Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Kraftwerk Aren't What You Think They Are And That's Okay

Wolfgang Flür is sitting across the bar table from us in Düsseldorf's posh me and all hotel's penthouse lounge. He's small in stature despite my mental image of him as a musical titan and rather fetching for someone knocking on 70. Flanked by floor to ceiling windows looking out over a Rhineland cityscape preparing for the 2017 Tour de France Grand Depart I steel myself to ask an illuminating question or two from the one member of the band that I in years past found most compelling in their cryptic band and album photos. Wolfgang always seemed the most beatific, to the point of having a resting smile-face.

Kraftwerk Robot Wolfgang Flür & Former Propaganda
Chanteuse Claudia Brücken at Me And All Hotel, Düsseldorf

At the moment he's animatedly splitting his time talking to a lovely post-Propaganda Claudia Brücken as well as former Die Krupps member and Düsseldorf documentarian author Rudi Esch about ... I haven't a clue. My collegiate German skills withered on the vine the day my degree was handed to me. Then he turns to me, pushing a vintage 90's cd walkman across the table and asks if I'd like to hear the latest project he's working on. 

My journey to this point was an unusual one. Only a few years earlier I'd held an entirely different view about Kraftwerk, one carefully cultivated by both my ignorance and the shiny veneer created by founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of the aloof inscrutability of four teutonic men working together towards a common goal. When I did read about the band it was typically breathless proclamations of More Influential Than the Beatles or The World's Most Influential Band with the usual boilerplate brimming with superlatives of having invented electronic music and made hip hop possible. Who was I to argue? 

Indeed Kraftwerk were my first musical love, having been gifted at age twelve a cassette of Man Machine from an older brother who found it trite but my instant and fanatical love for their music made them the most influential band ... in my world. Growing up in the pre-internet blue collar cultural wasteland of Florida's Baptist churches and cheap tourists eschewing the more expensive hotels near Disney World, that cassette represented a lifeline to a better place and signified a world of possibilities with its lovingly crafted soundscapes. Like many youth of the era waiting at a bus stop and feigning interest in Van Halen or Michael Jackson to their peers  I knew I'd likely wind up eating that tape if they realized an alien was in their midst. Bands like Kraftwerk, Devo or The Residents gave the quirky youth of that time a sign that being a Beautiful Freak was indeed okay even if one had to be circumspect about their love for them.

It was at this point I constructed my Kraftwerk time machine. Years came and went at a rapid rate; Reagan promised an economic reach-around for America, I graduated high school, Electric Cafe was released and a Space Shuttle exploded. I got a degree, opened a record store, the wall fell, Klaus Kinski got uglier, The Mix debuted and another Space Shuttle exploded. I taught English in Japan, got married/divorced and a really cool black man became president. It was a dizzying trip and it's surprising I survived the fast 1:1 ratio of time travel (only limitation: no reverse). It felt at times like riding a toboggan down a ski jump. So I get out of my device and stand there blinking uncomprehendingly at 2014's Moogfest Kraftwerk show and realize that there have been developments as Ralf Hütter and ... three blokes I completely don't recognize take the stage and positively knock my socks off with a nearly orgasmic musical experience.

Ralf & Friends land at 2014's Moogfest in Asheville NC

It's perfectly reasonable to believe that Kraftwerk = Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang. It's emotionally etched in stone, like John, Paul, George and Ringo. Or Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy. It's what I was sold as a kid, they couldn't possibly have seemed more cohesive, like a married couple (or two couples) who finish each other's sentences. Yet I was now conflicted like the protagonist in The Crying Game and trying to make sense of this curve ball.

Ralf, Henning, Fritz and Falk: this is the new reality. How did we get here?

Wolfgang's book just got a redux
Wolfgang has written at length in his tell-all 1999 autobiography Kraftwerk: I Was A Robot about his split from the band in 1987 and the acrimony that followed, shining a spotlight on their dysfunctional relationship and prompting a lawsuit from his former bandmates (minus Karl who quit in 1991). His story is enlightening, at times riveting and laugh out loud funny but its core theme is one of alienation and loss: his name was expunged from some album credits, Ralf and Florian patented the drum pad that he designed, Wolfgang and Karl were shunted into cheap hotels separate from the founding members on tours and a litany of other slights and grievances.

Most astonishing was the idea that he and Karl were considered merely as employees ... earning a wage. The immense frustration he experienced peaks during the years that Ralf and Florian focused on cycling to the detriment of touring or recording new material: he didn't get paid for riding a bike. The founding members both came from wealth and had financial safety nets but Wolfgang and Karl had to seek outside work to stay afloat with Wolfgang once posing nude for a men's magazine, though knowing his outgoing nature he'd probably have taken that gig regardless.

Inarguably the most creative and productive years of Kraftwerk coincided with Karl and Wolfgang's ~15 year "employment" with little substantially new conceptual material or albums produced since their departure. Indeed, Wolfgang had a hand in every album spanning from 1974's Autobahn to Electric Café in 1986 after which he bid his bandmates auf Wiedersehen. Every release since has consisted of remixed or reworked material with only 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks debuting new material alongside reworked versions of their 1983 hit ep Tour de France.

It's too bad that the employees in this scenario didn't have better union representation.

Then there's the counterpoint: if Kraftwerk were truly a two person band with Ralf and Florian at the helm (Florian later bowed out in 2008) it's not so surprising that they maintained such an iconic air of evolution and teutonic perfection for the outside observer. It's nearly impossible to maintain high creative standards when work is filtered through a committee, usually there's an alpha figure navigating towards a goal that only they fully understand. Even the legendary Klaus Dinger (who went on to found Neu!) was booted out of an early iteration of Kraftwerk for wanting (among other reasons) his name emblazoned on a red neon light rather than the blue of his bandmates. An apt automotive analogy would be that brilliant designers working solo like Harley Earl, Giorgetto Giugiaro and Bill Mitchell respectively designed the '59 Cadillac, VW Golf and Corvette Sting Ray. A committee designed the universally reviled Pontiac Aztek.

