INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo FEBRUARY 2016 - by Andrew Male
The Kosmische guitar hero of Neu! and Harmonia saw his Kraftwerk bandmates find the success that eluded him. Michael Rother now revels in gigs and silence. "Do you do the smart thing, or do what you love?" he asks.
"I look into his eyes," Michael Rother says, "and I can see if he is sane or mad, whether he is going to play well or play terribly." Rother might well be relating an experience with his late, wayward Neu! bandmate Klaus Dinger, but no. He's detailing a possibly related fascination with errant English snooker genius, Ronnie O'Sullivan. We are sitting at a table by the draughty doorway of a Thai restaurant in Copenhagen while the former Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia guitarist describes his home life in Forst in northern Germany, now largely a place of silence where the sixty-six-year-old relaxes by swimming and playing tennis, or losing himself in the quiet complexities of the long game that is world-class snooker.
The restful nature of this home life might have something to do with how ludicrously at peace and youthful Rother appears in person. A warm, benign presence, he remains enviably handsome, in a manner that suggests the noble bust of some Roman dignitary. His legacy - with Neu! finally established among the greats, and Harmonia commemorated in the recent five-LP box Complete Works - is underlined by his vigorous ongoing roadshow, a "fast-forward" set of Neu!, Harmonia and solo tracks, with Rother backed by the killer combination of Franz Bargmann, guitarist in Berlin Kosmische acolytes Camera, and Hans Lampe, the sixty-three-year-old mensch-maschine drummer who played on the second side of Neu! 75 before joining Klaus Dinger in his giddy post Neu!-outfit, La Düsseldorf.
Later in the evening, after the trio have powered through a Shinkansen power-groove of Dino, E-Musik, and an epic to-the-horizon supercut of Hallogallo and Für Immer, converting the too-cool all-age bohemian hipsters of Copenhagen's Jazzhouse into a bouncing, sweating mass of head-banging goons shouting for more, Rother allows himself a small raised glass of whisky backstage. "It's thrilling," he says. "To be on the stage, in direct contact with people, and not in my quiet studio, this is a feeling I very much enjoy."
Rother still composes music, most recently a film score for 2015 bank-robbery drama, Les Brigands, an experience he describes as "a new feeling, collaborating with the images, the emotions of the actors" but he remains undecided as to whether there will be any more official releases.
"I don't know," he sighs. "Maybe I should put them out. I know it would probably be a smart move but that's a different perspective, whether you do something smart or do what you love."
You spent your childhood in Munich, Wilmslow, Karachi, Düsseldorf... What did your parents do?Why did they move around so much?
My father worked for BEA, then Lufthansa. Lufthansa were stationed in Manchester and we lived in Wilmslow for eleven months. That was such a sweet school. We had animals in the class, running around. Then my father was stationed in Pakistan, in Karachi. That was tough. This British military school. "Attenshun!" No fooling, very rough. I remember having bad dreams. But there was also the seaside, being in the water all day long, which is something I still carry in my life. Then my father was moved back to Düsseldorf. The idea was to just stay for two or three years, and then my father would take over the North American division, but then he got ill, had cancer and died, so plans changed. Money was not that great. So that story ended, we stayed in Düsseldorf and I started playing guitar.
When did that interest in music start?
In Pakistan. Already I had picked up an instrument, which you hear on Neu!, "the Japan banjo" [AKA shamisen]. I got that and tried to make a guitar out of it. Music was always there. And I have memories of my brother doing rock'n'roll parties in Munich. Little Richard, Elvis Presley. The thing I always loved about Little Richard was that strong sense of rushing forward, of not being restrained. Because he was gay, he was black, it must have been a terrible time for him in the '50s, so he found this solution, just crash through all the walls, just go through them. That stayed with me.
You've said another early music memory was hearing your mother play Chopin on the piano...
To be quite honest, I have no clear memory of that. I think this was something before memory, before I understood, and maybe that's even more important. All these different inspirations, Chopin, Little Richard, music in Pakistan, all that went together with the '60s beat music.
Your first group, Spirits Of Sound, were a covers band playing English pop and rock. Were they also a place of safety?
