INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Blurt SEPTEMBER 17, 2009 - by Wilson Neate
KRAUTROCK DELUXE: MICHAEL ROTHER
An exclusive, sprawling conversation with the legendary German guitarist in which he discusses Kraftwerk, Neu!, Harmonia and Eno, and more.
It's hard to overstate the importance of the '70s generation of experimentally minded German musicians like Neu!, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Can and Faust, usually grouped under the dodgy term, Krautrock. Having come of age in the postwar period, many of these diverse artists shared a common bond of refusal, rejecting not only their country's troubled political and cultural past, but also the global hegemony of Anglo-American pop and rock. Ironically, despite distancing themselves from the musical mainstream, these bands would exert considerable sway over those traditions they'd rejected. The line of influence stretches from punk's smarter manifestations through the post-punk generation and Bowie's vital late-'70s work, to more recent rock of all stripes - Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Stereolab, Radiohead, Primal Scream, Secret Machines, the list goes on and on. And beyond rock, the likes of Cluster, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Harmonia have also been perennial reference points on the continuum of electronic music from the late '70s to the present, from synth-pop to techno, as well as its more abstract, experimental variants.
Michael Rother's guitar minimalism is a connecting thread weaving through and between several of the most innovative of the '70s German bands. When Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider briefly separated in 1971, Rother joined Schneider in Kraftwerk. Also present, on drums, was the late Klaus Dinger, with whom Rother formed Neu! later the same year. Between Neu!'s second and third records, in 1973, Rother teamed up with Cluster's Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius as Harmonia, a project spawning two studio albums, Muzik Von Harmonia and Deluxe, plus two posthumous releases: Live 1974 and a collaboration with Brian Eno, Tracks And Traces. By 1977, Rother had hooked up with Can's drummer Jaki Liebezeit and embarked on a solo career that continues today.
Despite solo success, particularly with his first three records, Rother is still most widely known for his work with Dinger in Neu! Immensely creative as an artistic unit, Rother and Dinger were never friends, and by the mid-'90s, with the band long dead and its three original albums out of print, the pair's relationship had been reduced to an exchange of fraught faxes after Dinger - without Rother's approval - began putting out unreleased Neu! material on a Japanese label. Thanks to Dinger's intransigence, the original Neu! albums remained legally unavailable until 2001, when Herbert Grönemeyer stepped in and brokered their release on his Grönland label, which later also issued Harmonia's archival Live 1974. The latter prompted renewed interest in Rother's recordings with Roedelius and Moebius, which in turn led to the reactivation of Harmonia for live performances from 2007 through early 2009.
Now, on the occasion of Grönland's expanded reissue of Harmonia and Eno's Tracks And Traces, Michael Rother looks back over a career of sometimes vexed but always groundbreaking creative partnerships.
• • •
Blurt: How did you first connect with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius? Did you know them personally or just through their work as Cluster?
Michael Rother: We did a concert together, in Hamburg, when I was with Kraftwerk in '71. Cluster worked with the same producer - Conny Plank - and I'm not sure how it happened, but we ended up playing at the same concert in Hamburg.
So both bands were on the same bill?
Yes, they were playing on the same night: it was Kraftwerk and Cluster in the big university hall there. There's a funny story about that. I'll never forget that concert. Kraftwerk were quite popular already. The first Kraftwerk album had been released some months earlier and so, obviously, for the crowd, we were the main attraction, but we were so democratic [laughs] that we talked to Roedelius and Moebius backstage and asked, "Who should go on first?" And they said, "Oh, you go on first and then we'll take over." There are hardly any documents of what we did as Kraftwerk, but we'd really been making quite rough music and people were very excited and when we wanted to stop our set, the people just kept on cheering and shouting and we said, "No, we have to stop because the other band's coming on." And then, when Cluster started playing, the people got really mad and they rushed the stage. I don't know how many, but maybe twenty or thirty people actually went onto the stage and disconnected their speakers and equipment. I was afraid they would start beating them up. That was the result of Kraftwerk's furious playing!
These days people don't tend to think of Kraftwerk as a rock band whipping crowds into a frenzy!
Cluster played very soft music, but what we did as Kraftwerk then wasn't very soft. It was quite the opposite: it was very rhythmical, very rough, primitive, raw music. Well, that was my memory, at least. Maybe they weren't really in danger of being beaten up, but it's something I'll never forget. So anyway, after that we stayed in touch and one year later, when we had already released our first Neu! album, we had this offer to do a tour in the UK. Our British label, United Artists, invited us and of course the two of us, Klaus Dinger and I, couldn't perform live - playing just drums and one guitar, that's not enough. And then I remembered especially this one track on Cluster II, Im Süden. That track really appealed to me and I had the idea that the harmonious, melodious connection was there. So I went to visit Cluster in Forst and jammed with Roedelius in order to find out whether they could join Neu! on that tour, as members of the live line-up. But, actually, in the end I liked that music much more than Neu! so [in 1973] I stopped Neu! for a while.
What was it about Cluster that you found so attractive - attractive enough to put Neu! on hold?
When we jammed together it was a different world, a different atmospheric world. It was quiet. Roedelius played these melodious patterns on his keyboard - I think there was maybe some influence from minimalist composers - and there was the sound treatment, of course. Sometimes it was fuzzy - he used wah and other filters. It was very primitive gear, actually. Nothing sophisticated. In fact, it was very similar to what I had been using with Neu! but the combination of Roedelius's piano, his electric piano, and my guitar was immediately something that connected. And, well, there was so much to discover on that road.
