Ghost in the Machine
Ahead of their Longitude performance, Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter explains why he has been the driving force of the iconic band
It turns out Ralf Hütter is human after all. Kraftwerk's leader has, over the past 40 years, cultivated an image of machine-like iciness –when he sang We Are The Robots in 1978, he wasn't joking, he was celebrating the android within. But occasionally there are glitches in the hardware and he suffers an outburst of old school, flesh and blood emotion.
He's having one such moment right now, as he parries a question about the myriad of rumours – some plausible, others eye-popping and crazy – that have accumulated around his band.
"There is a lot of fantasy," shrugs the 66-year-old, his flawless English tinged with the faintest hint of his Dusseldorf accent.
"Electronic music is always inspiring to people. We can't help it. What can we do?"
He doesn't raise his voice. He isn't even angry, just subliminally irritated. Still, you suspect it is as close as Hütter – pop's very own Man Machine – comes to a hissy fit. Without subtlety, he changes the topic to Kraftwerk's new 3D show, which he is bringing to Dublin for Longitude festival. A stereotype of German efficiency, he deals in cold fact, not feverish gossip.
You can appreciate his frustration. Kraftwerk are one of the most influential groups in the history of popular music. Without them there would be no techno, no synth pop, no hip-hop ... it's a cliché to say all this but that doesn't make it untrue. On the other hand, what other band has spawned quite so much wacko urban mythology? You could fill a conspiracy theorist manual with tales of their supposed bizarre behaviour, Hütter's in particular.
Consider the anecdote that has the frontman, a self-confessed cycling addict, waking from a coma in 1983 and demanding to be reunited with his bicycle (the coma part is true – the bit about him asking for his bike, less so).
Or the story in which The Smiths' Johnny Marr, seeking to write with Hütter, is told to call a Dusseldorf recording studio at a precise time (to the second) because Hütter, so as not to be distracted, had disabled the ring tones on all the phones (in reality, Hütter's studio, KlingKlang, has no telephones in the first place).
Most egregious of all, you gather, was the 2000 autobiography by former Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flur, I Was A Robot, which recounts the band romping with groupies in America and asserts that, by the late 1970s, Hütter had started to literally think of himself as a machine, shutting down his human feelings one by one, like a power-grid juddering into darkness.
"We can't help any of that [the rumours]," says Hütter when pressed.
"Electronic music creates fantasy. Art creates fantasy. What can we do? We concentrate on our work. There are so many stories told by old musicians we stopped collaborating with. It is all rumours and fantasy."
Was he hurt by Flur's book? It was reported that he and then bandmate Florian Schneider tried to block publication in Germany. Another shrug. "It was all nonsense. What can I say about it?"
Strangely, while Hütter is eager to demolish many of the myths around Kraftwerk, he is happy to confirm others. Yes, he is a recluse, he says. But only because he is a workaholic, putting in 168 hours a week since the 1970s. And he really did begin to conceive of the group as robots, albeit in a strictly metaphorical sense.
"In 1978, I wrote the lines 'I am programmed just to do anything you want me to'," he says. "That was part of our existence. We were touring all the time. That was our reality. I also wrote 'we are charging, our battery, and now we're full of energy'. That to me describes creative life – the energy you get from it. It was my daily existence. People understand, I think. We live in an industrialised world. With Kraftwerk, we wanted to channel that sensibility into contemporary art. That is why I came up with the concept of the robots."
Speaking to Kraftwerk's driving force is surreal. They are truly iconic. The image of the band's four members performing at work stations, like Cold War engineers tending a nuclear reactor, has entered the bloodstream of popular culture. They have been championed by David Bowie, shamelessly aped by the New Romantic movement, covered by U2, sampled by hip-hop grandaddy Afrika Bambaataa (and Coldplay) – and satirised in Father Ted and The Big Lebowski. In the universe of electronica, they are The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks rolled into one.
"Our sound was born out of our experience of post-war Germany," says Hütter. "It was informed by our cultural background. A song like Computer World – that was about us coming to terms with the digital age. When we were growing up, there was nothing for us. Germany was silent. So much was lost [in the war]. There was classic music, yet there was no everyday contemporary music. No language for musicians to communicate through."
Part of the Dusseldorf art-house scene, Hütter and his friend Schneider (who left Kraftwerk in 2009 and from whom Hütter is now estranged), initially wrote proggy-type folk instrumentals, using primitive synthesizers alongside flutes and chimes. Their first proper album as Kraftwerk, Hütter today maintains, was 1974's Autobahn, a thrumming hymn to the late industrial age and the strange euphoria he would feel hurtling down a busy motorway.
"Autobahn was about our life touring the universities and the art galleries and museums in the late 60s and early 70s," he recalls. "We did hundreds of thousands of kilometres in my old Volkswagen, which I put on the cover of the record. It was a fantasy that I created with my former partner Florian. We dreamed of hearing our music on the car radio. It was our hope that, with the song Autobahn, it might one day become true. Our career is like a road movie that started in 1974."
Despite the title track clocking in at a patience-stretching 20 minutes, Autobahn was an immediate sensation. Critics gushed, adventurous listeners across the world paid attention, to Hütter's shock and delight the radio even played it. David Bowie sought them out and eagerly revealed that, when he was touring the Continent in a limousine, he would have the chauffeur put on Autobahn over and over.
"David and us, we were operating in different areas. However, we were brothers in spirit. He was interested in electronic, creative music of the sort we were making. And then he went to Berlin and made critically acclaimed albums. That was inspiring to us. People told us that our music motivated them and it became a positive feedback and it drove us onwards too.
"Whether it was our friends in the Detroit techno scene or the New Romantics in England – we felt that there was this mutual understanding. It was an electricity that passed all around the world. It was fantastic."
Kraftwerk's leader has a tremendous work ethic. He is also meticulous, not in the habit of being rushed. The band's last LP, Tour De France Soundtracks, appeared in 2003; 27 years have now elapsed since their previous release, Electric Café. It was this glacial pace which, it is speculated, prompted the departure of Carl Bartos in 1990 and, five years ago, finally drove away Schneider.
Hütter, though, cannot understand the fuss. He puts in his famous 168 hours a week and Kraftwerk continue to move onward. Through the 80s, he converted the back catalogue from analogue synth to digital. Starting in 2009, he has been working on the 3D visuals accompanying the present tour. And, yes, as soon as he is off the road, he will commence on the new album. There is no distinction.
It is all part of the continuum, all Kraftwerk being Kraftwerk. That, rather than individual records or tours, is the true art.
"We are focusing on concepts," he says of his plans. "These things take time. We are a small independent unit. We are not Disney Studios or a large factory. But yes, the next step will be another album."
Kraftwerk play Longitude Festival, Marlay Park, Dublin, on Sunday July 21