Human again

On the eve of a return visit to Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, Wolfgang Flür says he’s fed up talking about the past but there’ll still be one or two of the greatest hits among his new music

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The first time Wolfgang Flür was asked to play Hebden Bridge Arts Festival he had no idea where Hebden Bridge was. “I looked on the map and I saw only some houses. I thought: ‘What can be happening there?’ I was a bit arrogant about it,” sheepishly recalls the German musician, best known as the percussionist in Kraftwerk during their peak years from 1973 to 1987.
Despite his initial scepticism, Flür accepted the offer and travelled to the Upper Calder Valley in summer 2015 accompanied by his wife. When they arrived they were both struck by how quiet the market town was compared to their home city of Düsseldorf.

“It was empty. We really saw no people,” he says over the phone in slightly broken English. “I said to my wife: ‘Will anyone come tonight?’ Later in the evening we went to the club I was playing and it was absolutely stuffed. It was completely unbelievable where all the people came from. A brilliant show – one of the best I have done in England.”

As well as having fond memories of performing at the event, Hebden Bridge Arts Festival holds a special place in Flür’s heart for introducing him to local producer and now close friend Peter Duggal. The two men first met when Duggal picked the percussionist up from the airport. They immediately hit it off and have stayed in regular contact ever since, visiting each other’s families, touring together and even collaborating on new music.

When Flür returns to Yorkshire to play the arts festival later this month, he will be supported by Duggal, who will also host an onstage Q&A that will delve into Flür’s time in one of the most influential bands of all time.

“Hebden Bridge left a real imprint on Wolfgang, so it’s really nice to come back full circle and do the festival again, but together,” says Duggal. “Wolfgang always likes to say we are made of the same chemicals, me and him. Like a lot of people with a big interest in electronic music, I grew up listening to Kraftwerk, particularly The Man Machine and Computer World albums. That very dystopian, bleak future vision stuff was right up my street and, obviously, Wolfgang is a legend in his own right. The work he did in Kraftwerk on the percussion and melodic side is just amazing.”

Flür’s forthcoming show at the arts showcase – now in its 26th year – is just one of the highlights of a diverse multi-disciplinary bill, which will also feature appearances from Maps (aka Mercury-nominated producer James Chapman), The Human League founder Martyn Ware, stand-up comedian Catherine Bohart, broadcaster Kirsty Wark and a live podcast recording from Jenny Éclair. Sitting alongside them is an extensive programme of visual arts, craft, poetry, contemporary dance, performance, outdoor activities, talks and film, a lot of which is free to access.

The theme for this year’s event is “virtual valley” and, as festival director Helen Meller explains, the intention is to take a closer look at our all-encompassing relationship with digital technology within an idyllic rural setting.

“On the one hand, this is a valley that’s very old and traditional, but on the other, it’s also very modern and innovative,” says Meller. “This is a town of makers and has been for hundreds of years, so we wanted to shine a light on some of the stuff that happens here that perhaps isn’t quite so visible. The theme of virtual valley is not something I particularly want the audience to be aware of but more like a dog whistle – something that’s in the ether and people pick it up at different frequencies and ranges.”

For Flür, the festival presents an opportunity to both look back to his own past, when Kraftwerk were at the pioneering edge of electronic music, as well as look forward with his own constantly evolving Musik Soldat (German for “music soldier”) show.

“What I do onstage is very different from my albums. Kraftwerk was where I was born musically and we made special pop music – robo-pop as I call it – with these special technical themes: computers and robot machines. But my music is different today. I went back and decided to be human again after my split from Kraftwerk and worked with lot of different musicians,” explains the cheerful 72 year old.

His live performances feature a blend of film projections, verbatim theatre, Kraftwerk songs and remixes (“especially the danceable tracks”), combined with his own solo material, which, like his previous band, has its roots in electronic pop, but also spans jazz, krautrock, house, industrial and techno.

Over 30 years have passed since he quit Kraftwerk, frustrated by their famously slow pace of work and by his diminishing role in the group’s activities. Ironically, he says it was the group’s reliance on technology that forced his hand.

“There was a good and important reason for me to leave them because there was no more work for a drummer since they had these sequencers and machines. They didn’t need a live drummer anymore and it was clear that I had no future in such a band.”

Compounding the irony is the fact that it was Flür and founder member Florian Schneider who developed the electronic drum kit in 1973 (reportedly the world’s first) that became so integral to Kraftwerk’s sound. Asked if he finds it tiresome talking about the band, Flür responds “absolutely” before the sentence is even finished.

Of the classic Kraftwerk line-up, Karl Bartos left several years after Flür, while Schneider walked away in 2008, leaving Ralf Hütter as the sole remaining founding member. Since 1986’s Electric Café, the band has released one album, 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks.

Flür says of Schneider’s exit: “I think after 40 years he was no more in the mood to play Autobahn every evening. I can understand that. If I had to do that I would feel like being in jail. I would be an alcoholic or junkie to stand that.”

After not speaking to each other for three decades, the two men reunited at Flür’s 70th birthday celebrations in a Düsseldorf brewery house a few years ago. “We spoke honestly and embraced each other. Can you imagine that picture? I whispered in his ear: ‘Thank you, Florian for those wonderful years we had together.’ And he answered to me: ‘That was the best years.’”

Flür also remains good friends with Bartos. It’s fair to say his relationship with Hütter is less cordial. “Ralf changed in such a way that he lost all his friends – not only musicians, but private friends. Everyone leaves him, so he is very much on his own with his music workers [touring musicians], who are well paid, I’m sure. But I cannot believe it’s still fun for him, always playing Autobahn and The Model but nothing new.”

Flür is working on a new album, which will feature German techno outfit U96 and Duggal, among others.

“He’s not looking to the past. That aesthetic is there but it’s quite different. There’s a real mix of influences in there,” says Duggal. “My music is very danceable, very attractive, very melodic. I was a drummer, as everyone knows, so I love hard beats,” elaborates Flür, who adopts the concise minimal language of Kraftwerk to promote his upcoming live shows. “It’s not so difficult to describe. Just come and listen to my assortment of tracks and you will love them, I promise. It will be a great evening.”

Hebden Bridge Arts Festival takes place until 30 June.

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