KRAUTROCK DELUXE Michael Rother (Part 2)

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

 

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

We continue with our
exclusive interview with guitarist Michael Rother, who is one of the key
architects of Krautrock, having worked over the years with Kraftwerk, NEU!,
Harmonia and others, additionally forging a fruitful solo career that continues
to this day. Harmonia’s collaboration with Brian Eno,
Tracks and Traces, has just been reissued in
expanded/remastered form by the Grönland label. Read part one of the interview
HERE.  – Ed.

 

 

BLURT: Getting back
to Harmonia, in July ’73 you put NEU! on hiatus and moved from Düsseldorf to
rural Forst to live with Roedelius and Moebius. Did the communal experience
shape how you worked?

 

ROTHER: Well, we lived in one house and shared the same
bathroom and the same kitchen. We had very little money. Harmonia, you will
have heard maybe, was such a commercial disaster and people really hated us. I
mean, hardly anyone wanted to hear Harmonia in the ’70s and the sales were very
poor and surviving on that little money was very difficult. But it was a very
important period of my life, musically and living together with these people.
Actually, I still live in the same house now.

 

Was the first
Harmonia album, Muzik von Harmonia,
created largely out of improvisation?

 

Improvisation, yes. It was just the idea of listening to
what the other two were doing and then adding some ideas and spinning the tale.
On the first Harmonia album, there are two tracks that we recorded live —
“Sehr Kosmisch” and “Ohrwurm” — and it’s quite interesting
to look at those two tracks. “Ohrwurm” is just five minutes taken
from a concert we gave for our friends in ’73 and that concert went on for,
maybe, one-and-a-half or two hours and everyone was either fainting or falling
asleep because it was very hard to follow and there was not much happening. But
when something did happen, it was so
intense — and these five minutes of “Ohrwurm” belong to the most
interesting music I think that has ever been made by Harmonia. But that was the
situation in early Harmonia because we didn’t have any premeditated structures
in the beginning: when we played, we searched a lot, for a long time, and
sometimes we didn’t find anything. That was the logical result of not having
any fallback plan.

 

Did the
“searching” part of it sometimes get to be a bit much, then? You
enjoyed playing live with Harmonia, right?

 

Oh, definitely. I mean, the good moments were very beautiful
and very intense, but that was something we started struggling about — about
the direction of Harmonia: I wanted to change the ratio of the searching and
the beautiful moments and increase the amount of good music but, well, maybe I
wasn’t wise enough back then with the methods I chose [laughs]. But it’s
difficult to judge. You can look back and say maybe you gained something but
lost something else — and I guess that’s what happened to Harmonia when we
played live and we had more structured music. That’s what happened when we did
the recordings with Conny Plank in ’74-’75 for the second album, Deluxe, which has more compositions, or
at least more clear ideas.

 

So the approach on Muzik von Harmonia was more
experimental, whereas on the second album you had a stronger sense of what you
were aiming for.

 

Yes. The first album was a collection of what we did when we
were in the studio, just creating. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we are recording
an album now.” It was just making music and having a tape running — and
then we had to erase most of what we recorded because we were so poor and the
tape, the Revox 2-track tape, was so expensive.

 

You had to erase what
you’d been working on and recycle the same tape?

 

Yeah, we recorded over most of the tape and erased the music
and that was one reason I am so happy about the Live 1974 recording [released in 2007]. You know, there are only a
few documents, a few recordings, of Harmonia still with me in my archive. That
tape remained untouched. I knew at the time that that was a special evening. It
was a very special concert. We were on very good form. I was very excited
because that night I fell in love with a girl who was there and I think that
had a positive effect on my guitar playing [laughs]. But the reason we didn’t
record over that tape was because of its musical value, not its sentimental
value. So when I transferred that tape onto the computer a few years ago, I was
really surprised by the freshness and the quality of the music — and by the
technical quality. And I was so surprised to get all that positive reaction
from people when we released it.

 

Was the material on Live 1974 edited down considerably?

 

Well, to be honest that was the way we played back then.
Sometimes we didn’t know how to stop. So the endings could be as long as the
whole idea because we just grew softer and softer and faded — everyone had
these volume pedals. In a way, we were shy also and we just didn’t know how to
stop and so the endings could be very long. So for the album, I left out what
wasn’t necessary on the recordings. Apart from that, I didn’t have to do much
— just some level adjustments. There’s no trickery involved on Live 1974. That’s how we sounded; that’s
what we did.

 

Do you remember how
the audience responded?