You're right, with my father being sick, yes. I learned guitar at home. I played for hours on end - twang! - it must have been terrible for my mother, but she always supported me. Her story was rather sad because she would have been a concert pianist but what with some sort of depression and no money, she had to go to work in an office, and use her piano skills for typing. We started as a just simple covers band. Everybody had started playing music in Düsseldorf. It was the British pop explosion: Beatles, Kinks, Stones. They totally fascinated us. Wolfgang Flür played in an excellent Beatles cover band called The Beathovens before he joined SoS. He was a good drummer, and he could also sing background vocals. Wolfgang Riechmann's speciality was his coarse bluesy vocals... Free, Peter Green, Cream. Very tragic. He was killed by strangers in Düsseldorf in 1978, two guys who'd been kicked out of several bars... they stabbed him and he bled to death.
You say Spirits Of Sound, were "just" a covers band but that's a great line-up of future German music names, Wolfgang Riechmann, Wolfgang Flür... and you were together until 1969, so...
Yes, it would be unjust to refer to them as just a covers band. We gradually moved away from what we called "sklavische kopie", slave-copy, to trying our own ideas. We took more liberties. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and... Jimi Hendrix. Leave a gap there because Hendrix changed everything. This was like somebody falling from the skies. A different star. I saw him play live in Düsseldorf in '68 and the sound was very poor [but] what I really loved was the studio recordings, the way he made the guitar do things I've never heard before. So beautiful. Then we moved even further away from these influences, like moving away from Earth, a spaceship out of the gravitation of these heroes.
So why did SOS split?
Because they went nowhere. I didn't know where I was going either. I became increasingly unhappy, unfulfilled with that music. I was this small guitar hero.
When did you become aware of this idea of "year zero", stripping yourself of all these western music influences? Did it coincide with what was happening politically in West Germany at the time?
You can't separate it [but] it's not like in February 1970 I woke up and said, I will leave everything behind! This was gradual. It was, OK, I don't feel like playing the old blues structures of American and British pop music anymore. I was also the youngest in the band and I was around these politically active students. You become aware of your own situation in society. I didn't feel like marching in the streets or throwing stones, but I noticed what was going on in the world, what was wrong; Vietnam, the very conservative German society... From '69 to early '71, I worked at Alexius Hospital in Neuss, doing community service as a conscientious objector. There was another guy working at the hospital who was into jazz [so] I looked into jazz. I tried. My girlfriend at the time, Ann Weitz, listened to The Velvet Underground. This was something. Waiting For My Man. Moe Tucker. This fluent forward movement, not aimed at the next stop, music that just goes on. I wanted to find out something different but I didn't know anyone. I was on my own.
So meeting Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider was a major turning point?
Oh yes. I was completely alone and this guy at the hospital, a friend there, who also was a guitar player, invited me one day to join him recording music with a band named Kraftwerk. It was one of those moments in life. Either you go right or left. Because I didn't know the band, I wasn't eager to go. Kraftwerk, what a silly name. But OK. Then, jamming with Ralf Hütter, I just picked up a bass and thought, "Wait a minute, I can communicate with this guy." We are musically, melodically and harmonically, on the same page. The same idea was in the air. Florian and Klaus [Dinger] were sitting on the sofa, listening. So we exchanged phone numbers. To be honest I'm not sure what would have happened to me if I'd stayed alone. Would I have started recording an album on my own? I'm not sure. I doubt it, because I'd already started studying psychology at university. But then I was with Kraftwerk, touring Germany, and suddenly I'm not alone. It was the opening to a completely new world, playing live and on TV. We needed the audience, the feeling of sweat and excitement because the music was not very sophisticated. It was very rough, very simple. With Klaus Dinger, his power came partly from frustration and anger at many things. Also, Florian, not going into private details, I didn't have anything that compared to the anger these guys experienced. But apart from all the struggles that went on, especially between Klaus and Florian, two very spiky characters, it was inspirational, playing with Florian and Klaus, meeting Conny Plank and Ralf and, even though we failed, recording the second Kraftwerk album.
Do tapes exist of those recordings?
Oh yes. I think Florian has put them into a vault. Everything before Autobahn does not exist. This is silly, but it's their decision. I don't know what's in their minds.
