The Wire

In Writing

Michael Rother interview transcript

Interview with Michael Rother by Biba Kopf in early 2001 for the Neu! article that appeared in The Wire 208.

Note: Kopf’s comments no longer exist except as indicators of the subjects at hand [in brackets].

[regarding early Kraftwerk live in a lineup featuring Florian Schneider, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger]

I played all that stuff with all my own ideas. People recognised the flute, the rhythm of the flute [played by Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider], but everything else was new. Ah yes I was saying, sometimes the shows were really fantastic for us and the people. I felt that way in this TV show. We were performing in a large hall, production hall, three, four or six technicians and three people standing at the back. But we were used to large feedback from the audience. It didn’t sound exciting, it sounds alright on the TV, but for us it wasn’t the same atmosphere we needed to really get excited. We tried to do our best like we always do. Sometimes we had those shows that didn’t work, and the same happened when we went into the studio as Kraftwerk, we went in to record the second album, but in that studio it was like in outer space, there was no room, we were playing in a small box, everything was acoustically dead, probably a room for recording a singer, I don’t know, it had absolutely no sound for us, that was one reason why we weren’t successful, we recorded two or three songs I think, 20 minutes, and that was when we were sure it wasn’t going to work and we stopped the recordings, shortly afterwards we even split. No, Kraftwerk, Klaus and I and Florian, Klaus and I agreed on most things musically, so it was quite normal that we go together. In the end it was clear at one certain moment that we didn’t want to continue [as Kraftwerk]. I remember it a little bit different from Klaus, there was a lot of arguing and psychological warfare going on, there were extreme personalities, Klaus and I and Florian, apart from maybe having different opinions of the direction the music should take, apart from Florian, maybe he had the idea that he was a minority with us, and we were taking his name, Kraftwerk, in a direction that wasn’t his. Maybe that’s near the truth, and maybe at that time Ralf Hütter reconnected to Florian, and thought maybe they should try again. At that time, we were with Conny Plank, Klaus and I, when we did the Kraftwerk session in the studio and said, straightaway, we said OK, lets do something on our own with Conny. I collected some ideas, Klaus collected some ideas, for two or three months, booked the studio in Hamburg, and recorded the first Neu! album with Conny. So that was the direct way from Kraftwerk. Of course we took our experiences and ideas, which we had developed with Kraftwerk into Neu!, the Kraftwerk live ideas which were different from the Kraftwerk album ideas.

This is always the very complicated question, because it’s like explaining why you like this dinner. Explain the music, it is impossible. Maybe we have to focus specific parts.

[Neu!’s driven drum sounds, driven music, “Hallo Gallo”]

That’s right, “Negativland”...

[It feels so far removed from US or UK rock, a rock that is not like rock]

To be honest we all have roots. Klaus and I admit that. There have been drummers before him, like Maureen Tucker, driving, or Jaki Liebezeit in a different way, but Klaus has purified it in the Dinger way and I liked this flow, like making melodies fly over this driving sound, that is what I want to do, combine this dynamic fundament, bass, and on top of that record something like Klaus, like changing melodies and sounds on top of something that is driving very straight, of course changing in a dynamic way, getting softer going stronger, I think it was very much emotion. Of course there were thoughts and intellectual processes involved but that was very much like I said, going back to the roots, that was very much one step further, with Kraftwerk, that was one note, one string, this was a second note. On the first Neu! album there is one track “Weissensee”, which has a second harmony, which was a great step for me. I remember clearly really thinking hard, can I do that?, is that really necessary to change the harmony, but it is like breathing, going up and going down. It’s not the idea of Bach, it’s still basic, but I remember clearly, it was something that I really thought about, before doing it.

I didn’t follow the minimalist music at that time, I got into that more closely with Roedelius later on. We were listening to Terry Riley and people like that. It is just the result of going many steps back from where I ended as a teenager and then going step by step trying to build a musical structure, language is too boasting, a musical expression that contains elements like harmonies and melodies of course, I need that to express emotions, expression of emotional processes, but to do that in a very thoughtful way, now it has been done lets go on adding these harmonies, adding two new notes, in “Weissensee” adding a second harmony that was breathing, going up, going down, and that was a new song. So I continued that way until after the second Neu!, it collided with some stage in my life, some personal things that went not in the best way, relationship and so on, I had the feeling that my development had come to a halt. I wasn’t sure which way to continue, I had the idea that the next step had to come, I wasn’t sure how to do that. With Klaus, I thought it was not going to work. In a way there was quite some desperation, for me I hear it on the second album, even on the first side. Partly for me it is the feeling again of driving in a strong way and adding some clouds on top. But to be honest I hear some desperation, maybe people don’t feel it but anyway that’s my feeling, and I listen to my own feelings, and at time in early 73, when UA invited us to do this tour in England, they had released the first album and it was quite successful at that time, moderately successful, and people quite like it, people said come over and then we had to find a way how to do it on stage. The same situation again, I had heard the first or second Cluster album, Im Süden, that title, I had heard it, there is something there, maybe these people now... you know there is a guitar in Im Süden, maybe these people could help Neu! So I went to visit Hans Joachim [Roedelius] and Dieter [Moebius] in the countryside and took my guitar along, and I jammed with Roedelius and I had the same feeling, this is it, with Roedelius, this is what really inspired me, so I dropped Neu!. I couldn’t continue at that point and four weeks later I moved to this place, and we did Harmonia.

