MICHAEL ROTHER: WILD LOVE, FREEDOM, EXCITEMENT
illustration by jay torres
When Michael Rother’s name floats through a conversation—be it in reference to his seminal work in Neu! and Harmonia, his early ties to Kraftwerk, or his meditative, layered solo output—it commands a special kind of reverence. While the German multi-instrumentalist’s dynamic legacy is established, the topography of his career path falls and rises across humbling moments and exhilarating surprises. As his music would imply, there is a balance about him. He speaks patiently, citing moments of consistency and the comfort they brought him as the spotlight swung like a pendulum through his life. He spoke to me from the very home within which the first Harmonia records were recorded—a home he has kept for over three decades—while musing about his love of cats, an eternal appreciation for Little Richard, and the surreality of sharing a stage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, much to the bemusement of their audience. Solo, his recent box set release on Groenland, is a collection of his first four solo records and some unreleased work from the same era, and it is this solo period of his life where we began our conversation. This interview by Christina Gubala.
So you’re speaking to me from your home this afternoon?
Michael Rother: That’s right, yes!
And this is the same home that you’ve lived in for the majority if not all of your life?
Michael Rother: Not all of my life, but since 1973, which is already quite a long time. I moved here to work with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius and start the project Harmonia. I still love the place, and, I don’t know, the magic never stops.
So this is a post-Neu! house for you, then?
Michael Rother: Yes. Actually, the real truth is that I came here to find out whether Roedelius and Moebius would be suited to help Neu! put Neu! on stage. There was this idea of a British label, United Artists, to do a tour with us, and Klaus Dinger and I couldn’t play as a duo. This didn’t make sense, musically. And so I thought of Cluster, and I remembered especially one track which I liked, and that made musical sense to me in relation to my own ambition, and so I took my guitar and came here to jam with them, and then I sort of fell in love with what we could do. And I stopped … I moved from Dusseldorf and I stopped Neu! for a while.
I want to go all the way back to your childhood, to the place where you first started appreciating music, and some of the time that you spent in Pakistan.
Michael Rother: Okay. Born in Hamburg, Germany, and … this is a part where I have to speculate because my mother was a trained classical piano player, and we had a piano back then in our home in Hamburg.
I read she was interested in Chopin!
Michael Rother: That was her favorite composer, and she played Chopin, and I guess I would have to lie … I don’t remember being a three year old and listening to her play piano. I really don’t. Maybe if I’m put under hypnosis, maybe I’d suddenly think, ‘Wait a minute!’ But I think it’s fair … what is it, an educated guess? Is that what you could say? That I was exposed to classical music when I was a tiny person, you know? One, two, three and four. And then this must have entered my system without filters. This is something of course at that age it just sinks into your system, and I would think this Middle European music is something that is the center of my musical world. But of course, then we moved to Munich, and maybe you’ve heard about my brother. He’s ten years older, and he was a teenager when I was six. He was sixteen, he was seventeen, and he had these rock ‘n roll parties at home. And so that was my next music, you know? After Chopin, or maybe Bach or whatever, then it was rock ‘n roll. I mean, even today! If you want to get me excited, you just have to ask me to talk about Little Richard, because I’m a huge, huge fan!
And I suppose when you were five or six that was the beat era. Like, post-Hamburg Beatles era. Sometime in the 60s?
Michael Rother: No, no. This was like 1957? I was born in 1950, so this love for this rock ‘n roll music hasn’t left me, and there’s this one clip on YouTube if you can find it of Little Richard playing live with a band at the BBC. He performs ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’, the song which was of course originally by this other guy I don’t like. But the way Little Richard performs this, it’s like breaking all the chains. It’s wild love, freedom, excitement, everything that’s positive. That was rock ‘n roll, and it’s also inside my system I’m sure. And the next step was Pakistan. When I was nine we moved to Karachi and stayed there until I was twelve, nearly thirteen, and of course the culture there … everything was totally different. Before that we were in a small British town, Winslow, near Manchester. That was very sweet, but I don’t have any musical memories of the time. I have very fond memories of my friends, going out with my friends, playing football, going swimming in some small river, and that was a very nice time. The school was so relaxed and peaceful. Winslow back then was not a village, maybe a bit more than a village, but we had animals running around our class, you know? The atmosphere, it was totally relaxed. And when I was moved to Pakistan, I was thrown into this very British military traditional kind of school with school uniforms and ‘ATTENTION!’ You know, it was actually one of the big crises I had. The next one was when we moved back to Germany, because I left German schooling for more than four years. But coming to the music, I was fascinated by the sounds I heard there. You know, the bands or the individual musicians, snake charmers or bands coming to the door, to the house, to the gate and playing. I didn’t understand the scales, I didn’t understand the rhythms, but it was some kind of magic because it sounded like an endless stream of melodies and rhythms, and this kind of endlessness I think is something that I … maybe I already loved it before, but I certainly haven’t lost it. This is something I picked up there, and yeah, through some channels which psychoanalysts could show came into my music many years later.
