Interview: Kraftwerk

This interview – which first appeared in the Academy’s Daily Note newspaper in 2010 – was conducted by revered British music journalist and broadcaster Jon Savage in May 1991 to coincide with the release of Kraftwerk’s DJ-friendly compilation album The Mix. “It was all very easy,” Savage recalls. “Ralf Hütter was installed in an empty office in the old EMI building in Manchester Square, London, and was both friendly and forthcoming, if not quietly humorous. For some reason, I can’t remember why, the interview was never written up.”

August 30, 2012

Did you study under Stockhausen, or were you influenced?

No, we did some private musical studies, from a bourgeois type of background: piano lessons, flute lessons, certain courses. Then we followed improvisation courses at the conservatory, and then I met Florian [Schneider] accidentally. There were no other people around there at the time in Düsseldorf.

In England, you’re subject, because of language, to American domination, and what interests me is that you seemed to have solved the problem of what it is to be German making popular music of your own, which takes from American, but also from your own source. Is that important to you, to retain a German identity?

Certainly. We come from Düsseldorf, which is in the heart of the German industrial district, and we’ve always lived there, we never thought about moving. On the Trans Europe Express album, and in the film, it is strongly expressed. We feel at home in this context.

Kraftwerk - Trans Europe Express (Live Sheffield 1991)

Is it the case that in German music you had to really start from zero after the war? And did that help in any way?

When we started it was like, shock, silence. Where do we stand? Nothing. Classical music was of the 19th century, but in the 20th century, nothing. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the 50s and 60s everything was Americanised, directed towards consumer behaviour. So, we were part of this ’68 movement, where suddenly there were possibilities, and we performed at happenings and art situations. Then we started just with sound, to establish some form of industrial German sound, and then we founded our Kling Klang studio: the German word for sound is ‘klang’, ‘kling’ is the verb. Phonetics, establishing the sound; we added more electronics. You had these performances from Cologne radio, Stockhausen, and something new was in the air, with electronic sounds, tape machines. We were a younger generation, we came up with different textures.

Did you come up at the same time as Can and Faust, or were they slightly later?

We would cross paths every once in a while, playing festivals. We have been friends with Holger since the very old days, art gallery concerts, sure. Germany has no cultural centre, so it’s all different textures in Munich, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Berlin, and so forth.

We have played, and been understood, in Detroit and in Japan, and that’s the most fascinating thing that could happen. Electronic music is a kind of world music. The global village is coming.

Isn’t Düsseldorf quite a design centre?

Yeah, we’ve always incorporated different art forms. The robots are part of our music, we are part of the robots. The records, concert appearances – we designed the instruments and created pictures. We never felt like pure musicians. We didn’t specialise.

All Kraftwerk’s albums, in different ways, seem to examine and play with various ideas about mass communication and technology. Are you aware of how much people have taken from your work, like obviously hip hop and techno?

No, but we get feedback.

Would it be right to say that one of the things you’ve been trying to do is create a kind of universal, or rather trans-national, musical language?

That would be perfect. It would be too [big-]headed to say that we did it, but if it comes, it would be wonderful. We have played, and been understood, in Detroit and in Japan, and that’s the most fascinating thing that could happen. Electronic music is a kind of world music. The global village is coming, but it may be a couple of generations yet.

People in England have this idea that black music must be authentic and pure, and I love the fact that the early hip hop acts took something that seems very far away from them and made it their own.

We come from such a different background. If you come from Texas or Chicago, we come from outside of that.

Were you ever influenced by American music at all?

In a way that it’s part of the radio world, or the entertainment world in general, but our roots are more in film music, classical music, German electronic music and in machine-generated rhythm patterns, things like that. The guitar has never played a part in our musical concept.

You recorded mainly on analogue until this album, The Mix?

Yes, and we transferred all our old tapes, everything, onto the digital system.

That would surprise people who think you always have the latest technology.

It’s true, we have. When we recorded Electric Café, it was the beginning of the 80s, and we started in analogue, then we had to finish on analogue even though we added a lot of digital equipment during that time.

Do you think that computers have a neurological effect on human beings?

Sometimes you think of something ahead, and then you play it. That’s one way of doing it. Then you play while you play; I have singing fingers, talking fingers. Florian has a talking typewriter. While you press the phonetics and the letters, you hear them, so it’s a speaking or singing typewriter.

If you go against, or place technology in a fetish, if you adopt a friendly attitude toward it, you have a much wider range of behaviour.

Have you made those?

No, it’s distorted from an industrial product, part of a big Siemens computer from the old days, and Florian took it and we persuaded a technician to modify it. That’s the voice you hear on a lot of our records. I play mostly keyboards, plastic knobs, just black or white notes. There’s nothing to it. As we go along, I sometimes don’t know where it’s coming from, and that’s the best way I can explain it. It’s nearly automatic, very relaxing and easy, and the music is like a gift coming through your fingers. It doesn’t happen all the time, and you have to work on it afterwards, edit and so on. I’m aiming for an improvised situation with the computer.

Do you work all the time? Do you ever take time off?

No, not all the time, but it isn’t always music. We’ve spent time moduling the robots and programming – there’s lots of things to do in the studio. Installing new speakers, this is all part of our work.

What’s the environment in which you work? Do you have any ambient sound in your studio at all?

Yes, there is no glass wall in our studio, we record and compose everything in one room. It’s very ambient, sometimes with a microphone, but obviously we’ve been recording direct from the computer into the board, and press the red button, ‘record’, onto DAT.

What do you think the future of music is going to be?

I do think we’re in a new musical age. We’re in the middle of a revolution, there’s one phase already finished. Miniaturisation is continuing. Trans Europe Express was done with huge machinery, and all this smaller stuff, transportable computers, will be great. We’re still carrying a lot of weight from city to city. We’re dreaming of carrying a briefcase from place to place with a laptop, little samples – little keyboards can be done already.

This very simple digital sound has become an integral part of our daily lives, when you use the telephone, personal alarms, and that’s something that has changed our lives in the past ten years. Do you think that music should be environmental?

If you go against, or place technology in a fetish, if you adopt a friendly attitude toward it, you have a much wider range of behaviour. 

On a different note