You mentioned minimalism. Had you listened to composers like Terry Riley by then?
Not by that time. Until then, I hadn't come in contact with any of them. It was only really when I met Roedelius and Moebius.
How did working with them as Harmonia compare to working with Klaus Dinger in Neu!?
Well, there were several differences. One big difference was that with Cluster as Harmonia we could create music onstage: it was a complete musical picture. That was totally different to Neu! With Klaus, we needed the multitrack machine and that limited our possibilities, of course. And also, to be honest, I respected Klaus as an artist, as a great drummer, but as I'm sure you'll have heard, we were so different in character and personality. Maybe sometimes the impression that's created is wrong, but we weren't friends. I didn't want to spend any time with Klaus outside the studio. In the studio, it was perfect. We were a great team. We didn't have to discuss music in the studio because we had similar visions of where we were heading and what we wanted to do. But everything else was not so pleasant for me with Klaus. With Moebius and Roedelius, it was different. Klaus thought of himself as a hippie - in later days he referred to himself as a hippie-punk or something like that - but the calmness and surroundings of Forst had a strong appeal to me, and this all connected. It was just one big excitement. The visit to Forst was inspiring; it was an inspiring place for me to stay.
As you say, you and Klaus had very different personalities and you weren't friends. How did you come together initially?
I met him when I stumbled into the Kraftwerk studio in Düsseldorf one day, in early '71. At that time, I was working in a psychiatric hospital, as a conscientious objector [in lieu of compulsory military service], and I was with a friend who was also a guitar player and we were in Düsseldorf demonstrating against something or other - I can't remember what it was [laughs]. At the time, there were so many reasons to be angry. Anyway, after the demonstration he said, "Oh, I have this invitation to go into the studio of a band here in Düsseldorf. They want to do some film music or something." He told me the name of the band and that didn't ring a bell - I hadn't heard of the name Kraftwerk at the time. So, I joined him and I jammed with Ralf Hütter in that studio. Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger were sitting on the sofa listening and, obviously, everyone had the same impression that there was something happening musically. I got on very well with Ralf Hütter. He was also a big surprise for me because there was no need for discussions: it was just the similarity of our music, our harmonious, melodious ideas maybe - something like that - as opposed to the blues-oriented rock musicians playing guitar solos that were around all the time in the late '60s.
Although you'd originally been inspired by Anglo-American rock, you weren't interested in reproducing it.
Well, I grew up imitating all those people. I mean, the last one who really knocked me off my feet was Jimi Hendrix and I still love his music. It's still inspiring and it's so amazing what he did at that time. But, of course, it was necessary to forget what I had heard and what I had been impressed by in the late '60s in order to be able to move forward and create my own music. And when I met the Kraftwerk guys, that was suddenly a sort of... in English do you have the phrase Hour Zero?
Yes, or Zero Hour or maybe Year Zero if you're talking about big socio-cultural paradigm shifts.
In German it's a very common expression, Stunde Null. It's used for postwar Germany, after the collapse of Nazi Germany. And everything started for me at that moment in '71, with Kraftwerk. So my main idea was to forget the clichés, all the guitar techniques and song structures of my teenage heroes, which I had so carefully adopted and copied. The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Hendrix were already around, I understood that, and copying their ideas would never be an expression of my own musical personality. The first thing I did was to slow down my fingers: no more running around on the guitar neck at high speed. Then, consequently, the ideas of pop music and blues - their melodic and harmonic song structures - were scrapped from my musical vocabulary. All of this left me with the basic elements of music. One string, one idea, move straight ahead, explore dynamics. An echo of my listening to music in Pakistan, probably [where Rother lived as a child]. Anyway, this minimalistic approach was not limited to guitar playing. It was an idea for a complete music which - in the end - was meant to express and reflect my own personality and individuality. It probably sounds very ambitious and self-confident - but that's what I was, what we were. The future wasn't clear, I didn't know in 1971 where the musical adventure was taking me, but it was a vast open ground with lots of freedom and the chance of limitless experimentation.
So when you were working with Kraftwerk and then Neu!, you consciously tried to cut yourself off from the rock tradition.
Yes, completely. You know, it wasn't enough just to forget the English and American musical heroes. German also... Actually, there were really no German musical heroes that I can remember - whatever I heard from German musicians was something that didn't impress me. Later on, when I played with Kraftwerk, we also met the Can people. We had, I think, one or two concerts together and, of course, later on I listened to their albums - not closely, but enough to know that Jaki Liebezeit was a great drummer. And that, of course, led to our collaboration later.
And you only felt musical kinship with people like Can, Kraftwerk and, of course, Cluster?
Yes. Maybe that's some sort of a family, but with very loose ties. I chose to be influenced and inspired by the people I collaborated with and not, you know, by just anyone who put out a record.
By the time you joined Kraftwerk, they'd already released that first album.
Yes, that's right. It was a few months earlier and they were becoming popular. I remember there was talk about the "Heroin Crowd" in Munich being totally taken by this first album, and then, when we did our concerts, our tours, there were so many people, especially young people, who discovered the music and it took off like a rocket.
Is there any chance that the work you did with Kraftwerk will be officially released? Some of the aborted studio work with Conny Plank or the live material?
