Electronic pioneer Kraftwerk returns to
June 10th, 1998
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."