Home Music Music Features

How Kraftwerk’s Synth Wizard Florian Schneider Rewired the World

“It’s all electric energy, anyway,” Schneider said, summing up a sonic philosophy that upended the Seventies rock ideal, and influenced everyone from Depeche Mode to Derrick May

"We don’t make a distinction between an acoustic instrument as a source of sound and any sound in the air outside or on a manufactured tape," Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider (left) once said.

Caroline Coon/Camera Press/Redux

Farewell to the great Florian Schneider, co-founder of Kraftwerk, the German electronic duo who changed everything about the way music sounds. “Kraftwerk is not a band,” Schneider told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It’s a concept. We call it ‘Die Menschmaschine,’ which means ‘the human machine.’ We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. And Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas.” As his longtime collaborator Ralf Hütter once said, Schneider was the “sound fetishist” of the group — the machine in the mensch-machine.

Kraftwerk always reveled in their reputation as cerebral technocrats. When Creem’s Lester Bangs complained that their music was anti-emotional, Schneider replied, “‘Emotion’ is a strange word.” In a way, it’s fitting that when the group announced the sad news today about Schneider’s death at 73, it was also revealed that he passed away a month ago and was buried in private — a very Kraftwerk way to do it.

But there’s an elegiac melancholy deep in their music, especially their three greatest albums: the Seventies trilogy of Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, and The Man-Machine. Anyone can hear the all-too-human ache in “Antenna,” “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” “The Hall of Mirrors,” “Europe Endless,” or “Neon Lights.” There’s also exhilaration, which is why they had a massive impact on all subsequent dance music. Seeing Kraftwerk live on the great 2005 tour (their last with Schneider), with the robots twitching onstage, was a weirdly joyous crowd experience.

Kraftwerk pioneered the idea of a synthesizer group that didn’t pretend to be anything else, challenging the boundaries between organic and artificial sounds. As Schneider said in Rolling Stone, “We don’t make a distinction between an acoustic instrument as a source of sound and any sound in the air outside or on a manufactured tape. It’s all electric energy, anyway.” They had the air of artists born into a history they rejected, building a musical world where they could be permanent aliens. They mocked the Seventies rock ideal of youth as a utopia — they were still in their twenties when they posed as Old Hollywood mad scientists on Trans-Europe Express, one of the decade’s most brilliant album covers.

Born in 1947, Schneider grew up in Dusseldorf, the son of an architect who specialized in airports and parking garages. He met Hütter in 1968 while studying flute; they founded their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf and became fascinated by the possibilities of synthesizers. They started in the German art-rock scene — home of groove monsters like Amon Duul II and Can and Neu!, and orchestrators like Tangerine Dream and Cluster. They took inspiration from composers like Terry Riley and Stockhausen, as well as the industrial ambience of the city. “Our studio is in the middle of an oil refinery,” Schneider told Rolling Stone. “There’s smoke and fire around it and when you emerge from the studio you hear this hissing sound all around you.” (The interviewer notes that he said this with “his eyes lighting up,” which is admittedly tough to imagine.)

Kraftwerk’s breakthrough was the 1974 “Autobahn,” a 22-minute Brian Wilson–inspired electro-trance ode to the German motorway. It made them unlikely rock stars in the U.S. Live, they treated the stage like a mobile studio. Schneider was key to their eccentric visual image — with his sculpted forehead and eyelashes, he evoked Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, matching the group’s severe black suits, slicked hair, and more-human-than-human grins. He’s the one you picture when you picture Kraftwerk — strange as that distinction might seem.

Kraftwerk didn’t really fit anywhere in rock music or its audience — that’s why the music has that sense of never settling into a home. As Hütter told Mojo in 2009, “After the war, when we were born, we are a type of zero generation. We had this old culture, the German classical music background, and then of course from radio the rock & roll, American contemporary music … but we had to make our own. And at first it was a shock.”

Like many American kids, I first heard Kraftwerk via Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” when it started blasting out of boomboxes on Eighties subway trains. (It was years before I had any idea the hook came from a German synth duo.) Their influence dominated the Eighties: hip-hop DJs searching for the perfect beat, New Romantic synth geeks like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran (their side project, the Power Station, was a literal translation of “Kraftwerk”), punk cranks like Big Black, Detroit techno pioneers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May.

David Bowie was just one of many people whose musical ideas got blown sky-high by hearing Kraftwerk. He played Radio-Activity over the speakers on his 1976 Station to Station tour. He began Side Two of “Heroes” with the excellent tribute “V-2 Schneider,” a cheeky reference to the Wernher Von Braun rockets that devastated the London that Bowie was born into. In a tip of the cap to Schneider’s past as a woodwinds man, Bowie chose “V-2 Schneider” to honk away on his beloved saxophone.

Trans-Europe Express is their most famous album — a futuristic metal-on-metal train ride, with Bowie and Iggy Pop on board. Yet some of us love Radio-Activity even more. If Trans-Europe Express was their electro Revolver, Radio-Activity was their Rubber Soul: a year earlier, not as flashy or experimental, clumsy at times, but better anyway. It’s a cozy bath of transistor static, humming like a Walkman radio hidden under the blankets when the batteries die, the reverie of a reclusive shut-in child trying to tune in the outside world. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy described it beautifully in Mojo:Radio-Activity is the record I would listen to, and still do, when I want to feel alone. It’s the warmest and, to my thinking, saddest of all the Kraftwerk records, though this could be attributed almost solely to the song ‘Radioland,’ which is the most aching thing I’ve ever heard on record.”

Schneider left in 2008, five years after the studio finale, Tour de France Soundtracks. Hutter has carried on Kraftwerk ever since; a 50th anniversary 3-D tour was booked for 2020. “He works on other projects, more scientific,” Hutter said of his ex-bandmate in 2009. Schneider surprised fans with a 2015 comeback single, “Stop Plastic Pollution,” a climate-change protest with Telex’s Dan Lacksman, made by looping the sound of water dripping in a Brussels bathroom. For the song’s premiere, he wore a suit of recycled plastic.

In a strange way, one of the most eloquent tributes to Schneider’s legacy is a comment made last fall by the mastermind behind BTS, Bang Si-hyuk of Big Hit Entertainment. Addressing the tired stereotype of K-pop as a manufactured product, he sounded a bit like Kraftwerk in the Seventies. “I believe in the West there is this deeply embedded fantasy of the rock star — a rock star acts true to their soul and everyone must accept it as part of their individuality, and only through that does good music come,” he said. “But in reality, devoting a long time to honing and training music-related skills is a tactic used in many professional art worlds. Ballerinas spend a long time in isolation focused only on ballet, but you don’t hear people say ballet lacks soul or isn’t art.”

These concepts could be shocking to American pop fans in 2020 — just as they might have been in the 1970s. But all over the pop map, Kraftwerk’s working methods were as influential as their music. And with Kraftwerk, Schneider helped teach the world to hear the beauty of the machine.