Michael Rother was a founding member of the bands NEU! and Harmonia, and played in an early incarnation of Kraftwerk. Since the break up of these projects in the late 70s he has released a steady flow of solo albums. He’s currently touring with Harmonia, who have reunited for the first time in over 30 years, as the result of interest generated from the release of Live 1974 from recordings from Michael’s archive.
Vice: Before Kraftwerk, you were involved in Spirits of Sound, a more traditional 60s rock band. How did one lead to the other?
Michael Rother: When I joined the beat band Spirits of Sound at the age of 15 or 16 I was a fan of the popular bands and guitar players of the times—bands like the Beatles, Kinks, and Cream. Guitar players like George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix really impressed me. In the beginning it seemed completely natural to copy their ideas and styles in order to learn the basics of pop and rock music, but after a few years this copying no longer satisfied me. At the time I probably didn’t know why, but looking back it’s clear that this was due to the intellectual process of becoming aware of my own personality. In the late 60s great changes were happening in all fields of society, in politics and art, especially in Germany where the struggles against conservative post-war structures were very strong. I became aware of the necessity to forget all the musical standards and clichés that I had learned, and then search for my own personality. No more blues, no more guitar solos. It was a very ambitious attitude and the road ahead was uncharted, but this freedom appealed to me.
Do you remember a specific point when your music became less imitative and more an instinctual act?
The harmonic and melodic components of my music became basically clear and familiar to me in the early to mid 70s. Instincts and emotions are equally involved as the conceptual will when I’m performing music. The improvised, spontaneous notes I play on the guitar may come from deep inside where there is no control but the organization of the music, the processing and mixing of sounds involve the mind and depends on conscious actions. The surviving footage of the Kraftwerk incarnation with you and Klaus Dinger seems to have more in common with NEU! than the Kraftwerk most people think of—the guitar and drums are the obvious force behind the song with Florian Schneider adding flute textures and synth. How do you remember it?
When I joined Kraftwerk in 1971 and played live with Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger our music was primitive and rough, even brutal at times. Instead of trying to find expression in layers of harmonies or melodies the new idea was to reduce all those elements and go back to one chord, one note, one string—to explore the different possible expressions in dynamics. Florian Schneider did great things on his electric flute, which he treated with all kinds of gear and made sound like no other instrument. Unfortunately, the volume balance between our instruments on the video and audio footage from 1971 is far from perfect. This leads to the impression that it was mostly my guitar and Klaus Dinger on drums doing the work. To understand how our music really sounded you must try to imagine Florian's flute being much louder. Florian didn’t use a synth back then, just the flute and occasionally an electric violin, which he played like a rhythm guitar. After our split it was natural for Klaus Dinger and myself to continue along this route while Florian got back together with Ralph Hütter and moved towards the more soft-footed music you hear on their second and third album (both of which I really like).
Rother and Dinger with Kraftwerk in 1971.
NEU! on West German television in 1974.
You’ve mentioned that after a certain point in the 70s you became interested in Terry Riley.
We once saw Terry Riley play live in Berlin. I remember being a bit disappointed by his live performance, although the idea of constant repetition appealed to me. In those years I hardly listened to any other music and instead concentrated on my own. This retreat I felt was necessary to reduce influences. The Minimalists reached me indirectly through my collaborators. In 1973 I visited the Cluster musicians Hans-Joachim Rödelius and Dieter Möbius in order to find out whether they were the right musicians to join NEU! on a tour to the UK. I jammed with Rödelius, who played electric piano and organ along to my guitar, and the two of us clicked straight away. Rödelius was definitely influenced by Terry Riley and the Minimalists. His repetitive, minimalistic melodic lines and my guitar sounds complemented one another ideally. Dieter Möbius joined in with his electronic gear contributing strange sounds and the three of us decided to set our other projects aside and concentrate on our new band, which we called Harmonia. This name was actually a sort of joke because right from the beginning there was a musical struggle going on between us. At times it was hard to handle but which in my view led to amazing creativity.
