In a rare face-to-face interview, Stephen Dalton talks to Ralph Hütter of Kraftwerk
Trans Europe finesse
As inscrutable as the Sphinx, as unreadable as the Mona Lisa's smile, the German band Kraftwerk have always moved in mysterious ways. Despite being one of the most influential groups on the planet, these groundbreaking electronic minimalists have given fewer interviews than any major artist or band in the history of pop. Compared to them, Bob Dylan looks positively chatty. In between their increasingly rare albums and tours, they retreat into deathly silence for years on end. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, they remain a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
And yet, such is Kraftwerk's enduring cult mystique and word-of-mouth reputation that live concerts still sell out instantly. In fact, the band is in the middle of its busiest creative period for years, with a new studio set-up and a fresh album in gestation. This year alone Kraftwerk's dazzling audiovisual roadshow has been taken around the world, including a South American tour with Radiohead, and a handful of performances featuring gleaming new 3D visuals. With the arrival of portable, digital technology, the future has finally caught up with Kraftwerk's pristine machine dreams.
Then again, this is a band that was always ahead of its time. During Kraftwerk's prolific 1970s heyday, pop superstars including David Bowie and Michael Jackson queued up to pay homage. Nowadays the celebrity fan club includes Jay-Z, U2 and Coldplay. "A great soul group, Kraftwerk," says U2's singer, Bono. "Really an enormous influence on me as a 16-year-old, and on other groups that influenced us too, like Joy Division."
"Kraftwerk are amazing," says Coldplay's Chris Martin. "This is going to sound highly pretentious, but I was reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci, and it said he was like a man who had woken up in the dark before everyone else got up hours later. That's like Kraftwerk." Kraftwerk has technically been a quartet for most of its 40-year existence, but the overall boss, spokesman and sole remaining founder member is Ralf Hütter. A neat and professorial 62-year-old, Hütter oozes Old European elegance in person, all dry humour and fastidious manners. Surprisingly relaxed during our extremely rare face-to-face meeting, he could more easily pass for a bank manager than a rock star. The effect is rather disconcerting, like pulling back a heavy velvet curtain to find an all-too-human Wizard of Oz working the levers behind.
There are reasons, of course, why the intensely private Hütter has broken his usual Zen-like silence. Things are afoot in the Kraftwerk camp. Next week the band reissues its eight biggest albums in deluxe, digitally remastered new editions. The acrimonious departure last year of Hütter's fellow Kraftwerk founder, Florian Schneider, is also hanging in the air. It is a sensitive subject, but on balance appears to have left him liberated rather than wounded. "I cannot speak for my former partner, friend and co-composer," he says carefully, "but he always hated touring and concerts."
Hütter confirms that he and Schneider are no longer on speaking terms, but finds his decision to quit baffling. "I've no idea, ask him," he shrugs. "We haven't seen him for a long time. He just disappeared. For personal reasons." Another key recent development has been Kraftwerk's relocation to the new Kling Klang studio complex, on an industrial estate close to the group's native Düsseldorf, replacing its legendary predecessor in the city centre. Kraftwerk's headquarters for more than three decades, the original Kling Klang passed into rock folklore for having no mailbox and no telephone. It became, as Hütter recalls, "very claustrophobic".
Kraftwerk's new mothership is larger, more versatile, and even more obsessively private. "It has space where we can do the visuals, set up our stage and everything," Hütter says. "It's like a painter's atelier, or a little film and video studio. We've been looking for this for 20 years and now it's working." Outside Kraftwerk's homeland, particularly in Britain, the group is widely regarded as archetypally, almost comically German. A fondness for matching, militaristic uniforms has even led to accusations of flirting with fascist imagery, which understandably anger Hütter. "That comes from watching bad TV programmes," he snaps. "It's still there, when the German football team comes to France or something, they talk about Panzers. It's nonsense."
Far from flirting with the dark shadows of Germany's past, Kraftwerk's original mission was to compose a new, forward-thinking musical language to fill the nation's post-war cultural vacuum. Although early albums were entirely in German, a rarity at the time, Kraftwerk has always been impeccably international in outlook. They have since recorded lyrics in English, French, Russian and even Japanese.
Hütter calls Kraftwerk "a European band with German passports". Indeed, one of its best-loved albums is Trans Europe Express from 1977, a romantic homage to the idea of European integration. "That's our cultural identity as Europeans," he nods. "As you know, in Düsseldorf we live 20 minutes from the Netherlands, half an hour from Belgium, two hours from France. Berlin is further away than Paris, even without the Wall."
