Kraftwerk – The cool gods of machinelove reinvent themselves

By Marc Dery (Keyboard US – october 1991) 

All copyrights are with Keyboards US magazine and the author.

This article appeared in the october 1991 issue of Keyboard (US) magazine: an interview with Ralf Hütter. Below the scanned pages you can find the (OCR’d) text.

Kraftwerk is the missing link between James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and “Machine Sex” by Survival Research Laboratories. In the Brown song, the singer imagines himself a mechanized superstud, never tiring, always able. In the SRL performance, machine parts heave and shudder like coupling humans. Kraftwerk makes robo-pop that plays with listeners’ shared assumptions about the mechanical nature of sex and the sexuality of machinery. “By living in a machine age, we have become very robotic ourselves,” observes Ralf Hutter, spokesman for the German synth quartet. “In a sense, we’ve already fused with machines. It doesn’t need to be physical; it’s happening psy- chologically. When we go into our recording studio, we plug in and become part of the machinery.” Miscegenation between man and machine-robo-copulation, by another name. The band’s mechano-eroticism is not without precedent: The Dadaist Max Ernst produced a sardonic drawing of a safe sex machine designed “for fearless pollination,” and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, a hermetic painting on glass by the French Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, depicts a well-oiled orgasmatron that runs on “love gasoline.” Kraftwerk’s techno-fetishism has its contemporary parallels as well: The Party Machine, a TV discotheque modeled after Soul Train, features scantily-clad dancers dry-humping against a backdrop of gears and gauges straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while the Japanese cartoonist Hajime Sorayama dreams up nude robot seductresses, their sleek chrome limbs polished to a mirror finish. Almost from the first, Kraftwerk has churned out automated sex music for robotopians. Hutter and co-founder Florian Schneider met in 1968 while attending the Dusseldorf Conservatory; Hutter was studying classical piano, Schneider flute. Both were strongly influenced by the industrial clangor of the nearby Rhineland, and by the tape collages and synthesized soundscapes of avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Kraftwerk’s 1981 tour helped popularize the humanoids-at-workstations look.L to R: Ralf Hutter, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flur, Florian Schneider.  

Hutter once told an interviewer from the English magazine Sounds, “We were trained on classical instruments, … but we found that normal instruments were too limited. From the very beginning, we thought of our music visually, creating films in our brains and transmitting them to the audience, but traditional instruments always make you think of the person playing them.” In time, the two collaborators secured a tape recorder, a second-hand Farfisa organ, and several German amplifiers. Bit by bit, they augmented their sonic arsenal, adding synthesizers, sequencers, rhythm boxes, and oneof- a-kind, scratch-built devices. In 1970 they opened their own recording studio, Kling Klang, and in 1871 formed Kraftwerk (the name translates as “power plant”). Kraftwerk, along with Can, Tangerine Dream, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, was one of the first groups to eschew shaggy electric folk thrashed out on guitars and drums for streamlined Racketeer rock produced on pushbutton instruments. Like the Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, who styled himself a “noisician,” Hutter and Schneider preferred the tag klangchemiker (“sound chemists”) to the more traditional “musicians.” Early efforts, such as their 1972 double-disc debut, Kraftwerk, and Ralf nd Florian, its 1973 follow-up, invite comparison to Stockhausen’s 1968 suite for shortwave radios, Kurzwellen, or the bruitist din of Russolo’s “noise intoners”-mechanized sound machines designed to conjure urban hubbub at the turn of a crank. The group gained widespread recognition in 1974 with Autobahn, purportedly the first entirely synthesized pop record. Released in the States the following year, it rose to number five on Billboard’s album charts, buoyed by the unlikely success of the 22-1/2-minute title track, a minimalist sound painting of a drive  along the German superhighway, complete with Dopplerized horns and whooshing cars. On later releases, the group set lyrics about pocket calculators and personal computers to techno-disco that is as hard and hollow as a plastic mannequin’s head. In concert-the word “live” seems singularly inappropriate-the band further blurred the boundary between organic and cybernetic. Their identical suits, short-cropped, slicked-back hair, and painted faces, reduced to Everyman masks with clown white and dark lipstick, alluded to faceless, soulless company men, the proverbial cogs in the corporate machine. Their features frozen, their movements jerky and repetitive, they resembled automated workers in a German Expressionist movie. Listened to with ’90s ears, much o Kraftwerk’s catalog evokes house music. Maybe that’s why their latest release, The Mix, wear, its house references so well. The record gather, together 11 of the group’s best-known numbers reconstructed using newly recorded materia combined with digital samples of “antique synthesizer sounds taken from the analog master tapes. All have been retrofitted with housestyle timbres, rhythms, and high-gloss production. “Autobahn”‘s plodding, foursquare groo is much improved by the introduction of swinging triplet feel, and the new reading “Pocket Calculator” possessesa beefy,b ruisi _ low end that makes the original sound anem· by comparison. Similarly, where the versior of ”The Robots” that appears on The Man-Machine is hobbled by its stiff rhythm and ref’ dered claustrophobic by the cramped, reflecti, space in which it seems to be situated, the 118″ interpretation transports the song to a panora ic location and limbers up its rhythms. The group could be accused of trend-hw ping if it weren’t for the fact that Kraftwerk ir vented housem usic, in a sense.T heir 1977 single “Trans-Europe Express,” became a club smas when hip-hop deejay Afrika Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker released a deconstructed \ sion, “Planet Rock,” in 1982.