It's hard to say. I hesitate to say never because many things happen that in earlier times I wouldn't have considered possible. I mean, the lost Harmonia tapes with Brian Eno, for instance - the Tracks And Traces tapes. But I know, of course, that Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter did their best to forget the period in '71 when they were separated. They tried to erase that part of their history, even saying that the actual Kraftwerk story starts with Autobahn in '74, which is quite ridiculous.
They certainly did some interesting work before Autobahn.
Yes, and some of the best work, in fact. Of course, I haven't discussed that with them; I haven't spoken with them for ages. Now I hear that they've split. I met Karl Bartos recently, who was with them for a long time, and he tells me it's only Ralf Hütter now. But as for the recordings we did with Conny Plank, to be honest, they weren't great. That was one of the reasons we stopped halfway through, because, well, maybe it wasn't the right combination. When we did it live, sometimes in the right situation, the music got very, very exciting - for us onstage and also for the crowd. I think that the videotapes and the bootlegs that are available do not reflect that. Some of them are completely wrong in the audio balance. I think the reason for this is that the technicians didn't realize how important the stuff was that Florian Schneider played. Instead, they concentrated on my guitar much too strongly, making it dominate everything. And I thought that Florian did amazing things on the electric flute, especially. If there would be a possibility to remix that, to do proper audio balance, I guess it would be much more exciting than what is available, but I don't see Florian or Ralf Hütter at a certain time suddenly approaching me and saying, "Hey this has to be released!" [laughs]
You're not in touch with Florian Schneider at all these days?
No. I have friends who sometimes see Florian. I don't know, maybe I'll meet up with him one day. He seems to be getting calmer since he left Kraftwerk. But no, there was no reason to stay in touch. I mean, we weren't friends either. The music was exciting, but I also remember being witness to some horrible fights between Klaus and Florian: horrible arguing... and really crazy driving! Florian was such a crazy driver. I think he risked our necks many times because he was so on-edge. Everything was the complete opposite of being relaxed and driving with foresight. He didn't drive carefully... or maybe that was just my impression because I didn't have a driver's license at the time. But I think it was quite true because that's how Florian always appeared to me anyway.
Let me ask you about the dreaded term Krautrock. This was a term invented by the British music press, I think.
I can't say. It could well be, but there are several versions of the origin of this word. You know the band Faust? I heard they had a song called "Krautrock," but I don't know their music.
You've never listened to Faust?
Not really. Well, actually someone once gave me a record [laughs], but [listening to other people's records] isn't so important, really. I mean, I have my own job to do!
That's funny. Although it's heavier, Faust's Krautrock sounds vaguely similar to the kind of thing you were doing earlier with Neu! on Hallogallo.
Hmmm, maybe I should go and listen to Faust.
Did you find the term Krautrock at all offensive? Or was it amusing?
I'm not sure when the expression first came up, but I remember that in '72, when our first Neu! album was released in the UK, there were some very favorable reviews - but there were also some in which there was this old fear, do you know what I mean? Maybe it was something to do with a fear of Germany, the Teutonic cousins: a mixture of admiration and revulsion.
In my experience, at least, we British have a very, er, ambivalent relationship with the Germans.
Well, not on my side [laughs]. But many journalists and people didn't seem too fond of whatever came out of Germany - especially if some musician thought that he'd invented something that was independent of what British or American musicians had made. That was something that the music scene first had to get used to. I mean, everyone in England and America was mostly - and maybe even now is - used to dominating the world with their products and with their culture. [But the rejection of their dominance was] what led us to concentrate on our own roots; our own ideas had to do with Vietnam and, of course, also with Nazi Germany. A lot of the '60s cultural struggles and political struggles went into our way of thinking.
You've touched on this, but did you see anything particularly German about your music?
That's interesting. For me the term German didn't mean anything. It wasn't connected to a specific German idea. I think Kraftwerk are a bit different - at least that's what I read somewhere - in that they had this idea of creating a German music, a German musical identity. But I know that my own influences come from all over the world, so it doesn't make much sense in my case: most of my time growing up, I lived in Germany, of course, but then as a child I also lived in England for a year and then Pakistan for three years.
Didn't you live just outside of Manchester?
Yes, and from there we moved to Karachi. And speaking of influences, I remember these Indian, Arabian musical sounds, the bands walking the streets, and the fascination I experienced.
You mentioned that that had an effect on the way you played later.
Oh yes, definitely. The idea of repetition and a sort of endless music, as opposed to a verse-chorus-verse-and-then-stop kind of structure. I recently saw a documentary on television about Paul Bowles, the American author who lived in Morocco, who wrote The Sheltering Sky. His work is amazing. He lived in Morocco for many years and whenever I see programs like that, with that atmosphere of the Islamic world, it touches a spot in my soul.
Have you ever been back to Pakistan?
No. In my mind I have but, you know, looking at the political situation, it's not very desirable to be there in Karachi. I'm not sure. A friend of mine worked for a fashion company and she told me she visited Karachi a few years ago and didn't feel insecure. But no, I think I'll wait and hope for a better time. I don't think it's a good idea to be running around there as a Christian foreigner. It was different back then, but I did notice some changes happening in the last year I was there. Of course, we could talk for a long time about the necessity for cultural independence, but at the beginning, as a young boy, I wasn't aware of that. But when I was 12, I remember once there was some sort of unrest. There were crowds outside the boundary of the school, outside the high walls of the school. They were demanding that the school should respect their religious holiday and close for that day; and so all these people stormed into the compound and I called home and said, "Please send the driver. We're having a revolution!" [laughs]
Did you go to university in Germany?
