All Things Neu! Again: An Interview with Michael Rother
A veteran of three of Krautrock’s most influential bands – Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia – Michael Rother talks about his lifelong search for innovative, non-blues-based music, his partnership with tortured visionary Klaus Dinger and the unexpected revival of all things Neu! again.
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".