Pop archaeoligsts can excavate the song on the Tommy Boy ch. ble-LP anthology, Greatest Beats.) “I don’t think [Kraftwerk] even knew how big they were among the black masses b in ’77, when they came out with ‘Trans-Eur Express,”‘ recalled Bambaataa in David To book, The Rap Attack. “I thought that was of the best and weirdest records I ever heard in my life. Everybody just went crazy off of I guess they found out when they came 01 and did a performance at the Ritz how big was [sic]. They had four encores and peer would not let them leave. That’s an amazto see, They took, like, calculators and something to it. It was funky, They really .ered those industrial-type machines,” Planet Rock” taught a generation of synthat knob-twiddling could indeed yield :y results, giving rise to the silicon soul of Human League and the grandiose, swoon” new romantic” rock of Ultravox and Depeche Mode.  David Bowie, whose passing fans register fluctuations in the zeitgeist more accurately than a Geiger counter reads radioacity, used their recordings as mood music in concert halls during his 1976 Station to Station. Kraftwerk’s influence echoes loud and long, longside Brian Eno’s, in Bowie’s 1977 release, Heroes, which includes “V-2 Schneider,” a tip of the hat to the German band. The Bronx-style remix of “Trans-Europe Ex:, ress”h elped spawn “electro-boogie,” a rap 5llbgenre characterized by video arcade oleeps, cartoon sound effects, and locomotive rhythms. Electro-boogie is a forerunner of the ::Jetroit “techno” school of house music, and ouse deejays continue to incorporate raftwerk records in their live mixes. The group’s teletype rhythms, bouncy melodies, and openly synthetic timbres resound in the songs of Deee-Lite, 808 State, La Tour, and other computer age dance bands. Fittingly, “The Robots” is the first single rrom the new album. This September, during the group’s first tour of the United States in a decade, android likenesses of the band members will act as “front men.” Their photorealistic plastic heads sit on stylized torsos resembling dressmaker’s dummies, supported by rods anchored in metal bases; their arms-long spidery things with exposed wiring-culminate in mannequin hands. ”The robots have little motors that we can control from a computer keyboard,” explains Hutter. ”They’ll be standing in one place, doing a little robot dance with their arms. They don’t move around; if they did, the technology would have to be much more complex. We are not Disneyland; there are limits to our economic resources,” Hutter and Schneider, together with new band members Fritz Hilpert and Fernando Abrantes, will stand at digital workstations, typing on computer keypads and hammering at synthesizer keys. Overhead, computer-generated images will flicker across enormous video screens. On occasion, Schneider will peck out a sentence on his “singing typewriter,” the device used to construct fuzzy gurgling vocals from synthesized phonemes on Computer World. That a Teutonic, technotronic band like Kraftwerk could end up lionized on the dance floors of Detroit and the South Bronx, where sex hangs almost palpably in the air, is a consummate irony. Marcel Jean, in his History of Surrealist Painting, offers an insight: “Different writers have described ‘the sexual frenzy of factories, [their] obsessive rhythms, exhalations, cries, panting sounds, shining dartpointed instruments, articulated rods dripping with sweat, simulacra of inexhaustible loves, Could not man himself become a machine in his amorous activity and make love indefinitely, like 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 and roll circuit was al- a machine?” “I feel like being a sex machine,” chorused James Brown. But perhaps Hutter, whose clockwork rock has inspired so much cold sweat, puts it best. “To us,” he says simply, “machines are funky.”  ways a I ittle shy about electronics. They were stuck with the guitar formu- 1 a, whereas the dance crowd was much more open to modern sounds, Then, in 1982, Afrika Bambaataa 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 I iked that. This is your first tour in almost a decade. Why now? Ralf Hutter: Well, we’ve been working on our Kling Klang studio, and now it’s all digital and our computers are working. It took us quite Is this why you decided to redo your old songs in a while in order to get this a house style on The Mix? 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, strict- _ ly speaking. The Elektra press release calls them “reinventions. 11 We no longer use tapes; everything is digitally stored and then computer-controlled. We used all of our back catalog from the last 20 year;, sampling the original analog sounds from the 1 6-track master tapes. We chose those sounds we thought were unique, or irreplaceable, or perhaps just in good shape [laughs], and then others we changed or altered. We were interested in using original sounds from way back, from our old homemade analog machines, adapting everything technically to the 1990s. 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. 