I tried, but I'm not sure whether I was really trying. I was interested in psychology. I mean, I worked in that psychiatric hospital as a conscientious objector and, next to music, psychology was something that interested me. But I sat in class with long hair and I stuck out from the other twenty-eight students and I just thought about music all the time. My mind just wandered off all the time. It was clear very soon that, apart from music, nothing could get me excited.
What did the name Neu! mean to you?
At the time I was quite unsure. I thought it was too cool. You know it means "New!", of course. Obviously, it was perfect for what I had in mind and what Klaus had in mind and it was also a bit cheeky, you know, with the exclamation mark. A lot of people thought, "What's that?" So it was strange. And there was also the first Kraftwerk album, also with this kind of minimalist artwork approach. But it stuck out in the shops, of course.
Was it Klaus who did the cover art on the Neu! albums?
Yes. He made suggestions and I said, "OK, let's do it that way." Klaus had this to offer. We didn't argue about it. We talked about the details and moved on. Everything went very fast, actually, with Neu!
Neu! anticipated punk and post-punk: the DIY artwork, the experimentation, the simple beat, the guitar sound on the song Hero; in turn, the more interesting punk and post-punk artists cited Neu! as an influence. Did you have much interest in punk?
Not really. I liked some of the music, but in a distant way, and I didn't share the emotional side. The emotional connection was something that was true only to Klaus. I guess Klaus had quite strong frustrations about his life and a lot of anger at people. That's something that separated us also - the way we reacted to rejection and things like that. Klaus had this attitude, in later days at least, that was like, "Everyone who doesn't love me hates me... and if you hate me then I hate you even more" [laughs]. I mean, that's putting it very simplistically... but I didn't share that approach, really. What I liked about the songs that may have influenced Johnny Rotten and other people - songs like "Hero" - is the powerful, strong forward rush of the rhythm, and I could put my guitars, my melodies, on top of that. It was much more the aesthetic of dynamic movement which appealed to me and not the emotions, like Klaus singing, "Fuck the company, fuck the press, fuck the program," whatever.
Did he become more difficult over time?
I think he did. Now that he's dead, he can't defend himself and I have to be even more careful about what I say. He wrote on his web site that he was proud of having taken more than a thousand LSD trips and that certainly affected his mental stability and also his ability to relate to other people, and that got worse. And there were certainly other drugs also. It was difficult to find the same reality in later years, to be able to discuss anything. When he released those two Neu! albums in Japan behind my back, I wrote him faxes and exchanged messages with him about all that many, many times, and my partner at the time said, "If you think you'll ever find an agreement, you're just as crazy as he is." Of course, she was right in a way, but there are also some other aspects. He was short of cash. He later apologised for what he did with the Neu! albums in Japan. On the other hand, he was a smart guy, so maybe that was a tactical apology in front of Herbert Grönemeyer, the head of the Grönland label, when he first met him [to discuss the 2001 reissue of the first three Neu! records]. So, yes, we couldn't solve our problems, unfortunately. But it wasn't just about money, of course. It was about even more important aspects: the betrayal and the way he put KLAUS DINGER all over Neu! 4 and the artwork and even wrote an editor's note in the booklet asking people to contact ME [laughs]. I'm not sure if I should laugh... but he was in a very strange mental state in later years, sending his faxes to everybody, even cc'ing the President of Germany: "Mr. President, this is not a free market... I wish you knew." Well, going back to my psychology days, I have ideas about what was wrong, but I won't talk about that.
Did he have family and friends around him?
Yes, well maybe it's being indiscreet but you know he had that band La Düsseldorf with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe? They had very severe problems. I think they were fighting in court over royalties for about twelve or thirteen years after the split of La Düsseldorf. Well, to say something nice about Klaus: I hope the impression I'm creating when I talk about him is that he was difficult as a person but that I really respected his work as an artist. You know, these days I'm in the studio working on the Neu! '86 material - that was the Neu! project in the '80s - and although I don't love everything we did or he did, he was a great artist. He just had some problems finding peaceful arrangements with people, especially when things went in a direction he didn't want them to go in. He could be very sweet [laughs] as long as everything went his way, and then he got very nasty when things went wrong.
When you were working with Klaus in Neu! and Kraftwerk, you also began your involvement with the late Conny Plank, of course. What do you remember about him?
With my projects, he was an amazing, creative guy at the mixing desk, with a very clear mind. He was very enthusiastic, open to all kinds of craziness. Conny was just as crazy as we were and I learned quite a lot from him, picking up his approach to changing everything, turning the sound upside down. You know, that was one of his credos: just turn everything upside down.
So he played an important role on the Neu! records.
Definitely. To be honest, at the beginning I don't know if we would have been able to record an album without Conny. He was a vital member of the team, of the production team, and he had experience. Of course, he wasn't as experienced as he was in later years, but he already had enough experience to be able to handle the studio gear and to handle the musicians. He wasn't the kind of producer who would have told us what to do - that wasn't our idea of having a co-producer. He was part of the team, listening attentively and also, at certain times, giving inspiration: for instance, turning the tape around in Hallogallo. I remember that clearly. It was exciting to hear all my guitars playing backwards, and then I played forward guitar to that - matching it.
That was Conny Plank's idea for Hallogallo?
Did Conny get along with Klaus?
