LIKE THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and Big Star, Kraftwerk's influence on modern music is now so vast that it's easy to take them for granted. The German electronic band's warm yet mechanized sound has leached into the work of artists as disparate as hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, whose "Planet Rock" is built from samples of "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers," and your mom's favorite alt-rockers Coldplay, who copied a melody from "Computer Love" for their 2005 hit "Talk."
Of course, the many electronic artists of the last 40 years owe the largest debt to Kraftwerk. It was founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider who provided the roadmap to the autobahn that musicians such as Ryan Hemsworth and Aphex Twin are now comfortably cruising along.
With the glut of electronic musicians in our city, it makes sense that Kraftwerk's performance at the Keller Auditorium this Saturday has been one of the most talked-about shows in town since it was announced earlier this year—even though the group hasn't released any new music since 2003 and features only one original member (Hütter). It seemed a perfect time to talk to some local synth wizards to get a sense of how the architects of electronic classics like "The Robots" and "Pocket Calculator" have impacted their work. Here are their condensed and edited responses.
Jason Urick (musician, DJ, host of Galaxy My Dear on XRAY.fm):
When I was younger, I used to watch 120 Minutes every Sunday night and hit record on any video that I found interesting. That's how I saw the video for "Pocket Calculator." The following weekend, I used my allowance to get a cassette copy of The Mix and wore it to death. I was mostly into punk and indie rock stuff at the time, but had this one weird electronic tape. Reading up on Kraftwerk later and learning the innovations that they took to create the music they did—building the synths and creating the drum machine triggers—opened the doorway for me. I think they did that for an infinite number of people.
I got really into techno soon thereafter. Techno would never have happened without Kraftwerk. Electronic music owes so much to them.
Jason Schwab (musician and owner of Lifelike Family label):
I stumbled onto Kraftwerk through my high school German teacher. She used their early records to teach tenses and conversational sentence structure. As a straight-up guitar rock devotee back then, I was way more fascinated by their compositional structures, which mirrored what I was used to, but using instruments and tones completely new to me. Even years after their creation, those sounds of the pre-MIDI records like Computer World still sounded alien outside of toys and answering machines, and started me on a path that continues today. Finding the purity in raw waveforms, the repurposing of everyday household noisemakers, and Kraftwerk's unapologetic refusal to conform to popular electronic music formulas have been lasting inspirations to me.
We're now multiple generations deep in the evolution of electronic music, and even as trendsetters continue to cop Kraftwerk's vibe left and right, you can still pick out anything from their catalog when you hear it sampled. It's near impossible to imagine the analog gear resurgence having the impact it has had without so many clear nods to Kraftwerk.
Jeph Nor (musician, curator of monthly Volt Divers Night):
The person I was dating at the time had Kraftwerk among her collection of tapes, and commented that they were "really stupid. They just make one sound and build a song out of it." I borrowed the tape and was instantly fascinated by their sound and how something so minimal could be so infectious. My girlfriend later asked if I knew where her tape went, and I replied that I had absolutely no clue.
Kraftwerk introduced synthesizers as instruments in their own right, not only as tools for producing sci-fi sounds or emulating other instruments, but as being capable of generating new sounds that were equally as compelling as acoustic instruments in familiar rock song structures. They introduced the idea that a sort of minimalistic, understated expression can be very powerful in communicating emotion. Many artists in rock, new wave, and industrial went on to explore this concept. Some of Kraftwerk's songs are borderline whimsical, but usually convey an optimistic attitude toward furthering technology and exploration, which is more important to humanity now than ever.