INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian APRIL 8, 2005 - by Staff Writers
AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE
The Hitler Youth, a Stasi jail, a Corsican nudist camp... he's been in them all. Hans-Joachim Roedelius, pioneer of Germany's experimental music scene, tells Dorian Lynskey about his extraordinary life.
In the spring of 1977, Brian Eno was living in Berlin, working with David Bowie on his seminal albums Low and Heroes when he journeyed into Lower Saxony to visit a remote farmstead called Forst. Two years earlier he had seen Cluster, the German duo comprising Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, perform in Hamburg and now he was finally taking them up on their invitation to see first-hand how they worked.
Surrounded by dense woodland, Forst had been transformed into an idyllic artistic community, where Cluster and their fellow musicians spent their days chopping wood and renovating buildings and their nights making music. Cluster and Eno jammed together in an old riverside farmhouse and recorded an album, the first of four collaborations. The title, Cluster & Eno, was prosaic. The music, mesmerising and pioneering, was not.
"We exchanged a lot," says Roedelius, his face gently creasing into a grin. "The main thing we exchanged was don't take music too serious. Life is more serious."
Roedelius is enormously restful company. He turned seventy last October but is trim and healthy enough to appear at least a decade younger. He has the close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and goatee of a hip college professor, and clear blue eyes. Although he converted to Catholicism in 1984, he emanates the benign calm of a Buddhist. His attitude is simple: if you make yourself open to the music, it will come.
And come it has. Roedelius estimates he has recorded, either alone or in collaboration, around eighty albums since 1970. His latest, under the name Lunz, is a collection of limpid instrumentals written with American keyboardist Tim Story. It comes with a disc of radical remixes by the likes of Elbow, Lloyd Cole, Ulrich Schnauss and Adem, which nods to the way Roedelius's sonic ingenuity and love of repetition have influenced ambient, dance music and forward-thinking rock bands. "There's an honesty about his music," says Adem over the phone. "It's heartfelt. There's depth to it. It's more than just pretty music."
Of all the so-called Krautrock performers who defined German music in the 1970s, including Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust, Roedelius is perhaps the most underrated and most intriguing. Compared to Woody Allen's Zelig by biographer Stephen Iliffe, in his seven decades he's encountered Nazis and communists, hippies and terrorists, Kraftwerk and Hendrix. Cluster played with Jimi Hendrix at a notoriously hellish German festival, one of the guitarist's last performances before his death in 1970. Roedelius saw a man for whom music had become a prison. "He looked like a broken-hearted man by that point," remembers Roedelius, sitting in the east London offices of Lunz's record label. "He was sick and tired of the business he had to do. It made me so sad because it wasn't true any more, what he did. He did it already and he had to do it again and again and again."
Roedelius was born in Berlin in 1934. His father was a dentist, some of whose clients worked at the city's giant UFA Babelsberg Studios, the home of films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Roedelius caught their attention and briefly became a child star. As the war intensified however, the family was evacuated from Berlin. When Hitler decided that every male with a pulse should shoulder a rifle and fight the Russians to the death, Roedelius was conscripted into the Hitler Youth. He was eleven.
After the war, the family ended up on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and Roedelius was conscripted again, this time into the East German army. "It was the most boring thing I ever had to do because of the political conditioning. They used former Nazis to teach the young soldiers lessons in communism!" He barks with mirth: "Because they didn't have new teachers - it was the same people!"
I wonder how he felt about being German in those post-war years. "I never did feel that I was German. I hated what the Germans did to the Jews. It was so horrible to me. I didn't understand why it happened. Of course, German is my mother language but I think I learned very early to be more cosmopolitan."
He fled to West Germany but, with no work and no friends, he decided to return. Having promised he could come back without fear of punishment, the Stasi swiftly reneged, accusing him of being a spy. He spent two years as a prisoner, working in the coal mines, until he secured early release by penning what he describes as "awful socialist poetry". In 1960, one year before the Berlin Wall was erected, he moved again, this time for good. He drifted through a series of jobs - gardener, waiter, rubbish collector - before becoming a masseur. "From '43 to about '73 I was always on the road. Never in one place for a long time. It was a good process to learn about things that you would never normally learn about. I was thrown here, thrown there. It took me a long time to become a musician."
Slowly, Berlin's avant-garde scene drew him in. He met the controversial cult artist Joseph Beuys and joined the cutting-edge eight-person electronic collective Human Being. Musically untrained, Roedelius made his live solo debut with a microphone, a handmade flute and an alarm clock. It was that kind of era. "It was a real movement," he enthuses.
Older by a decade than most of his contemporaries, Roedelius none the less embraced the zeitgeist. He took acid, sometimes while on stage; spent time in a Corsican nudist camp; performed a twelve-hour Cluster show in an art gallery; and released what he claims was Germany's first protest record, funded by the Catholic church.
His age was significant in one respect, however. Unlike many in West Germany's counter-culture, he had lived through the war. "I met Ulrike and the Baader-Meinhof scene but I didn't like it at all. I was there to take care of the children because their parents were always talking and talking and talking. And you see what came out. Nothing came out. I had to see a lot of violence in the war and after the war so for me it was easy to decide, 'No, I don't want this. This is not my thing.'"
One person with whom he did connect was his Cluster colleague, Moebius. "We are completely different people. He is Capricorn, I am Scorpio. But because we liked each other personally we didn't care. We did everything together. The only thing we didn't share was our girlfriends!"
Music critics have explained Krautrock as an attempt to create a distinctly European soundtrack, entirely divorced from the blues roots of Anglo-American rock, but Roedelius never saw it like that. Cluster listened to quintessentially American groups like the Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and tried to translate their spirit, along with musique concrete, psychedelia and Stockhausen, into radical, free-flowing electronica. When recording their first album, they would improvise for twenty minutes, then producer Conrad Plank would raise his hand to mark the end of side one and they would do the same for side two. Their music was stubbornly individual and hopelessly uncommercial. Despite working with more successful peers - jamming with Kraftwerk, recording two remarkable albums in Forst with Neu!'s Michael Rother under the name Harmonia - they never found mainstream success themselves. They split up in 1981, briefly reforming in the mid-1990s for tours of Japan ("splendid") and America ("shit"), during which the Chicago Tribune branded them "Twentieth-century music's best kept secret".
"I think we wished to have been more successful in earning money through just the music." So it didn't put food on the table? "It's still not feeding me," he laughs.
These days he makes music and writes poetry in his home outside Vienna. His output roams through jazz, techno, ambient, classical and world music, chancing upon unique hybrids en route. I tell Roedelius that iTunes categorises Harmonia as New Age and he recoils. "Ach! Horrible! They don't know how to categorise it. It's hard to know what it is. It's Roedeliusmusik."
If Roedeliusmusik has a governing principle, it is spontaneity. "I want to keep the moment. If I work too hard, mostly I don't like it any more. I just have to take it when it's coming. I'm just looking for the right pieces, like Marcel Duchamp." I ask how his life would have been different if his music had found a wider audience. He shrugs. "I don't know because it never happened." Is he happy with how it turned out? He smiles like a Buddha. "Of course."
Lunz Reinterpretations by Lunz is out on Grönland.