INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Prog FEBRUARY 2019 - by Rob Hughes
Michael Rother, the German multi-instrumentalist, played in three of the key krautrock bands of the '70s and continued to wow with his solo work, which is celebrated with a reissue box this month. The homebody and Monty Python enthusiast looks back over an extraordinary life in music...
Michael Rother confesses to feeling a little nervous. There's so much going on at the moment, he says, with interviews stacking up across Europe to mark the release of Solo, a ravishing new box set that gathers his first four solo albums from the late '70s and early '80s, alongside soundtracks, remixes and live recordings. The German multi-instrumentalist isn't used to this kind of focused attention. Not that he's moaning. "I'm not going to complain about having my past follow me," he reasons, "because these days, as Monty Python said in the lion tamer sketch, 'It's a boon!'"
At sixty-eight, Rother has every right to be proud of his past. His signature guitar work - abstract, minimal and innovative - was a key feature of the exploratory new music that emerged from Germany in the early '70s. He passed through not one, but three essential bands from that period, beginning with Florian Schneider and drummer Klaus Dinger in an early iteration of Kraftwerk. After aborted studio sessions and a series of gigs, he and Dinger then splintered to form Neu!, who issued three peerless albums between 1972-'75, driven by motorik beats and Rother's fluid sense of harmonics and rhythm. By Neu! 75, Rother was already working with Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius as Harmonia, a deeply intuitive collaboration that yielded a pair of experimental classics in Musik Von Harmonia and Deluxe. Brian Eno, who called them "the world's most important rock band", dropped by in 1976 to record a third, Tracks And Traces, though it didn't see the light of day for another twenty-one years. Rother embarked on a solo trajectory the following year, beginning with the sublime Flammende Herzen, which kicks off the new box set.
He still lives in the same house in Forst, in the rural enclave of Lower Saxony, where Harmonia rehearsed and recorded. "I'm sitting here in the kitchen right now," he tells Prog. "I can't ever imagine moving away from here. Some people think I'm a bit stupid, because whenever I want to go anywhere, it takes four or five hours. And there's no airport nearby. But the positive side is this beautiful landscape. Today is a sunny day, but usually in winter it's muddy, dark and grey. And dull, dull, dull. That's another Monty Python reference! I'm a huge fan."
Indeed, Rother chuckles frequently in conversation, whether it's digging up old Python quotes, remembering his early days as a budding guitarist or just marvelling at how his career has turned out. There's a more bittersweet edge to his memories of working with the late Dinger in Neu!, but, ultimately, he's grateful for everything. "I was just making music in the moment," he says. "Every day was a struggle, in its own way. I couldn't think ahead. What future generations might think was totally beyond the horizon. Nobody asked me back then: 'Michael, do you think this music will be important in forty years?'"
Has the Solo box set been in the works for a while?
It was certainly on my mind, and Grönland Records', ever since we released the Neu! box set and the Harmonia box set a few years ago. We started seriously working on it in 2017.
You started selling a lot of records when you first embarked on a solo career in 1977. Was it an optimistic time?
That was a surprise, to be honest. I'd been very happy to release the first Neu! album. [Co-producer] Conny Plank did a great job and it was a close shave, because we could have easily failed. But then suddenly people loved it. When I moved on to Harmonia I was equally convinced of the music, but nobody wanted to hear us back then, with the exception of David Bowie and Brian Eno. And maybe a few others that we didn't know about. I was just sitting here in Forst, working on the music with Roedelius and Moebius. It was totally exciting to be able to just create music all day long, for months. And years, actually. Then the second Harmonia album [1975's Deluxe] failed. Roedelius and Moebius gave up hope in '76. They said, "Ah no, Michael. This is not going to work, let's do something else." I was disappointed by the reception of Harmonia, but I didn't want to give up. I wanted to continue, but they didn't. So each of us recorded a solo album with Conny Plank. I made Flammende Herzen and again I was totally convinced about the music, but didn't know whether my own excitement would be shared by the audience. And suddenly, it worked! The label kept phoning to say how well it was selling and that they were pressing up more copies. This was a totally new experience for me.
Given the sheer wonder of the music, it seems remarkable that Harmonia didn't find an audience back in the day...
People ignored us. That was the best we could hope for. Whenever we'd play live, they'd start talking. We had little audiences - sometimes thirty or fifty. Once we even played to three people. It was a smart deal by the guy who ran the discotheque: "Oh, you can have the entrance money." And we'd driven six hundred kilometres to get there!
As a child, you briefly lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire. What was life like for you here?
