All Things Neu! Again: An Interview with Michael Rother

Picture Michael Rother at age three or four, sitting on his mother’s lap. One day, Rother will go on to briefly play guitar with Kraftwerk, to co-found the vastly influential Neu! and to form Harmonia with Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Mobius (and later, Brian Eno). With Dinger, he will carve out an aesthetic of trancelike drone and limitless propulsion, a sound that seems to move forward relentlessly, but that also, in some very real way, remains eternal and still.

But all that is a long time off. For now, he is a small boy nestled in his mother’s arms, engrossed in a German story that wraps into itself, the end feeding back into the beginning in a ceaseless round. “It was a very short story,” Rother remembers, “but it went around in a circle. I was so fascinated because I didn’t know where the story started and where it ended. Repetition has always fascinated me.”

Later, when his family moved to Pakistan for a few years (he was nine when they arrived and 12 when they moved back to Germany), Rother again found himself transfixed by repetition, this time in the form of Karachi’s street music. “I remember listening to those bands, those musicians walking from house to house,” he says. “It was so interesting. The harmonic scales are very different from what I knew, of course, but the main thing was the endlessness of the music. It just went on and on and on. The repetition and the feeling of not having any limits to the music, and that really appealed to me.”

Repetition and drone showed up early in Rother’s musical education, but like most teenagers in the 1960s, he also made a detour into more conventional rock and roll. Rother arrived back in Düsseldorf on the verge of adolescence. He began to play the guitar and joined his first band, Spirits of Sound, a few years later. He and his friends loved the Beatles, the Kinks and other British Invasion bands, and as a guitar player, he soon became entranced with another set of heroes – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and in particular, Jimi Hendrix.

“He changed everything in my early days,” says Rother, who saw Hendrix play live in 1968. “It wasn’t only the gimmick play like putting the guitar behind his back. That was showbiz stuff,” he explained. “I was impressed because he was wild. I was still a young guy and… quite the opposite of wild. And Jimi Hendrix, he fell from the skies more or less.”

Listening to Hendrix’s recordings, Rother first began to grasp the possibilities of the studio – for backwards recording, overdubs and effects, all basic elements in the sound he later developed with Neu! “I was struck by the whole combination of what he could do on the guitar and the sound effects, the whole approach to sound creation with the help of guitar. One of the greatest moments, maybe it will stay for a long time, was how he played the American national anthem. And of course, at the time, with the Viet Nam war in the background, that was so impressive a combination of artistic expression and political message.”

Yet though Rother admired Hendrix, he knew, even as a teenager, that he didn’t want to emulate him too closely. “I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was 17 and 18 and 19 and then during that time, also had all these impressions of political and social changes in Europe and Germany,” he remembers. “At the same time, my awareness of my own personality and the wish to create my own artistic personality, that took shape and became stronger. There wasn’t one day when I woke up and thought: ‘Now I’m going to do something completely different.’ But there was actually quite a long period, maybe all of 1970, when I was looking – I was searching for an answer. I knew that I had to leave the past behind but I didn’t really know where to head.”

It was almost by chance that Rother joined Kraftwerk. He was working at a mental hospital alongside another guitar player, and they decided to attend a student demonstration together. After the demonstration, the guitar player mentioned that he was heading over to a studio to jam with some musicians. “He told me the name of the band was Kraftwerk. I thought, ‘That’s a strange name.’ I didn’t know anything,” says Rother.

Rother went along and, at the studio, picked up a bass to jam with Ralf Hütter. “That’s where everything fell into a new place. We just jammed and for the first time I realized that I wasn’t alone on this search for music without blues. That was one of the main ideas – I realized that I had to leave all those blues structures, those clichés behind. So it was just plain. Just being with those guys and everybody in the room had the same feeling.”

Shortly after the jam, Florian Schneider invited Rother to join Kraftwerk, replacing Hütter, who had gone back to university. Kraftwerk had already had some success with its first self-titled album. There were offers for concert performances and another album in the works. Rother stepped in and, through the Kraftwerk connection, met Klaus Dinger, who would be his partner in Neu!, and Conny Plank, the producer and engineer who would help them define their sound.

