These Days, Kraftwerk Is Packing Light

Now that the times  --  and technology  --  have caught up with Germany's pioneering Kraftwerk, the electronic pop group is on the move.
Now that the times -- and technology -- have caught up with Germany's pioneering Kraftwerk, the electronic pop group is on the move. (By Peter Boettcher)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

HAVING deprogrammed and unplugged themselves for much of the '80s and '90s, German electronic pop pioneers Kraftwerk reappeared at the start of the new millennium. But where 20 years before they'd fought for space on stages cluttered with tons of temperamental analog equipment, they returned to stages bare except for a single widescreen video screen and four identical lecterns bearing laptops.

Says co-founder Ralf Hutter, "the technology has developed in our creative direction, so to speak."

Back then, "we were very far away from performing the sound from our records and [their legendary] Kling Klang Studio standards in a live situation," Hutter says, recalling an era when "the equipment was very fragile and would fall apart or would take so long and be so complicated to put together. At the same time, it got heavier and heavier -- and we didn't have roadies in the beginning, of course. After touring [in the early '80s], we couldn't perform, so we concentrated on other work in the studio."

In the '90s, Kraftwerk started playing occasional dates, "but the equipment was still really heavy," Hutter says. "Now, we are very mobile, very minimal. We have been able to play in [high outdoor] temperature in Australia and in Tokyo in an ice-cold exhibition park with gloves, so we're really happy [because] everything is functioning very, very well."

Kraftwerk (German for "power station") formed in 1968 at Dusseldorf Conservatory, when classical music students Hutter and Florian Schneider found themselves drawn to experimental music and free jazz. They started toying with tape recorders and echo machines, though their hard-to-find 1971 debut album only suggests the future, featuring manipulated violin, flute, organ and actual drummers, replaced a year later by primitive drum machines. Acoustic instruments soon gave way to synthesizers -- Kraftwerk's members were among the first pop musicians to abandon traditional rock instrumentation for what was then still-new synthesizer/electronic technology.

With the addition of Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur, Kraftwerk brought electronic music into the mainstream with 1974's "Autobahn," whose 22-minute all-synth title track became an international hit. Also the first pop record to feature the vocoder, "Autobahn" kicked off a five-album hot streak that included "Radio-Activity," "Trans-Europe Express," "The Man-Machine" and 1981's "Computer World," which anticipated a world we now take for granted. Along the way, the band changed the pulse of modern music.

Hutter and Schneider -- who remain the only active founding members, augmented over the last decade by Kling Klang Studio mates Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz -- had been fascinated with machines and the rhythms of industry while growing up in post-World War II Germany. They eventually dubbed their music -- which featured precise yet weirdly funky rhythms, simple melodies and lyric minimalism -- "industrial folk music." The musicians dubbed themselves "sound chemists" while championing the new technology of everyday life.

"On the creative side, that was our possibility, to work with these music machines," Hutter explains. "Like we say, sometimes we play the machines and sometimes the machines play us. [The idea was] to be in a real dialogue and listen to the wonders of technology in the way that natural laws are applied in the music -- the physical laws of music and sound in combination with artistic ideas -- and not just ignore everything. Our idea was really this combination of men and machines, and for us, it has worked very well."

And, he says, "ours is the creative side of machines, making music with pocket calculators and computers and creating interesting images and art forms. That's the main essence of what it's all about and has been since Bach did the 'Well Tempered Piano' at a time when the piano was the latest invention."

To some, it may smack of overstatement to compare Kraftwerk to Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, James Brown and the Beatles as among the most influential pop figures of the 20th century, but their DNA is identifiable in everything from techno, house, trance, trip-hop and synthpop to hip-hop. In 1982, pioneering DJ Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock" blended rap with the melody and beat from Kraftwerk singles "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers," respectively, creating a seminal rap recording and one of the most frequently sampled tracks in history. Whether you think of the New Romantics and the synthpop movements of the '80s or today's rave culture, it's hard to imagine what modern music would sound like without Kraftwerk's innovations. What was brand-new in the mid-'70s is no longer an anomaly: Electro culture is everywhere, and Kraftwerk is its daddy.

"Maybe that's a little overstating," Hutter counters humbly. "We try to do our contribution."

Yet just as their sound was beginning to take hold, Kraftwerk retreated from public life, sealing themselves away in Kling Klang, a brick warehouse that's unlisted and unfindable, its location something of a holy grail among Kraftwerk devotees. It has no phone, no fax, no receptionist and no street entrance; any mail that finds its way there is returned unopened.

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