‘The Art of Neu!’ Lawrence English interviews Michael Rother


Michael Rother’s musical trajectory traces a critical line across the later part of the 20th century and into the present. Recognised for his instrumental role is solidify some of the aesthetic forms that came to be understood as Krautrock, it’s his harmonic language and approach to guitar that has so utterly embedded him in popular music histories. Always looking forward, he has maintained a practice cemented in new ideas and explorations that continue to open up his music into new territories.

This month, Rother and his bandmates are touring in Australia for the first time in over a decade. I had the pleasure to invite Rother for this visit, and as part of that process we shared a short conversation about his work and ongoing fascination with the music.

Lawrence English: I thought it would be good to start by asking you about the 50! celebrations for Neu! It must have been quite a curious feeling to revisit the work with such a longitudinal view. Looking back now at that first record and that time it was created in, I wondered how it made you feel? The world from which that music was born feels quite distant and yet the music carries forward and continues to connect to generations of musicians, it’s quite extraordinary in its way.

Michael Rother: The celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the NEU! albums were, and still are, a wonderful experience for me and also an occasion to look back to that period in my life in which we recorded the music. For me there is a big discrepancy in how close the music still is to my heart compared to the memories of life in Germany back then. Clips and articles of political and social events in the 70s bring back memories of a divided Germany and a general feeling of threat which was caused by the military confrontation between Nato and the Soviet Union.

My partners in the projects NEU! and Harmonia and I lived far outside the mainstream and were eyed with suspicion by many people of the bourgeouisie. Our music was ignored by most people and the German music media. We were clearly a minority within a minority.

Lawrence English: One of things that always struck me about those records was the contrast, stylistically, that was maintained on them. It always felt like a powerful parallel drive between pieces like ‘Hallogallo’, which in some way came to epitomise a certain approach for the band, and in the same breath songs like ‘Sonderangebot’ and Negativland that for me struck out in an entirely different way. They held this darker and perhaps more experimental approach that I always feel was a pre-echo of so much of the now legendary music of the late 1970s and into the 80s. How were you all reconciling those approaches? And looking back on that, how do you feel they have resonated through your work going forward?

Michael Rother: When Klaus Dinger and I went into the studio to record the first NEU! album (with Conny Plank) we only had abstract ideas and hopes or wishes, but nothing of the material that ended on the album was tested beforehand. We created the songs on the spot by adding layer upon layer of overdubs – we called them colours – to the basic recordings, reacting in every moment to what was happening, what the other one did.

We were poor musicians and had very limited studio time available, and so there hardly any time to reflect and rethink. It was like creating music on the run, being spontaneous out of sheer neccessity. I had a melody in mind which turned into the song Weissensee, and Klaus probably had a rough idea for the melody he played on his 11-string guitar (the 12th string was broken) on Leb wohl. We wanted to create a fast-forward running song but only had the basic elements, drums and the drone-like guitar which goes on and on all through the song, before we started with overdubs.

The track Hallogallo remains to be one of the big mysteries for me. How the few sounds came together – with the great mixing skills of Conny Plank – and formed Hallogallo is still a puzzle. It is such a frail and simple structure. On Negativland we must give great credit to Conny who added the manual phasing to the song. It elevates the track to a completely other dimension. Klaus played amazing rhythmical stuff on his Japan Banjo but to be fair it is the phasing element which transforms the material. Although it is probably basically true that Klaus was more responsible for the crazy contributions and I provided harmonic-melodic structures the deeper truth is that we did all that together, reacting to one another and profiting from the strengths the other had.

I cannot speak for Klaus but I never thought about the future. When we started NEU! we entered an uncharted continent and with the ambition to be different from everyone else just plunged forward. This freedom we enjoyed is perhaps what remained fresh for so many years.

Lawrence English: I’ve always been struck by the lyrical sense of your playing. You have always maintained such a distinctive quality not just with your style of playing, but also with the timbre of the guitar. I wondered how you arrived at that sense of melody and harmony in how you play and also how it is you’ve been able to continue to deepen that sensibility over your life as a player. How do you feel this sensibility for the guitar has shifted over your life as a composer and player?

Michael Rother: After imitating my guitar heroes for about 5 years (and by doing so learning the basics of lead guitar) it dawned on me that I needed to steer away from the past, leave the methods and structures I had learned behind if I wanted to express my own personality. A crisis followed in which I broke with the past but didn´t know where I was heading while feeling totally alone with my desire to create a new music.

The first thing I did was to stop my fingers from moving fast across the neck like the guitar heroes did. Instead, I played only one note and gradually tried to explore the possibilities of expression in limitation. Over the course of months and years I gradually broadened my horizon of the notes and elements of which I was convinced that they were mine and not a copy of someone else´s creations.

Lawrence English: Outside of Neu! you’ve enjoyed some very powerful collaborations and partnerships. For me Harmonia has always felt like one of the deepest connections. Records like Deluxe have such a particular and almost timeless quality to them. How do you feel about that work and that time looking back on it now? What do you think made the partnership with Moebius and Roedelius so successful and what do you feel you each brought to that partnership?

