We talk the beginnings of his solo work, the German landscape + romanticism, (the legendary) Sky Records + Donald Duck (!)
Richard Foster
15:22 4th June 2018

I’ll get this out of the way now. I’m a big Michael Rother fan. More than any other of the brilliant bunch of pioneering German musicians from the 60s and 70s (along with his one time partner in Kraftwerk and Neu!, Klaus Dinger, or Can’s Holger Czukay), Rother’s hypnotic, widescreen music has cut me deep, to quote a fossilised Jasmine Minks track. I used to imagine what his fabulously difficult-to-find solo LPs sounded like from the snippets of press I read. I, too, wanted to hang with the cool rock chicks listening to Neu!, just like Sonic Youth did... And I have spent more time than is decent hunting down his music in countless musty out-of-the way places full of Paul Young LPs this last three decades. So you can maybe imagine the mortification as the Skype link repeatedly splutters and dies. Further, the bleeding camera’s given up. Rother, always polite but increasingly restless, is on the point of giving up. He can’t see me, so no interview. His day has already been chock full of Skype chats with press (doubtless ploughing the same furrow as I will) and needs to shoot off to pick up some equipment. We give it one more go. Nothing. Until my girlfriend points out I’ve covered the camera with a smiley sticker. Duh...

Things settled, I ask about his August show at the Edinburgh International Festival, that's curated under the moniker Neu! Reekie! In the blurb’s words, “an avant-garde collective [...] busy feeding and nurturing an exciting grassroots scene in Edinburgh since 2011”. Michael asks the meaning of Reekie. It’s a clever pun as puns go I suppose; this upgrading of the city’s nickname, the swapping of a new stink for an old one. At the mention of the use of his band’s name, though he draws breath. One of the formative bands for many this century (certainly since Julian Cope’s personal and often inspiring take on German music from the late 60s and early 70s, 1996’s ‘Krautrocksampler’), Neu! isn’t any old name to be used in a witty marketing ploy.

MR: Of course you’re tempted to tell the people you shouldn’t do that, using Neu!, with an exclamation mark, as it can be confusing for the fans [...] but now I’m coming back to Edinburgh again. It’s strange I was there in February but maybe this gig will attract a different set of people. I don’t know.

GW: It’s the Edinburgh International Festival so I have no doubt it will be a different crowd. The bill is an interesting construct; you, Lydia Lunch and the Fire Engines; all very different!

MR: Actually I’m quite relaxed about it. I wouldn’t play if there was a Nazi band playing! [Laughs.] You know, in the first instance I prefer to trust people and they are music lovers and enthusiastic, so I am really looking forward to playing!

GW: Now you are seen as one of these gatekeeper figures in music and from a specific scene that is now part of the canon. You know the score, Can, Faust, Neu!... You are part of this big conversation now. But thirty years ago, finding one of your records in a shop was so difficult! Your music was a wonderful secret back then… How does that make you feel now?

Of course I enjoy being around today with the music being available; and legally available, too. And people give me feedback much more now. Thirty years ago, now that would have been … back in ‘88, that was about the time when nothing was happening with my music. Neu!’s music had disappeared from the shops and my solo work wasn’t doing that great. Harmonia was never really successful, you know? It took Harmonia thirty years to reach a bigger audience and Neu! had to wait until 2001. But in the mid 90s when Julian Cope released his book Krautrocksampler that made people curious and that was the first sign that something was happening. Of course there was Sonic Youth Ciccone Youth “two cool chicks listening to Neu!”. And then you had bands like Stereolab sounding quite familiar! [Laughs.] I mean the late 70s and early 80s were great for my solo work. But comparing those times to today…. Oh, it is so different! I was like a castaway on an island back then. You had no chance of being in touch with the outside world; you had no idea what was going on. And just now for example I was exchanging emails with a guy from Beijing, you know? I love it!

GW: One thing that strikes me about your solo work is that it is so meditative. It always very steady, steady rhythms, a clear view on the further horizon. Even with rocking numbers like ‘Monza’ with Harmonia [laughs]. And you always seem to be a relaxed guy. Is that true or is that just your music?

You know this is a tricky question! [Laughs.] You will find me quite nervous at times; when technical problems happen at a concert I will not be very relaxed! I always want to perform at my best and, you know, in the best possible way. So I have to admit I am also quite demanding and ambitious… but apart from that, I try to be relaxed. You know, I love cats. And what I love most about them is if you look at them most of the time, they are relaxed. They are just admirable in their beauty and their grace. That’s the state they usually are in.

[Long pause...]

