Michael Rother - Face Out Fanzine interview, 1980
Originally printed in Face-Out fanzine, Issue 6, early 1980
Reprinted in Aktivität 10 - April 1998
Michael Rother (MR): "With Kraftwerk we smashed up the structures. I was used to playing inside the 'pop' structures. There is no Kraftwerk album with the kind of music that we were playing at this time - Klaus Dinger, Florian Schneider and myself. Hütter and Schneider split up, after the first Kraftwerk album was released, for about one year, and I joined. Hütter wasn't in this formation. It was very heavy music that we were playing. It is hard for me to explain what the music was like. Perhaps 'chaotic' is the word that I am looking for - punk is like Sunday School after this!"
Interviewer (CF): 'Were you using electronics at this time?'
MR: "Yes, we were... (thinks)... maybe we had some structures in our heads, so to speak, but I don't think too many! I was playing guitar. I started to learn keyboards with Harmonia."
CF: 'As you say, there is no Kraftwerk album of this line-up, but did you ever get into the studio?'
MR: "Once with Conny to record an album, but we didn't finish it... it was the difference between being 'live' and being in the studio. It was a bit 'sterile', if that is the right word... it was us, I suppose. Plank was the engineer. I think that in a 'normal' recording the producer has a bigger say in the finished record than with us - I mean, Plank was important to us and still is to me. When we did the mixing, he had some ideas, but he's not the sort of guy who says 'a bit of bass here, some piano there'. That's not the way the producer Plank works."
CF: 'So Plank could be more 'sympathetic' than others?'
MR: "Again, it's hard for me to explain, but basically he's not the sort of guy to show up at nine o'clock, 'come on boys, finish your coffee'. He works in a different way... he is one of the advantages of the way he works!"
CF: 'So there are some tapes lying around somewhere from these sessions?'
MR: "Yes, three or four tracks, 20-30 minutes, I'm not sure. They might be released... (laughs)... posthumously!"
CF: 'You hope!'
MR: "I'm not sure whether to hope or to fear." (laughs)
CF: 'That's for the listener to decide? Maybe someone will find them and release them.'
MR: "No. Conny has them and he won't release them without permission."
CF: 'Has he ever asked?'
MR: "It's not a question of asking, but we talk about it. There is not the interest in these tapes that there once might have been. The music was not like anything that got released by Kraftwerk, but we gave up in the studio. This was in '71... Dinger and I were only in Kraftwerk for 5-6 months. There was a lot that happened in that short time."
CF: 'It must have been an important time for you, for your musical development.'
MR: "Not perhaps for development, that may be the wrong word - it was a matter of breaking up the structures. It was like erasing the past. We could never go back."
CF: 'Why did this line up (of Kraftwerk) break up?'
MR: (pause) "We couldn't stand each other!" (laughs). "Seriously, it is something that I can maybe laugh about now, but at the time it was very hard for us. The music was very depressing we had no roadies. We just turned up in a small bus, the three of us with all our equipment, doing it all ourselves. We did one big festival, with Family, I think. they had a dozen or so roadies, and we played before them. These roadies were already taking our equipment off stage when we were still playing. We couldn't argue! Of course, Family jumped on stage with everything perfect and we packed our gear and were gone... it was very interesting, but a hard time and very exhausting. We used to argue after a time. It was inevitable in these conditions, so we split, and Hütter rejoined Schneider. This is a period that present day Kraftwerk tend to forget. Sometimes I read some, er, 'polished' histories of this time, when there was Hütter/Schneider/Dinger. Dinger got left out of the history...
CF: 'That left you and Dinger with NEU! ?'
MR: "We had NEU! in common musically."
CF: 'Do you think that any of NEU! came from the unrecorded Kraftwerk? I mean, there is no recorded music that NEU! can be traced back to...'
MR: "Yes, of course. It was Dinger and me playing, so we took ourselves, but the music changed because Schneider wasn't there. You know, it very much depends on the individuals. It's not like where you have some rock and roll bands who can change the bass or guitar and still sound the same. With us it was the combinations. Everyone was important."
CF: 'You felt that you could take NEU! into the studio?'
MR: "Yes, but we had one big problem recording the first one-time. We only had three and a half days and nights. It was terrible really! With playbacks and all that's involved, it takes a very long time. If you have four or five musicians, you can get the basic sounds down very quickly, but with us, with only one guitar and some drums..."
