Michael Rother

Michael Rother

Harmonia Convergence

By 1976, pioneering German electronic trio Harmonia was no more. The core trio of Michael Rother (Neu), Dieter Moebius, and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (both of Cluster) had all gone their separate ways after two incredible albums and were now working on solo projects, content to have moved on. Then, improbably, came a phone call from Brian Eno. Already on record as a huge fan of the so-called krautrock movement, he was on the way to Montreaux to record with some guy named David Bowie and he wanted to stop off for a few days and hang out with Harmonia. Oh yeah, how does next week sound? Not letting a technicality like the band no longer existing get in the way of making art, Harmonia hastily reconvened and welcomed Eno into their countryside studio. Over the next eleven days, Harmonia/Eno collaborated on twenty-seven largely improvised pieces of electronic music. At the end of eleven days, Eno left, taking the tapes with him, and everyone went their separate ways. And that was that.

Michael Rother

Except it wasn’t. Some of the music from this historic summit was released, whipped into shape as the first version of Tracks and Traces in 1997. It’s fine for what it was, but by no means a definitive document. Fast forward several years later and Rother stumbled upon his personal cassette copy of the full sessions. Listening to all of the music for the first time in thirty years, Rother realized that there was too much good music here to go unreleased. The new reissue of Tracks and Traces (out now on Gronland/High Wire) is a resequenced version of Tracks MK1 with three unrelaxed tracks providing a fuller view of what exactly went down for eleven days in 1976. It’s a revelation. Amazing how the sound of four incredibly smart guys goofing around still sounds light years ahead of so much underground music.

If you like any independent or electronic music that is on, as they say, the cutting edge, the chances are very good that you have Michael Rother to thank for it. Either as a member of an early incarnation of Kraftwerk, half of the chaotic and brilliant duo Neu, one-third of Harmonia, or in various solo endeavors, Michael Rother was one of the prime movers in a German music scene (clumsily dubbed krautrock) – including bands like Can, Cluster, Amon Duul, Guru Guru, and Faust – that still sets the standard for exciting and weird and groovy music. Ink 19 had the pleasure of chatting with Rother, whose memories of that time are every bit as vibrant as the music that came out of it. He seems as comfortable with creating new music as he does being a careful archivist of the music and legacy of his previous bands. For that, we can be thankful.

You recently came across your own cassette copy of the Harmonia/Eno sessions long thought lost. What did you find on that tape?

That was a cassette on which I had done rough mixes, shortly before Brian left us in September of ‘76. I had that cassette on the shelf in the studio all these years. In the back of my mind I knew it was there all along but I didn’t listen to it; and in the ’80s and ’90s it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to try and transfer recordings made on a cassette in the ’70s onto a CD. But technology has advanced and I checked all those recordings on my cassette and I have about 27 song sketches on that tape. And funnily enough or maybe not so funny, it’s quite normal for me, I have very clear memories of the musical events and of the musical ideas on which we worked.

Listening to that collection of sketches, my first impression was that there was so much good music recorded on that tape. That was my feeling as well back in the late ’70s and ’80s when I heard that our tapes were considered lost. Brian had taken them with him and when he was asked later by Roedelius that was the answer he got, that Eno couldn’t find the tapes. And he has so many recordings that it could have been the case, I don’t doubt it. So I transferred the 27 sketches onto my computer and I made a CD which I sent to my Harmonia colleagues. Everyone agreed that it was indeed a very creative session. We all knew that before, but listening to all of the extra recordings we had done only amplified that impression. I asked whether it would it be okay for me to make some selections. Roedelius also sent me a list of his favorites. We compared notes and I noticed that we had similar favorites. One idea we had was drawing a completely new album from this material because there was so much wonderful music on that tape. We agreed instead to change the existing Tracks and Traces and include the extra tracks on there and I made the choices, my colleagues left that job to me and I was happy to do it. I presented them with the three extra tracks and the running order for the new version and everybody was really happy, and that’s the story of the new album.

So there is still unreleased material to be heard?

Yes! The three extra tracks are just three sketches from the 27! I’m not saying that all of the material is of equal strength, that would be exaggerating. That’s down to the way we worked back then. Some of them are very short ideas. I remember Brian once put my guitar through his synthesizer and did some very fine effects with that and I played my guitar with those effects. And that’s only about 35 seconds. So these sketches are rather short and… well, you may have read about how we worked, it was not working, it was drifting along with the music and letting the ideas flow without any pressure, without any idea of releasing the material, it was just exchanging creativity and that was wonderful. We didn’t talk about what we’d recorded or try to improve what we had on tape, we just moved on. Everything is very fresh. That is one of the characteristics of the album; the material didn’t lose the freshness of the first impression, of the first idea and that is beautiful. If you work on multitrack machines and shape a recording over the course of days or even weeks, it is a very difficult task to keep the freshness, because it is a natural process to change my mind about the material. In the morning I like it and in the afternoon I want to erase everything! That’s the normal story, but with Tracks and Traces we just recorded the first impression, the first idea, the first echo and then moved on.

