In the third and final edition of The Stranger's interview with Michael Rother, he discusses a missed opportunity with David Bowie, collaborating with Brian Eno, the rumor about his aversion to bass frequencies, his music's alleged New Age qualities, the bureaucratic nightmare of booking a US tour, and more. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.
The Stranger: One thing I don’t think people acknowledge enough about your music is its soulfulness, the deep emotional aspect to your music. It seems like people are wowed by your tone and the rhythms, the hypnotic nature, but I think there’s a real soulfulness to your solo records, among some of your other music.
That sounds very nice. I would buy that. [laughs]
What emotions are you trying to convey in your solo albums, if you could pinpoint?
It’s not the result really of being determined to convey certain emotions, it’s just what happens when you make music. And, of course what happens, what goes on in your life at a certain time, has some effect on the results, and so good things and less nice things, sad things; they all affect your feelings, and so when I go into the studio I start making music, I don’t purposefully try to express dark moods or happy feelings; it just happens.
Did you ever feel the urge to get into the New Age movement? Because some of your music seems well-suited for it.
That’s a tricky question, because, like Groucho Marx, I never wanted to be a member in a club that accepts people like me in them. I think that’s such a smart thought. No, I know these styles, these boxes, they came and went. So in the beginning, it was maybe, “experimental music,” or “music to contemplate with,” and then suddenly everybody was talking about “New Age,” and this was never my intention to be in that kind of box or environment. Because…it was the basic thing about all the music I’ve been involved in: it was to sound different and not to be the same as others. This is a very, you know, egomaniac thing, trying to be different, but this gives purpose, sort of.
I started making music being happy as a shadow of other musicians; the second George Harrison, being a shadow of these other musicians, and then I realized at a certain age, “Okay, this is not what satisfies me. What I need is to be the original Michael Rother.” And so I know that in the early ’80s, the big Polydor company, also tried to push my albums into the New Age box to reach an audience, but this is just like the wisdom of record companies; it has nothing to do with my intentions.
I’ve read that you have a disliking for bass. [Rother laughs] Can you talk about that?
That’s so funny!
That seemed like a really sweeping generalization. I wasn’t sure if the statement meant all bass, or just prominent bass?
I think it’s more of a joke, really. Recently I did interviews in Paris, and one of the interviewers asked me that question, and I asked him, “Are you a bass player?” “Yes.” [laughs]
So, no, I don’t hate bass, and if you look at some of my work, you will see that I also played bass, like on “Negativland,” for instance, on the first Neu!, or on my solo albums, as well. And sometimes also bass from a synthesizer is used, and of course the frequency of the bass is something that can help a song, a track, but “Hallogallo,” for instance, doesn’t have a bass; there’s just the guitar playing [makes melodic guitar sound with mouth] “doo doo doo, doo doo doo,” which has a function of a bass, but is not at the deep end of a bass guitar.
There are some really amazing bass players. It’s not fair to say I hate bass, but, I can laugh about that. It’s with a smile.
Did you learn anything while you were in the studio with Brian Eno? Did he turn you on to anything that you found useful?
[laughs] Your questions are quite interesting, I must say! Well, it was very interesting to have Brian Eno in Harmonia’s studio for, I think maybe 11 or 12 days, but you may know the story that he came to visit us… We invited him when he came to a Harmonia concert in ’74 and two years later he called. The band was already disbanded. We had already recorded solo stuff that summer. But we didn’t want to turn him down, so we said, “Yeah, please come.”
And so, he brought some blank tapes, and his nice little synthesizer, with which he treated my guitar sometimes; very interesting stuff. And we just played around; there was no, nobody talked about recording an album; that was a very important fact. It was just four musicians enjoying each other’s company and sharing, exchanging musical ideas.
And Brian also had some other theories he talked about, but it was a pleasure to be with Brian and to play with him, and I’m very happy that we managed to release Tracks and Traces and especially the second version, which is now available on Grönland, with three additional tracks, which I think also added some more color to the original album. But it’s difficult to say whether I learned something special.
Cross my heart, if I had to give you a “yes” or “no,” then I would say maybe “no” [to your question] in that time, but it was definitely an inspiring exchange. And maybe the learning has more to do with sometimes listening to all of his works, and this has an effect. If you like the music, if it rings a bell, then you are sort of already influenced. So, I think the influence went both ways.
Is it true that you turned down an offer to work with David Bowie?
That’s not true. [laughs] Maybe I will have to give this explanation until I die, because people want to know the story behind this. Yes, David wanted me to play on “Heroes,” and he also said that the two Neu! tracks, “Hero” and “After Eight” were among his favorite music in ’75 or ’76, he said so in a German magazine. And Brian Eno also told me about his exchange about our music with David Bowie, so I wasn’t surprised when David called me and asked me whether I would be interested in working with him on what would become "Heroes" in 1977.
