- This is your first tour in almost a decade. Why now?
Ralf Hütter - Well, we've been
working on our Kling Klang studio, and now it's all digital and our computers
are working. It took is quite a while in order to get this music together.
For the first time, now we can perform the music the way we hear it, live.
- The songs on "The Mix" aren't remixes, strictly speaking. The Elektra
press release calls them "reinventions".
Hütter - We no longer use tapes, everything is digitally
stored and then computer-controlled. We used all of our back catalog from
the last 20 years, sampling the original analog sounds from the 16-track
master tapes. We chose those sounds we thought were unique, or irreplaceable,
or perhaps just good in shape (laughs), and then others we changed or altered.
We were interested in using original sounds from way back, form our old
homemade analog machines, adapting everything technically to the 1990's.
It's just a mix of sounds sampled from the old masters, plus newly generated
electronic, completely synthetic sounds. Everything is reassembled. Mixing,
for us, is the art form of making music today.
- You've had a big influence on american dance music, particularly on the
Detroit-based techno sound.
Hütter - We performed in Detroit in 1981, I think, and we
were surprised at the strong reception we got from the dance crowd. I remember
people being surprised that we had that much of a black or hispanic following.
Unfortunately, the tour had been booked very spontaneously, because nobody
had thought there would be any interest, so we all could do at that point
was add a couple of more and fly all over America. Since we travelled so
fast, we never really got into building on that black or hispanic following.
It just happened. We were very stunned at the time. Before, we had always
been considered a very european band. Then again, there was always a strong
disco movement in Europe, and we have always been great dance fanatics,
doing our little robot dance. It was very encouraging to get that strong
a reaction in America. Before, the rock'n'roll circuit was always a little
shy about electronics. They were stuck with the guitar formula, whereas
the dance crowd was much more open to modern sounds. Then, in 1982, Afrika
Bambaata did his version of "Trans Europe Express", which was great, a very
good combination of our type of electro-music with rap. It's a mix of different
cultures, and we've always liked that.
- Is this why you decided to redo your old songs in a house style on "The
Hütter - That was just a natural development of our music.
We've always had these drum machine tracks, even before the Roland TR-808
came to prominence, using little drum boxes and homemade electronic drum
triggers in the 70's, when we were working with an engineer who developed
these little drum pads so that we could be a band without a drummer. It's
just a matter of everything coming together.
- You often talk about being interested in rhythm - specifically, dance
rhythms - yet our rhythms are not what most listeners would can funky. How
do you reconcile your fascination with stiff staccato patterns with your
avowed desire to make funky dance grooves?
Hütter - To us, machines are funky. Some machines generate
rhythmic loops by accident, others have been programmed to play a beat.
Our music is electronic, but we like to think of it as ethnic music from
the german industrial area - industrial folk music. On our end, it has to
do with a fascination with what we see all around us, trying to incorporate
the industrial environment into our music. Coming from a classical background,
we got pretty bored with the past and started listening to the present.
These machines, these music-making tools were there, and we thought we might
as well use them. Our tradition here had been broken, bombed. On one hand,
there was this old tradition - classic music, all that marching music for
the older generation. And on the other, there were the modern things that
were built after the war.
- You made some interesting decisions on "The Mix", one of which was to
shift "Autobahn" from a straight staccato feel to a shuffling triplet groove.
What prompted that?
Hütter - Some of these songs have been with us for quite
a while, and that's how we've performed them live. We change things from
city to city, from country to country. With "Autobahn", sometimes we drive
a little faster, sometimes a little slower, depending on the speed limit.
- Are the car horns in the middle section of "Autobahn" sampled sounds or
Hütter - On "The Mix", they're sampled from the old "Autobahn"
master tapes. We were unable to recreate them because they utilized a special
tuning, they're chords incorporating tritones, to sound car-horn-like. We
were never able to recapture that analog sound - I think it was done on
a Moog or an ARP, so we just sampled the original noises and used them to
create something called "hupenkonzert". It's a common german expression
that means "car horn concert" - in other words, a traffic jam, where everyone
is angry and honking his horn. So I played a little "hupenkonzert" there.
We used white noise to create the sound of the cars whooshing by. At one
point, when the lyrics go, in german, "the road is a gray ribbon, with white
stripes and green edges", we wanted to evoke the image of the rubber tire
crossing those white stripes, so we used a backwards burst of white noiser.
- How were distorted, underwater vocals in that middle section created?
Hütter - We used a computer-programmable instrument that
Florian had built, called Robovox. It allows you to assemble any word you
want from pre-programmed phonemes. It's a mechanical choir, totally synthetic.