[Was it a sudden move?]

Not really because that was the beginning of going into sound, apart from the hypnotic repetition of melodies, which I hadn’t done in that way, so I was studying all the time, you have to try and go on learning, so it fascinated me, and that is what I wanted to do in 73, so we didn’t do the tour. Klaus was in Düsseldorf so I think he joined forces with his brother and some other guy, I’m not sure whether they were called La Düsseldorf at that time. After two years with Harmonia we lived together, we did a lot, it was very... I had started developing again new ideas on my own, which were not compatible with Harmonia, which were more I thought ideas that I could realise with Klaus as Neu!. So we had this contract for the third album, so said, OK, let’s try. We had this deal, where Klaus and I would do the one side of this album as a duo, which I actually wanted to do, but he said he actually wanted to do the whole album with two drummers, because Klaus didn’t want to be at the back with the drums, he wanted to be at the front of the stage and also play with guitar, that’s part of the truth, so we ended doing half of the album this way and half the other, and it was a good result, I think.
[page break]
[Neu! 75 is a tremendous record. Harmonia was more tranquil; Neu! 75 was back in the city, more politicised?]

The singing was Klaus, on “Hero” and “After Eight”, they would have sounded different if I hadn’t been working with him, just as “Isi” and “Seeland” wouldn’t have been the same if Klaus hadn’t joined his ideas to mine. I think it’s a bad idea to try to separate that, because always react to what the other does, in the studio it is always interaction. But the basic idea of “Hero” and “After Eight” was klaus and the singing and the emotions he uttered were Klaus’s feelings, not mine.

[You didn’t share them?]

No, not at all, I never had that, but I had to respect that just as he had respect for the “Isi” or “Seeland” when I play melodies, he liked that of course. I thought the way he sang “Hero” was fascinating, we did not know what would happen later, and Conny and I agreed we listened and said that this is good.

[The lines he was singing too, like “Fuck the harmony” {Kopf ‘creatively’ misheard the “Hero” lyrics completely. See his Undercurrents piece The Autobahn Goes On Forever, The Wire #184}]

No, he didn’t [sing that]. I’m not sure. Klaus will I think explain if you ask him what made him so angry. He was having trouble with his record label and lost a lot of money and had a very difficult time, the record company was keeping him down at the time, so he was very angry, fuck the company fuck the programme, I think that he is what he singing. Maybe I should not spoil your piece. Everyone listening to music hears it in their own mind and that is the most important thing, the artist’s thought is really not important, if it rings a bell and you hear “Fuck the harmony”, well...

[Misheard it for 20 years]

Maybe Klaus was angry with the way he failed with Dingerland. He had big financial problems, much personal problems, that was the feeling he expressed in those songs, he did the driving thing, and I did my clouds above with the guitars, and I think it was very good though I don’t express the anger. It’s not my way of handling anger, I express my opposition different than Klaus...

[Was your opposition leaving for the country?]

I’m not talking about politics, I don’t understand the way of the question. Living in the country with Harmonia felt right. It was a new step in life for me, leaving Düsseldorf, it was country. Living together, find out compromises, living together was quite interesting, living together wasn’t easy. Neu! helped me...

The albums weren’t successful, even in Germany. It’s growing slowly, selling slowly in Japan. It’s funny, you find the albums, in Los Angeles, or Timbuktoo, but not in Germany. Going back to the political angle, I thought more of the way you react not in a political sense but in a personal sense, the way somebody has other ideas, contradictions, the way you deal with that, Klaus and I are very different about that, which is part of our problems, and part of the mystery of Neu!, because normally, we actually can’t live together, but we both know that, and it’s an experiment, maybe, it took a person like Conny Plank to help us create art in the studio, because without him we would not have been able to concentrate in the studio, he was so very important.

[What was it about Conny Plank that made Neu! work?]

