The first three LPs by the former established the motorik template that's influenced hundreds of bands over the last 40-plus years, and featured Rother's ruthlessly honed minimalist guitar attack, his tones and textures ranging from tranquilly arboreal to radioactively turbulent (see "Negativland" and "Lila Engel" for evidence of the latter style).
On Harmonia's Musik Von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975), Rother adapted to his bandmates' more electronic approach, insinuating his celestial guitar ambiance within the intricate synth matrices Moebius and Roedelius constructed. In this kosmische context, Rother wasn't so much a riff machine as he was a conjurer of evocative space dust, an alchemist of aural perfume that subliminally embellished the hypnotic beats and wonky synth timbres.
Rother embarked on a solo career in 1977, and his first four full-lengths found him refining his signature riff hypnosis and heading into even more beautiful and placid territory, often inflating the melodies to grandiloquent, cinematic dimensions. These works—Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler (1978), Katzenmusik (1979) and Fernwärme (1982)—are included in his forthcoming box set Solo (available on vinyl and CD February 22 via Grönland). This lavish artifact also comes with two outstanding, previously unreleased film soundtracks—Die Raeuber and Houston—and a clutch of live recordings and remixes from this century that are, perhaps surprisingly, nearly as sublime as Rother's peak output.
I recently had the good fortune to interview Rother by phone for over an hour. I caught him at the end of a long day of promotional work to hype Solo. Rother confessed that he'd rather be making music instead of talking about himself, but the fact that so many journalists and music heads are still interested in his old achievements deeply pleases him, in his modest way.
In the first installment of what will be a multi-part interview on Slog, Rother discusses how he feels about the problematic term "krautrock," the early days of Neu!, and his involvement with Kraftwerk. About the latter subject, there are some revelations.
The Stranger: How do you feel about the term “krautrock” because [Rother laughs] it’s a very common term and some think of it as offensive, but I don’t want to use it in this interview if it offends you.
Michael Rother: Oh, it doesn’t, but to be quite honest, I don’t like it. But I’ve come used to hearing it, and also I realize maybe 15 or 20 years ago, that nowadays, this term is used in a much more respectful way than it felt in the beginning when it came up in the early ’70s when there was still quite a lot of ambiguity about what to think of the German cousins coming across the channel with their own music. “How dare they?”
Yeah, I think you’re right; I think the term has become very much more respectful, and it’s become a signifier of a certain kind of sound that has endured for decades, and it’s influential on a pretty large scale. If a band cites krautrock as an influence, you can make some assumptions about their music, and if you were into Neu!, Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and all these other bands, you can probably assume it’s going to be pretty damn good music. [MR laughs] So, that’s my take on it, anyway.
I don’t want to dwell too long on that, but...
No, that’s all right, but I know this is a justified question, because “kraut” was a term used for German soldiers in the first World War… and so there’s this connection to not so pleasant and not so respectful things, but the real important fact for me is that even if people use the term “krautrock” to aim at a certain period of time of music coming from Germany, I would always like to point out the differences in between, between these artists and the bands, because it’s true for me, and it’s true for the guys I’ve been working with (Klaus Dinger, Florian Schneider, and Cluster), that we all wanted to be seen as individual players, and not as a collective of people thought to have a similar sound. So, if people are willing to see that this is only the starting point, like if you’re into astronomy and you look at the Milky Way and then you know that if you get closer, you’ll discover the whole, a huge… space in between the individual stars and planets, etc. And that’s my hope; that it’ll be seen also in regards to the music.
I see what you’re sayin’. There’s definitely differences among all those bands. I totally get your point. What did you learn during your brief time with Kraftwerk that you may have applied to your later projects?
Hoo, yeah, that’s difficult to say. I have quite clear memories of the situation back then, and it was sometimes very exciting to play with Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger; we had some really great nights. Sometimes it didn’t work well; we were very dependent on the situation, the environment, the atmosphere in the crowd. It was quite a primitive music [laughs]. It always started slow and quiet, and in the end everything flew apart, we went wild.
So this was sort of a minimal concept, and…this is not exactly how Neu! started, and if you ask me, “when did I start thinking about my music?” It was definitely after Kraftwerk, and of course, we did take with us something from these very heavy-driven sounds we did with Florian, because he did great things on the electric flute; sounds that were underrated by the technical engineers at the time. So, if you look at video footage from Beat Club or other bootlegs recorded by radio engineers, they didn’t get how important the stuff was that Florian played. My guitar is always much too loud, because that’s what they could understand.