 

I don’t think they paid much attention [laughs]. In the
press release, I think I said that you can’t hear any crowd noise because maybe
they were all too stoned to react. Maybe that was true but, to be honest, I
think that people just weren’t very excited about us. So if you listen closely,
especially if you use headphones, on the fade-outs you can hear people talking.
There weren’t that many people in the club. It was a very special club, though.
I played there with Kraftwerk a few years earlier and also had a great evening,
so it must have been a very special place. It was a cool place and cool people.
The crowd was polite to us, but I don’t think they had the idea that they were
witnessing something that would create excitement 30-something years later.

 

Harmonia met Brian
Eno when he came to a gig in ’74. Was that planned?

 

No. The story was that — I’m not sure — maybe he was on a
promotional tour for one of his solo albums. It was post-Roxy. Anyway, he was
in Bremen and talking to a German journalist who was a fan of Harmonia and NEU!
— a journalist named Winfrid Trenkler. He was one of the two-and-a-half
journalists who really picked up on our music and promoted it. So they were
talking about our music and Winfrid Trenkler told Brian that Harmonia were
playing in Hamburg that night and Brian said, “Please take me to see
them.” So we talked and we had Brian sitting in the first row in the
concert at the Fabrik in Hamburg and he joined us onstage for a bit of a jam.
Then we invited him to collaborate with us and it took two years to happen, but
he finally showed up in Forst in late summer ’76.

 

Around the time you first met him, were you
aware that he’d called Harmonia “the world’s most important rock
group”?

 

I think I read that in the New York Times. Of course, when we met in 1974 he told us that he
and David Bowie had been talking about us and knew all of our albums and that
they were talking about how great they thought they were. So we knew about
those guys, but I’m not sure how many more there were, how many other people
were listening to Harmonia. Maybe a few more people were listening to NEU!

 

So the Harmonia
records weren’t selling and no one was really writing about you?

 

Yes, that’s right. We were really below all the radars.

 

It must be very
gratifying now that Harmonia’s work is garnering such a positive response.

 

I am especially happy for Harmonia because, when I started
Harmonia, I was just as enthusiastic about that project as I had been when I
started NEU! And I expected the same response. I felt my own love for a project
and then thought everyone should feel the same way [laughs], and I found out
quite early that that isn’t always the case….

 

By the time Eno
showed up to work with Harmonia, is it right that the band had split?

 

Yes. We split in summer ’76 and all three of us recorded
solo projects. I recorded Flammende
Herzen
with Jaki Liebezeit and Conny; Roedelius recorded Durch
die Wüste
and Moebius had a project with other musicians called
Liliental. And in September ’76 Brian showed up in Forst, and I’m not even sure
if it’s right to say that we were Harmonia then. Maybe we were three individual
musicians working together with Brian, but we decided to call it Harmonia.

 

Were you all familiar
with Eno’s work?

 

Yes. We had the Roxy Music albums. I’m not sure how many,
but they were around and we listened to them. I think what he did later
appealed to me more, in a way. I think Moebius liked Here Come the Warm Jets.

 

Which of his records
did you enjoy most?

 

On Another Green World there are some quite beautiful pieces of music, but it could also be Before and After Science.

 

How long did the
recording last with Eno?

 

He stayed in Forst for, I think, 11 or 12 days.

 

Did working with Eno
alter the way Harmonia worked at all?

 

I don’t think so. It certainly isn’t true for me, but I
really enjoyed collaborating with Brian and having him around. It was a very
creative phase, a very good collaboration. As you probably know, we didn’t
actually try to record an album. It just happened. We were just four musicians,
four scientists sort of, and musicians, meeting in the studio and then
exchanging ideas. It was quite similar to the way Harmonia worked in the
beginning: one guy with an idea and the others listening and then joining in. I
had a 4-track tape recorder at the time and it was four people — four
musicians — and four individual tracks.

 

What did Eno bring to
it?

 

I think Roedelius has some different memories from mine. I
read somewhere Roedelius talking about Brian passing some notes, writing some
notes….

 

You don’t remember
him getting out the Oblique Strategies cards?

 

I don’t think so. My memory may be wrong. I remember Brian
was very interested in cybernetics and talking about that a lot. But for me, it
was just a case of him listening and then he processed my guitar and then I
started a beat and processed a beat and he joined in. It was just very
practical — the way I prefer to make music — not theorized: you just do it.
Making sounds and not talking about it too much.

 

The result of the
collaboration wasn’t released for over 20 years. Was that because there was
never any specific intention to make a record but, rather, just to experiment?

