Interview with Michael Rother (Neu!)
Interview by: Marc Emmerik.
1. A week before you play Grauzone Fest, your old band Kraftwerk plays 7 shows in Amsterdam playing their back catalogue. Did you after you left Kraftwerk ever keep in touch or see them, or go to one of their shows? What do you think of Kraftwerk now and their legacy?
I never really stayed in touch with Kraftwerk after we stopped playing together in summer 1971. Klaus Dinger and I moved on to start the NEU! project. In early 1974 I met Ralph and Florian in Düsseldorf and played them the recordings for Harmonia´s album “Musik von Harmonia” which was released a few months later. They rather liked the music. Later that year they contacted me and asked whether I was interested in going on tour with them again but I declined the invitation because my own projects Harmonia and NEU! were all I wanted to focus on. From that time on until earlier this year I didn´t see Ralph or Florian and didn´t see Kraftwerk play live although their music sometimes came to my attention. I became friends with Karl Bartos a few years ago and we meet regularily in Hamburg. Of course I know Wolfgang Flür from the times when he was the drummer in my band “Spirits of Sound” in Düsseldorf in the late 60s. The musical achievements of Kraftwerk deservedly gave the band a place in music history. I only wish Ralph Hütter would be more relaxed in the way he controls the legacy. I met Ralph at a court hearing in Hamburg in February this year where he was fighting a case against Wolfgang Flür. His intentions to decline the long-time former members the right to even mention their membership in the band in their current activities is in my view a very poor attitude, quite unneccessary and unworthy of the great legacy of Kraftwerk.
2. When you were in Kraftwerk, i heard you guys were good in football? What did you play? Attack or defend? And what did the others play?
Actually, we played football only a few times when we met other bands at festivals. I don´t know whether we were really good at football but I remember that Florian could run very fast. I think we all played a fast-forward kind of football, quite similar to the music we made 🙂
3.Your albums w Neu & Harmonia are considered masterpieces and influenced countless musicians from punk to electronica; Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, Radiohead, Joy Division, etc. David Bowie invited you and you collaborated with Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Neubauten, Anton Corbijn, etc. There’s a Neu! tribute comp with Oasis, Primal Scream, Kasabian..the list is endless. Did you ever expect this when you started out?
I never spent a minute thinking about perhaps finding a place in music history. That was a question that didn´t cross my mind at all. The present was all I cared for – and it was exciting to discover new music from day to day with my collaborateurs in Kraftwerk, NEU! and Harmonia.
4. You always had very cool songtitles like ”Hallogallo”, Negativland”, ”Watussi”, or ”Veterano”. How did you come up with this?
The names of the songs were never that important to me. For me, the music existed without names which always came after the pieces where finished. It was just something you had to do, you had to give the musical ideas a name so that other people could make a connection. Klaus and Conny Plank contributed a few of the names for NEU! tracks. In Harmonia, we sometimes joked around and came up with names that either were the result of a sudden impulse or reflected a kind of joke, like the name “Sehr kosmisch” which was meant as a ironic comment on the Cosmic movement which we didn´t feel part of at all. People often didn´t get the jokes. For instance when I released my solo album “Katzenmusik” many listeners were puzzled and asked: “Why does Michael Rother call his music “Katzenmusik”. It isn´t as dissonant as the sound of cats fighting.” Haha. It´s always a good idea to expect a double meaning or an ironic joke when you look at the names of songs I was involved in.
5. Back then, Amsterdam was hippie capitol of Europe, did you ever play there or visited it?
I played at Melkweg in Amsterdam at least once or twice in 1973/74, also at Paradiso, and I have clear memories of the relaxed audiences there. I look forward to returning to Melkweg to play at Grauzone with my current music in a few weeks.
6. David Bowie and also Iggy Pop were hugely influenced by Neu! He named ”Heroes” after a Neu song and contacted you to play on it. What happened?
That´s a long story, and also quite a mystery because we can only guess at why the collaboration between David Bowie and myself didn´t happen in 1977. David started saying in interviews about 10 years ago that I had turned down his invitation to record the album “Heroes” with him and Brian Eno in Berlin. The truth is that I didn´t turn down his invitation at all. We both were very enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating and we talked about details on the phone. My interpretation of what went wrong is that someone around David decided to prevent him from being exposed to more crazy ideas of experimentation. It´s a fact that at the time David Bowie´s albums sales were going down and fans didn´t appreciate his change towards experimentation with ideas that were influenced by music of Kraftwerk, NEU! and Harmonia – to name a few. He openly confessed being very interested in and impressed by our music. Anyway, after my talk with David I received a phone call from someone in his management, I think, who wanted to discuss money with me. I told him not to worry about contracts or money – as long as the music was great, the legal and financial stuff wouldn´t be a problem. I think my attitude scared the guy. The next thing that happened was that I received a phone call from an assistant to David who told me that I wasn´t needed in Berlin, that David had changed his mind. At the time I was very busy preparing my 2nd solo album “Sterntaler” and enjoying the unexpected huge success of my solo album “Flammende Herzen”. Therefore, I didn´t spend much time thinking about the strange development of that intended collaboration and went back to my solo work. I quite like the album “Heroes” and Robert Fripp played really good guitars on it.
