Michael Rother by Nick Hallett

Michael Rother is perhaps best known as one half of German rock group Neu!, whose three-album body of work from the 1970’s is widely considered to be among the most unique and soaringly beautiful music of the era.

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Michael Rother in Harmonia’s studio, 1973 by Ann Weitz.

From its inception in the early ’70s up until the MP3 era, the music of Neu! only existed on tough-to-find vinyl and, later on, as expensive European import CDs and bootlegs, acquiring a reputation as music for insiders, name-checked by indie-rock cognoscenti like Stereolab and Trans Am as the ultimate art-rock influence. Neu! mirrored, in a way, the experiments of the first-wave minimalists in New York for its streamlined packaging and concise delivery of Western tonality over a driving pulse, but with all the abandon of rock-and-roll intact. This was repetition-oriented pop music, with nods to concrète and electronic practices. Neu! met in Düsseldorf as like-minded musicians playing in the earliest lineup of Kraftwerk, during its pre-robotic, hippyish incarnation, ultimately breaking free to establish its own influential sound—built upon an incessant, motorik beat—with the release of its now-classic self-titled debut in 1972. In the United States, where Kraftwerk could enjoy a healthy cult status due to major label distribution, Neu! was its chic, obscure sibling with cred in both the popular and experimental worlds.

Michael Rother, Neu!’s guitarist and the sole surviving member of the duo, has prepared the most complete archive of the band’s activities to date, and is touring the classic Neu! repertoire with a musical ensemble including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley. Naming his new project after the first track on Neu!’s debut, “Hallogallo 2010,” the band pulls into Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park for its Out-of-Doors series of free concerts on Friday, August 6, in what is certainly curator Bill Bragin’s follow-up to his presentation of Rhys Chatham’s 200-guitar extravaganza there last summer. There is also a vinyl box set—just released on Grönland—including Rother-supervised remasters of all of Neu’s records—both of the official ’70s output, a contentious collection of material from the band’s “comeback” during the ’80s, as well as unreleased studio work.

I spoke with Rother over the telephone in advance of his New York visit, with hopes of getting some more context for the origins of the Krautrock zeitgeist. I wanted to know if Düsseldorf and the tenure of Joseph Beuys at its art academy had anything to do with the personality of the music which emanated from it and how sound engineer Conny Plank’s studio contributions and connection to the Berlin-based Cluster (with whom Rother would collaborate under the moniker Harmonia), worked to form a Mount Olympus of Krautrock. However, Rother attributes most of his inspiration to his childhood experience of living in Pakistan for a period (his father worked for Lufthansa), as the source of his love for the anthemic, informing the style which would, through “pure chance,” draw him to his initial and current collaborators.

Nick Hallett First off, I’m not particularly interested in talking about why the music of Neu! hasn’t seen a commercial release in the past 20 years, and I’m not really interested in talking about the negotiations you endured with Klaus Dinger, although I think that’s a very interesting history. I’m much more interested in getting a sense of where the music came from in the first place and why we should be listening to it now.

Michael Rother (laughter)

NH I’m wondering first of all, if you can speak a little bit to the setting of Düsseldorf at the very beginning of the 1970s as the stage for this extremely fertile moment in the history of music and the history of rock. What came before Neu! And Kraftwerk? Can you describe the void that you were filling? What were you responding to?

MR (laughter) That was a long question, a very interesting question. In the ’60s, I started playing music—rock music, pop music—in a local band called Birds of Sound, just a band of guys from my school, most of them were my class. I was very happy at the age of 15, 16, 17, to copy my heroes of the time. That changed over the years and became less fulfilling and less interesting for me. By the time I was 19, I was looking for a change, some possibility to express my whole personality in music, as opposed to just giving an echo of somebody else’s ideas.

I didn’t even know of the band Kraftwerk when I stumbled into the studio in early ’71. I think they had released their first album a few months earlier, but I was not in touch with them. I felt completely on my own with my desire to find a new expression in music. And so it was pure chance that I ended up meeting Ralf Hütter and jamming with him and finding other people who were on the same route. It was clear to me and, I think, to everyone listening in the studio—Klaus Dinger and Florian Schneider—that we had the same idea about melody and harmony that was not based on any blues idiom. Of course, that was the music I had grown up with and everyone in Germany listened to rock music like the Stones, and then later Hendrix, Clapton—all those musicians who had been influenced and shaped by the blues. But with Kraftwerk, with Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, it was different and it was the first time I met somebody with whom I had the feeling of being on the same wavelength.

