"When you play electronic music, you have the control of the imagination of the people in the room, and it can get to an extent where it's almost physical." (Ralf Hütter, 1975)
"Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to." (Matthew Bourne, 2015)
First things first. It's to be pointed out that when award-winning pianist Matthew Bourne and composer Franck Vigroux agreed to revisit Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity LP for some live shows early last year, it was only initially that they considered staying faithful to the group's original recording. The Leaf label's press release for what's since become an album, Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited, reveals the idea was soon dismissed due to the unavailability of the (now-outmoded) synths and Moogs employed by the Dusseldorf four.
Released in the winter of 1975, Radio-Activity has been described as "a highly innovative science-fiction movie soundtrack about radio-activity and the activity of the radio" and, as with all of Kraftwerk's catalogue, it's a record that points to the future while encompassing the past. But away from the wires, delays, machinery, buttons and all the underlying themes like motorways, telephones, cycles, calculators and radios, Radio-Activity is more than anything a brilliant, forceful, sinister, intense, precise, crisp celebration of popular music.
A record that inspired a whole new wave of musicians, photographers and artists, it pressed all the right buttons for (radio) stars such as Brian Eno, David Bowie, Björk, O.M.D., The Orb, Frankie Knuckles, The Human League, Derrick May, Aphex Twin, Tuung, Gary Numan, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Iggy Pop, John Foxx's Ultravox, Moby and Heaven 17 to name just seventeen. Bowie even went as far as to air the album in full before taking to the stage during his 1976 Station to Station tour, taking things a stage further by recording three of the most defining (and kraut-inspired) albums of his career (Low, Heroes and Lodger).
Radioland's stunning reading of Radio-Activity is a two-man show. Three counting installation artist Antoine Schmitt whose live visuals have proved integral not only to the live end of this project, but the whole experience. Built on the blueprints of Kraftwerk's original, yet allowing space for stunning improvisation, the Leaf label's press release notes that it "weaves its own, highly individual mesh of electronics, including blizzards of analogue, antique futurist percussive patterns, rewired melodies, processed versions of sounds recently discovered in space by NASA..."
Located on a sofa in his home somewhere near Leeds, Matthew Bourne agreed to talk to Mark Youll about this ambitious project, rewinding back to the beginning of last year and a series of shows that led to the release of an inspired album...
Could you tell me when you first heard Kraftwerk's music?
Matthew Bourne: I'd heard the odd track that people had played to me, or stuff on the radio, but I'd never really heard any of their albums until last year. I called up Franck (Vigroux) and recommended we do some stuff together as we hadn't done anything as a duo for ages. So he picked me up and we drove to his house and he said 'look, we can both improvise, we don't need to rehearse that, we can just turn up at a gig and do it.' He suggested we cover the music of somebody else. He told me about this French band that did a live version of Dark Side of the Moon. They used cash registers, tape loops, the same synths and it looked incredible on stage. Franck asked me if I knew Radio-Activity and I hadn't really. I knew the tune but couldn't say I knew the album. He mentioned it was the album's 40th anniversary and said we could try and look at doing the same kind of thing. So we started to transcribe the record if you like, searching for the same sounds. With the equipment we had between us we got pretty close to replicating the same sounds. Some of the sounds we couldn't, like the Vako Orchestron (synth, of which there are only 75 in the world, costing ten grand each), but we thought maybe we could find decent software samples for that. But then samples don't sound as good.
So did the process of replicating the record sonically prove challenging?
MB: The second time myself and Franck met up we went through the songs but figured the music didn't really do justice to what we were about as musicians. We thought that if we don't have the exact same equipment to reproduce the exact same sound there's going to be a lot of geeks out there that are going to come and see this recreation and comment on how we didn't do this or didn't do that. So we thought let's just kill the idea of making a recreation and just take what we want from the music and put our own mark on it. It was more about using the original themes as a spring board. Of massive importance was the visuals, the gigs were supposed to be a largely visual experience. So having Antoine (Schmitt) in the room with us was very important, it meant that we were always working towards the visual thing.
