Kraftwerk was my favorite band in the seventies, and they remain so in the teens. I saw them every chance I got, and most recently I saw them at MOMA, playing a wonderful retrospective of their music, perfectly realized and extraordinarily enhanced by a 3D visual presentation. I thought it might be a good time to put up an interview I did with them in 1977, on the occasion of the album Trans-Europe Express. On that tour I happened to catch them in Cleveland and after the show I was mobbed by kids who thought I was one of them, because I was wearing a suit and had short hair. I guess if Murray the K could have been the 5th Beatle and Terry Knight the 5th Stone, well….why not. Kraftwerk 2012 is a lot like Kraftwerk 1977 except more perfect. It’s like the difference between a 1977 Mercedes and a 2012 Mercedes. The visuals today are superb, and the sound quality. They have never stopped perfecting the old music–almost the way William Butler Yeats continued to revise his poems throughout his career. One thing that has changed is the attitude toward nukes. Back in ’77 it was “Radioactivity…it’s in there air for you and me.” Now they are into stopping radioactivity and seem in line with Germany’s ban on nuclear power plants. One thing I said to them that’s not in the following interview–I asked if their music was experimental, and I got this answer: ALL MUSIC IS EXPERMIENTAL.
Think about it.
KRAFTWERK is Germany’s top pop group, and that’s saying something because plenty of original sounds have been amanating from Deutschland since the psychedelic era. But Kraftwerk is also one of the most inventive musical forces in the world. Fusing classical melodies, advanced electronic music technology and Afro-Aryan rhythms, they have created a new sound that is as intellectually stimulating as it is danceable. In fact Kraftwerk’s last album, Trans-Europe Express, made an enormous impact on the world of disco in the last year by combining perfect dance beats with graceful, intelligent melodies and fully conceptualized themes.
‘Showroom Dummies’ was not only a tremendous popular disco hit, but it was also a disco editorial and created a unique side effect – thought. And even rockers who hate disco music like Kraftwerk because they are powerful, reflective, funny and totally exploratory. They are David Bowie’s favorite group, and Eno and Iggy are also big fans. I talked to the prime musical movers of the group, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, when they visited New York recently to pick up some prizes at the Disco Awards. Both spoke perfect English, wore white shirts, black trousers, and drank a lot of coffee.
What does Kraftwerk mean?
RALF HUTTER: It means electrical power plant.
When did you start the group?
RH: We started playing together in ’68 with different people. Then we set up our studio in 1970. So Kraftwerk was founded in 1970. We’ve played with different combinations of people, but for the last three years we’ve been playing with the two drummers we have now: Karl and Wolfgang.
Do they use regular drums at all?
RH: No, it’s all electronic. We have invented some special electronic drum system and patented them. We had regular drums with amplification and echo machines.
FLORIAN SCHNEIDER: But they were not sensitive enough. They were too loud. Too noisy.
RH: Now we can make all kinds of volume changes. And also the attitude of the player is a non-physical one. Our drummers don’t sweat. So they are like us. They are not subhumans doing the dirty work. They are like computer programmers.
Do you dance?
RH: We didn’t dare to for some years. Most people who play electronic music don’t dance. But we started to learn it again and we’ve been to dance school in Germany. Now we are composing some electronic tap dances. We will do body movements and trigger electronic sounds through them.
With pick-ups on your taps?
Do they have a lot of discos in Germany?
FS: Yes, in every town.
RH: In Germany there are no live groups, so they pay records.
Is it the same music they play here?
RH: Basically they play the same records all over the Western world.
How did you meet?
RH: In the conservatory for improvised music. I was playing keyboards and he was playing woodwinds.
Where did the concept of the group come from?
FS: We started with amplified instruments and then we found that the traditional instruments were too limited for our imaginations.
RH: We couldn’t really say what we wanted with keyboards – so from there we amplified feedback. Then in the early ’70s we dreamed of this electronic orchestra.
Do you play with tapes and programmed segments?
RH: We have pre-programmed tapes, some cassettes from time, we also have automatic music machines where we can reprogram during the set different codes and sequences, melodies and rhythms.
Were you pop fans in the conservatory?
FS: Yes, we listed to every music. We liked the Doors. But also exotic music, ethnic music.
In your song ‘Radioactivity’, you sing “Radioactivity, it’s in the air for you and me.” Do you mean atomic radiation or radio waves?
Do you think it’s good for people?
RH: It was not a matter of our saying good or bad. We are not into morality, but realism. We’re not trying to create some kind of safe, “Baby I love you” kind of atmosphere, but to put some realism into it.
It seemed to me that you were suggesting that radioactivity was a factor in mutation.
FS: It’s there even if there weren’t a power plant on the Earth. It’s there in space.
RH: We were concerned with things that can’t be denied.
Do you believe in astrology?
FS: No, I was into it some years ago. But I think it’s too limited today.
Normal Mailer in A Fire on the Moon suggests that the invention of radio and electricity has blocked out electromagnetic influences that people used to receive from the stars.
FS: I think people are not able to use this electronic stimulus. But I think generations will come which will use advanced electronics which are still unknown to get more vibrations.
Do you think people in New York are on a 60 Herz rhythm?
RH: Yes and 110 volts. We are on 220.
Does that give you an advantage?
