Prog APRIL 2020 - by Rob Hughes


Every month we get inside the mind of one of the biggest names in music. This issue it's Hans-Joachim Roedelius. The electronic musician played an important role in the creation of Germany's krautrock movement when he founded Cluster in the late '60s and Harmonia in the early '70s. He's since worked with Brian Eno and ex-Tangerine Dream Peter Baumann, and is set to release his ninth album in the Selbstportrait series. Here, he discusses his past, present and future, and reveals why his next solo album might be more minimal.

By anybody's standards, Hans-Joachim Roedelius had led an extraordinary life. Born in Nazi-era Germany in 1934, he acted in films as a child and was forced to join the Hitler Youth aged eleven. His family fled Berlin during the Allied bombings, moving east, where he was eventually pressed into service with the National People's Army. Arrested by the Stasi after briefly returning home, he spent two years in an East German prison in the mid-'50s, before finally making it back to West Berlin in 1960, a year prior to the Wall going up.

Roedelius was many things through the '60s - waiter, cook, roofer, mountain guide, physical therapist, ice-cream seller, flight attendant, nudist-camp worker in Corsica. All of which meant that he came to music comparatively late, at the age of thirty-four, when he helped set up the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in 1968.

As the hub of West Berlin's underground hippie scene, it was a place where music, art and theatre converged. Roedelius played in free improv collectives, including Human Being, and co-founded Kluster with the Lab's prime mover, musician Conrad Schnitzler. Rounding out the trio was Dieter Moebius, a former designer and restaurant chef.

Kluster issued a couple of wildly experimental, proto-industrial albums before Schnitzler, who'd previously been part of Tangerine Dream, quit in 1971. Roedelius and Moebius decided to press on as a duo, relocating to the rural area of Forst in Lower Saxony, where they tinkered with consonants and re-emerged as Cluster.

After the radical psychedelic drones and untutored noise of their self-titled debut, Cluster's music gradually evolved into something softer but no less striking. They helped pioneer a strain of ambient electronica that relied on spontaneity and instinct as guides, supplied by synth loops, drum machines and spacey effects. Neither Roedelius nor Moebius cared much for commercialism, preferring to create music driven by an innate sense of curiosity.

When guitarist Michael Rother turned up at Forst in 1973, hoping to recruit the twosome for a live iteration of Neu!, an impromptu jam led instead to the formation of Harmonia. The two albums they made as a trio - 1974's Musik Von Harmonia and 1975 follow-up Deluxe - became key texts in the evolution of German kosmische, music so far ahead of its time that it still feels unique in the aftermath of post-rock and ambient house.

Nobody was buying it though, which meant that Cluster continued to scratch a living, while Rother went solo. But they had at least attracted the attention of Brian Eno, who spiked their profile by recording a couple of albums with Cluster and a third, Tracks And Traces, with the addition of Rother. Roedelius and Moebius also popped up as guests on Eno's solo effort, Before And After Science.

Roedelius was off and running with his solo career by the end of the '70s, a repository for gentler abstractions and personal visions. Selbstportrait, the first in an ongoing self-portrait series, arrived in 1979. He's since featured on more than a hundred releases, be it in solo form, reunions with Moebius (who passed away In 2015) or collaborations with Richard Barbieri, Aqueous, Tim Story, Morgan Fisher, Lloyd Cole and Christopher Chaplin.

Now age eighty-five, he shows few signs of slowing down. There are currently two new albums in the offing. The first, Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe, invokes the spirit of his formative solo work, using exactly the same vintage gear: Farfisa organ, drum machine, tape delay and Rhodes piano. The second is Tape Archive Essence 1973-1978, a distillation of pieces from his downtime during the Cluster/Harmonia years. Both are exquisite studies in rhythm and harmony, the product of a man whose tumultuous early life seems to have fed a deep-rooted search for serenity and stillness. These days he says, "I'm in love with my splendid solitude."

Aside from more albums in the pipeline and live dates to sign off, there's also the matter of The Book, a memoir whose prosaic title belies a vivid and remarkable story. "It's a collection of many different kinds of information," he tells Prog down the line from his home in Austria. "I discovered a lot about myself while I was writing it, too much to put into one book. So I'll have to write another one! I've had such a rich life, right from the beginning until now. it never ends."

The new album, Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe, is an extension of the Selbstportrait series that you began in the late 1970s. What made you so bade to that?

It was [Bureau B founder] Gunther Buskies' idea. He wanted me to do it, working from this old idea. I thought, "Ooh, that's a nice challenge. Will I manage it?" And I did, it turned out really well. I'm always open to experiencing the old stuff again. My friend and musician Onnen [Bock, part of Qluster's latterday line-up] provided all the vintage gear to create the album. It was adventurous fun. The Selbstportrait series isn't autobiography, it's my life as a musical diary.

