Seven years on from his last outing, the inimitable and irrepressible Wolfgang Flür has a new album in the racks. Recorded with the help of an army of fascinating guests, it’s called ‘Magazine 1’ and it’s an opportunity for us to talk robots, romance, pacifism, money, sheep, rubbery legs and, inevitably, Kraftwerk 

Wolfgang Flür, ex-Kraftwerk, is a robot again. If you listen to ‘Electric Sheep’ from his new album, ‘Magazine 1’, he chirrups happily in the guise of an automaton who is washing your electronic bike, a benign android chum who is “nice and twee”. There’s no twist, no darkness, just robotic camaraderie from a friendly silicone fellow whistling along to the maddeningly catchy tune. It’s funny, silly even. It could be the theme music from a TV advert in some utopian alternative reality. To seal the deal, it finishes up with some key facts about sheep. 

“Earworms, right?” says Wolfgang with a smile. “You cannot get them out!”

Contrast that with Kraftwerk’s man-machine – the foreboding, multilingual, vocoder-voiced entity. You just knew that guy was always going to go bad and try to take over the world with lasers and ruthless programmed efficiency. Or at least harvest all your data and sell it to the highest bidder.

With ‘Magazine 1’, we’re in broadly similar territory to Wolfgang Flür’s former group, in that it’s electronic and it has strains of Kraftwerk DNA in it. How could it not? But somehow, it’s also diametrically opposed. Where Kraftwerk are restrained and minimal, Wolfgang is extravagant and expressive. He is an ex-man-machine gone rogue. For all of this robot stuff, he is very much flesh and blood. He’s just got over a nasty bout of gastroenteritis when we talk.

“I didn’t eat for 10 days, so I got rubbery legs,” he laments. “But I’m fine now. I have coffee and everything is fine!” 

He grins and holds his coffee cup aloft. Wolfgang is a fabulously loquacious and candid interviewee, a storyteller whose anecdotes are peppered with re-enacted conversations and beguiling diversions. We couldn’t possibly print some of what he reveals in his monologues, more’s the pity… 

What he’s most keen to speak about is his new album. It’s been over six years since his last, the portmanteau collection ‘Eloquence: Complete Works’, which was put together from songs written and recorded sporadically throughout the previous 15 years.

“Since we published the cover art of ‘Magazine 1’ on social media in December, we have had so many interesting and crazy comments,” says Wolfgang. “I didn’t think there would be so much interest in the record. Perhaps it will be bigger than ‘Eloquence’. Cherry Red, my label, also think it could be commercially successful.” 

They might well be right. ‘Magazine 1’ is a far more immediate and focused album than ‘Eloquence’ – a varied affair by necessity – and a lot of the clarity is down to Peter Duggal, Wolfgang’s musical partner in recent years. The pair met in 2015 and a bromance was ignited straight away. The moment is captured in a photo on the back sleeve of ‘Magazine 1’, a snapshot of them taken just an hour after their initial encounter.

“We were like brothers from the first night,” says Wolfgang. “We are melting together like Ralf and Florian. We fit so well. And Peter told me, ‘Wolfgang, you came from heaven to me!’.”

Peter Duggal was an acid house notable and a labelmate of A Guy Called Gerald. In 1990, he released a fizzy acid track called ‘Psyche’ (under the name Doggy), followed by the rave banger ‘Labyrinthe’ (this time as Demonik), both on the Rham! imprint. He also worked with Apache Indian in the 1990s. He’d been writing soundtracks and music for games before this new gig.

Wolfgang has memorialised his relationship with Peter on the track ‘Birmingham’, in which he glamourises a UK destination largely underrepresented in song. “Meet me in the West Midlands,” sings Claudia Brücken, while Wolfgang himself intones in his stentorian Sprechgesang, “This is the birth of heavy metal”. It sets up a wonky dissonance for anyone unfamiliar with his post-Kraftwerk output. Where they may have been expecting observations on technological developments and international travel, they get mini-lectures on the history of Brum. And sheep.

“Because it’s Peter’s home town and where we met, my idea was to make a homage to it,” explains Wolfgang. “I had to learn all about Birmingham, what happened there, how it grew, what came from there… We asked Claudia Brücken to sing the lyrics and Peter Hook to play the bass. It was such fun. I love that song.”

‘Birmingham’ might be a platonic love note from Düsseldorf to Britain’s second city, but it’s probably fair to say that Düsseldorf occupies a special place in the hearts of more electronic fans than Birmingham – as nice as it is. One of them is Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins.

