Kraftwerk’s Ralf Htter: ‘Music is about intensity the rest is just noise’

Kraftwerk reinvented pop music in the 1970s, but never dreamed they would one day be able to stage the multimedia spectacular of their current tour. Founding member Ralf Htter grants a rare interview

For someone with a reputation for how can we put this politely taking their time over things, Ralf Htter isnt one for hanging around tonight. Kraftwerk have just completed a mesmerising set at the Brighton Centre all laser-precise beats and visuals brought to life through Kraftwerk-branded 3D glasses and Htter has agreed to sit down for a rare face-to-face interview afterwards. Given that the show involves Htter spending more than two hours on his feet, studiously twiddling knobs and buttons to ensure that no synth line or motorik beat arrives anything less than crystal clear, you might expect him to take a while to decompress once he has left the stage. Yet the crowd have barely shuffled out of the building when he appears in our backstage interview room, a black polo shirt and puffer jacket replacing his grid-patterned Spandex bodysuit. The speed of the transformation is disorientating, as if the mind-melting, multimedia spectacular he has just put on never happened.

Hello, nice to meet you, he says, shaking hands, before glancing towards a picture on the wall of Rod Stewart, resplendent in his peacock pomp. Its you, on the left? he asks his press officer, pointing towards one of the musicians pink-clad backsides.

Htter has a reputation for being taciturn or evasive in interviews and yes, he can be those things: the stock answer for when Kraftwerk might release their first studio album since 2003s Tour De France Soundtracks remains when its finished. But Htter is also charming, a little shy he finishes answers suddenly, with an endearingly nervous smile appearing at the side of his mouth and funny in an exquisitely German way. We meet on the eve of the general election, and so, to break the ice, I tell him how, ever since the leaders debates in 2010, pictures of UK politicians stood sombrely at lecterns have come to be labelled by online wits as the worst Kraftwerk gig ever. Curious, Htter looks at a picture on my phone of a besuited Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, and nods in agreement: Because theres only three of them, he says. One missing.

Computer world: Kraftwerk in 3D at the Brighton Centre on 7 June. Photograph: RMV/Rex/Shutterstock
Thankfully, shows on this current tour have considerably more substance to them than Cleggmania. In many ways, they are as close to perfect as live music can get, in part because to hear Kraftwerks seemingly limitless supply of songs played so precisely is to hear the roots of almost every subsequent major development in western pop music: from Detroit techno to hip-hop to electro even to stadium indie (Coldplays
Talk famously nabbed the opening line from Computer Love). But also because these shows seem to realise one of Kraftwerks long-term dreams: to create a Gesamtkunstwerk or complete work of art that has long fascinated German artists from Wagner to the Bauhaus movement. Put on your 3D glasses and you will experience radio waves beaming towards you, or autobahn traffic passing by your side. At one point during Spacelab, the titular UFO lands right in front of the Brighton Pavilion a neat local touch they update for each venue.

Back when Htter was milling around the Dsseldorf art scene of the late 60s with founding member Florian Schneider (Schneider quit the band in 2008 and the pair have not really spoken since), such a show was the stuff of fantasy. In fact, the idea of an influential German pop band seemed far fetched in itself: the second world war had left Germany disconnected from its musical past while Britain and the US were busy redrawing the map.

At first, when we first discovered this, it was like a shock, says Htter. We dont have a continuous musical tradition! But then we realised it was an enormous chance, because there was nothing, there was a void. We could step into that open space.

It took some time for Kraftwerk to shape their new musical language. They made three albums of experimental art rock (Htter dislikes the term krautrock) in the early 70s before the classic line up Htter and Schneider joined by Wolfgang Flr and Karl Bartos embarked upon a seven-year run of albums so groundbreaking you could argue their influence surpasses even that of the Beatles: Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World. Each one was prophetic, gleamingly futuristic and it is sometimes overlooked behind all the plaudits for invention overflowing with melodic genius. Yet even on the forefront of such innovation, Kraftwerk were thwarted when it came to performing the kinds of live shows they desired. Early concerts relied on tapes and studio musicians too much compromise while in the 80s the band were forced to laboriously pack up their entire Kling Klang Studio in order to take the show on the road. Being a member of Kraftwerk over the past few decades seems to have at least partly involved simply waiting around for technology to catch up with their ideas.

You fantasise about it being possible, but you never know, says Htter. Has he marvelled at the speed of technology during his lifetime? No. Sometimes it has gone slow. But theres always a next step or development. Its a continuous process, more like gardening. There are certain plants that you work on, and others that grow [themselves]. Its seasonal. Thats how it feels. Its why I call Kling Klang my electronic garden.

Kraftwerk performing at the Ritz in New York in 1981. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

What does he make of the developments that have occurred for listeners as well as creators? Is the bounty offered up by Spotify a good thing, or does so much choice reduce musics value?

Basically, nothing has changed, he decides. Its still all about composition. And for the last 50 years, it has always been like this. There have always been speakers all around radio speakers, televisions. A little more [now], but then again its about the intensity. All the rest is just noise.

What about developments away from music; how does he view, say, Twitter? Does he use it? No, no, no. We just give information about our touring. Isnt he intrigued by that side of modern life, though? I dont think so. Its basically very banal. Too much nonsense.

