Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Interview with Michael Rother

Photo: Ann Weitz, 1973.
Michael Rother was born on September 2nd, 1950, in Hamburg, Germany. His first contact with music was listening to his mother playing the music from her favorite composer, Frédéric Chopin, on the piano. During his childhood he lived in Munich (Germany), Wilmslow (England), and in Karachi (Pakistan, where he had contact with Pakistani music). After that, in early 60s, his family moved back to Germany, to Düsselfdorf, where Michael joined his first band, "Spirits Of Sound", in which he played the guitar from 1965 to 1971. Also in Düsseldorf, Michael Rother joined Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger on Kraftwerk, during a short period of time in which Ralf Hütter had left the band to dedicate himself to his studies in architecture. With Kraftwerk, Michael Rother played in some concerts, and also did some TV and radio appearances, but more than that, he and the drummer Klaus Dinger discovered that they had more musical ideas and visions in common between the two than with Florian Schneider. Soon, Rother and Dinger left Kraftwerk to form NEU!, one of the greatest bands in Germany in the seventies, being an influential band to artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Joy Division, and Ultravox, among many others. NEU! recorded three essential albums in the seventies (NEU!, 1972; NEU! 2, 1973; and NEU! 75, 1975), working with another influential name of the German rock, producer Conny Plank.

In 1973, Michael Rother met Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. Together, Roedelius and Moebius were already well-known names in the German rock and experimental music scene, since late 60s, first playing with Conrad Schnitzler as Kluster, and then as a duo renaming themselves as Cluster. Michael Rother had listened to a track by Cluster, and became interested on the duo's music, first willing to ask Roedelius and Moebius to join NEU! to an tour in the UK, and then moving himself to Forst, where Rodelius and Moebius lived, to form Harmonia, another influential German band from the seventies. Harmonia's first album, "Musik Von Harmonia" was released in January, 1974. Also in 1974, Michael Rother co-produced "Zuckerzeit", Cluster's third album, and it was during a concert by Harmonia at the Fabrik, in Hamburg, that Brian Eno had contact with Rother, Roedelius and Moebius. In 1975, Harmonia released their second album, "Deluxe" (with drummer Mani Neumeier as a guest musicians in some tracks), and in the following year, on September, Brian Eno joined the trio in their house in Forst, Germany. "Tracks and Traces", an album by Harmonia and Brian Eno, was recorded during Eno's stay with the band, but the album was released only in 1997, and then re-released with extra tracks and in a very well-packaged issue via Grönland label, in 2009 (in 2007, Grönland also released another Harmonia album, "Live 1974", recorded on a concert by the trio at Penny Station, in Griessem, Germany, on March 23rd, 1974.)

Photo: Ann Weitz, 1976.
Michael Rother's solo career began in 1977, with the great album "Flammende Herzen" (co-produced by Conny Plank, and recorded at Conny's studio, between June and September, 1976). Michael Rother recorded all instruments on "Flammende Herzen", except the drums, which were recorded by Can's drummer Jaki Liebezeit. "Sterntaler", Rother's second album, also was recorded with Conny Plank and Jaki Liebezeit, and was released in 1978. "Katzenmusik", the third solo album, was released in 1979, and in 1982 Michael Rother released his fourth album, "Fernwärme", recorded in its entirely in Forst (that was the first of Michael Rother's albums to be released via Polydor Records). His following solo albums are: "Lust" (1984), "Süßherz und Tiefenschärfe" (1985), and "Traumreisen" (1987). "Radio", a compilation album from 1993, was the first album to be released via Random Records, Michael Rother's own label, and was followed by "Esperanza" (1996) and "Remember - The Great Adventure" (2004).

In November 2010 I had the opportunity to see Michael Rother live at SESC Vila Mariana, São Paulo. It was a very nice concert, in which Michael Rother, drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Aaron Mullan, played as Hallogallo 2010. An awesome concert, I must say! I contacted Michael Rother to invite for this interview some months ago, and I'm glad he found some time in his busy agenda to send me the answers to the interview in audio, which I gladly did the transcription (with some help from Mr. Rother himself). So I'm having the opportunity to publish it today, on September 2nd, Michael Rother's birthday! Thank you, Mr. Rother, and have a nice birthday!

And here's the interview:

Photo: Hadley Hudson, 2001.
ASTRONAUTA - Michael Rother, what were your first steps in music, and your first musical instruments?

MICHAEL ROTHER - My first steps in music were, of course, listening to my mother play classical piano, when I was a very young child. My mother had a classical training as a piano player, and she played her favorite composer, Chopin, Frédéric Chopin, at home. Later on, when I was about 7 and 8, my brother, who is ten years older, celebrated rock'n'roll parties at home. So, I listened to rock'n'roll music, artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard especially, whom I still love today.

ASTRONAUTA - In your childhood and teenage days, you moved to other countries - England, Pakistan. How did the music made in those countries influenced your life and your own music?

MICHAEL ROTHER - When I was 9 years old, after living in England for one year my family moved to Karachi, Pakistan, where we stayed for three years, and I listened... I came in contact with the music of Pakistan. There were musicians, local musicians, bands playing in the streets, and they had strange fascination for me. I felt a strong connection to the magical endless kind of music that seemed to have no beginning and no end, and I think that is an emotional and special connection I have to music up to my present days, the idea of a music that goes on forever, without a certain point of ending.

ASTRONAUTA - Before joining Kraftwerk you had a band called 'Spirits Of Sound', that's right? Where did 'Spirits Of Sound' played at the time? Did the band recorded something?

