Ralf Hütter glides through hotel doorways nobody seems to notice. Even among
music industry insiders, there are very few people who would recognise him
- a trim, slight, middle-aged man with a high forehead and professorial
glasses - in his offstage guise as founder member and chief spokesman for
veteran electronic eggheads Kraftwerk. He may be one of the most influential
figures in the history of pop, but Hütter remains faceless, private, obsessively
secret. And that is just how he likes it.
has granted a rare interview to discuss the band’s latest album, "Tour
de France Soundtracks", and their first UK tour in 13 years. Not that
they need the publicity. Their British dates, which start next week, sold
out on word of mouth alone. Not bad going for elusive eccentrics who have
only released one new studio album in 17 years.
have become one of pop’s greatest mysteries. Over the past three decades
they have carved a niche for themselves as the masters of electronic music.
With their snail-speed working methods and fierce aversion to publicity,
they hardly ever give interviews. "Yes, we are always
private," says Hütter. "Music is very private.
We really concentrate on our work. That is the Kraftwerk ethic".
de France Soundtracks" revived a 20-year-old Kraftwerk single and expanded
it into a hi-tech centenary tribute to the famous French bicycle race. An
airy, sleek, elegant collection, it allows Hütter to combine his two guiding
obsessions: music and cycling.
this parallel spirit to certain ideas in the music," he says. "You have
to stay in balance. There is this aspect of silence when you cycle: if you
hear too many noises when you cycle you know something is wrong. When you
hear the tinkling of the chain or too much of your breath, then you may
be going too fast. But when it’s really smooth, it is almost silent, and
it’s the same with music. I find Kraftwerk music is at its best playing
a concert, when it’s almost automatic. The music plays us while we play
is given to such wry reflections on the allure of the "industrial folk music"
he first pioneered more than 30 years ago. As custodian of the Kraftwerk
Myth, he says little and gives even less away. He understands that this
Garbo-like mystique is all part of the band’s cult appeal. Legend has it
that the group rarely leave their infamous Düsseldorf studio, Kling Klang,
a bunker-like building which boasts neither a phone nor a mailbox.
so, the band remain hugely important figures in pop history. Acknowledged
godfathers of 1970s industrial machine-rock, 1980s synth-pop and 1990s techno,
they are living legends on a par with Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and other
reclusive eccentrics from rock folklore. Without making a record for almost
two decades, they are still cited as a key influence by everyone from Kylie
to Underworld to U2. Some have even called them "the electronic Beatles".
ever-present air of deadpan comedy may often be overlooked, but it is crucial
to their enduring appeal. Having taken a dash of early inspiration from
poker-faced art pranksters Gilbert and George, there remains something outrageously
funny about the unsmiling robots. To see their stage show, as many lucky
Brits will this month, is to witness a parody of cool German efficiency
presented as a rock gig. Surely Kraftwerk must fight the temptation to laugh
at themselves now and then?
things make you smile," concedes Hütter. "But
that’s just the way it is. That’s just the concentration because we have
been twiddling and turning the knobs and the faders and everything. There’s
nothing else we can do, you are operating hi-tech machinery and little movements
can create big effects".
called Organisation, Hütter and his fellow Kraftwerk co-founder Florian
Schneider first began making music in the freeform style christened "Krautrock"
by British critics, indulging in improvised jams with future members of
the fellow pioneering German bands Neu! and Can. But as these long-haired
beatniks graduated from Düsseldorf Conservatory, they became frustrated
with both classical formalism and avant-garde jazz. Singing in their native
tongue, they began to defend pop music against Anglo-American domination.
was against nothing, just reflecting our situation,"
Hütter shrugs. "We just had to find our musical language,
a contemporary language. Of course, we had rich classical music from Bach
to Beethoven, which in Germany in the 1950s when we were growing up was
such a heavy weight. We were awake to make the music of the future. We didn’t
even think about it".
and Schneider honed their sound and image for half a decade before finally
hatching the robotic, deadpan, clean-cut "musical worker" concept that became
the definitive Kraftwerk image. Employing a variety of transient percussionists,
they became infatuated with early electronic instruments while playing at
student parties and art galleries around Düsseldorf. But their evolution
from shaggy-haired hippies to pop robots was a long and lonely journey.
can’t imagine, starting in the late 1960s, early 1970s, doing the stuff
we were doing," Hütter says.