Of course he had technical qualities, that was very important, but what was more important he was so enthusiastic about our ideas. He had the ears to listen to that and the heart to feel that and he wanted to help us create this kind of sound. I can’t recall anybody else who wanted to do that or would have been able to do that or would have been interested in doing that. They wanted to record mainstream music, but Conny was into experiments, he enjoyed being around doing crazy things, he was very excited and enthusiastic, but he was also a very strong man, had ideas of his own, he was like a third member with Klaus and me, who helped us overcome this blockade, nowadays this is the role of Herbert [Grönemeyer], in psychological ways and more, he fills that gap, since Conny died in 87, I think, we need somebody like that. I’m not blaming Klaus, it would be too easy, I am probably equally stubborn, but maybe less aggressive, but maybe in different ways, it’s up to other people, I am the angel [laughs], we need somebody to help us move, because this dualism is very static, it doesn’t move. Conny was a strong personality, I think I can only repeat, he had the enthusiasm, the ideas, everything that was needed to help us, and later on the studio. He also had the studio. In the beginning we went to rental studios, and that was very hard, it was so expensive, we didn’t have the money, we worked at night, because it was a little bit cheaper, that’s why we had to do the second side of Neu! 2 in one night. It’s true we just ran out of money, of course, it is part of my answer, I think it was due to what I said about desperation, there was some stagnation in my mind, I think maybe in Klaus too, so we fumbled around on the material for one song for too long. Of course, I am now very happy about side two, I was then too, once the decision was made, the people were quite unsure, when that album was finished, the people and the record label, many people thought we were making fun of them.
[page break]
[Why making fun?]

Because that was not the way to make music, putting on the record, hitting different speeds [Interview interrupted – Mussen wir los? In about five to ten minutes – I have checked out the rooms everything is paid, herbert has the idea of going by train, we can have five to ten minutes] The reaction of the people to the second side, they didn’t think that was the proper way to do music, they thought it was just fooling around, playing the record at different speeds and thumping the player and using this cassette player that was garbled. I think it is great.

[Much has happened since then to justify such methods]

Yesterday I did things like that, I have been doing it for years, now people say yes, but at the time people said, ‘Eh, are they crazy?’

[Any sense of a musical breakthrough at the time?]

No. Thinking too much about making history prevents it. I just go with the feeling, you just go ahead, do something, fail or succeed, you find out later, you move, do something, do it in the best possible way, you have to be careful, open watch out for things that happen by chance are sometimes the best, by accident, the great part of the history, fascinating, you have to be alert for things that were not preconceived, you have to be ready to take a sidestep, not follow in the settled way, sometimes the most difficult part is to be concentrated and to be open at the same time.

[Harmonia lost the driving beat, replaced it with a pulse?]

You know we used beats from the beginning, electronic drum machines and what fascinated me then was that you could take machines you could double them, put them through effects, songs like “Veterano”, which is a drum machine that sort of chopped up the rhythm, comes up and goes down again, I like that, the speed of chops was not in synchronicity to the beats, that was pre median, we were just turning the knobs adjusting speed trying to find something, it was like two films moving at different speeds, sometimes you see a clear picture, sometimes a half picture, so the idea of processing rhythm sounds was very important for my work with Harmonia, because of course with a drummer you had the original drum sounds, and I started being more interested in. . . Herbert! [Grönemeyer turns up...

I think the natural drum sound was beginning to bore me. That was a big problem or to put it in a more positive way, I was more interested in beginning to process all the sounds, and that was the main reason of course why we use these drum machines, being able to process, electronic drums, pulses, chew everything up turn everything around and down with them [Dieter Moebius turns up to say goodbye] I think we were talking about processing sounds, that is what fascinated me, going into sound, also into rhythm, because you lose, you have to give up something, you have to give up the human strength. That didn’t bother me, I concentrated on the possiblities of working with machines, it fascinated me, it still does. Of course, you have to add the human all the time. All the time when I worked with my solo albums with the Fairlight, I always watched that the human elements were added, the disturbances, the human errors were added, pure machine is very easily boring. Perfect and boring.
[page break]
[How can you programme error?]

You can do that, I went to some effort to programme irregularities. No timing errors, so that is one way. The guitar was mostly the easiest way to add human error, because I just move around, I am not a perfect player, so it worked well. I read in your [Autobahn] article, I didn’t have time to read it all, I think at one point it was said, Rother may have envied La Düsseldorf...

[The rock element, the drive...]

No I never envied La Düsseldorf, no. Of course, Jaki Liebezeit is a wonderful drummer. I saw him last year... I worked live with Liebezeit on the first two [solo] albums and on the third a little bit. Of course on my first solo album I didn’t know what would happen, I had these ideas, I had a four track semi professional machine at home at that time, I had some musical sketches, and went into the studio and told Jaki, “OK, some basics, how I want the feeling”, then I played guitar or piano and he listened and it was perfect. There was so much chance, it was pure luck, so much luck, that’s all I can say. Of course it is experience, it was not by chance that I asked Jaki to help, because I knew what he did on some Can albums, but what happened then on Flammende Herzen, I am just thankful, that is all I can say because there was no masterplan in the beginning. It was just making things, moving ahead keeping an open eye, and trying to listen what is the right next step, adding one sound, a guitar, and of course Conny was very important, especially in that time when I was not so experienced, but I watched him working and learned a lot, at least try to learn, and when I had for instance played several many guitars on on Flammende Herzen, and Conny said, “Go outside take a walk”, and when I came back he had sorted out exactly put together what I had in mind, he felt that, it was great working with him, he had this sensitivity, empathy...

