Michael Rother's forthcoming Solo box set (out February 22 on Grönland Records) makes a strong case for his greatness outside of his most worshiped musical projects: Neu! and Harmonia. (It also contains much excellent previously unreleased material, including two stellar soundtracks.) In this second installment with German guitar great Michael Rother, he discusses the differences between working with Klaus Dinger and Jaki Liebezeit, Dinger's difficult personality, recording with krautrock super-producer Conny Plank, the importance of definitive Neu! track "Hallogallo," the chemistry and methods of Harmonia, and other topics. Go here for part 1 of this interview.
The Stranger: What was it about Klaus Dinger that enabled you to create such amazing music in such a seemingly spontaneous manner? Am I reading this right? This is what I gleaned from reading liner notes and interviews. Did it come very easily for you two guys?
Michael Rother: Yes, I think that’s true for most of the music. Klaus and I were very different in character, and you probably know some stories: I never considered him a friend. A guy with those traits could not be my friend, ever. But he was just an amazing artist, so powerful at the drums, and when we worked in the studio, we didn’t argue about the music. The terrible fights we had in later years were about contracts and silly stuff. So…that was the time in the ’90s when Klaus was on a different planet and did some terrible things behind my back with Neu! music, etc. But, yeah, I prefer to focus on the great stuff Klaus presented and the way we complemented each other.
Even in the dark decade of the ’90s, I think Klaus in an interview said, “Michael and I had a blind understanding of each other.” I think it’s true. We both knew what the other could contribute, and we knew that this would help us. It was something special, and that was the case for me, at least. And yeah, the arguments, they came later…
Neu!’s music always had, to me, a kind of schizophrenic nature. [Rother laughs] It would toggle between tranquility and tumult. Do you think this was just a reflection of your personalities? Like, you represented to me the tranquility and Klaus is the volcanic quality of the group. Would that be accurate to say?
This is really unique. I think I’ve never spoken to an interviewer who never expressed it this way. Certainly, Klaus had this element of being [eruptive]. Some of the best stuff came from his eruptions, like the vocals in “Hero,” which were a spontaneous first flush, and he tried to improve those recordings, and they were better organized, but they were less interesting, and so we, Conny Plank and I, we both convinced him to, “let’s stick to the first version.”
So Klaus was sometimes definitely purposefully out of control when he made music. I never had this inclination of wanting to be out of control. This doesn’t mean that I always know what I’m doing, because music comes from fears that you don’t control, and suddenly you have some, you react to something and before you’ve done it, you don’t even know you’re going to do it, so this also happens to me. And apart from maybe being the more tranquil guy of this band, I also very much enjoyed (and which I still do, by the way, live) [making] very dynamic, forward-reaching music with strong rhythms, etc.
I think that the combination of Dinger and Rother can only be understood if you see that we both had certain elements of the other side inside us, so we understood exactly what came from the other side, and we knew that maybe the other one is better at this than I am, and so if we put this together it will be great.
Klaus had a soft side, and also I maybe don’t have the vicious side. [laughs] Maybe some people would contradict me, but I certainly love dynamic music and strong rhythms, and always did. And Klaus also had this side where he was very sentimental, very full of feelings, and he showed them.
Interesting. We need to talk about “Hallogallo.” To me, it’s one of the definitive documents of krautrock, and one of the greatest opening songs on any debut album ever, and I don’t mean that as hyperbole; I truly believe that. Did you intend it to be sort of like a manifesto for Neu! ? Because a lot of bands place a lot of importance on the first track of a record, and the first three albums, the opening tracks have a continuity about them. They represent the best of what people call “krautrock” in the way that the rhythms, the sense of movement, and minimalism all cohere in such a powerful way. So, is it wrong to say that they were like a manifesto? Like, “This is, this is what we’re all about here.”
I have to be careful because I can’t speak for Klaus, but I think we both knew that “Hallogallo” would be an important track on that album, that is the track with the fast-forward movement. We had this very rough idea; we didn’t talk about music, so it was just some kind of vision which we didn’t even share. We just had this idea of a strong forward movement, and then of adding what we called “clouds, colors” on top. So those are the guitar lines and the melodies that came on top.
Did you play, did you play all the guitars on that song?
No, Klaus played the [makes taut strumming sound with mouth] “quack quack quack," it sounds a bit like drumming on guitar. But he was much less a “real” guitar player than I was. [laughs]
I had a background of trying to play, like, Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix or George Harrison or Ray Davies. But no, Klaus was a drummer and this is the way we treated all the instruments; we just used them, and not with the intention or the ambition of being a virtuoso on the instrument, but using the color to create a certain feeling, a certain idea on that track. And the other guitars are what I played, yeah, so the [makes melodic guitar sound with mouth] “doo doo doo, doo doo doo,” the basic guitar, and then the long notes, and then the clouds.
But the strange thing about “Hallogallo” is, I still don’t know how it came together. It’s a mystery. And I think it has a lot to do with the talent of Conny Plank, who was able to memorize all the good parts and the bad parts, and to organize these guitars in a way with hardly any gear and with no computer, so… he had a brilliant musical mind, like a conductor hearing and memorizing all the instruments, all the notes, and noticing any difference and so on. But even then, the mystery remains. Every time when I hear “Hallogallo,” I’m puzzled again. How did it happen?
