(Credit: Daniele Dalledonne)

Florian Schneider: The life and times of Kraftwerk's pioneer of progress

Florian Schneider-Esleben’s impact on music and culture is massive. Along with Ralph Hütter, he formed the pioneering electronic group Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf in 1970 and, with a series of daring creative choices, changed the landscape of music as we know it. 

Schneider was born in 1947 to parents Paul and Evamaria in the French occupation zone of Germany, in what is now the state of Baden-Württemberg. The family later relocated to Düsseldorf when Florian was three years old, and this would be the city where he would settle, and before too long, make his indelible imprint on the world. 

It is worth noting at this point that craftsmanship and innovation ran in the Schneider family. Florian’s great-grandfather, Peter, was a sculptor and altar carver in the 19th century who sent all of his seven sons to art school. Following him, Franz, Florian’s grandfather, built beautiful, bold, early 20th century churches and helped train his son Paul to become an architect. 

Paul, in turn, after surviving Nazi conscription (he was not a Nazi party member), would become one of post-war Germany’s most celebrated architects. He had always been a Modernist, and prior to the war, had been part of the New Objectivity movementor as the Germans called it, New Sobriety. However, young Paul’s ideals, reflected in this European architectural wave, had been subdued by the Nazi’s grinding trail of destruction. In the ruinous post-war vacuum, Paul’s Modernist fire was rekindled as he became dedicated to rebuilding Germany’s identity. He would go on to design the passenger terminal at Cologne’s airport, presenting itself as a futuristic model for transportation hubs.

This modernist outlook, concerned with transportation and technology, looked into the future, focused on rebuilding in the ashes of such a brutal conflict, is something that Florian would go on to adhere to. Like his forefathers, Florian was an architect, but of sonic cathedrals. Resembling his great-grandfather Peter, he would also craft altars to lay the synthesiser on for future generations of sonic influencers to wield, leading listeners into the digital age.

Schneider played the violin, guitar and trained as a flautist at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf – named after influential composer and music critic Robert Schumann, the same school where future Kraftwerk members Ralph Hütter and Karl Bartos studied. There is no wonder the band’s music would become so pioneering as three of its members were trained in an ethos of boundary-pushing musicality

Whilst studying at university, Schneider originally played in experimental groups in the incredibly influential ‘Krautrock’ scene. Titled ‘Kosmische Musik’- ‘cosmic music’ by the Germans – it was also an environment of boundary-pushing. It tried to reconcile with the past, and was home to bands such as CAN and Neu!, without whom we would have no new-wave, post-punk or Radiohead.

In a humour that would become known as typical Florian Schneider, his first band were called Pissoff. More importantly, though, Schneider would meet Ralph Hütter whilst playing in the improvisational ensemble, Organisation. The band, like many others in the scene, mixed traditional instrumentation with the emerging electronic musical conduits. However, Organisation would last only a year from 1969-1970, but their piece ‘Ruckzuck’ would appear on Kraftwerk’s eponymous debut album in 1970.

(Credit: Alamy)

Emerging from such an idealistic family, then being plunged into such an experimental environment, clearly had a career-defining impact on young Schneider. When playing his traditional instruments, he started to electronically process them as his interest in electronics increased. He would later recall: “I found that the flute was too limiting,” he said when reflecting on his work, adding: “Soon I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesiser. Much later, I threw the flute away; it was a sort of process.” 

Kraftwerk literally means ‘powerplant’ in German, and the band would initially start as a duo of just Schneider and Hütter. After their debut, they released Kraftwerk 2 in 1972, Ralf und Florian in 1973 and, in 1974, they released their first top ten album, Autobahn. The hit album utilised and embraced repetitive electronic sounds.

Unsurprisingly, given Schneider’s background, the title track is a 22-minute sonic representation of modern life, encapsulated by the titular high-speed road, a song that is still as enthralling as it was on release. The success of Autobahn is largely attributed to its groundbreaking use of synthesisers and wry, witty lyrics – the humour that was starting to become more widely associated with Schneider.

After Autobahn, Kraftwerk went on to achieve a remarkable four-album run that would have groundbreaking effects on the world of music: Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981). Typical of Schneider and Kraftwerk, they described their music as Industrielle Volksmusik: “Folk music of the factories,” a description translated by none other than David Bowie read.

This string of albums was so influential on Bowie that his song ‘V-2 Schneider’ is widely believed to be about the Kraftwerk man himself. In that well-documented era of excess and innovation, where Bowie and Iggy Pop were residing in Berlin, Schneider and Pop also went shopping for asparagus together – how very futuristic. Later, in 1977, Schneider was asked about Kraftwerk’s inception by Glenn O’Brien for New York’s Interview Magazine, to which he revealed: “We started with amplified instruments and then we found that the traditional instruments were too limited for our imaginations.”

Schneider also touched on technological progress, that by this point, the band had come to embody: “But also we have to adjust our brains to this world”. This statement is incredibly pertinent as over the following decades, people from all facets of life would indeed adjust their brains to significant transformative effect.

Entering the 1980’s, Kraftwerk’s influence was everywhere. They had a major impact on the hugely popular synth-pop genre, with bands like OMD, Human League and Depeche Mode citing them as influences. The German’s also had a massive impact on the burgeoning hip-hop scene, and The title track of Trans-Europe Express was sampled in 1982 by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force on ‘Planet Rock’, which became one of the earliest hip-hop hits. Furthermore, Computer World became hugely influential on the techno scenes in Chicago and Detroit in the 1980s, and then influenced future electronic pioneers such as; The Orb, The Prodigy and Daft Punk. Additionally, there exists considerable evidence that Kraftwerk’s ‘Uranium’, from Radio-Activity, influenced New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ — and there is no need to describe the cultural impact that song had on the world.

(Credit: Kraftwerk)

Schneider worked on all of Kraftwerk’s studio albums, and following their last, Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003, he left the group in 2006. He didn’t give a reason for his departure and then remained largely evasive. Hütter later told The Guardian in 2009 that Schneider “worked for many, many years on other projects: speech synthesis, and things like that. He was not really involved in Kraftwerk for many, many years”. Hütter’s assertions show the scale of his friend’s intense commitment to innovation and that it, of course, existed outside the musical sphere as well.

In 2015, Schneider released his last piece of music, ‘Stop Plastic Pollution’, in collaboration with producer Dan Lacksman. He said the track was released to highlight the gravitas of the pollution crisis, inspired by “taking a swim in the ocean at the coasts of Ghana, watching fishermen catch nothing but plastic garbage in their nets”. With this release, Schneider again displayed his innate desire to improve the world and progression.

Sadly, Florian Schneider passed away aged 73, in April 2020, after a battle with cancer. His influence and innovation will not be forgotten; it exists almost everywhere in music and relevant cultures. Along with his bandmates and old friend Ralph Hütter, he dragged music out of the old age and propelled it into the new via sheer brilliance and that mighty, tenacious intellect that had been passed down through his paternal side. 

He is also remembered for his ironic sense of humour, one that can be heard in Kraftwerk’s lyrics and viewed on their album covers. Additionally, in the rare interviews with him, he displayed a confounding, satirical understanding of humanity’s place in the world and the necessity of continual innovation. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1975, Schneider said: “There is no beginning and no end in music,” in what is a clear vision of his understanding. “Some people want it to end. But it goes on,” he added.

Invoking the image of the Autobahn once again, he shows us that humanity perpetually moves forward, reflecting just how groundbreaking his mentality and commitment to innovation have been.

Watch iconic live footage of Kraftwerk performing ‘The Robots’, below.