CF: 'So the hard part was to fill the sound out?'
MR: "Yes, even now it takes me a long time. Imagine the problems for me with overdubs, with as many as twenty different instruments..."
CF: 'Did you manage to play live in the early days?'
MR: "Not at first. We tried to appear, but we couldn't. Not with the sound we had, which was much too thin. We did try with Uli Trepte, who was with us for a while in '72. He had just left Guru Guru, but it didn't work out. Like I said, it is a matter of the individuals. He tried to play some of the lines, he really did."
CF: 'It wouldn't appear to be in his nature to play in this way.'
MR: "You can't take an individual and tell him to play something and expect him to capture the spirit - not with this music. We managed eight gigs. Uli, I think, left us quite disappointed. I was sorry because I liked him."
CF: 'The album got quite a good response, didn't it?'
MR: "It was a sort of 'hit'. It sold about 35,000 copies, which was a lot for a German band at this time."
CF: 'How did you get the deal?'
MR: "Like I did with 'Flammende Herzen', we went from company to company."
CF: 'You had no deal prior to going into the studio?'
MR: "That was our way, no deal - to do it this way gives one more freedom."
CF: 'Korber was at Brain then?'
MR: "Yes, we met him in the studio."
CF: 'Did you go to Brain first?'
MR: "I can't remember, but they paid the most!"
CF: 'You obviously had a good enough response to enable you to record a second album, which was a bit of a surprise when it came out...'
MR: "The second album was a shock for some people. A lot of people thought we were making fun of them. The second side is very strange, with one piece being played at a faster speed, then the needle jumps, then half speed. We put a record on in the studio off-centre, and it goes woo urrrr!"
CF: 'How does it go?'
MR: "Woo urrr!" (laughs)
CF: 'Why do this?'
MR: "Well, we took a long time with the first side. It was so expensive that we couldn't afford much more, so we had to rush through the second side. Call it art if you will." (shrugs)
CF: 'So you weren't thinking of the listener?'
MR: " It was a statement - but I don't necessarily think so now."
CF: 'Still no gigs?'
MR: "At this time, United Artists were interested in releasing 'NEU!' in England and so we were looking for musicians to join us for touring, and that's when I met up with Cluster. I found that their music was more interesting than mine. Harmonia was the result."
CF: 'How did this come about? I mean, did you know Cluster from before?'
MR: "We did a concert with Cluster, back in the days of Kraftwerk, the two of them. It was a terrible experience. The hall was packed out, 1,500 people. We played first, we agreed with Cluster to do this. The audience wanted more of us so we encored and then stopped to let Cluster on. The audience didn't like it - they wanted to beat Cluster up. They turned their speakers round for them and threw tomatoes and things at them. It was uproar. I was afraid for them, but they played on and didn't seem to show any fear. After a while most of the people left, but a lot of them still remained, standing on chairs and yelling for more of us. We had really heated them up."
CF: 'There was no bad feeling between you as a result?'
MR: "No, it wasn't my fault! But the circumstances were unhappy... Anyway, I took my guitar along with me to see how it would work out between us and it was different - the energy was going out of NEU!.
CF: 'How about the name?'
MR: "Many of the clubs around here are called Harmonia clubs and these are for singers, but we took the name for many reasons. We played 'harmonic' music and we lived communally, but it was more than the music."
CF: 'What was Dinger doing at this time?'
MR: "I can't really remember." (thinks) "He was a carpenter, I believe, for a while, to earn some money."
CF: 'How did you manage to record the third NEU! if the energy was going?'
MR: "Well, for me to join Harmonia was a positive move, to develop my music. I had an idea that Klaus could join us and that we could make better music than NEU!."
CF: 'Don't you find it ironic that instead of Cluster joining NEU! , NEU! was joining Cluster?'
MR: " No, I didn't see it that way. It was a new thing. Not Cluster and Rother, but Moebius, Roedelius and Rother, a new concept. We had endless talks with Dinger. At one time he nearly joined us, but at the last minute he found that he had too many reservations about it and he was also working with his brother and Hans Lampe in Dusseldorf. He wanted me to join them."
CF: 'As NEU! ?'
MR: "Yes, but the music was too thin for me and it wasn't too interesting."
CF: 'So the third NEU! was a contract-filler then?