But the music? I mean, people like you can say that about my music but what I would say is, is it relaxed? I would think, “hmm I don’t know”. Especially a track like ‘Monza’, this was so thrilling to record that track and to then stand in the studio with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius and just enjoy singing nonsense. And it wasn’t singing it was just chanting! It was a lot of fun, it was a big joy! The energy we wanted to present there, this is like the best energy I can think of. It carries you forward and lifts you and it fills you with a lot of energy. And that’s what I would like people to experience when they listen to my music. It’s always my wish to have a quality in the music that…[long pause] enhances their lives? Is that the right word?

GW: Your music touches people. It’s romantic, ‘Flammende Herzen’ [Flaming Hearts], this is a romantic record title for instance and I associate them with a sort of German romanticism. And there’s a melancholy there too. Are you melancholy?

I would have to accept that [melancholy] as part of my personality. You have to balance that with - you know - having to stay upright! [Laughs.] I have to hope the sun will come out again. Yesterday I took a walk and the weather was a bit gloomy and a neighbour said to me, “oh but there’s a nice melancholy feel to the weather” and I thought, “oh goodness, oh no! I don’t want to enjoy melancholic landscapes I want bright sunshine!” [Laughs.]

GW: A lot of your records came out on Sky Records, this really curious German label. It had all these great releases like Cluster and Eno, Reichmann, Moebius and Plank, your records... But no-one really knows about Sky Records. So now I finally have a chance to ask someone in the know! What was Sky Records like?

Well, it was a one guy company. Gunter Körber was the guy’s name. And he always said, “the world’s biggest label run by one guy!” [Laughs.] I first met him when he was working for Metronome, and Brain [Neu!’s label]. And then he decided to start his own label in 1976. Now, if you try to imagine the situation in the 70s, there weren’t that many people excited by our experimental music, music that they thought wasn’t commercial and with no commercial expectations. What was really special about Gunter Körber was that he didn’t have an intellectual approach to the music. It was always very emotional. He listened with his heart. And when we did ‘Flammende Herzen’, both Conny Plank and I started having talks with labels, just after finishing the album. In each company there was some person fairly low-down in the organisation, say a product manager, who got excited. But when they had their meetings, sooner or later there was always a manager saying, “look, this is not going anywhere”. The big labels didn’t get my music because they were looking at figures.

But Gunter Körber invested in us. He took quite a big risk in signing my album. He said, “this touches me”. We didn’t talk so much about it but I know that’s how he chose the music to release. He unfortunately died a few years ago, but we always stayed in touch. He also once tried to sign Neu!... [Michael pauses, then laughs.]

Anyway he knew that signing Cluster and Eno would work. My first three solo LPs and Cluster and Eno were the biggest selling records on Sky, I think. But I was very fortunate that Gunter Körber took a risk and signed ‘Flammende Herzen’. And we were both totally blown off our feet by the reaction. I mean, previously there all these setbacks. I was convinced with Harmonia’s ‘Deluxe’ for instance that things would be successful. I loved it and I was convinced everybody would love it too. We were all very disappointed by the real reaction... which was nothing.

But I was so happy with ‘Flammende Herzen’. Conny gave a lot of very positive feedback about the album and positive ideas about the quality of the recordings. And then we had all these big record companies saying no. So I was worried, losing hope, really. Even after we signed with Gunter, his distribution company ordered 150 or so copies for the first distribution. Back then there, I don’t know, more than two thousand record shops in Germany. And when you hear a figure like 150 copies for two thousand shops you know what will happen. There will be one LP lost, somewhere in the shop. And when I heard that figure I was… I was just… so upset. I thought, “well, yet another failure”.

But the album took off. It was the situation that musicians dream of. You bring a certain music in the right moment. I think the public were ready for this [record]. And something of the German soul especially was captured in ‘Flammende Herzen’. It was much bigger here than anywhere else in Europe.

GW: That record is a summary of everything you did up to them I feel. It comes together as a distillation of a sound, if you will.

Well, it felt natural. It was not intentional! But it was the first time I had space and the opportunity and the need to do the whole of the music myself. I mean, Jaki [Liebezeit] did great drumming, of course, but he was not involved with the writing and the building up of the songs. This was my idea about music. And after Roedelius and Moebius decided to quit Harmonia in 1976, I was forced to do music on my own.

GW: The next question may sound like I’m veering from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I have one of your solo records here ‘Süßherz und Tiefenschärfe’, now why do you have Donald Duck on the cover? [Gigwise wave their copy of the LP at Mr Rother.]

