Kraftwerk - Eine Kleine Kraftmusik
They are one of the most influential musical acts in history – pioneering electronic music and style. Of course we’re talking about Kraftwerk, Deutschland’s finest exports. 3D’s Cyclone spoke to founding member Ralf Hütter.
Long before Daft Punk donned their customised robot helmets, the German robo-funksters Kraftwerk were creating a template for modern electronica.
Kraftwerk (meaning “power station”) not only presaged new wave, but also electro, techno and hip hop.
The pop futurists toured Australia with 2003’s Big Day Out – their first visit since 1981 – but declined advance press access. But, with Kraftwerk returning for Global Gathering, the mysterious Ralf Hütter is, to journalists’ astonishment, amenable to interviews.
Kraftwerk initiated the self-mythology emulated by everyone from The KLF to Underground Resistance to, yes, Daft Punk. In an attempt to melt that Teutonic ice, this writer solicited a question from one of the Detroit techno godfathers, Derrick May. It pays off – Hütter is pleased. Still, rather disconcertingly, he seeks details of weather conditions down under... Are the German robots human after all-
Kraftwerk lore aside, Hütter is an easy conversationist. He comes across as fatherly – but never patronising. However, Hütter can be hermetic. Raise any topic and he almost always ends up discussing Kraftwerk’s show.
Four decades on and Hütter loves gigging. Touring is less arduous now that Kraftwerk have joined the digital revolution. They don’t need to transport cumbersome analogue gear from their feted Kling Klang studio.
“Now, over the last five years, we’re very engaged in this live situation because, for the first time in our existence in nearly 40 years, with the digital and mobile equipment that we have now, laptop computers, etceteras, we are able to bring the whole Kling Klang studio onto the stage and perform the music in real-time the way it was conceived,” he says. “We’re doing the soundcheck and the concert, we are modulating the sounds, and everything is in real-time – and also with computer graphics and the visual images. It’s some kind of symbiosis of man and the machines.”
At Global Gathering, Kraftwerk will have their famous robots, previously on exhibition in Paris. “It’s only the walls that we leave in Dusseldorf,” Hütter says.
The Kraftwerk live experience is postmodern robot cabaret, sci-fi disco, and electro theatre. As such, they’ve been booked everywhere but China and Korea, with Hütter keen to play North Korea. “We’ve played from Iceland to the super-hot – last time in Sydney and Melbourne – and still the electronics are functioning!”
Kraftwerk evolved out of the same experimental (West) German milieu as Krautrockers like Neu!. The group’s founders, Hütter and Florian Schneider, bonded as music students in Dusseldorf, cutting an LP as Organisation prior to Kraftwerk. Their early work closer to Krautrock, Kraftwerk didn’t begin to define a pure electronic aesthetic until 1974’s breakthrough Autobahn – their fourth album. The title-track, inspired by Germany’s super freeway, was an unusual trans-Atlantic hit. Kraftwerk realised that they could be pop and avant-garde.
Hütter has expressed ambivalence about Kraftwerk’s Krautrock era, but he still values ‘improv’, something that may surprise fans, considering the band’s meticulously controlled sets.
“It’s a continuous, gradual improvisation with our compositions,” he says. “They are concepts, in a way. It’s like conceptual art where you say, ‘This is an autobahn’ – but the traffic constantly changes, the weather changes, so it’s constant change. We have the elements, and we have the electronic cars, so to speak, to drive on the musical highway, and we can drive at different speeds or whatever. The main thing is to avoid accidents and to really do constructive work with our music machines.”
Germany spawned an unlikely cultural export in Kraftwerk at a time when the US/UK axis governed pop music. They proved a viable live entity, too, defying those rock dogs mistaking them for a Euro gimmick.
Kraftwerk followed Autobahn with other ‘conceptual’ LPs: Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine, all landmarks.
David Bowie embraced Kraftwerk’s electronic minimalism, their influence permeating Station To Station. The Thin White Duke subsequently recorded in Berlin – and Low ushered in new wave.