We want to liberate technology to speak for itself, and when we use the
Robovox in that song, it's as if the cars are talking with their tuned horns.
- Would you really like to live in a world where all of the machines in
your life, from your household appliances to your automobile, talk to you?
Hütter - Well, they do! When you open your ears, you can
hear the music hiding in the environment. It's much better than listening
only to music, which is just tuned noise anyway. The industrial landscape
is fascinating. Even the machines are talking.
- When you and Florian were attending the University of Düsseldorf, did
either of you encounter any of the twentieth-century classical pieces inspired
by the machine aesthetic, such as "Mossolov's Symphony of Machines" or "Antheil's
Hütter - Of course, but more importantly, we were in the
Düsseldorf area, which is near Cologne, where the electronic studio used
by Stockhausen was, and not so far from the french studios where Pierre
Boulez was working. It was a common practice here, at a fairly young age,
to go and hear Stockhausen. The art scene and the music scene, specially
electronic music, were quite accessible, there were several radio shows
of strange electronic music. So we had acess to all of that, it was part
of our upbringing, our education. We always considered ourselves the second
generation of electronic explorers, after Stockhausen.
- In turn, you were a powerful influence on what might be considered the
third generation of electronic artists - such 80's bands as Visage and Depeche
Mode, as well as David Bowie during his Berlin period.
Hütter - I suppose we influenced Bowie, at least, that's
what he told us. He told us that when he first came to Germany, he heard
"Autobahn" continuously on his car radio. We met in Germany, when he was
casting about for a place to work, and we suggested he try Berlin. So we
provided inspiration of a sort - electronic spirituality! As far as the
british artists you mentioned are concerned, we did several very long tours
in England, where we met some of those musicians in clubs. For us, it was
wonderful to experience this type of interest. Before, we had always been
considered outsiders, and suddenly we were on the inside.
- Your pronouncement of March 82 in Keyboard interview, that you make "loudspeaker
music" is chillingly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbel's observation that the
nazis couldn't have come to power without the loudspeaker. Is there an inherent
danger in your techno-fetishism?
Hütter - Well, this was always been the case, ever since
the invention of the knife, which you could use to slice bread or kill your
neighbour. I don't see modern technology as significantly different. To
us, any danger has more to do with the psychological situation between men
and machines. We try working on our end, developing more of a friendly attitude
toward machines, and as a result they have always been very friendly with
us. At least we've never had any electrical shocks or accidents.
- You'll be bringing two new band members on your american tour in September.
Hütter - Actually, we've known them - Fritz Hilpert and
Fernando Abrantes - as electronic engineers for some years now. They'll
be doing percussion and machinery, and Florian and I will be programming
our robots and mixing. We'll be using video projections on a big screen,
computer-generated images that correspond to the songs together with footage
from the "Autobahn", footage from the "Trans Europe Express" and excerpts
from our videos.
- Describe how your on-stage robots work.
Hütter - They're keyboard-controlled. A german engineer,
someone Florian knows, programmed them. Normally, this engineer works on
office computers and things like that, but we convinced him to use his skills
in another area. So the robots are programmed, but we can reprogram them.
We'll see how reliable they are and how much we can get them to improviser.
- Why did you decide to build these robots in the first place?
Hütter - We have this composition, "The Robots", which originally
appeared on "The Man Machine": "We are programmed just to do / Anything
you want us to". In the old days, we used to have showroom dummies, but
they didn't move, so we decided that the next logical step was to have robots.
They're made out of plastic, and they have metal arms and our faces, remodelled.
They're identical, althought perhaps over the course of the tour they will
develop a little more individuality.
- From "Hardware" to "Robocop", and to "Terminator", pop culture seems obsessed
with robots. Why?
Hütter - Because they are machines that are very close to
man, both in appearance and behaviour. All of our work addresses this close
relationship between man and machines. That's why we wrote this song, "The
Robots". We don't feel alienated, because we have worked for so many years
on trying to establish some kind of a closer relationship with machinery,
more of a holistic approach than just thinking of machines as external things,
like weapons for aggression or whatever, but rather than extensions of ourselves.
In turn, we get a lot of feedback from them, and that's what fascinates
- Are you interested in virtual reality and other recent cybernetic developments?
Hütter - Yes, in a way. It would be wonderful to incorporate
virtual reality into our performances. When we come to America, we'd like
to meet some of the people in California who are developing this technology.
You know, when I first heard the phrase "virtual reality", I thought that,
to me, music has always been like a virtual reality. With something like
"Autobahn", you can actually see the surroundings as you listen to it, because
our music has a very visual quality. So when I first read about virtual
reality, about people stepping inside these computer-generated worlds, I
thought: "We've been doing that with music all these years".
to Mark Dery