The Beach Boys of Dusseldorf


August 24, 2003



What Chuck Berry did for the electric guitar, the pioneering German band Kraftwerk did for the synthesizer, defining and setting the standard for the instrument's use in rock 'n' roll.

The band's auteurs, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, met at the Düsseldorf Conservatory and began experimenting with electronic sounds in 1968 as a band called Organisation. After adopting a new name from the German word for power plant, they released a series of brilliant albums through the '70s that remain hugely influential in the worlds of alternative rock, dance music and hip-hop.


Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, the driving forces behind Kraftwerk, are as serious about cross-country bicycling as they've always been about what they've called their "musical work." When they tour, they have their bus drop them 100 kilometers from the city where they're playing, and they bike the rest of the way to the gig.

But one of the problems on their first set of new material in 17 years is that the sounds of cycling aren't nearly as evocative as those of speeding on the autobahn or riding the Trans-Europe Express.

While these 12 long, droning, pulsating cuts have their moments, another problem is that the new computer technology the band now employs lacks the touch of human soul that was always evident through the analog '70s, even in the group's most futuristic sounds, and it's disappointing that Hütter lets the computers do much of the singing.

But the biggest shortcoming is the scarcity of truly memorable hooks.

Not for nothing has Kraftwerk been called "The Beach Boys of Düsseldorf." The group's best material is sublimely seductive, electronic pop music, but new tracks such as "Aero Dynamik," "Titanium" and "Elektro Kardiogramm" follow the lead of current techno stars in emphasizing rhythms over melodies, and unfortunately, the beats aren't particularly original or exciting.

On the bright side, Hütter has described this disc as the first of more frequent offerings from a revitalized group. Fans can hope that they'll get the mix right in the years to come.

Jim DeRogatis

For much of the last two decades, Hütter and Schneider have shunned the limelight to indulge in two passions: cross-country bicycling and converting their famous Kling Klang Studio from analog to digital technology.

Now they've re-emerged with "Tour de France Soundtracks," their first album of new material since "Electric Cafe" in 1986, and a disc that's inspired by both of those pursuits.

The musicians have always shunned the trappings of celebrity: They send photos of their robotic doppelgangers to the press rather than posing themselves, and they almost never grant interviews. (When I tried to speak to them in 1998, before a rare performance in Chicago, a friendly but stern female voice answered the phone at Kling Klang: "There are no interviews, just the show. Thank you." Click.)

Hütter recently agreed to a rare talk with the Sun-Times to talk about the new album and his band's impressive legacy. He also promises an extensive American tour late this year or in early 2004.


Q. I understand that the album debuted at No. 1 in Germany. Congratulations.

A. Well, that is amazing. In the Tour de France, it's called the yellow jersey.


Q. And you didn't even have to fall off the bike!

A. [Laughs] No. As you probably know, we are riding a lot ourselves, for health.

Q. I know you're a serious biking aficionado. I'm curious about the connection between this album and the original "Tour de France" single in 1983. What made you go back to the race for the inspiration for this music?

A. Twenty years ago, in 1983, my friend Florian Schneider and me, we had the whole script for the album. The concept was there, and we started working on it. We ended up finishing the single, and then we went into other projects. Through that time, the script was always there, kind of like sleeping with us, but we did other technical things. Then last year, this came back when we played the concerts in Paris for the very first time with our new, updated Kraftwerk.

Q. I saw the band perform here at the Riviera Theatre a few years ago, and it was one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen. What has changed?

A. That was 1998, when we brought the Kling Klang Studio. It was still kind of like heavy concert equipment. We had transformed everything into the digital format already, but there was still also analog. Now it is all laptops.

Q. Wow. That means there's much less to carry now.

A. Yes! We played in Paris for the very first time at the Cite de la Musique. We had the screen projections of the images synchronized with the music, and then the Tour de France idea came back with the 100 years' anniversary of the Tour de France. It is also the 33 years' anniversary of Kraftwerk! [Laughs] So then we started working on this, and over the winter, we went to Japan and then Australia, and just finished the album now.

Q. Was the goal to have the new music evoke bicycling in the same way that "Autobahn" evoked the highway or "Trans-Europe Express" evoked the railway?

A. Yes. You can imagine, basically when we were planning, the script was there, but there was still a lot of work to do to actually provide what it sounds like. Basically, it sounds like nothing--silence, silence--because when you're really cycling well, and your bicycle is functioning well, you don't hear the chain, you don't hear the wheels, you don't hear yourself, because you're in good shape and it's running smoothly.

That's one of the reasons we like it so much, to get away from the studio--always the musical sounds. The complete silence leaves space for concentration and imagination. When we worked on this album, we tried to incorporate the idea of very smooth, rolling, gliding. That is the sound.

