Coincidence has played a major role in Michael Rother‘s musical life. While working at a mental hospital in Düsseldorf in the early 1970s, a colleague invited him to a studio session with an upcoming band, unknown to Rother at the time, called Kraftwerk. Jamming with Florien Schneider and discovering a shared musical vision, he was soon asked to join the burgeoning experimental Krautrock outfit. Although his time in Kraftwerk was brief, it was here that Rother met Klaus Dinger with whom he would form another of Krautrock’s seminal bands: Neu!
Blending early electronic experimentation with hypnotic “motorik” drum beats, and keenly avoiding traditional blues harmonies that dominated popular Anglo-American music, Neu! can be considered one of the most forward-thinking groups of the period. Influencing artists such as David Bowie and Stereolab, they have gathered critical and public recognition since their demise in the 1970s. Rother’s musical journey, and modern Western music’s development, may have been significantly different had he not taken up that offer of jamming in Düsseldorf.
And now the invisible hand of chance has once again shaped Rother’s musical output. Stuck at home during Germany’s coronavirus lockdown, he was given the perfect environment to finish some of the many ideas he has accumulated, released as his latest record, Dreaming. “I had this material that I’ve been pushing aside for many years,” Rother tells PopMatters. “It takes so much time to work properly, for me at least, that you have to get into a rhythm and a mood, and it has to become a normality to get up in the morning and then start working right on what you left.”
The persistent seclusion of lockdown provided these conditions. With a cleared schedule and minimal distractions, Rother could develop the musical sketches that had been lying dormant on his computer’s hard drive. “Whenever I’m playing concerts when traveling and touring, I don’t have tranquility, so I can’t concentrate that closely,” he says. “It was the good side of the lockdown, and I made good use of the solitude of it all. I could hop on my bike and ride along the river that flows right in front of my house. This was actually a luxury isolation.”
But Rother is skeptical of the lockdown’s influence on the music itself. All songs were recorded as preliminary “sketches” 16 years ago during the sessions of his previous solo record, Remember. “Most of the basic compositions were set in the sketch, like harmonic structure, the way I arranged it, and mixed it and added new colors like the guitars.” That meant little room for significant compositional changes, and more focus on refining songs or setting finishing touches. “I may have selected other parts if I had [completed it outside of lockdown],” he adds, “but this is a lot of ifs — so we don’t know.”
More likely, Dreaming represents the culmination of his pioneering work in the Krautrock movement and various later projects. Rother can’t separate his current music from his past and sees all of his output as the continuation of a single thread that has been his musical path. “It’s all in my memory,” he says. Collaborations with Connie Plank, Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Jaki Liebezeit, and Brian Eno have all contributed to Rother’s existing sound. “I have all these memories of collaborations, so I can’t really say that I have totally separated myself from the past.”
Rother is mainly happy that he’s found time to finish and release the record finally. “I feel privileged that I was able to get this thing off my chest,” he notes, “I love traveling and playing music around the world, which is what I’ve been doing for most of the time, and not so much the lonely work in the studio.”
But this is a far cry from the Michael Rother of the 1970s, who rarely took his music to the stage and preferred the hermetic solitude of studios to perfect and explore sonic possibilities. Neu! rarely played live, and Rother bluntly describes their gigs as “terrible”. He thinks this was inevitable given the limited technology of the time: “We needed multi-track technology to be able to add layers of guitars and pianos, backwards and forwards.” In the absence of other musicians to fill the space, Neu! quickly wound up their gigs. “The musicians we tried to incorporate just didn’t have it. The music of Neu! was Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother. We wanted to be different, so it would have been surprising to find someone who was on the same path.”
Photo: Rick Burger
His next project, Harmonia — another experimental ambient rock band — fared even worse. Receiving little public recognition, their handful of gigs were more painful to play: “Harmonia was really rejected. The audience didn’t want to hear us, they fell asleep, they started talking, or they just didn’t even show up at the concerts.” Harmonia kept their live performances to a minimum, and, often shy, played early gigs with their backs to the audience.
So what produced Rother’s affection for live performances? To some extent, coincidence. In 1998, a friend responsible for programming a music festival in Düsseldorf invited Rother to play. “I thought okay, let’s give it a try … and it went quite well.” Playing live for the first time since Harmonia disbanded in 1976, Rother took a chance and rediscovered a drive for live performance.
The Michael Rother we see on stage, however, is different from the Michael Rother in the studio. While Dreaming is replete with slow, serene, and muted pieces, Rother’s live performances are heavily rhythmic, focusing on fast tempos and pulsing grooves. With a love for Little Richard, he wants to play tracks that “rush to the horizon”. “I enjoy people dancing much more than a seated audience,” he observes, recalling an unmoving audience during a gig in London last year. “Halfway through I told them, ‘Why don’t you get up and move, would you like to dance?’ The first people got up and, in the end, everybody was dancing.”
Some might see this as sitting in contradiction with his studio work, but Rother believes there are many possibilities for his music. It can shift tone and character but should reflect the scenario in which it is performed. “The emotional experience of hearing, seeing something with your friends and other people you don’t even know, sharing beauty and joy and excitement; this is a very valuable experience which is different from listening to music at home.”
Quick to add that one is not better than the other, he says it is the collective experience of live performances that is unique. “You’re standing in a crowd, and you see all the people around you, hopping and smiling and going crazy,” he beams. “I think it is a human experience to share.”
Photo: Rick Burger