MICHAEL ROTHER: WILD LOVE, FREEDOM, EXCITEMENT
But I think that’s actually important, though! That’s something to reflect upon. It’s something I’m curious about, because I’ve known of you as a musician who’s on a pedestal, someone who’s part of that upper echelon of groundbreaking rock ‘n roll that took place in the 1970s. It’s very important for people like myself and my generation to examine the humbling moments, because I feel like they allow unexpected things to thrive.
Michael Rother: Okay! Well, I already explained the humbling moments happened in Harmonia all the time. You know, we were just kindly shown the door. ‘Well, thank you. We don’t need you. And don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ That stuff. And so when Sky Records … they had a distribution company, and the distribution people told the record label how many copies they needed. Back then, in the mid-70s in Germany alone you had several thousand record shops. There were record shops everywhere. Every corner more or less. And so there were maybe two and a half or three thousand record shops, and I heard that this distribution company thought, ‘Oh, we need 150 copies.’ If you imagine 150 copies in two thousand shops, you will get one album in every tenth shop or something like that. Nothing will happen because nobody will find the music. And so that was a real low blow. But luckily there was one German journalist. He was also a radio DJ, and he was actually one of the first who discovered our music. He was a Neu! fan, he was a Harmonia fan, and he was also the one who brought Brian Eno to the Harmonia concert in 1974. Winfried Trenkler. And he had this radio show. Back then … I think it’s very difficult to imagine for young people; there was a desert around us, a cultural desert. There were no TV shows with music for young people. It was Schlager music and folk music, and also the radio was [pfffft]. There weren’t any journalists playing our music, there was no … demand for our music. But this guy invited me to come to his show. It was called Radiothek, and it was an ad by WDR. This is one of the big radio stations, and it had coverage of maybe a third or fourth of all of Germany, but also the very densely populated areas around Dusseldorf, Cologne and so on. And so I was in his show, and he played the whole album, we talked, and I think this evening changed the development significantly. It was sort of maybe … how do you say … the initial spark which set off something that just got its own momentum and just kept on going. Back then, when you were in that radio show, I don’t know how many hundred thousand people heard the music—or tens of thousands, I don’t want to exaggerate. I don’t really know the numbers. But they were fans. They were people looking for different music.
They’re the people that needed to find you, and the people that you needed to find.
Michael Rother: Okay, but I didn’t know it before. It’s just like, ‘Okay, I’m coming to your show.’ I remember sitting with this guy, Winfried Trenkler, after the show was over. We were sitting in the recording room, and the telephone didn’t stop ringing, you know? People were calling in saying, ‘What did you play there?! What’s the name?! Tell me again!’ I didn’t know what that meant because we had people that were calling, but he knew because he had the experience. And he said, ‘Michael, watch out.’ Suddenly everything was different. Months after the release … it wasn’t shooting like a rocket to the stars, it was sort of a slow burner, but even at a slow burn it was surprising to get a call from the label every week or two saying, ‘Oh, we had to reprint! The copies are gone! Now it’s ten thousand, now it’s twenty thousand, now it’s thirty thousand…’ It just went on and on.
That must have been so thrilling! Was there a specific moment where you knew something had changed?
Michael Rother: I think it was not one day, but it was a period. And I remember I was working in the house, I was doing some … what is it like? Not refurbishing, I was even taking away clay from the beams. I was working underneath the ceiling, chopping away, and then the phone rang, and I thought, ‘Wow, another three thousand? That’s more than Harmonia sold!’ You know? Suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, this is different. This is really strange.’ It was wonderful, really. I can’t say anything else. It was such a thrill to—in that moment—to get feedback from the people which Harmonia didn’t get.
This leads me to a question about your second solo record. One of the things that struck me was the fairytale of the ‘star dollars.’ So was this your star dollar moment—would you care to expand upon that fairytale about which I read?
Michael Rother: Yeah. Actually, I’m not that kind of ‘fairytale’ guy. I had a friend, a good friend … he had an advertising agency, and he was putting ideas into words. And so because I had this music, and it was only music for me, I didn’t have any words for the music. No names—that was rarely the case. Most of the time it was just a piece of music, but I needed a name, and so he listened to the music and came up with suggestions, and I said, ‘Sterntaler, that sounds nice!’ It’s not that I read fairytales or something like that, although I do read … since the 60s, maybe it’s very nostalgic of me, but Agatha Christie. Do you know that author?
Certainly, her mysteries!
Michael Rother: Yeah! I think she wrote more than a thousand books or something, just [makes drilling noise]. And back then … I must have been in Karachi already. I had this series of books called The Castle of Adventure, The Island of Adventure, and in the 80s I bought them again in London. Every year or every second year I come back to these. They are quite harmless. It’s like, thrills for children at the age of … back then, eleven and fourteen. Now it would maybe be for children between eight and ten. But anyway, many of these song names were supplied by my friend Jens. And I said, ‘Yeah, why not Sterntaler? That’s good.’ He was not … not cynical, but he was also a very smart brain. He wasn’t living in a fantasy world. It was very clear thinking, looking for good names for the music. And maybe … I can’t even say for sure, but my situation really had some resemblance to this girl with the apron, poor girl, and certainly these dollars were falling from the skies because in the year 77 and then of course also in the following years, my whole life changed in the way that I was suddenly economically completely independent. I was able to buy professional recording gear—all the toys that a musician could dream of.
