Arts & Krafts
Ralf Hutter: This year's model
Few bands command a genuinely multi-cultural following; none do so on the same scale as Kraftwerk. The name was once synonymous with a kind of Teutonic caricature: robotic, efficiently industrial, and nicely ironic to an English-speaking audience who would hear it and imagine patchwork quilts, see it and come face to face with the chimneys of the Ruhr valley. The vapid automata suggested by this caricature represented the very antithesis of soul, and yet the name Kraftwerk is now revered among house, rap and funk aficionados from Chicago to Sheffield.
The key word in unravelling this conundrum is, of course, technology. Anyone who shares an interest in its musical applications ultimately is led back to the pioneering ideas of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, heirs to the Stockhausen legacy and co-founders in 1968 of Organisation - an electronic music duo later to evolve into Kraftwerk.
British pop groups of the late '70s and early '80s could thus draw on seminal albums like Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977) and The Man Machine (1978), as economic changes brought synthesisers within their reach, while the more syncopated rhythms of the single 'Tour De France' (1983) and the album Electric Café (1986) served a similar purpose for a new generation of dance acts. Whatever the style, in using musical technology it always seemed that Kraftwerk provided the model.
But there is a consistency to their music which also explains their wide appeal. Unlike contemporaries Tangerine Dream, they write melodies - 'ditties' even - they program strong beats, and they always have done. The shuffling beat of 'Autobahn' offers an early hint; and it was a track from as early an album as Trans-Europe Express that Afrika Bambaataa used to such historic effect on 'Planet Rock'. Meanwhile, any no-nonsense pop audience in the world can appreciate the lilting tunes and lyrical simplicity of songs like 'Neon Lights' and 'The Model'.
Through it all, Kraftwerk have stuck to their task. From analogue synthesis to digital (and back again); from tape loops to sampling; from CV/gate to MIDI; through progressive rock, new wave, new romantics, hip-hop, house, techno and ambient new age - these enigmatic German geezers dressed as lab technicians have quietly twiddled their way through the years unfettered, safely ensconced in their Düsseldorf 'Kling-Klang' studio. The single-mindedness of their vision is, as ever, the stuff of true originality.
In the interview that follows, founder member Ralf Hütter talks to Mark Sinker. The transcription, exclusive to Music Technology< offers many fascinating insights into the mind of one of music's most elusive of heroes, the figurehead of a fanatical cult following and the mainstay of a very singular musical genre. This is the man, not the machine.
What has been the most significant technological development during your career?
"I think this must be the availability of the first monophonic synthesisers, because before that it used to be these big machines from Bell Laboratories or Government radio stations. Being able, as an individual musician - an independent musician - to get your hands on some of this electronic gear. I think that was the most significant change, around the late '60s. And now the next phase, the digital technology, everything becoming more modular, this is the next big step."
Did you yourself have any access to synthesisers before that?
"No. And I remember the first monophonic synthesiser I bought was the same price as a Volkswagen. So that was the choice to make. I think that's a very good comparison, because the synthesisers were giving freedom of movement to musicians."
Did those machines offer more freedom than today's, in that they were free of presets?
"Yes, they would give you just a three-page typewritten guide, saying 'this is the oscillator, this is the filter' - and that was it. Then you would go home and fiddle around and turn knobs; there were no pre-programmed sounds in it because it was all analogue - the whole range. I don't like today's preprogrammed sounds so much; we always work on them, if we use them at all. We never really find anything that comes from other people's ears that we keep. We always turn knobs, that has been a continuing priority. We used to design our own synthesisers as well. In those days we had sequencers built, because they were very rare. Only the very big Moog modular systems had sequencers. And then we would take drum boxes and re-design them with our engineers and electricians into a playable form, and adjust these with the sequencers, and those to tape, so that everything was synchronised."
Is Kling-Klang in a state of constant change?
"Sure, we call it the electronic garden, because it is continually regenerating, and is now completely modular so that we can pick out certain units and replace them. And what we did was we kept all our old synthesisers from all the different phases, in storage, because they were of very little value once they were superseded, but today we have all this old analogue equipment back in place! It's really very good. Moving over to digital has in no way superseded analogue, especially as very often digital technology is only used to sample analogue sources, whether it's re-sampling old sounds off the original tapes, or from sound sources.
