Metal, Machines & Music
Die Krupps: hi-tech and heavy
Hammering on the steel doors of the armaments factory - are Die Krupps trying to get in or out?
Alfred Krupp was an arms manufacturer and war criminal. Today, Krup' is the brand name on a range of domestic hardware and electronic labour-saving devices, so calling your band Die Krupps is a bit like calling yourselves The Fords, or The Kenwood Chefs. Not that Henry Ford was an arms manufacturer, or a war criminal, but he was, and is, an emblematic industrialist whose methods epitomised a whole culture - perfect for the kind of irreverent recycling we've come to expect from the world of pop. Translate this into German, with a somewhat different legacy of cultural baggage in tow, and you have Die Krupps, formed in 1981 by Jurgen Engler and Ralf Dorper and still going strong.
Dorper will be remembered as one quarter of mid-'80s techno-pop pioneers, Propaganda - a sojourn which yielded UK hits with 'Dr Mabuse' and 'Duel' as well as the seminal state-of-the-studio-art 1985 album 'A Secret Wish'. His role in that band was mainly that of lyricist, a role which has continued since his reunion with Engler, with added credits for 'samples' and 'sound effects'. It suits his bespectacled, multi-lingual style to be the mouthpiece of a band dedicated to tackling thorny Euro-issues with a detached humour, while his partner, the noise merchant puts the iron into the irony.
Quoted as sources of inspiration by the likes of Depeche Mode and The Human League, and yet often neglected by the record-buying public of their own country, they've had their ups and downs. But following last year's Mute retrospective compilation 91-81 Past Forward, and with a new album mixed by John Fryer now available, Die Krupps are firing on all cylinders once again.
By contrast to their music, Jurgen and Ralf are soft-spoken, laid back kinds of guys. On a brief promotional visit to London, they chat casually about the album, the band, and some very loud and distorted guitars which have been drafted in to transform the hi-tech Die Krupps sound... "It's the first time we've worked with that kind of guitar," explains Engler, "but the first record we made, in 1981 (Steelwork Symphony), used conventional instruments. It was all instrumental, in fact."
Actually, there was nothing very conventional about the instrument Engler invented at this time, the use of which on the early recordings provided a clear indication of the band's industrial predilections. Called the steelophone, it has been described as a cross between a xylophone and a railway track and featured huge steel mallets with which Engler could be seen thrashing the hell out of even huger steel bars.
By the time of 1982's Full Speed Ahead the steelophone had gone through its own particular techno-revolution and had become electronic. Apparently, the Amalgamated Union Of Percussionists And Steelworkers (Dusseldorf Branch) were up in arms for a brief spell, but the only 'redundancy' created within Die Krupps was the position held by Ralf Dorper who happened to relocate to Propaganda at this time. Now back in the fold, he is as enthusiastic as his guitar-playing partner about the decision to draft in the headbangers...
Dorper: "It doesn't make sense to sample a guitar if you want to achieve a guitar sound. It doesn't sound the same."
Engler: "The album existed as a finished product without guitars and we added them later. We recorded all the sequences onto tape and the whole backing was finished. Then we called up the German band Accuser and asked them to join. They came and played their guitars!"
Dorper: "It started as an experiment on one track, 'Metal Machine Music', which was released separately. When we heard the results, we decided to put guitar onto tape for the other tracks as well, because at that time we were all electronic. We're starting to work that way more because the guitars fitted in so well."
Engler: "We did three gigs with one of the guitarists from Accuser and the drummer Volker Borchert, but now we have a second guitarist on stage. He's in a band called Death Row."
Such nihilism. Still, before Die Krupps, Engler was a punk guitarist, answering a call of Nietzche up against The Wall. This largely explains the continuing presence of noisy guitars within the essentially hi-tech sound. The guitars are played by Engler himself along with the hardcore axe-grinders from Accuser and another German band, Klinik. The metal connection continues with the inclusion on the album of a version of Metallica's 'One' - from which the album takes its name - and the presence of John Fryer at the desk, whose work with Nine Inch Nails and particularly Jesus Jones qualifies him well for the job of combining sequencing technology with unruly rock guitar. The results express a metal/machine fusion of industrial strength - burning ingots of molten HM guitar compressed and moulded between the steel presses of synth and beatbox.
No doubt about it, with his roots in the blank generation, Engler wouldn't have it any other way...
