Michael Rother: Life lessons from a true musical pioneer

Michael Rother: Life lessons from a true musical pioneer
Neu! frontiers — From Bowie and Sonic Youth to Stereolab and LCD Soundsystem, Michael Rother's impact on innovative music has been immeasurable. A new boxset of his most successful work celebrates his output beyond the countercultural touchstones of Neu! and Harmonia.

In 1971, Michael Rother was a 21-year-old working at a mental health facility in Dusseldorf, Germany. A fraught political climate saw young people searching different ways to resist and reject a cloud of conservatism. Rother, a guitarist who refused to serve in the military, wanted to make music that would forget about heroes from bygone eras and explore something different.

One day, another guitar player working at the hospital – where staff and patients would often jam together as a makeshift band – was invited to join a new band called Kraftwerk at a studio. Rother thought the name sounded silly, but went along out of curiosity.

He quickly realised that he wasn’t the only one who wanted to shrug off popular musical frameworks in favour of experimentation – a sense of dissatisfaction that would end up resonating for decades to come.

That early incarnation of Kraftwerk splintered within six months, with Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger going on to record as Neu! – pioneering a new kind of rock that emphasised texture over structure, which would gradually impact on everything from new wave and post-punk to techno and all manner of industrial genres.

Its sound was shaped by an innovative engineer named Conny Plank, who was willing to take risks with some young musicians who had big ideas but little resources. After just three releases, however, Rother and Dinger’s relationship – a yin-yang dynamic of meditative and volcanic sensibilities, which informed their propulsive sound – had run its course when their contractual obligations lapsed in 1973.

By that point Rother had teamed up with electronic duo Cluster to form Harmonia, moving to the rural village of Forst to live and record in a studio they’d built themselves. The place had no running water but something about it proved enticing (Rother still lives there today), leading to two albums that failed commercially and a third album recorded with Brian Eno, which wouldn’t be released until 1997.

By December 1976, Rother was negotiating a solo record deal from a hospital bed, battling a mysterious illness that doctors suspected was leukemia. The future did not look promising. Yet within weeks, his health suddenly returned and his career regained momentum – a turn of events that spurred Rother’s most successful output as a musician. The release of a new boxset, Solo, shines a light on that body of work – one that saw him finally earn the critical and commercial breakthrough he long deserved.

How does it feel to see how the public perception of your music changes over time?
Looking at the reception I’m getting these days, it’s amazing. I guess if you had talked to me in the ’90s, I would have given you a different answer. Even in the ’70s and ’80s, there was really no time when people seemed to understand or welcome my music as much as is seems to be the case now.

There was quite some response to the first Neu! album but Harmonia was a failure. Both albums were just not accepted by the public and there was hardly any media coverage in Germany. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know what was happening outside of Germany. One of the rare occasions where we got some feedback was when Brian Eno told us about what he was doing and how he’d been exchanging views with David Bowie about our music.

Can you pinpoint a moment where you could feel the consensus changing?
The musician [and actor] Herbert Grönemeyer, who’s a household name in Germany, discovered Neu!’s music and wanted to start a label [Grönland] in the late ’90s. He met Klaus Dinger and me to talk about the problems we have with each other because we’d been fighting over possible releases of new records with other companies. I was totally happy when Herbert managed to find an agreement with my partner in Neu!, who was very difficult at the time.

Since the re-release of those Neu! albums, all the way through until today, this has been a story of growing interest. I know that because I’m playing live in countries all over the world. I was in London last week and the reception there was phenomenal. This wouldn’t have been imaginable 20, 30 years ago. It was such a quiet time back then. Now I enjoy travelling and playing music everywhere I get the chance to present it.

I understand that in 1974 you once played to an audience of three people. Were moments like that hard to take? Were there times when you almost gave up?
Yeah, you’re totally right. It was not only tough, it was… aghhh… something that made us lose hope. We didn’t have much money back then, so when we played to an audience of three people, we were also driving for 300 kilometres just to get to that venue and we didn’t even get a fee, as we were just supposed to get a share of the door. We drove home that evening really feeling very downhearted.

I guess it was a valuable experience for what would come because I knew how it felt to be rejected and neglected. But when my solo albums became a success, starting in 1977, I felt the same confidence about that work as I did with Harmonia’s music. There was clearly no difference for me. I understood that I just had to rely on my own judgement and try not to be too affected by negative reactions while, on the other hand, not getting too excited and carried away by positive reactions. You just have to rely on your own feeling and hope that the audience catch up.

I guess when you are an innovator in anything, it means taking a lot of criticism… but you’re also paving the way for others. In the long-term, does the belated respect make up for the frustrations of those early years?
It’s much more fun to see that people understand the music, that they want to hear it. It took audiences maybe 30 years to catch up with Harmonia and nowadays I’m totally happy that I can play that music for people and see them dancing.

Of course, the early experiences still stay with me. They don’t hurt anymore. That stopped when my first solo album came and found success. But the memories are still there and will not go away. I think it’s a valuable experience, rather than suddenly becoming famous at the age of 18 when you’re just starting out. I think that’s a dangerous experience for many young musicians and many can’t handle it. I had a lot of time to get used to being successful and I think I can be happy for that.