7. Grauzone bands like The Fall are huge Neu!/Can fans, DAF also recorded with your producer Conny Plank, and Camera were even part of your band at some point. Several other young bands like The Oscillation also pay debt to your sound. Are you familiar with these bands and do you keep track of new bands or new music?
I played as Rother & Moebius together with The Fall at a festival called “Nuits Sonores” in Lyon in France in 2005 and we met and spent some time together there which was nice but unfortunately I´m not familiar with their music. Dieter Moebius is a big fan of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. I haven´t heard of The Oscillation but will check them out. To be honest, I´m usually too focused on my own work to be able to follow other bands – and I enjoy silence at home most of the time. The last band that really excited me is the Fuck Buttons from the U.K.. We met at ATP in Australia in 2009 when they blew me away with their uncompromising music. Since then, we´ve met at several festivals (the last one was OFF Festival in Katowice, Poland, in August this year) and we have become good friends. They still blow me away…
8. Some bands take 6 months or longer to record. You guys were sleeping on the studiofloor and took 2 days to record one of the most influential records in music history. Is this a clear example of ”more is not better”? Why did your label Brain didnt give you more recording time, also for the 2nd Neu! album?
Nobody in 1971 or 1972 could foresee that our music would become so popular. We paid the studio out of our own pockets because we wanted to be independent. We didn´t have much money and so we had to finish the recordings in the available studio time. I didn´t enjoy the stress of the studio clock ticking away our time but this fact did make us focus and find quick solutions. It was like working on music while running at top speed. We were very lucky that we managed to finish the first NEU! album in the short time. As to NEU! 2: Many people back then hated us for the experiments on the second side. The experiments were the result of desperate actions which we had to jump to in order to be able to present something resembling an album. We had simply spent too much time recording the first side. On the other side, it´s not guaranteed that having unlimited time to create music – like it is the case with affordable home recording gear these days – makes the results any better. There are definitely dangers to be aware of. I have to remind myself of these dangers regularily whenever I´m working on new music like the film scores which I have created in recent years.
9. Your Neu! bandmate Klaus Dinger once send you a fax with a contract saying ”lick my ass”. For you it must’ve been difficult but for outside people anecdotes like this also seem a bit funny. Did Klaus’ -sometimes difficult- behaviour also sometimes make you laugh or do you have other ”funny” anecdotes?
That fax message of Klaus wasn´t aimed at me personally. He never dared talk to me like that. Deep in his heart he at all times hoped I would work with him again and he missed my input. He was very frustrated when his career went down in the 80s and he alienated himself from many friends and collaborateurs with his self-centered and erratic behaviour. For me, the partnership and the discussions with Klaus regarding NEU! were never funny. I tried to explain to him in rational words what I thought was “real”. He, on the other hand, suspected enemies and treachery everywhere. His paranoid tendencies and his illegal actions when he released some of our recordings behing my back in Japan caused me a lot of pain. He once sent me a fax saying “Congratulations! NEU! 4 will be out in Japan tomorrow!” Of course, this was ridiculous – and definitely not funny. He took the money and also tried to hijack the NEU! project. It was a total mess and nightmare. We were very fortunate that the trustworthy and enthusiastic artist and label owner Herbert Grönemeyer suddenly appeared out of nowhere in 1999 and finally made a legal re-release of the NEU! albums possible. Since Klaus passed away in 2008 I prefer to focus on his good sides as an inspiring collaborateur in NEU! and I´m thankful to have created the NEU! music with him. It will continue to be with me for the rest of my life and hopefully find new audiences for a long time.
10. You’re in China now, and you’ve been playing around the world and fests like ATP. Reviews of your shows say they’re ”absolutely stunning and blowing the minds of the crowds”. What can we expect from the Amsterdam show, and who’s playing in the line-up?
My current live line-up consists of Hans Lampe and Franz Bargmann. Hans played drums along with Thomas Dinger (the brother of Klaus) on the second side of NEU! ´75 and later was a member of La Düsseldorf. Franz is a young guitar player from Berlin who became known as a member of the Berlin based band “Camera” with whom he recorded their first album.
In recent years my live performances have been going really well. I enjoy taking the music of NEU!, Harmonia and selections from my solo catalog around the world. It´s so wonderful and rewarding to discover countries with music and to experience the reactions from crowds in different cultures. The Chinese audiences where I just played for the first time ever were amazingly enthusiastic and went totally wild. Wonderful experiences like this inspire me to continue along this road. I won´t try to describe the music but I hope that the audience at Grauzone will feel the excitement and the joy which is at the heart of my music.