In discussion with Lerosa on “Electric Café” by Kraftwerk (1986).
There was „Computer World“, then the „Tour de France“ single, then a silence of several years. I was impatiently waiting for their next move, and it kept getting renamed and postponed. Then the first thing I heard at last was „Boing Boom Tschak“. I thought that was pure genius. I suppose you were already a fan before, too. How did you experience that comeback and what did you think of it?
My first encounter with Kraftwerk was when I was 14, the video for „”Musique Non Stop”“ premiered on MTV Italy, with its groundbreaking CGI it was unique at the time. The only similar music I might have had come across then was probably Art Of Noise’s „Close To The Edit“ and Herbie Hancock’s „Rock It“. I didn’t have access to a lot of music as I had no older clued-in sibling nor were my parents into music, perhaps bar my mom who loves her Charles Aznavour and Lucio Dalla, so to be honest I had no idea who these guys were but I was blown away. To me this was new music from a new band! Sometime later I made friends with a guy from Bolzano who told me to check out the „Breakdance“ movie to see Turbo do a routine to „Tour De France“, a freaky song with electric pulses that sounded like a bike chain. After a few months of looking for it I watched the movie, and heard that, too. A year later on holiday in Rimini I shoplifted „Autobahn“ and „Radio Activity“ and I loved both but also not understood them very well as they packed a lot of references to more experimental music I wasn’t quite well versed as a 16 year old. It wasn’t until much, much later that I finally heard „Computer World“. I don’t think I have heard the first two albums yet. I think for a lot of kids back then “Musique Non Stop” was their first meeting with Kraftwerk. Like a lot of people I was a bit disappointed with „Electric Café“ at first. I thought the A-Side was a wonderful statement, but the B-Side lacked the same consequence. I liked the sounds, but I was not that impressed with the tunes. But it has grown on me immensely, starting only shortly after.
Is this album perfectly flawed, a good example for an album that does not lose its impact due to shortcomings?
I think after getting the 12“ for “Musique Non Stop” and eventually finding the LP I too might have been not very enamoured with B-side with its cringey songs (in English, that’s the version I had). It was too much like the music on Italian commercial day time radio and I was being drawn to these new sounds, Hip Hop and early House, that were starting to seep in through the late night radio stations and occasional afternoon clubs we had in Italy for 14 to 17 year olds. I wanted to hear this new Rap music and these new weird electronic House beats, I had no time for the „Telephone Call“ etc. Nevertheless I was charmed by them as the melodies and arrangement were very catchy.I am not sure if I ever thought of it as flawed; it felt like a cohesive whole, just one where I failed to connect the dots, which is how I normally felt whenever I heard something new that really alienated me, say Peter Gabriel „IV“. I just always thought I didn’t know enough to understand it rather than thinking, „oh this is a bit shit“. I think it is insecurity that made me look at it with respect rather than try to judge it as an album. I don’t think I owned many albums back then at all.Whichever way it is, the B-side songs eventually have become the ones I play most often, especially „Telephone Call“, which I love very much. And likewise I love a lot strange pop albums like Peter Gabriel’s „IV“, or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s debut album or indeed „Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise“.
Ralf Hütter had a severe cycling accident that slowed the work on „Electric Café“ down considerably. Do you think the flaws of the album are there because they rushed proceedings to not lose more momentum?
Who knows. I’d like to think that this was delivered the way it is quite intentionally to showcase the connection between the new sounds and beats of the A-side and the more traditional songs on the B-side, all held together by the electronic sounds. I think I always looked at this record like that; as a sort bridge between the old and the new.
The working title of the album was „Techno Pop“, and they even renamed the album later on. But isn’t the B-Side more Techno Pop than the A-Side? Could’t they have made one album that was pop, and one that was pure rhythm?
Well, I am sure that back then I probably wished the same, I would have loved more of the A-side but in hindsight maybe that would have really made it too niche and austere an album to their ears, coming as they were from a mixed background of musicality and experimentation, I suppose they were trying to find a balance on one record rather than being too pragmatic and split it into two separate entities.
I once imagined that „Sex Object“ was actually a first glimpse of a whole other concept album that was neglected, just for the lack of a better explanation why it was included. Especially the lyrics seemed to clash with their usual man machine infatuation, they are very human. As are the lyrics of „The Telephone Call“. How human are Kraftwerk?