My father worked at the airport for Lufthansa. That was 1959 and I turned nine that year. My mother said it was the happiest time of her life. There was still that thing in the air - don't mention the war! - but people were so kind and polite to us. I had good friends in school, they took care of me because I didn't know English and had to learn it. I have very fond memories of the time, playing football in the snow and swimming in the River Bollin.
You then moved on to live in Karachi in Pakistan. Was that the scene of your first musical epiphany?
This is something I try to understand looking back, but I clearly remember being hypnotised by this music. All the scales were so different, but it had this feeling that it could go on forever - just repetition, repetition, repetition. The whole music just fascinated me. It's all guesswork, really, as to what influenced me and to what extent - my mother's classical music, the rock'n'roll that my brother played, the Pakistan influence. It's like a chemistry set. Then you add the British beat explosion: The Kinks, Beatles, Stones. Suddenly you have little Michael with an electric guitar, trying to be George Harrison.
Was that the ambition to begin with?
Oh, we were totally fans of George Harrison and The Beatles, Keith Richards also, and The Kinks. Then all the other great guitar heroes that arrived later in the '60s - Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, who was this shining superstar. He came from the stars. I remember watching German television and seeing Hendrix. Everything changed from that moment.
When did you realise that music was going to be the driving force in your life?
I joined a band, we did concerts around Düsseldorf, playing at school dances. We were so happy just to copy our heroes. Then of course later we got more ambitious, but I think I really honestly never thought about making music my work, becoming a musician as a profession. It was all just passion, the love of music. I had some other ideas for a while. I thought I'd become a lawyer, then I started studying psychology. The whole world of psychology was fascinating for me. I even chose a psychiatric hospital when I did my time as a conscientious objector, because I refused to go into the military in '69. But at university I realised, "What am I doing here with these people?" I had visions of music while the professor was going on about something that was so different from my expectations. In all honesty, I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time. Suddenly I met Kraftwerk and then I was in the studio with Conny Plank as Neu!
1971 seems to have been an important year for you, starting off in Kraftwerk and playing on the same bill as Cluster at a show at Hamburg university...
That was a crazy concert. Kraftwerk were underground, but Cluster were even below that. Earlier in the evening we talked backstage and asked them what they wanted to do. The two guys said: "You start, then we'll come on second." So we rocked the place and people got so excited. When we told them that another band was going to play, they didn't want us to stop and started stomping. It was slightly frightening, people banging on the wood and everything else. When it became clear that it was now Cluster's time, twenty or thirty people came onto the stage and disconnected the speakers when they started playing. I was afraid there would be violence, that Cluster might get beaten up.
It's easy to forget just how abrasive that early Kraftwerk sound could be...
Oh yes. It was very different in the pre-Autobahn period. The albums weren't anywhere as strong as we were live. We really were primitive and very dynamic, it was just this music rushing forward and going crazy, which excited people. I have great memories of those live shows. Klaus Dinger was just sensational on the drums.
As Neu!, you and Klaus didn't get on together on a personal level, but you were so musically attuned. How did you reconcile the two?
Firstly, I never considered Klaus a friend. For me it was impossible. My girlfriend hated him. Everybody did. The women around Harmonia hated Klaus Dinger. He was so pushy and loud. It was very different in the studio when we worked together. It was just two people clicking. Klaus had these obvious qualities, which were very helpful with my ideas, and I think he felt the same about me. He knew that I was the guy who did the harmonic stuff and the melodies, and he could do the stuff that I couldn't. He was just crashing through the walls. He was so determined and played like nothing could stop him.
How did you resolve your differences?
The first fight I can remember with Klaus was during the recording of Neu! 75, when he tried to trick me. I was working with Harmonia then and Klaus and I had already talked about the concept for the Neu! album by the time he started playing with the two drummers, Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe. He suggested that we do the album with the four of us. I wasn't interested in those two guys and told him I'd rather just record it with him. So we compromised - one side as a duo, the other side as the four of us. When we went into the studio, we started with the four-band stuff. After a few days, when we were about halfway through, I said to him: "Okay Klaus, now it's time to do the other concept." And he went: "What was that?" He was that kind of a person, very cheeky and pushy. I remember that we sat in silence in Conny's studio for hours - maybe four, five, six hours - because I was totally determined not to give in: this was the agreement, so this is what we'll do. And then, all of a sudden, Klaus said: "Okay, let's go on." Which is when we did tracks like Isi and Seeland and Leb' Wohl.
Did Conny Plank act as a mediator of sorts between you?
No, Conny would leave the studio. In those moments he knew he would just be in the way. It was something that Klaus and I had to struggle through by ourselves. Conny was great when we were working on the music. He compared his role as a producer to that of a midwife. That was the modest way Conny Plank saw himself.
Are we right in saying that Harmonia happened almost by accident? You wanted to bring other people in to broaden out the live Neu! sound...