Michael Rother: Meeting innovative musicians like Roedelius and Moebius and creating music with them was a dream for me. In the project Harmonia, the combination of three very different personalities and musical backgrounds led to mutual inspiration. This creative cell enabled me to further expand my musical palette by using keyboards and all kinds of electronic gear as well as the guitar.

The project was not at all successful at the time, in fact it was a commercial disaster. People were not interested in Harmonia back in the times. The lack of money however didn´t prevent us from working on music. I was totally convinced of our project. The idea was more important than the wallet in the sense that we tried to explore the possibilities by using even simple gear in unusual ways and achieving e.g. that some rather cheap sounding keyboards and drum machines came to an interesting sonic life.

Moebius was always at his best throwing in surprising and unconventional musical sounds. Roedelius created magic with endless repetitions of notes on his keyboards which created a trance-like mood and with which I could communicate so well with my guitar.

Lawrence English: When listening back over you solo records, I am captured by the way you have moved through approaches and production aesthetics. For me it’s as if each decade you dedicated yourself to exploring a related, but new, sonic terrain. Sometimes, with Lust for example, it felt like you were really pushing deeply to unlock new ways of thinking about song form and the very sound of the work.

I was curious though to know about how you feel about each period of work, for example in the 1990s and 00s you didn’t have so much space for solo works. It feels as though you have returned this past half decade with a new stream of work that somehow builds a wholly new sound world, it’s a very rich sound you have crafted on Dreaming and As Long As The Light. What has stirred this return to a more regular series of solo recordings?

Michael Rother: Even though the idea behind the music is my main focus since 1971, new sounds and techniques for music production have always attracted me. In 1982 I saw the film “Liquid Sky” and heard sounds that I couldn´t place and which fascinated me. I did some research and found out that the sounds were made on a super-expensive music computer called “Fairlight CMI”. Luckily, my first 3 solo albums were commercially so successful at the end of the 70s that I could afford to buy not only professional multi-track recording gear but also the Fairlight. A musician´s dream came true for me. I had time, space and gear to work on new music without compromises.

Exploring the depths of the Fairlight system appealed to my mathematical side and I delved into the Fairlight for months which resulted in the album Lust. In the following years, I enjoyed working with sounds on synthesizers and samplers which I used to record several solo albums. The development of music gear and sound creation tools never stopped, and so in the late 90s, after working exclusively in the studio for more than 20 years, I could start playing live again (first with Dieter Moebius, and since 2005 with a number of very talented musicians). On my album “Remember [The Great Adventure]”, the British musician Sophie Joiner (ex Williams) contributed her wonderful voice.

On “Dreaming” I continued working on material that was originally developed for the previous album. The voice is presented on both album like an instrument, an instrument with a most beautiful sound. In 2020 Vittoria Maccabruni and I started a fruitful collaboration. The combination of Vittoria´s elements and mine sometimes reminds me of the combination with Dieter Moebius, both with a lot of creativity for a spontaneous und unconventional approach to music making. Vittoria is now also part of my live lineup.

Lawrence English: I hoped you could speak to the band you have been touring with. It’s an incredible group of players and one that for me ties together some of the threads of your life in music. It must be a pleasure to have such a group of folks to share the stage with.

Michael Rother: Hans Lampe is known to the fans of our music because he played drums alongside Thomas Dinger on the second side of the album NEU! ´75. He was also a member of La Düsseldorf. In 2012, I invited Hans to join me and Dieter Moebius on a tour to Australia. Since then, Hans is making the fans smile and move their feet with his precise and energetic drumming. Franz Bargmann was a member of the Berlin-based band “Camera”. They were my backing band for a while after my collaboration with Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan in the live project “Hallogallo 2010”. Franz left the band Camera and works as a solo musician and joins me with his powerful rhythm guitar work on concerts and tours. Vittoria is the newest member of my live lineup. She contributes electronics and vocals in her very special way.

Lawrence English: Lastly I wanted to ask you, as someone who has been active across different musical movements and scenes, what drives you to make work and more importantly, what has feed your desire to continue to make new work. Five decades of making and exploring music is no small feat, what continues to captivate you?

Michael Rother: It´s probably the joy of always doing the same and always in a new way :)

Michael Rother Australian tour dates

22.02.2024 Sydney, City Recital Hall @cityrecitalhall

23.02.2024 Perth, Perth Festival – The Rechabite Hall @perthfestival @therechabitehall

25.02.2024 Hobart, Mona Foma Festival @monafoma

28.02.2024 Brisbane, QHM Festival – Powerhouse @bris_powerhouse

01.03.2024 Melbourne, Recital Centre @melbrecital

Organised by Lawrence English//room40 @room40shoots Supported by Goethe Institut Australia @goetheinstitut_australien

Lawrence English is a former writer for Cyclic Defrost who now runs the Room40 label and is a highly acclaimed solo artist. He is currently touring his collaborative album ‘Colours of Air with Loscil in Europe.