We have always considered any sound source. It's just sound. Kling-klang is the German word for sound, so we have always had a fascination for sound."
Where do the themes of travelling and movement stem from - as in Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express?
"That came from the early days of touring in Germany. We would be continuously moving. We live in this big industrial area on the Rhine-Ruhr, and we would be going to the next city to play there and coming back at night, travelling through that landscape at night. From this came the idea of doing a song, and so we would tune the synthesisers to sound like motor horns. Also on the artwork we would have road symbols, or a Volkswagen. So it was personal experiences, worked into the music."
Apart from movement, much of the imagery you employ, especially on the video screens on stage, shows a vision of the future from the past - from the '40s and '50s, not a contemporary futurism...
"Well, what we were very much considering was the simultaneity of past, present and future today. I think visions and memories synchronise together, and I think certain things from a little way back look more towards the future than things which are pseudo-modern today. The real modernism may be somewhere else, a different way to what we think is modern."
Did you have any early training in improvisation?
"No, we were trained in classical music, but we left that behind and got into the whole situation in post-war Germany, asking 'what is our music, what is the sound of post-war Germany?' That was the question. Then I met Florian at some improvisational courses in the late '60s, at a very open time when people would meet on University music courses and quickly get into improvising. From there we set up our Kling-Klang studio in 1970, to have a base, with a little Revox machine and echo loops - very simplistic equipment.
"That was a time, in the late '60s, when everything came into question, especially in Düsseldorf. We would see people like Fluxus and Josef Beuys on the art scene, and we were fascinated by Happenings and especially the music involved with them. So we worked with a couple of independent artists who wanted sounds, creating sound patterns. It was a very open scene, with nothing really decided. We took it from there.
"There was no big music industry, like today, no structure and so there was nobody to tell you which way to go."
"I remember the first monophonic synthesiser I bought was the same price as a Volkswagen. I think that's a very good comparison, because the synthesisers were giving freedom of movement to musicians"
A lot of the British 'progressive' bands of that time were interested in new sounds, but didn't seem to know exactly what to do with them...
"I think that was the situation here; there was already too much marketing and merchandising put into a structure through the music business. There was nothing like that in Düsseldorf, it was non-existent. It was a completely anarchic situation. And as you probably know, we did it in the Düsseldorf area, while in Cologne it was Can, other bands in Munich, Tangerine Dream in Berlin; it was all happening with different aspects coming from the different cities. We would meet at festivals, there was some knowledge of each other, but we came clearly from the Düsseldorf scene."
Technology has come to a point where it's not only creating sounds, but also a kind of space - a virtual space...
"Sure, when I read about this a couple of years ago, it was like a big development in the visual arts - but we have been doing it for 20 years, and especially when you see the show, you'll see that it's a virtual reality. We are real, but with the images we create other realities. There are no actual cars involved, but you can see them, hear them, maybe you can smell them, or trains or whatever. So music is a virtual reality, it comes to you and you actually enter a different space.
"Just walking around wearing a Walkman completely transforms your reality. That's where musical developments were very much ahead of the optical. Music is in advance on this level because you don't have things across your eyes, you are still alert to your environment. That's also why music is so important in today's society; over the last 20 or 30 years its importance has been enormous - maybe even over-important, although it's hard for me to say that! Maybe music should just be one part of life."
It was, perhaps before the gramophone, and even after it, while it was still a limited luxury - but now everybody hears music all the time, everywhere...
"That's why when someone asks me about my top ten records I always include silence - turn off the record player and that is one of the most important sounds. And I hate all this zombie-like tranquilliser music, conditioning people in stores and in lifts and in all kinds of places, it's just pollution. We always call it pollution music, and it has to go, because we want to hear the real sounds - I want to hear the sound of the escalator, I want to hear the sound of the 'plane, the sound of the train. Good-sounding trains, for themselves, they are musical instruments. That muzak, that uninteresting music from uninteresting people, we have to stop it. Whenever we can, in America, we have these little wire clippers, so we can clip the cables wherever we see them... We want to make people aware of reality, by bringing out in our compositions the sounds of cars and trains, and ideas of the beauty of the sounds themselves."
