Ralf Hutter -- founder of the innovative German electro rock pioneers Kraftwerk rarely does interviews. And when he does speak to the press he sometimes doesn’t make it easy. One reporter tells of the constraints being placed on questions: the first being no asking about Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk are, shall we say, different: their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf has no phone, no reception area and all mail delivered to it is apparently returned unopened; when they first came to attention in the early 70s they rarely played live and their perfectionism in the studio meant there were long delays between albums.
They cloaked their music, albums and lives in an almost Teutonic concern for efficiency, automatism and industrialism. They loved machines and technology, wrote about autobahns and train travel, behaved as Futurists already living in the future, and were astonishingly influential.
Albums such as Autobahn (1974) profoundly affected David Bowie and Brian Eno, DJs like Derrick May and Afrika Bambaataa, and producer Giorgio Moroder (who lifted the repetitive Kraftwerk rhythms for Donna Summer disco-hits like I Feel Love). They are probably responsible for the whole electro-rock movement of the 80s.
Given the mystery, the music and the effect they had on popular music it is frustrating that Hutter does so few interviews.
And on the rare occasions Hutter does speak it appears his answers are elliptical, questions deflected and nothing of a personal nature is revealed. Other than that they are all mad keen cyclists.
Hutter’s co-founder Florian Schneider, after whom Bowie and Eno named the track V2 Schneider on the Heroes album, is entirely off-limits these days: he no longer tours with the band.
Despite this lack of information about them, Kraftwerk have a slavishly loyal following and their appearance at the 2003 Big Day Out was little short of astonishing: four men behind laptops, motionless, making repetitive, minimalist electronic music while computer-generated images flicked up behind them.
In an age when rock musician prowl the stage, work the audience and ask us if we are feeling awwright, Kraftwerk were the antithesis: intellectually remote, anonymous, aloof -- but producing thrilling music to a capacity crowd which bayed its approval.
It was an extraordinary performance, if you can use that word about four men who might as well have been automatons.
Oh, and they tour with robots who sometimes perform instead of the band.
All this makes Hutter’s reluctance to be interviewed incredibly frustrating.
Yet quite unexpectedly here he is on the line from Dusseldorf sounding chatty, laughing even, and directly replying to every question put -- including those about Kraftwerk, the studio, things of a personal nature and, of course, cycling.
So why would this normally reluctant man want to speak now, on the eve of a concert in Auckland which, if that 2003 showing is anything to go by, is almost guaranteed to sell out quickly.
“When there is something to say, why not say it?“ he says, which is either Zen simplicity or Teutonic directness.
Thank you for taking the time because I appreciate you are busy. You are playing in Krakow in a couple of days?
Yes, we are travelling there tomorrow and we are doing three dates and finishing a festival, we are some kind of ‘highlight‘. I think it will be a beautiful occasion in an old industrial complex re-functioned for cultural events. So we travel tomorrow to set up.
it take Kraftwerk longer to set up than most bands given the amount of
technology you have?
No, faster I think. Two or three hours. But it is more like checking cables and connections and having the computers working properly. It’s not so much a physical set-up.
Is it easier now to perform live than it was say 20 years ago because the technology is better?
Definitely, we’ve been very lucky that the technology developed in our direction. (laughs) This is what we envisaged in the late 70s when we worked with mostly analogue [equipment] of course. Then we composed the concept of [the album] Computer World coming out in 81 and we didn’t even have computers at that time. So that was more like a visionary album. We only got that technology, a small PC, around the tour of that album and we used one on stage just writing letters. Just typing them in, not even in synch or anything. Just live, and a guy putting that on screen.
So we have been very lucky because you can imagine in the late 70s the travelling problems. We couldn’t tour at all because all our drum tracks were recorded and were synchronised by sequencers.
Did you want to tour more? The image of Kraftwerk was that you were very reclusive, you didn’t do interviews and you didn’t perform live every often. Would you have preferred to have performed more back then?
