Kraftwerk, originally formed in Germany in 1968, is one of electronic music’s most legendary groups, a band that can lay claim to playing a role in the development of techno, industrial and hip-hop. Nearly 50 years later, Kraftwerk is still going strong; an ambitious “3D tour” of North America kicks off September 16th. For Kraftwerk’s lead singer and keyboardist, Ralf Hütter, the journey never gets boring. “Sometimes there’s different traffic on the autobahn,” he says. “It’s all real. That’s what makes it interesting. Our compositions are like minimalistic film scripts or theater scripts. We can work with this; it’s never going to be the same. It changes over the years.”
During a rare interview with Hütter — the sole remaining original member of Kraftwerk; his longtime partner, Florian Schneider, left the group in 2008 — we covered a wide array of subjects, from new album projects and reissues to Kraftwerk’s favorite sport (cycling) and their longtime love of Detroit.
One city that really sticks out on your upcoming U.S. tour itinerary is Detroit, which has a storied alliance with Kraftwerk. You haven’t played Detroit in 10 years.
We’ve been to Detroit several times with our friends, [Detroit techno DJs and producers] Juan Atkins and Derrick May, visiting some clubs and some locations over the past many years ago…
There’s quite a techno connection, Kraftwerk to Detroit. Maybe you know that photograph of the robots in front of the theater — that’s the State Theatre in Detroit. The industrial sound of Motor City and Kraftwerk on the autobahn, there’s a spiritual connection. Automatic rhythms, robotic work, robotic music — all kinds of fantasies are going on.
I was struck, the first time I went to Detroit, at how much they love Kraftwerk. It’s almost a religion there.
Yes, in the very early days, the [Detroit radio DJ] Electrifyin’ Mojo played our music, the Computer World album, on radio. Our music wasn’t always played on radio; it was not so popular, apart from Autobahn in the 1970s. In the late Seventies it started again in Detroit. So there’s this spiritual connection. We feel very strongly the energy and always have tried to come back and perform there. Maybe we can arrange with our friends some after-hours locations or parties. We’ll see what we can do.
Can we get an update on when the new Kraftwerk album is coming out?
We are working since all these performances at MoMA in 2012 — and then we played the Düsseldorf Kunstsammlung in the winter and Tate Modern in London, and other art museums around the world, and some interesting locations like the Sydney Opera House and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where we did our performances in 3D. We translated our performances to 3D, and in surround sound, kind of like 3D sound. We’ve been doing this and working on a Blu-Ray to make this available. It should be coming out in the late fall. We’ve put a lot of work into all the images, transforming from our Kling Klang archives into 3D format and arranging it synchronized with the music, so it’s quite a lot of production. We’re quite a small team of musicians, technicians, computer programmers here at Kling Klang Studios; we do everything ourselves. That’s what we’ve been working in, and still are. When we travel to America, we’ll hopefully be finished with this work.
Is Florian consulting at all with the new project?
No no, he’s not been with us for the last decade. He’s concentrating on research on speech synthesis and things like that. He’s not been involved with the music for a very long time.
Tell us a little bit about your hometown of Düsseldorf. It’s very significant to Kraftwerk’s evolution as a band.
Düsseldorf is on the side of the industrial region here in Germany, and on the other side of the Rhine is flatland with open skies — more like the Netherlands, in a way. Also, Düsseldorf was the center in postwar Germany of the visual-arts scene — painting and performance art. We are very closely related to the Düsseldorf art scene, or have been always. When we got to play at MoMA [in 2012], it was like a return to the art-gallery scene and the art scene in general. We do all the videos and computer graphics and animations and pictures and lights, and so it’s like a multimedia Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk is really a multimedia concept. Not just music. But we compose words and images, and that’s in a way what’s related to the atmosphere in the late Sixties in Düsseldorf when I started with my partner Florian in ’68, and later in the 1970s when we started the Kling Klang studio with just a tape recorder. But coming from there, it’s a different approach then coming from a musical tradition. We come from nowhere.
“Kraftwerk is really a multimedia concept. Not just music.”
Does Kraftwerk upgrade the sound systems in the venues before they play? I was shocked at how good the sound was for Kraftwerk at the MoMA in 2012.
Yes. We bring our sound engineers and work with the room. In the case of MoMA, it’s very tall — a tall tube kind of room, not so wide in terms of square meters but the staircases and things like that. We work a lot with the sound, and surround sound, and installing observers. This year when we played the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin — this glass building, a lot of people were saying, “Ach! They can’t play there. It’s an art museum; it’s not suitable!” But our sound engineers worked with absorbers, and we installed our system and put a lot of work into it, and everybody was surprised that it was possible to perform there and present the Kraftwerk sound in perfect harmony and high-end surround sound. I think that’s very important because Kling Klang as you know are the German words for sound, like yin and yang, and Kraftwerk is all about the original sound sources, and colors and installations. So a lot of energy is put into this.
