For those counting down the days until we can safely dance together again, German techno producer Paul Kalkbrenner has crafted an anthem to help. His track “Graf Zahl” utilizes balmy basslines and hypnotic beats, making the record perfect for playing on repeat while waiting out the winter months in quarantine. Kalkbrenner created the single using audio recordings of West German telephone tests from the 1960s that count the numbers between zero and nine. The renowned producer then put the recordings into a randomizing sequencer program, thus creating a numerical sequence that can’t be recreated by the program for a thousand years.
Kalkbrenner titled the track after the German name for the popular “Sesame Street” character The Count. The children’s show was the only Western television show he was allowed to watch as a child growing up in East Germany, where he only had access to five channels—three from the West and two from the East. “Graf Zahl” feels both nostalgic and current: The song references a character from childhood, while also feeling relevant to life today as people all around the world are quarantining at home and counting down the days until life returns to normal. Kalkbrenner took the time to share with Forbes the inspiration behind “Graf Zahl,” what it was like growing up in East Germany with limited access to television and more.
Lisa Kocay: Your latest track, “Graf Zahl,” was created by sequencing old 1960s telephone recording tests, and the randomized sequences will effectively never be recreated by the program within a thousand years. Can you talk about the inspiration behind doing this?
Paul Kalkbrenner: “I found the audio samples from the ‘60s and really enjoyed how they sounded—old but also futuristic. We’ve all been stuck at home counting the days until we can play again, and that’s what inspired the track. I loved the idea that the sequence would be totally random and basically never repeated. In my mind, I have an image of people partying and hearing the song, and then trying to figure out the logic to the sequence—but of course there is none.”
Kocay: Graf Zahl is also the German name for The Count on “Sesame Street,” which was the only Western show you were allowed to watch as a child growing up in East Germany. What drew you to liking this character so much?
Kalkbrenner: “I think all of us of a certain generation have a certain nostalgia for ‘Sesame Street,’ even those of us who grew up in the East. For me, it was the only show broadcast on the Western channel that I could watch. I am watching the show now with my daughter, especially during lockdown, so the character had been in my mind. When I thought about the translation to English, which literally means Count (as in the title Count) and Count (meaning the verb), it was perfect for the track.”
Kocay: “Graf Zahl” feels both nostalgic as it relates to a character from a childhood time, but it is also reflective of our current situation: We’re all quarantining at home, where each day feels the same, counting down the days until we can safely dance together again. What was it like using this dual approach in making this song?
Kalkbrenner: “Many people are reflecting on the past while at home, so I suppose it was natural to look a little backwards during this moment. But this is still a song—nothing too crazy in the approach—and [it’s] nice to be able to spend some time outside the house and create in the studio.”
Kocay: What was it like growing up and only having access to five TV channels, three from the West and two from the East? Did you pick up other hobbies as a result?
Kalkbrenner: “For me it seems very normal. I don’t think it was only an East German experience—no one had many channels in that period. We did other things like listen to the radio, I guess.”
Kocay: How did you initially get into making music?
Kalkbrenner: “My first experiences with electronic music were listening to techno tracks on the radio in East Berlin as a young teenager. It was that experience of electronic music first arriving in Berlin on the airwaves that led me to making techno music.”
Learn more about Paul Kalkbrenner here.