KRAFTWERK: IN A
An interview with Ralf Hütter of the
legendary prophets of modernism and
all things digital-sterile. In which Kraftwerk
travel all the way from the Last John Cleese-oid
Skirmish of WW2, to cyborg Wet-Ware
Science Fiction futures...
‘TECHNO-POP AT THE ELECTRIC CAFÉ’
“We play the machines, but the machines also play us.
They should not do only slave work, we try to treat
them as colleagues so they exchange energies with us...”
(Ralf Hütter in ‘Mojo’, April 1997)
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier...
Kraftwerk means ‘Power Station’ – regardless of what you read elsewhere. They are also the Teutonic fourpiece responsible for soundtracks for science like “Trans-Europe Express” and “Computer World”. They are the musicians who first encrypted the transcript from the handbook of neuro-electronic tomorrows, the fountainhead of all things digital-sterile, and took it into the minimalist technological zeitgeist. Their sound, from its early-1970’s beginnings, was already aerodynamically styled for the next millennium. Now they here in London for a brief tour promoting their album ‘The Mix’ (June 1991), playing selected concerts – including the cult Dance Festival ‘Tribal Gathering’ (at Luton Hoo 24th May 1997), and doing a limited number of meet-and-greet press interviews. I corner Ralf Hütter (electronics and voice) in a cluttered backwater of EMI House, and poke theories at him through the language barrier.
It seems to me there are two distinct phases to Krautwerk’s career. Or perhaps even three. The first five years devoted purely to experimental forays into synchromeshed avant-electronics, producing the batch of albums issued in Britain through Vertigo – ‘Kraftwerk’ in 1972, ‘Ralf Und Florian’ the following year, the seminal ‘Autobahn’ in 1974, and the compilation ‘Exceller 8’ in 1975. Then they switch to EMI, settle on a more durable line-up and the subsequent move into more image-conscious material, a zone between song and tactile atmospherics feeding into areas dangerously close to Euro-Disco. The third – and current phase, involves a long and lengthening silence.
‘No, it wasn’t like that’ says Hütter, all neat and in black. ‘It was...’ his hand indicates a level plane. ‘There was never a break. It was a continual evolution. We had our studios since 1970, so we always worked on the next album, and the next album, and just so on. I think Dusseldorf therefore was very good because we brought in other people, painters, poets, so that we associated ourselves with...’ his sometimes faulty English – interfacing with my even more faulty German, breaks down. The words don’t come. So he switches direction. ‘Also we had some classical training before that (Ralf and Florian met at the Dusseldorf Conservatory), so we were very disciplined’. The other Crafty-Workers in this original extended family of neo-Expressionist electro-subversives included Conny Plank (who was to produce later stuff for Annie Lennox’ The Tourists, and Ultravox), Klaus Dinger and Thomas Homann (later of Neu), artist Karl Klefisch (responsible for the highly effective 1978 ‘Man-Machine’ sleeve), Emil Schult (who co-composed “Trans-Europe Express”) and others. In the subsequent personnel file – as well as Hütter, there is Florian Schneider who also operates electronics and sometimes robotic vocals. While across the years of their classic recordings they are set against Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur who both manipulate electronic percussion.
I ask if they always operated as equal partners. ‘Everybody has their special function within the group, one which he is good at and likes to do the most.’ It was never just Ralf und Florian plus a beatbox rhythm section? ‘No. It’s just that we started historically all that time ago and worked for four years with about twenty percussionists, and they would never go into electronics, so we had to step over, banging away and things like that. And then Wolfgang came in...’
You find the phrasing strange? I’ll tell you... when the possibility of doing this interview first cropped up I ransacked my archives and dug out everything on Kfartwerk I could find. Now it occurs to me that each previous press chat-piece from ‘Creem’ to ‘Melody Maker’ have transposed Herr Hütter’s every utterance into perfect English. Which is not the case. His eloquence is daunting, but it inevitably has very pronounced Germanic cadences. Sometimes he skates around searching for the correct word, other times he uses the right word in the wrong context. When her says ‘we worked on the next album and the next album, and just so on’ it really emerges as ‘ve vork on ze next album und ze next, und just zo on’. It might be interesting to write up the whole interview-tape with that phonetic accuracy, but it would be difficult to compose and impossible to read. Nevertheless, I’m not going to bland out his individuality by disinfecting his speech peculiarities, or ethnically cleansing his phrases entirely...