Our music is changing in time, so we always play different versions; sometimes we change the tempos and sound. Sometimes there’s different traffic on the autobahn. It’s all real. That’s what makes it interesting. Our compositions are like minimalistic film scripts or theater scripts. We can work with this; it’s never going to be the same. It changes over the years. We bring in new cars, even though my old Volkswagen is still there, with the numbered plate, from 1974, and that was recorded for the album in the early 1970s, and we work on these sounds, and music is alive, so we change it all the time.
What’s the story with the reissues of the first three Kraftwerk albums, before Autobahn? When will they be released?
They are from another early phase of our work [before] Kling Klang Studios. Maybe when we have time one day, we’ll release those, but so far we haven’t found the time. We’ve been doing so much, concentrating on Kraftwerk since Autobahn. That’s when we really started with electronic symphonies. We’re concentrating on our work now and for the future, so we haven’t found the time to really look to the past.
Are there new tracks you’re making now?
Yes, we are always working on new tracks and patterns and sound compositions, and once we are finished with our work on the 3D Catalogue, those eight albums, then we will concentrate on number nine.
What’s your favorite song to perform live?
No, no, this question is not allowed. It’s like asking a mother about her favorite child, which doesn’t really make sense. It’s about the whole — the whole music of Kraftwerk. When we play one concert, it’s around two hours, with some encores. Sometimes we change the repertoire a little bit here and there. But when we play the whole catalogue, like at MoMA, the first 30 or 40 minutes is different every concert, so there’s there’s a lot of concentration put into this. Some of those songs, like “Spiegelsaal” (“Hall of Mirrors”) we don’t play so often; even we are surprised to find out how the sound is going live. We know this from recording — it’s different when you perform it in a room with the audience and the whole atmosphere of the situation.
There are still a lot of rare Kraftwerk tracks — songs you don’t play that much.
There are some from the mid-Seventies, some compositions I composed with my former partner Florian [Schneider]. It’s hard to explain in words but there are some ur-sounds, the ur-klang. Coming from a symphonic European context, we are working from this. In combination with industrial rhythms. On Radioactivity, there are some tracks like “Antenna,” with some interesting lyrics, in the context of today. So when we’re all connected and receiving waves and interconnected all the time, we’re acting as antennas and transmitters of information. That’s from the Radioactivity album. I see a lot of very surprised faces when I take a look [at the crowd] sometimes.
What concepts currently interest you, that you feel are worth exploring now?
Mobility! As you can imagine, in the 1970s we couldn’t really travel so much because the equipment was fragile, and a lot of it was homemade, or at least cables and wires were breakable, and the synthesizers went out of tune. Nowadays we are mobile. That’s why we do more tours or concerts, the music can come alive in 3D, 4D or 5D, whatever, to bring the music around the world. That for us is a wonderful situation. We have laptop computers; we can work at the hotel, which we could never do before. We are very lucky to be experiencing this technological step into a digital format and mobility.
Kraftwerk has a long history with bicycling and fitness. It’s very trendy right now in the U.S. to make lots of fitness measurements — like Kraftwerk did back in the Seventies — with devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch. What do you think about this?
When we are cycling, we have a pulse watch, but I don’t measure the distance because I know what routes I’m taking. This might be interesting if I discover a new route and I have to know exactly where I am — the miles — but I have to listen to my own body, to the shape. When we started cycling in the late 1970s with the Man-Machine album, we made some tests, some medical tests. That is definitely necessary because you could make some mistakes, and knowing about your body’s capacities. But once you know these, you can look at the landscape.
Do you follow professional cycling much these days?
We live very close to the Netherlands, which is cycling heaven, and everyone is around with their bicycles. It’s a very normal everyday tool. We’ve been at the Tour de France, and we played for the opening of the Tour de France this year in the Netherlands, in Utrecht— we were invited to play for the opening of the Tour. So once in a while, we are around.
It’s kind of like part of our culture, our cultural background. The Tour has been going for over a hundred years. It’s a cultural institution.
Are there other songs in Kraftwerk’s output that were specifically inspired by cycling?
We were inspired by recording breath and heartbeat and other sounds from bikes. The other thing with cycling is that when it’s really going well, it’s really silence. You just hear the wind. That’s what gave the music its flow on this album. We know that from cyclists, when they listen to our music, they understand; they listen, and they understand how the music is composed. It’s important when you move with your bicycle to listen to the environment, the surroundings, the wind and your own breath. At least that’s the way we see this.
“It’s important when you move with your bicycle to listen to the environment, the surroundings, the wind and your own breath.”
Do you take electric bicycles seriously? Are they really bikes?
Oh, no, no — that’s poor. That’s not real. It’s about your body and your capacities and what you can do, and what training is giving you and improving your training. If somebody needs extra help then maybe they should get a motor, but otherwise you should use your body motor.
There are a lot of parallels you can draw between cycling and electronic music — the repetition, the forward propulsion.
Yes. We are very interested in the dynamics and the energy and the movement. The German word is vorwärts, forward — that’s what you do with your bicycle. You move forward. I know some top cyclists who can do standstill; they do it on the track. I cannot do that, but I don’t need to do that — we go forward. When you go too slowly with your bicycle or nearly stop then you fall off, so it’s better to go forward. That’s what we’ve tried to do.