Rise of the robots
Ralf Hutter sounds pretty cheerful as he tinkers away in his studio in Dusseldorf on a chilly October morning, which he's been doing for the best part of four decades since co-founding pioneering German electronic outfit Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk's Kling Klang studio is notoriously airtight, with fan mail sent back unopened and interview requests usually rejected. The studio phone is famous for never ringing and collaborators in the past have been given an exact time at which to call. One of the 'robot men' would then wait until that precise moment before picking up the phone to see if anyone was on the line.
However, an excited call came through the day Kraftwerk's concert in Hong Kong next Friday was announced, saying Hutter had agreed to an interview. On the first attempt to get through to Kling Klang, we were put on hold and waited through 20 minutes of telephone static combined with bleeping noises and sounds coming from an American earthquake monitoring station.
Since the interview subjects were the experimental geniuses who comprise Kraftwerk, it was hard to tell whether the noises meant the interview had begun. But trying again, we got through to a relaxed-sounding Hutter, the man who helped steer Kraftwerk from a late-1960s Krautrock outfit into the godfathers of electronic music forms including electro, techno, trance and even hip hop.
The obvious place to start was to ask why we had been granted an interview. 'We say something when there is something to be said in words,' Hutter says. 'Mostly our language is music - that and the visuals we create to go with the music. But over the past six years we have been more active around the world and communicating with words.'
When Hutter says 'we', he basically means himself since he's been operating as the sole original member of Kraftwerk since co-founder Florian Schneider left several years ago.
Hutter and Schneider first met at art school in 1968, and founded the experimental group Organisation. Over the course of a few years, they evolved into Kraftwerk and laid the foundations for a futuristic form of music by embracing new technology and inventing their own when they couldn't find the sounds they were looking for.
'In the very early days there wasn't a musical language for us. We were starting from zero. There wasn't a contemporary music for our generation and it was quite a long process to invent one. It took us about seven years to create Autobahn.' And this is where the Kraftwerk story really starts. The 1974 release - the band's fifth, but the first 'real' Kraftwerk album - was a paean to the German highway system, the first indication of the Kraftwerk obsession with transport and movement, and a radio edit of the long title track was a hit.
The following 12 years were the band's golden age. With subsequent albums including Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World, Kraftwerk created the blueprint for modern electronic music - it was cold, precise, minimal and repetitive, but shone a global spotlight on these robotic sounds being transmitted from Germany.
'I think the electronic music language is a world music language and it is creating different sounds in different cultures,' says Hutter, who provides lead vocals for Kraftwerk, as well as keyboards. 'Like in Detroit it's maybe more industrial compared to the electro from New York or Belgium or Germany - this is due to the different languages of the originators and the different musical and social contexts.'
Since 1986's Electric Cafe, however, the machine men have laid pretty much dormant. That was the last Kraftwerk album containing original material, and their releases since have mostly comprised remixes of signature tracks or live recordings. Rumour has it that Hutter's insistence on musical perfection is the reason why the band's musical output has ground to a halt, as well as his obsession with cycling, which led to tensions with fellow band members in the 70s.
But Hutter still thinks he has yet to achieve perfection in his music. 'Making music is a process. It's a concept, a dynamic concept. Kraftwerk means dynamic electro power. The word 'work' is also there, so it also has to do with continuous work,' he says. 'It's not like sitting back in a sun chair and watching the clouds go by - this is not our music. Our music is more active and more about activating your brain and body; it's operational and keeping the man-machine in operation.'
The man-machine will be in operation at the Hong Kong show, as the Kraftwerk robots are coming - along with Hutter and the three laptop operators who have been accompanying him on recent tours. Video footage of Kraftwerk concerts from the past few years show Hutter and Co leaving the stage, and minutes later the curtains reopen to reveal robots standing in place of the band members. Hutter explains: 'They perform the compositions, they do mechanical dances. I am not on stage. The robots speak for themselves, they are independent. They are programmed to do anything we want them to.'
For someone who's always been at the forefront of musical technology, Hutter is not surprised at how far it has come, 'but we are more surprised that it has developed in our direction - for us this is an enormous source of energy. Now we have more tools to work with,' he says. 'In the old days, we spent so much time setting up equipment and cables, and hours and days and weeks were spent on hardware. Now the technology allows us to be more mobile and lets us concentrate on music and creating sounds.'
And so despite the lack of new songs - Hutter has been promising an album of fresh material for years - Kraftwerk continue to move forward, and the acceptance of electronic music as a genre has won the band new followers. 'One journalist once wrote that our music is 'emotion in motion', and I think that is a very fair description. We are not standing still. Our fascination with dance, mechanical dancing, the robots and also touring, travelling and cycling is all about going forward. If you stand still, you fall off your bike.'
So is he still cycling? 'Yes, when I have time and the weather is right. Unfortunately, I can't bring my bicycle to Asia but I often rent them on my travels. The silence is very good for imagining new music. The continuous sounds of cycling flow in and flow out, there are no abrupt mechanical or harsh sounds - just rolling along and gliding. Is it possible to cycle in Hong Kong, or are there so many cars that it's too dangerous?'
Kraftwerk Live in Hong Kong, Dec 5, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau, HK$680, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2989 9239