They’re coming back: the workers, the man-machines, the men with the pocket calculators – adding and subtracting. Yes, Kraftwerk will be back in Australia and New Zealand in December.
Ok, there’s only one original left (co-founder Florian Schneider left in 2008, and died in 2020), and the others are pretty much Johanns-come-lately, relatively speaking, but it’s the work that matters. Always. That’s Kraftwerk.
Twenty years ago, almost to the week, the most famous German musical act who had not a single balloon, released the last “new” album of their storied career. Earlier that year they’d been thrilling Australian audiences. The Tour De France was practically their press release/filmclip/promotional lackeys.
It was, as noted electro music fan Bill Lawry might have put, all happening.
And that’s where Wind Back Wednesday has plugged in, tie-knotted, shirt buttoned, hair short and neat for a chat with Ralf Hutter. Droll? He was. Switched on? He was. Breaking into an impromptu “ban-ban-ban on the Autobahn”? He was certainly not.
IN THE HOT, HEAVING TENT, the pack of bodies did the usual rock festival trick of becoming a single organism, an unthinking collective of thousands of arms and half a brain. But there was no aggro; this entity was grooving, rhythmically shifting hips and heads, hands making shapes, mouths cast in silent singing.
At the front of the pack, on the stage, were four men who didn’t appear to be sweating. Indeed they looked as if they had never sweated in their lives. Cool, preternaturally calm and barely, if ever, looking away from screens mounted on plain platforms before them, they could only have been more robotic if they had burst into a round of “danger Will Robinson”.
Kraftwerk at the Melbourne Big Day Out this year were to all intents and purposes above the fray and the petty pleasures of the live rock band. They could easily have been the Kraftwerk robots that at the same time were performing in Paris’ Museum de la Musique. But now it seems that the most famous citizens of the grey industrial German city of Düsseldorf were exploding with delight. On the inside. Where it counts.
“Yes we liked that one very much,” says Ralf Hutter, one half, with Florian Schneider, of the creative core of Kraftwerk, speaking now from an office in London.
Hmm. You weren’t exactly “going off” though were you Herr Hutter?
“Well we have to be concentrating on turning the right knobs, finding the right switches so unfortunately we can’t dance or hop around for then we would miss the next note or electronic device,” he says calmly.
This may not seem like raging enthusiasm but in his clipped accent, this is Hutter bubbling. Although they play rarely, and release records even more rarely these days (of which more soon), Kraftwerk do appear to (politely) revel in the experience of a live audience.
It’s the chance to improvise, Hutter says, to build on the songs’ bare electronic forms. And to plug into an energy source. After all, “Kraftwerk is German for power plant, to do with energy, electronic energy and that is what we feel and we feed back from a live performance.”
It’s unlikely that any other collection of 50-something men of neat but plain appearance and deliberately minimalist stage presence would have engendered not only the kind of heated and knowledgeable response that Kraftwerk found wherever they played during their January tour of Australia but from such a comparatively young audience.
This was an audience that had grown up on rave parties and thumping nightclub beats, on hip hop and ambient chill tunes. It’s an audience for whom the early ‘80s is ancient times. But they knew, or at least had heard, that when it came to dance, electronic or hip hop sounds (in other words, the key centres of today’s pop music) the bedrock was Kraftwerk and the five albums they released between 1974 and 1981.
On albums such as Autobahn, The Man Machine and Computer World, Hutter and Schneider (and usually percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur, who tend to be written out of official Kraftwerk histories) used minimalist beats, lightly dusted pop, dry occasional vocals and the sound of a smoothly running, ever-moving machine to make some of the most important music of the past 50 years.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Except for one album in 1986 (the somewhat disappointing Electric Café) and a single for Expo 2000, Kraftwerk have been spoken of in the past tense for two decades.
Sure there were occasional rumours of new projects, reports of Hutter and Schneider still cycling into work each day at their Kling Klang studio, and occasional appearances. But no new music.
Until now. On Monday Kraftwerk release their 10th album, Tour de France Soundtracks. It is as the title suggests music inspired by and representing the 100-year-old, three-week long bike race that criss-crosses France, with songs named after Tour matters material (Titanium), medical (Elektro Kardiogramm and Vitamin), timing (Chrono) and the sleek movement of it all (Aero Dynamik and La Forme).
Like a classical piece, or indeed the surge/rest/resurgence of a long bike race, the album works on theme, expansion and restatement of theme with common elements appearing across many of the songs. The album also features a digital remix of their 1983 song, Tour de France, and a prologue, but you are probably wondering does it really take 16 years to produce 10 new songs?
“We call ourselves musikarbeiter, music workers, and we were working with computer programmers and music computer programming firms providing the equipment that only within the last year have we been able to do it. So we could present the new completely digital mobile Kraftwerk,” explains Hutter, not at all fazed by any suggestion he and Florian have been, well, slow.
“Tour de France is referring to a composition we did in ’83 and it was part of an album concept, Technopop, which we didn’t finish because we were in a transition to a digital format so we continued working on that. So this is like the Technopop album as originally composed by me and my partner Florian.”
So this is the album we would have had had in 1983?
“No, no, no way,” he says quickly. “Only now have we been able to do it digitally. In 1983 I had the idea of doing a Tour de France album but we didn’t finish it, the concept was never worked out. But now we have worked it completely out, together with the idea of mobile technology, laptop music, like a laptop quartet, and we’re very happy now. Especially as the Tour de France is to do with mobility, cycling has to do with speed. I was asked in France why cycling and I said it’s always forward. That’s mainly what Kraftwerk is all about.”
To further solidify the link between the great race and the duo, both of whom ride and have participated in an open-to-the-public stage, or etape, of the Tour, Hutter gleefully recounts how German rider and past winner Jan Ulrich is called “man-machine and Kraftwerk-on-wheels” by the German press.
But there’s another link here too. As with Kraftwerk’s grand vision as expressed in Trans-Europa Express and other songs, the Tour is the embodiment of pan-Europeanism with riders from all over the Continent (“And worldwide too, with Australian riders very strong in it,” Hutter interjects) and interest far beyond the French who began it 100 years ago.
When I ask Hutter what it is, culturally, musically, emotionally, that feeds into Kraftwerk’s music now, the answer could have come 30 years ago.
“Like always the European, pan-European society,” he says. “Let’s remember we live half an hour from Holland. And the area where we live is part of a cultural melting pot. It’s been part of the Teutonic tradition; part of the Roman Empire; a French Napoleonic colony; we’re one hour from Belgium, two hours from France.”
Is he someone who retains optimism for the pan-European idea?
“It is the only way to do it.”
What does he base that optimism on?
“On creative people, on cultural exchanges. It’s happening. Maybe some selfish politicians haven’t acknowledged because they don’t get the information, they’ve lost contact with the people.”
They’re not known for direct political commentary but is this something that he considers appropriate for participation?
“There’s always been an urban and ecological aspect to our music. Trans-Europe Express is like a visionary contact going through Europe. It’s all there in our music. With Autobahn we had street credibility.”
Hold on was that a joke? He laughs quietly. It was a joke. A new album, the promise of another tour of Australia “soon” and now a Kraftwerk joke. Wonders never cease.
Kraftwerk will play:
TSB Arena, Wellington, November 29
Spark Arena, Auckland, December 1
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, December 4
Aware Super Theatre, Sydney, December 6
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, December 8
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, December 12
Riverside Theatre, Perth, December 15