[Pregnant pause] [laughs] You know, Klaus always wanted to crash through walls, to break down barriers. Klaus wouldn't accept a "no." That was part of his personality. He always wanted more. Always more. I remember Conny sitting at the mixing desk working on a track on the second Neu! album, trying to point out to Klaus that, no, he couldn't make the mix louder. Klaus always wanted more excitement. I understand that desire perfectly well, but in contrast to Klaus I think I was willing to accept that there were boundaries, that there were limits. Klaus, on the other hand, always said, "More! Make it louder!" [laughs] And sometimes Conny - well, he was a very strong person, of course - but I remember that he was a bit unhappy about those situations when Klaus just wasn't willing to understand that there was a "no" or there couldn't be "more." But otherwise, I think Conny respected Klaus in the same way that I did. We all knew that we were a good team and that we needed each other.
Getting back to Harmonia, in July '73 you put Neu! on hiatus and moved from Düsseldorf to rural Forst to live with Roedelius and Moebius. Did the communal experience shape how you worked?
Well, we lived in one house and shared the same bathroom and the same kitchen. We had very little money. Harmonia, you will have heard maybe, was such a commercial disaster and people really hated us. I mean, hardly anyone wanted to hear Harmonia in the '70s and the sales were very poor and surviving on that little money was very difficult. But it was a very important period of my life, musically and living together with these people. Actually, I still live in the same house now.
Was the first Harmonia album, Muzik Von Harmonia, created largely out of improvisation?
Improvisation, yes. It was just the idea of listening to what the other two were doing and then adding some ideas and spinning the tale. On the first Harmonia album, there are two tracks that we recorded live - Sehr Kosmisch and Ohrwurm - and it's quite interesting to look at those two tracks. Ohrwurm is just five minutes taken from a concert we gave for our friends in '73 and that concert went on for, maybe, one-and-a-half or two hours and everyone was either fainting or falling asleep because it was very hard to follow and there was not much happening. But when something did happen, it was so intense - and these five minutes of Ohrwurm belong to the most interesting music I think that has ever been made by Harmonia. But that was the situation in early Harmonia because we didn't have any premeditated structures in the beginning: when we played, we searched a lot, for a long time, and sometimes we didn't find anything. That was the logical result of not having any fallback plan.
Did the "searching" part of it sometimes get to be a bit much, then? You enjoyed playing live with Harmonia, right?
Oh, definitely. I mean, the good moments were very beautiful and very intense, but that was something we started struggling about - about the direction of Harmonia: I wanted to change the ratio of the searching and the beautiful moments and increase the amount of good music but, well, maybe I wasn't wise enough back then with the methods I chose [laughs]. But it's difficult to judge. You can look back and say maybe you gained something but lost something else - and I guess that's what happened to Harmonia when we played live and we had more structured music. That's what happened when we did the recordings with Conny Plank in '74-'75 for the second album, Deluxe, which has more compositions, or at least more clear ideas.
So the approach on Muzik Von Harmonia was more experimental, whereas on the second album you had a stronger sense of what you were aiming for.
Yes. The first album was a collection of what we did when we were in the studio, just creating. It wasn't like, "Oh, we are recording an album now." It was just making music and having a tape running - and then we had to erase most of what we recorded because we were so poor and the tape, the Revox 2-track tape, was so expensive.
You had to erase what you'd been working on and recycle the same tape?
Yeah, we recorded over most of the tape and erased the music and that was one reason I am so happy about the Live 1974 recording [released in 2007]. You know, there are only a few documents, a few recordings, of Harmonia still with me in my archive. That tape remained untouched. I knew at the time that that was a special evening. It was a very special concert. We were on very good form. I was very excited because that night I fell in love with a girl who was there and I think that had a positive effect on my guitar playing [laughs]. But the reason we didn't record over that tape was because of its musical value, not its sentimental value. So when I transferred that tape onto the computer a few years ago, I was really surprised by the freshness and the quality of the music - and by the technical quality. And I was so surprised to get all that positive reaction from people when we released it.
Was the material on Live 1974 edited down considerably?
Well, to be honest that was the way we played back then. Sometimes we didn't know how to stop. So the endings could be as long as the whole idea because we just grew softer and softer and faded - everyone had these volume pedals. In a way, we were shy also and we just didn't know how to stop and so the endings could be very long. So for the album, I left out what wasn't necessary on the recordings. Apart from that, I didn't have to do much - just some level adjustments. There's no trickery involved on Live 1974. That's how we sounded; that's what we did.
Do you remember how the audience responded?
I don't think they paid much attention [laughs]. In the press release, I think I said that you can't hear any crowd noise because maybe they were all too stoned to react. Maybe that was true but, to be honest, I think that people just weren't very excited about us. So if you listen closely, especially if you use headphones, on the fade-outs you can hear people talking. There weren't that many people in the club. It was a very special club, though. I played there with Kraftwerk a few years earlier and also had a great evening, so it must have been a very special place. It was a cool place and cool people. The crowd was polite to us, but I don't think they had the idea that they were witnessing something that would create excitement thirty-something years later.
Harmonia met Brian Eno when he came to a gig in '74. Was that planned?