FS: We are on 50 Herz, so maybe it’s equal. The first time we were in America we had some trouble with echo units running too fast because of the 60 Herz. We couldn’t adjust it so we had to speed up our whole repertoire.
Do you think we should have nuclear power plants?
RH: It’s a matter of handling it. It’s like water or electricity. You can use electricity to make music or to use an electric chair. It’s the same with all natural phenomena. It’s there.
Do you think we should go to space?
RH: Inevitably we will go into space or someone will come and see us from space. In a way we feel related to Werner von Braun; German scientific research is related to our music. We make acoustic rockets.
So you believe in technological progress?
FS: Yes. But also we have to adjust our brains to this world. There is still a gap between technology and the brain.
RH: So far people have only sent technicians and bureaucrats to outer space. Why not poets? Or musicians? There should be an artists’ delegation sent into space. If you send bureaucrats, they can have only bureaucratic perceptions.
Maybe if the astronauts and technologists understood the significance of the space program they couldn’t do what they have to do.
RH: No, they’ve just been conditioned not to feel. They’ve been programmed to function.
Would you like your music to be beamed to other solar systems?
RH: Of course. So far we’ve been beaming ourselves around the world. When we wrote the song ‘Autobahn’ we were beaming ourselves into American car radios. Dreams come true.
You don’t have moral ideas. Do you have political ideas?
RH: We strongly believe in anarchy and self rule.
What do you think of the German Anarchists, the Baader-Meinhof group?
RH: It’s not anarchist. When I say “anarchy,” I mean no outside rule. I don’t rule you, you don’t rule me. I rule myself. These people are not using the term anarchy correctly. They are pressing, putting pressure.
Do you think the Sex Pistols are using the term correctly?
FS: I’m not familiar with them. I’ve only heard the title, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’
Have you heard any of the New Wave or Punk groups?
FS: I like the Ramones, the song ‘Commando’. They have some tradition behind them, like the Velvet Underground and the Doors. They can go further now.
Can you go to East Germany?
RH: It’s very difficult. We have been once. We would like to play there, but there’s no chance.
Do they get West German radio?
RH: Yes, along the border.
FS: We get fan mail from there.
RH: We would like to play there. They have some very good music. Next spring we will go to some Eastern European countries, but we can’t go there.
Do you believe in flying saucers?
RH: I would like to see one, but I haven’t so far.
FS: I think they exist. But maybe they can’t be described.
In this country there’s quite a cult that believes that flying saucers are really run by Nazis.
RH: This could be. Some of the people that worked with Werner von Braun might have gone into space.
On your last album the song ‘Hall of Mirrors’ seems to suggest that narcissism can be a kind of religious experience.
RH: Religious? I wouldn’t call it religious.
Well, of positive value.
RH: This is really how we came about, through looking in the mirror. It is possible to change yourself by examining yourself in the mirror. We have also been working in firm lately, in the same way. We can also look at ourselves even without a mirror, just by spiritually standing next to ourselves. We can also hear our next album, even though it’s not there. It’s a knowledge you get when you do it for a long time.
What’s in your pockets?
RH: A hundred dollar bill, a one dollar bill, a nail clipper and a toothpick.
That’s a nice toothpick.
FS: My hotel keys and some money.
Do you have any pets?
RH: No, we are not fond of animals. We like humans. Most people have animals as a substitute for human contract.
What times do you get up and go to sleep?
RH: We get up around noon and go to bed around three or four.
Are you in good shape?
RH: We try to be. I do running and some sports. Florian races bicycles.
What’s you favorite sandwich?
FS: We prefer cake.
RH: I like toast with apricot jam.
FS: I mostly eat cheesecake.
Who are your favorite artists?
FS: Kienholz, we like.
RH: We like many artists.
What do you drink?
RH: Coffee. We don’t drink beer. It makes your brain go slow.
FS: We drink a little champagne, not the hard liquors.
What do you do when you’re not working?
RH: Basically, I am always working. The separation of work and leisure is all gliding into one state of things.
Do you take vitamins?
FS: Vitamin U.
How far you get in school?
RH: I have a degree in architecture.
What architects do you like?
RH: A guy called Finsterlin. In the ’20s, he designed houses with fluid forms molded out of transparent plastic.
Did he make any?
RH: No, he just drew them.
Did he make any?
RH: No, he just drew them.
Do you have nicknames?
RH: Florian “V-2″ Schneider.
FS: “Doktor” Hutter.
Are you yourselves onstage, or do you put on a character?
RH: We create ourselves. We change our consciousness, but we are ourselves.
What do you think of psychiatry?
RH: That’s what we do, acoustic psychiatry.
What’s your favorite perfume?
RH: 4711 Eau du Cologne.
Who are your favorite composers?
RH: Schubert and Wagner.
Do you like flying?
RH: Not really, I’m always scared. We like trains. We like cars best.
Do you like your looks?
Do you plan to change them?
RH: Yes, but it’s a gradual process.
FS: Nature changes them also.
Will you go bald?
Do you think that can be prevented?
FS: I don’t care.
Do your parents like what you do?
RH: No, they would like to prevent us from doing what we do. We are doing business, but we should be doing office business.
© Glenn O’Brien, 1977
Follow me on Twitter @lordrochester