INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Perfect Sound Forever MARCH 10, 1998 - by Billy Bob Hargus
Michael Rother, a former member of three of the most influential German bands (Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia), is deservedly at the head of the current "Krautrock" revival. David Bowie (whom he turned down) and Brian Eno (whom he didn't) are among his biggest fans, and Michael's work has continued to influence some of underground rock's biggest artists, including Sonic Youth (who named a song after Neu!), the overt Neu! tribute act Stereolab, and Negativland (whose name and record label came from Neu! song titles).
The Neu! catalog is in the process of being legally reissued (after years of dodgy bootlegging), and soon some of Michael's greatest work will be heard as originally intended. Additionally, a Neu! tribute CD is on the way, with contributions from Autechre, System 7, Legendary Pink Dots and Michael himself (as well as liner notes by Perfect Sound Forever's publisher, Jason Gross).
Special thanks to Thomas Ziegler for being tolerant, helpful and having a good sense of humor.
Perfect Sound Forever: What kind of music were you involved in before Kraftwerk?
Michael Rother: Before I joined Kraftwerk - in 1971 - I played guitar in a band called Spirits of Sound, whose members included, at times and amongst others, singer Wolfgang Riechmann - Sky Records released his only solo album Wunderbar shortly after his death in 1978 - and drummer Wolfgang Flür (later of Kraftwerk, now solo). The music of Spirits of Sound, in the mid-'60s, was very much like the English pop and rock music of the times: Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones. As a fan of those bands and the guitar players Harrison, Clapton, and Hendrix, I learned the basic concepts of pop music by imitating their ideas.
As a self-taught artist, I had no musical education whatsoever, apart from listening to the piano my mother - who had classical training - played, and I am quite sure that I picked up something unconsciously and internalized it. Spirits of Sound - S.O.S. - developed over the course of time, and so did my musical ideas, towards independence. The development of my own personality demanded that I create something individual. Imitating or interpreting other musician's ideas wasn't satisfactory any longer, and that is why the English pop & rock music clichés had to be abandoned and overcome.
PSF: What was the German music scene like at this time, the mid-to-late-'60s?
MR: Back then - and later on when I was in Neu! and Harmonia - I was too preoccupied with my own music to be aware of the German music scene, let alone follow it actively. But changes which were happening with S.O.S. - the development of individual ideas, an effort to distinguish from the Anglo-American rock patterns - also helped me recognize other musicians within my immediate vicinity.
In Europe, it was a time of huge social disturbances, political demonstrations (Berlin, Paris, Prague), of reflection - upon overcoming existing structures in general - and the desire for a new beginning. In German politics, this was symbolized in the person of Willy Brandt, in terms of overcoming the east/west conflict, and reconciling with the victims of the Nazi dictatorship. The Vietnam War and the radical arguments in the U.S.A. also had a strong impact on us. Jimi Hendrix, who "burned off" the American national anthem in Woodstock with his guitar, was one of the biggest musical experiences in my life. This Zeitgeist is reflected in our music.
PSF: How did you get to work with Florian and Ralf (Kraftwerk)?
MR: As a conscientious objector, I did my community service in 1971 in a psychiatric hospital, and a friend there, who also was a guitar player, invited me to join him one day, recording film music with a band named Kraftwerk (which I didn't know at the time). I came along and jammed at this session, together with Ralf Hütter and a drummer - I believe his name was Charly Weiß. Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger were present as listeners, and everybody liked the spontaneous music we did together.
Ralf and I immediately clicked - we exchanged phone numbers - and a few weeks later, Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger called me and asked if I was interested in working with them, as Kraftwerk. A little earlier, Florian and Ralf had separated, and Florian wanted to take the Kraftwerk concept into a live project, since the first album had been released and success was increasing from week to week. Initially, there were five musicians, but soon after, the lineup was reduced to the trio, Schneider/Dinger/Rother. In the period following, there were exciting months of many concerts (occasionally together with Can), festivals, TV shows (like Beat Club) and studio recordings for the second Kraftwerk album with Conny Plank in Hamburg.
The music with Florian and Klaus was radical and "primitive" in an exciting way - absolutely spare and at times brutal. The live shows were sometimes really intense, both for the audience as well as for us. I remember the feeling of riding on a big wave and being thrown forward. It is very hard to describe that feeling, but it was definitely something magic. The collaboration of Schneider, Dinger and I was very often anything but relaxed. An unbelievably strong state of aggression sometimes prevailed between Schneider and Dinger, which made me very dissatisfied and unhappy. After learning that we couldn't realize the live magic in the studio, and breaking off the studio sessions with Conny Plank, we went our separate ways. Klaus and myself decided to keep on working together in a duo called Neu!