No. The story was that - I'm not sure - maybe he was on a promotional tour for one of his solo albums. It was post-Roxy. Anyway, he was in Bremen and talking to a German journalist who was a fan of Harmonia and Neu! - a journalist named Winfrid Trenkler. He was one of the two-and-a-half journalists who really picked up on our music and promoted it. So they were talking about our music and Winfrid Trenkler told Brian that Harmonia were playing in Hamburg that night and Brian said, "Please take me to see them." So we talked and we had Brian sitting in the first row in the concert at the Fabrik in Hamburg and he joined us onstage for a bit of a jam. Then we invited him to collaborate with us and it took two years to happen, but he finally showed up in Forst in late summer '76.
Around the time you first met him, were you aware that he'd called Harmonia "the world's most important rock group"?
I think I read that in the New York Times. Of course, when we met in 1974 he told us that he and David Bowie had been talking about us and knew all of our albums and that they were talking about how great they thought they were. So we knew about those guys, but I'm not sure how many more there were, how many other people were listening to Harmonia. Maybe a few more people were listening to Neu!
So the Harmonia records weren't selling and no one was really writing about you?
Yes, that's right. We were really below all the radars.
It must be very gratifying now that Harmonia's work is garnering such a positive response.
I am especially happy for Harmonia because, when I started Harmonia, I was just as enthusiastic about that project as I had been when I started Neu! And I expected the same response. I felt my own love for a project and then thought everyone should feel the same way [laughs], and I found out quite early that that isn't always the case...
By the time Eno showed up to work with Harmonia, is it right that the band had split?
Yes. We split in summer '76 and all three of us recorded solo projects. I recorded Flammende Herzen with Jaki Liebezeit and Conny; Roedelius recorded Durch die Wüste and Moebius had a project with other musicians called Liliental. And in September '76 Brian showed up in Forst, and I'm not even sure if it's right to say that we were Harmonia then. Maybe we were three individual musicians working together with Brian, but we decided to call it Harmonia.
Were you all familiar with Eno's work?
Yes. We had the Roxy Music albums. I'm not sure how many, but they were around and we listened to them. I think what he did later appealed to me more, in a way. I think Moebius liked Here Come The Warm Jets.
Which of his records did you enjoy most?
How long did the recording last with Eno?
He stayed in Forst for, I think, eleven or twelve days.
Did working with Eno alter the way Harmonia worked at all?
I don't think so. It certainly isn't true for me, but I really enjoyed collaborating with Brian and having him around. It was a very creative phase, a very good collaboration. As you probably know, we didn't actually try to record an album. It just happened. We were just four musicians, four scientists sort of, and musicians, meeting in the studio and then exchanging ideas. It was quite similar to the way Harmonia worked in the beginning: one guy with an idea and the others listening and then joining in. I had a 4-track tape recorder at the time and it was four people - four musicians - and four individual tracks.
What did Eno bring to it?
I think Roedelius has some different memories from mine. I read somewhere Roedelius talking about Brian passing some notes, writing some notes...
You don't remember him getting out the Oblique Strategies cards?
I don't think so. My memory may be wrong. I remember Brian was very interested in cybernetics and talking about that a lot. But for me, it was just a case of him listening and then he processed my guitar and then I started a beat and processed a beat and he joined in. It was just very practical - the way I prefer to make music - not theorised: you just do it. Making sounds and not talking about it too much.
The result of the collaboration wasn't released for over twenty years. Was that because there was never any specific intention to make a record but, rather, just to experiment?
That's right. Well, the story was that Brian brought some fresh 4-track tapes, four blank tapes, along to Forst and when the tapes were full, he departed with them. Before he left, I made rough mixes onto a cassette recorder. These were meant only as a memo until Brian returned a few months later - the idea was actually to meet again and continue, but we now know this didn't happen. He went on to Montreux to record with David Bowie on Low and I'm not sure really where things went wrong or just changed course because I released my first solo album in March 1977 and that took off like a rocket in Germany and I was quite busy from then on and very happy with that. Roedelius and Moebius did meet Brian again a little later on and worked with him in Conny's studio. Years later - in the '80s - Roedelius came to visit Forst. When we talked about those 1976 recordings, he mentioned that Brian had told him that the tapes had disappeared and were untraceable (ha ha). We were all quite unhappy about that loss - but what could we do? It was very unfortunate, but then being busy I just accepted that. So I was surprised in 1997 when Roedelius suddenly sent us Tracks And Traces version 1, what he had unearthed: in 1996 or 1997, during one of his visits to Brian, Roedelius had found one of the four 4-track tapes and had mixed the 4-track down to stereo.
Were you at all dissatisfied with that first version Roedelius put together?
Well, at the time, there was a lot of friction between Roedelius and Moebius, in particular, but also between all three parties: Moebius and myself on one side and Roedelius on the other. I was especially unhappy about the way he had finished that project without asking us. The first thing I said was, "Well, the music is great, but why didn't you do it with us?" I mean, it would have been perfectly natural for us to meet and finish that album, finish that music. But he decided to do it that way. But then, on the other hand, the music was great and he did a good job and so Moebius and I just said, "OK, the music is all right. Let's release it."
How did the second version of Tracks And Traces come about?
I kept that cassette, the one I'd copied before Brian left Forst, in my archives and didn't listen to it for many years until I checked the material early this year when we started discussing the new release of Tracks And Traces. I knew that we had a good time and that it was a creative period, but I was surprised to find, I think, twenty-seven or twenty-nine fragments, ideas, sketches - most of which were worthy of release. I was astonished by some of that material I found, which sort of shifts the overall impression, the mood of the 1997 album. The musical quality of the tape impressed everyone to the extent that we agreed to neglect the inferior audio quality - the lo-fi sound actually has a special quality, quite befitting the project - and to release those documents.
