INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork NOVEMBER 3, 2015 - by Jason P. Woodbury
FORTY YEARS OF KRAUTROCK SUPERGROUP HARMONIA
More than forty years after its genesis in the German countryside, the music of Harmonia sounds removed from time. Featuring the late Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of electronic duo Cluster alongside guitarist Michael Rother of Neu!, Harmonia is often described as a "krautrock supergroup," but that term implies musicians coming together to combine their powers and respective fame. Harmonia's formation was more casual and informal - Rother calls it an "easy action" - a gentle experiment which yielded lasting results.
Grönland Records' Complete Works box set compiles the group's entire discography, including two studio albums, 1974's Muzik Von Harmonia and 1975's Deluxe, two collections of exploratory live material, and Tracks And Traces, which collects sessions recorded with Brian Eno in 1976. The box set offers a way of observing Harmonia's output as a whole, how its sound informed Moebius, Roedelius, and Rother's future solo and collaborative works, and its impact on the greater musical landscape, as elements of Harmonia's sound influenced electronic music makers.
By the time the trio banded together, they'd already helped define the sound that would eventually be called "krautrock." Roedelius, ten years older than most of his peers, had lived a trying life: as a child he appeared in films, was conscripted into the Hitler Youth, and jailed by the Stasi. Eventually freed, he found his way to West Germany and began exploring the experimental scene there with Moebius, a political activist with a taste for jazz and psychedelic rock. The two formed Kluster, creating clanging, proto-industrial soundscapes before eventually rechristening the group Cluster. Rother had traveled in his youth, studying in Düsseldorf and Pakistan, before joining up with Kraftwerk for a stint and forming Neu! with drummer Klaus Dinger. Neu!'s pop art sensibility popularised the "motorik" or "Apache beat," an insistent drive coursing beneath cosmic swaths of sound.
Coming together in rural Forst, far removed from city life and near the idyllic River Weser, the trio set up their recording equipment in a spacious farmhouse, crafting a swooning sound reflecting their pastoral surroundings. The group's lifespan was short, only three years, but its influence was wide reaching. Brian Eno described the band as the "world's most important rock group" before recording with them, and elements of the trio's sound can be heard in his Berlin Trilogy albums with David Bowie.
None of it was planned, Rother says. When he visited "the Cluster guys" in 1973, it was simply to see if they'd be interested in backing up Neu! during live shows. "Klaus and I were both very unhappy with the musicians we had tested," Rother says. "The two of us back then, with the technology that was available, couldn't play live. We tried that once. I used a tape recorder... Back then, people thought, 'Oh, this is a lie, this is not real live music.' You couldn't even use a tape recorder to introduce sounds of water or backing sounds. But also, it was boring, just Klaus playing drums and me playing one guitar. It was not the sound we both had in mind."
Rother was familiar with Cluster's work, and mutually aquatinted through producer Connie Plank. He was drawn especially to Im Süden, from 1972's Cluster II, which featured a minimal, four-note drone. "I called them and they said, 'Yeah, just come over,'" Rother says. "No details. I jammed with Roedelius, and it was sort of a musical love at first sight, really. When Dieter joined in, it was just something I hadn't experienced before. In good moments, the three of us could produce a real, live music, which was not like a comic version of the music you did in the studio."
After his tumultuous youth, Roedelius had happily settled in Forst, invited there by an antiquarian who'd envisioned setting up an artist's colony there. "It was really paradise when I was invited to Forst," Roedelius says. "We lived in harmony with nature. We had to work, we had to get water, had to bake our own bread, but it was 'harmonia' - pure. It was the first time in my life where I really found peace and silence. My wife came to that place, my first child came to birth there. For me, especially, it was pure harmony."
The band's debut album, 1974's Muzik Von Harmonia, was packaged with the same style of pop art as Neu!'s albums, with its cover depicting a striking neon blue detergent bottle. But its contents echo the quiet naturalism the three experienced living in the country. Songs like Sehr Kosmisch and Hausmusik feature washes of sound, prefacing the coming emergence of new age music.
Still, the group wasn't immune to Cold War tensions, even far removed from the cities. "We had military exercises occurring around us," Rother says. "We had long rows of tanks driving in the streets. They were preparing for war, preparing to defend Germany or Europe at the River Basel. There was this military theory that you had to stop the Russians, the Warsaw Pact army, you had to delay them for three days and then the backups would just crumble and they'd have to retreat. We also had these fighter planes flying through the valley, which is so peaceful, at tree-top level. It was so frightening. Children started crying, animals went wild. And your heart stopped."
But beyond these military disturbances, the trio experienced a kind of freedom that felt new to them, and influenced the open, expansive sounds of Harmonia. "One of the first things I did was break down a wall that divided my room into two small rooms," Rother says. "Try to do that in the city and you'll get trouble with the landlord [laughs]."
