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Human experience is key to Kraftwerk's electronic music

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Sunday, October 4, 2015

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The members of Kraftwerk are men of few words.

When Coldplay sought permission to use elements of the German electronic music pioneers' "Computer Love" for its own 2005 track "Talk," it received a handwritten note that simply said "Yes." And when Detroit techno icon Derrick May met Kraftwerk principals Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider some years ago in Dusseldorf, the former said only "thank you" -- but May understood that "he wasn't saying 'thank you' just to me but to the whole Detroit scene" for acknowledging Kraftwerk's influence on its work.

And, indeed, while its members may speak quietly, Kraftwerk has had an enormous impact during its 45 years of ambitious experimentation, up to and particularly including the current crop of Electronic Dance Music.

"More than a musical group, they're a cultural icon to a generation, to several generations," May explains. "They're a total inspiration to modern cultures as we know it - to the art world, the music world, every aspect, man, that is considered art, they've done it. The aesthetic, the design. the look, the feel -- it's amazing."

The music, of course, is what drives all of that, and has since Hutter and Schneider (who left the group in 2008) met in college during the late 60s and struck on a minimalist, synthetic but still tuneful brand of music that first surfaced on 1970's "Kraftwerk" album. The sound, crafted in the group's multi-media Kling Klang Studio compound, was dubbed Krautrock early on and made its mass impact four years later with the title track to "Autobahn" -- a Top 25 hit in the U.S. -- but Hutter says the many who laud, or dismiss, Kraftwerk's work as simply electronic miss the essential human component within.

"Our music comes from our day to day life," Hutter, 69, explains by phone. "It comes from every day music and sounds and noise and it has never changed, really. It's just a continuum, and I think that continuum is one of the major elements of Kraftwerk music."

Take "Autobahn," named after Germany's famed high-speed roadway, as a case in point. "In the old days we played in universities and art galleries in Berlin, Frankfurt, so many cities," Hutter recalls. "We didn't have the money to stay in hotels afterwards, so we traveled back home to Dusseldorf late into the early morning. We spent 100,000 kilometers on the Autobahn, easily.

"So that (song), it's like a little mini film, a mini script; here's this little electronic band traveling on the Autobahn and incorporating those sounds -- tuning the motor noise, the wind noise, humming little melodies -- and turning it into a song that sounded like what that (experience) was like for us."

The song's success, however, came as a great surprise to Hutter and his mates.

"Our music in those days never played on the radio," he recalls. "People really didn't quite understand it, really. And that was OK. it was like a fantasy to us that our music would be played on the car radio, and then we turned it on and from the speakers comes our music.

"It didn't even happen in Germany first," he adds. "It happened in America and came back to Germany and Europe. That record was a nearly a year old when it became (a hit) in Germany."

In recent years, however, Kraftwerk has become known somewhat for its lack of public output than for what it's produced. The group's last set of new material, "Tour de France Soundtracks," came out in 2003 (re-released in 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bicycle race of the same name). That, in turn, came 17 years after its predecessor, "Electric Cafe" (aka "Techno Pop").

Ironically, technology has improved to the point that the music is even easier to make. "In the 70s we had all the old analog equipment and too many cables to really move," Hutter says. "Now there are small laptops and new programs, so we're very mobile. We can travel around the world, set up King Klang studios in all situations."

And if it hasn't seemed to make the current quartet more productive -- though it has been playing live more in recent years -- Hutter promises that the Kraftwerk crew is not necessarily slacking, either.

"We invented the 168-hour work week for Kraftwerk," he says. "It's a continuous process of doing all the things around music. We do concerts, we do artwork, videos, graphics, cover art, computer programs, new instruments, multi-media, so many things. Everything around Kraftwerk is what we do.

"There's energy coming out all the time. It's not just playing an instrument; it's all the things around us. And when we have something we want to put out into the world, we do that."


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