Kraftwerk held their sway in the ’80s with Computer World. The automatons’ impact on African-American musicians was especially profound. Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk on the seminal electro Planet Rock. And they mobilised techno pioneer Juan Atkins. Like Bambaataa, Atkins picked up on the funkiness in the Germans’ apparently austere and rigid “machine music”.
For Hütter, who acknowledges an enduring affinity with Detroit, Kraftwerk’s music is universal. “It’s all about energy and machine-like dynamics, which, of course, is part of our ‘man-machine’ concept – Kraftwerk, that’s what we call ‘the man-machine’. It’s the harmony between men and machines. It’s not in opposition or a fight or a domination of this or that, but it’s a friendship.”
Hütter is unsure why Germany became an electronic hub, speculating that “it has to do with some kind of urban industrial environment.” Kraftwerk helped Germany re-imag(in)e itself after the brutalities of WWII. They manifested a peculiarly Teutonic eccentricity, and humour, that fascism had repressed. “We are what we call the ‘Bundesrepublik Generation’ – we are the post-war generation,” Hütter says. “Our culture starts from zero and so we had to find – or develop – the musical language. We discovered a void – a zero situation – but, from there on, we could create, or we had to create, our own musical language.”
Kraftwerk generated “alltag musik”, or “everyday life music”, a genre thematising the new post-war consumerism. “We talk about living in today’s society with the consumer situation and travel and motion – people have called us ‘music of motion and emotion.’”
Kraftwerk disappeared in the wake of 1986’s electro-pop Electric Cafe, a record that Pet Shop Boys had superseded.
All was quiet on the Kling Klang front until the ’90s. In 1997 Kraftwerk memorably performed at Tribal Gathering in the UK. Their global presence has since grown. The “musikarbeiter” (“musical workers”) radically reinvented themselves, adopting software technology.
Kraftwerk issued the single Expo 2000 – which UR symbolically remixed – and, soon after BDO, released the ‘comeback’ album Tour de France Soundtracks, reformulating their 1983 tune in honour of the great race’s centenary. (Hütter is a bicycle obsessive and actually suffered a nasty accident in the ’80s.) Then, two years back, a Kraftwerk live LP materialised.
Hütter is evasive on the subject of another Kraftwerk album, but assures that they’re “constantly working”.
Kraftwerk are conscious of contemporary electronica. “It’s part of our soundscapes when we go to clubs or some electro parties – late night events – in Amsterdam or Brussels or sometimes Berlin and Frankfurt. We live in Central Europe and, within a couple of hours, we are in all the major different cultural cities – and that’s also part of our musical concept, like Trans-Europe Express. We go to dance events – clubs – and there we dance to electro music.”
Kraftwerk have survived multiple personnel switches, the collective bigger than the individual. In 2000, Wolfgang Flur, in Kraftwerk during their ’70s heyday, published an autobiography, I Was A Robot, to the indignation of his old band mates. Hütter has no desire to pen a history himself. “Basically, everything that we have to say is in the music or in the lyrics or in the visuals – that’s really our language.”
Kraftwerk are as enigmatic as ever. Schneider didn’t appear with them at Coachella and Hütter confirms that his friend won’t be journeying to Australia, either, being a reluctant tourist. Instead he’ll be accompanied by Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz, both long-time colleagues, plus visual programmer Stefan Pfaffe – oh, and the robots.
Finally, Hütter answers May’s query. The Detroiter wants to know why Kraftwerk haven’t scored a film. Hütter reveals that they’ve never been approached, although the German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder licensed their music. But he’s not perturbed. “Our music is a film in itself. It’s about the film that’s in your head, in your imagination. You create the film when you hear the music of Kraftwerk. The concert is like a live film. The connection with your ears and your eyes and your mind is very strong.”
WHAT: Play Global Gathering at Entertainment Quarter
WHEN: Sunday 30 November