“Juan Atkins loves Düsseldorf!” reveals Wolfgang. “He’s addicted to the place! He has our TV tower as the icon on his WhatsApp.”

The avatar choices of techno legends aside, in reality Düsseldorf is a financial and corporate centre. But it is also home to Germany’s fashion industry, while the art scene of the late 1960s, when Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys were making international waves, has left the city with a strong cultural identity. And, of course, there is Kling Klang Konsum Produkt GmbH.

“It is truly beautiful here, with a big river and this wonderful nature all around… so it’s very green,” enthuses Wolfgang. “I spend a lot of time with my wife and my friends. It’s not an industrial place like Birmingham. It’s not like that juggernaut London. It is 10 minutes from the airport to my flat. When I get back from travelling, I call my wife, she prepares dinner in the evening, and in 10 minutes I’m at the table. It’s perfect for me. And it’s European… which you are not.” 

Is it a romantic city?

“For me, Düsseldorf is romantic, because everything happened to me here,” he replies. “I was 11 when my family came here. I had my first love here. And my second. And my 20th maybe! In those days, especially when we became famous, I was more interesting to girls. I had luck with these things because the girls came to me.”

It doesn’t take long for Wolfgang to mention girls. And when you look at pictures of him in his Kraftwerk days, it’s easy to see why he was popular in that department. His classic good looks, amplified by the matinée idol-style photography the band used on ‘Trans-Europe Express’, were a magnet to lusty young women. 

And he was certainly a lusty young man. The most cursory read of ‘I Was A Robot’, his often startling autobiography, will leave you with vivid images of him pleasuring himself in his parents’ living room out of teenage boredom, delighting in the trails of ejaculate he leaves on the damask, and admiring himself in the mirror dressed in his mother’s silk underwear, not to mention his many amorous encounters on the road with Kraftwerk in the 70s and 80s. 

“But that is one side,” says Wolfgang. “The other side is music, of course. I did my apprenticeship as a furniture designer, but music was always stronger in me. With the other luck I had, when Florian invited me to join their band – it was not Ralf, it was Florian – I took my chance, you know? This was the best thing for me, to find electronic music.”

Wolfgang and Peter have corralled contributions from a wide range of accomplices into a loosely bound concept album. The shiny tunes recall the age of electronic pop music’s dominance of the British charts with a heavy techno spin.

Because of the high guest quotient, the record was originally going to be called ‘Collaborators’. The new (and less historically unfortunate) title came about over dinner with the sleeve designer Markus Luigs one night. 

“We were talking about the album,” remembers Wolfgang. “And I said, ‘The songs are all different in their themes. It’s like a magazine, where every page tells another story – crime, sex, politics, literature, fashion, cars…’. Markus said, ‘OK, you should call it “Magazine”, Wolfgang!’. I said, ‘Oh yes! Thank you, sir!’. This is how things start when you have good friends who are involved in art.”

As well as Claudia Brücken and Peter Hook, the collaborators – let’s call them contributors – include Midge Ure, Carl Cox, Maps and the previously mentioned Juan Atkins, whose work in the 1980s is the essential synapse between Düsseldorf and Detroit. It was Atkins who used the DNA of European synthesiser music to create a funkier electronic hybrid, enabling Kraftwerk to reinvent themselves as the techno fountainhead in the 90s. Wolfgang is an Atkins fan, especially of ‘Track Ten’ on the ‘Back To Basics (Part 1)’ 12-inch. 

“I was very much in love with the bassline of ‘Track Ten’,” he says. “It’s an older song [he sings the bassline] – brutish, arrogant – and I thought, ‘I must have that’.” 

Wolfgang engineered a meeting with Atkins, which he describes in his own inimitable way.

“We met him in London when he played his Cybotron show at the Barbican Hall – I think it was three years ago – and it was great. I liked it more than the Kraftwerk show. I couldn’t really see Juan, though. There was so much dry ice for the lasers that it was mostly smoke and I was saying, ‘Where is he?’. It was only when the clouds cleared that I spotted him. He’s pretty small, you know. But we met the next afternoon and had coffee with him in his artist flat in the Barbican. He had just woken up… and he did not say anything! He is the most silent man I have ever met. It is very, very difficult to get something out of him. 

