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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Kraftwerk Superfans In Düsseldorf + 3-D Catalogue Box Set Review

Review of 3-D Catalogue & Düsseldorf

Greetings germs, Germans and everyone else. We're here today to yack at you about topics near and dear to us - specifically us in Düsseldorf for Kraftwerk's July 1 2017 Tour de France concert. That and the just-released 3-D The Catalogue box set that will put a dent in your bank account and a smile on your face assuming that you can still smile after the dent. And what a dent it is ... especially if you're a superfan and must have all the formats. For those with OCD completist compulsions you'll be on the hook for:

3-D The Catalogue on Blu Ray $170
3-D The Catalogue on Vinyl $100
3-D The Catalogue on CD $45
Kraftwerk Panties $10

Be thankful that you didn't brave the merchandise lines at the concert to buy these. The vinyl box set there was €160 which when converted to our paltry dollars is $190. I know this because our pal Les was at the show and was 100% sure that the box set was €60 - so we braved the crushing merch line in which everyone pressed forward into a compounded crowd-smash which provided great insight into why there's so many crowd-crushing fatalities at European kick-ball matches.

I'm going to wildly generalize here and say that European people at concerts and sports matches are quite sociable and love a good dogpile so any excuse to jam up against another person is welcomed. From the perspective of anti-social Americans it's as confusing as the French's love of limburger cheese and explains why we rarely have crowd crushing deaths: we fundamentally don't like each other very much. But I digress.  We got to the sales counter only to discover Les somehow couldn't see the 1 in front of the 60 but I did experience the thrill of a middle aged man grinding on my backside for a few minutes so there's that.

Jennifer and I reviewed the Blu-Ray and LP box sets - or mostly did. This is part one, the unboxing and the chatting and the anecdotes about the unexpected competitive nature of the title Worrrrrld's Biggest Kraftwerk Fans - which we aren't. Watch and learn.

Stay tuned for specifics on what it's like to be granted entry to the former Kling Klang Studios, the thrill of knocking back Killepitsch Kräuterlikör with Kraftwerk's Wolfgang Flür and our attempt to make Tampa Florida look like a possible sister-city pairing for Düsseldorf.

Bonus topic for those who watched the video (above): who is nicer Canadians or Germans? Your vote can be placed with the widget at the top - right corner of this blog.

Until then - buy the 3-D Catalogue Box Set!

The former Kling Klang Studio's intercom.

Not Fritz - this is another superfan wearing a product of his wife's immense sewing skills.

As an aside - if $100 for the Kraftwerk vinyl box set is too spendy to justify or you already have it, why don't you buy this drop-dead lovely NASA Voyager Golden Record Box Set for about the same amount of your rapidly depreciating currency? Isn't it nice to have options?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Thilo Schölpen Plays Kraftwerk: Live at Düsseldorf's Kunst Im Tunnel Cafe July 2 2017

For any devout fan of Kraftwerk there's a fascination for their music in most any format. Señor Coconut Y Su Conjunto nailed the genre with El Baile Alemán (arguably the best covers of Kraftwerk theoretically humanly possible) but there's always room to expand the concept. If you dig Balkan sounds then the difficult-listening Trans-Slovenia Express is for you. Also: 8-Bit Kraftwerk for those with a chip tune fetish, an all Japanese band celebration called Musique Non Stop for the appreciative Gaijin, etc. and so forth. Feel free to comment below on your personal favorite covers that I likely don't know about.

We had the fortune of attending (and recording) a live Thilo Schölpen gig in Düsseldorf which we walked into with no expectations or preconceived notions - and it turned out to be magical. Here's your favorite Kraftwerk songs rendered on a Wurlitzer electric piano (Fender Rhodes clone) by a maestro. I associate this instrument with bands like Steely Dan and Supertramp - and that's a good thing. Ordinarily Thilo would play on a proper concert grand piano but they're pretty hard to schlep to venues so here he's making do with one less octave on an abbreviated keyboard.

This was recorded the day after the Düsseldorf Kraftwerk Tour de France concert July 2, 2017 at the Kunst Im Tunnel Cafe on the Rhine, a venue known for hosting artistically rewarding musical events. A Roland R-05 served yeoman duty here, a great gadget for lovers of live music. Any fan of Kraftwerk and the Fender Rhodes electric piano will likely swoon over this live recording.