MR: "We didn't have to do it, but to be honest, the money mattered. I think there is a gap between the first two albums and the third. It would not have been possible to have done it without me working with Harmonia. The money was not the most important reason - it was done when it was possible to play some music."
CF: 'By the way, what do you think of La Dusseldorf?'
MR:"NEU! was a concept... and La Dusseldorf has different people, different combinations. Like I said before, it could not be NEU! without Dinger and Rother. (Note: I had mentioned that I found some similarities on occasion between La Dusseldorf and NEU! - CF.)
CF: 'You were able to develop your own ideas within Harmonia?'
MR: "We all had our own idea in Harmonia. I had NEU! and they had Cluster as a possibility. This is really how a separate album like the third NEU! came about... 'Immer Weider' from the 'De Luxe' album nearly appeared on the NEU! album. That was one of my ideas, I thought that it was more Harmonia though. Lyrically, it is the sum of our experiences - the ups and downs, something working, then falling through. The German listeners didn't seem to understand, or rather didn't want to understand it. They attributed a certain banality to it, which was a bit disappointing because I thought it was one of my best, still do. The lyrics, or better, the harmonies (the sound) fit in well with the music. We were really disappointed with the reaction to Harmonia."
CF: 'You were saying earlier (i.e., before the tape was rolling) that you've always believed that any music you'd had a hand in would sell...'
MR: "Oh yes, but not as 'commercial' music with all that this term means, not deliberately for sale. It was good music, and I also thought that it would sell, do you see what I mean? I also thought that it was better music than NEU!, but there was no reaction... (pause) ...not yet! I haven't given up hope!"
CF: 'I suppose that Moebius and Roedelius were also a bit upset.'
MR: "I think that I felt it more. I mean, Cluster were never successful in the way that I had been with NEU! I thought the music was better, and I was convinced that therefore it would sell. But the opposite was so."
CF: 'Did this have anything to do with the demise of Harmonia?'
MR: "Oh no, we were working in a small space, and we are different people... the difficulties of getting together proved bigger than the benefits, the positive aspects."
CF: 'Did Harmonia ever gig?'
MR: "Yes, but we had no luck. We played in Germany, Holland as well. There was less than 50 people at some of the gigs, but a good percentage of the audience, whether the audience was big or small seemed to like it. Despite this the albums, er, flopped."
CF: 'Was it good to get out and play live again?'
MR: "OK, but I am not a live person. We didn't play anything from the album at first, we'd just get a key and start. Sometimes it was good, other times not so. Later we started to do some things from the album and we got a better reception. The sales didn't get much better though."
CF: 'Were you working on any solo tapes?'
MR: "Not until the end when it was clear that we were falling apart as a band. I started because Cluster had Cluster to fall back on and I had nothing, no NEU!. Well, Klaus (Dinger) wanted me to go to Dusseldorf for La Dusseldorf's second album, and maybe change the name to NEU!, or whatever. This was just after the first La Dusseldorf album, I met him when the first album had been released... I never really wanted to go solo. Now, I have had solo experience, and it is good, but at the time I didn't think that I could do it. I had no choice, really, because there was no-one to work with..."
CF: 'But you felt the need to use a drummer?'
MR: "Ah, Jaki... I would have liked him to work on the second Harmonia. That would have been something! I met him at the time I was recording 'Flammende Herzen'. I'd always had him in mind because I knew the Can sound and liked it - I knew that he could be the man."
CF: 'A lot of people assume that he was just a sessioneer...'
MR: "This is not true. He was involved, we had discussions, although the finished tracks with the overdubs were my responsibility. I played him some tracks that I had done previously, with drum boxes, to give him an idea. We played the basic tracks with me on guitar and keyboards, then I overdubbed. On one of the tracks, Jaki played to one of the finished tracks."
CF: ' 'Flammende Herzen' sounds very 'together' anyway...'
MR: "Yes, and that may be coincidence to a certain extent - Jaki was playing to the harmony on the guitar and the keyboards, and I told him where the accents would be."
CF: 'So, you now had the finished tapes, and I presume that you had to drag them round the record companies. Did you go to Brain again?'
