Maybe it is not apparent to the listener but it was and is always the same heart and mind behind my music. For me it feels like I’m moving in spirals and the ideas of Harmonia - as well as NEU! - are at all times close to my heart, and part of my thinking.
Incendiary speak to Michael Rother
It’s not often that you get a chance to talk to a living legend, so we nearly fell off our seats when we were able to engineer an interview with one of Krautrock’s greatest pioneers, Michael Rother. Michael was originally in an early incarnation of Kraftwerk, later leaving with drummer Klaus Dinger to form the legendary Neu! and after the initial Neu! split, hooking up with Cluster to form the magnificent Harmonia. Michael’s solo LPs are magnificent too and are all worth getting hold of, from the first, Flammende Herzen to the latest, The Great Adventure. Early this year Michael will be on the road playing a limited series of Harmonia gigs with original co-members Rodelius and Moebius, from the legendary Cluster.
IN: You've worked on and off with Moebius and Rodelius for some years now. Why is working with them so special?
MR: Since the early 70s there have only been a handful of musicians who really left a big impression in my thoughts about music and who have inspired me in a big way. Roedelius and Moebius are two of them. Our collaboration as Harmonia from 1973 until 1976 was an important step for me after working with Kraftwerk in 1971 and on my project NEU! with Klaus Dinger. My explorations of sound, melody and rhythm with Roedelius and Moebius in Harmonia helped me develop the basics for ideas and techniques which I used in later years, in fact even today. Without my collaboration in Harmonia the album NEU! 75 would have sounded completely different as would have my first solo albums.
IN: Can you tell us something about the way you all work together?
MR: After the split of Harmonia in 1976, we all went separate ways. Dieter Moebius and I only got together again in 1998 and started doing live appearances as Rother & Moebius. Since then we have done tours to the US, Japan, UK, Italy and individual concerts in several other European countries. When we got together in 1998, I hadn’t performed live for more than 20 years. The progress in music technology made it possible to recreate a studio situation on stage, even as a duo. And, after working in the studio for all those years I enjoyed performing to an audience again. Although Moebius and I usually play two solo shows, one song by Moebius, the next by me, and so on, the idea of Rother & Moebius is that we join in on the other one’s performance spontaneously whenever it is possible.
IN: And now a Harmonia concert, and a new (old) Harmonia CD. You still feel the Harmonia concept has some way to run or are you tidying up the legacy?
MR: In October 2007 Harmonia released an album called Live 1974 and that led to the first live appearance as Harmonia since 1976. When we played in Berlin at the Worldtronics festival in November we just went on stage without a rehearsal and let things happen. The people seemed quite happy with the result and I felt the same, although Harmonia can do better in the future, I’m sure.
The feedback we received for the album Live 1974 was truly amazing. I had not expected anything like it. For me the motivation for the release of this live document was primarily to add another aspect to the spectrum of Harmonia’s work. I always thought that this concert of 1974 was a very special performance, maybe our best, and was worthy of a release because it is also quite different from our studio albums Musik von Hamonia and Deluxe. We will see after the next few concerts whether Harmonia has a future. Preparing my contributions for our concert in Berlin gave me so much inspiration and I enjoyed combining old material with new ideas and sound processing. It was a challenge and I can say that I have already been rewarded.
IN: Your work has always shown a preoccupation with melody and harmony. What is it about these aspects of musical creation/composition that fascinates you?
MR: You have to add rhythm to harmony, melody and sound. It’s the combination of all these ingredients that defines a piece of music. The accents in my work shift all the time and it just depends on my situation, my mood and the source of inspiration which of these elements are highlighted. Over the years I have shifted slightly back and forth between more rough, simple and abstract forms to song structures with strong melody accents. Maybe it is not apparent to the listener but it was and is always the same heart and mind behind my music. For me it feels like I’m moving in spirals and the ideas of Harmonia - as well as NEU! - are at all times close to my heart, and part of my thinking.
IN: And what is it about cats? You made a whole LP (Katzenmuzik) about them... naming the songs KM 1, KM5 etc...
MR: I simply love and admire cats. They have been a part of my life since 1973 and have given me very much pleasure and inspiration. When I was a young boy I had dogs but as a grown up I feel much closer to cats and the mystery that surrounds these creatures.
IN: Do you find it strange that people view Krautrock era as magical, seminal? Or is it long overdue?
MR: We were very stubborn in the ‘70s in sticking to our music even though most people hated it or didn’t understand what we were doing. I was completely convinced of my music and focussed on creating my own musical structures and on being different from everybody else. Maybe this attitude, which was also true for a few other German musicians, led to a new kind of music which now stands out as a contribution to musical history. Back then I didn’t think for a minute about the possibility of ending up in a museum; but I’m not really surprised that even nowadays young people still keep on discovering our music of the ‘70s. Apart from the work of some innovators there was a lot of not-so-great music around in Germany back then which now is traded as Krautrock and it puzzles me sometimes that all of those different types of music are put together into one box. But in the end music will always – and will always have to - speak for itself.
IN: In concert you use a great deal of new technology... running your guitar through a laptop for example, whereas it used to be reel to reel tapes played backwards. How do you approach writing now? Do you think of what is possible, or stick to your basic melody ideas and embellish them?
MR: The possibilities of creating and processing sounds have grown immensely. This, on the other hand, doesn’t make it easier for the musician to be unique. It still is a question of selecting the right sounds and methods. I enjoy working with effect units and treating guitar, electronic drum sounds or keyboard sounds – or whatever - with these machines. The ideas may be quite similar to those in the ‘70s when I only had a fuzz box, a wah-wah pedal, a filter and a delay machine to manipulate the sound of my instruments. The means of processing your sounds are different nowadays – maybe to the point that the sheer amount of possibilities is confusing. It has become even harder to select. But that selection is a vital part of the artist’s work.
IN: Could a situation like what happened with the Neu! 2 LP happen today, you feel?
MR: When we ran out of studio time in 1972 recording NEU! 2. This was due to a mixture of reasons. We were recording on 16-track for the first time and this made me do countless overdubs on say, Für Immer, hoping I could create a denser and richer sound. But the truth is that we were also not in the best creative mood. A situation like this can happen to every artist anytime. Of course, working in your own studio takes some of the pressure we felt back then away from the artist, because you just keep on working until you are satisfied with the result. But this doesn’t guarantee that the result is any better than what would have come out earlier and under pressure.
IN: Any plans on touring in Europe and the UK for 2008?
MR: Harmonia will come to the UK for at least two concerts in spring 2008. We will perform at Ether 08 in London on 18th April and at ATP in Camber Sands on 11th May. Also, there will be a Harmonia concert at the Numusic festival in Stavanger, Norway, and possibly also in Oslo in September. More offers for live appearances as Harmonia are coming in and will be announced when they are confirmed. News will be available on my websites http://www.michaelrother.de/ and www.myspace.com/michaelrother .
Words: Richard Foster