Yes, because in the late 60s and the early 70s Kraftwerk was the man operating the machine and was not a museum. It was a live electronic outfit and we came from free form improvised music, classical or certain jazz. And so at one point we were stuck with all this complex analogue technology that took so long to set up we couldn’t perform the music to the same level as on record.
We had multi-tracked on record so on stage we used tapes, especially for the drum tracks. So the drummers were just posing. (laughs) Then with computer programmes in the 90s it was like a restart in 91when we finally had the technology. It had developed to our standard and we could afford it, and could travel with it. It is light and very compact.
I saw you in New Zealand when you played The Big Day Out and people were very impressed. You mentioned writing letters earlier on. People thought that you could have been sending e-mails home to your friends because that is what it looked like.
Yes, that is a very funny vision. Of course there is black humour involved so whatever people have -- serious thoughts or whatever -- are okay. Electronics is very mind-stimulating music. It is not instruments like a violin where you admire someone playing a violin and their technique. This is more essential. It is basic frequencies and we have a wide range of audible frequencies from 20 to 20,000 hertz.
There are no limits, the limit is our creativity and we have the instruments . . . . but this time for the first time for you we will have the robots.
Last time they had to stay in Dusseldorf and they were very fat. But this time they will travel with us.
Speaking of technology, I enjoy Kraftwerk and get a sense of fun out of the music, but also there is an ambivalent feeling because it is technology which tends to be alienating and emotionally distancing?
I think there is that, but it has to do with the people operating it. If you just make bank accounts or text or make financial calculations, just technical configurations, that is only one type. But creativity, computer art is different and that is what we are doing, creating computer patterns of sound and images, a technological multi-media performance that we create ourselves. We create the visuals that are synchronised with the music and sometimes we are working with outside artists or cameramen. Basically we develop the whole Kraftwerk concept.
And you trigger your images live, or are they predetermined?
Everything is on-line and in real time.
So when you are on stage and you improvise, because I know you do a measure of that, you are also triggering the appropriate visual imagery.
Yes, but not everything can be done yet. When we rehearse in the afternoon or when we change from country to country we change the languages. When we go to Poland we will do Pocket Calculator in German because they want to hear the original language, but in New Zealand obviously we will sing in English -- although I may use some German words, and we will create the images out of our storage.
So in a way some people call it live DJing. With the Kraftwerk repertoire we now have maybe 40 years of sounds in our computer memory, so we are able to use old and new sounds to modify and modulate our music. Some people call it sound design, from 40 years of the Kling Klang archive.
We have the original Autobahn sounds from 74 and then we modify and work with those, and we might change them during the performance. Although there is a basic structure so everybody knows where they are going.
If you didn’t you’d be a free jazz group at that point.
Yes! Although we do have some free jazz type of feelings: no harmonics, atonal things and frequent improvisation.
One of the things that was always said about Kraftwerk and explained why there was such a delay between albums was because you were perfectionists. You’ve said you can replicate exactly on stage what you do in the studio. That is important to you? Because when a rock band is on stage or at a classical performance people don’t expect, or perhaps even want, to hear the same as the studio.
No, we treat the records as a documents in time and for example something from 1977 is there, but now it is 2008 and it will sound completely different -- but it is still the same composition. Our compositions are very minimal -- minimum/maximum -- but we have all the maximum possibilities of changing and reprogramming. Even during the tour we would do that. There are experiments all the time.
Who is coming as Kraftwerk to New Zealand, because I see Florian hadn’t played with Kraftwerk in Ireland recently.
Yes, he never likes touring so in the last years he is working on other projects, technical things. So we are travelling with our live set-up as on the last American tour and now Europe. We are me, Mr Henning Schmitz, Mr Fritz Hilpert and Mr Stefan Pfaffe who is programming visuals with us.