But as recording sessions for Kraftwerk 2 went on, both Rother and Dinger became increasingly frustrated. “Florian Schneider was a great artist, great inspirational artist, but as a person he was very spiky. There was a lot of arguing going on. I didn’t like that,” Rother remembers. “But also, we just couldn’t transfer the music we were doing live into the sterile atmosphere of the studio. It was so brutal the music we did, so primitive, I mean in a positive way, but this excitement was only possible when performing to a crowd, which threw back the excitement on stage.”

As they became disillusioned with Kraftwerk, Rother and Dinger began to talk about working together, initiating one of the most fascinating, difficult partnerships in recent musical history.

“We were very different in character, that’s true,” says Rother, observing that Dinger came from a harsh, often contentious family background, very different from his own, and was always ready for a fight. Musically, he was aggressive and powerful, concerned more with rhythms and dissonance than the melodies that fascinated Rother. “Until I met Klaus and played with him, I had never seen a drummer of that quality, of that strength and relentless beating on the drums,” he says.

One of his most vivid memories of Dinger dates from a live Kraftwerk performance sometime in the early 1970s. “When I looked up from my guitar, I saw that there was blood rushing from his hand, and that went all over the drums and onstage, but he never for a moment stopped playing. Everybody in the first rows, they were watching with open mouths. It was crazy. He hurt himself but kept going,” he says, “Well, he was a radical figure.”

It was an attraction of opposites, but one that seemed to bring out hidden possibilities in each of the two artists. Rother adds, “I guess we also had some elements in common which are, maybe, not so obvious. I know that Klaus also had a soft side, a sentimental side, a love of melodies. That’s probably what he liked about my playing in the first place. And I think the reason why we could compliment one another was that, though we both had our strengths, we also had this understanding for the other side and we reached out to it.” He points to Dinger’s lyrical piano work on Neu! 75’s “Leb’ Wohl” as an example, as well as his own noisily aggressive guitar playing on the proto-punk song “Hero”.

The Michael Rother / Klaus Dinger Partnership

Their partnership came together almost effortlessly as the two of them recorded Neu! in a manic four-day session in 1972. “Before we went into the studio, I don’t remember talking with Klaus about what we were going to do. He had some visions. I had some ideas, some visions, basic melodies, like “Weiseensee”. But the real magic just happened in the studio,” he says. “It was just listening and reacting and listening again. I sometimes compare that kind of work to action painters working on one canvas. Seeing what Klaus did and Klaus was looking at what I did — that’s the way we worked. We laid down the basic tracks. Klaus played drums and I played bass or guitar mostly. And then it was one of us only who went into the recording room to do an overdub. We didn’t work like normal bands, just playing most of the tracks in one go. It was like creating a picture, a painting, and then by listening and reacting to some of the coincidences.”

For instance, Rother immediately noticed that he was getting a particular kind of feedback on his guitar, and began playing long slow notes to take advantage of it. Conny Plank got the idea to reverse the tape, and “Hallogallo” emerged. “I love backwards music and I love slowed down music. Those, in combination with hypnotic music, those are the basic things that always appeal to me,” says Rother.

Later on Neu! 2 another element emerged, an idea of re-configuring existing materials and experimenting with sound that many people now cite as among the earliest remixes. Rother says that tracks like “Neuschnee 78” and “Super 16” (which Quentin Tarantino later used in the Kill Bill soundtrack) came more out of desperation than anything else.

“We had recorded only one side of the second Neu! Album when the money ran out,” Rother explains. “So it was the last night of recording, and we were in a really bad spot. We had music for only half an album.”

Neu! had recorded “Neuschnee” as a single earlier, and their record company had released it reluctantly, with no promotion. Rother and Dinger decided to use the single to fill out the second side, but they were still short on material. “We put the single on the turntable, and Klaus started kicking the turntable,” Rother remembers. “That made the needle jump and scratch. Then we slowed it down and I added a garbled version, which was on my broken cassette player. It was a very crazy session. It was done out of sheer necessity. Not panic but something near that. We were desperate. Klaus had this idea of, ‘Well, if we’re desperate, then I’ll kick out.’”