Thilo has quite a repertoire of other music as well, though his Kraftwerk renditions are truly astonishing. Thilo's personal site:

A great place for Düsseldorf's specialties: Altbier and music:

Thilo's axe: the Wurlitzer twin of the archetypical Fender Rhodes.
Set List:
01 Computer World
02 Showroom Dummies
03 Neon Lights
04 Autobahn
05 Pocket Calculator
06 Trans-Europe Express
07 The Model
08 The Robots
09 Computer World Reprise

Thilo's a rather cool guy. I'm taking notes.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Felix Laband - A Life In Collage

Trying to categorize Felix Laband's sublime music is fraught with peril.  It's a disservice to haphazardly pound the round peg of his art into a square hole called "electronic music"-  that would be lazy and devalue what he does, potentially equating him to any common aspirational DJ with a MacBook Air and Bandcamp, like calling Nick Drake a "singer-songwriter" or Augustus Pablo a "reggae artist". It's an inadequate appellation.

Then again, Electronic Music is a Lernaean Hydra, a mythical beast that sprouts two heads for every one that is cut off. The branches and categories spawn subcategories and endless fractal iterations that are maddeningly OCD. Imagine if you walked into End Of An Ear Records and saw that they'd subdivided their electronic music bin into genres: 
Ambient dub Dark ambient Drone music Breakbeat Baltimore club Big beat Breakbeat hardcore Broken beat Florida breaks Nu-funk Miami bass Jersey club Nu skool breaks Disco Afro/Cosmic disco Disco polo Euro disco Italo disco Nu-disco Space disco Downtempo Acid jazz Chill-out Space music Trip hop Drum and bass Darkstep Drumstep Funkstep Hardstep Liquid funk Neurofunk Neurohop Sambass Techstep Dub Ambient dub Dancehall Dub poetry Dub reggae Dub techno Dubstep Dubtronica Electro music Freestyle music Electro swing Electroacoustic music Acousmatic music Musique concrète Electronic rock Alternative dance Indietronica Coldwave Dance-punk Dark wave Electroclash Electronicore Electropunk Ethereal wave Krautrock Minimal wave New rave Nu-gaze Space rock Synthpop Synthwave Electronica Berlin School Dubtronica Folktronica Funktronica
Laptronica Livetronica Ethnic electronica Al Jeel Arabic pop music Asian underground Bhangra Bhangragga C-pop J-pop K-pop Shibuya-kei South Asian disco Worldbeat Hardcore Gabber 4-beat Breakbeat hardcore Bouncy techno Breakcore Digital hardcore Frenchcore Happy hardcore UK hardcore Mákina Speedcore Hardstyle Dubstyle Jumpstyle Lento violento Hi-NRG Eurobeat Eurodance Bubblegum dance Italo dance Hip hop music Alternative hip hop Electro Electro hip hop Hardcore hip hop Hip house Neo soul New jack swing Trap music Trip hop UK garage House music Acid house Ambient house Balearic beat Chicago house Deep house Future house Tropical house Diva house Electro house Big room house Complextro Fidget house Dutch house Moombahton Moombahcore French house Funky house Garage house Ghetto house Ghettotech Hardbag Hard house Hard dance Hard NRG Hip house Italo house Jazz house Kwaito Latin house Microhouse/Minimal house New beat Outsider house Progressive house Rara tech Tech house Tribal house Trival Witch house Industrial music Aggrotech Electro-industrial Dark electro Electronic Body Music Futurepop Industrial metal Industrial rock Japanoise Neue Deutsche Härte Power electronics Death industrial Power noise IDM Glitch Glitch Hop Wonky Oldschool jungle Darkcore Ragga jungle Raggacore Post-disco Boogie Electropop Chillwave Dance-pop Dance-rock Techno Acid techno Detroit techno Dub techno Hardtek/Free tekno Minimal techno Nortec Tecno brega Techdombe Trance music Acid trance Balearic trance Dream trance Hard trance Nitzhonot Psychedelic trance Full on Suomisaundi Goa trance Progressive trance Tech trance Uplifting trance Vocal trance Trap Drill Future bass UK garage 2-step garage Dubstep Brostep Drumstep Chillstep Reggaestep Breakstep Future garage Grime Grindie Speed garage Bassline UK funky Vaporwave Vaportrap Future Funk Music Video game music Chiptune Bitpop Game Boy music Skweee Nintendocore ...
But I digress. For the sake of simplicity let's skip the categorization, but note that Felix is an electronic musician with a heart. He's an alchemist mixing seemingly mundane samples of found audio, primitive tribal music, delta-blues riffs, radio jingles, street preachers, snippets of obscure and genius movies like Blue Sunshine or Night of the Hunter and pairing them with both acoustic and digital tapestries. It's organic, soulful, provocative .... any fan of Brain Fruit, Pram, Tunng, Porn Sword Tobacco, Cliff Martinez, The Books, Four Tet or Plone would feel right at home. 