Another interesting area where Kraftwerk seems separate from what we might call rock’n’roll culture is that people in rock are very attached to a band having the same line-up. Whereas for the music that you make it may not be necessary the membership stays the same. The Ramones changed members because in a sense it didn’t matter who was up there, the sound was important.
Yes, it is a strong concept. Kraftwerk is a concept for electronic music and when I started with Florian in 1970, even before that when we were students actually, we always worked a lot with different musicians and many other people like artists, painters and poets, and we have technicians or computer programmers, cameramen and animators, and people who do the album covers. We work with people in the printing stage. And graphic people.
So we are involved in all different levels which makes it for me very interesting. When I was a kid I never liked being at the piano, I hated that. So we keep alive by working these different fields.
You studied architecture didn’t you?
At one point I did, and constructing music and live performance comes from the same spirit.
It makes sense that you would want to be involved in album covers in that you have an eye for design.
Yes. Because sometimes, as you know, some people just make the music and somebody else is developing the video concept for them. That’s not the case with Kraftwerk, we do everything ourselves. And that is how we worked right from the beginning.
One of things about Kraftwerk is that you have remained largely anonymous in that you don’t do too many interviews and people don’t go to your studio. Which makes me wonder -- but thank you very much anyway -- why are you talking to me right now? You probably don’t need to do this.
We do once in a while when there are things to be said or when there are things to make clearer. When there is something to say, then why not say it? But in general show business people are being used for their image. For us part of our work is exchanging creative ideas and travelling into different cultural contexts. Like we go from Poland into Ukraine now for the first time, and after New Zealand we perform in Singapore. We’ve never been in that part of the world and so we are also curious to communicate with our music into different cultural contexts.
It is the minimum/maximum concept.
I think people in popular culture talk too much about themselves and the more they do that, the less important the work becomes. For many people the interview is the most creative thing they do.
Exactly, for us it doesn’t make sense because we have visual media.
I’m curious about 8-Bit Operators [the 2007 album on Kraftwerk’s label where musicians interpreted Kraftwerk music using very primitive pocket calculators and Game Boy equipment]. The challenge those people had was to make Kraftwerk minimalism even more reduced.
Yes. It is mind stimulating, the minimum/maximum coming from sound levels and thoughts and ideas. Like Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express are very basic and elementary ideas, but they offer a pattern or concept for improvisation. And we use very few words, sometimes even just phonetics so they become the music itself like ‘dah-dah’ or ‘tchuk-tchuk’ vocals. Like in the beginning though as we said, it is very difficult to talk about this music because everything is said in the music, and that is what we are still trying to work out.
This may be why when people talk to rock musicians they rarely talk about the music but about their lifestyle, but you don’t do that either.
Yes, we call ourselves musical workers, kraft-werk. We go to the Kling Klang Studio and we speak with music. That takes longer, it is not just every year a new album because we still really haven’t found an instrumental form and then just do a new selection songs. In our case it is different because the studio, the technology, is an influence which means it unfortunately takes longer.
I remember speaking to Philip Glass when he was very much a minimalist and he observed that if you set up a repeated pattern of 20 notes you only needed to change one and it would sound like thunderbolt.
Yes, because it makes for a different composition. Or you change the tempo.
Are you disciplined, do you go to the office, the studio, every day?
Yes, to Kling Klang, that is our office where we work on our laptop computers or keyboards and I do my speech-singing and Vocoder.
And when you are not touring you go in regularly?
Well, we ride our bicycles. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring those to New Zealand but I know you have hills and mountains. That is where the composition comes from, our cycling activities. It is our electro-lifestyle. (laughs)
As someone who doesn’t cycle I have to ask: what is the attraction? Because I just don’t get it.
It started 30 years ago -- although obviously in our childhood too -- it was man-machine and it in a way is the men of Kraftwerk on their machines, like cycling.
On the other hand it is similar to music because it is always going forward and you keep a rhythm and you keep your breath -- and try not to fall off.
Once you stop, you fall off.
This interview was conducted for the New Zealand Herald and appears on the Herald website