Neu! 2’s second side was roundly criticized by professionals and fans alike. “They thought we were making fun of them, really, the public,” says Rother. “And I mean, we had fun doing that. It was a crazy kind of desperate fun, but it was still a serious artistic expression. But we were not joking and we were definitely not making fun of the audience. But that’s the way it was seen. It took about 20 years or 25 years or 30 years until those experiments were seen in a different way.”

The next album Neu ‘75 also had some songs that were way ahead of their time, including the punk-like “Hero” which seems to presage bands like the Sex Pistols and, especially, PiL. “That’s pure Klaus Dinger,” says Rother. “I played those guitars and I actually enjoyed the dynamics of “Hero” and this forward flight, but I never shared the emotions.”

The song’s lyrics are littered with obscenities, reflecting a profound frustration Dinger was feeling in many areas of his life. He spat them out one evening in a first take that Rother and engineer Conny Plank recognized immediately as perfect. “He tried to improve it and to record it again, and we both knew before he went into the recording room that it couldn’t ever be better than it was,” says Rother.

Later, when punk figures like Malcolm McLaren started citing Neu’s work, and particularly that song, as influential, Rother says he could see the connection. “The situation in England that led to the punk movement – there was a lot of frustration and that was one possibility of reacting to depression… hating society for what it had as an offer to the young generation,” he says.

Neu! disbanded in the mid-1970s, as the relationship between Rother and Dinger became increasingly contentious. They reconnected in 1986 to record one more time, though they were unable to finish the sessions and Dinger, during the darkest period of their disagreement, released his own version of the material without Rother’s approval.

“Klaus had tremendous strength and determination, but later on, this strength got out of control and lost direction,” says Rother. “The problem when…well, he took many drugs. He was proud of having taken more than 1000 LSD trips and I guess those substances… he thought they helped him understand the meaning of, I don’t know, everything. But, in my understanding, he just moved to another planet in later years and he lost touch with reality as we know it. It just became very, very difficult to compromise with him, to find an understanding about lots of problems we had in the late 1980s till the early 1990s.”

It became almost impossible to find Neu! records, as the two of them could not even come to an agreement about re-releasing the albums on CD. Finally, in 2001, they reached an accord, transferring all three studio records to CD and releasing them on Grönland in the UK and Astralwerks in the US. The materials recorded in 1986, intended for Neu! 4 remained in limbo, however.

Then in 2008, Dinger passed away, paradoxically clearing the way for a Neu! revival. Rother and Dinger’s last companion, Miki Yui, began talking about a series of Neu! related projects, including a vinyl box set and a new remastered version of Neu! 86. With Yui’s approval, Rother assembled all the original analog tapes of the 1986 sessions and converted them to digital files. Then he began the painstaking work of comparing all the takes, choosing the best ones, and mixing them together.

In the process, Rother realized he was paying one more tribute to his partner. “If you listen to the last two tracks on the album, the last track is a small homage where I focus on what I think shows Klaus in a typical way. The artistic craziness of Klaus,” he says. “It was drowned out a bit in the original reverb-filled mix of ‘La Bamba,’ so I brought it back.” He added that he used only original takes, recording nothing new during the process. “It was not my approach to take the opportunity and create another version of Neu! I tried to be fair to Klaus and I tried to feature his ideas, his strengths just as much as mine,” he says. The new material, called Neu! ‘86, is included in the vinyl box set.

This year, Rother also brought together a band, including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs. Called Hallogallo 2010, the band is now performing Neu! songs for the first time in many years in venues all over the world.

“There’s so much happiness,” says Rother, “So much joy and people dancing. We played an open-air festival in Hamburg last week on Sunday and there was torrential rain. And the people were dancing in the mud and the guy who’s writing a review for Mojo, he wrote me an email saying that his clothes were still damp when he flew back to London, but he was so happy. That’s …it’s something I enjoy because my excitement, my own pleasure of performing that music is shared by the audience.”

And then, perhaps thinking of the long difficult journey he’s taken to get to this point, he adds, “It took a while.”