I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
Touching clear sky.
—from All Watched Over by Machines
of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan
Next Tuesday, German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk will perform
in Los Angeles for the first time since their now-legendary show at the Hollywood
Palladium in 1996. That concert drew an appreciative, astoundingly diverse cross-genre
audience: indie-rock nerds and art-school casualties, computer-programming geeks
and hip-hop heads, synth freaks and industrial goths, every laptop musician
west of the Colorado and — oh yes! — breakdancers. Machines, it seems, had succeeded
in uniting humans.
It’s impossible to overstate Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music and culture
over the last 30 years, from new wave to hip-hop, electronica to (yawn) Coldplay
(who use the riff from “Computer Love” on their new song, “Talk”). We all know
Kraftwerk songs — odes to transportation like “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express,”
future/now manifestoes like “Man/Machine” and “The Robots” — but it’s in the
live context, where the songs are joined to specially designed graphics, that
Kraftwerk achieves a purity of all-encompassing vision that secular music rarely
touches. It’s all about rapture, and an interaction with — or longing for —
a relationship with something other than human.
On the telephone, Ralf Hutter — co-founder of Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider,
and now approaching 60 years of age — is helpful and deliberate, like a professor
pleased to have a visitor who’s interested in his research on an obscure subject.
L.A. WEEKLY: There’s a bumper
sticker that says “Drum
machines have no soul.”
Do you think that is
RALF HUTTER: It depends on who is programming. [Chuckles.] It
sounds to me like a sticker from the ’70s, “Kraftwerk is anti-music” or “Synthesizers
have no feelings.” It sounds very old-fashioned. It’s all in the interaction
between man and machine. That’s what Kraftwerk is all about: the harmony between
man and machine.
Would you consider the Kraftwerk
concept to be basically
optimistic about the relationship
between man and machine?
Yes. It is about showing possibilities and limitations of possibilities. And
also dynamics. I think there’s a lot of energy in our music, at least that’s
what I feel, and we get that feedback from the different cultural communities
where we’ve been playing the last year, from Moscow to Santiago, Chile, from
Sydney to America. We’ve been playing in Miami, in November, so I think it’s
nowadays in the world community.
When you play this show
at the Greek, you’ll
be performing almost in
nature, under the stars:
the machine in the garden.
Do you see that as
Yes, but I think that’s okay. We’ve been performing in different cultural contexts.
We played a tribal gathering in England that was in the countryside in tents.
In Italy, we will play outside in the old city center. We played on the Lido
in Venice. In Moscow, at Sports Palais. So it’s like a little spaceship landed
somewhere and we present our performance.
There’s an almost universal
fascination with machines and
computers, but at the
same time, isn’t there
a cultural fear of the
future, of machines taking
over? A fear of cyborgs?
This has to do with social structures and who is operating the machines. But
it’s the same with all machinery from simple tools to . . .
Since the wheel, I guess.
Yes . . . since the fire may be made to prepare food, or to burn your enemy’s
house down. It’s all to do with social behavior.
What do you think about
artificial intelligence? Do you
think it’s possible that
a machine can become
Well, maybe. People are working on certain things, but by doing so I think,
as far as I know, they discover the complexity of the human brain. Lately,
we have been doing basic work on more random — or subconscious? — music. Composing,
not by chance, well, like we say sometimes: We play the machines, and sometimes
the machines play us. It’s interaction, to be relaxing and enjoying the rhythm,
like driving your car, or leaning back and having your friend drive a little
bit, leaning back and enjoying the movements. Also we have the same feeling
with bicycling. It’s the same with music. But also with music, maybe music during
the concert, I have the feeling sometimes it’s best when it plays itself. We
have the computers running and we can interfere, and sometimes we let the computers
keep on going. Then you feel like going Ah! I want to do something here. And
we interact again. So it’s in and out.
Last year’s Tour de France was
Kraftwerk’s first new music
in many years —
In the ’70s, we just stayed in the studio and worked out the concept albums.
But now, with the new Kraftwerk mobile laptop setup, we can perform the music
live and keep the man-machine dynamic. And it’s multimedia. It’s very visual.
We have created, ourselves or working with others, these electronic paintings
and computer graphics and electronic images that are synchronized with the music.
Throughout your career, you’ve
worked with engineers who
build instruments, who build
computers, like Ludwig Rehberg,
the EMS-Synthi guy who
helped with the Vocoders.
Florian did that, yes. And also engineers, Florian was very good in persuading,
because we couldn’t afford, and then another programming engineer from University
computers — Florian persuaded him to write speech programs for him at night.
We’ve always had scientists and friends helping us out. Because especially in
the early days, things were unaffordable for us. The big computers, they were
with Bell Laboratories, or IBM, or the Speech Voices were with Bell. So we organized,
we got access to certain sounds, and always I say, when I bought my first synthesizer,
it was the same price as my grey Volkswagen, which later was on the Autobahn
cover. Today it’s much easier to get access, now that we have 35 years of
work behind us. We even test-pilot for music computer-programming companies.
When you let machines play
at concerts — especially
when there are actual
robot versions of Kraftwerk
onstage in place of
the humans — when you
do that, and the audience
applauds at the end
of the song, what are
the people applauding for?
The spirit . . . the art. Or the spirit of the art. The creativity. Sometimes
people like the robots more than us. [Slight chuckle.] Especially when we’ve
set them up in the afternoon in public, or somewhere backstage, or at a party.
They are in their traveling suitcases/coffins, and when we set them up, people
look at the robots, and they ignore us. Which is okay, because they are there,
they do photos for us, and things like that.
But they’re not ready to
do the interviews yet.
No, I have to write maybe some interview programming.
Well, I look forward to
seeing the show at the
Is it open-air? And what happens when it’s raining? Or, it never rains?
It says on the ticket,
“Rain or shine,” so
it will happen.
Okay, then the stage is covered?
Yes. There won’t be any
rain. It’ll be fantastic,
We’ll bring the anti-rain device.