PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Neu!'s Michael Rother Talks About Experimentation and Chance

Photo: Rick Burger

Neu!'s Michael Rother reflects on the creative environment of lockdown, the struggles of playing experimental krautrock, and the collective beauty of live performance.

Michael Rother


4 September 2020

Solo II
Michael Rother


4 September 2020

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."

Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay

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

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.