So how does the new version differ?
I think it's fair to say that the first release reflects some of the dark moods which are common with Roedelius's work, but there were also other different materials - and maybe Achim [Roedelius] didn't have those materials when he did the first version. I'm happy now that the new version of Tracks And Traces has a somewhat different balance between a darker mood or atmosphere and a harmonious, melodious sound. There are three new short pieces - that's the sketches. The second track, I glued together out of two fragments of the same idea. Roedelius and Moebius were as enthusiastic about the music as me. With their consent I picked and edited the three bonus tracks. That wasn't a big job compared to the importance of the original material: the editing is not a big deal. I work like an archivist. It was an honorable duty to unearth and to feature that material in the best possible way. But it's nothing that I can use for my ego. That's not the idea.
It's interesting that you haven't incorporated the new tracks in the conventional sense - i.e., by tacking them on the end. You've sort of reframed the original release.
That's right. I thought about the best way to connect the new tracks to the original release and felt that it would be boring to just add them at the end. So I decided to play around and had the idea to present two tracks at the beginning and another one at the end, which is like a frame to the original version. But if you listen to it, I hope you can understand why I thought that was a good idea. When I did that, everyone was happy with the idea and so that's how it's going to be released.
How involved were the others in the reissue?
Well, this time all the work with the music in the studio was done by me. The recordings were de-noised and I did the remastering in the studio in Hamburg, but there wasn't that much I had to do. I just made the choice of all these sketches that I mentioned, to complement the album and show what I think is a much more complete view of the material we worked on, a more complete view than Roedelius's original version of the album showed.
Harmonia reconvened in 2007. How did that come about?
I think the record company Grönland asked us, because of the amazing reviews and all the attention that Harmonia's Live 1974 was getting, especially in the UK. This great reception was surprising for me, but maybe not for the label. So the idea was, "Is there any chance that you could play live?" and I had been playing live with Moebius for many years, and so we all met and discussed it. We met in a good atmosphere, free of tension, and we decided to give it a try. It seemed to work quite well.
How does it seem different now?
To be truthful, no one would want us to start searching for one-and-a-half hours like we did in the early '70s. People would start running out of the venue! So the material was pre-organised and when we played live it was mostly one piece by Moebius, one by Roedelius and then one by myself, with each of us joining in whenever possible. That was the idea of the Harmonia collaboration in 2007 and 2008, until January 2009 when we were in Australia, which was great. But we decided to stop the live collaboration again. There was some arguing and quarelling - an atmospheric pressure drop [laughs].
Obviously, you can never say never, but does it seem to be over?
No, you can never say that because if you look at it in the right way, you have to realize how foolish all this fighting is. It's very difficult to explain in English - it's even harder to explain in German... The lack of wisdom in our personalities... On a lighter side, it was funny to see all the same psychological elements working when we met and first played again in 2007. Maybe it's not so funny and not even surprising, but we haven't changed, really. I mean, the surroundings have changed and the reception has changed and, of course, the sound is much better, but maybe only in a way. Maybe some people think the old sound is great.
Since Harmonia first worked together in the '70s, the technology has changed enormously. Has that altered the way you do things now?
I use computers and the effects machines that are available these days, all the amazing new stuff, but I'm still the same person; it's still the same vision of music. Also, some of the gear is actually still the same. I still have some of the same fuzzboxes I used in the '70s. In fact, I've just asked a technical wizard I know to readjust my old tremolo machines. I collect all that gear. It's like having all those different colours at your fingertips.
Your work has always combined an interest in technology with a human, emotive presence, which comes across in the strong melodic dimension. Are you aware of having to balance the two?
Maybe sometimes you're in danger of being too fascinated by the possibilities of sound creation - especially when I look back at the '80s and some of the things that changed then. I was completely fascinated by the Fairlight music computer in the '80s. But it all moves in spirals. The basic idea of taste in music hasn't changed - at least maybe only in some small shifts - but the gear has changed. Sometimes I use the same old gear. As long as you have your own vision, an idea, a vision that comes out of your own mind and that is not premeditated by some software program or some sound designer, then that's safe, that's OK. But I use all the new tools. I mean, it's great to have tools like the Kaoss Pad, for instance. The idea is to create exciting sounds, exciting music, and if you can do it with a wah pedal, a fuzzbox and a delay machine, like what I had in 1971, then that's fine. But it would be artificial to say that I can drop all the new gear and go back to what I had in the '60s or early '70s. It's the same idea with the amount of time spent recording. We recorded the first Neu! album in four nights and I remember being very anxious, very afraid of crashing - of failing - and we were very close to failing, I know, but it's something that leads to a special result. Maybe that's one of the explanations for the freshness of the first Neu! album - that there was not much time to reflect and to change things. We just had to move forward all the time, very fast. If I tried to work that way today, it would be artificial. In the early '70s, we just couldn't afford to hire the studio for any longer time.
You seem to have always worked in small set-ups - with Kraftwerk, Neu!, Harmonia, with Moebius and as a solo artist. Has that been intentional?