Given he was such a spiky character, why did you decide you wanted to carry on playing music with Klaus Dinger?
Klaus and I seemed to agree on the music more than Florian. Klaus and I were very different personalities but on a musical level there was no fighting. Never, never, never. We totally appreciated what the other contributed. Outside the studio I didn't want to have him around, he was not someone I wanted as a friend, but as a drummer, as an artist, it was obvious that he was amazing, the power, the seriousness he invested in the music.
Did any of the ideas on the first Neu! LP grow out of those aborted sessions for the second Kraftwerk album?
No. That music was quite different. When we asked Conny Plank to record the first Neu! album, Klaus and I did not even rehearse. We just had these ideas of what we would do. I had one or two melodies like Weissensee and Im Glück and we of course had this idea of one track that "goes to the horizon", like Hallogallo. I think that was the expression. My guitar? Clouds. There's this rail, or this road, and we storm along the road and then you have these clouds, this changing sky. Looking back I think, Wow, I was quite optimistic (laughs).
What was Conny's role?
Psychologically, a mediator, sometimes. We were like a triangle and because Conny was a very strong impressive personality, we could play around, not struggling like this (hits fists together). Conny was subtle, without ego. He did not push you. Maybe Klaus and I would not have been receptive to that. He was like a good conductor. He was able to memorise all these elements scattered on tape, doing this great assembling of sounds with just one reverb plate and one tape machine for delay. Quite unbelievable. At the time, I'm not sure there was anyone else in Germany who was interested in us. We were poor, but we decided not to ask a record company for money, to stay free and independent. We put our own money on the table and Conny shared the risk with us.
The speeded up and slowed-down tracks on the second side of Neu! 2 could be described as the experiment of necessity. Did that in any way influence your subsequent tape work with Harmonia?
That's interesting. I've never heard that question before. I don't really think so. Sorry to disappoint you. The thing with the second side of Neu! 2, neither Klaus nor me had anything in mind like that. Neu! 2 was not that pleasant. There was a lot of stress, especially that last night. At the end of a week in the studio, when we realised we were pointing our Titanic straight at the iceberg. How much music do we have? That's not an LP!
Maybe it also has to do with a lack of inspiration, trying to improve on Hallogallo with Für Immer, make it a super-Hallogallo. That was not a smart idea. Hallogallo, if you take one element away, the whole thing falls apart. Für Immer has violin, piano, backwards guitars, forwards guitars... because we took advantage of the sixteen-track technology for the first time, doing all the overdubs took up much more time. Maybe it's psychologically understandable that we sort of ran into this trap, trying to improve something that cannot be improved. Hallogallo, with the distance we have, it has, in its frailty, this beauty.
We talked a lot in Mojo 264 about Harmonia, the band you formed in 1973 with Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. Were you pleased with the response to the Harmonia box set?
Amazing. I think the record company are nearly out of stock. Maybe I didn't expect anything. I was just so happy to have this whole story of Harmonia in one place. I think I said last time that, originally, Harmonia was rejected totally. Sometimes you're lucky as an artist, and your own love is shared. What happened with Harmonia, this has always been... a wound is far too strong a word, but I thought this wasn't fair. Now the fans really seem to appreciate what we presented and, yes, I'm more than happy. How do you call it, the corners of my mouth are up to my ears.
Did Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider ask you to rejoin Kraftwerk after they heard the first Harmonia album, Musik Von Harmonia?
Yes, but I'm not sure that was the reason. They just knew me, and wanted to do a tour with Autobahn so they called me. We met, I played them Musik Von Harmonia. I was proud of the album. They nodded. "Interesting, yes" but I think that was not the reason they called me. It was they knew I could help them perform Autobahn. I had to decline because I was totally obsessed with Harmonia.
And did you hearing Autobahn feed back into Harmonia as well?