THE VOICE OF ENERGY…’
“I think our music has to do with emotions.
Technology and emotion can join hands...”
(Ralf Hütter, 1991)
With that sorted out I ask if he enjoyed touring. ‘Yes, basically, because we don’t do it so often. But we also enjoy working in our studios in Dusseldorf, we shouldn’t tour too much otherwise... we get lost somewhere, maybe! We get too immunised. When you have too much you must shut down because you get too many sounds and visions from that tour. For the first five years we toured always in Germany on the Autobahns – that’s where that album came from. Since 1975 we do other countries as well.’ They first toured the USA in March 1975, topping the bill over British Prog-Rockers Greenslade, then – leaving an American Top Thirty hit, they went on to play eight British dates in June set up for them by manager Ira Blacker.
How much of that early music was improvised? Was the earlier material ‘freer’? Kraftwerk numbered Karl Klaus Roeder on violin and guitar back then, so are the newer compositions more structured? ‘No. We are going more... now that we play longer, work longer than ten years, we know more and every afternoon when we are in the Concert Hall or somewhere in the studio we just start the machines playing and listen to this and that. Just yesterday we composed new things. Once in Edinburgh we composed a new piece which we even included in that evening’s show. New versions on old ideas. So we are always working because otherwise we should get bored just repeating. And it’s not correct what he (a hostile gig reviewer) was saying – that we play on stage exactly like we sound on the record. That’s complete rubbish. It means people don’t even notice and they don’t listen. They go instead over to the Bar for a drink! We, our music is very basic, the compositions are never complex or never complicated. More sounds – KLINK! KLUNK!! Metallic sound. We go for this sound composition more than music composition. Only now they are thematically more precise than they were before.’
After so long within the genre don’t they find electronics restricting? ‘No, just the opposite.’ Words precise with the sharp edge of Teutonic resonance. ‘We can play anything. The only restrictions we do find are, like in writing, as soon as you have a paper and pen – or a computer or a cassette recorder and a microphone, and you bring ideas, you find the limitation is in what you program rather than what is in the microphone or the cassette. You – as a writer, writing this interview, can’t say that the piece you are writing is not good because the word processor did not pick out the right words for you. It’s the same with us. If we make a bad record it’s because we are not in a good state of mind.’
When they started out they recorded in German-language. ‘We always record in German’ he corrects emphatically. ‘Then we do – like in films, synchronised versions for English. The original records are all German, but we also do French, and now Japanese versions. We are very into the internationalist part.’ Continuing this trans-Europe theme he suddenly suggests ‘Britain in a very historical society. The Establishment. The hierarchy. We come here and we feel that immediately. On the one hand you have this very modern...’ he tails off. Starts again, ‘it’s a schizophrenic country, a modern people, new music and everything, but on the other hand the... how can I say it, a theatrical establishment.’ I retaliate, yes – but surely it could equally be argued that all Europe forms a common cultural unit attempting to survive between the historic power-block forces of the USA and the old Soviet Union? Indeed, to journalist Andy Gill, Kraftwerk’s music is ‘promoting the virtues of cybernetic cleanliness and European culture against the more sensual, body-orientated nature of most Afro-American derived music’ (‘Mojo’, August 1987). Europe shares a common heritage uniting Britain, Germany and France, which are all being subtly subverted by a friendly invasion of American Economic and McCultural influences, movies, records, clothes? Hütter himself once said ‘in Germany, Pop music is a cultural import’. ‘Yes, I know. Certainly when we came to Birmingham (England) we thought it was similar to Dusseldorf. There’s no question. But in Germany it happens even more though, because here in England at least you notice, you know the language and everything. In Germany they don’t notice, it was just taken over.’
