Guitarist, composer, producer and visionary, Michael Rother was a founding member of the bands NEU! and Harmonia, and a founding member of Kraftwerk. A collaborator with Brian Eno (and almost David Bowie) his musical vision – one of minimal elements, yet great beauty – has coloured, directly or indirectly, post 70s rock music indelibly.
Michael and his trio will be playing Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in March, en route to a solo performance at the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Japan.
In the lead up to Michael’s Australian shows, I spoke to Michael on the line from Germany, on behalf of The Orange Press:
TheOrangePress: I’ll just go back the beginning. You met Ralf Hütter (with whom Rother formed Kraftwerk) when you worked together in a psychiatric hospital, and you jammed… You were interested in removing all the Blues from your music. Why was that?
Michael Rother: That was one element really. The main objective was to steer away from copying clichés that had influenced me in the years before, and to develop my own musical personality. One element which did not belong to my musical background – the history of central European music – was the element of Blues, which was what some of my musical heroes in the mid-60s were following, like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Growing up – at 18, 19 and 20 – thinking about my developing my own musical identity, being an individual and not a copy of somebody else, that’s when the necessity of leaving the Blues elements behind became strong. It’s simple to say Blues, but it was more than just Blues that had to be dropped.
TOP: Yes, the whole American thing?
MR: Well, all of the pop and rock music clichés. That sounds very ambitious and I know I wasn’t modest, but you have to aim high to change… to arrive at something new.
TOP: Well, you certainly did do that. You changed music forever I think by just doing that reasonably simple thing. With Kraftwerk and NEU! you worked with (producer and engineer) Conny Plank, whom you’ve said very nice things about. How did Conny Plank help shape your music?
MR: In the beginning I had no idea of studio technology – I was just a musician and Conny was an experienced engineer. That was one of the big qualities he brought along – he had so much talent, and he was obviously just as interested as we were in following crazy ideas… of created something different to what was around. And so we were natural allies in that respect. It was amazing and inspiring to watch Conny at work at the mixing desk. He had of course developed strong ideas of how to record the drums, for instance … he talked quite often about how to record drums. What amazed me was his capability of picking up our ideas, before we were able to actually express them. It was an intuitive process – that was very important because both (NEU! co-member) Klaus Dinger and I and later Roedelius, Moebius and I in Harmonia we had very strong ideas about what the music was to be, so we were not looking for someone to play an instrument (Conny also played instruments but in other projects). He knew that we were not looking for a different musician to play with us… his capabilities for organising our sounds were amazing. There were many situations when he added ideas to the recording process. Something I remember clearly was when he turned around the tape, when I recorded ‘Hallogallo’ (from NEU!’s first album) overdubs, and that really inspired me – I loved backwards guitars, even today I use loopers; I’m concentrating on playing live guitars with loopers. One of the most fascinating elements is the possibility of turning the music around, so it plays backwards. If you know Jimi Hendrix’s music, that is something we have in common…
TOP: Yes, and the Beatles… very much so. You mentioned Harmonia (Rother’s collaboration with Cluster members Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius) – what did Brian Eno contribute to Harmonia? Did he just drop in and out, or was he ever a member as such?
MR: Well, of course there is a lot of information that is not quite accurate on the internet about that. I’ll just tell you the story how everything developed. Harmonia played a concert in Hamburg in 1974. Brian Eno was in the first row, and he listened to us – we actually even jammed a little bit in the second half of the concert, and then we invited him to visit us. What impressed us was he told us he was quite aware of our music – he knew a lot of NEU!, Cluster and Harmonia – and at the time was talking to other British musicians about us, and exchanging records and discussing our ideas with them – for instance David Bowie. We invited Brian to visit us, just to play with us and exchange ideas further – and that took two years! He arrived in ’76, and by that time Harmonia didn’t exist anymore; we had separated in early Summer of ’76. We told him that’s the situation, but of course please come and visit us – and we got together again and the four of us ended up in the studio, jamming. We spent 10, 11 or 12 days just jamming – not really trying to record an album, but it was just the joy of creating without any pressure. That was the meeting of Harmonia and Brian Eno, that was all. He went away with several tapes full of music that we did; I had a four-track machine at the time –each of us had a track of their own – and Brian took the tapes with him. Actually he was on the way to record with David Bowie – I think that was Low – and the idea was for Brian to return but that didn’t happen. My first solo album came out in early ’77, and Brian returned to Conny’s studio to record with Cluster, so it all went a different way. So much was happening in such a short span of time.
TOP: You were going to play on (David Bowie’s) Heroes, weren’t you? What happened there?
MR: Well, that’s a mysterious story, because, at the time – just to give you a short version – I had phone calls with I think three or four different people. The first one was a secretary calling on behalf of David, asking me whether I was interested in working with David. Then I spoke with David for a long time – that was the second call – and everything was fine: he was totally enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating, and I was willing to do that, talking about the details of the production, etc. Then a third person called me, to talk about money, and I was in a way, maybe naïve or very hippiesque (laughs). I told him not to worry about the money; as long as the music we do is great, there will not be a problem – that was my attitude, and more or less this is still my attitude these days. I mean money is important, to get it right, but music has to be the first thing on your mind if you collaborate and not the third or fourth. And then the fourth person called me to tell me that David had changed his mind, and that I wasn’t needed. And then 30 years passed, and I read interviews David Bowie was giving in the UK – I think UNCUT was the first I noticed – where he was saying I turning him down, which was strange because that was not true. Anyway, David contributed a quote when we re-released NEU! in 2001 and we exchanged messages. So I guess it’s just my conclusion because there is this contradiction in memory – David thinking that I turning him down, and my recollection of it being quite different. You know that David Bowie’s experimental phase when it started in the ‘70s was not popular with the fans and the record company – sales were going down, Low was not doing well, and maybe there were some people in his environment – management, record company – who were afraid of David following that experimental path even further and adding another crazy guy like me to the session. So maybe somebody decided to protect David from himself. But I have no proof of that theory.