"Reprisal" collage by Felix Laband
His music, typically devoid of vocals presents an escape route from the grinding banality of meaning. The passionate lyrics of wordsmiths like Stephin Merritt or Elbow can elevate the spirit - but there's much to be said for a reprieve from lyrics when the music itself is fantastic. It's why traveling in countries where we don't speak the language affords the opportunity to imagine that the conversations we hear or the background pop music is nuanced and thoughtful, or at least don't plague us with their vapid nothingness. It's an oasis where we forge our own meaning, and this is the space that exists within Felix's creations.

Hailing from Johannesburg South Africa, Felix hasn't exactly become a household name here in the States. His obscurity made legitimate purchases of his music difficult, so like any rabid fan I resorted in the early 00's to *cough*piracy*cough* and felt the pain of having shorted an artist that has contributed so much to our well being. But now more than a decade later thanks to Discogs, Ebay and Amazon it's easier than ever to patronize the artists we love. And so we did, with the largest music related purchase we've ever made. 

Turns out Felix is a great collage artist. His Instagram feed has been a source of insight: shots of indigenous African tribesmen, moments of whimsy with his girlfriend Kerry, hanging out with dad, parties, EDM festivals and many intriguing cut-up collages. Collages that suggest a cultural heritage that's hard to parse, sometimes painful, often with a dark humor. The more one looks at his scissored and glued collages the more one can see the forces that cut, paste and bind his music together as if the art was an extension of the sounds. 

We've admired the collages from afar and were smitten when we first saw "Reprisal" pop up in his Instagram feed. It elicited from us a palpable emotional response on par with Felix's music. There's a power to the poverty of the bleak, dark figure with the bucket, his head bisected by a broad kanji-esque brush stroke and a splatter of paint that could suggest bloodshed. We can infer that South Africa's brutal history of apartheid might factor into this tableau. It's a desperate scene that challenges us to derive meaning, to look for a ray of hope to break the code of the random letters peppered above and below. 

The image on Instagram was hashtagged by the Kalashnikovv Gallery and after a couple queries on email and Facebook we were able to ascertain that this piece was both on exhibition and was also (happily) for sale. It wasn't cheap, even the cost of the wire transfer alone was $50. We flipped a coin then did a best two out of three and decided to forge ahead with the purchase.

It took over a month, but the axiom about good things and waiting proved to be true: it arrived unharmed in a well crafted 2x4 and plywood bomb-proof box with a certificate of authenticity. The frame is a minimal and sturdy shadowbox with glass protecting the art. It will be a cherished addition to our lives. Anyone so inclined, please stop by and admire it.

Here's the breakdown for those considering buying art from another continent. Your miles may vary, but these were our shipping costs (in South African Rand):

450R Packing & Crating
300R Collection from Braamfontein
700R Export Documentation
2990R DHL Courier Service
4440.00R Total
($345 not including the cost of the art itself or the $50 wire money xfer fee)

Thanks Felix for making the rough and unforgiving process known colloquially as "being alive" quantitatively better. If we could do the same for John Kennedy Toole for having written A Confederacy of Dunces or for Brian Hutton directing Kelly's Heroes we would, but they're dead so you're it. We hope that repatriating your art is adequate compensation.

Lastly, in direct contradiction to the opening assertions about the beauty of instrumental vs. vocal music, would you consider collaborating with either Stephin Merritt or José González? Maybe you could do an electronica revision of Rodriguez' Cold Fact?


