Michael Rother’s Subtle Magic – interview


Sometimes the most radical ideas are the simplest; so natural, in fact, that upon first exposure to their subtle magic, you would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Especially when looking back from the present day, with all the subsequent descendants to that first risky gesture firmly in place, it can be a stretch of the imagination to comprehend of how profoundly influential those formative statements would be. So it is with the music of Michael Rother who is returning to Australia in March, with Harmonia and Neu! compatriots Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe, to play the Adelaide Festival plus a string of East Coast dates.

Searching for a metaphor to describe Rother’ music and influence, seismic activity seems too sudden, glacial processes too frigid and imperceptible. Possibly a short-term, rock and roll approximation of the geologic time scale comes closest to hinting at the dynamic, cyclical nature of Rother’ creative output and influence. From his short tenure in an early version of Kraftwerk, through the creative pinnacles of Neu! with Klaus Dinger, and in the company of Cluster’ Roedelius and Moebius for the trio, Harmonia, plus his solo work of the late 70s and beyond; the twists and turns, the creative tensions, critical acclaim and ambivalence in Rother’ path could almost be the basis of a (kraut)rock opera. Rother’ unique approach to harmony and melody is instantly recognisable, and seemed to appear fully formed on the first Neu! album, released by the Brain label in 1972.

Taking time out from preparing for the forthcoming Australian tour, Rother explains the processes that lead towards his unique musicality. “When I started to play rock and pop music at the age of 15, I learnt the guitar by copying the heroes of the time, which is a typical approach for most musicians. After a few years, I got bored with that, I had to try and find some musical language of my own. It was a process of slowly deconstructing music – I was a solo guitar player in earlier years, and I decided to forget all about fast finger movements, soloing was completely cancelled from my performance! It was a very thoughtful process; considering how the elements I wanted to include were to be arranged.”

During the late 1960s and early 70s, there was a growing sense of disenchantment with German culture especially amongst young people growing up in post-World War II society. The populace was steadily fed a diet of Schlager (an anodyne and overproduced Germanic take on late 60s pop) and the latest bands from the UK and the US. These uncertain times led to the development of a youth movement that encouraged people to break from their past, in order to create an authentic and original cultural expression that was not dominated by outside influences. This milieu gave rise to many influential German bands including Can, Faust, Kluster, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream. For Rother it is “difficult to imagine my development without all that unrest. There was a feeling of change in the air in the late 60s, at all levels of life – politically and socially, there was an urge to overcome the feelings of the post-war society. Of course, I was influenced by all these ideas of change. There were a lot of new artists, films and ideas that were becoming known about, not only from Germany. I guess I was lucky, I don’ know what I would have become, if I had grown up in the 80s! It is very difficult to detach my development from the cultural environment I was immersed in.

“These times were a very important factor in shaping my thoughts about my own individual personality; about being an artist, attempting not to be an echo of some other musicians’ ideas. This was quite a common feeling in Germany during the early 70s; every single artist came up with his own conclusions, but it also depended on the capability of the musicians to create new music. I remember not being particularly interested in what some other German bands that were trying to steer away from traditional music were doing, I felt that they were still very close to the traditional approach of rock music. I was fortunate to meet people like Florian Schnieder, Klaus Dinger, Conny Plank and later on Roedelius and Moebius from Cluster. Those were the music makers that interested me and inspired me with their work.

“In the late 60s, I was working in a mental hospital near Düsseldorf. I was a conscientious objector – having refused to serve in the military I had to do some other form of service in a civil institution. I was interested in psychology at the time, so I chose a mental institution. That was a big challenge for my young soul, to see people in that state, but it was also a very rewarding time. By pure chance, there was a guitar player working there with me, one day he asked if I wanted to join him at a recording session for a band from Düsseldorf called Kraftwerk, they were supposed to record some music for a commercial. I hadn’ heard of Kraftwerk, I didn’ know anything about the band, in that session I ended up jamming with Ralf Hütter. For the first time, here was someone else that was walking on the same road, who had similar ideas about melody and harmony to me. This was a big surprise; until that day I had felt completely alone. We got along really well and Klaus Dinger and Florian Schneider were sitting in the studio listening to our jam. A few weeks later, Florian rang me and invited me to join the band, and in the end Klaus, Florian and myself performed as Kraftwerk for several months.

