KRAUTROCK DELUXE Michael Rother (Part 1)

An exclusive,
sprawling conversation with the legendary German guitarist in which he
discusses Kraftwerk, NEU!, Harmonia & Eno, and more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ’70s generation
of experimentally minded German musicians like NEU!, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Can
and Faust, usually grouped under the dodgy term, Krautrock. Having come of age in the postwar period, many of these
diverse artists shared a common bond of refusal,
rejecting not only their country’s troubled political and cultural past, but
also the global hegemony of Anglo-American pop and rock. Ironically, despite
distancing themselves from the musical mainstream, these bands would exert
considerable sway over those traditions they’d rejected. The line of influence
stretches from punk’s smarter manifestations through the post-punk generation
and Bowie’s vital late-’70s work, to more recent rock of all stripes — Sonic
Youth, Tortoise, Stereolab, Radiohead, Primal Scream, Secret Machines, the list
goes on and on. And beyond rock, the likes of Cluster, NEU!, Kraftwerk and
Harmonia have also been perennial reference points on the continuum of
electronic music from the late ’70s to the present, from synth-pop to techno,
as well as its more abstract, experimental variants.

 

Michael Rother’s guitar minimalism is a connecting thread
weaving through and between several of the most innovative of the ’70s German
bands. When Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider briefly separated in 1971, Rother
joined Schneider in Kraftwerk. Also present, on drums, was the late Klaus Dinger,
with whom Rother formed NEU! later the same year. Between NEU!’s second and
third records, in 1973, Rother teamed up with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and
Hans-Joachim Roedelius as Harmonia, a project spawning two studio albums, Muzik von Harmonia and Deluxe, plus two posthumous releases: Live 1974 and a collaboration with Brian
Eno, Tracks & Traces. By 1977,
Rother had hooked up with Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit and embarked on a solo
career that continues today.

 

Despite solo success, particularly with his first three
records, Rother is still most widely known for his work with Dinger in NEU!
Immensely creative as an artistic unit, Rother and Dinger were never friends,
and by the mid-’90s, with the band long dead and its three original albums out
of print, the pair’s relationship had been reduced to an exchange of fraught
faxes after Dinger — without Rother’s approval — began putting out unreleased
NEU! material on a Japanese label. Thanks to Dinger’s intransigence, the
original NEU! albums remained legally unavailable until 2001, when Herbert
Grönemeyer stepped in and brokered their release on his Grönland label, which
later also issued Harmonia’s archival Live
1974.
The latter prompted renewed interest in Rother’s recordings with
Roedelius and Moebius, which in turn led to the reactivation of Harmonia for
live performances from 2007 through early 2009.

 

Now, on the occasion of Grönland’s expanded reissue of
Harmonia and Eno’s Tracks & Traces,
Michael Rother looks back over a career of sometimes vexed but always
groundbreaking creative partnerships.

 

***

 

BLURT: How did you
first connect with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius? Did you know them
personally or just through their work as Cluster
?

 

ROTHER: We did a concert together, in Hamburg, when I was
with Kraftwerk in ’71. Cluster worked with the same producer — Conny Plank —
and I’m not sure how it happened, but we ended up playing at the same concert
in Hamburg.

 

So both bands were on
the same bill?

 

Yes, they were playing on the same night: it was Kraftwerk
and Cluster in the big university hall there. There’s a funny story about that.
I’ll never forget that concert. Kraftwerk were quite popular already. The first
Kraftwerk album had been released some months earlier and so, obviously, for the
crowd, we were the main attraction, but we were so democratic [laughs] that we talked to Roedelius and Moebius
backstage and asked, “Who should go on first?” And they said,
“Oh, you go on first and then we’ll take over.” There are hardly any
documents of what we did as Kraftwerk, but we’d really been making quite rough
music and people were very excited and when we wanted to stop our set, the
people just kept on cheering and shouting and we said, “No, we have to
stop because the other band’s coming on.” And then, when Cluster started
playing, the people got really mad and they rushed the stage. I don’t know how
many, but maybe 20 or 30 people actually went onto the stage and disconnected
their speakers and equipment. I was afraid they would start beating them up.
That was the result of Kraftwerk’s furious playing!