Going back to that time, what was it about Brian Eno’s music that led you to recognize him as a kindred spirit?

I have to go back one step before that question. I think it’s important to stress that for me and for my colleagues, we were really focusing on creating our own music and creating something new. And that made it necessary to minimize influences from outside. I more or less stopped listening to music that was happening in the early ’70s. That’s what I started to do at the time when I worked with Kraftwerk and early in the Neu period. It was a very ambitious approach, but the idea was to create something new and you can’t go about while listening to other music and picking up influences involuntarily. I hardly listened to music.

But, of course, we knew Roxy Music and we rather liked Roxy Music. And also I remember that the Fripp/Eno collaboration (No Pussyfooting) was around and then later on Eno’s solo albums Another Green World and Before and After Science. Another thing I have to stress is that he was just a normal musician, a normal person. He didn’t come across as a rock star from Roxy Music. His attitude was that he was an equal partner working with us, exchanging ideas. It was his idea to visit us in the first place, to find out how these strange German musicians worked. I enjoyed exchanging musical ideas with Brian just as much, I guess, as he did. One thing that we had in common, which at the time wasn’t altogether normal, was that he avoided the blues structure in music. That was something I grew up with in the ’60s when I started making music and learning guitar techniques. I learned by copying beat bands, rock bands, guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, especially Jimi Hendrix. At that time it dawned on me that the world wasn’t waiting for another Jimi Hendrix, so… It was a process that took awhile and I realized that I had to forget even Jimi Hendrix, even though to this day I admire his work. So much heart, soul, and sound innovation. Sorry, I got carried away!

Eno was a fan of Harmonia though, wasn’t he?

It sounds a bit strange, I hesitate to boast about that. The story was that Brian came to Germany in ‘74 to do some promotional work for one of his solo albums and he met a German journalist who was one of two fans we had, maybe one-and-a-half! We didn’t have that many. So they were talking about new German music coming from bands like Kraftwerk, Neu, Cluster, Harmonia and then Brian told this guy, “I know about that music, I love it and I’ve been discussing this with David Bowie.” So he asked the journalist to take him to a Harmonia concert in Hamburg which was scheduled the same day – that’s how we met, because Brian was in the first row, sitting there, listening to Harmonia. It’s strange to say fan, but he liked our music and obviously listened to it a lot.

Harmonia 2007
Harmonia 2007

What was it like adding him into the Harmonia creative dynamic? How did it change your working relationships?

That’s a difficult question, really. At that point, the group didn’t exist anymore. Harmonia disbanded in early summer ‘76 and all three of us started solo recordings with Conny Plank. I recorded my first solo album Flammende Herzen in June-July. So when Brian called us in it must have been around the end of August, and we all decided to meet again in our studio. We all lived together still in the same house. Maybe it’s hard to distinguish whether it’s Harmonia or whether it’s a group of four musicians with the background of Harmonia working together. I prefer to work with musicians who have their own ideas about music and don’t just wait for orders on what to play. Whenever you add one new figure or take a figure away the music will automatically change, the balance will change. It’s like a chemical reaction. It’s hard to explain precisely but I know it from Harmonia; each of us had and still has his specialty, his field where the strengths are most apparent. The way we complemented one another in Harmonia was similar to the situation in Neu, where it was even easier to analyze the personalities of Klaus Dinger and myself mixing in the studio. With Brian Eno it was just a fourth musician who brought ideas along, his take on music, his approach to music. We shuffled all the ideas, it was a process that didn’t come from a drawing board, it wasn’t a big strategy. It was just doing instead of talking.

Was a lot of the material improvised on the spot?

I think nearly everything. Perhaps Brian had a harmonic structure beforehand, but that’s the way we always worked. Somebody throws in one idea, the others listen and then throw in their own contributions. And then the next step is just to listen and be attentive and open to changes and surprises. And be able to react to whatever is offered on the spot. And that was the way we worked.

Was a typical day’s recording then just letting the tape machine run and letting the music take shape at its own pace?