There is a real sense of three dimensions on Electric Café, for example...
"You can make it three-dimensional with your imagination, and electronics are just perfect for this because of the sounds they propose. Rather than coming from a traditional instrument, which is always located in one place, you can place them in the mix and have them moving, and when that happens things like spatial alterations occur in your head. There is panning and there is also reverb for depth. You establish dimensions, something like a short reverb to sound very close, and something like a cathedral reverb to 'fool' yourself that it is very far away.
"Stockhausen has built this round building with speakers, where the audience sits in the middle and there is sound all around. There has always been panning and other devices in Musique Concrete, also."
The sounds themselves seem to have changed over the years, somehow becoming less 'noisy'...
"We've always used noise - music is organized noise - we haven't changed our attitude towards noise, but maybe with today's computer-generated noise and things like that, it's getting more 'bleepy', whereas before it was more physically concrete. But this is not intentional, it has just happened and it could easily change back... People always responded well to the 'noises' we used from the beginning, we always created an interest, whether locally or in the next city. So that was never a problem. In those days, I think the time was ready, people wanted to hear new sounds. Everybody was interested; we couldn't even do all of the things people wanted to hear, it was such an open-minded time. We definitely could have done more than we did."
What are the significant differences between tape-splicing and digital editing, apart from the new technology being faster?
"It's not necessarily faster. But you make final decisions when splicing, you cut the tape and that's it. When editing on the computer you can always go back. And with tapes you have so many splices and bits of tape you can't always remember where your piece of music is! It gets over-complicated. With computer programs it's all in the memory, and the machine lets you recall instantly. It's like an expansion of your own memory, whereas tape is an expansion of your memory but you can't always remember where your memory is! Philosophically that's very interesting, I think."
Everyone has the idea that you spend all your time working in the studio, but your actual output is not that prolific...
"No, only when it's finished, when we actually want to make new steps or developments. We'll put something out only when it's possibly relevant for us or for other people. The Mix, for example, was old material but it was working to digital for the first time. The last album was from the mid-'80s and was half and half - still recorded on analogue tape with a couple of pieces of digital equipment involved. And now the recording is completely digital, with the studio set up for a modular console and re-programming, and putting all our sounds onto digital media.
"Everything was working OK, and we thought 'let's do 'Autobahn' - right, how does it go?!' And we listened to the record, which we hadn't heard for a while, and we said, 'no, let's do it differently'. So we mixed it around, digitised the recordings - the original tracks - and as a documentation of this part of the work in the studio we put out The Mix. It's a mix of our developments - then and now - with a lot of literal studio mixing involved - channels, sequencers, tracks.
"That's how we remember the music, also - we never write anything down. We read music, but not very well, and we don't really care because you can't write down our music anyway. Notation is a restriction on music. It's for the museum. I was always bored when I had to read these notes; it's nothing, it's just paper. Notes on paper. The sound is what interests me. And how we do it. Very rarely we would make a little motif, to denote a certain sound, but that's it. Just so that we would not forget, not for others to read. And sometimes we forget anyway, which I think is also very important, because if it comes back to you from the different stages of memory, if it reminds you of itself, then maybe it's something very strong."
On stage, how much is pre-recorded, to the extent of being unalterable?
"It's not pre-recorded, it's in digital storage. There's no tapes, it's all run from the computer. Effectively we can change as much as we like, cut off tracks, add tracks, mute, double. That's what we do - complete access. We can make any track longer, according to the gig. Certain things are written, but certain compositions can have a start point and be totally open-ended, with the programming running into a loop function. It can be however we want it.
"The only thing that's really written from start to finish is 'The Robots', with output from the computer to synchronise the actual robots on stage, so that their movements are all computer-controlled and they are always identical - very robotic. All the other compositions are just written as basic sequences. There is something similar to jazz in that regard, I think, like where they play any song, whether Miles Davis playing Cindy Lauper, or in the old days any silly Broadway song, and just take it as a 'flying carpet' for improvisation."
"That muzak, that uninteresting music from uninteresting people, we have to stop it. Whenever we can, in America, we have these little wire clippers, so we can clip the cables wherever we see them..."
It's interesting that improvisational music really grew in significance as recorded music became available...