 

These days people
don’t tend to think of Kraftwerk as a rock band whipping crowds into a frenzy!

 

Cluster played very soft music, but what we did as Kraftwerk
then wasn’t very soft. It was quite the opposite: it was very rhythmical, very
rough, primitive, raw music. Well, that was my memory, at least. Maybe they
weren’t really in danger of being beaten up, but it’s something I’ll never
forget. So anyway, after that we stayed in touch and one year later, when we
had already released our first NEU! album, we had this offer to do a tour in
the UK. Our British label, United Artists, invited us and of course the two of
us, Klaus Dinger and I, couldn’t perform live — playing just drums and one
guitar, that’s not enough. And then I remembered especially this one track on Cluster II, “Im Süden.” That
track really appealed to me and I had the idea that the harmonious, melodious
connection was there. So I went to visit Cluster in Forst and jammed with Roedelius
in order to find out whether they could join NEU! on that tour, as members of
the live line-up. But, actually, in the end I liked that music much more than
NEU! so [in 1973] I stopped NEU! for a while.

 

What was it about
Cluster that you found so attractive — attractive enough to put NEU! on hold?

 

When we jammed together it was a different world, a
different atmospheric world. It was quiet. Roedelius played these melodious
patterns on his keyboard — I think there was maybe some influence from minimalist
composers — and there was the sound treatment, of course. Sometimes it was
fuzzy — he used wah and other filters. It was very primitive gear, actually.
Nothing sophisticated. In fact, it was very similar to what I had been using
with NEU! but the combination of Roedelius’s piano, his electric piano, and my
guitar was immediately something that connected. And, well, there was so much
to discover on that road.

 

You mentioned
minimalism. Had you listened to composers like Terry Riley by then?

 

Not by that time. Until then, I hadn’t come in contact with
any of them. It was only really when I met Roedelius and Moebius.

 

How did working with
them as Harmonia compare to working with Klaus Dinger in NEU!?

 

Well, there were several differences. One big difference was
that with Cluster as Harmonia we could create music onstage: it was a complete
musical picture. That was totally different to NEU! With Klaus, we needed the
multitrack machine and that limited our possibilities, of course. And also, to
be honest, I respected Klaus as an artist, as a great drummer, but as I’m sure
you’ll have heard, we were so different in character and personality. Maybe
sometimes the impression that’s created is wrong, but we weren’t friends. I
didn’t want to spend any time with Klaus outside the studio. In the studio, it
was perfect. We were a great team. We didn’t have to discuss music in the
studio because we had similar visions of where we were heading and what we
wanted to do. But everything else was not so pleasant for me with Klaus. With
Moebius and Roedelius, it was different. Klaus thought of himself as a hippie
— in later days he referred to himself as a hippie-punk or something like that
— but the calmness and surroundings of Forst had a strong appeal to me, and
this all connected. It was just one big excitement. The visit to Forst was
inspiring; it was an inspiring place for me to stay.

 

As you say, you and
Klaus had very different personalities and you weren’t friends. How did you
come together initially?

 

I met him when I stumbled into the Kraftwerk studio in
Düsseldorf one day, in early ’71. At that time, I was working in a psychiatric
hospital, as a conscientious objector [in lieu of compulsory military service],
and I was with a friend who was also a guitar player and we were in Düsseldorf
demonstrating against something or other — I can’t remember what it was
[laughs]. At the time, there were so many reasons to be angry. Anyway, after
the demonstration he said, “Oh, I have this invitation to go into the studio
of a band here in Düsseldorf. They want to do some film music or
something.” He told me the name of the band and that didn’t ring a bell —
I hadn’t heard of the name Kraftwerk at the time. So, I joined him and I jammed with Ralf Hütter in that studio.
Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger were sitting on the sofa listening and,
obviously, everyone had the same impression that there was something happening
musically. I got on very well with Ralf Hütter. He was also a big surprise for
me because there was no need for discussions: it was just the similarity of our
music, our harmonious, melodious ideas maybe — something like that — as
opposed to the blues-oriented rock musicians playing guitar solos that were
around all the time in the late ’60s.