“Through Kraftwerk, I met the producer [Konrad] Conny Plank, who was a very important figure in all of our music. Conny was all over our albums, he left his mark; he was a great inspiration. To this day, when I am working on music, I remember some of Conny’ recommendations. I admired his approach to music, his musicality and creativity on the mixing desk. He knew where we were heading for. It was quite amazing; sometimes he picked up on our ideas before we had even begun to express properly what we wanted to do. He had this sensitivity, he was a very modest guy, he didn’ try to push us in any way, he just tried to help us give birth to our musical ideas. He said in an interview once that he compared his role to that of a midwife.


“Personally, around the time of the first Neu! album, I was starting from close to zero, from scratch. The music gradually came together; it was not like waking up one day and knowing exactly where I was heading. If you listen to the first album, there is only one song that has a harmony change. I recall very clearly how much time I spent thinking about the necessity of actually changing from one harmony to another; that’s in the track “Weissensee’. It was like breathing, inhaling and exhaling, if you listen to “Weissensee’ with that in mind, maybe you understand what I was trying to express. All other tracks on Neu! are on the one scale, it was very simple music. I was trying to avoid clichés, to avoid the unnecessary bombastic elements that were predominant within the music of that time.”

The interplay of Rother’ unique musicality with the visceral thump of Klaus Dinger’ percussion and the studio alchemy of Conny Plank was the genesis of the first Neu! album. Recalling that intense period, Rother shares that “we had to do the first Neu! album in four nights, that was all the time that we had for the recordings. That was quite stressful and crazy, but it also forced us to move very quickly.”

Most aficionados of German progressive music from the 70s would rate the motorik thump and emotive, spacious instrumentation of the three “classic’ Neu! albums as pinnacles of this creative epoch. As later Rother collaborator Brian Eno stated, “there were three great beats in the 70s: Fela Kuti’ Afrobeat, James Brown’ Funk and Klaus Dinger’ Neu!-beat.” The insistent backbeat only tells one half of the Neu! story; as atmospheric, almost ambient tracks augmented with nocturnal piano, field recordings and fuzzy ululations sat between and differentiated the glorious motorik minimalism of tracks like “Hallogallo’ and “Weissensee’. The sustained, echoic bowed percussion and effects of “Sonderangebot’s hints at the lowercase territories that left-field musicians have been exploring ever since. Likewise, on Neu! “75 – starting off with two variations of Dinger’ Neu! beat (“Isi’ and “Seeland’), the first side ends with “Leb’ Wohl’, where cascades of piano descend into soporific, mumbled vocals and stereo-panning washes of breaking waves.

In quick succession, the duo reconvened in the studio during 1973 to record Neu! 2, which opens with another classic extended Neu!-beat workout in the form of “Für Immer’. On the second side, the band descended into a gaseous, wrong-footed firmament of reconfigured tracks played at 78 and 16rpm. Surely these are some of the earliest examples of remixes, hinting at the predominant role that post-production and the studio has exerted on musical culture. The legacy of Neu! looms large in Rother’ personal history as well. “Sometimes people focus on Neu! too much for my tastes. Of course, Neu! was always much more successful, I guess it was more easily accessible for listeners, the strong rhythm always helps people. The magic of Harmonia, I wouldn’ have wanted to miss that, (I can say magic, I was only part of the team). It’s impossible to imagine my music without Harmonia.”

Personally, the music that Rother made in the company of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius as Harmonia remains to this day some of the most illuminating and transcendent sounds in my personal musical pantheon. After the intensity of the early Neu! recordings, Rother retreated to the German countryside at Forst with the electronic music progenitors from Kluster and Cluster. “That’s something that filled me with so much joy, I fought very hard in the 70s to survive with Harmonia. We had lots of rejections back then, which was a big disappointment, but in the long run, we can’ complain. There has been so much positive response in the past 15 years it’s become stronger and stronger. Grönland re-released the collaboration with Brian Eno, Tracks and Traces, which has helped to spread the word in recent years. Eno was obviously interested in finding out how Harmonia worked. He told us that he knew all of our music, when he came to our concert in Hamburg in ’74 – we were very surprised! He also mentioned that he had discussed our music with David Bowie; these were quite well known artists, we all enjoyed Brian Eno’ work with Roxy Music. This was the first time that I was aware of the echo that our music was receiving in other countries. Two years later in ’76, I guess he was still very interested in watching us at work and wanted to exchange ideas with us.”