Your other new release, Tape Archive Essence 1973-1978, is compiled from the Selbstportrait era. Were you always doing your own stuff outside Cluster or Harmonia?

Yeah. My real start was with Moebi [Dieter Moebius], collaborating with him and Conrad Schnitzler in Kluster. I started to do my own stuff soon after that, then all these different collaborations happened. I still very much like making music on my own. I wanted it strictly separated front all those collaborative works.

What was the first musk that really moved you?

Classical music, especially Russian composers. When 1 lived as freelance physiotherapist in Paris, my girlfriend made me listen to [Iannis] Xenakis and Pierre Henry. It was so different from anything else, I'd never heard that kind of music before. I thought it was so interesting that perhaps I should try to do my own musk. I liked the idea of changing from healing to tone art.

Can you identify what was so inspiring about that music?

I don't know, it was so long ago. It was a different life. I was a hippie masseur and worked partly at the Élyseé Palace. I had some famous clients. I had the wife of the President of the National Assembly, then the wife of a big wine merchant. Then there was an old lady that I had to give massages to very early in the morning. She had a little dog that didn't like me touching her, so he was always barking at me. Actually, I've just realised all my clients were women! Anyway, these clients helped me to survive, because I only had three or four people a week to give massages to. It meant that I could spend the rest of my time experiencing life in Paris.

You mentioned that transition between physiotherapy and the music you started to make afterwards. Did you approach music in a similar way, as a healing thing?

I think so. Being a physiotherapist was my first profession and it didn't really change much. The only difference was that I didn't have to work hard with my muscles or with other people's. I just tried to give massages to the ears instead.

You made appearances in films like Verklungene Melodie and ...Reitet Für Deutschland as a child. What it was like growing up in Nazi-era Germany?

I was a kid and just doing what my parents asked me to do when I acted in those films. But the horror that started with the bombings on Berlin is still a topic in my life. I still feel deeply ashamed of what the Germans did to the Jews. I really, really feel that. I mean, it's not my fault and it's not my dad's fault, because my father was not in the war. He was a dentist and didn't have to shoot other people to death. So from that side of it I was relieved. As a child I lived with the Nazis, then as I became an adult I lived under communists and then, later on of course, with capitalists.

After you'd spent time in prison in East Germany and moved back to the west, what were your immediate plans?

It was about living a totally new life, one with other goals and other rewards.

Did that also inform the musichat you started to nuke with Kluster? Music that had no associations to Germany's past?

Yes, of course. I think we did what we did because we didn't know about music at all. I was a masseur and Moebius was a graphic designer who played saxophone, so at least he knew a little bit about how to make music. But in general what we wanted to find out was, "Are we able to do something that might reach other people's ears?" In the beginning it was just loud and shrill. 1 even managed to lose my hearing in one ear because it was so loud when we played live. Stupid ass! But after a while Moebius and I really got into it. Kluster was the real beginning. [1970 debut] Klopfzeichen was our first step into tonal art of that new kind. Kluster was all about making music in the moment, improvising with whatever objects were available. Then Schnitzler left and Moebius and I had enough time to find out how to do it in our own way. We were using our own equipment and were very happy, even though we had no money and had to live a rural life. But that was also very helpful, because if you have to bake your own bread it's a skill for life.

Just how important a figure was Conrad Schnitzler for you and Dieter Moebius?

We worked together to make a living for a while, refurbishing apartments and things like that. Then we decided that it might be a good idea to make some music. Schnitzler was the one who founded the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, but he was always so restless. He would change his mind and haw to try something else. So he left the Zodiak and because of this we founded our first group, which was [electronic collective] Human Being, where we had between five and nine members at the time. We worked for about a year and a half at the Zodiak. We ran the club, then we went to Africa to study other cultures. When I came back I started to do Cluster with Moebi.

Can you explain the chemistry between you and Dieter?

The most important thing was that we loved each other. We lived with each other in a car for years, touring Europe, just us and a little dog. And we fitted really well together when we worked. I was the melodic one and he was the punk guy. It was just an intuitive thing, there was no purpose or plan. Whenever we performed live, one of us would start playing something and the other would just have to fit into that somehow. Then it developed by itself. The melodies happened accidentally.

Mostly using tape loops and repetition?

Of course, yes. Repetition is one of the most important ingredients of music, it s a main prirxriplc for composing. I remember when we met Brian Eno, after he'd come to see us play, and he said to me, "I love you as a human sequencer!" I never used sequencers, I made them myself and tried to do it as truthfully as possible. And Brian really liked that approach.

In the introduction to The Book, Eno mentions being startled by your regimen in Forst, where you'd have black bread with onions or garlic for breakfast...

