Kraftwerk Speak: The German Electropop Act Discuss ‘Autobahn,’ Technology, and Hint at New Album
De facto ringleader Ralf Hütter opens up about the electronic music pioneers’ legacy and how the music environment has changed over the years.
Four German men sporting identical striking outfits stand stock-still behind four identical lecterns, evenly spaced on a stage. They’re dressed in head to toe black, save neon blue grids plastered across their chests like the engineers in Tron. Meanwhile, a crowd of dancers wearing 3D glasses are losing their respective shit to the avant-garde spectacle.
Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are playing their first of three shows in two nights at Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina. The mechanical duplicates that used to replace the band members on stage during “The Robots” are gone, replaced by holographic projections. But who needs artificial man-machines when you've got the real man-machines in the flesh?
About half an hour into the show, the group’s de facto leader, Ralf Hütter, signals to his confederates to stop whatever it is they’re doing at the end of the song; there’s something amiss with the P.A. system, and Kraftwerk are perfectionists. It takes about 45 minutes to sort the problem out before they return, take their places behind their lecterns, and resume their electro-magic. Hütter’s evidently playing some keyboard parts, and he’s got a headset microphone through which he intones the band’s ultraminimal lyrics. The other three current members of the band, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen, are... definitely gazing intently at something.
Kraftwerk play for a solid two hours in all, with stunning 3D videos accompanying every song. It’s startling how much of their material is familiar through contexts other than their albums—their songs have been sampled and quoted and covered and paraphrased dozens of times over. Still, they haven’t released a studio album of entirely new material since 1986’s Electric Café (whose title they changed to Techno Pop in 2009). They were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys this year, perhaps because nobody’s expecting much in the way of future recordings from them. The Kraftwerk of the past decade is essentially a repertoire act, and although most of the current lineup has been in the band for ages—Schmitz started working with Kraftwerk as an engineer in 1978, and Hilpert joined in the late ’80s—it's pretty clearly Hütter’s show. (Florian Schneider, with whom he co-founded the band in 1970, left in 2008.)
The received wisdom is that Hütter almost never does interviews. That’s not entirely true. He’s chatted with journalists here and there over the years, and the day after the interrupted show, he sat down with me at Moogfest. The 67-year-old is an interesting character with a habit of quoting Kraftwerk album titles by way of answer.
Though a sexagenarian, Hütter looks like he could be 20 years younger. He’s a famously devoted bicyclist, as are his bandmates; they haven’t gotten to go biking much while on their current tour, he explains, but they’re planning to ride in a few "spring classics” in Belgium and the Netherlands when they get back home. I quote the famous cyclist John Howard—“The bicycle is a curious vehicle: its passenger is its engine”—and ask whether Hütter now thinks of Kraftwerk as their music’s engine or its passenger.
He shrugs. “Well, we are the man-machine. So engine and passenger are together.”
Hütter perks up, though, when he starts talking about the videos with which they’re touring. “That was brought to us by a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” he explains. “We were asked to do a retrospective of Kraftwerk, so we thought: What can we do? Can we do old photographs or films or videos? No, we will do the music. Kraftwerk is the music—or the combination of music and images. The gesamtkuntswerk.” They played their entire catalogue from 1974’s Autobahn onwards over the course of eight nights at the museum in 2012.
The videos were made at their studio, Kling Klang, near Düsseldorf, and Hütter is clearly delighted that technology has freed him from having to involve anyone from outside Kraftwerk’s immediate circle: “Before, there were the big studios in Hollywood, with a lot of money and protection and budgets, and now there are computer programs available to do this ourselves. I work with my friend Emil [painter Emil Schult, who briefly played guitar in Kraftwerk in 1973], and I do the graphics and lettering and texts.” Kraftwerk have often referred to their recordings as “sound-films,” but now they’ve effectively become one on stage; what’s it like seeing several thousand people staring at him through 3D glasses? Hütter thinks for a moment. “I would want to see the show myself!”
The centerpiece of the 2014 Kraftwerk show is their 40-year-old groove “Autobahn,” accompanied by a simple but effective video involving a digitally animated gray Volkswagen Beetle traveling along the German superhighway. That’s particularly fitting for Moogfest: Hütter has occasionally noted that his first Minimoog, which became the dominant sound of the Autobahn album, cost as much as his Volkswagen.
They started working with Moog instruments around the time of 1973’s Ralf und Florian—one of the three pre-Autobahn albums whose existence they barely acknowledge. “We’d seen [Moogs] with other artists who were very popular at the time,” Hütter recalls. “We knew there was this type of instrument; we had very small sine-wave generators, and we had an EMS synthesizer—very simple, basic instruments, because we were students. There was no budget. We couldn’t afford the consoles or anything, so we played it monophonic, but we recorded to multitrack.”
Hütter acknowledges that Kraftwerk are now reaping the benefits of time having caught up with them. “People are now aware of what was a vision for us, from the ’70s and ’80s. When we recorded Computer World, we didn’t have computers—they weren’t available then.”
Has his own relationship to the band’s music changed since then? “Not really,” Hütter says. “Because we were always—the concept of Kraftwerk, the man-machine. The equipment changes from time to time; we’re just keeping going. Nowadays electronic music, as you know, is a world language. So we can travel, we are mobile, and it’s just fantastic. With the smaller equipment, now we can play everywhere.”
And what about the long-awaited next album? He nods. “It’s coming.”