PS: We made a video of the unboxing of Felix Laband's art. The part where the face-hugging alien popped out of his chest was really fun. Here it is:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Insane Honda Insight K20 Swap is FOR SALE

My Stock 2000 Honda Insight

For years I've been the proud owner of a stock 2000 Insight that while amazingly thrifty has never provided much joy in the going-fast department. Averaging 70mpg on cross country jaunts has been fantastic but the only times the car ever truly brought me joy was at the gas pump. After a lifetime of owning various RX7's, Civic Si's, Datsun 240z's and Preludes this new paradigm of going slow was not fitting me well.

Then I discovered LHT Performance in St. Petersburg had made waves in the Honda community by swapping the K20a engine from a 220hp Acura RSX R with its 6 speed transmission and limited slip differential into the tiny Insight making the sleepiest sleeper I'd ever seen. And I really wanted one ... but ...  I'd need $21,000 and a different car for the K20 engine swap. My Insight is a rare one of 400 1st year model in 'Citron' green so to do this swap I'd need another Insight and an additional twenty one thousand dollars. Notably, I had neither.

Time passed.

Three years ago I discovered a K20 Honda Insight auction on Ebay in Connecticut that was less than 24 hours from ending. Keep in mind that I'd been looking for years. The price was manageable, less than a LHT production without the cost of a donor. With a blizzard barreling towards Connecticut and with little time to prepare I had to skip a pre-purchase inspection and just bid on it, hope I'd win and then fly there. Luckily I was not outbid thanks to the poorly worded auction title: "Honda Insight Custom Modified" with no mention of the K20. I bought a flight on Southwest and was there a day later.

Specifications from the auction:
Bullet points for short attention spans: 
* 2000 Honda Insight - all aluminum chassis & body - modified
* Hybrid power train replaced with Honda Acura RSX-R K20 2.0 liter VTEC - 200+ HP
* Injector Dynamics 725 injection
* AEM fuel rail/regulator
* Hondata KPRO ECU
* New light flywheel
* Stage 2 clutch
* Skunk2 exhaust manifold / all stainless steel exhaust
* Completed car with 1/2 tank fuel = 1640 pounds
* 6 speed manual K20 type R trans
* Limited slip with helical gears
* Custom RSX axles and Innovative engine mounts
* lightweight alloy wheels / performance tires
* Uprated brakes (front), sway bars, suspension, shocks, 
* Gauge cluster replaced with S2000 unit
* Fully functional air conditioning
Cost to build & tune $ 24.8K. Plus 3K recent new ECU & tuning = $27.7K

The seller was an agent for the owner so he knew few specifics about the Insight. I would have to go on instinct as in-depth questions were not an option. I did find a shop to run a compression check and there was no deviation from cylinder to cylinder and they found no glaring faults or signs of previous accident damages so I felt confident enough to pay and hit the road: 1800 miles back to Austin with a blizzard just beginning to hit. I stopped by a transmission shop to double check that the transmission was fully topped off with oil as the whir of the helical cut gears was slightly audible - but the engine is perched on urethane mounts that transmit noises I'm not used to hearing in my stock Insight. Everything checked out fine and my trip was pleasant. Sixth gear cruising on the interstate is sedate and little engine noise intrudes into the cabin. Passes need no downshift, a very odd sensation after years with a stock Insight.

Reprogramming myself to drive a close ratio 6-speed was not easy. My muscle memory is mapped to five gears and I have to be very deliberate in shifting, even making a mental note 'I'm in 4th gear' etc. The shifter is a short throw, but adjustable. It feels like shifting a toggle switch. Unnerving also is the clutch - which is now perhaps three or four times harder than the fly-weight stock Insight.

Since then we've moved to Tampa FL. We're now 20 minutes from LHT Performance, the masterminds behind the original K20 Insight swap. LHT have done work on the car since our arrival, swapping in a new AC compressor and some other minor updates like moving the battery to the hatch area and diagnosing/fixing an engine grounding issue. John, the Australian madman behind their automotive mayhem is an affable, down to earth guy who's an engineering whiz. George, his right-hand man is a fantastic enabler.

