Things have changed. For Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at the Museum of Modern Art — eight sold-out concerts that conclude Tuesday, with Kraftwerk playing through each of its eight studio albums from 1974 to 2003 — Kraftwerk deploys 3-D video projectors that send images leaping forward from the stage, along with a custom surround-sound installation including overhead speakers and a sleekly concealed wall of woofers at the front of the stage. (A multimedia exhibition at MoMA PS1 continues through May 14.)
Yet after three-and-a-half decades of tech upgrades Kraftwerk probably sounds less futuristic than it did on first exposure. That’s because Kraftwerk’s future became pop’s present. The group’s avant-garde ideas — making music inseparable from new technology, building songs from synthetic sounds and electronic rhythms, using repetition and robotic voices — have taken over much of mainstream pop. Its deadpan lyrics about transportation, media and ubiquitous technology are still tersely prescient. Back when it made its 1981 album “Computer World,” Kraftwerk didn’t own computers. “It was all done on analog sequencers,” Mr. Hütter said.
Kraftwerk, which bills itself as the Man-Machine, doesn’t show its human side very often. Through the years the band has largely shunned pop’s cult of personality. Onstage Kraftwerk’s four members perform standing behind mysterious matching consoles, their faces impassive. The band members call themselves operators, not musicians; one of them, Stefan Pfaffe, actually operates videos, not sounds, from his console. (Mr. Hütter said he provides vocals and keyboard lines onstage, while Henning Schmitz controls bass lines and equalization, and Fritz Hilpert controls rhythms and percussive sounds.)
Offstage Kraftwerk rarely participates in promotion and publicity. But every once in a while Mr. Hütter, the band’s sole remaining original member, grants an interview, as he did on Friday afternoon in an office at MoMA. He was accompanied and occasionally translated by the curator of the museum’s events, Klaus Biesenbach.
Mr. Hütter, 65, is trim and energetic; he’s a dedicated cyclist, regularly making 125-mile excursions. “You have to find your tempo,” he said. He was sometimes affable, sometimes wary. He bristled at the suggestion that Kraftwerk had pop ambitions, although songs like “Autobahn” and “The Model” were international hits.
“We are fine when the idea comes to a clear statement,” he said. “It could be short, it could be long. We also have structure that’s very minimal, so it’s not drama. It’s more modular, minimal. It’s components, it’s conceptual. There’s development, gradual. Whereas in classical music there is drama. That’s not our thing.”
Kraftwerk is usually translated as “power plant,” but Mr. Hütter said the band’s name can also be pulled apart for meanings: “kraft” is energy and dynamics, “werk” is simply work, or labor, and also (as “werke”) an artist’s oeuvre. Kraftwerk records on its own open-ended schedule; it hasn’t released a new studio album since “Tour de France” in 2003. It has, however, been touring and frequently revamping its older songs with newer technology and ideas.
“Kraftwerk is a living organism,” Mr. Hütter added. “Music is never finished. It starts again tomorrow. The record is just a record, but for us it’s nearly boring. We like better the programs that we can operate with. So we are operating, we are upgrading, we are updating continuously. There’s continuous reprogramming going on, and composition and new concepts are also coming.”
He added, “We learn from noise, and we learn from going to clubs.”
The work takes place at Kraftwerk’s longtime headquarters, Kling Klang Studios in Düsseldorf. It’s off limits to nearly everyone, with its location long concealed; mail is said to be returned unopened. “I was there,” Mr. Biesenbach said, quickly adding, “I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
Kraftwerk has extensive archives at Kling Klang: sounds stored on equipment that’s no longer made, images assembled over decades. When Kraftwerk played its 1978 song “Neon Lights” on Friday night, it had video showing neon signs from Düsseldorf that have long since disappeared to redevelopment.
At the museum Kraftwerk has been performing to an audience of 450 people each night. Its previous show, on March 23, was for tens of thousands as a headliner at the Ultra Music Festival of dance music in Miami.
By now Mr. Hütter is used to Kraftwerk being acknowledged as a prototype. Its riffs are foundations of songs by performers from the rapper Afrika Bambaataa to Coldplay. “We’re not so interested in possession. We are more interested in participating,” Mr. Hütter said. “We’re sending out. Certain of these ideas are radio waves. We’re the antenna catching information, the transmitter giving information, back and forth. It’s like feedback energy. Otherwise I would just play my music at home and go to sleep.”
The museum retrospective places Kraftwerk not only as a forerunner of synth-pop, techno, electro hip-hop and programmed RB, but also as part of postwar German art reinventing a culture out of trauma and desolation. “Sometimes the spirit moves through different art forms,” Mr. Hütter said. Mr. Biesenbach ranks Kraftwerk alongside the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the painter, sculptor, performance artist and social activist Joseph Beuys, who was one of Kraftwerk’s mentors in Düsseldorf. Many of Kraftwerk’s most striking graphic images were painted by Emil Schult, a Beuys student who was also at times a band member and lyricist.
Mr. Hütter said Kraftwerk had come “full circle” by performing in an art museum. Its two founders, Mr. Hütter and Florian Schneider — who left the band in 2009 — played many of their first shows at art galleries and museums in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s.
They were starting from scratch in “a small town, a nowhereland, a cultural back room,” Mr. Hütter said. “The music had to be found. It was not there.” For him the lengthy Germanic classical tradition was “in print, it was in education and universities,” he said. “You could study it. It was all perfectly done and researched.”
But that felt like “archaeology,” he said. “One day you say: ‘I want to play my own music. What is my sound?’ And from this cultural shock — ‘Oh we have no language, we have no contemporary everyday music’ — the next step is ‘O.K., let’s start and let’s make it.’ ”
After three instrumental albums akin to other experimental German rock of the era, Kraftwerk reinvented itself with the coolly electronic 1974 album “Autobahn,” which began the retrospective. The reconceptualized Kraftwerk wanted music built on “repetition, routine and dynamics,” Mr. Hütter said. “We were interested in the social content of everyday life — Alltag,” Mr. Hütter said. The German word connotes both routine and “a day in the universe.”
The band abandoned rock-band instruments (and Mr. Schneider’s flute) for early synthesizers and self-invented electronic drums, embracing its sonic possibilities and limitations. “But we were maybe fantasizing about the future,” Mr. Hütter said. “In the archives there are some old visionary drawings where we envision notes coming out of the brain directly. We had all kinds of ideas, but it takes time to make them real. I’m not complaining. We’re been very lucky, especially for the technology developing as we were fantasizing.”
Mr. Hütter said a new Kraftwerk album was under way. “We didn’t fall asleep,” he said. “The 168-hour week is still going on since the beginning, since 1970.” And when can listeners expect the new album? “Soon,” he said. He would not elaborate.