It’s that moment that I think everyone waits for. I think it’s very insightful of your friend to come up with names that he sees from the outside.
Michael Rother: We also used to play with hidden meanings or second meanings of words. If you look at the name Katzenmusik, ‘cat music’ … in Germany this term is used for a dissonant, screeching kind of music. I remember getting reactions from fans and hearing, ‘Why does he call his music Katzenmusik? It’s not disharmonic at all!’ They didn’t get the deeper meaning, which of course was the more important meaning—my love for cats was in this title.
It feels very fitting, given the music that you create. I feel like cats have a warmth that kind of drives them, you know? No matter what they’re doing, no matter what mood they’re in, there’s so much soul and spirit inside of a cat. I feel like your music has a similar quality, so it’s very fitting.
Michael Rother: Big compliment, thank you! I’m a fan, that’s all I can say. I’m quite foolish, even. Whenever I see a photo of a cat or a cat comes into the picture, I smile before I know what I’m doing. I had many cats and I loved them dearly, and now I only have cat friends living with friends. Yes, but this is wonderful. My life, you know, I travel around the world all the time. This is not a good home for a cat.
And it’s hard being away from them, too. There’s this longing and sense of neglect whenever you have to travel.
Michael Rother: Yes! I experienced that in the final years, but yeah, now I enjoy being with my cat friends at my friends’ homes.
Let’s talk about your third solo release on that note. How did you progress from the release of the second one to the third, and what happened in the intervening period?
Michael Rother: We can skip the part with David Bowie because it didn’t happen. That was 1977.
The David Bowie anti-climax experience.
Michael Rother: Yeah, I don’t know—something went wrong there on his end. But let’s leave it at that. And then I released Sterntaler, and everything just seemed to come together. There was a big feature film called Flammende Herzen. They asked for the permission to use my name for the film, and it was shown at the biggest festival in Germany in Berlin, and that was more or less in the week or week later when Sterntaler was released, and because Flammende Herzen was still on the rise, Sterntaler came and was also very, very popular. This wave just sort of grew, just became stronger and went on and on. And I was, of course, very happy, and immediately started working on Katzenmusik, which I recorded in ‘79. Back then because of the success of the first two solo albums, Conny Plank offered to give me his mobile recording gear. So we did basic recordings in his studio with Jaki Liebezeit, and then he came to my place and left his 16-track professional gear and a small mixer. I spent four weeks, I think, doing the overdubs, and then we did the final mixing at his studio again. This was already quite a privileged situation for a musician. I enjoyed having all that time available to add all these notes and these colors to the recordings. Emotionally I would think it was all in the same flow. I didn’t really change as a person. I would have had to have some kind of serious accident or whatever, but nothing of the sort happened, so I just kept on going. I had all these ideas for music, and so I just let them happen.
What a privilege! As this wave was rising, as you felt it cresting, was there ever a point where you felt out of your element?
Michael Rother: That’s an interesting question. I think I haven’t been asked that question before. I don’t want to give a very quick, easy answer, but I think I accepted it. Because, you know, now we’re talking about years within the span of a few minutes. But back then, there were days, weeks, months and years. And I could learn to be suddenly the most favorite musician in magazines in Germany, voted best musician, best blah blah blah, best album, so … maybe I was already protected by a skepticism which grew when I was with Harmonia and felt the rejection. Of course I was happy to be loved by the audience then, but I think I never … left my own position, which meant I need to rely on my own judgment. It’s maybe a small bridge, if you follow the audience because they love you, then suddenly you’re not yourself anymore. I think that didn’t happen to me. I was skeptical. Happy but skeptical. I didn’t trust … because also I didn’t know what really happened. Why did they love my music in those years, and why didn’t they love Harmonia? It was equally important, and I felt the same for Harmonia. Back then, Neu! was already disappearing. That was a short success story. You know, in the 70s. I learned quite quickly that there’s only one way to survive, and that is to rely on your own judgment. Be critical, be whatever, but judge it yourself. And if people like you, that’s fine. If they don’t, you can still think, ‘Well, maybe they’ll like it in five years,’ or whatever. But if I’m convinced, I can still continue. I think this basic attitude hasn’t changed until now.
Now with the advent of the internet, with the release of the Julian Cope book, Krautrock Sampler, and also the BBC documentary about Krautrock, these cycles of nostalgia have begun where people are excavating your past. I imagine it must be a bizarre experience for an artist to have everything you did when you were very young brought into the light for everyone to admire.