As you might imagine, driving this car is like driving a cannonball. When the Vtec activates all kinds of pandemonium occurs, the otherwise tractable and quiet car screams like a superbike and the steering, thanks to the limited slip differential generally goes where it's pointed while the tires attempt to transfer torque to pavement. Recently we encountered a BMW Z4-M in traffic being driven by a jackass, swerving from lane to lane on one of Tampa's wide boulevards by the airport. He made some poor lane choices and caught the last red light before a long straightaway with no side streets, with us behind him. He was an older middle aged guy with a much younger woman he was trying to impress. I knew he'd gun it on the green - unaware of the menace behind him.

Honda's black magic.The loud snarl of the K20 had him quickly checking his mirrors in disbelief. We hit 120 mph with no change in distance from where we'd sat at the light - he was shifting past his redline with puffs of smoke between his shifts, then back on the brakes for the next light where he made an impromptu right turn rather than have another embarrassing moment at the hands of a hybrid economy car.  I don't make a habit of this, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

I've owned the car for a few years now and hardly driven it. There was a big move, a change of priorities and a lot of life in that time span that prevented me from enjoying it. Combine that with my stock Insight daily driver, a Subaru Legacy wagon and my TR6 and you might understand that I don't really need it. I don't have the temperament to drive such an insane car. I despise and loathe attention from the police and my driving record has been spotless for over eight years now - and I aim to keep it that way. But not if I continue driving this absurd rocket-pod. My knees are knocking together literally every time I get out of it. If you want what's essentially a snarling superbike on four wheels, it's for you.

As stated, LHT Performance will charge you $21,000 - PLUS whatever you paid for the Insight that you want converted to K20 power. I'm selling mine for $12,500 total or less if you have an interesting trade on a classic Datsun 240/260/280z. It has larger Integra front rotors and red 15" alloy wheels that currently wear 195/60 all season tires that are a good winter compound but which I'd upgrade to a summer track tire if I were keeping it. It's fairly quiet until the v-tech sings the song of its people whereupon all hell breaks loose. Hold on tight to the steering wheel. The stereo is the stock Honda cassette unit with a factory cd changer in the hatch. No smoke, no oil consumption, no odd noises.

Caveats are slightly odd silver paint on the hood's front that most people don't notice, an electrical slow drain that I've never taken the time to track down but which would be a non-problem if it was daily driven.  The auction stated mileage as 55,000 but that was the what the S2000 gauge cluster indicated. The seller said it was more but it's not evident to my eyes. The car is close to flawless and ding free. The mileage of the engine is unknown as it was a Japanese market engine shipped over on a pallet. The vast majority of these engine pulls are from low mile JDM cars for various weird Japanese regulatory reasons. Bad for them, good for us.

So that's it. I've had my fun. Now I want another Datsun 240z like the one I drove in college. It's your turn to lay down pain and agonizing defeat upon unsuspecting drivers in prestigious cars - and put the fear of god into the next douche who attempts to roll coal on the little hybrid car. Ask me how I know.

Here's the photos so far on Flickr in high resolution for you to poke with a stick. Enjoy!

You can reach me by clicking on my profile or by emailing dsanborn at gmail dot com. For anyone preferring to repost the Craigslist advert, here it is.

<It's now a few years later and ...>
I've had some time to think about this car and the lessons I derived from owning it. The primary takeaway is to avoid other people's projects unless you know them personally and their attention to detail. If you don't know them I'd suggest picking a car that has been in daily use for over a year, long enough for most of the bugs to be ironed out in the build. If you've flown across the United States as I did to check out this Insight, don't feel compelled to buy the car just because you blew $400 on a plane ticket there and don't want to blow another $400 on a ticket home. I was dismayed at what I found but I pressed on anyway and bought a car that was decidedly not fit for daily use and cost me many more thousands make mostly right.

Don't buy a car from a 3rd party. If you're not dealing with the owner, don't do it. For reasons not clearly explained, this Insight was sold by a friend of the owner which is a nice firewall for avoiding personal responsibility. Questions that I really needed answers to about the build couldn't be answered.