MR: "Yes, but they hated me. I had a previous problem with Brain which I don't think that too many people are aware of, in that with NEU! there was a fantastic offer from Capitol records in America for the NEU! albums. They were willing to pay a great deal of money, and Metronome would have got a large slice of it. The contract was terrible though. I got an English lawyer in who specialises in American contracts... it didn't work out as I saw it, but Brain weren't worried about the terms. This was at the time of Harmonia, and I feared that it would stop me working with Harmonia, what with 'exclusive rights' clauses and all that bullshit, so I didn't sign. This was, by the way, after the third album. I played the 'Flammende Herzen' tapes to Brain. I knew that they were angry with me, but I had no choice really, because there weren't too many people to take these sort of tapes to - Brain, EMI-Electrola... hmmmm... now these people said no at the time, but they are very interested now!" (laughs) (pause...) "This was another hard time."
CF: '1976, just you and your tape. Do you find these business aspects at all degrading?'
MR: "No, not degrading, not as deep as that. I may not like it, but I had had the experience before, so I had got used to it. I was not expecting anyone to jump up and say 'wonderful music, we'll take it' just like that. For instance, an example of how it works for us over here. They say 'Michael Rother, who is he? This is instrumental music; there is no manager...'. No, not degrading, just disappointing."
CF: 'How did you get in with Sky?'
MR: "Not immediately! At that time, Sky was just one man and his typewriter. It is different now of course."
CF: 'But you were just one man and his tape.'
MR: "It is different from the other point of view. There is distribution, pressing and all that. I thought that it needed a little more than a typewriter, and we had some very difficult negotiations, but we agreed in the end. It was a big risk for him - for both of us."
CF: ' 'Flammende Herzen' wasn't an 'instant hit', was it?'
MR: "Not at first."
CF: 'Why do you think that happened?'
MR: "Well, there is this radio journalist who had been into NEU!, Harmonia etc. He played the album, then I did a live interview, and whoosh! It was good because he played it and people went out and bought it. There was no campaign, no publicity except for a few small ads. this is the best way. In the early days, 3,000 went in one week, 7,000 after two weeks. This was more than Harmonia had sold in two years. The novelty has worn off a bit now, I am used to it, but I was excited at the time... my contract is now up with Sky and I am free now. I don't think for too long, though - I will wait and see what happens with 'Katzenmusik'."
CF: 'How long does it take you to record an album?'
MR: " 'Herzen' took two weeks, complete. For 'Sterntaler' there was four weeks with a mobile outside my house, with a further three weeks in the studio. 'Katzenmusik' took two or three months in my studio here."
CF: 'Do you intend to go on the road?'
MR: "It is not very practical. people ask me about this all the time, but I don't think so. It would be too much work, as much as another album, and I would have to get a proper band together. The actual music would not be the problem, it's just that it would have to be done just right, or it would be 'plastic'."
CF: 'Is there any concept or philosophy behind your music?'
MR: "The music comes first, the 'idea' second. I would prefer to release the music as 'Michael Rother 1979', or whatever year it happens to be, but people like a name and a package."
CF: 'Anything planned for the new decade?'
MR: "It's not really of interest to me. I am not concerned with fashion. I never really expect anything to happen, so why now? People like to have these categories and ideas to look forward to and to hold on to - it's not for me."
CF: 'I know you're not a great listener, but is there anyone whose music you like?'
MR: "Kraftwerk, Moebius and Roedelius..."
CF: 'Moebius has never really made a solo, has he, unlike Roedelius...'
MR: "Well, 'Liliental' was a solo really, it was his concept, his answer to 'Durch die Wuste'."
CF: 'Have you read the review in 'Face Out'?'
MR: "Yes, but I have a different opinion. I like the first half of the second side, quite good. I also read the review of 'Jardin au Fou', which I thought was good."
CF: 'Some of your English fans say that your music, your solo music, is 'light' and 'easy'. They like the 'heavier' stuff, and say your music suffers by comparison.'
MR: "It is not as 'easy' as one would think. There is a lot of detail. On the new one I feel that there is a lot more background behind the lines that the first two. There is more depth, and the sound is, er, broader. that's why I spent more time on it - more relaxation... I can hear some people say, 'this Rother is a clever guy, very smart to release 'Flammende Herzen'. They think that I just sit here and release hit music, calculating nice tunes and a good image. I don't understand that at all. I don't work in this way."
CF: 'I think we've got a better idea now. I have, anyway. Thanks for sparing some time to tell us, Michael.