PSF: How did you and Klaus decide to work together as Neu! - was there any plan or governing idea behind the group?
MR: After the split of Florian and Kraftwerk, it was obvious for Klaus and I to realize our ideas together. With Conny Plank as co-producer we rented a studio and recorded the first album in four nights (the studio rate was cheaper at night). Almost everything happened spontaneously; beforehand, Klaus and I only had roughly sketched ideas - melody, sound or instrument ideas - which were only put in concrete form in the studio.
With Neu! there wasn't a pre-phrased concept in theory to be transformed into music, but the music was always kept together by the spontaneity and emotionality. Our experiences from the live shows with Florian certainly left their mark too, and in addition, the financial scale - we were broke - forced us to work quick and spontaneous.
PSF: Your songs seemed to be lot different than his. How did you reconcile this?
MR: Klaus and I always had completely dissimilar characters and temperaments. His background was being a drummer and he laid into that drum kit like nobody else I ever knew. At some shows blood splashed when Klaus hurt himself with a broken cymbal. The audience was very much impressed by this radical and ecstatic performance. I never felt the need for this kind of performance and always tried to come across with just the music. So I sat behind my few effect devices and pedals and focused on the developing music, not so much on the audience. In good moments, the opposite worlds of Klaus and me came together at our recordings, with the help of Conny Plank, who should not be forgotten. I guess the tension of bringing together incompatible elements is what fascinates people with Neu!
PSF: What influence was Conny Plank on the works you recorded with him?
MR: Conny had a lot of enthusiasm and understanding for our music, which was something rare at the time. He had a share in the financial risk with our first production, but also due to his personal authority, he was a most respected co-producer in the studio. Apart from his manual skills, Conny had a tremendous sensitivity for the music and psychological finesse, which especially in the case of Klaus Dinger and I was absolutely necessary.
Over the course of some years we learned a lot from each other. At least, I learned a lot from him. With my first three solo albums it happened quite often that Conny, with his first run of the mix - which he did when I left the studio, on purpose, to turn my mind off - came very close to what I had in mind. It was amazing, how precisely Conny sensed our ideas and in critical situations he helped me in an unobtrusive and effective way.
PSF: Could you talk about the first Neu! album? Do any of the songs hold special meaning for you?
MR: Each composition, each title, has an emotional history and quite often this is pretty confused - and it is not a simple task to name it. I can't and won't speak for Klaus, and as far as I am concerned, the following answer has to be good enough: I always understood and used music to express my deepest feelings. If music was just an intellectual exercise without this deeper meaning, it would not have any importance in my life.
PSF: Is it true that you did the remixes of songs for the second album because you ran out of money?
MR: The radical B-side of the second Neu! album... We had rented an expensive studio, and had already spent a lot of time and money on the tracks that turned out to be the A side of the album. This probably was partly due to our desire to show more details than on the first album, but also a weakness in organization, which shortly after led me to find a new way, a new musical approach, with Harmonia. When we realized how expensive the production would be if we went on at the same speed - i.e. that the advance from the record company wouldn't even be enough to cover the studio rent - we knew something drastic had to happen.
Klaus and I had recorded the single Super/Neuschnee a few months earlier, and we were not happy with the sales figures. And we felt that those two tracks were sort of wasted, so this lent itself to releasing those songs again on the album.
Klaus then started to "treat" the record player in the studio. The titles we had recorded already were extremely alienated by mixing them again and again. I had a cassette recorder which used to eat the tape and howl really bad, but in the context I really liked it - this is how Cassetto came about. Since then, listening habits have changed towards this direction, but in 1973, a lot of critics and fans were irritated and felt as if we had made fun of them, which wasn't our intention at all. In retrospect, some of the B-side of Neu! 2 features the most interesting music Neu! made, although you can't listen to this material on a daily basis.
PSF: Did Neu! do many live shows?
MR: We didn't succeed with the attempt to transfer the Neu! music from the studio to the stage. First, Klaus and I did concerts in twos in which I used pre-recorded material from a cassette recorder.
In the studio, I had recorded additional bass, guitar, and other sounds, and I was trying to manage to get a similar sound [on stage]. This procedure, which nowadays is very common, was then unknown and completely frowned upon. It was considered dishonest to work like that, but apart from the lack of appreciation from the audience, it wasn't a lot of fun, because a cassette recorder - compared to today's samplers - just wasn't flexible enough.
