Autobahn and On
Visitors logging on to Kraftwerk's website are greeted by Unicode green text announcing the band's name and a line drawing of a frequency-emitting radio tower, à la the old RKO Studios logo. Another click generates a menu of some of Kraftwerk's best-known works, including "Boing Boom Tschak" and "Radioactivity," which scroll across the screen in sine wave bit streams. The "photo" section of the site contains but a single image of the band, a generic group of four men -- or maybe they're robots -- posed on a bare stage behind laptop computers on metal lecterns.
This rejection of individualistic stardom, indeed, of discrete identity, has been co-opted and borrowed by statement-makers from the Blue Man Group to the arts collective Guys in Suits. But Kraftwerk disperses and controls its robotic imagery with great discretion, avoiding overkill, and, despite a long and recently ended sabbatical, has a musical signature as significant and influential as its trademark vision.
Kraftwerk is touring to promote Tour de France Soundtracks, its first album with new material since 1986. Ralf Hütter, who is now one half of the group with original member Florian Schneider, is opaque about what the German forefathers of electronic pop have been doing for the past decade and a half. "We've been working on some minimalistic work independent of our KlinkKlang Studio," Hütter demurs.
"We do a lot of drawings," he says, when pressed. "A lot of multimedia projects. We write the scripts for videos. All these projects have been slow in the making, but they are going in our direction."
KlinkKlang is Kraftwerk's notoriously secret brain trust in Düsseldorf. When the occasional intrepid fan unearths the coordinates and writes a letter to Kraftwerk, the envelope is returned to sender, unopened.
The group's original lineup -- besides Schneider, its members have variously included Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Emil Schult, all of whom (with the exception of Schult, who is a successful painter) have gone on to solo music careers -- met at college in Germany in 1970 and were inspired by the program music of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Their first release, 1974's Autobahn, contained the all-synthesizer, eponymous, 23-minute-long single of the same name, as well as the first use of the vocoder on a pop record.
"We actually come from improvised live music," says Hütter, referring to the Cabaret Voltaire of the Dadaists. Indeed, there is a bit of wry, chaotic humor in Kraftwerk's tightly controlled soundscapes. Of the faint smirks audible on "The Model" and "Music Non Stop," Hütter admits, "It's funny the way a pocket calculator is."
The difficulty involved in touring and composing caused Kraftwerk to retreat from public life in the 1980s, just as its music began to take hold -- "Tour de France," commemorating the popular bicycle race, was a huge club hit -- and influence other artists such as Thomas Dolby, Underworld, and Heaven 17. The band was also a crossover hit in burgeoning urban dance circles, attracting fledgling hip-hoppers and DJs as well as those simply amazed at what was, at the time, the novelty of nonspontaneous and programmed synthesizer music.
Hütter says he was unfazed but flattered by the association with audiences traditionally hungry for a more organic beat.
"There's a lot of work involved in electronic studios," Hütter admits. "Our conception is to bring our instrument on tour, and our instrument is the studio. Touring for us was always very complicated."
Kraftwerk would have percolated quietly (Hütter insists Tour de France Soundtracks is not a comeback tour or album) and would have resurfaced in 2003 with the disc, following the same schedule, in pretty much the same form. But in the 17 years from the release of "Computer World" until now, something happened. Specifically, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force happened.
In 1982, while Kraftwerk was getting ready to hibernate, Bambaataa, already a Kraftwerk fan and no stranger to futuristic visions (he later collaborated with Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols on the stylistically opposite but equally danceable single "World Destruction") made an artistic decision that has changed the course of musical history. Casting about for another layer to add to some languorous percussion tracks he had recorded, Bambaataa came across Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" single. The combination of chest-rattling beats and Old World, minor-key Korg work became the peerless sensation "Planet Rock."
"Planet Rock" remains one of the most played club tracks in the universe. Bambaataa has released two albums (Don't Stop... Planet Rock and Return to the Planet) consisting of nothing but "Planet Rock" remixes and included one of these many versions on numerous compilations and singles collections.
Hütter, who calls Kraftwerk's music "robot pop," says electronics nonetheless make the most nuanced and soulful sounds of all. "Electronic music is probably the most sensitive of all instrumentation. The typical synthesizer outputs at from 20 to 20,000 hertz. Not even the queen of instruments, the organ, is anywhere as sensitive," Hütter explains by phone from Rio de Janeiro, where he's ensconced in a cliffside hotel before an evening performance. Hütter says he may be drawing some inspiration from the rediscovered pleasantries of touring.
"The electro culture is everywhere here," Hütter marvels about Rio. "This tour has given me many different scenes to work with. We started in Scandinavia in the winter and ran into some strange cultural situations in Moscow, in the snow. So I'm thinking about climactic changes, weather-related sounds."
"Aero Dynamik," one of the new songs from Soundtracks, is pretty typical Kraftwerk fare and a sturdy bridge from the past to the present. The song has a restrained, syncopated keyboard melody and a drum machine click track; it sounds brilliantly spare but also like something the Mathletes from the film Mean Girls could have come up with during detention. Kraftwerk's music sounds just slightly academic precisely because it is wholly original and without musical references.
Hütter is sanguine about Kraftwerk's buttoned-down image and possible legacy.
"Music is in no way coming close to what electronics can express. The interaction of man and machine is only now being realized," Hütter says. "But I don't want to tell people what to think about Kraftwerk, not even specific songs. Our music is like a guide, not a script, for your thoughts and imagination. Listen, and make up your own history."
The current Kraftwerk tour, while not stalled at a 28K baud rate, is light on new material, drawing heavily from the band's discography, which is nonetheless impressive.
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