 

That’s right. Well, the story was that Brian brought some fresh
4-track tapes, four blank tapes, along to Forst and when the tapes were full,
he departed with them. Before he left, I made rough mixes onto a cassette
recorder. These were meant only as a memo until Brian returned a few months
later — the idea was actually to meet again and continue, but we now know this
didn’t happen. He went on to Montreux to record with David Bowie on Low and I’m not sure really where things
went wrong or just changed course because I released my first solo album in
March 1977 and that took off like a rocket in Germany and I was quite busy from
then on and very happy with that. Roedelius and Moebius did meet Brian again a
little later on and worked with him in Conny’s studio. Years later — in the
’80s — Roedelius came to visit Forst. When we talked about those 1976
recordings, he mentioned that Brian had told him that the tapes had disappeared
and were untraceable (ha ha). We were
all quite unhappy about that loss — but what could we do? It was very
unfortunate, but then being busy I just accepted that. So I was surprised in
1997 when Roedelius suddenly sent us Tracks
& Traces
version 1, what he had unearthed: in 1996 or 1997, during one
of his visits to Brian, Roedelius had found one of the four 4-track tapes and
had mixed the 4-track down to stereo.

 

Were you at all
dissatisfied with that first version Roedelius put together?

 

Well, at the time, there was a lot of friction between
Roedelius and Moebius, in particular, but also between all three parties:
Moebius and myself on one side and Roedelius on the other. I was especially
unhappy about the way he had finished that project without asking us. The first
thing I said was, “Well, the music is great, but why didn’t you do it with
us?” I mean, it would have been perfectly natural for us to meet and
finish that album, finish that music. But he decided to do it that way. But
then, on the other hand, the music was great and he did a good job and so
Moebius and I just said, “OK, the music is all right. Let’s release
it.”

 

How did the second
version of Tracks & Traces come
about?

 

I kept that cassette, the one I’d copied before Brian left
Forst, in my archives and didn’t listen to it for many years until I checked
the material early this year when we started discussing the new release of Tracks & Traces. I knew that we had
a good time and that it was a creative period, but I was surprised to find, I
think, 27 or 29 fragments, ideas, sketches — most of which were worthy of
release. I was astonished by some of that material I found, which sort of
shifts the overall impression, the mood of the 1997 album. The musical quality
of the tape impressed everyone to the extent that we agreed to neglect the
inferior audio quality — the lo-fi sound actually has a special quality, quite
befitting the project — and to release those documents.

 

So how does the new
version differ?

 

I think it’s fair to say that the first release reflects
some of the dark moods which are common with Roedelius’s work, but there were
also other different materials — and maybe Achim [Roedelius] didn’t have those
materials when he did the first version. I’m happy now that the new version of Tracks & Traces has a somewhat
different balance between a darker mood or atmosphere and a harmonious,
melodious sound. There are three new short pieces — that’s the sketches. The
second track, I glued together out of two fragments of the same idea. Roedelius
and Moebius were as enthusiastic about the music as me. With their consent I
picked and edited the three bonus tracks. That wasn’t a big job compared to the
importance of the original material: the editing is not a big deal. I work like
an archivist. It was an honorable duty to unearth and to feature that material
in the best possible way. But it’s nothing that I can use for my ego. That’s
not the idea.

 

It’s interesting that
you haven’t incorporated the new tracks in the conventional sense — i.e., by
tacking them on the end. You’ve sort of reframed the original release.

 

That’s right. I thought about the best way to connect the
new tracks to the original release and felt that it would be boring to just add
them at the end. So I decided to play around and had the idea to present two
tracks at the beginning and another one at the end, which is like a frame to
the original version. But if you listen to it, I hope you can understand why I
thought that was a good idea. When I did that, everyone was happy with the idea
and so that’s how it’s going to be released.

 

How involved were the
others in the reissue?

 

Well, this time all the work with the music in the studio
was done by me. The recordings were de-noised and I did the remastering in the
studio in Hamburg, but there wasn’t that much I had to do. I just made the
choice of all these sketches that I mentioned, to complement the album and show
what I think is a much more complete view of the material we worked on, a more
complete view than Roedelius’s original version of the album showed.

 

Harmonia reconvened
in 2007. How did that come about?

 

I think the record company Grönland asked us, because of the
amazing reviews and all the attention that Harmonia’s Live 1974 was getting, especially in the UK. This great reception
was surprising for me, but maybe not for the label. So the idea was, “Is
there any chance that you could play live?” and I had been playing live
with Moebius for many years, and so we all met and discussed it. We met in a
good atmosphere, free of tension, and we decided to give it a try. It seemed to
work quite well.

 

How does it seem
different now?