So Klaus and I tried to integrate other musicians into our concept of performing live. But then it became apparent that others didn't understand or comprehend our musical ideas of how Neu! music had to sound. So, after doing a few concerts with Uli Trepte (Guru Guru) and Eberhard Kranemann (Kraftwerk, Fritz Müller) we were pretty frustrated, and by the end of 1972 we gave up on performing live.
PSF: Why did Neu! go on hiatus after this? How did Harmonia come together?
MR: The first Neu! album was released in 1972 on United Artists in Great Britain and was, as it was in Germany, an immediate success. United Artists wanted us to tour England in the beginning of 1973, and we started to think over a solution to the problem of live performances. I already knew Cluster musicians Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, and I really liked Im Süden from Cluster II. So I figured Joachim and Moebius might be a good reinforcement for Neu! live performances. I took my guitar, drove to the Weserbergland during Easter 1973, and Roedelius and I improvised in the studio.
Apart from the fact that I was fascinated by the whole ambience (I am still living there), this encounter was a musical discovery which suddenly meant a lot more to me than Neu! Roedelius and Moebius were also convinced, so in June of 1973 I finally moved from Düsseldorf to Weserbergland and we founded Harmonia.
PSF: How did your work with Cluster and Harmonia impact your own work?
MR: It is hard to tell which experience has a specific effect on oneself. All I know is that I cannot imagine my development - not just the musical one - without the experience of living together and working with Harmonia. This is where I found the depth and magic, which I missed in my recent work with Klaus Dinger.
Turning to more free and more silent sound experiments was as important as the musicians whose personalities I got to know during this period. It was only working with Harmonia that I could move on and develop and this enabled me later on to compose titles such as Isi, Seeland or Flammende Herzen.
MR: In 1974, Brian Eno came to a Harmonia concert, and we liked each other immediately. He wasn't at all the eccentric pop star you might believe him to be from the Roxy Music era. Everybody in Harmonia was really fond of the first Roxy Music albums, but we didn't want to draw from those for our own music, we just like to listen to them quite often.
We also checked out Brian's first solo projects - Here Come The Warm Jets and No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp - but I never really liked them a great deal. Brian's later albums - Another Green World, Before And After Science, etc. - I liked a lot. But I always had the rule that my own work shouldn't be influenced, especially during periods when I work on new music - I barely listen to anything else during that time, at least not from the pop music world.
But of course an exertion of influence never can be ruled out, even if it is not desired. Brian often explained to us and journalists that he knew the "new music" from Germany back then and that he liked it a lot (Can, Neu!, Cluster, Harmonia, Kraftwerk), but I don't want to speculate about a possible influence his preoccupation with our music might have had on him. Fact of the matter is nobody lives by himself on an island and creates his music out of a vacuum. And this applies to all of us.
The meeting with Brian led to the sessions in the Harmonia studio in 1976, out of which recently the album from Harmonia 76, Tracks And Traces (Rykodisc; 1997), has been released. It was a very special experience to listen to that music after all those years and to realize how fresh I had kept it - emotionally - in my memory. The relaxed work with Brian was very exciting and productive for all of us.
PSF: How did Neu! get back together for Neu! 75? How were those sessions different from the older band, and was any material recorded for another album?
MR: Neu!'s recording commitment with Brain/Metronome was three albums. In order to fulfill this contract - and because I felt a musical interest to work with Klaus Dinger again, to realize certain ideas which weren't possible in the Harmonia context - I composed some tracks, and Klaus and Conny Plank went to the new Conny Plank Studio in 1974.
It was my agreement with Klaus that we would record one side of the album in the classic Neu! style - just the two of us - and the B-side would be recorded by a four piece band, in which two drummers would take over Klaus' drum part: Thomas Dinger - Klaus' brother - and Hans Lampe, who had worked as an assistant engineer with Conny Plank. Back then, Klaus insisted on performing live, and for this purpose he had trained both of those musicians with his style.
For me, this lineup wasn't musically satisfactory for a live performance, but in the studio we did alright. Hero is one of my favorite Neu! tracks when I am in the mood. After recording Neu! 75, I moved on with Harmonia and Klaus started his project La Düsseldorf, still working with both drummers.
PSF: I've also heard that David Bowie was interested in Neu! Did you get to meet or work with him?
MR: David Bowie never made his enthusiasm for Neu! a secret, that really speaks for him, although I found it kind of odd that he quoted our title Hero - which was one of his favorite tracks at the time, as he once explained in an interview - for his album "Heroes". In 1977, Bowie asked if I was up to participate in his new album, which he recorded with Brian Eno in Berlin. Back then, my first solo album Flammende Herzen had just been released, and was a major success in Germany. We never ended up working together.