Kraftwerk was born from the so-called Krautrock scene of the late 1960s, a loose movement of underground bands who fused jazzy improvisation with rudimentary electronics. But Hütter is unhappy with the label, which is rooted in casual xenophobia left over from World War II, even though it is invariably used by music critics today as a positive badge of cool. "This name is coming from some idiots, but it was never used in those times," Hütter says. "The music was called Deutsch rock, or electro rock, underground music, free rock. It really had no name and it also had different colours in different cities. This name was later introduced by people who maybe like this music, but it's an insult. It's also nonsense because we don't eat sauerkraut. And the music wasn't made by vegetables."
Hütter first met his long-term Kraftwerk partner, Florian Esleben-Schneider, in 1968. The former was studying architecture, the latter attending an improvised music course at the Düsseldorf Conservatory. This long-haired student duo mixed with a bohemian crowd and rejected their classical training. "We tried to forget all the things we knew before," Hütter recalls. "I remember big parties, five or six hours without repertoire. A lot of things were possible."
In the spirit of 1968, with student revolutions sweeping Europe, Hütter and Schneider seized their artistic independence very early. They founded their own studio, Kling Klang, in downtown Düsseldorf. As they drifted away from free-form jazz-rock, they began experimenting with pure electronics. "We were like test pilots," Hütter smiles. They first performed as Ralf and Florian, a deadpan anti-image partly inspired by the celebrated London art duo Gilbert and George. This stiff-limbed, mechanical performance would later inspire tracks such as Showroom Dummies and The Robots. Hütter insists the band was always intended to be an audiovisual gesamtkunstwerk - a total artwork. "We were close to the visual art scene in Düsseldorf," he says. "That is also very important for Kraftwerk. You can actually see our music, I think."
After perfecting their shiny new pop-art image in 1974 with their sublimely mundane homage to Germany's motorway system, Autobahn, Kraftwerk then released a flawless run of all-time classic albums. Each was a serene step forward, each seeming to predict a different pop future. Visiting New York in 1977, Hütter and Schneider were amazed to hear the piston-pumping rhythms of Trans Europe Express being stretched into endless loops by underground club DJs. This was five years before Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker turned the same beats into the landmark electro anthem, Planet Rock.
"We received a Disco Award for that album in America," Hütter smiles. "It was very funny. I was in New York when the record came out, doing some promo, and somebody from Capitol Records took us to some after-hours illegal clubs. I went with Florian and we were doing our little dance, and they played Metal on Metal. We knew the record because it was fairly new - but it went for five minutes, 10, 15, 20 minutes. What was happening? Then we found out they had two acetates, two pressings, and it was Bambaataa playing. Fantastic live DJing."
Kraftwerk's work rate slowed down considerably in the 1980s, especially after Hütter became obsessed with cycling and suffered a fractured skull in a roadside accident. But the band's influence never waned. Pioneering post-punk and new wave acts such as Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Human League and New Order simply borrowed their futuristic clothes during the synth-pop boom. Even Michael Jackson reportedly became obsessed with the streamlined robo-funk of Kraftwerk's 1978 album, The Man-Machine. Rumour has it Jackson even proposed a collaboration, but Hütter denies this.
"The truth is that he didn't ask me to work with him," Hütter says. "But I read afterwards that he went to a Berlin department store at night to buy Kraftwerk records, the German versions. Lots of English and American people prefer the German versions." Successive waves of US house, hip-hop and techno artists have sampled Kraftwerk's sci-fi travelogues. The professors of pop later acknowledged their influence on rave culture with their 1991 remix compilation, The Mix. Meanwhile, a new generation of European electro acts including Orbital, the Pet Shop Boys, Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk borrowed from Kraftwerk's digital aesthetic.
Hütter has always liked to characterise Kraftwerk as "musical workers" in the field of "industrial folk music". The group's schedule is "the 168-hour week," he claims with a straight face. "People are talking about the 30-hour week and I don't understand. What do you do with the rest?" In truth, Kraftwerk has become one of the least productive bands in history, a prisoner of perfectionism with only one new studio album in the last 23 years to its credit. Hütter may promise another is already underway, but you are advised not to hold your breath. Remember, Kraftwerk moves in mysterious ways. Often very slowly.
"Sometimes I get criticised for taking so long with the last album," Hütter shrugs. "I can only answer that Autobahn took 28 years to make. Kraftwerk, and Pre Kraftwerk, was like seven years of working. People forget, they think you walk into a studio, turn some knobs and a new album is finished. That might be the case for one record, maybe two. But not a lifetime's work."