Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Oct 29th 2009 2:45PM by Dimitri Nasrallah
According to founding member Ralf Hütter -- the last original member after Florian Schneider quit in late 2008 -- this box is the final word on the music and artwork of those iconic recordings that helpredefined contemporary pop culture. Even today, Kraftwerk are openly acknowledged as inspirations by everyone from Radiohead to Hot Chip to LCD Soundsystem while their robotic theatricality and Teutonic sound design can be found in the fabric of today's biggest pop stars and most cutting-edge techno. Hütter, who admits to not being particularly nostalgic about Kraftwerk's past, talks to Spinner about why now is the time to finally compile a retrospective collection.
'Catalogue' amounts to a private retrospective for you. How was it listening back to all the recordings?
As you can imagine, we are playing some major compositions in our live concert, so it wasn't that strange to go through the old files. We did this once before in the mid-'80s, when we started to transfer all the original Kling Klang studio sounds from the very old analog tapes onto digital format, so it wasn't such a surprise to go into the old songs. It was more an engineering type of work.
Do you find yourself, even now, discovering new elements in the work you did back then?
Some ideas come back and some sounds modify over the years, so it's interesting. But I'm not a very retrospective person. I'm more looking forward.
Yet for all that lack of retrospection, there's this box set coming out. Why now?
Because it's finished. We have been touring so much over the last five years, traveling around the world, setting up shows and concerts. So this work was sleeping at the studio while we were traveling. When we came back, we continued looking back again. A lot of work that went into this, and this is where I was engaged, was in the graphic design, to restore the original artwork and to go through our old Kling Klang archives of drawings, films, videos, photos, paintings. Back in those days, the Kraftwerk music was conceived as a visual music, a filmic music. 'Autobahn,' let's say, we had this painting and more drawings, airbrush paintings and photos.
This was the case for all the albums. In those days, we could never release this. We used some of these on slides during the concerts. But again, only now have we been able to put these into product of 'The Catalogue 12345678,' and EMI/Mute have now cooperated with us so we can release it. There were so many bad-quality CDs or albums out there -- misprints or bootlegs or strange edits -- and now for the first time ever we can have the albums come out in the original form.
It's actually strange to hear you say that. One gets the impression from the outside that the band is a very controlled entity.
Here in Germany, of course. But when we started in the early to mid-70s, when things came out in America somebody lost his brain in Los Angeles and put silly covers to our records. Things like that. Or somebody in London commissioned some stupid animation films.
I'm not complaining, but there has been such a mess of very bad-quality non-Kraftwerk product that now we have the original intention, for the very first time. Also, we always did more artwork than was necessarily used. We did little booklets or comics and film scripts, which were never released. Most of this is now put into the 'Catalogue' packaging of the box set and some also for the CD albums. In film, you would call it a director's cut.
There are four albums that are not part of this box set: the Organization [Hütter's pre-Kraftwerk album with founding member Florian Schneider] and the first three Kraftwerk albums. Why not include them?
Well, the Organization album was not a Kraftwerk album. Those were recording sessions that were merely released. But the first three Kraftwerk albums, these are the next step for me to go look into our archives. So those may be released sometime in the future, also. But we started with the main electro-Kraftwerk albums because that's where our electronic work really started with the activities that make up the Kraftwerk that we know today.
Out of all of these albums, do you have a favourite?
No, that's a question that is not allowed. You cannot ask a mother for her favourite child.
But there is definitely a sense of development that happens over these albums, artistic achievements first seen on 'Autobahn' that were fully realized by the time we get to, say, 'Trans-Europe Express' and 'The Man-Machine.' Do you remember feeling any of that evolution while making those records?
Well, with the first three albums we had to come from nowhere. There was no contemporary music at that time, in the late '60s and early '70s, in Germany. Kraftwerk was an electro or industrial version of Düsseldorf that grew out of this. I think with 'Autobahn,' this was our first album where we came into this symphonic soundscape approach, as well as introducing the voice and the German language into the music. From thereon, the concept came, the first of what we basically called the man-machine albums: 'Autobahn' and then 'Radio-Activity' is all electronics and more into fantasy. And then came 'Trans-Europe Express.' So it was a continuous work.
When we choose different composition that we perform now live, we change what we play. We brought in, after a long time, the 'Showroom Dummies' again. So we change sometimes, and in the future we will have another choice of live performances.
Speaking of the live performances, you're performing these days with Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert and Stefan Pfaffe. Can you tell us a little more about this new Kraftwerk formation?
Already I've been working more than 30 years with Henning Schmidt. He was an engineer of 'The Man-Machine,' assistant engineer at that time because he was still studying at the university. And I've been working with Fritz Hilpert for almost 25 years. He was, of course. involved in all this work for the digital age of Kraftwerk and in the realization of our Mobile Kraftwerk 2002 when we started this world tour. This tour was the next phase of Kraftwerk, digital and mobile. Pfaffe is a video program editor who has worked a very long time also on the tours, since 2002. So he's programming, coordinating, synchronizing videos and computer graphics that you see during the live performance.
This year, I think it was in April, we played at the Volkswagen factory and for the first time we did the last part of the Kraftwerk show in 3-D. So he's been programming a lot of that. I think it was only in Manchester that we did it again, where the British Olympic cyclists were touring on the boulodrome track during 'Tour De France.' Doing these special happenings or environment-specific things brings me back to the late '60s and early '70s, when we were very active in the art world. So it's coming in circles, with these events and happenings, and I think we plan to do more.
It's interesting that you keep describing the group this way, because it seems to me that Kraftwerk these days is primarily a theatrical experience.
Yes, definitely performance and live electronics. Because a record is just a record. It's just a piece of time that sticks on this disc, but I like more the idea of continuum, of changing, of gradual improvising on these scripts. Basically, the Kraftwerk compositions are all like film scripts. We keep putting them into new context. So we work with different musicians, technicians, photographers, actors.
So can one ask if there's a new film script in the works?
Yes, definitely. That's what we're doing at the moment. Two weeks ago, we came back into the studio, after the last festival we played -- the Isle of Wight festival in England -- where the theme for this event was "Space Oddity." So all the audience wore costumes from outer space, fantasy costumes, and when we came on with our neon suits, it's was the perfect place to be. We were lucky with the weather and it was fantastic.
Do you ever think you'd like to move on from Kraftwerk? It has been a very long time.
No, I think Kraftwerk for me is a continuous, changing process. It's a man-machine that keeps producing musical energy and audiovisual energy. For me, that's just perfect. There's so many possibilities now with the tools and technology, [especially] the new mobility and size making everything transportable. You can imagine in the '70s and '80s this was difficult to do. It was impossible for us to perform with this kind of stage setup and to travel. So only now are we coming to the point where all this energy is put into reality. Every time there is new technology, we add to King Klang studio and we become more musical.
Do you still keep in touch with former or founding members of Kraftwerk? I'd imagine with assembling this 'Catalogue' box, you'd have some contact.