I think they are very human and that’s why they are so popular to this day. Their appeal goes way beyond the mere “electronic music” tag, it doesn’t rest on the laurels of introducing a lot of complex machinery to music. They articulated the new relationship between humans and the technological world with sounds that managed to be extremely human and extremely non-human. Quite the trick.
The four albums before „Electric Café“ were generally rated much higher, and it was often stressed that they were just more strict and coherent conceptually. „Electric Café“ almost felt as if one half was conceptually strict and coherent, and then they ditched all things conceptual altogether for the other half. I thought they were doing this on purpose, but it soon became obvious that they absolutely did not. But how could they have evolved if they had emancipated themselves from such conceptual obligations? And could it even be that they have not released new material after „Tour De France Soundtracks“ because they ran out of ideas for concepts as cohesive as their previous ones?
You might be onto something there as nothing they released after „Electric Café“ and the „Tour De France“ EP had any lasting effect for me. They seemed later to embrace this new Techno/Electro sounds they had helped generate, adopting the US feel as opposed to continue on their own trajectory which had made them unique. They could be something very interesting like Autechre instead of this arena touring machine. I can’t really speculate as to what made them go the way they went. It sounded like from the start they were an art project so eventually the project must have finished.
It is a claim often used that Kraftwerk ceased to be ahead of their time with the release of „Computer World“, but for example „The Telephone Call“ must have left some impression on the UK Bleep Techno pioneers that surfaced a few years later, and I think LFO really came to close to being a continuation in terms of progress. Did the album leave underestimated traces? Did it have an impact on what happened musically then and afterwards, or was it in fact adapting to what was already there?
I think it did a bit of both, they were adopting some of the sounds that were bubbling up from New York both in terms of Hip Hop and Post Punk Disco for the A-side, which they had already helped to shape with „Trans Europe Express“, and pushing it even further. There was very little sounding like they did at the time but I guess people like Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker were already appropriating the sound and technology Kraftwerk had pioneered. The B-side is more in line with what was already there for a few years maybe, pop songs with electronic instruments. Certainly they sprinkled a lot of ideas across the UK electronic spectrum and indeed on the cover of the first „Artificial Intelligence“ compilation on Warp Records there’s an „Autobahn reference“. If „Electric Café“ had as strong an influence as its predecessors had i s hard to tell. Perhaps as a reminder that the song structure, the vocals and the “pop” way of doing things was worth preserving and integrating into this new world of Techno and House music.
I saw them live in 2004 and 2015, and what really struck me was that „”Musique Non Stop”“ had aged incredibly well, not only in comparison to their own classic output but also compared to more current electronic music. Kraftwerk have been accused of only maintaining their past achievements, but is it even necessary to push things further on if so many artists are still occupied with what they originated?
I think it is absolutely essential to keep on pushing and evolving for any artist, even if it’s just constantly refining and updating one single idea. To remain rooted on a certain period or image just because other artists or audiences have some sort of expectation out of them is quite toxic, it leads to stagnation. I don’t think the move from art makers to gallery managers of their own work was a desirable one but perhaps once the original fire was gone they opted to just preserve the legacy as best as they could. I don’t think it was choice they relished to be honest.
Interviews with the original core Kraftwerk members are scarce, but Ralf Hütter in particular was always keen to stress that the individual members of Kraftwerk are less important than the total work of art. Why do you think they are criticized for that approach? They might happen in other contexts beyond traditional music reception, but isn’t that well deserved? And aren’t they a remarkably lively exhibit? Do others just envy their status?
I have to say I am not aware of the many critical discussions happening about Kraftwerk, mostly because I don’t read too much literature about music but I appreciate this idea of the band, performances, records, imagery and presentation as all being part of one single whole. It reaffirms their background as an art collective and I understand contemporary art is very concerned with presentation. I suppose people who have trouble in seeing them as anything other than “a band” might struggle with the “work of art” intention behind it.
You are a producer with diverse preferences. What lessons did you learn from Kraftwerk for what you do?
I think if I had to pick one element it would be their ability to ooze humanity amidst all the machinery; it being the use of vocals or the melodies or imagery. For all this talk about them being robots their records are never sterile or cold or inhuman. I think my shared preoccupation as a producer is to focus always on making sure that things never get to a point where you can’t tell there’s a person trying to express something about the human condition behind the noise.