With 1975's Deluxe, Rother took creative lead, shifting the band toward pop and rock textures. "After Muzik Von Harmonia, something different became evident in our music," Roedelius says. His approach with Moebius was largely improvisational, and finished recordings were often the result of long, winding jam sessions - the kind heard on the archival live material included in the Complete Works box set. "Michael, through his experiences with Kraftwerk and Neu!, [wanted to explore] song-structured material," Roedelius says. "Moebius and I, in a way, we didn't want to rehearse always the same pieces. At the end, Harmonia's Deluxe worked out as a studio work. It was Michael - his ideas that became music."
"The magic of the early Harmonia days was that because nothing was premeditated, sometimes nothing happened for two hours and people were bored or fell asleep or started talking or went away," Rother says of the trio's live experiments. "But sometimes, great moments like the five minutes of Ohrwurm, [from Muzik Von Harmonia] happened. This was five minutes of a two-hour long concert where we tortured our friends; because we were searching and searching and didn't find anything until that moment arrived. But that was five minutes of pure magic."
With Deluxe, Rother wanted to find a balance between "organization and freedom." "The freedom we chose in the beginning, had, with only a few exceptions, a bad ratio between exciting minutes and boring minutes, in which nothing happened," Rother says. "And that led straight to Deluxe. I owe Joachim and Dieter credit for working with me and making that possible."
The resulting album feels like the work of a new band, incorporating vocals, twitching beats and featuring the most rocking song in Harmonia's catalog, Monza (Rauf Und runter). The song was the result of "totally wild" sessions, Rother laughs. "It could have been on a Neu! album, and I guess Klaus was a bit frustrated that it wasn't," Rother says.
Deluxe, while a stellar effort, underscored the creative differences between Rother and the Cluster duo. The group disbanded; Rother turned his attention to solo work, and Moebius and Roedelius returned to Cluster and individual solo albums. But in 1976, a call came from Eno. The trio admired him, and his mutual admiration for Harmonia had been made in clear in the press. Eno was en route to Montreux to record with David Bowie, but wanted to come and work with the trio.
They agreed to reform Harmonia, but rather than hunker down and focus on art, Eno found himself assimilated into the group's rural routine. "He shared our life," Roedelius says. "He came with us into the forest and he took our daughter, when we were tired, he took our daughter into his arms and walked through the rooms, relieved us from some strain. It was more community life which we shared with each other, which got its influence into the music."
In the studio, the group experimented, working under "the Cluster concept - open," Roedelius says. "We started from point zero and did something. It was 'accidental' music. I like it a lot because we came back to our roots together."
"Brian was there with absolutely no intention," Rother says. "Nobody talked about putting it out the recordings. It was just a guy came to visit. We talked a lot. We went for walks. We took it very easy, but I had this four-track tape machine which was great compared to earlier days. It had four individual tracks, which you could individually record or erase. Four guys, four tracks - it made sense."
Though Eno and Cluster continued to record together - releasing collaborative efforts Cluster & Eno in 1977 and After The Heat in 1979 - the Harmonia sessions went unreleased until 1997. In them, you hear blueprints for Eno's ambient works, music suitable for both active and passive listening, in songs like Welcome and Weird Dream, as well as more rhythmic art-rock, like the galloping Vamos Companeros and the woozy, sashaying Les Demoiselles.
"I think he enjoyed to be with us," Roedelius says. "He was on his way to produce Low and "Heroes" with David Bowie in Switzerland, and David called almost every day that he should come and work with him, and he stayed with us."
After Eno's departure, Harmonia again disbanded, and devoted themselves to decades of creative exploration. Until his death in 2015, Moebius continued working with Roedelius as Cluster and collaborated with artists like Asmush Teitchens and Conny Plank, releasing a solo album, Nidemonex, in 2014. Roedelius continued to create compelling new work. This year, he released Imagori, a collaborative album with Christoph H. Müller. Rother has maintained a steady creative pace, recording solo work and playing live with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth as Hallogallo.
Rother and Roedelius remained focused on new endeavours, but the Complete Works retrospective has given them a chance to assess their influence on younger bands and creative legacy, though the impulse doesn't come especially natural to either. "We all just did it," Roedelius says. "We didn't think much about if we influenced others or created something new. We did it because it was our thing to do at that point. What people tell us in the moment... young people, new musicians, young generations just find out about what we did and they like it. That's a good compliment that we receive. That it was authentic and original what we did."
"When I played Harmonia for friends that hadn't heard it, they were just amazed," Rother says. "A friend of mine, [songwriter] Annika Henderson, she said, 'Michael, that's the best you've ever done.' Which is in a way depressing [laughs], but also I really liked to hear that. People will love it. I'm sure. We'll see."