"I became interested in speed metal - stuff like that. To me, it was like the next punk movement, with fanzines, very fast, the whole underground thing. It was different to heavy metal, which was never right for us with its attitude of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, blah blah blah... speed metal, to me, was like punk - hard, fast; even the lyrics were like punk. That was interesting; I was really fascinated with the guitar techniques, too, because when I started playing the guitar this technique of a fast right hand was important - much more important than a fast left hand. So speed metal really attracted me."
The basic tracks onto which the guitars were spot-welded (all of which took place in Engler's 'Atom H' studio in Dusseldorf, incidentally) are an oddly old-fashioned combination of analogue sequences and sound-bites. It's the mere inclusion of metal guitar which is intended to push back the barriers.
Dorper: "Some people base the whole of their music on sampling, but for us it's just there to add flavour, it's just an element. It's not the basis of everything; which means we don't create loops or even sound patterns with samples. What we do is take certain sound effects, or ethnic sounds, good colourful sounds and treat them as additional information, especially with samples taken from movies which fit a mood or create a special atmosphere which might otherwise be missing."
Engler: "We just took these very long samples, like Darth Vader talking about 'The Dark Side' in Star Wars and used them directly. Any sequences tend to be analogue patterns - there's a lot of old analogue synths used for this. Mini-Moog, obviously, or the Korg MS20, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, all that stuff. The songs usually start from a sequence; I'll have kind of an idea of what I'll do and I'll start playing around until I have some good groove that I can imagine making a song out of. Then I'll program the computer (Atari running Cubase) in that style and do some more production as I'm writing."
Dorper: "This album is mainly based on sounds from old analogue equipment that we have from years ago because we never sold it. But it's good to get the most out of what you've got. Spending money can be a sign of laziness."
Engler: "The new synths that I like - which we also used on the album - are the Roland JD800, the Microwave and the EMAX II, but again we'd turn to the analogue sounds. All put onto 24 tracks of analogue tape."
"The album is based on sounds from old analogue equipment that we have from years ago; it's good to get the most out of what you've got. Spending money can be a sign of laziness"
Dorper: "I actually think that analogue sounds work better on analogue tape. A digital sound may fit to digital tape but analogue's different, it has those warm sounds which you lose if you record them to digital. And especially now with the guitars, it would sound different recorded digitally; not as good. But we still have a hi-tech approach which gives it that hardness."
German music, of course, has a long association with pioneering technology - dating back to theories espoused by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen at the conservatory in Darmstadt and eagerly taken up by the likes of Can and Kraftwerk. But in the pragmatic world of pop this legacy may well be losing its influence. To some extent, the technology is now so efficient that it's becoming invisible, and thereby less of a direct influence, less of a distraction. When I ask which version of Cubase was used to sequence Die Krupps' choice of sounds, the smiling answer from Ralf is 'Version 5', a reply which simultaneously satirises the old notions of competitive progress and dismisses from central concern the exact stages of technological development. Jurgen Engler concurs.
"I think 'pioneering' in the electronic field is impossible now. That's why we actually started using guitars, to try and create something new. Music in the '90s is about combining different styles, getting rid of boundaries and labels. This is the '90s, and being an innovator in a purely electronic field is just about impossible. Everything has been done."
Dorper: "It's changing, because I don't think new developments in the next few years will mean as much. When we first started Die Krupps, it was mostly monophonic equipment. There were some big polyphonic machines that no one could afford except the millionaires, like Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre, so a kind of monophonic electronic music based on sequencing started. And with Propaganda and Trevor Horn, together with Art Of Noise, it was more or less developing along with sampling techniques, with the big time people like Fairlight and Synclavier.
"And now sampling has gone back to the streets, everybody can sample, so what will be next? It's gone right back to music which is not dependent on developments in equipment any more. At one time, it was obviously about a kind of limit that the machines gave you, and now the limit is back on the people again - or the ideas of people. Nowadays any kid from the street could come up with one interesting sound, but one interesting sound doesn't really make music. Now we try to be more than that."
But there was more to Propaganda than just exciting new sounds..."Sure, that was the idea - to be a pop band, as opposed to, let's say, a pure electronic band. To be a pop band that was a bit more modern in its musical concerns, but not in a way like techno-pop. We didn't want to be a German Human League."
So melody has given way to a harder sound in the continuing search for new combinations...
