"We lived with little money, but with a lot of freedom and time..." - hmv.com talks to Michael Rother
As co-founder of Neu! and a one-time member of Kraftwerk, Michael Rother was at the very centre of the musical revololution happening in Germany during the 1960s and 70s, a movement that became affectionately knwon as Krautrock. Their highly experimental music has proved to be an influence on a wide range of artists from David Bowie to Sonic Youth and in recent years there has been a renewed interest in Rother's work, both as part of Neu! and as a member of Harmonia, a group formed by Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius.
Most of the work that Rother did in Neu! and Harmonia has already received the remaster and reissue treatment, but this week Rother is set to release a new box set featuring remastered versions of his first four solo albums - 1977's Flammende Herzen, 1978's Sterntaler, 1979's Katzenmusik and 1982's Fernwärme. With Solo making its way into stores today we caught up with Michael to talk about his solo work, his plans for a live show in London in April, and his love of snooker...
Why did you feel that now was the right time to reissue these albums?
“It was just a kind of logical development, after Herbert Grönemeyer bought the Neu! catalogue for Groenland Records, and re-released those albums in 2001, which brought much joy to me and the fans around the world. Then they also signed the Harmonia catalogue, we managed to get it away from Universal, it was a collective effort. So they released the Neu! box set and the Harmonia box set, and I think we all had it in our minds that the next logical step would be to release a Michael Rother box set."
At what point did you start writing music for that first solo album?
“Maybe we first have to define 'writing music' because I'm not like a singer-songwriter guy, or a trained classical pianist who writes music in that sense."
Is 'creating' a better word?
“Yes, creating, in the first step it's always a collection of fuzzy ideas. Just some musical feeling or some sound I was working on that inspired me, or a harmonic transgression, and this is the spark. But the real work happens in the studio. Back then I didn't have a studio in the beginning, like in '76 when I recorded Flammende Herzen, I has this little four-track TEAC machine for collecting basic ideas, but we also used it when Brian Eno came to visit and we'd have four tracks for four musicians."
So did you begin creating these solo albums were still doing stuff with Neu!, or was it case of drawing a line under that and wanting to do something different?
“I think you cannot really set borders like 'now I'm working with Neu!' or 'now I'm working with Harmonia', because I think this is all one development. Working with Moebius and Roedelius in Harmonia, that enabled me to come up with stuff that ended up on Neu! 75, especially on the first side on tracks like 'Isi' and 'Seeland'. I think I wouldn't have been able to come up with that kind of melodic and harmonic construction without exchanging inspiration with Roedelius and Moebius, even though they maybe didn't want to follow the path as clearly as I wanted to. That's why they decided to stop working with Harmonia in 1976. That and the terrible economic failure of our project, of course!”
Were things really that bad?
“Yeah, nobody wanted us, nobody wanted to buy or hear Harmonia, it was like being a sort of musical alien. I could go on for hours telling you stories about when people fell asleep during concerts or just stated turning round and talking to each other while we played! So when Harmonia stopped existing I was in a situation that I wasn't looking for, it was never my intention to be a solo musician, but I had no option and I had all these ideas that I'd been collecting."
Where did you record that first album?
“I was fortunate that Conny Plank already had his own studio, he was able to offer two weeks of studio time and of course he knew how I worked, so we were not strangers and we knew what to expect from one another. And I was also fortunate that (Can drummer) Jaki Liebezit was willing to join me in the studio. I don't know which drummer could have been a replacement for Jaki, he was such a wonderful and very special guy. I couldn't ask Klaus Dinger because then I would just be making a Neu! Record. There were a lot of favourable circumstances.”
How involved have you been with the remastering process on the new reissues?
“When I was checking the new mastering on the solo albums I really listened intently to every second of music on those four albums, and of course I had the music in my heart, it's never left me really. But I was again blown away by the sheer quality of Jaki Liebezit's playing, and by the quality of Conny Plank's production and mixing.”
Did your approach to making those albums differ from the way you worked in Neu! or in Harmonia? We've heard that there's quite a lot of improvisation that happens in the studio...
“Actually it wasn't that much different, the big difference was that I was alone! After recording the basic tracks with Jaki, he left and it was only me, whereas in Neu! and Harmonia there would obviously be other people with colours and ideas they wanted to add, so that was the biggest difference. I just recorded all the melodies and sounds that I had in mind and Conny arranged it all. He had this wonderful memory, kind of like how I imagine the conductor of an orchestra hearing everything at the same time, every individual musician. He was not critical, but with this great intuition he had he was able to pick up things when I was not sure or getting lost. In one situation I had the idea something was nearly right, but it somehow didn't make sense, so Conny sent me for a walk. When I came back after about 20 minutes, he had it all right.”
Looking back on that era now, it seems like an incredibly exciting time to have been making music in Germany – did you have the sense at the time that you were part of something that was going to important or influential, maybe?
“I never for a second thought about later years, it was being in the moment and, in the case of Harmonia, struggling with money and with the lack of success and feedback. But it was also about being happy. I shouldn't forget to mention that I was totally happy to be able to develop my music. It was a simple life, we lived with little money, but with a lot of freedom and time. Nowadays for me these things seem in short supply. I mean, I still have freedom, I can decide to accept or decline invitations to do things, but for quite a long time now I have the feeling that I would like to have more time to work on music. That's a decision I took – a very German decision, probably – to also take care of managing my music, talking to promoters about concerts, taking care of everything. Even booking the hotels!”
When did you realise that other bands were beginning to cite your work as an influence?
“Before the internet arrived I didn't know anything about what was happening in America, with Sonic Youth and Stereolab and others picking up on some of those ideas. That reached me later. With email and social media and everything, it's wonderful, I don't want to go back to being completely disconnected from the world, but it takes up so much of your time. At least the way I work. Maybe I'm slow and old fashioned.”
Do you have any plans to tour this music again and play some of it live?
“Oh yes, actually the idea for Under the Bridge in April is to play Sterntaler, the second solo album, live in its entirety for the first time, ever. I've never played the whole album live. So when I'm not at the computer writing emails I'm working on the music these days, it's wonderful to have the sounds in the air. Normally I enjoy silence at home, but the music stays with me even when I stop working, it's a different feeling to have spent hours working on the music, shaping it, recreating the mixes and then preparing the material for live appearances. So this will be a very big event, Thurston Moore is performing solo set opening for us, and something that just came up, the former snooker world champion Steve Davis will be DJing for us. Did you know he is a DJ now?"
A pretty good one too, by all accounts...
“That is what I also heard, and he's also a very fine gentleman. We met him at the crucible, in 2017, because I am a big snooker fan.”
You're into snooker?
“Oh yes, it's wonderful to calm down after a busy day. To see those guys playing snooker, so totally focussed, the level of concentration is so high and this is something that appeals to me very much.”
Is snooker a big thing in Germany?
“No, actually it isn't big in Germany, it's a minority, it's not anywhere near as big as it is in the UK I don't think. I don't know where I picked it up, I play pool, some friends and I bought a table because the club where we used to play went bankrupt. But if you ever have this idea that you are not so bad as a pool player, and then you go to snooker, you will think maybe you are not that great after all.”
Michael will be perfroming Sterntaler in full at Under the Bridge in London on April 5th. Solo is available in stores now.