Ahh! [Laughs.] I was in love with Donald Duck when I was six, seven, or eight years old. The quality of Carl Barks’s stories at that time were great… he was at his peak until the early 60s. And his stories were translated by a German woman linguist with great ideas and a very clear translation style called Erika Fuchs. I think she even improved the stories because they are so rich. I have a friend who also loved Donald Duck and we once spent a lazy summer afternoon comparing the American originals with the German versions. And that was very interesting to see how these translations worked. Because Carl Barks, he was obviously a great developer of stories and they were really great drawings. But the… now, I don’t want to make it sound too great, but [and here a long pause ensues] the “human quality” introduced by Erika Fuchs was incredible. It was so subtle, it was beautiful. I have been a fan of Donald Duck all my life.

But being a fan, I must say that I hate the falsifications as much as I love the originals. There’s only this small window in which the Carl Barks stories were translated by Erika Fuchs. And the later so-called Donalds produced in Italy… they were just crap! Sorry... But they were rubbish, with no value whatsoever. So you can see I am quite a serious fan; I still have quite a lot of these books and comic books. And every year when summer comes I think, I really should get the comics out and read some of my favourite stories. Because I really like to re-read may favourite stories; just like films where I can watch them over and over again. Picking up on different technical details but still enjoying the art.

GW: This idea of the cartoon, This is just me shooting the breeze Michael and tell me if I’m talking rubbish, but I feel there is this Toytown-esque, childlike element in your music. The guitar lines and patterns are so simple, childlike at times.

Oh I don’t know! But I am not offended, really [Laughs.] The thing is, the melodies I play are intentionally simple. They try to be clear. And each note is supposed to have a special meaning. You can’t just exchange one note for another and expect it to be okay. If you listen to a song like ‘Silberstreif’ every note has a childlike simplicity. But good art - and I am not suggesting my music is good art - but with good art, simplicity is not a negative thing. And I did a lot of reduction with my guitar playing. I started throwing away all the fast finger stuff when I learned as a teenager, Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, people like that. And I stopped playing so many notes. I started that process just when I joined Kraftwerk. That was when I started burning my bridges to the past. I thought, “okay let’s see what I can do with one finger, one note”, slowly building from this reductionist situation. And trying to avoid unnecessary things that confuse, or camouflage weaknesses or whatever.

GW: That must have been quite a period of change all round, because that was the period [1971-72] when Kraftwerk went through lots of changes too with their sound and line ups. What was it like being in this process between various states of a band?

I didn’t even know Kraftwerk when I met them, when I stumbled into their studio by chance. I was not looking for someone, It was just that I found something! It sometimes happens; you meet someone and you fall in love. You weren’t looking and then… well. It happened to me musically when I jammed with Roedelius, it was the same instant recognition of the beauty that was possible. And the same happened when I jammed with Ralf Huetter; which was also the first time for me when I felt “okay, I can talk musically with this guy and I don’t have to fight against notes”. This was just agreeing on a certain Central European kind of music, melody, no blues, no jamming stuff. The funny story is that I jammed with Ralf and was excited and everybody else in the room was excited. SoFlorian asked me to join the band. And then Ralf was gone! It was strange…

It was an exciting time. And it was in such a short period! It was just six months and bang! Everything exploded.

GW: It’s so funny how time moves... In one way your creative life is a clear example of what time can do. You know, after years you finally have this recognition of your work. But also, you have these explosive creative relationships that kick out this work, all in a short period! It’s like a river isn’t it, it looks really slow on the top and underneath you have all these fast moving currents bashing about.

Yeah! The river here where I live looks so peaceful and yet is the fastest flowing river in Germany! I live out in the countryside. Nobody has heard of where I live. The nearest big city is Hanover in the north and that’s still seventy kilometres away. I fell in love with the rhythm of the landscape here. It’s full of very gentle, soft sloping hills. You don’t feel overawed or scared by the natural drama you’d find in the Alps. But because it’s not flat, it’s interesting; unlike the landscape of the northern part of Germany which I find so boring. When you look under the surface of water and think about what life is down there, this thrills me. And also looking at a hill and not knowing what’s beyond…. Maybe this is silly... But I have the idea of being a bird flying over this landscape. So maybe this is romantic! [Laughs.] Maybe I am romantic; but it’s also a balance. All my life I was always interested in maths, you know, structures, logical things, technology and equipment. And nature gives me a balance. I try to enjoy both!

See Michael Rother live with The Fire Engines and Lydia Lunch at Edinburgh International Festival, as part of a curated night by Neu! Reekie!, at Leith Theatre on 12 August. Doors 7pm.

Photo: Yusaku Aoki