That happened a lot. Especially if you listen to the longer tracks. “Sometimes In Autumn,” the longest track, is nearly sixteen minutes and that’s where we really drift a long way. So it’s just one guy, maybe Roedelius with a certain pattern on his keyboard and then Brian joining in on the bass or with his synthesizer, and Moebius adding some bleeps and the strange noises which are his specialty, and my part is playing the electric drums or the piano and also the guitar, mustn’t forget the guitar.

What you’re describing sounds like a very egoless way of working….

You’re right, ego will never help you in a group of artists, there would be fighting. I mean, I had a lot of fights with Klaus Dinger, that story is probably very well known. But those fights always took place outside of the studio. In the studio we had identical ideas of where we were heading. Ego, I think… it destroys bands, and the ego problems made it very difficult with Klaus Dinger, made it difficult for me in later years. But to concentrate on the artistic side, I never had the impression that anything had to do with ego, it was just ideas. And the best ideas won.

The sessions for Tracks and Traces were over in 11 days. It was fairly quick work.

It’s amazing if you look back at the amount of tracks and sketches that we did during those days. Of course we didn’t enter the studio at eight and leave at ten in the evening. We played ping pong and went on walks and it was so easy and that makes it even more puzzling that we did so much work, so many recordings. We must have all felt very creative!

What was it like making music with Klaus in Neu? The Harmonia working relationships seemed more easy and social, were Neu seemed to thrive on tension and chaos.

In the studio, there were no conflicts. It was all outside the studio, he got more difficult over the years. But it was just a great combination of someone with his strengths, his ability and a dynamic approach to music. It’s hard to explain really. He had the attitude of crashing through all boundaries and that was something that sometimes startled me, sometimes even frightened me because he was so uncompromising. Sometimes he overdid that, but in the music it was a great extension to my contributions on guitar and the more harmonic melodic parts, to combine that with the very powerful and thoughtful contributions Klaus had to offer. We had very different personalities and our reactions to the same things happening in our lives were always very different. It’s not possible to explain the magic. It’s just… well, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to have worked with Klaus even though it wrecked my nerves in the ’80s and ’90s, especially when he released two Neu albums without telling me. Actually, I’m in the studio right now, I’ve been working on one of those two albums because there’s a plan to release a vinyl box of Neu recordings.

Harmonia in the Studio
Harmonia in the Studio

That’s exciting.

We’re meeting next week in Berlin with Klaus Dinger’s widow and the Gronland people, our label, and I’ve been busy on that project. I’m analyzing this album that Klaus called Neu Live ‘72 which actually was a rehearsal recording from 1972 that shows how we completely failed in finding the right musicians to put Neu onstage. I don’t want to be too nasty with Klaus, but I think in the ’90s when he released it, he was desperate for recognition and also for cash. So he released that and now I’m trying to edit that album, because there are some gems in there, maybe fifteen or sixteen minutes of interesting music. It sounds terrible. But I have never minded if music has poor audio quality if the quality of the ideas is convincing. We have to make sure that fans don’t expect an album of this, this is not an album, it’s just a rehearsal recording. It has some quite interesting moments and it’s a document. That’s one of the most important purposes of this project, documenting everything that Neu recorded and putting that in the correct perspective. Of course, we won’t change the first three albums, they are perfect in their way, and some fans will be happy to hear that we won’t touch those. But the album Neu ‘86 – that’s the project we recorded in the mid ’80s, and Klaus released that without my permission in Japan as Neu 4 – that also has some interesting moments, but it’s too early now to say exactly what will come out of that.

I’m trying to find the interesting moments of Neu off that album project, while leaving out the elements Klaus released without consulting me. He did it behind my back. It you don’t know that story, that was the worst part, when he sent me a fax saying, “Congratulations, Neu 4 will be out in Japan tomorrow,” and really expecting me to laugh and be happy about it! Maybe he didn’t, Klaus was a smart guy. That was a very dark chapter. We tried to settle those problems but unfortunately we didn’t manage to properly. There was a situation where he apologized for those actions but… Anyway this album, Neu ‘86 is also different from the first three because Klaus and I never agreed on a final version and so it’s now up to me 25 years later to evaluate it. Keep your fingers crossed that I can come up with something convincing.

Is there a release date?

Actually, I’m running late! I’ve been doing too many interviews! It’s amazing, all the interest in Harmonia and Neu which has been becoming much stronger in recent months with these releases – that along with Brand Neu, a compilation album of bands who feel influenced by Neu. It’s the project of a former MD of Gronland who started his own label and he invited bands from many countries. There’s even a track by Oasis!

Oh my….

