INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut FEBRUARY 2016 - by Tom Pinnock
ALBUM BY ALBUM: MICHAEL ROTHER
The German legend reflects on his career peaks to date: "I'm getting busier..."
"I am really quite the opposite of lazy," Michael Rother assures us. "I've been so busy and getting busier..." Despite not having released a new album since 2004, the Hamburg-born guitarist has rediscovered the joys of playing live over the past decade, taking the fruits of his influential, futuristic work with Neu!, Harmonia, Brian Eno and as a solo artist to fans around the world. Putting together Harmonia's lavish 2015 box-set and the Neu! '86 album at home in the rural Lower Saxony village of Forst has kept him occupied, too. "I've sort of lost interest in releasing new music," this once studio-bound artist admits. "Instead, I now try to add a creative element when I play live. Maybe I am approaching Klaus Dinger's idea, as I enjoy being in touch with the audience. In China last year I saw these people going totally wild, running, jumping around the venue and having the time of their lives listening to the music. This is what I really love now."
• • •
NEU! Neu! - Fresh out of Kraftwerk, Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger invent motorik and craft a kosmische classic.
Michael Rother: This fellow who was working in a mental hospital with me had an offer to do film music in a studio with a band called Kraftwerk, and I joined him. That's where I first met Klaus Dinger. We never wrote in Neu!, we just went into the studio and created the music on the spot. It came together while we were doing the overdubs. We took the risk of renting a studio for four nights. But during the days there was another session - with Ritchie Blackmore. One night I noticed my guitar was completely out of tune, he'd used it maybe. I was furious, but they gave me a few bottles of wine as compensation. If you take a track like Hallogallo, I'm still puzzled how it came together. The beauty lies in the fragility. When I did overdubs, I suddenly had this beautiful feedback, so I could play these long notes. Then Conny Plank decided to turn around the tape, and that inspired me as I love backwards music. I cannot stress how much we owe Conny, especially at the start, as we had no idea about the studio. He could pick up our vague ideas and shape them into something that made sense. His manual phasing on Negativland is great, too - take away the phasing and it's like looking at the track in its underwear [laughs]. When we tried to play live in 1972, Klaus and I, just as a duo, I tried to incorporate sounds from a tape machine, but people hated that, they were not willing to accept anything that they did not understand as being played live.
HARMONIA Musik Von Harmonia - Rother teams up with duo Cluster for this low-key, pastoral delight.
I went to Forst to check whether Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius from Cluster were suited to help Neu! onstage. But then I was totally taken by surprise when jamming with Roedelius and I discovered a combination; my guitar and his fuzzy organ playing, which lead into completely new possibilities. I was looking for more depth of melody and sound and harmony than just my own guitar and Klaus on drums. Harmonia was different - it was like musical love at first sight. When Dieter [Moebius, keys] joined in it was different again, because he brought in other colours and surprises and his personality. We didn't 'jam', that's something I'd like to point out - we made music. For the first Harmonia album we collected music that we'd recorded over months in our studio, you know, and it was very adventurous. For me it was an inspiring time, and that went on for several months. We recorded on one stereo Revox machine, then played back onto the second and added other instruments. I think two tracks on this album were recorded live. Ohrwurm is five minutes edited from a concert, it was just a glimpse of a two-hour concert where we were searching, searching, searching, and getting nowhere more or less... but in these five minutes something came, and those minutes of Ohrwurm for me are among the most exciting pieces of music I have ever been involved in.
There were two main reasons Klaus and I made another album as Neu! - one was that we had a contract with Metronome over three albums, and money was always in short supply [laughs]. But working with Roedelius and Moebius - who sadly passed away last July - was a very inspiring experience. I had this four-track which enabled me to record on my own and develop sketches. I thought some of those ideas would be suited to a Neu! LP rather than for Harmonia. Klaus was very unhappy when I decided to leave Düsseldorf and move to Forst. He tried to convince Harmonia of the idea of throwing all the forces together, but he was a difficult person. He was so strong-headed. It was amazing to work with him, but on a personal level he wasn't among my friends. The whole gang here in Forst didn't want him around.
But by that time, Conny Plank had started his own studio, so the situation was different. We agreed to do two different concepts on the album, as I was interested in working with Klaus alone like on the first two albums. But while I was working with Harmonia, Klaus started working with two drummers, his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe, as his big desire was to be right at the front of the stage. He wanted to sing, and he started to play guitar, so we agreed to split the time in the studio with one half as a quartet with the two drummers, the other half as a duo. Contrary to assumptions, we did not argue about the music, we were totally on the same page.