I’d always considered the German language to be a defence against foreign influence. It was far easier for mainstream British culture to be accessed, and infiltrated because of a common American-English language. In France, for example, the Government is actively resisting the ‘Anglicisation’ of their language through ‘Franglaise’, because they rightly see its corruption as the thin end of the wedge. ‘Maybe. That should be checked. But you, together with the Americans had another situation to start with. After the war, Germany was finished. I’m not saying why or whatever, that’s OK. But when I grew up we used to play around the bomb-fields and the destroyed houses. This was just part of our heritage, part of our software. It was our education and cultural background...’ The spectre of Basil Fawlty springs unbidden. Earlier an entirely innocent question about Kraftwerk’s origins had dislodged similar sentiments. He’d spoken of Germany’s Fascist years – ‘in Germany especially, that’s what I mostly knew about, then all the (artistic / creative) people emigrated, Einstein had to leave, and everybody knows the reasons. And then only after the war – he came back. But I think Germany went through a period, with our parents, who had never had anything. They went through two wars...’
Now personally, the dinosaur struggles of mindless European Empires doesn’t bother me. Creativity and human individuality does. And massive giga-jolts of respect are due here. Long before the world had heard of Bill Gates, Y2K or William Gibson, when Silicon Valley was still just a valley and mail had yet to acquire its ‘e’ prefix, Kraftwerk were literally inventing and assembling their own instruments, expanding the technosphere by rewiring the sonic neural net, and defining the luminous futures of what we now know as global electronica. But suddenly I get visions of our dialogue devolving into the last skirmish of Ward War 2. ‘Don’t mention the WAR!!!’ Giant imaginary replicas of John Cleese goose-step across the room...
‘MAN MACHINE: MENSCH MASCHINE…’
“We feel that the synthesizer is an acoustic mirror, a brain
analyser that is super-sensitive to the human element in ways
previous instruments were not, so it is really better suited to
expose the human psychology than the piano or guitar...”
(Ralf Hütter in ‘Mojo’, April 1997)
Change of tack. There’s a lot of Kraftwerkian influence around. Much of current electro-Dance seems to be plugged directly into the vaguely ‘industrial’ neuro-system that Hütter initially delineated, while dedicated eighties survivalist cults Depeche Mode and Human League also have Kraftwerk DNA in their gene-code. He nods sagely. ‘There’s a very good feeling in England now. It was all getting so... historical.’ Is the same thing happening in Germany now? Is there a good Rock scene there? ‘No. But New Music (Neu Musik).’
Hütter’s opinions on machine technology have been known to inspire hacks of lesser literary integrity to sprees of wild Thesaurus-ransacking adjectival overkill, their vocabularies straining for greater bleakness, more clone-content, ‘Bladerunner’ imagery grown bloated and boring through inept repetition. And sure, Kr-art-werk is all geometrical composition, diagonal emphasis, precision honed etc, but their imagery is not entirely without precedent. Deliberately so. Their ‘Man-Machine’ album track “Metropolis” obviously references German Fritz Lang’s 1926 proto-SF Expressionist movie. The album sleeve also acknowledges the ‘inspiration’ of Bauhaus Constructivist El Lissitzky. I go on to hazard a connection with German modern classical music bizarro Karlhienz Stockhausen – particularly on Kraftwerk’s ‘Radio-Activity’ (1975) album, where they use the ‘musique concrete’ technique of surgical-splicing different sounds together from random areas. “Radioland” uses drop-in short-wave blips, bursts and static twitterings, “Transistor” has sharp pre-sample edits, alongside the pure found-sound audio-collage “The News”. A technique that resurfaces as late as ‘Electric Café (1986), where “The Telephone Song” is made up of ‘phone bleeps and telecommunication bloopery. He’s familiar with the input. Immediately snaps back the exact location of the ideas – ‘Kurzwellen’, from Stockhausen’s back-catalogue. And what about the aural applications of Brion Gysin / William Burroughs’ literary cut-up experiments? Is there any interaction there? ‘Maybe’ he concedes. ‘‘Soft Machine’, contact with machines. But we are more Germanic.’ He pauses, then suggests ‘we take from everywhere. That’s how we find most of our music. Out of what we find in the street. The “Pocket Calculator” in the Department Stores.’
