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All Things Neu! Again: An Interview with Michael Rother

Jennifer Kelly
Photos: Hadley Hudson

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.

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.”

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