 

Although you’d originally
been inspired by Anglo-American rock, you weren’t interested in reproducing it.

 

Well, I grew up imitating all those people. I mean, the last
one who really knocked me off my feet was Jimi Hendrix and I still love his
music. It’s still inspiring and it’s so amazing what he did at that time. But,
of course, it was necessary to forget what I had heard and what I had been
impressed by in the late ’60s in order to be able to move forward and create my
own music. And when I met the Kraftwerk guys, that was suddenly a sort of…in
English do you have the phrase Hour Zero?

 

Yes, or Zero Hour or
maybe Year Zero if you’re talking about big socio-cultural paradigm shifts.

 

In German it’s a very common expression, Stunde Null. It’s used for postwar
Germany, after the collapse of Nazi Germany. And everything started for me at
that moment in ’71, with Kraftwerk. So my main idea was to forget the clichés,
all the guitar techniques and song structures of my teenage heroes, which I had
so carefully adopted and copied. The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Hendrix were
already around, I understood that, and copying their ideas would never be an
expression of my own musical personality. The first thing I did was to slow
down my fingers: no more running around on the guitar neck at high speed. Then,
consequently, the ideas of pop music and blues — their melodic and harmonic
song structures — were scrapped from my musical vocabulary. All of this left
me with the basic elements of music. One string, one idea, move straight ahead,
explore dynamics. An echo of my listening to music in Pakistan, probably [where Rother lived as a child]. Anyway,
this minimalistic approach was not limited to guitar playing. It was an idea
for a complete music which — in the end — was meant to express and reflect my
own personality and individuality. It probably sounds very ambitious and
self-confident — but that’s what I was, what we were. The future wasn’t clear,
I didn’t know in 1971 where the musical adventure was taking me, but it was a
vast open ground with lots of freedom and the chance of limitless
experimentation.

 

So when you were
working with Kraftwerk and then NEU!, you consciously tried to cut yourself off
from the rock tradition.

 

Yes, completely. You know, it wasn’t enough just to forget
the English and American musical heroes. German also…. Actually, there were
really no German musical heroes that I can remember — whatever I heard from
German musicians was something that didn’t impress me. Later on, when I played
with Kraftwerk, we also met the Can people. We had, I think, one or two
concerts together and, of course, later on I listened to their albums — not
closely, but enough to know that Jaki Liebezeit was a great drummer. And that,
of course, led to our collaboration later.

 

And you only felt
musical kinship with people like Can, Kraftwerk and, of course, Cluster?

 

Yes. Maybe that’s some sort of a family, but with very loose
ties. I chose to be influenced and inspired by the people I collaborated with
and not, you know, by just anyone who put out a record.

 

By the time you
joined Kraftwerk, they’d already released that first album.

 

Yes, that’s right. It was a few months earlier and they were
becoming popular. I remember there was talk about the “Heroin Crowd”
in Munich being totally taken by this first album, and then, when we did our
concerts, our tours, there were so many people, especially young people, who
discovered the music and it took off like a rocket.

 

Is there any chance
that the work you did with Kraftwerk will be officially released? Some of the
aborted studio work with Conny Plank or the live material?

 

It’s hard to say. I hesitate to say never because many things happen that in earlier times I wouldn’t
have considered possible. I mean, the lost Harmonia tapes with Brian Eno, for
instance — the Tracks & Traces tapes. But I know, of course, that Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter did their
best to forget the period in ’71 when they were separated. They tried to erase
that part of their history, even saying that the actual Kraftwerk story starts
with Autobahn in ’74, which is quite
ridiculous.

 

They certainly did
some interesting work before Autobahn.