An addendum on the video posted below: I originally videoed myself making acceleration runs up to 70mph, then realized when I was posting the video that I was clearly passing road signs showing (ahem) somewhat lower speed limits than I was traveling at. As I don't normally drive like Aryton Senna, it hadn't occurred to me that I was about to post self-incriminating evidence. As I know a horrible cop who'd love to see me arrested and buggered in the state pen I felt compelled to delete the fun stuff in the video. I've since paid more attention to how guys like Hoovie's Garage, WatchJRgo and others find nondescript back roads to break laws on, but I wasn't in the mood to reshoot my footage so I posted some much less interesting moments.

For the yahoo dissing my shifts, I've always been concerned about crunching the syncros and like to give them time to spin up. Second gear on this Insight's RSX transmission was always a bit slow and I didn't want to induce syncro failure, thus my slow shifting. Yeah, I know you guys with tribal tattoos like to hammer your transmissions & throw them away like a used tissue, but that's not me. 

My Insight was also the focus of a Jalopnik "Nice Price Or Crackpipe" story that I won't bother linking to. I'm a Jalop regular, posting under the sobriquet Piston Slap Yo Mama in case you find the article you can enjoy the astonishing tsunami of comment trolls who weighed in from their parent's basements on how worthless a K20s Insight swap is and how they could build one for less than $5000 (nearly impossible even if all the labor was your own) and so on and so forth.  While I didn't build this car, I had a hand in diagnosing and repairing quite a few of the former builder's fuck-ups and know what it takes to do something right. I too remember being clueless and full of unearned self confidence, but back then thankfully there didn't exist a way for me to torture others with my ignorance.

So what does a person replace a brutally fast K20a swapped Insight with? A Fiat Abarth 500. Trust me, go test drive one. Ours has a Fiat Madness ECM good for nearly 200hp and unlike the Insight it's engineered to cruise comfortably at 100mph all day long if you're visiting Montana or just enjoy speeding tickets. It's nearly as small yet somehow provides honest space for four people and is a very competent handling sports car. Buy one and enjoy what's is destined to become a future collectible if you keep it long enough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Kraftwerk's Timeline Circa 1998

Spin Magazine published a beautifully illustrated story on Kraftwerk in 1998 pulling excepts from a seminal Lester Bangs book on the band with additional and fantastic timeline art. However as this was before the internet was a household fixture the article has fallen through the cracks and has gone unappreciated in the online world of the 20XX's. That's a shame as Florian Ribisch's excellent Kraftwerk illustration is a stunning work of art and deserves accolades. Depicting our beloved electro-boffins as gas station attendants perfectly reflects the aesthetics of any Kraftwerk album cover: the rectilinear building, a pastoral landscape, the ideal representation of a petrol station, the uniforms - all very teutonic and humorous as this is a band you'll never see pumping gas or being mundane.

I stumbled upon this illustration doing a Google Book search and realized that it doesn't appear anywhere else on the internet. While the scan of the article was good enough for reading, it left a lot to be desired for anyone curious about the finer details of the art and also the timeline of the band's history was grainy and lo-res. I wanted to make a large canvas of this image so I eBay'ed a copy of Spin's August '98 issue and scanned it. The one I got was in perfect condition, 18 years of existence had not yellowed the paper and it was without folds or creases. I cut the pages out with a razor and scanned them at 600dpi and used Microsoft ICE to paste the multiple scans of each page together as they were too large to fit on my scanner, then color corrected and fixed the imperfections from the printing process.

Here it is for your enjoyment. I'm posting the scans at the lower resolution of 2000 pixels tall but if anyone desires the TIFFs at a much higher resolution sufficient to reveal the offset dots from the gravure drop me a line or comment below.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Florida Man Changes Name To Kraftwerk

Choose one: a soul crushing morning at the DMV waiting to renew your driver’s license amid a sea of crying infants or a visit to the ham-fisted death dentist your insurance plan forced on you? Everyone rich or poor inevitably has to do these things, and unless you’re Charles Nelson Reilly there’s no preferential treatment.
As my fiancée Jennifer and I had just moved to Florida, we had to visit the grey bureaucrats at the DMV within 30 days or risk the ire of the state apparatus.

Kraftwerk is an organ donor.