"We have gone through heavy criticism in Germany and the acceptance coming
more from the art and student worlds within Germany, and then only later
from us performing in Paris, or doing British or American tours. It was
very long, seven years before we released Autobahn, before there was any
response to our work".
classic Kraftwerk sound solidified in late 1974, with percussionists Wolfgang
Flür and Karl Bartos joining for the newly short-haired quartet’s epic
rebirth on Autobahn. The ode to the joys of motorway travel made the Düsseldorf
quartet instant pop stars, climbing the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
They even toured the US in 1975, where some critics dubbed them the "German
Beach Boys". The single also reached number 11 in Britain, planting the
seed for future generations of electronic artists.
everyone loved Kraftwerk. David Bowie became a cheerleader, boosting them
in interviews and playing their music before his concerts. A collaboration
was even discussed, but Kraftwerk’s fiercely autonomous ethos never wavered.
After years in the critical and commercial wilderness, they had developed
a protective shell of self-reliance which remains their guiding principle
late 1970s was Kraftwerk’s golden age, turning out beautifully crafted paeans
to travel and technology. Never complacent, they then revolutionised their
sound again with Computer Word in 1981, embracing the emergent microchip
decade just as their ideas were being recycled by British acts such as Depeche
Mode and New Order. They also scored a UK chart-topper that same year with
‘The Model’, an early sardonic commentary on celebrity worship. The keys
to the pop kingdom were theirs.
in New York, electro-pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker fused Kraftwerk’s
rhythms with African-American street style to create some of the earliest
hip-hop records. Suddenly the most Aryan and aloof band in rock history
became the biggest influence on black American music. But, one assumes,
the public adulation got too much, and before long Hütter and co were back
to shunning live work for long periods, they became increasingly reclusive,
and reached a point where they would send their robotic alter-egos to public
their secrecy deepened, the bizarre stories around them multiplied. A mooted
collaboration with Michael Jackson brought Hütter to a rendezvous in a New
York office block, which he later claimed was staffed with professional
Jackson lookalikes. Needless to say, no musical partnership was agreed.
In 1983, Kraftwerk mysteriously shelved their "Technopop" album
on the eve of release, even though sleeves and posters had already been
printed. The record passed into folklore as the quartet’s Great Lost Album.
In fact, Hütter reveals, it was simply re-christened and released three
were working on an album concept Technopop, but the composition was developed
and we just changed the titles," he explains. "It became Electric Café.
But somebody within the record company went out and did a pre-order, we
were working on the sleeve and some marketing idiot did this".
reason for Kraftwerk’s three-year hiatus may have been the fractured skull
that put Hütter out of action in 1983. By this point he and Schneider had
become obsessive cyclists and began taking their bikes on tour with them,
stopping off to ride the last 100 miles into towns where the band were playing.
Their love of the sport gelled perfectly with the Kraftwerk ethos of minimal,
came after the release of "Electric Café", the fascination with
the relationship between man and machine," Hütter
says. "A friend came to see us with a bike around
that period. He had a friend who had another bike. Then we went cycling,
Florian went and then I went. We live very close to Holland, Belgium and
France so the whole scene is nearby. But we don’t compete, it’s not a competition.
It’s called cycle tourism. We do these long tracks and there are meetings
where many people meet, in Belgium for the Tour de Flandres, or in France
was out with his cycling club on the day of his crash, colliding with another
group at the Rhine Dam, where he slammed hard onto the tarmac. "I
crashed my bike and I didn’t wear the helmet that day, so I had to stay
in hospital for a week to recover," he recalls. "Somebody
later said it was a month, then somebody said it was a year".
years of effortless innovation, most Kraftwerk fans found Electric Café
lacking in bite or cohesion. In danger of being eclipsed by their imitators,
the quartet fell silent again, seemingly consigning themselves to the margins
of a fast-forward pop world they had helped to create.
history had not finished with Kraftwerk yet. In 1991 they released the collection
The Mix, a seamless album of classic painstakingly remixed into disco-influenced
digital form. A new generation of musicians, from electronic purists Orbital
to stadium rock acts such as U2 during their techno phase, paid homage.