As well as being sonically striking, Kraftwerk had a real visual thing going on.
MB: Well we went through the tunes for a couple of days and Franck said we can't just go on stage in our normal clothes, he said it would be boring. We really needed something visual to tie this all together because it's not about us. So Franck put a call out on social media and within the hours we had lots of people respond, one of those was Antoine Schmitt who Franck had worked with on other projects. We went with Antoine.
Was Antoine present while you were piecing together the music?
MB: Yes, having a third person in the room is like having another band member. It was a strange thing because we only had four weeks before the first gig and on the day of the first show we couldn't rehearse. We just had a longish sound-check and it was straight into the gig, so I was shitting myself. We were all a bit worried actually because we'd never done it before. I mean, we ran it through maybe twice on the last rehearsal but we had a gap of four weeks. Franck and I sent files backwards and forwards and mapped out the whole show so Antoine could get to work visually. Really four or five days isn't a long time to put something like this together, so we had to get that sound-finding thing out of the way so we could concentrate on how we were going to arrange the running of it live, and in what order to do the tracks.
Much of Kraftwerk's music was recorded to tape; can you hear the difficulty in that process?
MB: I think the process of capturing the sound is certainly different. I don't really know how they put it together, whether they recorded each part separately or tracked the rest in over the top. I don't think it was recorded all at the same time. Recording to tape means you can do less editing. There were obviously not as many editing capabilities as there is now working with digital. I suppose the problem with hindsight is you always look back and think it must have been difficult to make because things are easier now. There are differences definitely, but there are creative arguments for both. I think today it's about combining digital with analogue. Combining the convenience of digital with certain analogue touches to give a certain colour or character to what you're doing. With Kraftwerk, I was always struck by how clean the recording is. The production of that particular album is spotless. It is digital in that there's no hiss, that's amazing really. Once we started the process of looking at all the material I really started to listen more to their work. I thought it was an amazing vision. So, it's been a double journey for me.
Franck is similar to you in that he is a composer that thinks outside of the box and ventures into many music settings and styles. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
MB: We met in 2006 I think; he came to Leeds to play with the LIMA orchestra with Marc Ducret and did some conducting. We got talking and we found out we both love Scott Walker and so we connected and I stayed in touch with him. I think I emailed him and suggested we do something, so we did a duo album. Then he working with turntables, synths, circuit equipment, filter pedals and guitar and I played Rhodes and piano and it was great fun. He wrote a piece for the Ars Nova ensemble called 'Broken Circles'.
Does he also have a background in jazz music?
MB: To a point, yes. He used to have a band called Push the Triangle and he's always been an improviser, but not typically, no. He's been involved in experimental, more rocky bands but they were always pushing for something else. Doing this project has been really interesting because technology the way it is, we've been able to work on this without being in the same room. He will send me his parts and I will add to his parts. Potentially, there's another project next year, something to do with Erik Satie, a show in Paris. Everything we've worked on together is different. I did a project with Franck and Bruno Chevillon and Michel Blanc called Camera and for that he worked with two tape machines and a contact mic. Bruno played bass and pedals, I played piano and string synth and Michel played various bits of percussion. The Ars Nova stuff was all fully notated where this is a reworking of an iconic album, so it's never routine and I always feel I'm being pushed by him.
Of all the Kraftwerk albums, why the Radioactivity record as a subject for this album?
MB: The anniversary really. We were also thinking practically. The 40th anniversary thing would sell the idea. Luckily, there was other Kraftwerk stuff in the air too so it appealed to a lot of people. It was a happy coincidence really. Franck's thing was to do something that would be a real challenge. We can both improvise but that wasn't going to help us get any work, so there was definitely a practical side to it. As soon as we started listen to Radio-Activity, and we were checking out some of the sounds, we were in, we were focused on doing it. It's been brilliant. If somebody had told to me I was going to re-work one of Kraftwerk's albums in the next five years I would have been like 'yeah, whatever'. It's like somebody telling me that when I get to the age of 32 I'd have learnt to ride a motorbike, and I'll ride it to Valencia. I wouldn't have dreamt it but I've done it. For me, this (project) is almost an intrepid thing because essentially, for a lot of people, Kraftwerk is a holy grail.