 

To be truthful, no one would want us to start searching for
one-and-a-half hours like we did in the early ’70s. People would start running
out of the venue! So the material was pre-organized and when we played live it
was mostly one piece by Moebius, one by Roedelius and then one by myself, with
each of us joining in whenever possible. That was the idea of the Harmonia
collaboration in 2007 and 2008, until January 2009 when we were in Australia,
which was great. But we decided to stop the live collaboration again. There was
some arguing and quarreling — an atmospheric pressure drop [laughs].

 

Obviously, you can
never say never, but does it seem to be over?

 

No, you can never say that because if you look at it in the
right way, you have to realize how foolish all this fighting is. It’s very
difficult to explain in English — it’s even harder to explain in German….
The lack of wisdom in our personalities…. On a lighter side, it was funny to
see all the same psychological elements working when we met and first played
again in 2007. Maybe it’s not so funny and not even surprising, but we haven’t
changed, really. I mean, the surroundings have changed and the reception has
changed and, of course, the sound is much better, but maybe only in a way.
Maybe some people think the old sound is great.

 

Since Harmonia first
worked together in the ’70s, the technology has changed enormously. Has that
altered the way you do things now?

 

I use computers and the effects machines that are available
these days, all the amazing new stuff, but I’m still the same person; it’s
still the same vision of music. Also, some of the gear is actually still the
same. I still have some of the same fuzzboxes I used in the ’70s. In fact, I’ve
just asked a technical wizard I know to readjust my old tremolo machines. I
collect all that gear. It’s like having all those different colors at your
fingertips.

 

Your work has always
combined an interest in technology with a human, emotive presence, which comes
across in the strong melodic dimension. Are you aware of having to balance the
two?

 

Maybe sometimes you’re in danger of being too fascinated by
the possibilities of sound creation — especially when I look back at the ’80s
and some of the things that changed then. I was completely fascinated by the
Fairlight music computer in the ’80s. But it all moves in spirals. The basic idea
of taste in music hasn’t changed — at least maybe only in some small shifts —
but the gear has changed. Sometimes I use the same old gear. As long as you
have your own vision, an idea, a vision that comes out of your own mind and
that is not premeditated by some software program or some sound designer, then
that’s safe, that’s OK. But I use all the new tools. I mean, it’s great to have
tools like the Kaoss Pad, for instance. The idea is to create exciting sounds,
exciting music, and if you can do it with a wah pedal, a fuzzbox and a delay
machine, like what I had in 1971, then that’s fine. But it would be artificial
to say that I can drop all the new gear and go back to what I had in the ’60s
or early ’70s. It’s the same idea with the amount of time spent recording. We
recorded the first NEU! album in four nights and I remember being very anxious,
very afraid of crashing — of failing — and we were very close to failing, I
know, but it’s something that leads to a special result. Maybe that’s one of
the explanations for the freshness of the first NEU! album — that there was
not much time to reflect and to change things. We just had to move forward all
the time, very fast. If I tried to work that way today, it would be artificial.
In the early ’70s, we just couldn’t afford to hire the studio for any longer
time.

 

You seem to have
always worked in small set-ups — with Kraftwerk, NEU!, Harmonia, with Moebius
and as a solo artist. Has that been intentional?

 

I’m not sure it was intentional. Originally, it happened
because, most of the time, there was no one else around who interested us. If
you imagine the situation in the late ’60s/early ’70s, if you try to remember,
I was surprised, as I already said, that I met someone like Ralf Hütter —
someone with the same melodic approach. That was something I didn’t expect to
find. Maybe there were other people in other cities, well definitely there
were, but I didn’t find out about them and so we worked with the people we
knew. People are willing to accept that a writer works on his own or that a
painter works on his own, and I think this can also be true for a musician: if
a musician has an idea for a complete music, he can work on his own. Maybe it’s
a good idea to exchange ideas, to pick up inspiration and to stay alive in an
exchange, but I think for me it’s quite natural to work on my own, and it’s
been that way all the time.

 

Is it true that you
turned down the chance to collaborate with Bowie on “Heroes”?