"They are a great soul group, Kraftwerk," said Bono. "They really were an
enormous influence on me as a 16-year-old, and on other groups that influenced
us, like Joy Division".
unlikely twist in Kraftwerk’s history began as the new millennium dawned.
In fact, by the foursome’s ultra-minimal standards, the 21st century has
been riotously busy - unlike most of the 1990s when, besides a smattering
of live shows, including Tribal Gathering in England in 1997, they downed
tools for most of the last decade. After years of fruitless rumours and
false alarms, few serious fans thought they would ever record another note.
yet, four years ago, they released their first all-new single for over a
decade, the slender theme tune to Hannover’s millennial jamboree, Expo 2000.
They played three shows in Paris in September 2002, followed by a mini-Australian
tour in early 2003. At each show, they performed with impassive expressions,
limited movement and absolutely no audience communication. Such are the
immutable rituals of Kraftwerk. To change now would be heresy.
Parisian shows, says Hütter, marked the start of a new chapter as the band’s
portable studio has been shrunk to four laptop-sized keyboard units. "It
was kind of accomplished with the premiere in Paris," he says. "The
whole laptop mobile idea".
in July 2003, a news bulletin arrived out of nowhere proclaiming that the
first all-new Kraftwerk album in 17 years was imminent. Most bands have
careers shorter than that, but Hütter seems genuinely surprised that anyone
might suspect him and Schneider of drifting into mid-career stasis.
just been concentrating on our work," he says, "coming
from the acoustic into the analogue and electronic era, from improvised
music and semi-acoustic into totally electronic, and then into the digital
era with all synthetic voices. So we have been working on a lot of research
and studio work transformations. We are musical workers. We have no other
even Hütter must concede that one remix album and one new album in almost
two decades adds up a painfully low productivity level. "Yes,
but, what can I say?" he asks, with a hint of exasperation. "We
are in a continuous working process in the studio. We are a very autonomous
unit and we do everything ourselves together with our engineers. We work
on all the artwork, we work on the computer graphics design. This idea,
the German word is Gesamtkunstwerk. And some things take longer. There were
times we were doing an album a year".
Kraftwerk were creeping towards their 21st-century rebirth, their alluring
myth spilled over into the wider culture. They were namechecked in Father
Ted, The Simpsons, and the Coen brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski. Even Mike
‘Austin Powers’ Myers is planning a film about a funky German professor,
Sprockets, originally seen on Saturday Night Live and inspired by the Krautrock
cyborgs at their most deadpan.
humour is in the work," says Hütter with barely a
twinkle in his eye. "There’s humour, horror, many
things at the same time. But definitely black humour... because we are wearing
their long absence, Kraftwerk songs were covered by everyone from The Divine
Comedy to Ride and Laibach. They even inspired an entire orchestral album
by the Balanescu Quartet and a Latin-tinged lounge music anthology by Señor
Coconut. Classic tracks such as "Neon Lights" and "The Model"
adapt well to acoustic arrangements, but Hütter bats down my helpful suggestion
that he should make a Kraftwerk Unplugged album.
Balanescu quartet have done that much better," he shrugs. "We spent our
whole childhood with acoustic music so we haven’t thought about it. Electronics
with human voices, that’s really where we are interested".
month, Kraftwerk release digitally remastered CD versions of their entire
back catalogue from Autobahn onwards. Disappointingly, there is indeed nothing
new from the Kling Klang archives. All those silent years, Hütter insists,
were spent honing and retooling their existing canon rather than storing
up new material. "We have very little, maybe some
live or some improvised sessions, but very little. It has never been our
working principle to assemble 20 tapes. We have been working more like Zen,"
he says with all the calm of someone straight out of a Buddhist meditation
for future releases, at least Hütter promises Kraftwerk fans will not have
to wait another 17 years. He and Schneider have already composed some tracks
for their next album. "Only very recent, within the
last two years," he says. "There are a couple
of tracks which were developed but they didn’t make it onto last year’s
Tour de France album because they have another context. For the next album".
hold your breath. Hütter has made similar promises before, only to disappear
back into the Kling Klang bunker for years. But such are the ways of Kraftwerk.
To expect anything different after 30 years of stone-faced anarchy and sublime
banality would be missing the point.
to Stephen Dalton - Scotland