“Jazz is living for the improvised”: tracing the comeback of Lars Bartkuhn

Lars Bartkuhn, responsible for the masterful jazz-heavy work of solo project Passion Dance Orchestra, was also behind the sumptuous deep-principled house of the Boobjazz signature with brother Marek. Along with friend Yannick Elvevrfeld the pair also created the Needs group, which, under the same name, doubled up as a Frankfurt based label committed to the more soulful, melodic, and jazzier side of the deep house genre. With his latest Music For The Golden Age EP on Italian imprint Neroli being hailed by label boss Volcov as a comeback akin to that of Soichi Terada in 2014, we thought it only right to help illuminate what all the fuss was about.


At the end of 2014, Lars made a first release in six years under his Passion Dance Orchestra alias with the help of Ropeadope Records. All completely arranged and composed by the talented german, this effort, without loosing the uptempo dancelike feel of his earlier work, took Lars beyond house’s usual synth-monopolised sonance, evoking more organic textures worthy of large concert halls.

When we asked him to condense his vast sound palette for us, he admitted the difficulty in defining one’s own abilities and characteristics. “The ideal of one’s sound to me is a sonic correspondence of the world the artist lives in.” For Lars, therefore, this is a complex undertaking because he is so “musically active in a lot of different settings.” When pushed further, he picked out terms like “rich, colourful, complex, thoughtful, sensitive and inspirational”, but admitted that “could be applied to my output as a composer, producer and also as a performer and player. I constantly work on unifying all these aspect in whatever context I am working at the moment.”

Describing his earliest musical memories Lars recounted listening to the iconic Beatles album Abbey Road with his family “over and over again” as a child. Such a ritual introduction to a band often regarded as the foremost influential rock group of their era might well explain why Lars took a liking to the guitar as a young teenager. Unsurprisingly the guitar was one of the first instruments he experimented with, along with a synthesiser, at which point Lars knew it was music he wanted to do. The first instrument he was bought by his parents was a Roland workstation keyboard, but this didn’t receive any real attention for a few years due to a ”heavy interest in the guitar”. Being mainly self taught he “learned like most other players, listening to and transcribing favourite solos and compositions”, and by seeking advice from more experienced players, “just to get inspiration and material for further studies”.

Discovering jazz at 16 was a turning point, yet this was just the beginning of his musical education. Despite going on to learn jazz guitar at music college in Cologne, “to became a seriously trained musician”, Lars always maintained a love for electronic music. His brother was heavily into it and introduced his to “a lot of good stuff”, so electronic dance music, especially house and DnB was easy for him to relate to.

Bonding over this mutual love for electronic music, Lars and his brother got their first PC together and, “with the addition of samplers, one synth, a drum machine and most important our first mixing desk we started producing house tunes”. The combination of their already rich musical capital shaped a lot of the early Boobjazz sound and eventually, as their skills and influences improved, developed into the later Needs sound.

Moving on we tried to coax out of Lars his views on jazz music’s place in the industry today. He began by revealing he was a bit of a snob, an elitist even, back in the day. It was “either 100% jazz (be it bebop, freejazz, fusion, contemporary) or it was just an unworthy fake.” Nowadays Lars’ ideas have much matured, so much so he even finds it difficult to agree when his own sound is described as jazzy. “Jazz to me, is most of all living for the improvised aspect of music, being creative in the moment, interplay with all people in band. A very complex and rich experience,” he says. “Producing clever beats with a drum machine, having those cool Herbie Hancock kind of chords and some people performing on top of it might be some super-hip, ultra-funky and great music – but if it’s jazz… I don’t know”

It simply took a lot of time, also to finance the whole thing. I even built my own 26 string harp guitar for that project! But I never made a break from working on music.

He happily concedes that a lot of club music draws a inspiration from great historic records. But to him “it is not important to flirt with the jazz scene by doing these things on my house records. Using a classical orchestra sample over a 909 beat doesn’t make the tune more classical, so this is nothing I am thinking too much about.” He does have a point.

This insistence to draw his music away from comparisons to jazz was understandable. In all the noise that is produced today it’s important, more than ever, to be recognised as something different or at least ‘your own’, which was something that Lars had set out to do with his brand of house music from the beginning.

Persevering with the topic of jazz, we put to Lars the question of how to make the genre more accessible to larger, younger and readily captive audiences as is the case in dance music.
The retort was short: “whoa! If I had an answer to that one, I’d be a VERY wise and powerful person now!” But Lars did admit to deliberating this when he was younger, “how jazz could become fresh, funky, more vibey and also more dreamy in a way of creating these cool kind of sounds some electronic music is famous for.” That said, he’s not ignoring some of the great contemporary jazz out there today, with people like Butcher Brown, Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau (who took a lot from Radiohead), “and there has always been the Pat Metheny Group which opened the world for many people who come from different genres.” He rounded down to a considerate point that it’s okay that jazz is not for everyone. “It’s like a guy who feels chosen to write poems. You can’t tell him he should write best selling novels to become famous.” It was an argument well made. Back in the 50s jazz was the popular music (that and skiffle), so who’s to say that won’t come back around again? “People have different tasks in this world. It’s not ALL meant to be one…”

Lars first started releasing music in 1999 with both Needs and Boobjazz projects. The style of his productions, while developed, haven’t drastically changed in this time. He described himself as a “very radical creative back then”, which meant that “whatever idea I had, it became part of the recording – no doubts, no questions.” Today he is a lot more considered and about “finding the right balance, which eats up a lot of time in my case.”

