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An interview with Ralf Hütter, the man behind legendary German crew Kraftwerk, seemed like a long shot. But a few days later, the band's publicist emailed me back in disbelief — "Holy smokes, Batman!" were her exact words — letting us know that Hütter, for whatever reason, had agreed to speak with me.
Unsure whether Hütter's personality would match that of his music — somewhat cold and precise, I ask, "How are you?"
"Very good!" the 65-year-old responds. He is warmer than I expected, almost sensing my nervousness. "We are here in the studio working on tracks," the Kraftwerk leader says, referring to his band's Kling Klang workshop in Düsseldorf, Germany, which serves as a base of operations for experimentation with new sounds and technologies.
"Have we spoken before?" he wonders. "Have you seen a show?"
No, I answer.
"Because I think some years ago, I played in Miami in this wonderful, old theater. The Gleason Theater?"
The Jackie Gleason Theater, currently known as the Fillmore Miami Beach, I say.
Of course, the band's upcoming appearance at Ultra Music Festival 2012 will be a less intimate affair than their last here. But it might be the biggest and most important one for a festival that's been championing electronic dance music for the past 13 years. Without tracks like Kraftwerk's "The Robots," "Trans-Europe Express," and "Computer Love," EDM would not be where it is today.
"We very much fell into electronic and electronic dance music, or physical music from the old days, from the robots doing the robot mechanical ballet," Hütter explains. "We've played dance events... But also in the '70s in Germany, we played some electro clubs — very, very early period. So we've played different environments. We played in concert halls of classical music, the rock circuit, or we played in the art-scene museums."
But Ultra is no concert hall, rock club, or art museum. And with the average festivalgoer being a 20-year-old dubstep fanatic, it might be difficult for a 42-year-old band to convert new fans. Although this wouldn't be the first time Kraftwerk has overcome audience expectations.
"It was kind of, like, amazement," Hütter says, remembering the reaction to his band's early performances. "But still, because we came from the late '60s and early '70s, an experimental [era] of music, we always have been touring around the world in different phases and different setups. It was always like this combination of music, technology, and visuals."
Four decades ago, Kraftwerk's futuristic experiments seemed prophetic. But today, high technology, global communication, and rapid travel are merely everyday conveniences. "When we did the album Computer World in the '80s, we didn't even have computers in those days," Hütter explains. "It was kind of like a preview of future sound sources. And now it's a reality. We're very lucky that all these music machines are available for us now."
Laptops have given the band an expanded level of onstage mobility and flexibility. Last year saw the debut of Kraftwerk's three-dimensional concert experience in Munich, along with a monthlong, 3-D video exhibition at Munich's Kunstbau gallery. It will finally make its way stateside in April for an eight-day, eight-album stint at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the sold-out event, dubbed "Kraftwerk — Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8." The Ultra show won't feature any three-dimensional wizardry. But that's not exactly bad news — we still get a Kraftwerk show.
What can South Florida not expect? New material. In 2009, Hütter told the Guardian that the band would be releasing its next collection of songs "soon." Three years later and 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks is still Kraftwerk's most recent studio effort. When I call Hütter out on his 2009 promise, he says he's working on it.
The promise of a modern-day Kraftwerk album is exciting. But as his band enters its fifth decade, Hütter says he and his collaborators are just getting started, thanks to advancements in technology.
"We're not so interested in the pathway anymore," he explains. "Kraftwerk is the music for today and tomorrow. In Germany, there's a big cult of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. It's a lot of historical music, which we've always felt is OK. But we're contemporary, [and] we have to create the sound of our generation, and that's where the source of inspiration for Kraftwerk comes, looking into the soundtrack of today."