My better half went first. Ordinarily you get an embarrassing, scowling photo you’re legally obligated to carry for the next decade like a tiny Scarlet Letter. I challenged her to make the most of it as others have done. After some cosplay preparation, she went as her polar opposite: a platinum blonde, ’50s-era starlet in a cocktail dress with ruby-red lipstick. She nailed it. Nobody who’s seen her remarkable license fails to comment. This also meant she’d thrown down the gauntlet and it was my turn; I had to bring my A game. Little did I know I was about to be a Florida Man meme.

Who doesn’t love a good Florida Man meme? Endless prose has been written in honor of his creative stupidity a magnitude beyond the ‘hold my beer and watch this’ standard. A quick check for recent examples yields “Florida Man Arrested for Uttering the Words ‘Erect Penis’ at School Board Meeting” and “Florida Man Caught Trying to Smuggle Dead Alligator in Car” shows it’s not a meme in decline. A recent Florida transplant myself, I laugh it off when frenemies rag me about it — but society has always needed a group to lightheartedly defame, with French surrender monkey and Polack jokes as good examples.

Kraftwerk gets meta.

Despite this, it came as a complete surprise to see my face splashed across hallowed journalistic institutions under the headline “Florida Man Changes Name To Kraftwerk”. Reality set in while sitting with my morning cuppa joe, wiping sleep from my eyes while noting an absurd number of Faceballs Facebook notifications: I’d somehow become a Florida Man too.

Kraftwerk fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n a truck.

Here’s a sampling: legendary British music journal New Musical Express. The EDM friendly MixMag. Orlando’s own Weekly. Canada’s Exclaim. Something in regards to Magnetism. The best beats are usually Electronic Beats. Stoney and His Beats. Our favorite city where women stand under red lights and beckon you into questionable situations, Amsterdam. Deutschland’s Shortnews

I’ve been a Kraftwerk super-fan since childhood. In the 70s, they beamed down from planet Germany and served up an electronic music genre not heard before. Kraftwerk were perhaps the least German musical group ever (despite the Sprockets cliche of “und now ve dance”) and shunned at home by their lederhosen-attired German comrades with a strong bias for schlager, oompah tuba music and David Hasselhoff. Despite this, Kraftwerk arguably became more influential than The Beatles and were associated with driving on the Autobahn.

They’re also a legendarily secretive band, a musical Thomas Pynchon that never grants interviews, doesn’t sign autographs backstage, doesn’t let the world know they’re mortals who put their pants on one leg at a time. It’s maddening. They want us to think they’d been plucked from the wreckage of a UFO and I’m not buying it. I wanted the world to see their mundane side — and there’s no place on planet Earth more mundane than the DMV.

I hatched a plan.

The woman at the DMV was remarkably accommodating for my license photo, ensuring the red shirt and tie would fully appear. I’d jettisoned my beard that morning, a companion of the past few years that had to go. Jennifer applied masking tape around my face and shot black hair dye onto my salt and pepper hair, a bit of pale makeup base and a touch of rouge on the lips. I was a good facsimile of The Man-Machine. Only a few people at the DMV openly stared. I bid them auf wiedersehen.

Kraftwerk fahr'n a Subaru.

Kraftwerk spent the rest of the day in Tampa being mundane and human, shopping at Microgroove Records, eating lunch, making an unpublished homage to Frank Zappa, driving a truck, gassing a Subaru and feeding ducks before a solid eight hours of rest. I scanned and edited the license to obscure or confuse all identifying information and replaced my own real name with “KRAFTWERK” and uploaded everything to Flickr. The general reaction from my friends (most of whom are happy to listen to the radio) was that I was a “dork.” I promptly forgot about it. But the internet never forgets and loves to remix. I should not have been surprised that agent provocateurs would run with the name change angle. For the record, I didn’t change my name. I’m still the same smooth jazz, Tampa-based David Sanborn I’ve always been.

These ducks are very teutonic.

I’ll pass the DMV soul-sucking challenge along to you: make your photos noteworthy, live a little. You’re going to be stuck with it for a long, long time. Faith No More can explain the moral (if any) to this story with their evergreen I Started a Joke.

Also, if you’re dumb enough to ride motorcycles, you should consider being an organ donor, too.

Kraftwerk dreams of electric sheep.