Kraftwerk still ahead of their time


June 3, 2005


While the guitar-centric Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to recognize their contributions, though they've been eligible for several years now, many fans hold Kraftwerk in as high regard as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or any of rock's icons.

Founding members Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the so-called "Beach Boys of Dusseldorf," were to the development of synthesizers and electronic music what Chuck Berry was to the guitar and rock 'n' roll -- the pioneering force in the sound's development, as well as the creators of a hugely influential canon of work, with classic albums such as "Autobahn" (1974), "Trans-Europe Express" (1977) and "The Man-Machine" (1978).

Kraftwerk hasn't played in Chicago since 1998, when the group packed up its famous Kling Klang Studio and reconstructed it onstage at the Riviera Theatre for one of the most incredible concerts I've ever witnessed. Now, the band is returning to the same venue to celebrate the release of a new two-CD live album, "Minimum-Maximum."

I spoke with Hutter by phone from London prior to the start of the tour.



  • 9 p.m. Saturday
  • Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
  • Tickets, $41
  • (312) 559-1212

  • Q. I understand that the band is now playing everything with four laptop computers. That must be quite a bit different from your last show here.

    A. It's much faster and more mobile. It functions very well, and we can do more updates during soundcheck. So really, the Kling Klang Studio is still there, there is just not so much work to be done in the afternoon. The technology has developed in our direction.

    Q. Is it as much fun? Playing a laptop isn't as physical as playing a synthesizer.

    A. It is more fun, because all these ideas that come to mind in the afternoon can be turned into reality. And for the physical, we do the cycling. It's outside under different temperatures and climates. The studio is always air-conditioned and with artificial lights, but we are used to this because we're used to doing electronic music with little movement. It's more like watchmaking or micro-precision.

    We kept all our [old synthesizers] in the Kraftwerk museum in our studio, and they are all still functioning and connected to our digital equipment, so we incorporate them sometimes into our compositions. In Paris, in the Musee de la Musique, they wanted a setup from us of analog synthesizers and little electro-drums, but we couldn't give it away because we are still using it!

    Q. Does Florian still have his fascination with homemade electronic instruments?

    A. Yes. I think his latest invention is a speech program that's also digitalized. But I am still singing, as well; in German, it's called "sprechsingen" -- speech-singing, not actually singing. And we can do it in different languages: We just finished a CD [in Spanish] before we went into the South American tour, and now we finished a DVD.

    Q. I understand the DVD, but why has Kraftwerk released a live album? It seems ironic, given the mechanical nature of the band.

    A. No, it's a real live album -- an electronic live album! Our music changes all the time -- gradual changes. We have it digitally recorded, and together with ambiance from the hall.

    Q. So the spirit of, say, Moscow, even affects the robots?

    A. Yes. And we tried to mix it a little bit -- some cities obviously we don't have so many compositions or the recordings failed, so we couldn't use those. But the Man-Machine sounds different in different cities. We come from the late '60s club and art scene culture and university circuits; we played long parties at first. We still have that.

    Q. Were you pleased with reception of your last studio album, 2003's "Tour de France Soundtracks"?

    A. Yes. Being No. 1 in Germany was such a surprise. People were like, "Now you have the yellow jersey [from the Tour de France]!" Yes, but now we have to defend it and ride faster! So we go on. The aim is to create interesting music and art form, so what can I say?

    Q. Are you working on new material now?

    A. Yes. Now we have other ideas and concepts. Now that we have done the tour and live album and live DVD and the catalog is finished and re-mastered with the original covers for the first time, we can move on after this tour is over. We don't have a work formula; sometimes it comes from cycling, sometimes it comes from touring -- like on the Autobahn at night -- sometimes it comes from thoughts, sometimes it comes out of pure accident. There are so many ways of finding ideas.

    Q. Fans tend to think of the "classic" Kraftwerk lineup as you, Florian and percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos. But the current group has actually been together much longer.

    A. The difference is just in photos. We've been working with Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert now for nearly 20 years. Everyone has their special division or sound favorites: Like I said, Florian is more into speech and voices, I do a little more writing and words, but everyone makes their contribution. And we are like test pilots for new technology; they are always giving us programs to test. There is always so much to do, so we continue to have all these interactions with each other and with the machines.


    Speaking of pioneering forces on the synthesizer and in electronic/art-rock, despite a number of photo-heavy fans' books, England's Roxy Music has never been the subject of the biography it has long deserved. Now, David Buckley, the author of earlier enlightening tomes on David Bowie and R.E.M., finally has delivered that book, The Thrill of It All: The Story of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music (Chicago Review Press, $17.95).

    In addition to offering deft analysis of classic Roxy Music albums, Buckley charts the history of the group from its early glam-rock days, through its progressive-rock period, into its disco and easy-listening dotage. Along the way, he draws on his own interviews and an impressive amount of research to paint vivid portraits of the key players, including guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Ian Mackay and synthesizer guru Brian Eno -- fascinating eccentrics one and all -- as well as vocalist Ferry (below), the man who, in the words of Q magazine's Paul Du Noyer, "rescued an entire nation from the necessity of dressing like Joe Cocker."

    The Thrill of It All doesn't suffer from the fact that most of the Ferry quotes come from other published interviews. In fact, it benefits from maintaining a slight distance from the man at the heart of the story, since Ferry was, and remains, one of rock's biggest enigmas.