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Electronic pioneer Kraftwerk returns to Detroit

June 10th, 1998

BY BRIAN MCCOLLUM - Detroit Free Press

Ralf Hutter has always had a good ear for the future. So it figures he was there to catch a glimpse of it in 1981.  With his group Kraftwerk, dashing across America for a rare set of live shows, Hutter stopped in Detroit -- an industrial city not unlike his home base of Dusseldorf,Germany.
"We played a little club there called Nitro," he says. "I remember the reaction being very strong, very dynamic."  Kraftwerk and Detroit, it would turn out, were a potent combination. By decade's end, Hutter was dancing to Detroit techno in clubs in Berlin and Frankfurt, where audiences fast latched on to the new Motor City sound -- sparse, rhythmic music built upon Kraftwerk's own pioneering electronic foundation.

They were sounds crafted by artists like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, young blacks from northwest Detroit who -- like their hip-hop and new wave contemporaries in New York and London -- had become enchanted by the precise, ethereal German music and its mysterious creators.  "We always predicted this electronic music would be the next step," recalls Hutter. "This Detroit type of techno music, especially, we felt an affinity for."

On Thursday, Hutter will be back for the first time since that 1981 event. With longtime collaborator Florian Schneider, he'll perform at St. Andrew's Hall, part of a six-city tour of the States.  You can't call it a concert, exactly: Onstage with the duo and their two supporting musicians is the group's entire Kling Klang studio -- "only the walls remain in Germany," Hutter has said. There are video screens, instruments made from pocket calculators and robots that perform a mechanical ballet. Hutter sings a bit, but even that is mostly electronically manipulated.

It's enough to throw off folks accustomed to traditional performance structures.  "Kraftwerk is the interaction between man and machine," Hutter says. "There are parts of our music where it is all automation, other parts where we synthesize sounds from silence."  The musical landscape has been repainted many times since that last Detroit show in '81: Hip-hop and techno -- along with resulting offshoots like drum-n-bass and trip-hop -- have become the world's soundtrack. Kraftwerk is to those modern styles what blues man Robert Johnson was to rock 'n' roll.

Formed in 1970 as a quartet, brainchild of Hutter and Schneider, the group was among a wave of German keyboard groups that included Tangerine Dream. But Kraftwerk -- with its affinity for avant-garde experimentation -- quickly pulled ahead of its peers. Albums such as "Highrail" (1971) and "Autobahn" (1975), whose sprawling title track was edited into a single that reached the U.S. Top 30, were synthesizer symphonies.  Kraftwerk labored through the decade, garnering relatively low sales and little appreciation from critics, but confident technology would someday deliver widespread justice to its creative vision.

"It's so much easier now," Hutter says of digital sequencers and other innovations. "A lot of things weren't available to us, being an independent, small group of people and not a major company. We couldn't afford some things.  "In the past, we had to build certain instruments -- rhythm computers and drum machines. Today that's all available and even mobile. It allows for more positive creativity."

Hutter is an elusive artist who has long kept a low profile. He rarely grants interviews, and when he does talk, it's slowly and carefully. His measured words, though, reflect not a struggle with the English language but an overriding bent for precision -- the same meticulous mind-set that has shaped three decades of Kraftwerk music.  Hutter, who at 52 remains a frequent club patron, says he isn't a fan of all the music that has come in Kraftwerk's wake: "There's a general tendency to recreate historical sounds," he laments, "rather than looking for the future."

Still, Hutter and Schneider have found much to appreciate. At last year's Tribal Gathering concert in England, the pair hung out with Derrick May and other Detroit techno creators, for "an exchange of ideas and dancing to their sounds."  They hope to meet up again Thursday night.  If Hutter knows his valuable role in steering music into the new millennium, he plays it down. He says he doesn't wake up each day feeling like a pioneer and naturally he doesn't want to focus on the past.   "When I get up in the morning, I brush my teeth and drink a cup of coffee," he says. 

"We just concentrate on our work and try to be open-minded for the future."