 

Yes, and some of the best work, in fact. Of course, I
haven’t discussed that with them; I haven’t spoken with them for ages. Now I
hear that they’ve split. I met Karl Bartos recently, who was with them for a
long time, and he tells me it’s only Ralf Hütter now. But as for the recordings
we did with Conny Plank, to be honest, they weren’t great. That was one of the
reasons we stopped halfway through, because, well, maybe it wasn’t the right
combination. When we did it live, sometimes in the right situation, the music
got very, very exciting — for us onstage and also for the crowd. I think that
the videotapes and the bootlegs that are available do not reflect that. Some of
them are completely wrong in the audio balance. I think the reason for this is
that the technicians didn’t realize how important the stuff was that Florian
Schneider played. Instead, they concentrated on my guitar much too strongly,
making it dominate everything. And I thought that Florian did amazing things on
the electric flute, especially. If there would be a possibility to remix that,
to do proper audio balance, I guess it would be much more exciting than what is
available, but I don’t see Florian or Ralf Hütter at a certain time suddenly
approaching me and saying, “Hey this has to be released!” [laughs]

 

You’re not in touch
with Florian Schneider at all these days?

 

No. I have friends who sometimes see Florian. I don’t know,
maybe I’ll meet up with him one day. He seems to be getting calmer since he
left Kraftwerk. But no, there was no reason to stay in touch. I mean, we
weren’t friends either. The music was exciting, but I also remember being
witness to some horrible fights between Klaus and Florian: horrible arguing… and
really crazy driving! Florian was such a crazy driver. I think he risked our
necks many times because he was so on-edge. Everything was the complete
opposite of being relaxed and driving with foresight. He didn’t drive
carefully…or maybe that was just my impression because I didn’t have a
driver’s license at the time. But I think it was quite true because that’s how
Florian always appeared to me anyway.

 

Let me ask you about
the dreaded term Krautrock. This was
a term invented by the British music press, I think.

 

I can’t say. It could well be, but there are several
versions of the origin of this word. You know the band Faust? I heard they had
a song called “Krautrock,” but I don’t know their music.

 

You’ve never listened
to Faust?

 

Not really. Well, actually someone once gave me a record
[laughs], but [listening to other people’s records] isn’t so important, really.
I mean, I have my own job to do!

 

That’s funny.
Although it’s heavier, Faust’s “Krautrock” sounds vaguely similar to
the kind of thing you were doing earlier with NEU! on “Hallogallo.”

 

Hmmm, maybe I should go and listen to Faust.

 

Did you find the term
Krautrock at all offensive? Or was it
amusing?

 

I’m not sure when the expression first came up, but I
remember that in ’72, when our first NEU! album was released in the UK, there
were some very favorable reviews — but there were also some in which there was
this old fear, do you know what I mean? Maybe it was something to do with a
fear of Germany, the Teutonic cousins: a mixture of admiration and revulsion.

 

In my experience, at
least, we British have a very, er, ambivalent relationship with the Germans.

 

Well, not on my side [laughs].
But many journalists and people didn’t seem too fond of whatever came out of
Germany — especially if some musician thought that he’d invented something
that was independent of what British or American musicians had made. That was
something that the music scene first had to get used to. I mean, everyone in
England and America was mostly — and maybe even now is — used to dominating
the world with their products and with their culture. [But the rejection of
their dominance was] what led us to concentrate on our own roots; our own ideas
had to do with Vietnam and, of course, also with Nazi Germany. A lot of the
’60s cultural struggles and political struggles went into our way of thinking.

 

You’ve touched on
this, but did you see anything particularly German about your music?

 

That’s interesting. For me the term German didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t connected to a specific
German idea. I think Kraftwerk are a bit different — at least that’s what I
read somewhere — in that they had this idea of creating a German music, a
German musical identity. But I know that my own influences come from all over
the world, so it doesn’t make much sense in my case: most of my time growing
up, I lived in Germany, of course, but then as a child I also lived in England
for a year and then Pakistan for three years.

 

Didn’t you live just
outside of Manchester?

 

Yes, and from there we moved to Karachi. And speaking of
influences, I remember these Indian, Arabian musical sounds, the bands walking
the streets, and the fascination I experienced.

 

You mentioned that
that had an effect on the way you played later.