When you were young, you moved around a lot with your family. What kind of impact do you think that had on you?
I remember being a nine-year-old boy living in Wilmslow, near Manchester, and going to a small school with animals running around the garden. I remember learning English by being with friends there and then moving to Pakistan with a very different system of schooling. They had uniforms and if you made a mistake, you were sent home again. There was a lot of pressure. Of course, there were very good times living in Pakistan too: my parents and I would often spent the whole weekend at the seaside and I probably spent more time in the water than out of it. I have very fond memories of that.

Also, I was exposed to music which was so different, and still is so different, from what young people experience when they grow up in Germany. It was fascinating for me to hear those rhythms and scales; everything was very mysterious. It’s not easy to explain what kind of effect that experience had. But it’s safe to say that it had a long-lasting impact on the way I see the world; being immersed in different cultures somehow struck a chord, I guess, because this idea of endlessness seems to have seeped into the way I think about music.

What about being a self-taught artist with no musical education whatsoever – how important do you think that was to your creative development and making a signature sound?
It was a decision I took at school; there were music lessons and I didn’t like the teacher; I didn’t like the systems they tried to teach you. And so I decided to avoid anything about theory. Instead I would just to try express myself through the instrument. That hasn’t changed, even today. I cannot read music. The only thing that matters is what I hear and how I feel about what I hear. ‘Is it interesting? Does it sound right or does it sound wrong?’ That’s all I need to know. I’m not sure if that’s true for all musicians. I just have my own system of judging music and what I feel is right, and I don’t need to learn scales or how to be a classically trained guitar player for that.

Do you believe that there has to be a bit of struggle or conflict going on in your life in order to create something worthwhile artistically?
Well, that’s an interesting question. The answer is that I don’t know where music or the ideas for it come from. I would think, and this is just an educated guess, that emotional conflict or disasters happening in your life have a lasting effect on what comes out of you. But there’s not always a direct line that you can trace back… Looking at what I did, it’s not so easy to distinguish what happened for which reason. It’s just that some of your experiences and your thinking about music make you do what you do. Maybe I don’t even want to know where ideas for music come from, whether it’s a catastrophe or a beautiful experience. I guess it’s the sum of life.

Now that you’re putting out this collection and looking back on your career, what do you think is your best work?
I never look at my work in that way. I always look at individual pieces of music and maybe my feeling for them will change over time. Recently, when I checked the remastering, I had to listen intently to everything and I discovered some little gems I had forgotten about, such as ‘Stromlinen’ from Sterntaler. I felt a lot of gratitude again. I know that I owe much to Jaki Liebezeit who did wonderful drumming on my first four solo albums. And also to Conny Plank, who not only worked on the first three Neu! albums but the second Harmonia album, Deluxe, and my first three solo albums. I remember those collaborations well but listening to the multi-track recordings now, I am again totally blown away by his sheer talent of organising the sound so that something like Sterntaler came out.

When you put out your first solo album, it was your name on the record. The stakes were a bit higher. There was no blame to share if it failed. Did it feel like you had something to prove, either to yourself or to the outside world?
Ha! This is a question I’ve never been asked before. No, I didn’t feel that pressure. The only way I can think about music is, ‘Am I happy? Am I convinced that this work has turned out the way I want? If I can honestly say yes, then I will take what’s coming. I’ll be criticised or praised or whatever. But what I have to prove to myself is that I do the best I can. There was never a fear of being the one who gets the blame if none of this happens. Spreading the responsibility on three shoulders, as with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius in Harmonia, did not in any way minimise my disappointment.

What would you say is the most important thing that another artist has ever said to you?
A memory that will stay with me is when I did an interview with a German journalist with John Frusciante and me in Hamburg. We were meeting for the first time and got on so well. At his concert [with the Red Hot Chili Peppers], they started jamming and John wanted me to join them. I was standing at the back of the stage, thinking ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ But because he was such a nice guy, I picked up a guitar and joined in. He started rolling around on the stage, on his back, out of happiness.

I loved seeing that impact: the joy that collaboration can bring. A year later, we did some concerts together in California, which was also quite funny because I expected John to want to improvise. To me, that would have been the natural thing to do. But he wanted to play all the older tunes [laughs] and he even had to show me how to play my own track, ‘Palmengarten’, which I hadn’t played since recording it in 1983 – but obviously he had been!

You and David Bowie almost collaborated but it fell apart due to some sort of miscommunication. In terms of any regrets that you might have had in your career, do you think the the confusion over that opportunity might be the biggest one?
Really, I’d be lying if I said that was the case. It would have been interesting to work with David, Brian Eno and that team, but I was never disappointed. It was confusing at the time. I had talked to David and we were both so excited and enthusiastic to work together. Then I got another phone call afterward where I talked to a manager about a contract and money and so on. He obviously didn’t think I was a trustworthy guy because I said, ‘Don’t worry about a contract.’ [laughs] Anyway, this was more surprising and puzzling at the time.

I was very happy with the progress I was making with my solo albums; I’d started working on Sterntaler shortly afterwards, so I didn’t really think about it for a long time until David Bowie did an interview with Uncut, around the year 2000, where he said that I turned him down. Well, I knew that this was not the case and that something was wrong there. I really wasn’t disappointed but it would have been interesting.

Last year, I had this talk in Berlin with Tony Visconti, his producer, and we discussed the track ‘Heroes’. I was joking with Tony, saying, ‘I think the track is too slow. It should have been faster. Maybe I would have sped it up a little.’ And Tony said, ‘Yes! When I play it with my band, we do it faster too!’ [laughs] So that was funny. But a regret? Not at all.

Solo is out on Grönland.

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