It's important to not downplay Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz's recent-ish Kraftwerk contributions as they've been with the band for more than two decades now and had a hand in some of the original studio recordings as sound engineers and programmers before that (Falk Grieffenhagen is the on-stage video technician). Time moves on and bands evolve. The perception that I carried for so many years of Kraftwerk as a monolithic entity was false. Music, like sausage, is often a production that is best left unobserved.

Review of 3-D The Catalogue LP & Blu-Ray

And so the world spins on with Ralf gifting us one more jewel of a collection, this year's 3-D: The Catalogue, a curated nine lp / eight cd box set retrospective of all albums since Autobahn recorded binaurally for an immersive audio experience and a companion four disk Dolby Atmos mixed blu-ray box set for those fans with 3-D capable televisions.

In its defense, the 3-D box set's quality and documentation is fanatical, yet it's no surprise that Ralf's most popular question when interviewed is "when will a new album be released" to which his standard reply is “when it’s finished”. I suspect the Space Shuttle has nothing to worry about.

So I'm sitting across from Wolfgang (someone pinch me!) and put his headphones on, marveling for a moment at this cd Walkman relic from the 90's then hit play. After a studio fade and introductory motif I'm experiencing a good piece of electronic pop music with Claudia Brücken contributing her dulcet and subtle vocals to the track. I nurse one of Düsseldorf's famous Altbiers and try to savor all four minutes of the moment. It sounds reminiscent of his 1996 Yamo album "Time Pie", a perfectly serviceable if somewhat ephemeral bit of techno-pop. Existing fans will certainly shell out for it.

Headphones off, he asks what I think. I'm nonspecific but upbeat, choosing words I hope don't sound parsed. My love of electronica has always veered into the abyss from Severed Heads and Throbbing Gristle to modern artists like dark folk-electronica Tunng and the quirky Felix Laband so it's a struggle to review music that's intentionally crafted for mass appeal (take this with a grain of salt as I know I'm the minority here). Appeased, he says it's an homage to England's Birmingham, an industrial city of "brutal loud sounds" with factories and noisy steel mills and clarifies "My new pal Peter Duggal formerly known as Moonraider is my partner in music production. He's originally from Birmingham and comes from a film music and soundtrack background and invited me to Hebden Bridge to play the famous Trades Club. It was one of the best shows we ever did, it was crowded and the people went crazy about my music! That was the day we became friends and I was interested in his music ... we fit very well together."

Another artist with a very similar oeuvre is Wolfgang's pal Karl Bartos. For this trip I'd packed a copy of Bartos' Off The Record which was in my rucksack in the hopes that we'd cross paths. Again, it's a good album suffused with the overt melancholy of hope that lightning might strike twice, repeating most of the tropes and themes of Kraftwerk with a major clue being the album cover: Karl's Kraftwerk-era mannequin head. I'd bet on the wrong horse bringing this but it did lead to me asking a painfully obvious question to Wolfgang. I knew from his book that he's a sensitive man who doesn't tolerate awkwardness or ambiguity well. True to my nature, I made it awkward.   

"As Kraftwerk have failed to put out new material for so long," I offer, "and knowing that your fans love your solo work as well as your former bandmate Karl's ... why haven't you two collaborated on any projects that would show the world what they're missing?" 

He doesn't pause to think, responding reflexively, "Many fans and journalists have asked me that. The reason is we are developing in two different directions musically. I think we are great friends but musically we are too different." I'm sure I wore a sour expression as I wasn't buying it.

Knowing that people don't like being contradicted I plow ahead and say, "It's not like you're klezmer and he's gangsta. You're not that different, pretty similar actually within the world of electro-pop at least from my point of view..."

Wolfgang scrutinizes me and I fear I've made a horrible gaffe. One never knows what emotional cyclone exists within our fellow humans. Then his demeanor softens and he quite sincerely states, "Ask Karl. I would be open to it. I think I'm more open to it than he is. We've discussed it a lot of times but he always has an excuse for anything else. I think the main reason for it is that Karl seems to be still too close to the whole Kraftwerk sound and themes and I ... I am not. I have developed into the story teller and other things."

The excellent me and all hotel düsseldorf lounge (yes, it's lowercase) is crowded with journalists and some of Düsseldorf's musical luminaries like Rob Keane, Daniel Fassbender and some journalists who'd make a far bigger story than me so I thank Wolfgang and return to my table to contemplate my jet lag and excitement at having met someone I'd previously assumed to be a pop cultural chimera. There's still a full week ahead for our visit to Düsseldorf and the Tour de France's Grand Depart, but it still feels like we might've peaked too soon; this was only our first evening in one of Europe's most metropolitan and artistic cities.

Epilogue: I wrote this for Electronic Beats magazine but failed to see it published with no explanation from their managing editor. My hypothesis on it being spiked is it's not entirely a positive piece about the band - a band that's notoriously fickle with the press. Perhaps they felt this might jeopardize future opportunities for band interviews or promotional items? A follow up story was planned about visiting the historic Kling Klang studios and the Düsseldorf music community in case anyone wonders about the abrupt ending of this piece.

August 1st 2017 marked the long-awaited publishing of Karl Bartos' autobiography Der Klang Der Maschine. How Karl will approach the conundrum of telling the story of a band that historically prefers anonymity remains to be seen (for me), at least until there's an English translation. I wish him well at walking the fine line between Man and Maschine.