Engler: "Yes, but I wouldn't say that a more melodic style won't happen again, it's just that right now, what we did with this album is kind of a bridge to the next thing. But it's not a half-measure; when we added the guitars we wanted to do it properly or not at all."
Dorper: "Our attitude is very uncompromising..."
Engler: "Why do it with just a few songs? To me it's more interesting to have a full album which can be either one thing or the other... for example, now we have a lot of reviews in metal magazines and a lot of reviews in techno magazines. This was something I was totally excited to find out about. It just felt like it had to be done."
'High Tech Low Life'; 'The Dawning Of Doom'; 'Ministry Of Fear'; 'Disciples Of Discipline'; 'Rings Of Steel'. Let's face it, these are not songs likely to be covered by Roger Whittaker. With knowing understatement, Dorper sums up the mood: "There are definitely no love songs..."
Engler: "I thought they were all love songs!"
Dorper: "If you listen back to a song like 'P Machinery' by Propaganda, that was something that had an attitude which could have come from Die Krupps as well, but there was a different sound to the record. That was one of the reasons why I left the band Propaganda; we were going too mainstream, we weren't prepared to take any musical risks any more. It was playing for the mass market."
Engler: "But the feeling I have with Die Krupps is that we can approach the mass market with this kind of music that we're doing now. It'll be more prevalent in the future, but it's not music which is designed for a market..."
Dorper: "It's not calculated..."
Engler: "No, it's not calculated. It's a new kind of music, but it's working in accordance with conventional styles, put together into something new ."
So there's still a bit of the Utopian idealism left, even if the pioneering spirit has gone out of the technology for Jurgen and Ralf...
Dorper: "In a way, with what we do now, the same options would have been there five, even ten years ago. We use a lot of very old technology. What we do with sampling you could have done with backing tapes - we do nothing new in that way."
Engler: "But if we had released an album like this five years ago, no one would have listened to it, they'd probably have said it was rubbish. Now they understand that people are ready to listen to different things. Ten years ago, if you asked me what I listened to, I would say 'this' kind of music, but kids now have a large variety of music, and they do listen to that variety, and choose what they want from each style, that's what I like. It's the same with clothes. Everything's allowed; bring things together that exist side by side and make something new."
"Music in the '90s is about combining different styles, getting rid of boundaries and labels. Being an innovator in a purely electronic field is just about impossible"
All things considered, the word 'synthesis' seems to be reclaiming much of its generic definition alongside its electronic overtones. But as border restrictions are lifted there is still something quintessentially German about the music of Die Krupps - metal, machines and all. This only adds to its charm, of course, and as Dorper explains, when you export something it carries a cultural passport... "The most positive reaction we get is from where we least expected it - from the States. So I wouldn't say that there is any nationality behind it. But how you grow up and what kind of music you listen to, that certainly will have an effect. And the whole musical infrastructure in Germany is obviously different to America, so somebody who does industrial music in America, like Ministry, will be very different.
"I've started to write and sing in English much more in recent years, but sometimes you want to make things very clear to people in Germany and we have one song - not on the album - which we did specially for an occasion after re-unification, in German. It was the first big election and we felt we had to come back to this situation with a song called 'Germaniac' which we wrote because the situation was becoming manically German again! And doing it in German was especially important because some people in Germany might have considered us to be more on the right hand of the political spectrum and we wanted to make it clear that we weren't."
Isn't that a danger inherent in the images that much industrial music flirts with?
Engler: "Welt there are always rumours about the short hair, the techno, electro, industrial, EBM - whatever you want to call it... we're not a part of it. A few years ago, Nitzer Ebb appeared on stage with short, black pants, boots, braces, all this kind of stuff and I think that's where the rumours started. Otherwise, why would they exist? It doesn't really matter whether you have short hair, long hair, whatever... To me, hard techno, or EBM, was nothing other than punk. People had short hair, they were aggressive, it was just the same, basically."
Engler's punk days are clearly still an important reference point and account more than anything else for the continuing interest in politics, expediency and the electric guitar. Life was simpler then, but the search for new formats goes on and now demands research into MIDI interfaces for guitar, no less. He likes his guitar; he likes sequencing. Ultimately he wants to play the guitar into the Atari as easily as the JD800. But first, there's the small matter of sitting down with a stringed instrument and writing a song. Low tech, high life.
"On the next album, I think it will be challenging to start composing songs on the guitar, then play around on the keyboards. The guitar is then part of the process of developing the songs, which is something I've never done before. I'm really looking forward to that."