But it’s a bit mysterious what happened. It’s sort of a puzzle. We can look at the individual pieces. In early 2000, I think (and I was very surprised reading) that he said, “Oh, I invited Michael, but he turned me down.” And this was not the case. We spoke on the phone and were both very excited and enthusiastic about working together, but um…well, so certainly I didn’t turn him down.
The thing was, after that, the manager called me and wanted to talk about contract, money, and stuff, and I gave him probably the worst answer that was possible. I said, “If the music is great, then don’t worry, we’ll get on very well.” And this was probably the answer that scared the living daylights out of a manager. Like, if you invite someone to join you and there’s no contract, he will leave some recordings and then later, maybe have demands that wreck the whole project, or just refuse to give the consent to use it, or whatever. So, this was maybe not very professional of me, but this reflects the sort of way I used to be.
Maybe I’m still, to a certain extent, that way, but of course, back in the ’70s, this was how we used to work, you know? Just be trusting and then start working, and then, in the end, be happy with what comes out.
After this talk with this manager, a lady called me and informed me that I wasn’t required anymore. So I needn’t come to Berlin. I couldn’t make any sense of that, but I was already focused on recording Sterntaler, and so, and of course, back then, without direct contacts, without cell phones, like today…today you would probably call the other one and ask, “Hey, what, what’s up? What happened?” But, back then I didn’t have any phone number, so I just said, “Okay, well, that’s the case, then fine. Something strange, but, yeah.”
And so I just forgot about this whole thing until 20-something years later. I was asked also, “Michael, why did you turn David down?” and I said, “No, I didn’t.” So, maybe, one of the reasons why there could have been someone in the background on David’s end who maybe decided to take some actions to prevent us from working together, the reason could have been that I know, it’s known that the change of style in the ’70s from the Ziggy Stardust era to the Berlin period was not popular with his fans, so his sales had really dropped, and maybe the manager or the record company or the money people thought, “Maybe we have to protect David from taking too many adventures,” something like that.
It would make sense to me, but I can’t prove it, and yeah, it’s [possible] that somebody in [Bowie's camp], decided just to make sure that no other crazy German experimentalist would interfere with the pop artist David Bowie.
That’s a good theory. What do you want people to remember you most for? What, what do you want your legacy to be?
Oh, maybe that I’m a great pool player? No. Ah, sorry. I don’t know, really. This depends. I’m not willing to already see the end so near that I need to think about the legacy; I’m still moving, I’m still full of beans and looking forward to playing live, and to have exciting evenings with the crowds.
Are you going to tour in the United States this year to support the release of the box set?
There are talks. I’m in touch with Ground Control Touring, the agency that did the 2010 concerts for us, and they are reaching out and looking around, because, of course, the situation now is really, um, helpful with the box set and all these interviews, and these big articles. I just received six pages of the new edition in Uncut and MOJO interviewed me today, so many magazines will write about my music, and also the interviews I’m doing with journalists in the states. So, it would be the right moment to come over.
You definitely should.
The big problem, and it is so bloody annoying, [is that to] come to the States is more difficult than to play in China. And this is ridiculous, the bureaucratic obstacles. The visa application process is a nightmare, the rudeness. It’s a nightmare for foreigners to come to the United States to play. You have to hire an agency that works in the States for a lot of money in order to secure that you’re not putting some American musician out of work by coming over.
Oh my god.
Yes, it is so disgusting, and they take a lot of money, and the last time I played when we did the tour in 2010, I had to leave the country on the day after the last concert, so they, the, this, this administration, they demand that you present your tour book, your, you know the schedules, and then they, they made me leave the country on the day after the concert, as if I were some threat to the country. And all this together is such a nightmare that has prevented me from wanting to come over, and I always tell the people [sighs] “Let’s hope this will change, that the bureaucratic obstacles will be removed.” Currently, the administration doesn’t give me much hope for this immediate change. [laughs]
I’m really sorry about the obstacles you face; that’s really infuriating.
Yeah, I mean, the other way around, it’s much easier for Americans to come over. I don’t know why this has to be, but it is infuriating. As much I enjoy playing in Russia or in China, wherever, but it doesn’t make sense that it is much easier to play there than in New York or in Los Angeles or Seattle or wherever.
The live tracks on the box set are fantastic. They seem to me like they recapture some of the firepower, driving rhythms, and distortion of peak-time Neu! If you were to come to the States, or in your current live incarnation, would you do a career retrospective, or is it strictly your solo material?
No, I’ve been doing a mixture of my favorite tracks of Neu!, Harmonia, and solo works in recent times and years, and this won’t change. I was invited by a venue in London to perform Sterntaler, my second solo album, entirely, for the first time ever, in April. But even then I will add tracks by Neu! and Harmonia. Actually, Thurston Moore is also playing there. He’s doing a solo set, opening for us. And I invited Thurston to join us when we play “Hallogallo” and “Negativland,” so that could be fun.
I’m calling you in Seattle, is that right?
Okay, I played in Seattle in ’98 with Dieter Moebius, so I think it’s time that I return.