How did the idea of an album come about and what challenges did recording an album like this throw up?
MB: It was in Brighton that Tony Morley (from the Leaf label) asked if we were going to record it. He said it would be great and that he could do something interesting with it. At the time Franck wasn't interested, he said he was busy with other stuff. But I suggested to Franck that if somebody was offering to release a record of this we should do it. I explained it wouldn't cost us anything and we'd already done all the work, that we'd mopped up the whole show, we'd perfected it. It was just a case of changing a few bits and recording it. Once some time was mapped out to do it the whole thing took less than two weeks to record. I think we'd also then decided to present the album in the same order as the original. The flow of the show was not in the order of the album, so a few sounds had to be changed for the purposes of the album. As much as the show was quite loud and dynamic in parts, we had to make it work as a record. Not as in your face really.
What elements of the original album did you feel you had to keep in place and what have you changed?
MB: For example, there are no lyrics in our reading of 'Radio-Activity'. There's no call-and-response sung melody but we kept the same beat and same bass part. The same with something like 'Airwaves', there's no vocals. For us to get away with that we had to stick with the mood really. We were originally going to stick with the original demo we'd made but I wasn't very happy with some of the parts, I knew I could do better. I'd recorded this Minimoog solo because on Kraftwerk's original version of 'Airwaves' there's these intertwining minimoogs at the end of the tune. I went a bit overboard and recorded 3 minimoog solos that sounded a bit Stevie Wonder. I thought as it's us playing it, and these are old synths, we can have to have some fun with it. There has to be one tiny corner of this record where a bit of zaniness comes out. Franck at first was like 'if you listen to the original I think the solos you've done are a bit over the top' but I was like 'oh come on, let's stick it in and listen to it' and he agreed to go with that version. The other one I feel really proud of is the version of 'Transistor'. That was a series of overdubbed Minimoogs put through a tape delay which I had to then replicate live. I thought I could replicate the same Minimoog sound and put that through a delay, but then I needed to generate other rhythmic things so I searched around on the Memorymoog and found a sound that wasn't the same but created the same momentum. That track is a lot darker and bears very little resemblance to Kraftwerk's original. Apart from maybe the Minimoog sound and some little melodic hooks I tried to work into our version from the original, so that it still has that identity. But it became its own thing, and took on a life of its own the more I played it. This is what we wanted to achieve revisiting this album. There are certain tunes on there that we completely inhabit. Therefore we used the original as a springboard for something new. It is testament to the fact that the original music, you could argue, is quite minimal. But actually, there's nothing wasted in the musical material. No wastes gestures or notes.
Does improvising around something minimal give you more leeway, more space to paint?
MB: I think because its minimal it makes it harder. Their statement on that music is kind of quite final, it's total. It's the economy of it, and the equality of the economy means you listen to it now and it only sounds dated because you know when it was recorded. There is a kind of charm to it, but I can't help but think that is constructed because of our sense of history. When you listen to Radio-Activity nothing gives away when it was made. If you'd never heard it before and you had no idea where that music came from you wouldn't know that it was recorded in the 1970s. That in a way makes revisiting this music more difficult. It is really easy take this and fill it with loads of sound or extra parts. With our album we tried to go the other way. We were trying to look for sounds that weren't obvious or that different to the originals that related to our own equipment and way of working. Franck was using a lot of equipment he's been using on other projects and for me I'm using a couple of keyboards that I really love that I've had for ages. We have very different roles and how we use that equipment. I'm actually playing the notes and Franck is using the sequencer and Vocoders and stuff. Everything is played, there's nothing pre-recorded. It's not a case of plug your computer in and press play!
Have there been any hiccups performing the album live?
MB: There was one gig when something went wrong with the sequencer. Franck didn't come in when he should have and he had to switch everything off and turn it back on again. There was a moment when everything seemed to fail but he managed to get it going and it was fine. Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to. You're more able to adapt or switch and go with difference, as and when it occurs.
Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited is out now on Leaf