My idea the time when I was playing with Florian and Klaus was: I had to provide the music with some kind of [foundation]. Like, here’s something you could build the stuff on top, and that’s why I stuck mostly to this quiet, heavy guitar. This I dropped totally. There’s nothing like that on the first Neu! album and so, the fast-forward movement we sometimes achieved in the concerts, that’s definitely what Klaus and I also had in mind as one of the elements we wanted to present.
In Neu!, with the stuff Klaus and I could play as overdubs, if you look at a track like “Hallogallo” or “Für Immer,” all these elements that are added, they were added by overdubs on top of this. Well, I had a frail fundamental recording, as in the case of “Hallogallo,” a bit stronger in “Für Immer,” but the music happened as we added the overdubs.
But your question was really what we took from Kraftwerk, and I think, in the end it wasn’t that much, but it was a very valuable experience for me to play with Florian and Klaus and that combination, and it certainly also, the experience with Kraftwerk, it put me in touch with Conny Plank, with whom we tried to record the second Kraftwerk album, and who was an important player from then on.
Right. Why do you think Kraftwerk don’t really acknowledge those early recordings (which I think are among their best)? Do you know what I mean?
[laughing] Yeah, yeah…
They totally disown those pre-Autobahn records, which doesn’t make any sense to me.
You’re totally right, and I also totally agree. Just recently, I was asked to pick some favorite albums, and I chose Ralf und Florian, the third Kraftwerk album. Which is among those which they don’t want to see as the original Kraftwerk collection of works.
I haven’t really spoken about music with either Florian or Ralf since 1974. I think the last time we really spoke about music was when they called me and invited me to join them on the Autobahn tour, but at the time I had to decline because I was so happy working with Harmonia and preparing the third Neu! album, and I was no longer interested in being a member in a band that wasn’t mine.
Oh, wow, wait, they wanted you to be in the band for that tour?
Oh, man! Your life could have been totally different had you chosen to go.
Um…yes, but I didn’t falter. I didn’t need a second to decide, really. I was so deep into Harmonia music, and happy with what I did with Roedelius and Moebius. I didn’t have to look back at Kraftwerk. And, also you know, Kraftwerk basically was always Ralf and Florian; that’s their baby. This wouldn’t have changed, even if I had joined them on the tour to the United States and I don’t know where else it would have gone.
I have a friend, Karl Bartos, who was, I think maybe for 12 years a member of Kraftwerk. We met just recently again, and we stay in touch and we enjoy talking and exchanging thoughts, and I don’t envy him, his experience with Kraftwerk. [laughs]
Were Ralf and Florian hard to deal with?
They both come from a wealthy background, rich families, and they had some experiences which neither of us other guys had, and…um…I think that both were already quite clearly in…clear in their minds about money and, you know, the professional aspects of music-making, and not just being a hippie, or sort enthusiastic player who’s happy to create some exciting sounds.
So they had already, they had this attitude which I thought was very strange, to have “employees" instead of a band. I think I’m not “badmouthing” them? I think this is really true. They were the bosses of a corporation called Kraftwerk and they had employees, like Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. Wolfgang Flür was not a composer, but Karl co-composed some of the important stuff, and still he had a very hard time dealing with them after he left.
I don’t want to go into details, but yeah, I met Ralf Hütter a few years ago when he, in Hamburg, had a court case against Wolfgang Flür, and I was in Hamburg at the time, and so, Karl Bartos and I, and one other musician friend, we went to this hearing, and it was interesting.
I met Ralf, briefly, when he approached the, this room for the hearing, and it was very funny how he greeted me: as if we were best friends. Like, a bit like, Dr. Livingston, I presume, something like that. He said, “Hey, Michael!” I don’t know why, maybe he expected me, but he recognized me, obviously.
But, you know, I don’t really want to go into the dark side of Kraftwerk. I really can be grateful. I feel grateful that I had that experience, and that they enabled me to meet Conny Plank and Klaus Dinger, and that really…I had the best start, you know, as a musician.
Check in for part 2 of the Michael Rother interview tomorrow, which will touch on the differences between working with world-class drummers Klaus Dinger and Jaki Liebezeit, the awesomeness of Neu!'s "Hallogallo," and more.