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Kraftwerk: Back to yesterday’s future, once more with (robotic) feeling

Austin’s “live music capital” self-tagging gets a bit more legit Friday night: Kraftwerk is coming to town, for the first time in (we think) 40 years.

What, you might ask, is the big deal? For starters, simply calling the German combo “pioneers of electronic dance music” is a serious understatement: their fusion of early synthesizers with robotic beats and vocals became a key foundation stone of house, techno, 1980s synthpop, and club music in general. They’ve been sampled by countless artists across multiple genres and cultures, and their visuals and general man-machine aesthetic inspired everyone from Bowie to Daft Punk. Also, aside from doing away with conventional instruments altogether, the band’s public framing of their individual musicians as anonymous workers not only served their creative vision, it effectively thumbed a nose at bloated rock-star ego trips even before punk did (in a very different way). In terms of influence on pop music, their only serious competition is the Beatles.

Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s cofounder and last remaining original member, will lead the current lineup of himself, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen – and their doppelganger robots – through two multimedia greatest-hits 3-D concerts, disposable glasses and all, at Bass Concert Hall. Austin is one of only 12 stops on this fall’s North American tour. Hütter doesn’t give interviews often; over the phone he was congenial enough if sounding, true to his reputation, a bit like an enigmatic museum curator. Kraftwerk arose out of the art-gallery and university circles of Düsseldorf in the late ‘60s, and even today Hütter feels the band belongs more to that world than to the rock circuit.

Even Hütter doesn’t remember whether Kraftwerk has ever played Austin before, although there are some online references to a concert at Armadillo World Headquarters in 1975 when they first toured the US behind their breakthough album, “Autobahn.” “I’m quite sure we played Houston,” he says. “Austin, I’m not really sure, but I cannot say the contrary. But Austin is more the university city, I think.”

Hütter is flattered by all the latter-day accolades Kraftwerk gets as the founding fathers of EDM. “For us that’s a great feedback of energy coming from artists, musicians around the world, especially from different fields of music or within different cultural or sociological contexts,” he says, “because here in Düsseldorf, Germany, you cannot predict that one day you’ll be understood in Tokyo or in Sydney, Australia. So it’s many surprises, but things happen in art and music and you have to be awake.”

I’m far from the first observer to point out that we’re now living in the future Kraftwerk were singing about 30-plus years ago, with their odes to robots, pocket calculators and personal computers (their concept album “Computer World” came out way back in 1981). Technology, of course, pervades much of how we live now. How does Hütter feel about this: prophetic, vindicated, horrified?

“It was a day-to-day reality, working with electronics in our Kling Klang Studio, so for us it was a reality (then), and now it’s a reality for everybody out there on the planet.”

So, is that a good or a bad thing?

“Well, it’s not an evaluation — it’s real and we have to deal with it, and create art with technology. That was the main idea for Kraftwerk in the beginning, to create music and art. We installed our Kling Klang Studio with my partner Florian Schneider in 1970, and we created music from zero, from silence, with tapes and little music machines. As students we didn’t have access to any big institutions or big factories, so we built some homemade equipment and some home studios with friends and engineers, and we made musical paintings and small films; now with computers we have 3-D animation, so we work in all these fields.” (Schneider left the band in 2008; Hütter says he retired because he disliked touring.)

Asked about plans for new recordings — it’s been 12 years since their last studio album — Hütter simply says, “Yes, we are always working on tracks and things like that.” He adds that later this year Kraftwerk will release a 3-D Blu-ray live concert package, encompassing their entire eight-disc back catalog.

Decades ago, Hütter was quoted as saying he saw the band’s members more as scientists than musicians. Does he still feel that way?

“A combination of, really,” he says. “We never liked the different categories, like a musician is living (like a) recluse and practicing his instrument. When we were children I always hated that, just practicing music and thus and so; we were so much interested in different forms of everyday life, of art, of films, of literature, writing words, and like in the late ‘60s when the boundaries between different art forms were falling apart, so that opened for us the theme, too. We created our own words and combinations, creating a musical language (and) visuals, and that makes it so interesting rather than being a specialist in just one little category. That’s multimedia art.”

Apparently, even a vintage future is still relevant. Kraftwerk’s robots may be indestructible, but how long does Hütter envision the band can keep going?

“The master plan is until I fall off the stage,” he says, and laughs.

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