Kraftwerk – “We can concentrate on album number nine”
In a rare interview, the Kraftwerk co-founder talks about how The Catalogue has helped draw a line under the band’s past and why, despite advances of technology, improvisation is still central to their music.
When Kraftwerk first toured Australia, they arrived trailing tonnes of equipment. Most bands need to bring a few instruments, but the German electronic pioneers found themselves dismantling their studio, packing it into shipping crates and reassembling it for each show.
Thirty years later, they pretty much just turn up with their laptops.
“Nowadays basically Kraftwerk is a space lab: we can land anywhere as long as we have the projectors and the screens.” Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s co-founder and sole remaining original member, is welcoming me into his dressing room at the Sydney Opera House on the eve of the band’s final two performances of their eight show series based around 2009’s box set, The Catalogue.
It would be easy to assume that the man behind such cold, precise music would be standoffish in person, yet Hütter is a genial host. His eyes sparkle as he speaks, even as he pauses to find the exact right English word to explain his artistic philosophies. He also looks a good decade and a half younger than his 66 years – a testament to his band’s long-time advocacy of cycling, which inspired the 2003 Tour de France Soundtracks.
Tour de France is the most recent album featured in both box set and show, which cover the bands eight album output. Performing in just a handful of other cities – New York, London, their hometown of Dusseldorf – each album, from 1974’s Autobahn onwards, has been presented from start to finish and accompanied by with eye-popping 3D projections and surround sound. The response has been rapturous.
This year should also have seen Kraftwerk play their first ever shows in China – but the band were denied permission. They still don’t know why, Hutter admits. “You never get an answer,” he shrugs. “But we supported the Free Tibet movement 15 years ago in America, so perhaps that is why we are forbidden.
They were also banned in East Germany, Hütter points out. “We had to bring down the Berlin Wall to perform for the first time in East Germany, so now we have to wait until the Chinese Wall has fallen down and maybe we can perform in China.”
Kraftwerk emerged from Düsseldorf’s underground multimedia scene of the late 60s, the brainchild of Hütter and fellow musician and artist Florian Schneider, playing experimental music at galleries and art events rather than conventional clubs. But this early music is notably absent from The Catalogue.
Hütter says this is because their work pre-Autobahn was an early development phase; the band’s transition to “more concept art” not beginning to the late 60s. Kraftwerk didn’t come into its own until the fourth album he argues: “Autobahn is our first concept album, when I worked with my first electronic drum box I developed with my friend Florian. And from there into monophonic synthesisers – I had my first sequencer in late 76, early 77, when I worked on the patterns for Trans-Europe Express.” He sings the distinctive train-rhythm. “It’s a process.”
That process doesn’t necessarily get easier with time. While the logistics of touring have since become significantly easier, developing the show was harder work: over 18 months the band recreated every track from their eight albums – many of which had never been performed live – and also created 3D projections for every song.
Sounds still had to be created from scratch. You might think that new technology might make that process quicker, but Hütter doesn’t agree. “No, not really. But it makes a lot of things easier and faster and casual and spontaneous. There’s a lot of improvisation in the concept of Kraftwerk.”
Kraftwerk: improvisational? How is that possible when so much is in the machines? “We experiment and make things happen,” he shrugs. “Sometimes the fingers play themselves when you press record. There’s things like that on ‘Numbers’, those free-floating sound patterns: we’re not connected strictly with music, we work with sounds.
“Take the name of our studios, Kling Klang: ‘klang’ is a word for sound, and ‘kling’ is the verb: ‘sounding sound’, kling klang. And it has that metallic, percussive element. It’s a very good description of our music.”
You’d be forgiven for wondering how much of Kraftwerk’s music is performed live, given the central role of technology. But Hütter insists that the proportion is higher than you’d expect. “In the 70s there was more drumming and physical action in the music, but today it’s more sensitive,” he smiles. “We’re turning the knobs, we’re switching the switches, we operate the faders. We have all kinds of little gadgets.”
It’s a point worth making, since at first glance Kraftwerk could as easily be playing Minecraft as much as music. Later, however, as the band takes to the Opera House stage, I see for myself how it works.
Hütter is far stage left, where he performs live keyboards alongside Fritz Hilpert. Next comes Henning Schmitz, responsible for most of the effects and electronic percussion. Far right the projections and basic tracks are synched up and operated by Falk Grieffenhagen.
“Falk is controlling the live performance and bringing in different aspects,” Hütter enthusiastically adds. “So on Spacelab he brought in the global view of Australia, so that the spacelab was landing in Sydney, and in Korea the spacelab was landing in Seoul.”
On stage Hütter also provides vocals alonside and the vocoder parts that were formerly the responsibility of departed co-founder Schneider. And despite the retrospective nature of the shows, Hütter swiftly dismisses the idea of touring with former members.
“Florian was still working with me at that time [of the idea for the shows], but when The Catalogue was finished he decided to concentrate on his research on synthetic speech. And the other drummers we haven’t seen since the mid-80s, basically.”
The Catalogue has been more than just a tour, though. Hütter also suggests that it’s drawn a line under the band’s past. “Now this is done, one to eight,” he smiles. “Now we can concentrate on number nine.”
So the long-awaited – and much discussed – new Kraftwerk album, the first in a decade, is definitely on its way? “Oh yes.” Is there a timeline? Hütter smiles broadly. “Of course. It’s music non stop!”