[First two solo albums specially had this sense of longing, Sehnsucht]

Well, yes, I don’t know, I can’t really explain. It is the way that you feel. It’s everything, it goes back to childhood days and all the things that you have encountered in your life, happy moments, sad moments, that goes into the music, I can’t really say much more.

[Walter Bockmeyer’s film Flammende Herzen...]

I think the album was released in spring 77, and I think in the summer 77 they contacted me and said we want to make a film and could we use the music. I didn’t know the director but they showed me some concepts, which were completely much different from what they did later on. They just loved the music, they took the music, so they told me later, they went to New York, they played the music on the scene and developed the scene exactly to the music. All the people always gave me compliments, great film music, it must be great to sit and watch the film and then develop it. And so it was exactly the other way round. There are some scenes which fit perfectly together, the way the scene develops to the way the music develops to a climax, Flammende Herzen, it’s a funny film.
[page break]
[When you and Klaus got back together to make Neu! 4]

We wanted to record an album, that was the idea. I can’t really remember how we started, what the situation was. It was 1985, I guess, and I must have just released Süssherz Und Tiefenschärfe, that album, and I thought OK I have done another album for Polygram, but now some years have passed. I had problems with Klaus, all the time of course, but then we had the idea of trying it once more, then I developed some ideas, brought them along, we started out in Düsseldorf, we went there for a week, and then later on we did some more recordings, first in Klaus’s place, and later on, in Forst. At that time we encountered this, what I explained earlier, the two of us could not agree on stupid things, in fact looking back I knew it at the time, it was some problem with dynamics, Zeit and dynamics, I don’t know this blockade. Anyway we ended up not being very happy. We recorded very much music, it was quite enough, and said, OK it’s finished, we stopped. Well, I think I said that, any we stopped, but at that time no record company wanted to have an album by Neu!. In Germany nobody was interested, the tape was sent to England, somebody tried to find a company here, I don’t know, anyway, we just had to realise that we weren’t going to release it because nobody wanted it. There are some tapes that Klaus played and some that I played, and I just put them in a cupboard. There are a lot more tapes of unreleased music, but unfortunately it didn’t work. And then later on, of course it is a long story, but one day I got a fax from Klaus, congratulations, tomorrow Neu! 4 will be released in Japan. I really thought, now he has gone completely nuts. So in the meantime he had added some minor things, edited a little bit, and then of course he wrote this very, well, I have to watch my words, strange liner notes, and I mean, everybody I talked to understands that it is not bearable for me to read on my own music that people should get in touch with me to contact Klaus, things like that. It doesn’t need explaining. Well, anyway it was quite a lot of money, and of course of this cost, this action, and it was continued unfortunately, even though he knew I was strongly opposed to this action, he released Neu! 72 Live. That was my point of view, perhaps Klaus will explain from his point of view, but it was highly irrational from my point of view, and it was not right to release Neu! Live without asking me. Neu is Dinger and Rother, it is terrible, I would never have released that.

[I feel the same about Neu! 4]

Yes it is not good enough.

[Version of the German national anthem – a comment on Hendrix’s take on “Star Spangled Banner”?]

In a way it is a beautiiful melody, and in that way it sounds beautiful and of course we are not nationalists, and even at that time all the time we were quite aware of problems with those stupid people in Germany, the nationalists, the Nazis, and now it is getting worse again, it is quite terrible, and that has something to do with that. It is in a completely different way from Jimi Hendrix. To be honest, Jimi Hendrix that is a statement that is so clear the way he treated the national anthem while soldiers were killing people in Vietnam. You can’t go beyond that, you should not compare, it would be unfair to Jimi. That was the story about Neu! 4, and the problems with me and Klaus got worse and worse, much distrust, well, I tried to forget and not to think too much about that and to concentrate on positive things, my own music and things with Dieter, and I am quite happy with that too. But of course all the time when I came to think of Neu!, I always thought what a terrible thing that only the bootlegging people are making money, they are spreading this illegal stuff that is not as good as it should be, and we could release the music, because people were interested all the time, because we had good offers, from people like Mute. Since 1990 Daniel Miller was following that. Everyone has his own version. I will be really happy if and when we have finished copies. We have to agree on the artwork and the mastering.

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