 

Well, that wasn’t true at all. The story was that I talked
to his secretary, who called me and asked me on behalf of David. I said that
I’d be interested, but that I’d prefer to talk to David. Then David called me
and we were both very enthusiastic and talked about details and so on. And
then, another guy called me from his management, who wanted to talk business
with me. Maybe I didn’t give the right answers — I said, “Don’t worry
about the money, as long as the music’s great” [laughs]. I’m not sure that
they wanted to hear that! But I think that the main reason for the funny thing
that happened next was that they needed to protect David from doing more crazy
experiments in the ’70s; the kind of music that David was starting to make
wasn’t popular. It’s a fact that the sales were going down and his management was
probably getting a bit restless or nervous about the sinking popularity of
David Bowie. So, next, somebody called me and said, “I have to tell you
that David’s changed his mind and he doesn’t need you.” So that was that,
and I thought, “That’s funny — that’s not how it sounded to me!” But
I was busy. That was in the summer of ’77, after the release of Flammende Herzen, and I was in the
middle of recording Sterntaler, my
next album, and I didn’t think about it that much until 2001, maybe, when there
was an interview with David Bowie in Uncut magazine. In that interview, I read that he said something like,
“Unfortunately, Michael turned me down,” and also he mixed up the
names “Dinger” and “Rother” — calling me “Michael
Dinger.” Later he contributed a quote about NEU! for the 2001 Grönland
re-releases of the NEU! albums and we exchanged some emails. Anyway, I think
one day we can talk about that, but I had to make it clear that I didn’t turn
him down at all. Somebody must know what happened. Maybe it was a mistake, but
it seems logical that people were taking care of him. Also, I think David was
also a bit fragile at the time, with drugs. Maybe they thought he needed
protection, maybe against himself.

 

I understand you’re
preparing some NEU! reissues.

 

I’m working on a NEU! vinyl box set, which will include an
LP-sized booklet with text about NEU! and some as-yet unpublished photos. I’m
still in the middle of the project. So far, the idea is to release NEU!, NEU! 2, NEU! ’75 and a
re-worked version of NEU! 4 (which I
think will be called NEU! ’86 like
we’d originally intended) including some material from 1985-86 that is as-yet
unknown to the public. Plus — possibly — excerpts of Live ’72 (the recording of a rehearsal). When I’ve finished editing
NEU! ’86, I’ll check those live
recordings and edit the highlights. I’m in the process of reliving that project
with Klaus. When we separated, we weren’t finished with the project and Klaus
decided to do that behind my back because I think he was just paranoid and needed
the money, etc. — well, he’ll explain later when we meet again. But now I’m
reliving that project and I will do my best also to present what we did in the
’80s in what I think now is the best way. Then, sometime after the vinyl box
set, if everything goes OK, we also plan to release a new CD version of NEU! 4/NEU! ’86 and to make available all of NEU!’s recordings for
download. You see, there is still a lot of work to be done here. I met recently
with Grönland and the last partner of Klaus and I’m optimistic that we’ll
agree. She understandably hopes that we will release as much of the two CDs
Klaus put out illegally in Japan as possible. I was happy to see that she also
respects my reservations and my approach to this unhappy chapter of my
collaboration with Klaus. I’m optimistic that we will agree on the best
possible release for NEU!

 

When do you think the
box set will come out?

 

We hope to release it later this year, but it could well end
up being next year. What I really like about Grönland — and that’s due in part
to Herbert Grönemeyer being an artist himself — is that they respect artistic
ideas. It has to be done in the best possible way. It would be best to have the
box set ready before Christmas for all the fans. We’ll see. It depends on how quickly
I can find my way around the material. I was in the studio today editing one
track and I’ve been transferring music from all the analog tapes to the
computer. I also stumbled across some old NEU! music that I’d forgotten because
Klaus and I split the tapes and he didn’t have all the material in Düsseldorf
when he released that version of NEU! 4.
This is all quite interesting and another piece of work for the archivist
[laughs]. And when that’s done, next year I’m thinking of doing some live solo
concerts. I’ve been in touch with my musical friends of recent years. Josh
Klinghoffer and Benjamin Curtis are both of course on my list and are excited
to join me and also John Frusciante and Flea, actually. He’s a great guy. We
jammed together with the Chili Peppers twice in concert in Germany a few years
ago. He told me that whenever I need a bass player, I’ve got one. I’m thinking
of playing my idea of NEU! music and also some Harmonia and my solo stuff. I
think that could really be very exciting. I’d love to play live again soon.
Next year. I’m in touch with Barry Hogan for All Tomorrow’s Parties.

 

I heard that when you
were at ATP in upstate New York in 2008, you had to leave halfway through the
My Bloody Valentine set.

 

[Laughs] Well, I was so tired. I had jet lag and I had to play the next day. I met Kevin Shields
backstage with Benjamin Curtis and I talked to him. I wanted to see My Bloody
Valentine and stay around, but halfway through their set I nearly fell asleep
standing up.

 

Very few people can
claim to have almost fallen asleep at a My Bloody Valentine gig.

 

It was funny. They were giving out earplugs to everyone. It
was so loud, but there are magical moments in that music. I hope I have another
chance to see them when I’m not so sleepy.

 

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