That's an interesting question. Maybe there's some truth in that, because the lyrics, of course, there is some similarity between the lyrics on Deluxe and Autobahn. I guess I have to accept that. While we were making Deluxe we came to overcome our shyness and I guess hearing Autobahn made it easier to do that. They inspired us. Not the lyrics as lyrics but the idea to open your mouth. I have great respect for Kraftwerk's output. Suddenly a German band was touring in the States, in the US charts. Of course, that made us think, if they can do it... What we're doing is not so much different, we can also do it as well. But Harmonia's Deluxe was not popular. It was just another flop, a failure.
How changed was Klaus Dinger when you went back to make Neu! 75.
Well, we had this contract for a third Neu! album and while I was working with Harmonia in Forst I developed some ideas that didn't work with Roedelius and Moebius that, I thought, could work with Neu! I think Klaus was becoming a bit big-headed, much more focused on appearance and image. He'd started a record label called Dingerland, with offices in the poshest part of Düsseldorf and he'd started working with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe as drummers because he wanted to move away from the drums and be the entertainer, hopping around on stage. He had this craving to strut. Some of his traits were not acceptable in my life, but we agreed on doing half of Neu! 75 as a duo, and the other half as a quartet, like he wanted. So we started with the quartet and I said, "OK Klaus, now it's time for my project." He was a cheeky guy and he just tried to ignore that. We sat together like this for about five hours. Nothing. Then, after five hours, he relented. He was a very demanding guy. I didn't really enjoy that.
When did you become aware that these projects, Neu! and Harmonia, which had not succeeded in Germany, were having a different kind of success and influence?
I'm not totally sure. Of course, when David Bowie called me in '77 [with the idea that Rother might work on Low]. And I knew from talking to Brian Eno in '76 when he was in Forst with Harmonia that something was happening, how they were talking about our music, but that was something quite isolated. In the '80s nobody talked about Neu!. A few years later I stumbled on Ciccone Youth, Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu! and I thought, "Hmm, that's strange".
Then you had these other signs that something was happening... Daniel Miller approaching us and trying to sign us to Mute. Then you had all these bootlegs. I saw stacks of Neu! bootlegs in America and Japan. Then unfortunately, with Klaus and the liberties he took with what he released as Neu! 4 in 1996.
What is the story behind Neu! 4?
These were recordings we made in 1985, '86 and then we stopped. We sent out the tapes to all kinds of UK record labels, probably a mistake because some of that music is really disappointing. The tapes didn't really find much support. At that time Klaus and I were already struggling a bit too much. I'd probably made a mistake doing too much work with Fairlight computers and electronics and Klaus was maybe also not that open. Anyway, we fought over silly things, stupid situations, sitting in my studio in Forst, arguing over whose mix was louder, instead of focusing on the basic idea of our music. In the end, we both lost. We decided to quit for the moment, split the tapes, seal the tapes. Years passed, then suddenly I get this strange fax from Klaus congratulating me on the release of Neu! 4, which was never meant to be called Neu! 4. It was Neu! 85. He later apologised for his actions, but not in a very sincere way. But Klaus was desperate, desperate for cash. I'm not saying he was a crook. He was not a normal crook, he just took some liberties, which you can't.
What were you able to do as a solo musician that you couldn't do with Neu! and Harmonia?
Well, first of all, I never wanted to be a solo musician, never wanted to do a solo record. It was more that Roedelius and Moebius did not want to continue Harmonia. I was quite unhappy. I had to realise that Harmonia wasn't going anywhere. I would have carried on. Keep on struggling! But they didn't believe in the project.
Looking back, a little wiser, I have to realise that the idea of this structured rhythmical music did not meet with their strengths, but at the time I thought, "OK this is our life." So we decided to do something separate and I made this arrangement [to record] with Conny Plank and [Can drummer] Jaki Liebezeit because, of course, I admired his drumming and I was fortunate, because [Rother's first solo LP] Flammende Herzen got all the recognition I'd always expected Harmonia to get.
You've repeatedly praised Jaki and Conny's contributions to your solo LPs but after Fernwärme, in 1982, you stopped working with them and started doing everything by yourself. Why was that?
The success of my first three solo albums allowed me to buy my own professional studio gear. Unlimited time to work on music and the best audio quality was a dream come true. After Fernwärme in 1982 I discovered the Fairlight and became totally thrilled with the possibilities. My decision to do everything myself on Lust [in 1983] was not a decision against Conny or Jaki, but the next logical step forward. Maybe I overdid it, but I never regretted buying that awfully expensive machine. To work alone felt totally normal.