You’ve always seemed to embrace technology from tape loops to computers. Do you think technology can ever be taken too far in music or otherwise?
The idea behind my music was and is always more important than the actual gear which I use. Although I love playing the guitar I don´t consider myself an instrumentalist. It’s natural for me to look toward technology on the search for new ways of expression, new sounds. But the idea of the music is what was and will always be what really interests me. In the early 70s my gear was simple. It consisted of standard equipment for rock music guitarists at the time: a fuzz box and a wah pedal. In 1972 I added a filter box and a volume pedal because they allowed me to make the sound of my guitar resemble things like an oboe (as on Neuschnee), a sound that I loved. Next I bought an echo machine because repetition fascinated me—perhaps from my childhood days in Pakistan when I discovered Indian and Arabian music and the idea of endless music. In the late 70s I started my own private studio and the whole studio became my instrument. In any case, only the result matters, not the device. It can be a Fairlight Music Computer like in the 80s or a guitar or an effect unit. There certainly are traps, which you have to be aware of whenever technology offers easy solutions for sound creation. As is the case with modern synths.
Can you comment on Conny Plank’s relationship to your various musical projects?
I first met Conny Plank in the summer of 1971 when we tried to record the second Kraftwerk album with the Schneider/Dinger/Rother lineup. Conny was an open-minded sound engineer, and a strong personality. He was our natural choice as co-producer when Klaus and I started the NEU! project in autumn 1971. Conny's contributions to the three NEU! albums, Harmonia's album Deluxe and my first three solo albums Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler, and Katzenmusik cannot be overestimated. He was enthusiastic, creative, and respectful. He considered himself to be something like a midwife in helping us musicians find the optimal circumstances to express our ideas and in nudging us along when we got stuck. I remember being very impressed by Conny's ability to grasp our ideas and to remember the nuggets scattered over the multitrack tape in the sometimes chaotic manual mixing process. We did most of our albums together with Conny before computer-aided mixing came along. Conny Plank had a great musical mind and his capability of imagining soundscapes and of focusing on the important elements of a recording is still an inspiration for me.
Your first solo record, Flammende Herzen seems like a combination of the elements that most interest you from NEU! and Harmonia.
NEU! and Harmonia were still very close to my heart in 1976. My contributions to those projects basically reflected all my ideas about music. In early summer 1976 Harmonia reached the point where we couldn´t continue working together any more. At the time I was very disappointed because I really believed in that project but the band was a commercial disaster and our personal and musical struggles couldn´t be channeled into creativity any more. I didn’t intend on becoming a solo musician but knew which direction my music should take. Since NEU! wasn´t an option I had no other choice but to move forward alone. Luckily, Conny Plank was interested in recording my first album and CAN´s Jaki Liebezeit, who was my favorite drummer apart from Klaus Dinger, joined me and made excellent contributions. It’s legitimate to wonder how Flammende Herzen would sound like if Rödelius, Möbius, or Dinger had been involved but I was very happy with the result. Still, the success of Flammende Herzen really surprised me. My first three albums sold more than 350,000 copies alone in Germany. My belief in my solo music was just as strong as in NEU! and Harmonia but in 1977 suddenly people in Germany seemed to agree on my music. It´s great to see that my first four solo albums have finally been released in the USA.
What are you trying to discover with music?
From the very beginning when I started to create my own music in the early 70s the main objective, the idea behind it all was to express my own personality, to develop an individual musical identity. Music for me is the most important field for creativity, a way to articulate and channel thoughts and emotions. It ideally offers the possibility to combine intellectual processes with the subconscious.
Harmonia “Live 1974” shows an interesting side of things. It has a looser feeling and is obviously a roomier recording than the studio albums. How do you see it?