A few weeks later, they invited me to join Kraftwerk. Only then did I enter that world. We started doing tours around Germany, and I met Can and Cluster and Conny Plank, And of course there was also Klaus Dinger, and when he and I started the project Neu! in the early autumn of ‘71, there were only a handful of musicians really in all of Germany who in some way interested me, to be quite honest. In Düsseldorf, you can reduce it to just Kraftwerk and Neu! and of course later when Klaus did La Düsseldorf.

NH That’s a Mount Olympus right there. Can you talk a little about Conny Plank and the introduction of experimental electronic techniques into the music you were developing at that time?

MR Well yes. It was a very natural process. Conny was a very strong character, but very modest also, not the kind of producer you can imagine who tries to impose his ideas on the musicians. He just tried to create an aperture in the studio in which the musician could give his best, develop his ideas. There was no sophisticated sound processing gear at that time. I was still working with my old rock music gear: just a guitar, a fuzz box, a wah pedal, and then later a delay machine and some filters; but no synthesizers in the beginning. The sounds we wanted to create, and the attitude towards the gear, that was different obviously to what other musicians at that time did with those machines.

Conny Plank was very experiment-minded and he treated the whole studio just like an instrument, playing the tape backwards on “Hallogallo,” for instance—Conny stood between two analog machines to create manual fading. Sometimes even today when I talk about those recordings people imagine that it was some effect unit that did the fading on the Neu! albums and on my first solo album, Flammende Herzen, but that was also done manually by Conny Plank and always in a very musical way. He was a very musical sound engineer and very talented, and he had a great talent to grasp your ideas and to memorize what elements were worth showing. That was the time of mixing without computer aid. It was all done just by playing the tape and grabbing the faders and showing what you thought were the best elements you recorded on the tape. The way we worked, we just scattered many things all over the place and I remember Conny had the ability to memorize those nuggets, sort of, in a remarkable way.

NH At this time, were you affected by any trends in visual and conceptual art? You certainly see that kind of influence in the early conceptualizing of Kraftwerk, and I was wondering if you were similarly influenced, or if there were particular artists, or particular dreams of art-making at that time that affected your process.

MR I think that doesn’t apply to me, to my person—

NH —you’re just a music person.

MR (laughter) Yeah. My girlfriend was very much into art, and I remember that we saw a lot of the art that was shown in Germany and new movies by Fassbinder and Herzog and people like that. But I think it may be true that for Kraftwerk, especially if you look at their later work, they were very focused on concepts. That was never the way I worked. I always take the inspiration from sound and from the music itself. It’s not the idea to take a project or a concept into the music. It’s always music first, and second, and last.

NH Did you or your peers feel any of the influence of Joseph Beuys? What was his presence as both an artist and a person like in Düsseldorf at the time in which projects like Kraftwerk and Neu! were developing?

MR Although I was in touch with new art, especially through my girlfriend, and went to see some very inspiring and unsettling exhibitions at Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, I wasn´t in touch with Beuys or very familiar with his work and actions at the Kunstakademie. Maybe my colleagues who are a few years older than me followed the art scene in Düsseldorf more closely. I was only a musician with an ambitious approach to music. And after a short stay at university in 1972–where I felt completely out of place–I always kept my distance from academic scenes.

NH Okay, about the formation of your own musical language: there’s a certain sentimentality, a certain nostalgia, that one hears in the tonal shifts and the classical harmonies of those early records. I’m wondering how that particular aspect of Neu! was received at the onset, because it’s not the most intuitive rock-and-roll sound, but it’s one of the most enduring aspects of the music.

MR Well, one step back. I don’t really know how people understand my music, that’s always been a mystery to me. That hasn’t changed. It’s so difficult to understand what people hear and what they think they hear. That’s something that’s sometimes quite amazing. If I remember back into the early days, I think we were all very new to people. Most people got access to our music via the rhythm. At least that’s my conclusion, because, compared to Neu!, Harmonia—the other project I worked on in the early ‘70s—was much less successful, I think because the processing of rhythms and the approach we chose with Harmonia was a bit different from Neu! You may be right that there’s something of nostalgia or sentiment about my approach to melody, but well—

NH —But it never got in the way in terms of the initial reception? No one complained to you, for example, that this was too sentimental for rock-and-roll.