“Anyway, we had a long time with him, but eventually I had to rush for my flight back. We shook hands and said goodbye with the words, ‘Let’s do something together’. That’s what I wanted! So I said, ‘Yes, give me the bass track of ‘Track Ten’, then we are friends’. And he laughed. Suddenly he could laugh! He said, ‘I will try, Wolfgang, I will try’, but then we had months and months of waiting. We were always asking again, ‘What is with the track?’, and he would say, ‘I will get it when I’m back in Detroit’. Then he found it had been recorded with the ADAT system – an old machine – so he said, ‘I must get that thing running again’. But that seemingly did not work. 

“Some months later, Peter and I were busy with the other tracks. We did not believe anymore in a collaboration with Juan Atkins. We had put that aside and said, ‘OK, he is doing nothing’. But then I got a WhatsApp message from him – ‘Wolfgang! I will play it new for you’. I said, ‘No problem, then give it to me!’. And he said, ‘Yes, OK!’. And then, after another four months or so, we had it. So in the end, we got three or four variations. Two of them are brilliant… and we used them in the middle part of ‘Billionaire’.” 

‘Billionaire (Symphony Of Might)’ features Wolfgang taking the role of a loathsome figure boasting of his fantastic wealth over a synth groove that sounds more like The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ than Atkins’ ‘Track Ten’. It’s a high point of the album and an exemplar of Wolfgang’s unique method of channelling characters over a neon-lit electronic soundstage.

“I just need a soundtrack – it is like a stage for me,” he explains. “I feel the temperature, I see the light. I see everything, like an interior designer who has a building to fill up, to bring colour in, to bring mood in, and to bring the story.”

In his youth, Wolfgang briefly harboured ambitions to be an actor. With ‘Magazine 1’, he has given that part of his psyche free rein.

“I do see myself like an actor,” he says. “It’s about the role I play or speak or sing in a song. The billionaire himself is the best way to explain it. You know who that guy is I’m talking about, the man with a golden skyscraper, hahaha! Everything that I have seen on the internet or on news channels, it all runs into my lyrics and into my stories, and then I am in my role – ‘I am so proud of my money! It’s great! It’s so fantastic! I can buy everything, you know!’ – and I am him.”

The line between Wolfgang and his most enduring character, the Musik Soldat (Music Soldier), is blurry. It would be fair to say that he is the Musik Soldat. 

When I reviewed his live show a few years ago, I made light of the segment where he donned a First World War helmet (the one with the spike on the top that looks like 19th century ceremonial headgear). I said the way he marched up and down with the helmet perched on his head was hilarious, utterly incongruous and unexpected in a club setting, or indeed anywhere. Another review in The Times compared it to a ‘Monty Python’ sketch. I had a lengthy email from Wolfgang shortly afterwards.

“It is just NOT ‘Monty Python’!” he railed at me. “It should not be described as a joke. It has more to do with my true pacifism and the scenes behind me [on a video screen], with war over London and the saboteur in a German Zeppelin, who throws down their bombs, not on Trafalgar Square but anywhere – in a forest and a lake…”

Wolfgang’s pacifism is deeply held. It led him to a degrading legal process to avoid military service in the late 1960s. Had he failed to win his case to be a conscientious objector, he would have been sent to prison. Instead, he was able to work as an architect’s apprentice and he also enrolled at college to learn furniture design.

His studies came in handy when he left Kraftwerk. He started a successful furniture design business and was happy to be out of the band. He kept his distance from the music industry until 1993, when images of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and in particular a horrific news story about a sniper killing babies on a bus, moved him to write ‘Little Child’ with his then flatmate, one-time Kraftwerk insider Emil Schult. It was released on cassette as a charity single. 

“There were always these bad pictures on the German TV and my tears were running,” remembers Wolfgang. “I said to Emil that we must do something. So we wrote some lyrics – ‘Little Child’, my first lyrics after Kraftwerk – and that was my entrance to music again. I found a singer, a children’s nurse from a small town near Düsseldorf, and she sang the song brilliantly.”

‘Little Child’ marked a cautious return to music that continued when he teamed up with Mouse On Mars for the Yamo project in 1996. His periodic recordings over the next two decades eventually led to ‘Eloquence’ in 2015, as well as the consolidation of his perpetually touring Musik Soldat show.

The first time I met Wolfgang Flür was in 2014. I went to pick him up from the airport when he came to play at an Electronic Sound event in the UK. He sat in the passenger seat of my car as we drove on the M11, the sun shining down on the gently undulating Essex countryside. At one point, we cleared a long bend on the motorway and the view through the windscreen that presented itself was an almost perfect real-life representation of Emil Schult’s painting on the cover of the original German pressing of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ LP. 