I’ve noticed in listening to other interviews that a lot of focus is placed on your time in Neu!, but this project that you’ve got out now is your solo endeavors collected. So speak to me about your first solo outing, and the very first record that appears in this box set, and how it differed for you as a musician, being independent from Neu! and everything that came with it.
Michael Rother: Okay! Then we go back to the year 1976. It was the end of Harmonia. Roedelius and Moebius did no longer believe in the project. I mean, we were all frustrated, because Harmonia back then was a total disaster. Nobody wanted to hear Harmonia. The sales were terrible, and even our concerts were a struggle. People started talking, and it didn’t work out. And so they gave up. I wasn’t really willing to give up, but because they said, ‘No, Michael, we’re quitting,’ and I was in the situation that I was on my own. I found myself alone. Luckily when I approached Jaki Liebezeit and asked him to play drums for me, he was totally willing and easy, and Conny Plank was also interested. By that time, he had his own studio. Now in the beginning, we always had to go into a rental studio in Hamburg. I think he started in 1974 his own studio near Cologne. He said, ‘Yes, okay, I can give you two weeks of studio time,’ and we made a deal, like, it was … I didn’t have to put money on the table—it would’ve been difficult—but it was like … he was willing to take risks. That was something we really appreciated about Conny Plank, not only that he was willing to take musical risks with us, but also the financial risks. And so we made a deal for the license, the share, and then I went to the studio, and Jaki joined me, and we recorded the basic tracks. It’s really difficult to explain the difference, because my intentions were not different, you know? The intentions when I recorded Deluxe, the second Harmonia album, were more or less the same as a year later or one and a half years later. It was not that I suddenly had this idea of creating a new, different music, it was just maybe the absence of the elements of Roedelius and Moebius, which also changed the way the music came out.
All of a sudden there’s so much space within which you can move. As I understand it, your earlier recording sessions were rushed because you were limited on rented studio time. With two weeks at the studio with Conny, did you feel like you were able to stretch out a bit more?
Michael Rother: I still had to work, you know, make progress, but it was a totally different situation compared to the five nights we had, or three nights even—I don’t remember clearly—with Neu!. This was a total pressure. The studio clock was ticking away, and I didn’t feel happy about that. The pressure didn’t encourage me to be more creative. It was just something negative, I think. You had to fight against the pressure. But in two weeks, I mean … one week for the recording, one week for the mixing…this was, of course, already a huge step forward. I have some good memories of the days we recorded Flammende Herzen at his studio. There were some special moments. Jaki Liebezeit picked up my ideas so easily, so amazingly. I played rhythm guitar along to his drumming, and he didn’t hear the melodies that I had in my mind. He only heard what I played on the rhythm guitar, the harmonic change and maybe the drama I tried to create. But Jaki Liebezeit is unfortunately no longer with us. He was such an amazing, gifted, technically amazing drummer, and also gifted with this intuition, which also was the case with Conny Plank. That’s maybe what you need in order to work that way. It’s very different if you come as a drummer and the whole song is already on tape, and you hear this part and then that part and this melody and this break and so on. Then you can maybe develop these elements you want to play as a drummer, but he did that without knowing what was coming on top. And that … I think this is very special.
Wonderful imagination, which I think is crucial to being the kind of drummer that you need in that sort of situation. It sounds like a lot of the ways that you’ve made musical moves have to do with comfort. You’ve been creating in a space that you’re quite familiar with and you kind of trust your own energy through this, and I think that’s really reflected in your music, too. Was this your first time recording as like the sole brain power behind the record? And how was it received once it was released into the wild?
Michael Rother: Yeah, it was the first time. Actually, maybe I didn’t mention it just earlier—I wasn’t even unhappy. I would have wanted to continue struggling with Harmonia and just taking it through the wall and make the people understand what we’re going for, but because my colleagues gave up hope, I found myself in this situation. And then I just said, ‘Oh, okay. Well then, I should go and do it myself, on my own.’ So this was not something I did before, and it was a bit strange. After the recording was finished, I remember that I was totally fascinated, but this happened with Harmonia, of course. Conny was also very confident. Conny Plank said, ‘Yeah, this would be good. People will like this.’ We went to the major companies back then, and after talking to product managers and then they had their meetings like they always do, and in the end, after a few months, there was no big company interested in releasing Flammende Herzen. In the end they said, ‘Does he have a band? Does he play live?’ No. ‘Does he have a management?’ No. No, no, no. I was just a single guy making music. And maybe also music that they couldn’t see … that there wasn’t already a music like that which was successful. It was something new. They had to either have a vision for the possibilities of selling the music or not, so I was quite frustrated in the following months when we didn’t have a deal. And I was very happy and fortunate that one guy, he was the owner of Sky Records—I knew him from the time when he was label manager at Brain. He was just starting his new label, and I think he listened to the music with his heart. It was not like the money people in the big companies. But he had this approach to the music which was very emotional, and he said, ‘I like the music, and I’m going to do this.’ He took quite a risk. It was not totally cheap, the production, but he paid the advance. And then okay, I’ll skip the first moment because it was not a success story straight from the beginning—