TOP: It’s very interesting that both Low and the NEU! albums were not commercially great but they have been so amazingly influential in the fullness of historical time. With Krautrock – I don’t really like that term – or rather, German experimental rock music, Jaki Leibziet from CAN played on your first four solo albums…
MR: I’m grateful you don’t like that expression (Krautrock) because I don’t either…
TOP: I think it’s horrible. It’s very derogatory in my opinion – I’ve never liked it at all. But I was thinking about all the German experimental groups of the time: NEU! and Kraftwerk were very different from bands like Amon Düül and CAN, in my opinion. Did you feel as if NEU! was very different, or were you all going for the same sort of thing?
MR: Of course I preferred to think that we were very different, because that was of course my aim – trying to create a music that was completely independent, not only from my musical past but also completely different from what anybody else was doing. There was not a feeling of a collective of German musicians that were doing the same thing. And to be quite honest, apart from the musicians I collaborated with, I wasn’t very much interested in what was happening in Germany either. I think there are very big differences in the music of NEU! and Amon Düül and Faust. I didn’t really listen to what they were doing – I was fascinated by the Kraftwerk people, Klaus Dinger, the Cluster guys, and that was the music I wanted to create. But of course, if you look at the musical scene in Germany from far away, like from the Moon…
TOP: …or even Australia (laughs).
MR: (Laughs) No that’s not far away… Things move closer together. So if you compare us to the Beatles, or other classical music, or folk music, or Deep Purple or something like that then of course the ‘family’ of German music of the ‘70s does have something in common maybe, something more like a spirit. I think I prefer to leave the finding of differences to journalists and other people; it may sound a bit big-headed if I try.
TOP: On your 1983 solo album Lust, you made it entirely solo on a Fairlight (synthesizer), but you seem to generally like to work with a band and other musicians. Do you prefer to work with a band?
MR: We are talking about a process of 40 years already. First, you experience a certain situation… you have to react to circumstances. That was the case in ’71 when Klaus Dinger and I decided to start the project NEU! as a duo, which was strange because, as we found out later, it was obvious we couldn’t play as a duo live… it was possible to record an album together with the help of multi-track machines. And later on, my solo albums were very popular in Germany; they sold a lot of copies and I was able to buy all the studio gear, the professional recording gear. I was completely happy to spend weeks and months – and years even – in my studio developing music. That was a dream come true for a musician, to have all those machines. Then the situation changed again with the arrival of notebook computers – in the late ‘90s it was possible to present interesting music onstage without a band, so I started collaborating with Dieter Moebius again, and we did several tours around the world. Parallel to this development the situation changed as our music… it had to do with the internet I guess: the world got smaller and I sudden started to find out about other musicians who knew my music, bands like Stereolab or Sonic Youth, and later on (The Red Hot) Chilli Peppers for instance, and Secret Machines. It was a new situation and I met musicians I liked and there was opportunity to collaborate. This has been the situation for the last 12 years or so, and I started enjoying playing live much more. In the ‘80s I wasn’t interested in playing live; I was fascinated by the studio atmosphere and the possibilities of sound creation with the Fairlight computer. Do you know that this (the Fairlight synthesizer) came from Australia?
TOP: Yes I do, that’s right.
MR: It was a great machine, and at the time I was so thrilled I spent months researching and trying to work with its very complicated software. Lust was the first album that was created on the Fairlight, mostly. Maybe I overdid it but it was wonderful for me to write music and let the machine play music that I couldn’t play with my limitations on the keyboard. And to create and integrate sounds that, before the arrival of the Fairlight computer, were not available for my music – I would have had to ask an orchestra to play. The sampling technology in the early ‘80s was a bit different from nowadays – it was 8-bit and it sounded like 8-bit. Nowadays people sometimes use the 8-bit limitations to create a certain effect… but at the time I was so thrilled by that machine. Nowadays it is the meeting with other musicians that sometimes really inspires me, like two years ago when I did all the concerts with my project, Hallogallo with Pete Shelley and Aaron Mullen… and last year I met a young band from Germany called Camera – we jammed twice – and we will be doing some live appearances this year. We are booked for a festival in Athens and we are talking about going to Russia as well, so this will be a very colourful year I think.
TOP: That’s wonderful. And you are coming to Australia in March.
MR: Yes, this is what I am preparing for right now. I’ll be in Japan for a solo concert that just came up recently. Jim Rourke, in the early days he was a member of Sonic Youth, he lives in Japan – I think he even grew up in Japan – we both did a concert in Yamaguchi in Japan last year. So we met there. He was invited by ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) to curate one of the two days of the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Japan, so he invited me to play there. The first step is the Australian tour with Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe, which will the first time that this collaboration will come together on stage.
TOP: That will be fantastic. With Dieter Moebius, after all this time. That will be wonderful; I am very much looking forward to it.
MR: There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Moebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.
Published February 2012 on theorangepress.net