Yes, I know, many people react that way. But actually, it’s one of my favorites! I think that track was only released as a B-side of a single. Just give it a fair listen, perhaps you won’t be disgusted! (laughter) I was surprised when I first heard all of these famous musicians talking about their love for Neu. I knew about David Bowie and Brian Eno and Sonic Youth and Stereolab and Radiohead and the like. But in recent times, I think with the last album, suddenly Bono is talking about loving Neu and then Oasis did the same. Well, what can you say, in one way it’s flattering and another way you can’t really explain how inspiration works. I mean, you play music to a hundred musicians and how they react to that will be so different. Just feeling influenced doesn’t necessarily mean that you make something great out of the influence. Take the inspiration to something new! But I’m not bashing my colleagues.

Is there any other Harmonia material that may get a release?

Not so much. There is a recording of a Harmonia concert from 1975 which we are discussing. So far I’m not really convinced of the music that was recorded there. But Roedelius is very much in favor of that material. You know the history of Harmonia’s Live 1974 album? I had it in my archives and I edited it and really worked hard to optimize the sound. I didn’t change the music but it was a lot of technical work, I invested a lot of time and energy and maybe now Roedelius will do the same with his recording. Otherwise I think there’s not much more unreleased material. There’s more Harmonia/Eno stuff, the 27 sketches! Who knows, I already said I would have never expected to release something that was recorded on a tape… A few years ago I would not have thought that possible, but technology has advanced and when I did the remastering this year, the engineer, he nearly drove me crazy with all the comparing of the processes that he had to change to improve the audio quality of the tape. And that, of course, is a very technical process. He repeated one track maybe 60 or 70 times and I was really… worn out.

What will you be moving on to work on after you finish with the Neu box?

That’s a difficult question, because my mind is so completely filled up. Last year at this time I thought by now I would be working on new material, composing and recording solo music, and also doing more live shows with Harmonia. But Harmonia stopped in the spring, we decided to stop that project, the live collaboration, and there are many interesting channels waiting for me. One idea recently… former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos got in touch with me and we met several times and there’s this idea of doing a collaboration next year and that sounds very promising, with the combination of his abilities and my approach to music. And also one big idea in my mind is to do live shows with a mixture of Neu’s music and Harmonia’s music and some of my solo work with some of my friends, musicians I’ve met in recent years like Benjamin Curtis and Josh Klinghoffer and the Chili Peppers – John Frusciante and Flea – people like that. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, with whom I’ve done some recording in the last year. There are some musicians I have in my mind and it’s something I’m really looking forward to, playing my take on Neu, Harmonia, and selected solo material in the live environment next year. I noticed that audiences are really appreciative when I play some of that, people seemed to like that material as much as I do. I think it would be a great, great event to present that music.

Harmonia 1975
Harmonia 1975

What keeps you inspired to keep creating music and art at such a pace?

To be honest, it’s not being creative all the time! Unfortunately, the balance has changed, and sometimes I’m not so happy about that. Having so much history to take care of, it demands a lot of other work. It’s not the way that musicians work in the UK or the USA, everybody seems to have managers. And I don’t know, I never… over here it’s not that popular to have someone take care of everything. Maybe one of these days I will have to, because I would need 36 hours every day! That’s the other side to the coin: the great expectations, the great reactions, all the attention we’re getting, that takes up a lot of time. I don’t know how many interviews I’ve been doing in recent months – dozens. Some of these interviews really take a while because people are well-informed and have lots of questions and there is so much history to cover. And you can imagine that the days just pass by. Organizing projects like the Neu vinyl box, which is very ambitious, I must say, to dig in the archives, collect the photos for the artwork. There will be a big booklet, the size of a record. There are several authors writing text about Neu, and they have questions. And also some of the photographers have taken photos of Neu which have never been shown yet. Maybe I’ll have a clearer picture of what is possible after the meeting next week with Klaus Dinger’s widow, because we will meet the graphic designer and try to start developing this booklet and I will try and present some of the musical ideas for the two new ones, Neu ‘86 and the Live ‘72.

So the question was how can I remain creative? I hope the answer is that I can! (laughter) And you just keep on working and try not to be too preoccupied, be open for new developments, new sounds. Next week I will meet up with the musicians in Fuck Buttons; we became friends during a tour in Australia. We shared a stage at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Sydney. I was very impressed with their sounds, and their manager sent me the new album and we may even end up on stage together next week in Berlin and later in Hamburg. At least we’ll meet up and hang out. That’s the idea. These guys are interesting, their approach to music is similar to the way we went about taking things apart and using them in a different way, that’s a good approach.

Michael Rother:

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