One might speculate about the reasons. I once told Bowie and his manager that I could imagine me participating in a more experimental and silent music like on the B-side of Low, and less in a rock-oriented project. I think the management and the record company wanted to see Bowie change to a rock music sound for commercial reasons.
PSF: Why did you and Klaus part ways?
MR: It came natural for me to work alone in 1976, after the successful - but also very exhausting - collaboration with Klaus in Neu! and the end of Harmonia. The concept of both of those bands seemed to be exhausted, and I wanted to realize my ideas without compromises and find out what kind of music would - with the support of drummer Jaki Liebezeit and co-producer Conny Plank - come out of this.
PSF: How was your solo work different?
MR: Based on an understanding of the group concepts of Neu! and Harmonia as the meeting and reacting of each musician, each bringing in his own artistic identity in the joint music, it is evident that solo work always appears more unified, with all possible advantages and disadvantages.
The enormous tension that prevailed in Neu! was a special, fundamental basis which is reflected in the music. But I even feel tension in myself, which is expressed in my solo music - though maybe the listener has to keep track of the nuances to a bigger extent. At any rate, working as a solo artist comes pretty close to the working method of a writer or a sculptor: you have full control over the work, but you also carry the psychological burden and the responsibility by yourself. In a band, everyone is taking the part of the active person once in a while, to help someone else to overcome a hurdle or blockade. That's how it worked in Neu! and also in Harmonia.
PSF: How do you look back at the work you did With Neu!, and what do you think of the music now?
MR: Neu!'s music will always - Für Immer - be a part of me, and I absolutely stand by what we've created. Of course, I have changed since, and I judge my contributions to Neu!'s music in a historical context. They were both a description of my feelings back then as well as an expression of my musical abilities and limitations. It would be a mistake to ignore the progress of time, and it would be an artistic shortcoming to revert to the old concepts without making any changes. There is no way this is going to happen anyway.
During the recording of my contribution to the Homage To Neu! compilation - which I called Neutronics 98 (A Tribute to Conny Plank) - I very much enjoyed dealing with the Neu! concept - feeling and mixing the track reminded me of working with Conny Plank.
PSF: Would you consider working with Klaus again?
MR: The situation with Klaus has been tense for years, because he has been blocking all constructive attempts at reissuing our Neu! albums. Instead of releasing Neu! music in a joint effort with me, Klaus preferred to take legal action against the record company, the result of which is bootleg pirates selling our music (often with lousy visual and sound quality) worldwide.
The illegal Neu! releases Klaus initiated in Japan irritated me very much - and it's not just about money, it is primarily is about his efforts to turn the Neu! project in a sort of Dinger project. He carried this to extremes with the misleading project La! Neu?
Klaus first has to resolve these incomprehensible ego trips and illegal actions before I can or would want to consider any kind of collaboration with him. Then we will see.
"Never say never."
Michael Rother's favorite music at the time of our interview
There is no way I could deliver a "Top Ten" list of my all-time favorites, but maybe this absolutely incomplete list of music and musicians which come to mind right now helps.
Traditional "classical" music: Chopin (quiet piano pieces) / Japan: Kodo drummers / Portugal: Fado / India: a variety of instrumental and vocal music (tip: listen to Jeff Greinke's version of Im Glück [from the Homage To Neu! album] and then check out Salamat & Nazakat Ali [Ryko, HNCD 1332] / Bulgaria: Chants (Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares [Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices], etc.)
'30s: Comedian Harmonists
'40s: Benny Goodman
'50s: Chuck Berry / Little Richard
'60s: Beatles (e.g. White Album) / Cream (e.g. Disraeli Gears) / Jimi Hendrix (all Experience albums)
'70s: Can (e.g. Monster Movie) / Cluster (e.g. Cluster II, e.g. Im Süden) / Holger Czukay (Persian Love) / Kraftwerk (Ralf & Florian, Die Roboter) / Moondog / Terry Riley
'80s: Moebius & Plank (En Route) / Laurie Anderson
'90s: Seefeel / Tricky / Asmus Tietchens
My musical taste is rather wide, and I see a lot of interesting music all over the place in all kinds of genres, be it an electronic experimental sound from Hamburg or Manchester, "dirty" guitars from a L.A. garage, Fado music from Portugal or chants from Indian classical music; the critical issue is the genuineness and sincerity of the artist.
In general I like to listen to music rather seldom, but intensely. Last year I had a chance to see Tricky in concert, and I was really impressed.