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By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
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By Jacob Katel
The excitement of potentially speaking with Ralf Hütter, the man behind legendary krautrock crew Kraftwerk, was overwhelming.
An interview seemed like a long shot, especially considering the fact that the last thorough press clip appeared to be a July 2009 chat with the Guardian's John Harris. And my oversharing on Facebook about the possibility was met with comments of "No way in hell is that ever going to happen." But a few days later, the band's publicist emailed me back in disbelief — "Holy smokes, Batman!" were her exact words — letting us know that Hütter, for whatever reason, had agreed to chat with New Times.
After the initial surge of elation, a sudden sinking feeling hit me. I worried that somehow I would embarrass myself by asking this electronic music icon a stupid or clichéd question.
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Fast-forward a few days, and it's time for the fateful call: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, I say apprehensively, unsure whether Hütter's personality will match that of his music — somewhat cold and precise. How are you?
"Very good!" the 65-year-old responds. He's warmer than I expected, almost sensing my nervousness. "We are here in the studio working on tracks," the Kraftwerk leader says, referring to his band's Kling Klang workshop in Düsseldorf, Germany, which serves as a base of operations for experimentation with new sounds and technologies. "Have we spoken before? Have you seen a show?" he wonders.
No, I answer.
"Because I think some years ago, I played in Miami in this wonderful old theater. The Gleason Theater?"
The Jackie Gleason Theater, now known as the Fillmore Miami Beach, I say.
"It was a beautiful place to be."
He's right. Kraftwerk played there November 19, 2004. The stop was the last date of a Latin American tour. In fact, New Times gave the performance a Best of Miami 2005 award for Best Concert of the Past 12 Months, writing, "The pre-show electricity was already palpable when competing man-machine uniformed clones arrived to take their seats, but it really took off when the lights dimmed to reveal the technology-happy gang from Düsseldorf."
Of course, the band's upcoming appearance at Ultra Music Festival 2012 will be a less intimate affair. But it might be the biggest and most important one for a festival that's been championing electronic dance music for the past 13 years. Without tracks such as Kraftwerk's "The Robots," "Trans-Europe Express," and "Computer Love," EDM would not be where it is today.
"We very much fell into electronic and electronic dance music, or physical music from the old days, from the robots doing the robot mechanical ballet," Hütter explains. "We've played dance events... but also in the '70s in Germany, we played some electro clubs — very, very early period. So we've played different environments. We played in concert halls of classical music, the rock circuit, or we played in the art-scene museums."
But Ultra is no concert hall, rock club, or art museum. And with the average festivalgoer being a 20-year-old dubstep fanatic, it might be difficult for a 42-year-old band to convert new fans. However, this wouldn't be the first time Kraftwerk has exceeded audience expectations.
"It was kind of like amazement," Hütter says, remembering the reaction to his band's early performances. "But still, because we came from the late '60s and early '70s, an experimental [era] of music, we always have been touring around the world in different phases and different setups. It was always like this combination of music, technology, and visuals."
Four decades ago, Kraftwerk's futuristic experiments seemed prophetic. But today, high technology, global communication, and rapid travel are merely everyday conveniences. "When we did the album Computer World in the '80s, we didn't even have computers in those days," Hütter says. "It was kind of like a preview of future sound sources. And now it's a reality. We're very lucky that all these music machines are available for us now."
Interestingly, it is this new technology that has made the current Kraftwerk live show possible. Laptops have given the band a level of onstage mobility and flexibility they were never afforded early on. And last year saw the debut of Kraftwerk's three-dimensional concert experience in Munich, along with a monthlong, 3-D video exhibition at Munich's Kunstbau gallery.
That 3-D experiment will finally make its way stateside in April for an eight-day stint at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The sold-out event, dubbed "Kraftwerk — Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8," will feature the band performing each of its eight albums in chronological order. The Ultra show won't boast any three-dimensional wizardry. But that's not exactly bad news — we still get a Kraftwerk show.
"We can't do that in Miami because I think it's so many people that it wouldn't work," Hütter says in consolation. "We have been doing [the 3-D concerts], but I think it's also fine in 2-D. It's more visual with 3-D, not so much dance or movement when you have those glasses. I think [the Ultra show will] be more dynamic-looking."
What else can Miami not expect? New material. In 2009, Hütter told the Guardian that the band would be releasing its next collection of songs "soon." Three years later, 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks is still Kraftwerk's most recent studio effort. When I call Hütter out on his 2009 promise, he says he's working on it. This time, though, he gives a vaguer time frame.
"It's what we've done in between. We've been working on the catalogue. We're putting it into digital format from the old sound sources. We've been contemplating performance and then going into this 3-D [project], which took a lot of time because we're just a very small group of people, engineers, and programmers.
"We're not a Hollywood studio," he adds. "We're just an underground type of unit. So it's taken quite awhile to make it functional. And now it's working and we're back in action, and we definitely have some sounds prepared. But I couldn't give you a date right now."
The promise of a modern-day Kraftwerk album is exciting. But as his band enters its fifth decade, Hütter says he and his collaborators are just getting started, thanks to advancement in technology.
"We're not so interested in the pathway anymore," he explains. "Kraftwerk is the music for today and tomorrow. In Germany, there's a big cult of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. It's a lot of historical music, which we've always felt is OK. But we're contemporary [and] we have to create the sound of our generation, and that's where the source of inspiration for Kraftwerk comes, looking into the soundtrack of today."
So where is Hütter and crew's technological fantasy taking us next?
"I think it has to do with mobility, for us at least. And easy access. Some combination between man and music machines as well."
All hail the man-machine!