I'm not sure it was intentional. Originally, it happened because, most of the time, there was no one else around who interested us. If you imagine the situation in the late '60s/early '70s, if you try to remember, I was surprised, as I already said, that I met someone like Ralf Hütter - someone with the same melodic approach. That was something I didn't expect to find. Maybe there were other people in other cities, well definitely there were, but I didn't find out about them and so we worked with the people we knew. People are willing to accept that a writer works on his own or that a painter works on his own, and I think this can also be true for a musician: if a musician has an idea for a complete music, he can work on his own. Maybe it's a good idea to exchange ideas, to pick up inspiration and to stay alive in an exchange, but I think for me it's quite natural to work on my own, and it's been that way all the time.
Is it true that you turned down the chance to collaborate with Bowie on "Heroes"?
Well, that wasn't true at all. The story was that I talked to his secretary, who called me and asked me on behalf of David. I said that I'd be interested, but that I'd prefer to talk to David. Then David called me and we were both very enthusiastic and talked about details and so on. And then, another guy called me from his management, who wanted to talk business with me. Maybe I didn't give the right answers - I said, "Don't worry about the money, as long as the music's great" [laughs]. I'm not sure that they wanted to hear that! But I think that the main reason for the funny thing that happened next was that they needed to protect David from doing more crazy experiments in the '70s; the kind of music that David was starting to make wasn't popular. It's a fact that the sales were going down and his management was probably getting a bit restless or nervous about the sinking popularity of David Bowie. So, next, somebody called me and said, "I have to tell you that David's changed his mind and he doesn't need you." So that was that, and I thought, "That's funny - that's not how it sounded to me!" But I was busy. That was in the summer of '77, after the release of Flammende Herzen, and I was in the middle of recording Sterntaler, my next album, and I didn't think about it that much until 2001, maybe, when there was an interview with David Bowie in Uncut magazine. In that interview, I read that he said something like, "Unfortunately, Michael turned me down," and also he mixed up the names "Dinger" and "Rother" - calling me "Michael Dinger." Later he contributed a quote about Neu! for the 2001 Grönland re-releases of the Neu! albums and we exchanged some emails. Anyway, I think one day we can talk about that, but I had to make it clear that I didn't turn him down at all. Somebody must know what happened. Maybe it was a mistake, but it seems logical that people were taking care of him. Also, I think David was also a bit fragile at the time, with drugs. Maybe they thought he needed protection, maybe against himself.
I understand you're preparing some Neu! reissues.
I'm working on a Neu! vinyl box set, which will include an LP-sized booklet with text about Neu! and some as-yet unpublished photos. I'm still in the middle of the project. So far, the idea is to release Neu!, Neu! 2, Neu! 75 and a re-worked version of Neu! 4 (which I think will be called Neu! '86 like we'd originally intended) including some material from 1985-86 that is as-yet unknown to the public. Plus - possibly - excerpts of Live '72 (the recording of a rehearsal). When I've finished editing Neu! '86, I'll check those live recordings and edit the highlights. I'm in the process of reliving that project with Klaus. When we separated, we weren't finished with the project and Klaus decided to do that behind my back because I think he was just paranoid and needed the money, etc. - well, he'll explain later when we meet again. But now I'm reliving that project and I will do my best also to present what we did in the '80s in what I think now is the best way. Then, sometime after the vinyl box set, if everything goes OK, we also plan to release a new CD version of Neu! 4/Neu! '86 and to make available all of Neu!'s recordings for download. You see, there is still a lot of work to be done here. I met recently with Grönland and the last partner of Klaus and I'm optimistic that we'll agree. She understandably hopes that we will release as much of the two CDs Klaus put out illegally in Japan as possible. I was happy to see that she also respects my reservations and my approach to this unhappy chapter of my collaboration with Klaus. I'm optimistic that we will agree on the best possible release for Neu!
When do you think the box set will come out?
We hope to release it later this year, but it could well end up being next year. What I really like about Grönland - and that's due in part to Herbert Grönemeyer being an artist himself - is that they respect artistic ideas. It has to be done in the best possible way. It would be best to have the box set ready before Christmas for all the fans. We'll see. It depends on how quickly I can find my way around the material. I was in the studio today editing one track and I've been transferring music from all the analog tapes to the computer. I also stumbled across some old Neu! music that I'd forgotten because Klaus and I split the tapes and he didn't have all the material in Düsseldorf when he released that version of Neu! 4.
This is all quite interesting and another piece of work for the archivist [laughs]. And when that's done, next year I'm thinking of doing some live solo concerts. I've been in touch with my musical friends of recent years. Josh Klinghoffer and Benjamin Curtis are both of course on my list and are excited to join me and also John Frusciante and Flea, actually. He's a great guy. We jammed together with the Chili Peppers twice in concert in Germany a few years ago. He told me that whenever I need a bass player, I've got one. I'm thinking of playing my idea of Neu! music and also some Harmonia and my solo stuff. I think that could really be very exciting. I'd love to play live again soon. Next year. I'm in touch with Barry Hogan for All Tomorrow's Parties.
I heard that when you were at ATP in upstate New York in 2008, you had to leave halfway through the My Bloody Valentine set.
[Laughs] Well, I was so tired. I had jet lag and I had to play the next day. I met Kevin Shields backstage with Benjamin Curtis and I talked to him. I wanted to see My Bloody Valentine and stay around, but halfway through their set I nearly fell asleep standing up.
Very few people can claim to have almost fallen asleep at a My Bloody Valentine gig.
It was funny. They were giving out earplugs to everyone. It was so loud, but there are magical moments in that music. I hope I have another chance to see them when I'm not so sleepy.