The music is the message – ‘the perfect Pop song for the tribes of the global village’ as Hütter once described it. The medium and the form? ‘If the music can’t speak for itself then why make music? Then we can be writers directly. If I could speak really everything I want with words then I should be working in literature, in words. But I can’t, I never can say anything really, I can’t even hardly talk to the audience. I don’t know what to say. But when we make music, everything keeps going, it’s just the field we are working in, or if we make videos we are more productive there.’
I quote back from an interview he did with ‘Q’ magazine in July 1991 where he suggests that traditional musical skills are becoming increasingly redundant, ‘with our computers, this is already taken care of’ he explains. ‘So we can now spend more time structuring the music. I can play faster than Rubenstein with the computer, so it (instrumental virtuosity) is no longer relevant – it’s getting closer to what music is all about, thinking and hearing.’ So what’s new in electronics, Ralf? ‘What we find now is like, a revolution in machines. They are bringing back all the garbage now that has been put into them for the last hundred years and we are facing a second, third and fourth Industrial Revolution. Computers. Nano-electronics. Maybe then we come back into Science Fiction? I don’t know.’ Then, on inspiration, ‘there’s another thing coming out. ‘Wet-Ware’, and we function also – in a way, as Wet-Ware.’
I’m hit by a sudden techno-blur of off-the-wall ideas, imperfectly understood concepts of some electro-erotic wet ‘T’-shirt ritual in the pale blue wash of sterile monitors. What is ‘Wet-Ware’, Ralf? Spoken with bated breath. And he explains. Like hardware is machines. Software is the data that is fed into them. ‘Wet-Ware is anything biochemical. The biological element in the machine!’
The programmer? I see. Fade into intimations of cybernetic ubermensch conspiracies.
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier...
*Although deliberately angled to imply that this interview occurred at a later date, in fact it consists of material taped at the time of my Kraftwerk interview which appears in the book ‘I Was Elvis Presley’s Bastard Love-Child’ (Headpress Books)
VORSPRUNG DURCH TECHNO
1970 – ‘TONE FLOAT’ by ORGANISATION. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben with others (Basil Hammoudi, Butch Hauf and Alfred Monicks), produced by Konrad ‘Conny’ Plank and recorded in a studio in Dusseldorf’s Oil Refinery. Includes “Milk Rock”, “Silver Forest” and “Rhythm Salad”, “Noitasinagro” and 20:46-minute “Tone Float”
1971 – ‘HIGHRAIL’ by KRAFTWERK. Hütter and Schneider with Klaus Dinger and Thomas Homann, who later form Neu. Issued on German Philips label
1972 – ‘VAR’. Includes first-ever recorded use of a drum-machine
1972 – ‘KRAFTWERK’ (Vertigo 6641-077 2LP) UK edited compilation of earlier Germany-only LPs released as ‘Kraftwerk’ (November 1970) with “Ruckzuck”, “Stratovarius”, “Megaherz” and “Von Himmel Hoch” and ‘Kraftwerk 2’ (1972) with “Klingklang”, “Atem”, “Strom”, “Spule 4”, “Wellenlänge” and “Harmonika”
1973 – ‘RALF UND FLORIAN’ (Vertigo) Duo album including strings and woodwind, “Elektrisches Roulette”, “Tongebeinge”, “Kristallo”, “Heimatklänge”, “Tanzmusik” and “Ananas Symphonie”