Melding the subtle, soaring guitar lines of Rother with masses of analogue keyboards and banks of formative electronics, the template that Harmonia established and refined across their self-titled debut album from 1973 and 75′ Deluxe remain a potent and endlessly absorbing musical journey. In 2007 Grönland Records added to the Harmonia discography with the release of Live 1974, highlighting the fact that the dense and futuristic sounding collision between the trio reached new heights in a live setting. Eno and Cluster went on to record two albums for the Sky label (1977′ Cluster & Eno and After the Heat, from 1978), but “Tracks and Traces was laid down before Cluster recorded with Brian in Conny Plank’ studio,” recalls Rother, “the collaboration with Brian Eno and Harmonia was the beginning of their musical journey, that was a very special situation in the studio. There was no pressure we just enjoyed the exchange of ideas and inspiration. I think that’s what you hear on Tracks and Traces.” An abiding image for this writer is the back cover of Harmonia’ Deluxe, where the trio relax next to the river that runs past the studio at Forst. “That photo was taken from the window of the house where we lived. I still live there, the water that you see in the background, that’s where Brian Eno’ song “By this River’ came from, which was included on his 1977 album, Before and After Science.”

Harmonia and Brian Eno

As the 70s inched towards the new decade, Rother struck out under his own name in 1977, ably assisted by legendary Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit and producer Conny Plank. After the popular disdain that the futuristic sounds of Harmonia encountered in Germany during the mid 70s, society had obviously caught up with Rother’ frequencies by the end of the decade. “My first three solo albums sold incredibly well in Germany, strangely more than 90 per cent of all sales were domestic – outside of Germany, hardly anyone knew about that music. Suddenly, I had enough money to buy professional recording equipment. It was a dream for me to be able to work on music without having to keep an eye on the studio clock. Even with Conny Plank, when he opened his own studio in 1974, there was only limited time and he still had to observe the commercial aspects of the music industry. When Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler and Katzenmusik sold so well, it enabled me to go on the path of recording and working for days without end … I started with my own studio in 1979; looking back I was an amateur really, taking a lot of risks, as I had no idea about studio technology. I just had all of the gear, and I started to play around with the concepts that turned into my next album, Fernwärme, which was released in 1982. The tricky part with your own recording studio is that in the first moment you think that you are gaining only advantages, but the circumstances of being able to work without time limitation changed my approach to music.”

The creative tensions that had sustained and invigorated the first three Neu! albums were starting to erode the partnership between Rother and Dinger. La Düsseldorf was the post-Neu! vehicle for Dinger, joined by his brother Klaus and Hans Lampe, both of who had played on Neu! “75. Between the original Neu! duo, there were numerous false starts, misunderstandings and creative differences that eventually led to a situation where the work of Neu! was only available as low-quality bootlegs and pre-loved original pressings. Recalling these difficult years, Rother muses; “it’s really strange, there was little interest in the late 80s and early 90s, there was quite a gap.” This may be understood by the cyclical and faddish nature of the music industry and audiences, and has certainly made the critical acclaim that has descended upon the humble and down-to-earth Rother since the mid 90s even sweeter. “I had to survive when the music of the early 70s and my solo music was not that well received by the audience. It was completely ignored by the media, especially in Germany. It took some musicians from America and the UK to help the media and also the fans to focus on the music.” Stereolab were one such band – I was interested in what Herr Rother had to say about that space age bachelor pad group. “Stereolab, what a wonderful band. It was very curious – I didn’ know what they sounded like, a friend took me to a concert. I heard them play something that, well … very strongly reminded me of “Hallogallo’ and “Für Immer’ and other aspects of our music as Neu!, I guess they helped people to focus on the original music again.”