Yes, that's how it happened. I was thinking of the track Im Süden, from the second Cluster album [Cluster II, 1972], when I decided to take my guitar and visit Roedelius and Moebius. United Artists, who released Neu! albums in the UK, wanted us to come over for a tour, but with just Klaus and I it couldn't work.
What was so appealing about being in Forst?
There was so much freedom, so much space. And it was cheap to live there, because we didn't have much money. In fact, the whole project could only work because I had some money from Neu! and the Kraftwerk concerts. It was such a thrilling time for me to work with Roedelius and Moebius. When I travelled to Forst with my guitar in Easter '73, I jammed only with Roedelius, because Moebius was a bit more cautious. His qualities were at their best when he was spontaneous. Roedelius and I did the groundwork for the tracks, then Moebius added some blurps and beeps and whooshes. Playing with Klaus Dinger on drums was great, but it didn't add any harmonic or melodic levels. With Roedelius playing electric piano with delays, it was fascinating. There was lots of repetition going on and these slowly shifting curves. When I connected my guitar to that, this was totally new music, different from Neu!. I fell in love with that combination, so six weeks later I moved to Forst and started Harmonia.
Was it purely an intuitive thing or did you discuss the music you were trying to make?
We never talked about it. It's like not talking about love-making, you just do it. This was always my approach to making music. Of course you open your ears, too. That's how Harmonia played live, usually. Each song would start with one basic idea, then the others would listen, throw in ideas and keep reacting, taking the music forward step by step. The Harmonia times were wonderful on a musical level. That collaboration enabled me to develop new ideas in music, which I couldn't have done without Roedelius and Moebius.
When Brian Eno came to visit, did he instantly slot into that mentality?
Brian had already been to a concert of ours in 1974, in Hamburg. He'd arrived in Bremen that day on a promo visit and, luckily, met the only German journalist who was interested in our music. There weren't many at all, it was tough. The music magazines in Germany wrote about bands like the Bay City Rollers and Slade. But German music? "No, we don't need that!" Brian was talking to this journalist about his love of Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Neu! and Harmonia. And he said, "Harmonia are playing tonight in Hamburg, which is only an hour away. Please take me there." So we're up there playing and there's this guy dressed in black sitting in the first row, with two friends who were also dressed in black. Then we were introduced and Brian joined us on stage. He seemed to know everything about our music and we invited him to visit us, but it was two years until he called to say: "I'm on my way to record with David Bowie in Switzerland. Would it be OK if I came to see you?" That was in September 1976, after Harmonia had split. But we didn't want to turn him down, so I remember we picked him up at the airport in Hanover. There was no real plan. It was just talking, going for walks, drinking tea, playing table tennis. We were playing around, sometimes only two of us, sometimes four. I remember Brian treating my guitar through his EMS synth. He'd brought along maybe three big blank Revox tapes, which we couldn't afford because we were poor. Anyway, he left with the tapes, full of music, and said he'd be back soon and we'd continue. But it didn't happen that way.
You stopped playing live when you started your solo career in '77, then didn't resume again for over twenty years. Why was that?
As a solo artist in the '70s there were people approaching me, asking me to play at festivals. But the technology wasn't there and I didn't know any musicians that I wanted to play with. The idea of hiring some session musician and telling him exactly what to play wasn't what interested me. Back then, I would've needed a band of at least eight musicians to play tracks like Flammende Herzen or Sterntaler or Fontana Di Luna. I have my own studio and bought some professional recording gear in '79, so that's where I spent all those years. I was just enjoying myself, recording and developing music. There were no boundaries when it came to being inspired. I was just, "OK, this melody is really interesting, so I'll follow this for a while." Then sometimes you turn left or right and end up in a completely different area, like a dog running around in the garden. In the late '90s technology was suddenly coming up with computer programmes and audio with pre-arranged material to combine with the things you play live, so I became interested in performing again.
Your last album was 2004's Remember. Will there be a follow-up anytime soon?
That's the difficult question. Maybe it's understandable that after spending all those years in the studio, working on new recordings, I'm not that excited about the idea of spending another three, four or six months there, going crazy over small changes. You can spend endless time exploring all these sounds, especially with the technology available today. I did music for two films in the last few years [Die Räuber and Houston], which was a wonderful challenge. I really enjoyed doing that and all of it happened by chance, when the phone rang or emails came in, asking if I'd be interested. But what I really enjoy these days is playing live. Most of my concerts these days are a mixture of Neu!, Harmonia and solo stuff. There's a handwriting or a style to what I do - a balance between harmonics, melody, rhythm and sound exploration. I just feel free to go wherever I like.
Solo is out Feb 22 via Grönland.