Lars feels the same can be said of his tastes and influences, which have always stayed more or less the same, “but of course as a living person, I am constantly being influenced by all kinds of things”. When it came to house music however he reserved the saying “there is nothing new under the sun” and without brushing off newer talents, whose work he respects a lot, he all the same feels that “a record by a guy like Machinedrum making something more drum & bass related or Burial could inspire me much more.”

Over almost ten years Lars released over 20 records on his own Needs Music label and others including Japanese imprint Nebula and Jazzanova-founded Sonar Kollectiv. This was spread across number of aliases and groups, the most proficient of which was his Passion Dance Orchestra project. “Before the PDO album release in 2014 I had two albums coming out at the same time around 2008 and 2009. After that there was no break,” he clarified. “It was just a very very complex project that took me five years of hard work. Writing all this complex and dynamic music for my band, arranging for symphony orchestra myself, conducting and recording it in Brazil, recording with my band in different cities in Germany. It simply took a lot of time, also to finance the whole thing. I even built my own 26 string harp guitar for that project! But I never made a break from working on music.”

Even when it comes to the greatest pieces of art in history you cannot find no two people who perceive it in a similar way. Music really depends on its countless ways of perception and interpretation.

Understandably in this time Lars became quite separated from the house music scene but the long-term PDO project allowed him to make “further explorations in music”. “Dedicating myself 100% to dance was never the plan for me because I have much too much on my table that needs to be realised. So when I felt it was about time to return, I had kind of lost track of the whole scene already”. This is where Volcov played a very important role in the return. “I needed a person whom I always respected and of course someone who is also connected to my work. I always loved his releases and output and he used to be a great and respectful supporter for my Needs label. So it felt logical and natural to seek his advice when I thought about my return. Then the plans for this release were made in a minute”

This lead fittingly into the specifics of the Golden Age EP, and being in the age of the technocrat we were more than happy to hear this part in detail. Lars explained how everything was recorded in his small project studio in Brazil, “using very basic microphone and recording equipment”. With either Logic or Ableton, the beats would be a “a combination of programmed material and jammed out percussion parts. Melodically and harmonically it’s a sonic blend between programmed drumming, real piano, analog basses and leads, Rhodes, various soft synths, samples, resamples of my own material, guitars and voice, some live percussion”. All this would be performed by Lars.

His inspiration for the project, much like the intended feelings of the listener, was something that he struggled to put into words. “It’s a sound I hear inside of me, a quest for finding a certain combination of right notes and rhythms. Something that simply makes sense in a musical way – at least to my ears.” For Lars it’s all about the music itself and the ability to communicate through it. It’s a conscious decision to rarely use in my music is, because he believes “in the pure power of music beyond the need for explaining words.” An abstract concept to some, but for Lars it’s “a natural and universal language.” Within that he describes the beauty of music being received by different people in different ways, therefore trying to influence this with preconceived ideas is something he would never want to do. “Even when it comes to the greatest pieces of art in history you cannot find no two people who perceive it in a similar way. Music really depends on its countless ways of perception and interpretation.”

Trying to compare his solo work to his Passion Dance Orchestra work we questioned Lars about the styles between the two. “To tell you the truth: PDO is basically a solo project. In the beginning it was kind of an ironic idea because it was just me alone creating these large sceneries of sound and texture.” He poetically expressed that with PDO it was his intention to “create soundtrack-like music for the dancefloor” but with it being more of a “musical movie that doesn’t need pictures anymore because it’s so vivid and complex on it’s own”. The assembly of a band came many years later and it just seemed a logical step to dedicate that project name to the band. To him, PDO was just “a group of people trying to create something much larger than just the sum of it’s parts. That’s why it is called the Passion Dance Orchestra.”

This new band is also something that embodies a place close to where Lars wishes to take his music. But since there is so much stylistic diversity he wishes to get across, he is comfortable that all his projects won’t be for everyone. “I don’t think it’s possible and clever to combine EVERYTHING for one project or event.”

As for what you can look forward to from Lars, in 2016 there are a few more releases in the pipeline and he will also be touring a new new solo project “which is an improvised electronic set combined with acoustic instruments programmed in a DJ-like setting. So this is going to be really entertaining and interesting!” We do hope this new project doesn’t need another 26 string harp to come to fruition. If nothing else, we’d hate to wait another five year to hear something new from a musical mind that never stops working, inventing and creating.

Lars Bartkuhn – Music for the Golden Age is out now on Neroli – buy from Juno.

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