Nov 1974 – ‘AUTOBAHN’ (Vertigo 6360-620/ EMI CD 46153-2) with Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder, “Komet Melody 2”, “Kristallo” and 22-minute title (‘W’ir fahn fahn fahn auf der autobahn’ – ‘we’re driving driving driving down the Motorway’) edited down to a three-minute single which reaches no.11 (UK) 10th May 1975 (Vertigo 6147-012) and no.25 (USA) 12th April 1975 (Vertigo 203)
Oct 1975 – ‘EXCELLER 8’ (Vertigo 6360-629) compilation, “Ruckzack”, “Kristallo” etc
Nov 1975 (Ger)/ Jan 1976 (UK) – ‘RADIO-ACTIVITY’ (Ger: ‘RADIO AKTIVITAET’) (Capitol EST 11457 CDP 7-464742 / US Cleopatra CLE CD 58752) First album with Karl Bartos replacing Roeder, now fully electronic and issued on their own ‘Kling Klang’ label in Germany. “Geiger Counter”. “Antenna”, “Ohm Sweet Ohm”
May 1977 – ‘TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS’ (Capitol EST 11603 CD 7-46473-2) An album of ‘eerie empty beauty’ (‘MOJO’). With “Franz Schubert”, “Europe Endless” and “Showroom Dummies” – a UK no.25 chart single 20th February 1982 (EMI 5272). Title track later sampled by Africa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, and includes the lyric ‘from station to station / back to Dusseldorf city / meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie’. Bowie returns the reference on his “V2 Schneider”
May 1978 – ‘MAN-MACHINE’ (Ger: ‘MENSCH MASCHINE’) (Capitol EST 11728 CD 7-46039-2) ‘It is the only completely successful visual / aural fusion Rock has produced so far’ (‘NME’). With “The Robots”, “Spacelab” and “The Model” – a UK no.1 chart single 6th February 1982 (EMI 5207)
May 1981 – ‘COMPUTER WORLD’ (EMI EMC 3370 / US Elektra CD 9-3549-2) ‘Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard’. With “Pocket Calculator”, “Numbers”, “Computer Love”
1981 – ‘ELEKTRO KINETIK’ (Vertigo) compilation
1981 – ‘VIRTU EX MACHINA’ (Klon 1992001) quality bootleg recorded live from mixing desk in Tokyo with ad-libbed “Autobahn” lyrics
July 1983 – ‘Tour De France’ (12” single EMI 5413) + mixes. A UK no.22 single later featured on ‘BREAKDANCE’ movie soundtrack
November 1986 – ‘ELECTRIC CAFE’ (EMI CDP 7-46416-2) With “Techno-Pop”, “Musique Non-Stop”, “Boing Boom Tschak”, “The Telephon Call” etc. A sequel to projected, then cancelled album, to be called ‘TECHNO-POP’ – scheduled for August 1983 release and designated EMC 3407. Album reissued as ‘TECHNO POP’ in October 2009. Following the original release of ‘ELECTRIC CAFE’ Bartos and Flur are replaced by Franz Hijbert and some robots, while Karl Bartos forms ELEKTRIC MUSIC who release the album ‘ESPERANTO’ in August 1993
June 1991 – ‘THE MIX’ (‘DIE KLASSIC WERKS’) (EMI CDP 79-6671-12/ CDEM 1408) With new digital mixes of “The Robot”, “Computer Love”, “Autobahn” (9-min mix), “Musique Non-Stop” etc
1991 – ‘HEUTE ABEND’ (Deep Records 021) Low-fi live bootleg including 20-min “Musique Non-Stop”
1993 – ‘THE REMIX’ (On It CD 049) Bootleg including studio remixes of “Tour De France” and early demos of “Sex Object” and “Technopop” from aborted album sessions
August 2003 – ‘TOUR DE FRANCE SOUNDTRACKS’ (Kling Klang / EMI / Astralwerks)
June 2005 – ‘MINIMUM-MAXIMUM’ (Kling Klang / EMI / Astralwerks) live album
2006 – ‘K4: BREMEN RADIO 1971’ live recordings of the Schneider, Dinger, Rother line-up recorded 25 June 1971 for ‘Radio Bremen’
October 2009 – ‘THE CATALOGUE’ (‘DER KATALOG’) (Kling Klang / EMI / Mute / Astralwerks) remastered box-set of albums 1974-2003
‘AURAL INNOVATIONS no.7: July’ (USA - August 1999)
‘FATWAH no.4’ (UK - June 2002)