Exclusive KEXP Interview: Kraftwerk

Ralf Hütter // all photos by Peter Boettcher

Considered “The Beatles” of electronic music, Kraftwerk broke new boundaries in computerized composition when they broke into the scene in the 1970s. The German group were ahead of their time, and now, the future has finally caught up with them. Kraftwerk are currently on tour, performing their ground-breaking albums in 3D across the country. KEXP is thrilled to present an interview with founding member Ralf Hütter, conducted exclusively for KEXP.

This rare, exclusive interview will air Tuesday, July 1st at 3:00 PM PT on The Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, and can be heard worldwide, streaming right here at KEXP.ORG:

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Producer/Editor: Matt Ogaz
Executive Producer: Kevin Cole

KEXP: How did the concept for a 3D tour come together?

Ralf Hütter: We started to re-program some of our old video material of paintings, drawings, slide photos, filmscripts, and videos that we had since the late sixties, early seventies, and over a long period of time. And, then, we transformed everything into digital format, and, with the possibility of programming everything into 3D, we took the time and the technical possibilities because we always find that our music is like a film anyways, film music, and therefore it is the perfect medium for us. Of course, we are a very small, independent unit, so it’s been quite a lot of work for us to do. I think in 2012 we, for the first time, formed our whole catalog in the Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, all eight concept albums.

Do I understand correctly that you worked with artist Rebecca Allen for the 3D compositions?

Yes, in the mid-eighties we worked with artist Rebecca Allen from the New York Institute of Technology to create the video for the non-stop music, that’s all. She made the video, but it was not done in 3D at that time. It was animated, and done in 2D, so we transformed some of this now into 3D to make it work, and I think Rebecca is very happy with us, because she was there at the New York performance at the MOMA.

And, of course, all the other films that we have from paintings and photos and videos from like Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, so we created more images from our old sources, visual sources and more archives at the Kling Klang Studio and, at the same time, I think the music, as we always composed it, is like a movie where you close your eyes when you listen and then you imagine certain images and days and films. So, we actually did these and now we have our whole catalog in 3D and also, in some concert halls where we can do it, we will perform with surround sound. We did this at the Vienna Burgtheatre, at the Tate Modern in London. So, sometimes when the opportunity’s there, we also install a 3D sound system with wave synthesizers, that’s what it’s called.

We’re very lucky you’re going to be bringing it to Seattle! Do you remember your very first concert as Kraftwerk back in the late-sixties?

Well, we remember that we played in the underground scene here in the Dusseldorf Art-world because the so-called classical-music-world would not accept us, and the so-called rock-music-world would not accept us because they had concert halls and big bands, international bands, and we played mostly at art-parties and underground scenes and student clubs. So, from these days, we were already working with lights and projection, of course in a very minimal and rudimentary way, and over the last forty years, technology has developed. It’s mobile; it’s small; and we can use it, you know, for concerts all around the world.

Even back in the seventies, your music sounded very futuristic, and, as you mention, technology has caught up with your sound. Nowadays, do you use modern tools or your favorite old machines?

In the old archives from our Kling Klang studio, we have all our old analog synthesizers, we have the analog tapes, we have all the analog old instrument sounds and archives and, of course, over the last decade we have transformed everything into digital format, so we have this all now in computer programing which we can use live, and therefore we can actually operate the computer music with our live computer programs. We can modify and, as we say, switch the switches, turn the knobs, pedal the pedals, fade the faders, and we use microphones, synthetic voices and all kinds of music machinery. You know, our instrument is the Kling Klang studio and, for Kraftwerk, the best way to describe this is as, “The Man-Machine.” So, we are all interconnected with our machines in a live concept situation.

I read that when you guys wrote Computer World, you didn’t even have computers. Are you currently pretty plugged-in with iPhones and iPads and stuff like that?

Well, yes, but not so much connected rather than in production using these tools to create our sounds and also, of course, we create the 3D images on our computer programs. So, this is also running live, therefore it’s a whole electronic performance. The music and visuals, they are synchronized and operate in a live situation. That was an old dream of ours now, which has come true.

Kraftwerk is one of the most influential bands of our time, and, I was wondering, of the artists who have been influenced by you, do you have any favorites among them?

Well, we are very good friends with our techno-musicians from Detriot, New York, of course in Europe, England, America. I maybe wouldn’t mention names in case I forget somebody else, and he’d be very sad. It continues in the live situation and also in the visual arts, so it’s coming all together.

Here in the United States it’s Bike To Work Month [ed note: the interview took place in May], and Kraftwerk has been huge supporters of bicycling. I was wondering if they are supportive of having bicyclists on the road in Germany?

Yes. As you might know we live half-an-hour from the Netherlands, so here it’s a means of transportation also and the sport is quite big; it’s like a national sport in the Netherlands, Belgium, and here in the Westland part of Germany. Cycling is quite an everyday practice. You can go to work. You can go to school. You can go into the city and go shopping or visit friends. Also, on recreational sports or even on professional sports, so it’s altogether.

When you come to play The Paramount in July, you’ll see like we’re finally getting specific lanes painted just for bikes, but this is all sort-of relatively new for us. We didn’t have that before.

Yes. That’s coming from the Netherlands. They all have their bicycles here on cycling roads. I think it’s great to see that happening to America, using less petrol and pollution into the air, rather using your body and your legs to move, especially on small distances. It’s a different game when you’re talking about one-hundred miles or so. And that, that’s for sport-people. We did that sometimes when we trained.

I understand that you’re working on a new album.

Yes.

How far along in the process are you?

Well, that’s a very difficult question at the moment because we have been touring. We are doing some more concerts in the summer, but, in-between, we are always working and gathering ideas for developing, so we have to see.

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