Q. You can almost feel the wind in your face.

A. Yes! And the breath, and kind of like a humming. In German, it's called "fleischentonal"--space and soundscapes--landscapes, very open, wide sounds. So we tried to work in this spirit.

Q. Your vocals have changed on this album: They're much more computer-manipulated than the way you used to sing in the old days.

A. I always used to do the voice, the human voice, the speech--in German, it's called "sprechsingen." I don't know the English word. "Sprechsingen" means "speech-sing." It's like a form of rap.

This started with "Autobahn"--"Fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n on der autobahn"--and also humming, "Trans-Europe Express," and then incorporating all kinds of electronic voices, synthetic voices.

My friend Florian is of course a great specialist in like singing typewriters; they have developed instruments for him. He is very good at getting engineers from computer companies to work after hours and long nights to develop speech synthesis and things like that. So we are using a lot of synthetic voices and all kinds of intonations.

Q. I miss your voice, though. I like the way you sing.

A. Yes, but I am doing something on "Tour de France." And "Elektro Kardiogramm" is a computer, but I am triggering it off. Then on "Titanium," it is more of my speech.

Q. You mentioned Florian's role in developing the electronics. You two have been together since 1968. What is so special about that collaboration?

A. Well, it's like an electronic marriage. [Laughs] Mr. Kling and Mr. Klang. It's stereo, so it gives the music the over-all dimension. Yin yang, Kling Klang.

Q. So you can't imagine making a Kraftwerk record without Florian?

A. No, no. This is not possible. That's what Kraftwerk is all about. It's stereo.

By the way, Henning Schmitz has been working with us now for 20 years. He has been out touring with us and working as a musical engineer in the studio actually since we began working on the old "Tour de France" concept in '82 or '83. We have also a very long-term relationship with Fritz Hilpert, our other musical computer engineer, and that's what we bring onstage. That's what you saw in Chicago.

Q. Yes, but fans don't think of this band the same way we thought of the lineup with former percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos because the new group has produced much less music in the last 20 years.

A. Yes. That has been the result of making this transformation into the digital mobile age, with the whole history and catalog of 33 years of Kraftwerk. But now we're here and it's functioning. I remember in Tokyo we were playing in this huge complex and there was no heat. It was like 3 degrees Celsius [37.4 degrees Fahrenheit], but everything worked really well. And then we played in Melbourne, Australia, and it was close to 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit], and everything was still functioning very well.

Q. Having played a Mini-Moog myself, one of the things that amazes me is the instrument's ability to surprise you. Do you ever miss those old analog synthesizers?

A. Well, we use them! We have all the Kraftwerk instruments available and working in different areas of our studio, so it's like a little history of Kraftwerk. They are functioning, and we use whatever sound is artistically relevant. We work in the sounds of the bicycle, we work in the sounds of the human heart, the human breath--whatever is available.

Q. I've always been curious about Kraftwerk's roots in the psychedelic explosion of the late '60s. The band started as part of what's been called the "Kraut-rock" movement--German psychedelic bands that treated the studio as an instrument for creating places that exist only in the listeners' imaginations.

A. It was never called Kraut-rock; the word was invented by the English press, and it was never used in Germany. In Germany it was called "kosmische musik" ("cosmic music"). Kraft-werk was closer to some kind of industrial sound from the Rhein-Ruhr area.

You can imagine, in the late '60s, we wouldn't even get a spot to perform. So we sneaked into the art world. Within the music world, there were all these rock bands, so we went into some of these happenings situations in the art world, and we would use light shows or projections. The idea was the German word "gesamtkunst," which is like a combination or a fusion of all the arts.

Right from the beginning of Kraftwerk, the imagination and the stimulation had always been with us. We were doing little drawings and comics and album covers; we were preparing projections; we worked on the lights; we worked on the tunes; we built speaker cabinets. Everything around Kraftwerk was part of our creative ideas.

Q. There was an effort to create a complete package, a unique world?

A. Yes! And that has stayed with us until today, I think. Now we have more tools, of course, with computer graphics and synchronization.

The equipment has been very helpful; it has developed in our direction, so we are very, very happy.

It is always fun to get new toys, but we also keep some of the old ones, because we have the affinity for tuning the motors, tuning the oscillators, finding robotic movements and computer-generated sounds.

Q. When you performed "Pocket Calculator" toward the end of that show in Chicago, you came out in front of the equipment, and you were dancing and Florian was smiling widely. The image of Kraftwerk has always been very austere, but I'll be damned if you guys weren't having fun.

A. Of course! We call it black humor. There is always that parallel, a little sense of a touch of humor to everything. But at the same time we can do serious work and still have a little smile.

