers and all these MIDI sound machines. I used all this stuff with a lot of pleasure. This was a time in my life where I could be very creative, and I am thankful for that.