Hero is such an impressive example of the qualities of Klaus - even today when I listen to it I get goosebumps. We combined the elements, so it's wrong to think that Side One is Rother and Side Two is Dinger. Klaus was a very powerful and impressive artist and drummer. I can tell you one story... he loved to play with broken cymbals. At a Kraftwerk show, I looked up and the front row had open mouths. Klaus had blood squirting from his hand because he was so determined and powerful that he'd cut his hand on the cymbal - but he never stopped playing. He was not a sophisticated drummer, but he put everything into his playing. He had this determination to crash through any wall. Sometimes in later years he chose to crash through the wall even though there was an open door [laughs].
Eno came to a Harmonia concert in 1974. We were introduced, and he joined in after the break. When he told us about his understanding of our music it was clear he was listening to all of our stuff. He told us he discussed our music with David Bowie, which flattered us, of course. And we thought, 'Oh, at least someone is paying attention', as we weren't spoilt with compliments at the time. We invited Brian to visit us, but that didn't happen 'til two years later when he was on his way to see Bowie in Switzerland. He came to visit us in Forst and stayed for eleven or twelve days. There was no intention to record an album, it was just a private visit of this interesting gentleman with a lot of theories. We took walks, played ping-pong and sometimes we were in the studio. Sometimes only one of us went with Brian. I remember he once treated my guitar and sent it through his small synth, and I really enjoyed that - though I don't think it has been released. And sometimes we all gathered in the studio and switched on the tape-machine and just let minutes go by. We were just enjoying ourselves. I remember we did not talk about producing an album, it was just recording, recording, recording. I think we had forty sketches, sometimes only forty seconds, sometimes longer. Of course the idea was that Brian would return to Forst, but then things went a different way [selected tracks from the sessions were eventually released nineteen years later].
MICHAEL ROTHER Flammende Herzen - Sleek, propulsive and melodic, Rother's debut solo album made him a star in Germany.
Two months after Eno left, I signed my first solo album with a small label in Hamburg, and in early '77 my solo career took off like a rocket. I felt the same about my solo work as I did about Neu! and Harmonia. Even though I recorded sketches on a four-track, the real music happened when I was in the studio and deciding overdubs and melodies. Conny Plank was a huge help on my first three solo albums, and [Can's] Jaki Liebezeit is a wonderful drummer. Some nice elements happened in the studio - on my delay, the tape came undone during the mix, and if you listen to the last third of Feuerland there is this garbling sound and then it stops. That was the moment when the tape came apart. Conny had a synth in the studio that I wasn't familiar with. So I turned some knobs and it sounded just like Donald Duck, so Conny recorded it. As a boy in the '50s, Carl Barks' Donald Duck stories and the German translations by the wonderful Erica Fuchs are apart of my history. But I hate all the phoney Donald stories from the '70s - they have nothing to do with my love for Donald Duck. Flammende Herzen was not a success story until it was played on the radio. I lost all hope when I heard the distribution company only ordered one hundred and fifty-three copies for all of Germany. I thought, 'OK, history is repeating itself, this will go the same way as Harmonia.' But suddenly people got very excited - the label called and said, "We've sold another five thousand copies" [laughs]. I never understood why people loved this and not the other, like Harmonia.
MICHAEL ROTHER Katzenmusik - For his final album recorded with Conny Plank, Rother whipped ambient textures and fuzz-toned guitar into a sublime suite.
I tried to forget all the rock clichés, all the fast-finger guitar-hero stuff with which I had grown up, imitating my heroes. I tried to strip everything down to individual notes that made sense. Every note, every change had to make a difference. When playing at home, I had thoughts of these hazy, sometimes very distorted guitar sounds that I enjoyed. It was something raw, something that was not yet shaped. I think many people were confused,because they were not familiar with that kind of guitar sound they thought, 'Oh, so that's a synthesiser.' One of the ideas I had had already in Neu! - look at a track like [Neu! 2's] Neuschnee, I used volume-pedals to float the sound, to avoid the attack. And I used an equaliser, as I wanted to make my guitar sound like an oboe. In the mid-'70s, we knew these guys near Forst that built instruments, and I bought a modified fuzz from them and used it for those distorted sounds. A few years ago, I asked my studio guru technician to make a copy of that fuzz for me, and he said, "Haha, they made a mistake in the wiring back then" [laughs]. I said, "Please repeat the mistake, it might be part of that special sound!" After the success of the first three solo albums I decided to start my own studio in Forst, because Roedelius and Moebi had moved out. That was my dream come true, no more studio clock clicking away. I think I was very optimistic, not having a lot of experience handling gear like a twenty-four-track machine, a big analogue two-inch recorder and a big mixing desk. That was the first thing that came to my mind when my albums sold - I didn't buy a Maserati, I bought recording gear.