"At the same time as the magnetophone, yes, an important historical coincidence, perhaps, as the dependency on written music receded."
The magnetophone was invented in Germany before the war, yet not really used for music until after, and I've always been amused by the fact that it was Bing Crosby who introduced that technology to America, paying for these Telefunken models to be taken over there and put into research studios to see what could be done with them - effectively starting the modern recording industry...
"Probably his greatest achievement. Much better than his singing."
Has the wide availability of recorded music helped to make it less policed, more politically subversive?
"Well, it's not allowed in all areas, and not allowed in all countries, despite the technology. For example, we were not allowed in East Germany, and I can only assume it was because we were using their technology in a different way - because they had the technology, they had tapes, radio, cameras, but they used them for state security. They had to secure the state from their own people. A very strange concept, very Orwellian. We've haven't played there yet, hopefully this year. But we played Poland, for Solidarity, and in the end it does show the subversive character of electronics - it's uncontrollable."
Instead of there being one central broadcasting station transmitting to every citizen, it's kind of the other way round, with several stations for each person... or at least that's the potential.
"Yes, in the first place it's a possibility, so let's use it. But if they all play the Top 40 then it's the same situation again - although I don't think that's going to be the case."
Was it a surprise to you that your music was so successful in, for example, Chicago and Detroit?
"Yes, but we always had a strongly favourable reaction from black audiences in America, even before house and techno. I remember somebody took me to a club in about 76 or 77, when Trans-Europe Express was out, and it was some loft club in New York, after hours, just as the DJ culture was starting, when the DJs began making their own records, their own grooves. And they took sections from 'Metal On Metal' on Trans-Europe Express, and when I went in it was going 'boom-crash - boom-crash', so I thought 'oh, they're playing the new album'. But it went on for ten minutes! And I thought what's happening?! That track is only something like two or three minutes! And later I went to ask the DJ and he had two copies of the record and he was mixing the two, and of course it could go on as long as people were dancing...
"This was a real development, because in those days you fixed a certain time on the record, under twenty minutes a side in order to get the print into vinyl. It was a technological decision to say how long the song would last. We always used to play different timings live, but there we were in this after hours club, and it was ten minutes, twenty minutes of the recording, because the vibe was there."
Do you consciously go from one 'concept' to the next with each album?
"Not really; we sometimes have several concepts, loose ideas to work on, but we never have very much unreleased material, just a couple of test tapes maybe; not really like somebody sitting on a song collection. It's only recently that we've realised that we have a catalogue; we would just go into a concept very deeply and then put it out. They're done over quite a short period of time. The rest of the time we work on the studio, or on visuals, getting things together. We're now involved in the multi-media aspects of music, very much. We've always 'seen' our music, but in those days we couldn't do anything about it. Now we can put words on a screen, create images - like on 'Autobahn', just a simple signpost - any way to illustrate the music."
You were in the right place at the right time, but is it harder now for bands to get into a position like yours, where so much is available to you?
"I think we predicted that electronic music was going to be the next phase in popular music - volksmusik - and people said it was crazy, very elitist, intellectual, and we had to say no, this was everyday music - cars, noises, microphones picking up music for everybody. In those days everybody had tape recorders for parties, to record your own sounds from the radio. But with today's technology you can do more, with little drum machines, synthesisers, basic computer programs. At Kling-Klang we have a lot of equipment because we have developed over a long period. But starting today on the technological side would be easier, I think. But it's still down to ideas, to deciding what are we going to play, what are we going to do with this stuff)"
And what are you going to do next with this stuff?
"What we're doing now is on diskettes, the music is not even fixed. We send it over to here, or to friends in New York, and what we are doing is also music from different places at the same time, by hooking in and syncing up by modem. Data transferring between computer workstations - when this really happens the music will come pouring out, I'm sure."
Special thanks must go to Andrew Slegt, Ian Calder and Paul Wilkinson for their help in the preparation of this feature. An excellent Kraftwerk fanzine entitled Activitat is available from Ian Calder at (Contact Details), where you can also send ideas and information about the band. A special Kraftwerk convention is planned for Blackpool on 21st February 1993: details from Paul Wilkinson, (Contact Details).
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