MR Oh, I see (laughter). Well, nobody ever said anything like that to me of course, but on the other hand, Neu! wasn’t a million seller. In Germany and elsewhere, we were underground; we were something from the far left obviously. The first Neu! album sold about 35,000 copies, which was quite a commercial success actually, but still we were considered a very, very strange band. And so the majority–like 95%–just thought, “That’s not music. What are they doing? What are they trying to say?” That was the situation, and I’m not sure to what degree this has changed over the years. Still there’s this vast planet of pop music and I mean it’s obvious that they still do not understand what Neu! or what my music generally is about.

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Harmonia. From Left: Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Michael Rother, Dieter Moebius. Photo by Ann Weitz.

NH Can we talk about the term “pop music” for a second here? To my ears, when I hear the music of Harmonia, I hear a very pure kind of pop music. It’s almost as if it’s pop music stripped down to its most basic elements. And I’m curious if there was any intention to try and create some kind of music that was like pop music with the Harmonia project—

MR —Oh.

NH Or if that’s just a perception on my end… .and on others’ as well.

MR Which album are you thinking about?

NH Oh, I’m referring specifically to Deluxe.

MR Oh yeah, well, in those early years, a lot of changes took place in a short span of time. So the first Harmonia album, which we recorded in ’73, had a completely different character and history than the album Deluxe.

NH Was the Deluxe project a one-off?

MR No, that reflected the road I was taking. I wrote the two tracks, especially the two tracks “Deluxe (Immer Wieder),” the title track, and “Monza” and more or less played them on my own, recorded them on my own. You can put that in line with the third Neu! album, tracks like “Isi” and “Seeland” for instance, and one year later with my first solo album, if you compare those tracks you know that was what was on my mind at the time. I was always attracted to melody making and sound and in the case of “Deluxe”—it’s a key element to the track of course, the basic melody. Benjamin Curtis of School of Seven Bells, formerly of The Secret Machines, I think he once said something quite nice, “Michael Rother is writing national anthems for countries that don’t exist.” Talking about “Deluxe,” that could have been a national anthem. Living outside of Germany as a child, I got in touch with many national anthems and they always were something that I kept thinking about. So I played the Pakistani hymn at home, or the British national anthem and the German one. (laughter) Strange, strange, I never talked about that before, I just noticed.

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Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother by Hadley Hudson, 2004.

NH The Deluxe album was also happening around the same time that Kraftwerk were transmogrifying into this purely electronic behemoth. Did you have any ties with them at that time?

MR I remember I saw Ralf and Florian once, it must have been early ‘74 when I played them the first Harmonia album. In Düsseldorf we met once as well. And then a year later they called me and invited me to join them for the Autobahn tour, but I had to decline because I was too obsessed with working on Harmonia and Neu!, and I had no time to go back to Kraftwerk. But yeah, we were aware of what Kraftwerk were doing and everybody simply went crazy at the time. It was a very strange situation. Record companies from the U.S. came over to Germany and started to talk to all kinds of musicians, hoping to catch some other kind of band that was similar or could make money like Kraftwerk were supposed to. Actually, I later heard that the sales were so poor that they had minus, they made minus on Autobahn. It was strange, but maybe that’s the way American record companies work, with all the—what do you call albums that get sent back?

NH Oh, they sent them back from the shop? I’m not sure the exact term. I’m glad that you brought up Benjamin Curtis though, because maybe we should fast-forward to 2010 and the Hallogallo project you’ll be performing at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors in August. So how did you convene this new project with Benjamin Curtis and Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan?

MR Okay, I have to go back three steps. I met Ben Curtis in 2004 when he was still with Secret Machines and they came into Hamburg to perform. I had an album out on Warner Brothers, the same record label as Secret Machines, and the people at the record company knew that Secret Machines were fans of my music, so we had dinner together. We got along really well and they invited me on stage and we played their version of Harmonia’s Deluxe, which I really enjoyed–with American singers singing the German lyrics—that was very, very strange and a nice experience. Then in 2005, I think, they came again to Hamburg and we played together again. And then in December 2005 Benjamin joined me at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK, where I was invited to perform by Barry Hogan and Josh Klingoffer joined us on drums. And in 2006, we performed together in New York. We did a show in—what is it?—Bowery Ballroom. You know that place?

NH I do.

MR We’ve been in touch since then. We met when he came to Hamburg last year with School of Seven Bells. Then when I was in New York to play with Harmonia at All Tomorrow’s Parties in September, 2008—Aaron Mullan—who did our sound at ATP, he also worked for Sonic Youth and he introduced me to Steve Shelley. And we did a jam and recorded a session at the Sonic Youth studio in September, 2008. So we’ve been in touch ever since, exchanging ideas, and talking about doing more music. So after I finished working on the Neu! album in spring this year, I think February or so, I started talking to the musicians I would like to have along on the project: Steve Shelley, who was very enthusiastic, and Aaron Mullan, and Benjamin also at that time, confirmed his availability and enthusiasm about joining us in New York.