Michael Rother: Again, it was not suddenly everybody had their spotlight on me. This was after a decade, maybe, where my music was not in demand. Solo music was … in the late 80s, early 90s I recorded two albums, and I didn’t find a record company back then, you know? And Neu! was gone, Harmonia was long gone, and so this was a period where I had to survive. It wasn’t easy as an artist, you know? Not give up hope, just keep on working. Being rejected again. I knew that from the 70s. But I want to admit that it wasn’t easy. It was a really tough time, and so in ‘93 I started my own record label to overcome this … what is it … blockade? Because the music wasn’t available, and so I started Random Records and found a distribution company, and it was a lot of work and a lot of money—relatively a lot of money—but I never regretted that step, because then there was a new path. I didn’t have to wait for record company executives to be convinced. I could just work on music and release it. And when Julian Cope released his book in the mid-90s, I think … I remember quite well this was a time when in Germany, nobody wanted to bother with our music. The music didn’t happen, really. It was gone. There was music from America, from Britain, but when Julian Cope’s book came out, I remember the first journalist … actually, I did an interview with him today, in the morning. Yes! He was Andreas Dewald, and he contacted me and said, ‘Oh, I think I can sell a story to these magazines because of Julian Cope.’ He could convince the editor, ‘Look, these guys from abroad are talking about our musicians, our guys! Why don’t we put a piece about them into the magazine?’ And that slowly changed. That was the mid-90s. It was like crossing a desert, you know? And not getting much water, just struggling and holding on and not giving up, and then suddenly things got a new momentum. You probably know Ciccone Youth—Sonic Youth did that ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu’…
What were they listening to in the background? ‘Negativmusik’ I think? Or … ‘Negativland’?
Michael Rother: Maybe ‘Negativland’ or maybe ‘Für Immer’? At least a track off one of the Neu! albums, and maybe you’ve heard or not, but Thurston Moore will join us when we play in London! So the circle is sort of … it’s strange, this spiral. I don’t want to give too much away, but maybe we’ll have some surprises!
Actually I’m very grateful for the way things moved, because I think had I been born two decades earlier, there’s a chance I maybe never would have interacted with your music! But it was actually through the Secret Machines—I’m friends with Josh Garza and he introduced me to your discography in probably 2009 or 2010. He was very passionate about your music. It really contributed to my musical development, as a fan, as a music writer, as a DJ—it really kind of changed the direction I was looking at German music in general. Were there any artists since 2009 or so that you’ve gotten to perform with that you never would have expected? Has there been anything that’s surprised you? Anything that’s been really moving to you?
It was so great when I met the guys, Secret Machines, back in 2004. They came to Hamburg, and I had dinner with them. They were there for a promo gig, and then at the end I joined them on stage, you know? We played together, and I think the next year when they came back, or maybe later that year we did another gig in Hamburg together. And I stayed with Josh when I was in New York—maybe 2010?
He lived in Los Angeles in 2010 cuz he lived two doors down from me. So maybe it happened just before that, just a little earlier, because he was very excited.
Michael Rother: Okay, well, that was great! And of course the Secret Machines guys, maybe not so long ago, Brandon Curtis sent me an email—you know, his brother, Benjamin Curtis, he was such a talented musician, and it was such a tragic loss when he died. It was unbelievable. He’s in my mind all the time. And earlier today, or, actually, just the interview before … I did an interview with a German magazine, and they asked me to select a few albums, and I had the Secret Machines! It’s strange, isn’t it?
Something in the air, I suppose.
Michael Rother: Well, it belongs to those very special memories. Our meetings and the way we played music together, the way they recorded Harmonia’s track ‘Immer Wieder’, ‘Rauf Und Runter’ and the way they sang this, this was so sweet and so … Josh drumming [makes booming noise] This was very special, of course. Also meeting John Frusciante and Flea and jamming with the Chili Peppers when they were in Hamburg twice in 2003 and 2007. Those were also very special moments. The story was that the Chili Peppers, I think they came to Germany every year, and there was this German journalist who interviewed John, and John kept on raving about our music, and saying wonderful things about me. I hesitate to say, but he put me on the same level as Jimi Hendrix, and ‘This Michael Rother! Michael Rother!’ And this German journalist thought, ‘Okay, next time they come to Germany I will do an interview with these two guys!’ And that’s what happened. So when they came to Hamburg in 2003, before the show we met backstage, and it was great to talk with John because we actually forgot about the interview. The interviewer was ready to interview the two of us, but John had all these questions he had written down. And so we were talking, two musicians just talking, and forgot about the interview, but he was happy anyway. After that they did their concert, and then they started jamming at the end, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of Mars Volta also joined them onstage, and then John really wanted me to come, and I really hesitated. I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ Like, eighteen thousand people, but he was so nice as a person … then I took a guitar and I just went onstage, and we were jamming. The jam went on for I think maybe fourteen minutes or so, and I’m sure that many of the fans were confused. Didn’t sound like their Chili Peppers at all.
They got taken to school that night!
Michael Rother: That was very special, and in 2007 they returned to Hamburg, and back then they were exhausted. They had been traveling around the world for one and a half years, and I think even though they had perfect organization, you know—they had their own chef watching over what they ate, and they had a physiotherapist doing massage, and everything was there, but you know … because traveling and playing, my system is a bit different.
No massage therapist onboard?
Michael Rother: But it is very demanding, you know? Even if you try to add more free time. I felt for them, and I remember Anthony Kiedis coming to me before even the concert started, saying, ‘Michael, thank you for joining us!’ He was so happy that he could leave the stage after an hour!