Sunday, February 5, 2012

ONLY HUMAN: An interview with Michael Rother

With fond memories of his last trip to Australia, Michael Rother, once of the massively influential bands Neu!, Kraftwerk and Harmonia, looks back on a life as a founding father of Krautrock.

It’s difficult to understate the impact of musical developments in early to mid-1970s Germany. Tim Barr’s book From Dusseldorf to the Future (with Love) works on the premise that Kraftwerk’s impact on modern music rivals that of the Beatles, a claim yet to be seriously challenged. Virtually all electronic music you hear as well as whatever constitutes art-rock and math-rock these days, can be traced back to music created by a small group of men intent on building their own German identity and a new culture.

Integral to this movement, yet more reclusive than the front-men of Kraftwerk, a band in which he briefly played, is Michael Rother, returning to Australia to play highlights from his long career. This time however, he has enlisted Dieter Moebius (of Harmonia and Cluster) and Hans Lampe to interpret the songs of Neu!, Harmonia and his solo work.

“Oh Mt Buller!” he says brightly of Harmonia’s rapturously received set at 2009’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, of his last time in Australia. “We’ve never played anywhere like that before or since. It was incredible. I saw photos people took of us on stage; it was like we were playing in the clouds! It was a glorious experience. That was Harmonia, now it’s a different situation,” he says of his new eponymous project. “It’s my selection of music as opposed to playing only songs by Harmonia. That concert was three years ago, shortly afterwards [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius decided he didn’t want to continue. I was surprised by that, so I began new collaborations, including this new one I’m bringing to Australia.”

With technology playing such an important role in the development and progression of electronic music, its influence on Rother is surprisingly small. “Certain aspects of technology change, but to be honest it’s about the same music. Hallogallo [the band Rother formed with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Ben Curtis of School of Seven Bells and Tall Firs’ Aaron Mullan] was also my project. It was formed to play my selection of Neu! and Harmonia songs, and some of my solo work. Each time there are other musicians involved, the angle changes and that’s really interesting to see,” he says with palpable excitement before continuing. “If you look at a track like Hallogallo [a signature tune of Neu!’s], that’s something near the centre of everything. I’ll explain; the idea of creating interesting improved sounds and prepared music together doesn’t often occur along with the idea of the ‘fast forward movement’ of Hallogallo. It is so strange that Hallgallo in a few weeks is 40 years old,” he laughs. “Maybe I’m too lazy to move on, but this kind of drone and repetition and freedom to fly like an arrow straight to the horizon I feel in the music…that still fascinates me, that’s what I experience when I play it and it makes it a lot of fun.”

Looking back at the music Rother has to choose from when constructing a set, his recollections are tainted by the surprising rejection that Harmonia experienced, unusual for a band considered a Krautrock supergroup. “In the 1970s most people hated Harmonia,” he says slowly. “It was a complete commercial disaster. I loved Harmonia as much as Neu! but the reaction was quite different. It took our audience 25 years to catch up with that sound. My first solo album came out after the failure of Harmonia, and it sold 100,000 copies, and I thought, ‘why do they like me but not Harmonia?’ But, really, I am in a position to create it, others are in a position to judge it. It does make me happy that so long after there was anger and rejection for that music, people all around the world are enjoying it.”

Among those who found particular resonance with Rother’s various projects are some of the finest bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “It’s very hard now, to imagine that I had no clue what was happening to my music, but it’s true. That bands like Sonic Youth, The Fall and Stereolab and later on Radiohead were listening to it, and another ten years before I found out. Of course, since the ideas of our music are better known - I don’t think we can say we’ve become a household name – but you have a lot of musicians doing strange electronic sounds nowadays, in a way twisting our sounds and ideas.” He pauses. “Myself, ever since I’ve started writing music I started not listening to other musicians and focused on my own to create something as distant as possible from other people’s ideas. Nowadays this can be Bach or abstract music or folk music, but I can’t listen to music all day long. I’m not like people like John Frusciante,” he says of his time working with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ guitarist. “It was awkward working with him because he’s an enthusiast - completely different to me - he listens to music all day long.” 

Rother says that inspiration comes from experience, not other creative works, in particular, specific environments, something his music is renown for inspiring in other people. “I love in the countryside. That was where Harmonia lived and worked in the 70s and I guess it has an effect on my thinking and feelings about life. It is inspiring in an abstract way, but now I’m in Hamburg, in the city, the combination of both worlds is what I know these days. The vibration of the city and the quietness when you can hear birds in the distance… it’s the depth of the ambience that fascinates me. It has an effect on my soul, my feeling about life. There are filters before music comes out, of course these feelings run through many filters. I don’t even know the path of inspiration and I don’t want to know what leads to which effect.” That Rother can talk at length about inspiration and seems to barely touch on the actual music he makes is indicative of his method.

“In the 70s, when Neu tried to recreate the albums on stage, it was impossible. People thought we had all this amazing gear - I only had a guitar, a fuzzbox, a delay and a wah-wah pedal! Everyone thought we were the new thing, and there was this great technology behind it. People thought that if I played live to a backing track or pre-prepared music I’d written, then somehow I was lying. So the perception has really changed. I always said that it was about the human and how they use the equipment, not what they use. Of course, I enjoy the possibilities of sound creation and the machines that are available today and make it possible to play live, but the human being is more in the centre of my focus” And for that, we should be grateful.


  1. Nice interview! But referring to the introduction - as far as i know Michael Rother never was in Cluster, let alone founding them ;)