An exclusive interview with Kraftwerk

We spoke to Ralf Hütter, a founding member of the pioneering German electronic band.



What can I say about Kraftwerk that hasn’t already been said? Ever since forming in the early ’70s, the band virtually pioneered what we know as electronic music.

Constantly innovating throughout the decade with groundbreaking albums such as Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine, they forged the path where countless other influential acts (Daft Punk, Björk, Depeche Mode, to name a few) have tread.

With 1981’s Computer World, Kraftwerk essentially foreshadowed the society we currently live in.

Electric Café followed in 1986. And then nothing.

The group toured sporadically throughout the ’90s to great critical acclaim but didn’t release any new music. As the 20th century came to a close, a new single called “Expo 2000” set the wheels in motion for the first Kraftwerk album in nearly two decades. Tour de France Soundtracks finally came out in August 2003.

The band re-released the lion’s share of their discography in 2009. An eight-album collection, titled The Catalogue, kept the band on the road for several years, culminating in 2012 with an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, wherein each album was played in its entirety.

Kraftwerk were among those honoured this year with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In January, it was announced that they would be revisiting The Catalogue retrospective in Los Angeles and Vienna, as well as touring their highly praised 3D Concert, which brings them to Montreal this month, for the first time since 2004.

It was during that last visit that I had the distinct privilege to interview Ralf Hütter, who’s now the sole remaining member from the band’s classic era, following Florian Schneider’s departure in 2008. Kraftwerk is known for their eccentricity and reluctance to speak to the media, so it was a shock and is still a surprise that this actually happened. Despite this interview being a decade old, many of the themes discussed are as relevant today as they have ever been.

Kraftwerk circa The Man Machine
Kraftwerk circa The Man Machine

Pablo: You’ve foreshadowed a lot of things in your music that are a reality today. Do you ever feel that technology will get to the point where it will be too advanced for us to handle?

Ralf Hütter: No. I think at the moment we are in a very creative period because in the past we spent so much time adjusting the instruments, tuning the synthesizers, clicking all the cables together, turning all the knobs.

There’s a lot of physical technical work in just preparing our Kling Klang studio to the level of functioning. Over the last years, of course, with the arrival of digital and computer programs and laptop computers, now for the first time we used four laptops for Kraftwerk music. Now we are very mobile and transportable.

Kraftwerk has always been like a live electronic orchestra in a way that I constructed with my friend Florian Schneider in 1970, with our Kling Klang studio. So mister Kling and mister Klang—we developed the concept of this electronic orchestra.

And then today for the first time we are in the state of really functioning. Last December, we played in Tokyo and it was ice cold. We played in a huge exhibition park centre, Electro Glide Festival, and when we did the set-ups and the rehearsals days before, we were wearing gloves and cycling thermal costumes to protect ourselves from the cold and all the technology was functioning very well. A month later, we played in New Zealand, then in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, and it was, like, 42 celsius. For the high-tech sports men, the tennis players, they closed the stadium to protect them from the sun and put on the air conditioning. The music festival was outdoors, the Big Day Out festival, and we played in a tent. There were water drops with condensation coming and all the technology was functioning. For us, that was a fantastic experience

Now for the first time we can travel and really play around the world with our electronic instruments and all our computer programs running. In Kraftwerk music, we have 33 years of Kraftwerk sounds in our files and have access to all of them, we can modulate, and now for the first time we are very very happy with the development of technology in our direction.

P: When did you first meet Florian Scheider?

RH: We met in the Musical College for Improvised music. We played our first shows in art galleries and in student centres, not really in the musical world.

P: What were your plans when you first got together? Did you ever imagine it was going to last this long, and have such an impact?

RH: We just concentrated on our work. Our idea of Kraftwerk is the concept of electronic live music and we just concentrated on that and developed from there. We always said we invented the 168-hour week, and this concept has stayed with us till today. With our Kling Klang studio, we are completely autonomous producing electronic music.

P: I once read you replaced Klaus Dinger because he was too attached to “real” instruments. How do you feel about the combination of acoustic and electronic instruments?

RH: We started with electroacoustic music ourselves. We come from piano, wind instruments, so we developed. With technical means, tapes, we modified the sounds and then with the first synthesizers, oscillators at our disposal in the early days (laughs) very very expensive. You know the first synthesizer was the same price as a Volkswagen? It’s my Volkswagen on the cover of Autobahn which we did several hundreds of thousands kilometres on the Autobahn, from university to university. Then we developed more and more into Kraftwerk, the concept of electronic music. For us it’s just worked out this way.

I think there is an enormous feedback of electronic music around the globe, and for us there is this energy level. You must recall when we started, those were the days of rock in Germany, of classical orchestras and big marching bands. Today, many of the visions we had have come true. ■

Kraftwerk play Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Sunday, March 30, 6:30 p.m. (sold out) and 10:15 p.m., $62

The documentary Kraftwerk Pop Art will be shown on six screens as part of the FIFA film fest at SAT (1201 St-Laurent), followed by a party with DJs Alex Ortiz, SoundShaper and Mathieu Beauséjour, plus VJ Patrick Trudeau, on Thursday, March 27, 9 p.m., $15

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