[Much laughter) For me, living in Forst was a bit different because I was with my wife and we had our first child. She was bom there about a year after we got married, around 1975. We had to do everything ourselves, like washing the nappies, and I had to go out to find food from the fruit trees. Then we'd go to the forest for mushrooms and wild berries and wood. It was really interesting and also an exhausting life, because we were so busy doing things all around the clock. In the beginning we had no toilet either, so we'd have to bring the shit downstairs. There was so much going on.

Michael Rother initially made contact with you because he wanted to broaden the line-up of Neu! so they could play live. But then everything changed when he started jamming with you and Dieter. How did that dynamic work between the three of you in Harmonia?

The connection was instant. When he came to Forst he fell in love with the place. Everybody fell in love with the place. And when we first jammed together it worked really well, so we started to collaborate. Michael makes beautiful music, of course, but it's structured and it was never our aim to make pieces that we could play the same way every day or on tour. We just wanted to be free to do whatever came out of the moment. But it was a great experiment with Michael to try at least to develop Harmonia as a special sidestep to Cluster. It was really nice in the beginning, then after Deluxe, we had to play the same pieces over and over and it didn't work for Moebius and I. Because of our principles, we just couldn't keep on doing it. That's why Harmonia didn't exist that long. Moebius and I didn't even like to rehearse, so it was a short episode in my career. I have the same attitude to the music I make now - I can't put the same nail in the same hole. What I'm doing with music at the moment is trying to create stillness, quietness.

Harmonia may not have lasted, but it's an invaluable legacy...

We opened the doors to no limits. Then there are the records we made with Brian [Eno], when Harmonia was finished. He came over and revitalised the group when we made Tracks And Traces [recorded in 1976, but not released until 1997]. That's a very good album, though it's more in the Cluster style. And of course we also made Cluster & Eno [1977] and After The Heat [1978].

Did Brian Eno's involvement help raise your profile?

When we first met him he was still very much like a pop star, with his blond hair, eye make-up and lipstick. He was a funny guy. That was when he came to jam with us in Hamburg. Then three years later we invited him over to Forst to make that first record with us. Nobody knew, at the time, that it would come out as a full album, because technically it was really bad. But we ended up using Sonic System [digital audio software], so we could work on it and make a really nice album. And it fills a hole in the chronology of our existence. Recording with Brian helped us a lot. Firstly, and most importantly, Moebi and I were able to survive from the money that came in for our work on By This River [co-written with Eno for his 1977 solo LP, Before And After Science]. But Moebi and I knew that what we were doing on our own sounded okay. We just had to do it, whether it fed us or not. And it worked out well in the end. It's authentic music, that's why it's well-loved.

What do you recall of making 2009's Qua, the final Cluster album with Dieter?

I was trying to continue to show how important improvisation is for me. It's Cluster's swan song, but it wasn't just the two of us. Tim Story is a grandmaster of composition and production, without him, Qua wouldn't have been what it is at all. He enriched all those tracks with his great abilities as a musician and producer, so he's really the third Cluster member on that record. Tim has been a very dear friend of mine for ages, probably fifty years or so. He came to visit me in Forst, after I'd moved there, and between us we made Lunz [2002], which became the basic music for the festival that he founded in a village in the mountains.

All the music you make has a certain romanticism to it. How important is it to express that through your work?

I love idyllic situations, I love romantic things. I am a romantic. I really try to keep my view close to my own personal reality, I don't follow all the destruction that's happening in the world. I try to make a counterpoint to the so-called reality, not only with my music, but also with my writing and my poetry.

You seem to be busier than ever at the moment. How do you account for that?

There's never an end to improvised music. I've always had a sort of guide as to which way I should behave, musically. When I play concerts I prefer to play on a grand piano and try to get to the roots of music. With a piano you can hit one key and listen to it being sustained, then I'll hit another key. I found that there's music in between the two keys. And the more I get into it, I know that's my path. So I'm not doing the music anymore, the music is playing itself. I'm actually doing a record with Tim Story right now, called Four Hands, based on that principle of music existing between two hits of the piano.

So the musical possibilities are still infinite for you?

My catalogue of albums is gigantic. When I look at it, there are thousands of tracks, plus all the collaborations as well. But I'm eighty-five now and I might be gone soon, so I think it's normal that my work is going to become quieter and more still. I think my next solo album will be very minimal. It's nice to share this music with people, so they know what I do in my splendid solitude. And fortunately I'm married to someone who's really supported me since we first met fifty years ago, so I was always free to do what I wanted to do, even though there wasn't much money in the beginning. I feel privileged to be able to live this kind of life.

Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe and Tape Archive Essence 1973-1978 are released via Bureau B on April 10.