 

Oh yes, definitely. The idea of repetition and a sort of
endless music, as opposed to a verse-chorus-verse-and-then-stop kind of
structure. I recently saw a documentary on television about Paul Bowles, the
American author who lived in Morocco, who wrote The Sheltering Sky. His work is amazing. He lived in Morocco for
many years and whenever I see programs like that, with that atmosphere of the
Islamic world, it touches a spot in my soul.

 

Have you ever been
back to Pakistan?

 

No. In my mind I have but, you know, looking at the
political situation, it’s not very desirable to be there in Karachi. I’m not
sure. A friend of mine worked for a fashion company and she told me she visited
Karachi a few years ago and didn’t feel insecure. But no, I think I’ll wait and
hope for a better time. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be running around
there as a Christian foreigner. It was different back then, but I did notice
some changes happening in the last year I was there. Of course, we could talk
for a long time about the necessity for cultural independence, but at the
beginning, as a young boy, I wasn’t aware of that. But when I was 12, I
remember once there was some sort of unrest. There were crowds outside the
boundary of the school, outside the high walls of the school. They were
demanding that the school should respect their religious holiday and close for
that day; and so all these people stormed into the compound and I called home
and said, “Please send the driver. We’re having a revolution!”
[laughs]

 

Did you go to
university in Germany?

 

I tried, but I’m not sure whether I was really trying. I was
interested in psychology. I mean, I worked in that psychiatric hospital as a
conscientious objector and, next to music, psychology was something that
interested me. But I sat in class with long hair and I stuck out from the other
28 students and I just thought about music all the time. My mind just wandered
off all the time. It was clear very soon that, apart from music, nothing could
get me excited.

 

What did the name NEU! mean to you?

 

At the time I was quite unsure. I thought it was too cool.
You know it means “NEW!”, of course. Obviously, it was perfect for
what I had in mind and what Klaus had in mind and it was also a bit cheeky, you
know, with the exclamation mark. A lot of people thought, “What’s
that?” So it was strange. And there was also the first Kraftwerk album,
also with this kind of minimalist artwork approach. But it stuck out in the
shops, of course.

 

Was it Klaus who did
the cover art on the NEU! albums?

 

Yes. He made suggestions and I said, “OK, let’s do it
that way.” Klaus had this to offer. We didn’t argue about it. We talked
about the details and moved on. Everything went very fast, actually, with NEU!

 

NEU! anticipated punk
and post-punk: the DIY artwork, the experimentation, the simple beat, the
guitar sound on the song “Hero”; in turn, the more interesting punk
and post-punk artists cited NEU! as an influence. Did you have much interest in
punk?

 

Not really. I liked some of the music, but in a distant way,
and I didn’t share the emotional side. The emotional connection was something
that was true only to Klaus. I guess Klaus had quite strong frustrations about
his life and a lot of anger at people. That’s something that separated us also
— the way we reacted to rejection and things like that. Klaus had this
attitude, in later days at least, that was like, “Everyone who doesn’t
love me hates me… and if you hate me then I hate you even more” [laughs]. I mean, that’s putting it very
simplistically…but I didn’t share that approach, really. What I liked about
the songs that may have influenced Johnny Rotten and other people — songs like
“Hero” — is the powerful, strong forward rush of the rhythm, and I
could put my guitars, my melodies, on top of that. It was much more the
aesthetic of dynamic movement which appealed to me and not the emotions, like
Klaus singing, “Fuck the company, fuck the press, fuck the program,”
whatever.

 

Did he become more
difficult over time?

 