MICHAEL ROTHER Lust - Do the math: embracing the new-fangled Fairlight, Rother plays everything himself on this slick, sample-heavy LP.
In German the title means 'pleasure', which is funny because I know the English word has a completely different meaning [laughs]. In German it is more innocent... By this time I was deep into the Fairlight music computer. I was fascinated by the possibilities of sound creation with that instrument. Sound performance by composing, by writing down musical structures using mathematical elements. It was like maths back at school - bracket... dash.. two... - then if you make a mistake something completely different happens. I got so carried away by the possibilities of the Fairlight that I may have overdone it on Lust. I mean, the album is about joy, it's about what makes me happy, about what makes me want to do music and sounds and expression of these ideas, and at the time the Fairlight was very, very important. I first came across the sounds of the Fairlight when I was in Montreal in '82 at a film festival. I had made music for a short film. We were watching the film, Liquid Sky.The film was impressive, but what struck me was the soundtrack - the whole thing was made on the Fairlight. So then I had to buy one, which was insanely expensive. I was playing everything on my albums by now. Nobody would expect a painter, writer or a sculptor to work with someone else, and so if it's possible technically, it's perfectly OK to work on your own as a musician.
NEU! Neu! '86 - After success apart, Dinger and Rother tried to continue the Neu! saga - cue the start of "a very dark period" when Dinger released the sessions without Rother's knowledge...
After ten years of not working together, Klaus and I were both very successful with our own projects. La Düsseldorf sold even more albums than I did. In 1985 we decided to see whether we could come up with something together. So we started out in a studio in Düsseldorf and recorded for a week. On the last night, Klaus was not willing to accept that we had to pack up. He got so furious, he said, "No, we will continue." The studio owner said, "But Klaus, I have these other musicians coming in the morning." So Klaus ran out of the studio furious. Klaus came to Forst and we continued working for another two or three weeks. By that time, we were fighting over issues that weren't important. I remember we were sitting at my mixing desk seriously discussing that his idea of the mix was a third of a decibel louder than mine! We decided to stop and continue later. Years went by, and Klaus was acting in a very strange way. He was actually very proud of taking more than a thousand LSD trips. Then, in December 1995, he sent me a fax congratulating me on the release of Neu! 4 in Japan [laughs]. I thought, has he gone crazy now? I think he was fearing I'd prevent the album from being released, which was not the case - and he needed the cash. After Klaus died [in 2008], with the approval of Miki Yui, his widow, I started working on Neu! '86 - my version, as opposed to the version Klaus released, which was in my view not the best of what we did. I thought of Klaus during that process a lot, I tried to imagine what he would think of decisions. It was a chance to put something right.
MICHAEL ROTHER Remember (The Great Adventure) - The final album to date, featuring sumptuous electronic textures and vocals fromGerman superstarHerbert Grönemeyer and cellist SophieWilliams.
I thought I would like to use a singer, not a sample but a real human being. I spent an evening in Hamburg with my friend Thomas Beckmann, who collaborated with me on [1996's] Esperanza. We went for a last drink in a bar, and I was telling Thomas about my plans, but that I didn't know where to find a singer. Then the door opened and a young woman came in with a cello, and started singing. Thomas and I just faced each other and smiled, because it was so obvious. She had a beautiful voice, and she was also an amazingly skilled cello player. When she took a break, I told her of my background, and we exchanged phone numbers. I totally fell in love with her voice. We did just one recording session in Hamburg, in a flat. I had prepared about seventy-five sketches on my computer. Sometimes we did only one take, then moved on to the next one. It was amazing, really. After that session I spent months focusing on the vocals - sometimes I took only certain words or elements and even transposed them into different environments. I treated her like a beautiful instrument. Around that time, Herbert Grönemayer visited me in Forst to ask about putting the Neu! stuff out, and I said, "Herbert, I am working on some stuff and I thought there's at least one track where you could add some interesting contrast with your voice." So we spent two or three hours recording. I saw Sophie a few years ago. She lives near Birmingham and occasionally still does live performances. How do I put it... she hypnotised me!
Michael Rother plays London's Under The Bridge on February 5. Harmonia's Complete Works is out now