Yeah, this is my feeling, and also, because it was the result of a lack of time. We had to work really quickly, and there was not much time to reflect and to think, “oh maybe I can play a better guitar,” or whatever. It was like running along and hoping to get things right.
And sometimes the lack of time is helpful. It was pressure. I didn’t enjoy the pressure, but if you have a year to record one song, you may (and it happens to many, I think, who are in that situation; the luxurious situation of having endless studio time), [not] come to a conclusion, that you don’t concentrate, that you don’t make any decisions, that you don’t try and improve, until everything falls apart. [laughs]
There’s this German saying, you know, “If a screw is tight, you should stop turning it,” because after tight, it will become undone.
That’s a great saying. With which drummer did you like playing better: Klaus Dinger or Jaki Liebezeit?
That’s an interesting question. Klaus was, of course, a very different type of drummer. He was so unbelievably powerful when he played live, and when he reacted to an audience. Jaki Liebezeit was more skilled, technically perfect, Zen-monk-like magician. And, of course, Jaki Liebezeit was technically, by far, the better drummer, um, but this would be unfair, because it doesn’t really matter. Both were great in their own ways, and I miss them both as drummers.
If you listen to a [CAN] track like “You Doo Right” off Monster Movie, and many of the other tracks, you would just see it. And I saw Jaki play live many years later. He was so impressive as an artist, and so clear-minded, reducing the drum kit to the minimum, and playing [fewer] notes all the time, but each beat he added just was perfect. Klaus and Jaki both were great in my musical history. They both left huge steps, and I feel privileged to have worked with both.
Do you think that the work you did with Harmonia offered a purer expression of your aesthetic than did Neu! ? Did you feel more a sense of liberation?
No, that was not what drove me. That was not what fascinated me. It was the artistic combination of what Roedelius could contribute, what Moebius threw in, and what I did with them, and so, it was different, and one of the big differences (and it was totally different, the music), but one of the main differences was that Harmonia could play live. So the three of us together were able to create, on good nights, some very convincing music, which Klaus and I, live, never managed. It’s easy to understand; just a drummer and a guitar player or bass player, this doesn’t take you very far. But with the help of electronic drum kit and Roedelius playing his piano with the delays and Moebius throwing in these often very special elements, sometimes they were totally wrong, but great, in a way. [laughs]
Because [Moebius] had this—what’s the English word… anarchy?—in his system, so he was very spontaneous, and some of the three guys playing in Harmonia, that was what really fascinated me, which was different, but also it was the exploration of sound was different, because we could play together live, we also recorded together live much more than Neu! Neu! only happened when we went in the studio with Conny Plank and recorded specific tracks. This was a very different kind of approach to making music.
Do you feel that your solo career has received less respect and scrutiny than your work with Neu! and Harmonia?
[laughs] The game is not over!
That’s true, that’s true.
Maybe this is a funny thing, but maybe in America you don’t know that my solo music in Germany was much, much more successful than Neu! and Harmonia, I mean, Harmonia was a total disaster, economically, and we hardly sold any albums back then. The audience needed maybe 30 years to catch on with Harmonia, and luckily this has also improved greatly in the last 10, 15 years.
So, the strange situation was that Neu! was a success outside of Germany more than my music. My solo music was a huge success inside Germany, and please don’t ask me why that was the case, really; that would be a question for psychoanalysts. I was always surprised whether the music was rejected or accepted. It was much more fun to see when Flammende Herzen came out to see that people suddenly from all over the place said how great the music was, that a filmmaker decided to shoot a film, he also offered permission to use the same name, and it was an amazing time after the commercial failure of Harmonia, to hear the record label calling every few days saying “We have to repress another 5,000, another 10,000.”
But all of our music had a difficult time in the ’80s: Neu! disappeared, Harmonia never happened, and so now I have the feeling that more and more people are catching up with my solo music, as well. It’s not a competition between my solo music and Neu! and Harmonia. I would love people to see that there’s enough to discover in each of these projects, and I don’t feel…what did you say? “Underrated” or something?
Yeah. In recent years, musicians have been telling me how great they think my solo work is, and the music I did in the ’80s, that this would be discovered soon. My friend, Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs, who played bass in the project we had in 2010, which we called “Hallogallo 2010” with Steve Shelley, the Sonic Youth drummer…and so he was one of the first to say, “Just wait and see, people will also discover your album, Lust, and the other ’80s albums.”
So I’ve had enough time to learn that you don’t really know why people suddenly pick up a certain period or certain part of your work, and Neu! was rejected, Harmonia was rejected, and then suddenly people started loving it. I had to learn to rely on my own judgment to survive. That was one of the big lessons I had to learn when Harmonia was rejected; you just have to rely on your own feelings about what you’re doing, and then hope that you can survive until people catch up.
Check in tomorrow for part 3 of the Rother interview in which he discusses a missed opportunity with David Bowie, collaborating with Brian Eno, the rumor about his aversion to bass frequencies, his music's alleged (by me) New Age qualities, and more.