I think he did. Now that he’s dead, he can’t defend himself
and I have to be even more careful about what I say. He wrote on his web site
that he was proud of having taken more than 1000 LSD trips and that certainly
affected his mental stability and also his ability to relate to other people,
and that got worse. And there were certainly other drugs also. It was difficult
to find the same reality in later years, to be able to discuss anything. When
he released those two NEU! albums in Japan behind my back, I wrote him faxes
and exchanged messages with him about all that many, many times, and my partner
at the time said, “If you think you’ll ever find an agreement, you’re just
as crazy as he is.” Of course, she was right in a way, but there are also some
other aspects. He was short of cash. He later apologized for what he did with
the NEU! albums in Japan. On the other hand, he was a smart guy, so maybe that
was a tactical apology in front of Herbert Grönemeyer, the head of the Grönland
label, when he first met him [to discuss the 2001 reissue of the first three
NEU! records]. So, yes, we couldn’t solve our problems, unfortunately. But it
wasn’t just about money, of course. It was about even more important aspects:
the betrayal and the way he put KLAUS DINGER all over NEU! 4 and the artwork and even wrote an editor’s note in the
booklet asking people to contact ME [laughs]. I’m not sure if I should
laugh… but he was in a very strange mental state in later years, sending his
faxes to everybody, even cc’ing the President of Germany: “Mr. President,
this is not a free market… I wish you knew.” Well, going back to my
psychology days, I have ideas about what was wrong, but I won’t talk about
that.

 

Did he have family
and friends around him?

 

Yes, well maybe it’s being indiscreet but you know he had
that band La Düsseldorf with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe? They had very
severe problems. I think they were fighting in court over royalties for about
12 or 13 years after the split of La Düsseldorf. Well, to say something nice
about Klaus: I hope the impression I’m creating when I talk about him is that
he was difficult as a person but that I really respected his work as an artist.
You know, these days I’m in the studio working on the NEU! 86 material — that was the NEU! project in the ’80s — and
although I don’t love everything we did or he did, he was a great artist. He
just had some problems finding peaceful arrangements with people, especially
when things went in a direction he didn’t want them to go in. He could be very
sweet [laughs] as long as everything
went his way, and then he got very nasty when things went wrong.

 

When you were working
with Klaus in NEU! and Kraftwerk, you also began your involvement with the late
Conny Plank, of course. What do you remember about him?

 

With my projects, he was an amazing, creative guy at the
mixing desk, with a very clear mind. He was very enthusiastic, open to all
kinds of craziness. Conny was just as crazy as we were and I learned quite a
lot from him, picking up his approach to changing everything, turning the sound
upside down. You know, that was one of his credos: just turn everything upside down.

 

So he played an
important role on the NEU! records.

 

Definitely. To be honest, at the beginning I don’t know if
we would have been able to record an album without Conny. He was a vital member
of the team, of the production team, and he had experience. Of course, he
wasn’t as experienced as he was in later years, but he already had enough
experience to be able to handle the studio gear and to handle the musicians. He
wasn’t the kind of producer who would have told us what to do — that wasn’t
our idea of having a co-producer. He was part of the team, listening
attentively and also, at certain times, giving inspiration: for instance,
turning the tape around in “Hallogallo.” I remember that clearly. It
was exciting to hear all my guitars playing backwards, and then I played
forward guitar to that — matching it.

 

That was Conny
Plank’s idea for “Hallogallo”?

 

Yes.

 

Did Conny get along
with Klaus?

 

[Pregnant pause] [laughs]
You know, Klaus always wanted to crash through walls, to break down barriers.
Klaus wouldn’t accept a “no.” That was part of his personality. He
always wanted more. Always more. I remember Conny sitting at the mixing desk
working on a track on the second NEU! album, trying to point out to Klaus that,
no, he couldn’t make the mix louder. Klaus always wanted more excitement. I
understand that desire perfectly well, but in contrast to Klaus I think I was
willing to accept that there were boundaries, that there were limits. Klaus, on
the other hand, always said, “More!
Make it louder!
” [laughs]
And sometimes Conny — well, he was a very strong person, of course — but I
remember that he was a bit unhappy about those situations when Klaus just
wasn’t willing to understand that there was a “no” or there couldn’t
be “more.” But otherwise, I think Conny respected Klaus in the same
way that I did. We all knew that we were a good team and that we needed each
other.

 

[Continued in part two
of the BLURT Michael Rother interview
, tomorrow, in which Rother discusses his
work with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius of Cluster as Harmonia,
meeting Brian Eno, the
Tracks and Traces reissue, and his plans for overhauling – and adding to – the NEU! back
catalog.
]

 

[Photo Credit: Hadley
Hudson
]

 

 

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