Such disinterest is perhaps surprising given that the technology of today has always been Kraftwerks chief concern, far more than the inventions of tomorrow. For all their visions of robots and space exploration, there has always been more lyrical focus on, say, public transport or calculators. Looking back at their 70s output, it is hard not to view it through a political lense.

Take Autobahn, their 1974 motorik reimagining of the Beach Boys that announced their arrival as electronic pioneers. Given that Germany was desperate for a new identity, were the band attempting to reclaim their countrys motorways largely built during the rise of the Nazi regime and repaint them as beautiful wonders of the world?

Robot Ralf: one of the mannequins that take over the encores on the bands current tour.

Htter says no. It was an environmental composition, a sound painting, he says. We were touring in Germany and when we played in other cities, we didnt have money to stay in hotels. So we were always driving on the autobahn, going somewhere and coming back at night all the time. I had this old grey Volkswagen, so maybe we were dreaming of having a Mercedes one day.

What about the Trans Europe Express album. Bartos once described that as being a message of European unity

Yes, interjects Htter with a smile, But he was not the composer.

So was that not the case?

Its like where we live [in Dsseldorf] is the Rhineland. Its Germany, but there was a British sector, it used to be French. Its close to the Netherlands and Belgium. So we were brought up multilingual, whereas with other parts of Germany say, Bavaria its different. Ours has very multi-European connections. Its a four-hour drive to Paris, so we were always going to discotheques in France or hearing new bands in Brussels or spending the weekend in Amsterdam. Its very pan-European, so when I wrote the lyrics with Emil [Schult, their longtime visual artist collaborator] it was like a fantasy story about that.

The album was released in 1977, a few years after the UK had joined the EU. Hearing the songs message now feels like travelling back to an era of optimism and cooperation. Its hard not to listen without mourning the imminent arrival of Brexit and the potential end to such a vision. Htter is cautious to make the connection. Its not directly relating to any day-to-day politics, he says. Its more a fantasy story, or a spiritual thing. Like a film.

Despite dismissing the idea that his groups music had political undercurrents, he does agree that critics tend to overlook the songs emotional core. Far from cold, clinical robot music, with songs such as Neon Lights and Europe Endless, Kraftwerk proved themselves masters at capturing a kind of hopeful melancholy, whereas elsewhere their music contains all the conflicting emotions of modern life: joy, distraction, loneliness, paranoia.

It is emotional, agrees Htter. People a long time ago had difficulties finding the sensitivity of electronics. But when you go and see your doctor and he does a heart test, it is electronics that are very sensitive to this. Its the same with an instrument. Thats why we should use the tools of todays society to create music otherwise it is just antique.

Even back in the 70s, when Kraftwerk must have seemed more like aliens beamed down to earth than human beings, the music was always accessible, always able to connect with people, always alive to the possibilities of collaboration. Did it surprise Htter when black audiences in New York and Detroit took it to their hearts and used it as a building block for hip-hop and techno?

Yes and no, he says. Because I have white and black keys on my piano. He smiles, then adds: But also the dynamics of electronic rhythm machines is a very strong element in what is called funk music or urban music. Electronics is very connecting.

Did he recognise electronic musics potential to bring people together from the first time he touched a synthesiser.

Yes, yes, he says, pretending to play the air with his fingers. You can feel it.

Such connections flowed in both directions as Afrika Bambaataa melded Numbers and Trans-Europe Express to create Planet Rock, and Cybotrons Clear laid the foundations for techno by looping Hall of Mirrors, so too did Htter and his band absorb the burgeoning dance music scene when the Belleville Three started taking them out to club nights. Did he let himself loose and dance? It was a long time ago now, he says, coyly. But yes, of course.

Florian Schneider Left) and Ralf Htter in 1978. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Htter maintains that for all the long gaps between releases, the band are still hard at it when theyre not on tour, keeping office hours at Kling Klang, tweaking tiny details, finessing artwork, performing upgrades to existing work whenever a technological advancement occurs. As for other projects, goings on inside the Dsseldorf studio remain secretive, although the group do still gather for cycling trips together at the weekend. Is being an avid cyclist a prerequisite for joining the band?

No, but it helps with the music, he says. In what way? You can only go in one direction always forward. Also, its about being independent. You use your own forces to go forward.

Htter is especially excited to play the opening of the event when it comes to Dsseldorf on 1 July. In fact, he has even designed artwork for some carbon-frame bikes that will be launched at the opening. We have to work in these other areas, because we are not allowed to ride the Tour de France, he says. We are too slow.

Kraftwerk have spent the past three decades slowing down musically, too. Despite the hours of perfectionist rigour that have gone into releasing the current 3D Catalogue box-set (if you cant make the live shows and have a 3D television its the next best thing), theres no escaping the fact that Tour de France Soundtracks has been their only album of new material since 1986s Electric Caf. The man machine is part human, after all, and Htter must surely be aware now that the years are creeping up on him. Is age something that bothers him?

Well, things will happen. Biological laws will still apply. And would Kraftwerk carry on perhaps even with the robots taking over, as happens during the encore of their live sets? Certain programmes keep running, he says. Its a spiritual thing. Musical ideas that we may have started, they enter into different cultures Detroit techno, dance music and then the energies come back to us.

So the idea that, all across the world, people are dancing to music that came from his groups startling vision, gives him strength? Yes, he concludes. Its all about feedback. Thats what keeps me going further.

Kraftwerk are currently on a UK tour. 3D The Catalogue is out now.

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