That purely solo approach changed with your last album, 2004's Remember (The Great Adventure) which also featured vocals from the actor Herbert Grönmeyer and the English singer Sophie Williams.
I was in a bar in Hamburg with my friend Thomas Beckmann saying, "Thomas I want to start on my new album, but I need a human voice not just samples." Then a door opened and a cello came in, followed by a small lady. She asked the guy at the bar, "Can I play?" She started playing and singing. We both looked at each other and just smiled because it was like this is not happening. I was totally blown away.
Afterwards, I approached her and mentioned Neu! and Harmonia. I think she was quite sceptical. She went home that night - she was staying with friends - and what was on the turntable? Neu! She impressed me by not trying to impress me.
That album didn't go anywhere, and of course I was not happy about it, but in 2004 other things happened like the collaboration with John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer and then a year later my first ATP, and so a new chapter started, playing live dates around the world. I started liking that instead, flying to Mexico, Argentina, Japan...
And home has become a place of silence...
Well, yes, Forst has always been very silent. Me and my cats. I love my cats. They can't do anything wrong with me. I think the situation now is, let things happen. I have projects in the back of my mind and sometimes I think maybe I should do something but then I'm not so sure. I think now I'm a bit over the idea of sitting alone in my studio and chewing on material for weeks and weeks until I go mad.
My last question was going to be something about final goals left to achieve, but having talked to you I'm not sure that's how you think.
I would like to win Wimbledon (laughs), but you're right, I don't work that way. Everyone in my position should realise how fortunate they are. The way I live, the freedom I am experiencing, the reception the music is getting, all the smiles and all the joy... money's not the goal.
I can't really tell you anything I need to achieve. The idea of having wishes is something I doubt very much. Always asking for more? You have to realise what you already have. And even though the long road we've been talking about was also filled with moments of frustration and puzzlement, it always went on, somehow, and sometimes even better than what you originally wanted. What happens unintentionally is sometimes much better than what you originally had in mind.
Michael Rother performs at Under The Bridge in west London on February 5 (www.underthebridge.co.uk). The five album vinyl Harmonia box set, Complete Works, is out now on Grönland Records.
Kosmische guitar king's three key LPs.
WITH NEU! Neu!: Neu! - the first duo collaboration by Kraftwerk outcasts Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, recorded with Conny Plank in Hamburg's Star Studios, in December 1971, remains an album of luminous power. From the fragile, hypnotic intensity of Hallogallo to the futuristic space blues of Weissensee and Negativland's remorseless machine-tooled heavy groove, the music of Neu! has somehow resisted time, familiarity and imitation to remain modern, exhilarating and eternal.
WITH HARMONIA Harmonia: Deluxe - Of all the music Rother made with Cluster's Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius at their country retreat in Forst between 1973 and 1976, this is the most fully realised, the guitarist's elegant song structures lending a trance-like form and direction to the Cluster duo's electronic explorations and, under the influence of Kraftwerk's Autobahn, the addition of mantric vocal refrains to both Monza (Rauf Und Runter) and the title-track brought a melancholy humanity and giddy pop bliss to this elemental bucolic experiment.
SOLO Michael Rother: Sterntaler - It's a toss-up between this, Rother's solo 1977 debut, Flammende Herzen and 1979's Katzenmusik as to which LP best exemplifies his solo work. Sited between the naïve baroque atmosphere of Windham Hill and the mellow Buddhist electronica of Florian Fricke's Popol Vuh, but with a constant to-the-horizon vision, driven by Jaki Liebezeit's ever-precise drumming, Rother's memorable melodies suggest bright national anthems and Olympic melodies for new European utopias.
WE'RE NOT WORTHY
"Incredible!" Mute's Daniel Miller on Michael Rother.
"I first heard Neu! on John Peel in '72. That combination of repetition and Michael's strong melodic sense was incredible. Mute tried to reissue the Neu! LPs [but] Michael and Klaus refused to sign the contract. So when Grönland released them, as a label I was disappointed, as a fan I was delighted."