With Harmonia we recorded most of our concerts but had to erase the tapes and use them again because they were so expensive. We simply couldn´t afford to buy new tapes all the time. Our concert at Penny Station in 1974, however, was so special that we kept it and I´m glad we did and also that the tape survived all those years without decay. When I transferred the recording to digital media, edited it, and assembled the tracks for the album I did it primarily to preserve this rare document of our work. I never expected anything like the positive reaction we´ve been getting for Live 1974 and our live performances since last year. The album shows Harmonia playing spontaneous music like we used to do in the first year and a half of the group. We would go on stage and one of us would start a song with whatever was on his mind in that moment and the others would join in. This freedom sometimes led to beautiful music, an intensity that could never have been conceived individually (like on “Ohrwurm”), but the concerts were always in danger of crashing completely whenever we weren´t in a creative mood. With NEU! performing live wasn´t possible in a fulfilling way at all. Having only Klaus on drums and myself on guitar simply wasn´t enough. With NEU! we needed the studio and the multitrack technology to create our music. That was a significant difference between NEU! and Harmonia.
How have you felt about the recent Harmonia shows?
It’s really strange to be on a stage with Harmonia these days. After all, we disbanded in 1976 and only got together again last year. We’ve all been busy with solo projects over the past 30 years and have taken our individual music into different directions. Our personalities haven’t changed, though; the same psychological aspects as in the 70s apply nowadays, so the same struggles occur on stage. It´s amazing to see how public perception of our music has changed for the better. And it´s rewarding to visit countries for the first time with Harmonia and get enthusiastic receptions from the crowds. In 1974 we once played to an audience of three people. I can laugh now but it wasn´t funny back then. Most people in Germany hated our music and we had difficulties surviving economically. It's great to see that people seem to have much more understanding and sympathy for our aesthetics nowadays. I wonder what the situation will be like in 10 or 20 years.
How much communication did you have with Klaus Dinger before he passed earlier this year?
It was a shock for me to hear of his death I wasn’t even aware that he was ill. It's difficult for me to talk about Klaus without running the danger of sounding unkind. Many fans of our music will know of the foolish things he did in the 90s when he illegally released NEU! material we had produced together in the mid 80s. Klaus tried to solve his artistic and economic problems by hijacking our project and it was a bitter experience for me. Klaus seemed to have lost touch with reality and to suffer from persecution mania. I tried to reason with him but there was just too much distrust—on both sides. Looking back now I prefer to focus on the good sides of Klaus, on his great artistic contributions to NEU! and his inspirations for which I will remain thankful. Even though we hadn’t managed to settle our problems after the NEU! re-releases of 2001, there were talks about doing a new album together. Klaus hoped we would do a world tour as NEU!, but whenever we met or exchanged messages—in recent years mostly via our label Gronland—it was apparent to me that he still hadn´t really changed. This made me very cautious, maybe too cautious. I wanted to make sure that we found basic agreements before we set out on a world tour or recorded an album. It was my belief that the project would otherwise end in complete chaos like it had happened to us before. Klaus Dinger´s contributions to the world of music will stay alive for many years, I´m sure, and the problems he and I had will be forgotten. That’s OK. The NEU! concept is still close to my heart and I enjoy picking up the thread by playing dynamic fast-forward music these days more than ever.
Will NEU! 4 ever officially see the light of day?
I haven’t given that project any thought yet, mainly because there´s simply so much new musical work for me to concentrate on these days. Maybe next year I can listen to all the recordings and mixes that are in my archive of the project we called NEU! ‘85. Klaus did not put all of the tracks we recorded on his version. No matter what I end up doing, it cannot be a real NEU! album, simply because Klaus and I haven´t finished it together. I never generally objected to the material he released—some of it was quite good—it was only wrong of Klaus to do it on his own behind my back.
What are you doing these days when you aren’t making music?
Music is my life, 24 hours a day. It has been my great privilege that I never needed to work for money beside music. I enjoy life in Forst, the magical quiet place by the river Weser where Harmonia lived and worked together. It´s amazing that even after 35 years this historical place still has that strong spell on me. I love being in a busy city like Hamburg from time to time and to take advantage of all the events such a town offers but every time I return to Forst from a tour or a trip my soul feels it´s coming home.