NH And what’s it like to create music with a new generation of musicians?

MR That’s a funny question; no, maybe the answer’s funny actually. I’m not at all concerned about age. It’s strange, I’m nearly 60 and I’m getting used to being in touch with young people more and more, they get younger all the time. I think the only aspect that matters is their creativity and musicality, not their age. In that respect, there are no problems, there’s nothing we have to work around. These guys understand my music and, you know, pick up the guitar and start playing. That’s how I jammed with John Frusciante and the Red Hot Chili Peppers twice when they came to Germany. There’s no obstacle really that has to do with age differences.

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Michael Rother, 2004. Photo by Hadley Hudson. © Random Records.

NH In regards to the release of the box set and the work you’ve done to create it, is there anything you’re particularly excited about or you feel particularly proud of?

MR Well, I think I already explained that I worked on that project for maybe nine months. I worked for about 6 months alone on the recordings for the album Neu! ’86. That was one of those very unhappy stories of the ’90s, where Klaus Dinger suddenly released a version of that album—he called it Neu! 4—in Japan behind my back. That was terrible. I call it the dark decade, really, when Klaus was so difficult and just wasn’t able to communicate and to find an agreement with anyone, really. Last year, when we met with our label Grönland and Klaus Dinger’s widow, Miki Yui, she agreed to re-release the album because I proposed that I would take care of those recordings and try to create a better version. I was really very unhappy with the poor musical quality of what Klaus had released. And so I was really happy that she said okay, go ahead. It was my risk, actually, and then I invested—because she always could have blocked the release—and then I worked for six months, transferred the recordings, and discovered some recordings that I had actually forgotten about because Klaus and I had recorded those tracks and then left them untouched for the rest of the project. We concentrated on so much other material—we had tons of material in the ‘80s—so in the end, when I finished Neu! ’86, I myself was very happy. Some lucky circumstances, there were some lucky stars I guess over my studio, and it all worked out really well. I was totally convinced. And then I presented that version of the album to Grönland and to Klaus’ widow, and everybody agreed to release it, which really made me very happy. We also did a good job working as a team, something that, to be honest, was very difficult with Klaus in later years. So Miki, who’s also a musician and a visual artist and is capable of judging the quality of art and music, and I did this big picture book for the box set and collected many photos from our archives, several archives, and several people wrote texts about Neu!. So much goodwill and effort went into that project. It really made me—proud is maybe not the right expression, but I was so utterly pleased by the result. It’s beautiful.

NH It definitely is.

MR Maybe I should just add that there’s also this maxi-single recording edit, I did of a recording that was done in 1972 by Thomas Dinger, Klaus’ brother, when we were rehearsing for Neu! Live together with Eberhard Kranemann and Klaus released a long version. All of that tape, nearly 60 minutes which, taken as a whole, was just an example of our failure back then. If you know the story of Neu!, you know that we tried to perform live in the beginning, but just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t perform as a duo, that didn’t work, and we couldn’t find musicians that were on the same wavelength. So Klaus released this in the ’90s and called it Neu! Live ’72, I think, and if you look at the whole recording, it’s just a document of our failure. But there were some parts of that rehearsal, though, which were really good, which show what Klaus and I were going for. And they were quite exciting. So I edited about 17 minutes out of that whole album and that’s on a maxi-single. So there are three originals, the Neu! ’86 album and the maxi-single. And if you look at all the music that’s on the box now, you get the right idea about what Neu! wanted to do in the ’70s and also in the ’80s. I mean, not all people enjoy what we wanted to do and what we were doing in the ’80s, but I think perceptions will change over the years and I’m quite happy with the final product. I have to convince myself that something is worth showing and then I just have to accept whether people like it or not. Whether or not they understand it immediately, well, that’s different every time.

Nick Hallett is a composer, performer and curator of experimental music and live cinema. Spring 2010 saw the premiere of his original opera with artist Shana Moulton, Whispering Pines 10, at The Kitchen and his presentation of the Joshua Light Show at Abrons Arts Center, both reviewed by BOMB. With Zach Layton, he co-directs the Darmstadt concert series. Music by his former band with Ray Sweeten, Plantains, will be reissued on the I, Absentee label this Fall. Not incidentally, he has also recently convened a new band with Layton and Sweeten named Sexual Energies School. His website is www.harknessav.org.

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