Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter on Ultra Music Festival, New Music, and the MoMA Retrospective in New York
The excitement of talking with Ralf Hütter, the man behind legendary krautrock crew Kraftwerk, proved overwhelming.
An interview seemed like a long shot, especially considering the fact that the last thorough press clip I could find was a June 2009 chat with The Guardian's John Harris. And my over-sharing on Facebook about the possibility were 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 -- saying that Hütter, for whatever reason, had agreed to speak with me.
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 cliché question.
A few days later, 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 would match that of his music -- somewhat cold and precise. And then I ask, 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, currently known as the Fillmore Miami Beach, I say.
"It was a beautiful place to be."
Photo by Peter Boettcher
He's right. Kraftwerk played the Gleason on November 19, 2004. The stop was the last date of a Latin American tour. In fact, New Times gave it a Best of Miami 2005 award for Best Concert of the Past Twelve 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 last 13 years. Without tracks like 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 festival-goer being a 20-year-old dubstep fanatic, it might be difficult for a 42-year-old band to convert new fans. Although, this wouldn't be the first time that Kraftwerk has overcome 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 explains. "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."
Ironically, it is this new technology that's made the current Kraftwerk live show possible. Laptops have given the band a level of onstage mobility and flexibility that they were never afforded early on. And last year saw the debut of Kraftwerk's three-dimensional concert experience in Munich, along with a month-long, 3D video exhibition at Munich's Kunstbau gallery.
That 3D experiment will finally make its way Stateside in April for an eight-day stint at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The sold-out event, dubbed "Kraftwerk -- Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8", will have the band performing each of its eight albums in chronological order. The Ultra show won't feature 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 3D concerts], but I think it's also fine in 2D. It's more visual with 3D, 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 and 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 catalog. We're putting it into digital format from the old sound sources. We've been contemplating performance and then going into this 3D [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 a while 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.
Photo by Peter Boettcher
"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!
Ultra Music Festival 2012. Friday, March 23, to Sunday, March 25. Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets are sold out. Visit ultramusicfestival.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.