The Scotsman Newspaper - Ralf Hütter - March 2004
When 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.
He 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.
Kraftwerk 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".
"Tour 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.
"There’s 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 it".
Hütter 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.
Even 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".
Kraftwerk’s 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?
"Sometimes 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".
Initially 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.
"It 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".
Hütter 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.
"You 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".
The 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.
Suddenly 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 today.
The 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.
Meanwhile, 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 appearances.
As 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 years later.
"We 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".
The 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, self-sufficent technology.
"It 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 or Italy".
Hütter 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".
After 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.
But 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".
The 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.
And 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.
The 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".
Finally, 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.
"We’ve 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 occupation".
But 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".
While 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.
"Yes, 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 black clothes".
During 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.
"The 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".
Next 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 class.
As 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".
Don’t 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.
Interview to Stephen Dalton - Scotland


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Updated: January 28, 2011