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 all we could do at that point was add a couple more days and fly all over America. Since we travelled so fast, we never really got into building on that 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 ’70s, 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 your rhythms are not what most listeners would call funky, How do you reconcile your fascination with stiff staccato patterns with your avowed desire to make funky dance grooves? 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 m\Jsic. 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- classical 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? 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 analog approximations? On The Mix, they’re sampled from the old “Autobahn” master tapes. We were unable to recreateth em becauseth ey 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 san pied the original noises and used them to er ate something called hupenkonzert. It’s a con e ~ mon German expressiont hat means” car hor concert”-in other words, a traffic jam, wh~ everyone is angry and honking his horn. S I played a little hupenkonzertthere. We us white noise to create the sound of the GU whooshing by. At one point, when the lyri 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 noise. How were the distorted, underwater voe in that middle section created? We useda computer-programmablein str ment that Florian had built, called a Robov It allows you to assemble any word you w~ from pre-programmed phonemes. It’s a chanical choir, totally synthetic. We want liberate technology to speak for itself, a when we use the Robovox in that song, i as if the cars are talking with their tuned horn Would you really like to live in a war where all of the machines in your life, for your household appliances to your automob” talk to you? Well, they do! When you open your ea: you can hear the music hiding in the envirO: ment. It’s much better than listening only music, which is just tuned noise anyway. T industrial landscape is fascinating. Even machines are talking. When you and Florian were attending University of Ousseldorf, did either of you counter any of the twentieth-century c/assi pieces inspired by the machine aesthetic, s as Mossolov’s Symphony of Machines or A theil’s Ballet Mechanique? Of course, but more importantly, we v. in the Dusseldorf area, which is near Colo where the electronic studio used by Stockhausen was, and not so far from the Fre studios where Pierre Boulez was workin was a common practice here, at a fairly age, to go and hear Stockhausen. he art see and the music scene, especially electronic sic, were quite accessible; there were radio shows of strange electronic music we had access to all of that; it was part of upbringing, our education. We always sidered ourselves the second generatior electronic explorers, after Stockhausen. In turn, you were a powerful influence what might be considered the third genera of electronic artists-such ’80s bands as vi and Oepeche Mode, as well as David 8 during his Berlin period. I suppose we influenced Bowie; at I that’s what he told us. He told us that\ he first came to Germany, he heard “Autooo continuously on his car radio. We met in Gerany, when he was casting about for a place vork, and we suggested he try Berlin. So provided inspiration of a sort-electronic quality! As far as the British artists are concerned, we did several very long tours in England, where we met some of those sicians in clubs. For us, it was wonderful experience this type of interest. Before, we always been considered outsiders, and sud. en I y we were on the inside. Your pronouncement in your Mar. ’82 Keyboard interview that you make “Loudspeaker music” is chillingly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels observation that the Nazis couldn’t ve come to power without the loudspeaker. Is there an inherent danger in your techno fetishism? Well, this has always been the case, ever _·nee the invention of the knife, which you could use to slice bread or kill your neighbor. don’t see modern technology as significantly ifferent. 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 ,ad any electrical shocks or accidents. You’ll be bringing two new band members on your American tour in September. 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 creen, computer-generated images that correspond to the songs together with footage from the Autobahn, footage from the TransEurope Express, and excerpts from our videos. Describe how your onstage robots work. 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 improvise. Why did you decide to build these robots in the first place? 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, although perhaps over the course of the tou·r they will develop a little more individuality. From Hardware to Robocop to The Terminator, pop culture seems obsessed with robots. Why? Because they are machines that are very close to man, both in appearance and behavior. 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 ofa 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 as extensions of ourselves. In turn, we get a lot of feedback from them, and that’s what fascinates us. Are you interested in virtual reality and other recent cybernetic developments? 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 computergenerated worlds, I thought, ‘We’ve been doing that with music all these years.”  

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