Klaus Dinger

By the turn of the century, the wheels were grinding into motion for an official re-release of the Neu! back catalogue. “We were very fortunate, the owner of Grönland Records is a musican who’ completely famous. At least he’ a household name in Germany, Herbert Grönemeyer. He had a very tragic time in the late 90s, his wife and brother died in the span of one week. He was completely blocked, unable to create music, so he looked for something positive to focus his energies on. By chance, he stumbled across some Neu! recordings during a photo session in London; he liked the music, and started asking questions. People related the story about these two crazy musicians who were unable to find agreement. The 2001 re-releases took him about a year and a half to get together; they involved a lot of negotiations, and also money. Herbert’s a trustworthy guy, and he was able to convince Klaus Dinger to help with the releases. I had a lot of problems with Klaus during the 90s, they got worse and worse, unfortunately he seemed to live on a different planet. I don’ want to go into too many details, but it was something close to a miracle that Herbert Grönemeyer managed to bring Klaus Dinger and myself together. We sat together and discussed the problems, but it was quite a struggle even then. If I were in the habit of prayer, I would send a prayer of thanks to Herbert Grönemeyer every night! We managed to re-release the three Neu! albums, since then it has been a pleasure to see the response that we have gathered from these albums.”

In 2010, the label gathered together the complete Neu! discography, including Neu! 4, which was recorded in 1986. This album had previously only been available on the Japanese Captain Trip label, after Dinger had reached an agreement with them in the mid 90s, unbeknownst to Rother. “Klaus Dinger’ widow Miki Yui and I got along very well, she’ a very talented artist and quite a lot more capable of collaboration than Klaus was. It seemed almost impossible for Klaus to find agreement with other people in the later years.”

To many outsiders, it seemed readily apparent that Rother and Dinger were contrasting characters. The inner sleeve of Neu! ’75 illustrates this well – Rother glances with a slightly bemused look directly at the camera, Dinger scowls in dark shades, grasping a cigarette, with a look reminiscent of Mark Bolan or The New York Dolls. “We were very different personalities, the crazy thing is that in the studio, this added up to the music, without any problems, we didn’ argue in the studio. The problems started outside of the studio. As an artist, I still admire Klaus Dinger’ work, everything that he did for Neu! and for my music, and the inspirations that he gave to me. That’s the two sides of my collaborations with Klaus Dinger.”

Rother visited Australia at the beginning of 2009. “I was on tour with Harmonia for All Tomorrow’ Parties; that was a fantastic trip.” For the 2012 dates, Rother is not touring under the auspices of Harmonia. “I was invited to play by the Adelaide Festival, I started thinking about how I was going to perform, as a solo artist, or as a band? Last year I played with Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullin; that was my project Hallogallo 2010. I started talking to Dieter Moebius, and he was quite thrilled by the invitation to join me. Also Hans Lampe, after a long period of not being involved with music, was happy to come to Australia. The idea is to perform my take on a selection of music I’ve been working on for the last 40 years, I’ve been moving around an imaginary centre of music throughout my career. The concerts shall focus on the music of Neu!, also some Harmonia pieces and selected solo works. The idea is to not replay the songs like in the original versions, it’s more about the idea of this music, about how I feel about the music today. The audience can expect the music to be challenging, because it will not be like “He’ playing our old favourite tune again.’ Personally, I would be bored if I was just to repeat myself. Obviously I cannot perform all of the music, I will focus on specific ideas, which shall be different at every concert.

“In the 70s, when Neu! played live, I had a mono cassette player and one delay machine; there was no looping functions, or a hard disk with pre-prepared sounds. These days, it is about trying to combine all of the sound sources, recording certain parts live to use them straight away; the possibilities are endless. Right now, I’m trying to work out the right balance, so that I can present a music that has layers, that has more than just one guitar. This is what I had in the 70s, when I tried to play live with Klaus Dinger; that was so frustrating. Maybe even a non-musician can understand that with one guitar you cannot reproduce the sound of the studio work, where I had a multi-track recording machine, and played maybe five, six or seven guitars, several pianos, backwards and forwards. That’s what I’m interested in, presenting a music that has those facets, not just being a comic book reproduction of the old musical ideas. Just before you called, I connected some Moog machines and echo devices, and I thought that it sounded really nice. I’m really looking forward to presenting this music in Australia.”

Michael Rother, Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe play on Thursday March 15 in Brisbane, Friday March 16 at Adelaide Festival, Saturday March 17 in Sydney, Monday March 19 in Melbourne.


About Author

Music Obsessive / DJ / Reviewer - I've been on the path of the obsessive ear since forever! Currently based in Perth, you can check out some radio shows I host at http://www.rtrfm.com.au/presenters/Oliver%20Laing

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