As if the experience of meeting a member of the classic Kraftwerk line-up and giving him a lift in my car wasn’t peculiar enough, this felt like a hallucination. Of course, I was not going to be so uncool as to mention it, but it turned out that I didn’t need to. “It looks like the cover of ‘Autobahn’!” announced Wolfgang suddenly, giving me the perfect excuse to pump him mercilessly for insider information on the album.

Despite having been out of Kraftwerk for 35 years, Wolfgang’s relationship with the band runs deep and is notoriously complicated. He has long since accepted that the phrase “ex-Kraftwerk” will follow his name in every interview and on every gig poster, a court ruling dictating exactly how large the phrase can be reproduced on any promotional material. Another court case excised contentious chunks of his autobiography before it was translated into English. But the legal restrictions don’t stop him from reminiscing about his Kraftwerk days in song.

Which brings us to ‘Night Drive’, a track recalling the trip he took with his Kraftwerk colleagues on the Trans-Europe Express to Paris. A moody techno-pop driver featuring Anushka, it’s like Kylie Minogue in dark electro-disco mode covering Kraftwerk. It even has a percussive middle passage, a little like the ‘Metal On Metal’ part of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and the section of ‘Autobahn’ with fast-lane motorway noises.

There are clips of that Kraftwerk promo junket on YouTube. The guys are dressed elegantly for the occasion, a little Weimar make-up adding an element of camp to proceedings as they undertake their journey with rakish detachment. “We took a train to Paris, three comrades and me,” go Wolfgang’s lyrics. “We took the TEE…”

There’s a sadness in seeing the images of the four of them in their early pomp, relaxed and happy, and then hearing Wolfgang summon up memories of it on ‘Night Drive’. It must have been strange, I say, to leave Kraftwerk and have to forge an identity outside of the band, when he was such an integral part of its fabric.

“I did not feel like a shadow,” he says. “I did not know even that we were so famous. We were not as famous as Ralf Hütter is today. The main reason I left was because they didn’t need a drummer anymore. But they didn’t think to talk to me and to ask, ‘What are you doing in the future? Have you plans, Wolfgang? Because we don’t need you anymore…’. Some people think I was fired, but that’s not true. It was my own decision to quit the band because I had to think about what I would do to pay my rent.”

After ‘Computer World’, Wolfgang slowly detached from Kraftwerk, his diminished role made clear on the ‘Electric Café’ album. He didn’t share Ralf and Florian’s enthusiasm for cycling and the fellowship began to evaporate. “There was only cold coffee in the Electric Café,” as he puts it so eloquently in his book.

As we talk, Wolfgang Flür reveals more about his early years in Kraftwerk. He tells me about going to meet Ralf at his parents’ house in Krefeld at three o’clock in the afternoon, when Ralf would be starting his day, and then stepping out in the evening, hoping to catch the eye of women. But in 1986, Wolfgang’s time was up. He was approaching 40 when he left the group.

“I’m a really good cabinet maker and we were very successful for six years,” he says of his furniture business. “I thought this was my new future.”

Wolfgang didn’t have much contact with his former bandmates during that period, although he says Florian visited him and once asked him to build something.

“The reason why I joined Kraftwerk was the romanticism and the melodies… this is always a part of me,” he explains. “I like romantic melodies and I like to develop them, like Ralf does, like Karl Bartos does. It’s not that I have learned it with them. It was already in me because I grew up with my mother’s music. She was not a musician, but she loved dances – things such as the foxtrot and the rhumba – and it was always such strong and happy music. My youth was filled up with melodies!”

Wolfgang’s tuneful talents were not exploited in Kraftwerk, but you can hear the sensitivity in his playing from the outset. His first gig with the band was a spot promoting the ‘Ralf Und Florian’ album on German TV, just a few weeks after jamming with the pair at their studio in Mintropstrasse and then building their famous electronic drum pad. His last, though he didn’t know it at the time, was shortly before Christmas 1981 in Oyten, a village near Bremen in Germany, at a small club called Zeppelin. It was the final outing of the ‘Computer World’ tour and was sparsely attended because of heavy snow.

In the many years that have passed since he left, Wolfgang has never wanted to rejoin Kraftwerk.

“They never look at each other,” he says of the current iteration. “They don’t laugh or smile. I could not be with them on tour. No. Not for a million. I must have lots of alcohol or drugs to stand up there!”

But the Musik Soldat soldiers on, waging his propaganda war on militarism and greed, while keeping his electronic music legacy very much alive. Achtung!

‘Magazine 1’ is out now on Cherry Red

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