Q. Do you still get the same kick playing music that you got when you were 20?

A. Definitely, definitely! [Laughs] These were great experiences, playing Chicago and Detroit--just amazing. Especially the cultural context--in Chicago, the electronic house, and in Detroit, the electronic techno. It was our dream.

Q. For an entire generation of young electronic-oriented musicians, Kraftwerk is more influential than the Beatles. Is that legacy ever a burden?

A. No, not really, because it is giving us all the energy and the encouragement to keep going. Because we started in the late '60s, but we are still looking ahead.

When we see the audience, and it ranges from the young computer kids to the university electronics or physics professor, we are very, very pleased.


Kraftwerk cranks out its best work in the '70s


Kraftwerk has produced 11 innovative and enormously influential albums over its 33-year career. Four of these stand as timeless classics--must-owns not only for students of electronic music, but for any lover of adventurous rock:


"Autobahn" (1974): On their earliest recordings (Organisation's "Tone Float," "Kraftwerk," "Kraftwerk 2" and "Ralf and Florian"), Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider sounded very much a part of what the British music press dubbed the "Krautrock" movement, creating lush, ambient electronic soundscapes that grew out of psychedelic jams such as Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." But in 1974, the duo turned away from the avant-garde and made a calculated attempt to go pop.

In visual artist Emil Schult, they found a guru with a talent for conceptualizing their music and presenting a unified multi-media image, and in the Mini-Moog synthesizer, they found their ideal electronic instrument.

"Autobahn" was conceived as an aural evocation of driving on the German-Austrian superhighway. The title track starts with the sound of a car revving up, and then the pulsating percussion kicks into gear. The song is propelled by an ultra-hummable riff repeated in the rich harmonic overtones of the Moog, and the vocals echo the main riff. It's unclear whether Hütter is singing in German or English: The lyrics could be "Fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n on der autobahn"--"Riding, riding, riding on the autobahn"--or a very Beach Boys-like "Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn." But you can't help singing along.


"Radio-Activity" (1975): The follow-up to "Autobahn" was the first album that Hütter and Schneider recorded entirely on their own at Kling Klang, without the help of longtime producer and Krautrock legend, Connie Plank. The title was a play on the central theme of invisible forces that could be positive (radio waves) or negative (nuclear fallout).

Schult and Hütter drove across Germany in search of the right radio for the cover image, finally settling on a short-range model that was used during the war for Nazi propaganda (a swastika between the dials was judiciously removed).

The title track is the strongest tune, but the album reflects an emphasis on more cinematic sounds, and it won a fan in director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who included passages on the soundtracks for "Chinesiches Roulett" and "Berlin Alexanderplatz."


"Trans-Europe Express" (1977): Here the band returns to the idea of duplicating the sounds of travel, portraying an imaginary trip on the elegant and now-discontinued rail line that once passed through Düsseldorf Station not far from Kling Klang Studio. Kraftwerk is using the most modern technology--including increasingly sophisticated sequencers--to evoke a bygone era, and the outdated fashions and stylized tinting of the cover photo heightens the dichotomy.

In addition to several memorable hooks and the band's strongest rhythm track yet, the title cut boasts funny lyrics recounting a meeting with Iggy Pop and David Bowie. (Bowie hoped to collaborate with Hütter and Schneider, but he had to settle for dedicating a song to the duo, "V2 Schneider," on "Heroes.")

Other standouts include the lulling "Europe Endless," the haunting "Hall of Mirrors," and the sly and playful "Showroom Dummies," which finds the band playfully mocking its own image as standoffish robots, a concept it would take a step further on their next release.


"The Man-Machine" (1978): The musical landscape changed dramatically when punk and new wave erupted in the late '70s, and Kraftwerk was hailed as a key influence. Hütter and Schneider had long subscribed to the punk philosophies that less is more and that training is overrated. "Our music is rather minimalist," Hütter told biographer Pascal Bussy in the book. "If we can convey an idea with one or two notes, it is better to do this than to play a hundred or so notes."

In turn, the duo drew inspiration from the punks' energy and simplicity to produce their minimalist masterpiece. The songs are built with streamlined precision from simple repetitive melodies that interconnect like the gears on mechanical rotors.

"The Robots" plays once again with the musicians' image as it pays tribute to their new alter egos (at press junkets, specially constructed robots filled in for the absent band members), and "The Model" became Kraftwerk's biggest hit (its unbearably catchy riff is perfect accompaniment for a stroll down the runway, while the lyrics satirize the mechanical nature of "too-perfect" high-fashion queens).

The album ends with the elliptical title track as the word "machine" is echoed by a mechanical voice. The tune suggests that the Man-Machine is being switched off for the evening until it is time to make music again tomorrow. As Hütter has said, "We are playing the machines, the machines play us, it is really the exchange and the friendship we have with the musical machines."