MICHAEL ROTHER - My family and I moved back to Germany in 1963. I lived in Düsseldorf with my parents. It was an exciting time because new musical sounds from England - especially England - came to Germany, music by bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, and many others. Everybody, amongst my friends and colleagues, we were all impressed by that music, and so many boys had the idea to play an instrument. I joined a band of boys in my class when I was 15. The band was called "Spirits Of Sound." I choose the guitar, which was something that already appealed to me when I lived in Pakistan, where I tried to create a guitar out of a local instrument called Japan Banjo - I think the name in Pakistan was different, but that was the name on the first NEU! album, when Klaus Dinger played that same instrument, strangely.

"Spirits Of Sound" was, of course, a school band, an amateur band, and we were happy to copy our heroes, trying to sound like The Beatles, Stones, and other bands. That was all we had as an ambition. I loved playing music, I played the guitar from the moment I could, after finishing my homework from school, until the evening. Our band was invited to play at school festivals, and in other small venues around Düsseldorf, and we became quite popular in the city. So, in the following four or five years, we gradually became better as a band, and also picked up rock music by guitar heroes like Eric Clapton with Cream, and later even Jimi Hendrix, who was a big inspiration to me, and still is. "Spirits Of Sound" was in a record studio in the late 60s too, because we were invited to participate in a film called "Ein Tag Ist Schöner Als Der Andere," roughly translated "Each Day Is More Beautiful Than The Other," and we were offered the chance to record two songs. I still have the tape in my archives, and it just gives you an idea of what we, still at the time, were trying to go for, it was a sound I soon would leave behind.

ASTRONAUTA - How was the transition from being a member of Kraftwerk to form NEU! with Klaus Dinger?

MICHAEL ROTHER - In 1971, when I played with Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger as Kraftwerk, we had some really exciting concerts and great evening, but also some concerts which were not enjoyable. It was partly due to the conflicts between the members, and also because, due to the fact that we created music on the spot, it was not a completely premeditated music, and so we were dependent on the situation, and the atmosphere, and the feedback of the crowd. Sometimes, when it was not a good venue or the circumstances were not very pleasant, we did not manage to create great music, and the struggles became bigger in Kraftwerk when Florian, Klaus and I unsuccessfully tried to record the second Kraftwerk album with Conny Plank, in the studio, and it was very clear to us that the three of us wouldn't keep on working together as a trio, and Klaus and I had much more in common, our visions of music seem to have more in common than what Florian was going for, and so after we split, Klaus Dinger and I decided to continue as a duo, and we got in touch with Conny Plank and asked him whether he would be willing to record with us and that was the beginning of the band NEU! Of course, at the time, we did take some of our ideas, some of the music we had been playing with Florian, as a vision of music, into the studio. But, as it is, the first NEU! album does sound very different and in my own perception, it is the beginning of my own music and it has a very clear cut to everything I did before that time so, there are similarities but it was a very big step for me, and I guess also for Klaus.

ASTRONAUTA - How did you meet Roedelius and Moebius?

MICHAEL ROTHER - With Klaus Dinger, it was possible for me to record music, it was a very successful combination. Klaus Dinger had the qualities I lacked, and I guess it was also the other way around, and so we managed to record the music we did. However, as a duo, with Klaus Dinger playing the drums and me playing guitar, in a live situation there was not enough depth in music, on our 2 instruments we could not create enough details, and so we tried several musicians and, looking back, it's quite clear that it couldn't work because our vision of music was different from, and that was also the idea behind the music, was different from what every other musician had in his mind, and so we more or less stopped looking for other musicians. But then I discovered a track by the band Cluster, who also worked with Conny Plank, and I recognized some musical similarity to my own ideas, it was a track called "Im Süden," and so I took my guitar and visited Roedelius and Moebius in Forst, in order to find out whether they were suited to play with NEU! on a tour to the UK. The British label United Artists had released NEU! albums, and the single, and they invited NEU! to do a tour to the UK, and so that was the reason why I went to the countryside to visit Roedelius and Moebius, and because i had my guitar with me, I was able to jam with Roedelius especially, and strangely, and surprisingly, discovered that the music I was able to play with Roedelius was even more interesting for me, especially because the combination with both musicians, Moebius and Roedelius, led in good moments to a complete and fascinating music. We could play live and create a very full picture of music, very detailed sounds, and that was, for me, it was very exciting and a whole new field of music which I wanted to discover and develop with the two musicians. That's why I moved to Forst, and that's where I still live.

ASTRONAUTA - In 1976 Brian Eno spent some days with Harmonia in Forst. What are your memories from that time?

MICHAEL ROTHER - We met Brian Eno in 1974. Harmonia was playing in Hamburg, we had a concert at Fabrik, in Hamburg, and Brian Eno was visiting Germany to promote his album, and he found out that we were playing, and then he asked a journalist who interviewed him to take him to our concert. And so, Brian ended up sitting in the venue, and we were introduced, and we invited him to visit us in Forst. It took him two years and, two years later he called and asked whether he could now come to Forst and visit us, which was not the best timing because in summer '76 Harmonia disbanded. All three of us had already recorded our own, each one a solo album, with Conny Plank. I had recorded "Flammende Herzen", Roedelius had an album called "Durch Die Wüste," and Moebius did a collaboration with another musicians, called "Liliental." So, anyway, we didn't want to turn Brian Eno down, he was on the way to working with David Bowie, and so, we picked him up in Hanover, at the airport, and he spent 11 or 12 days in Forst. We enjoyed his presence, we talked a lot about music, we made music in the studio, but there was absolutely no pressure on us because our understanding was just to exchange ideas on music and not to release an album. I had a 4-track tape recorder and so, we were four musicians and each one of us had one tracks and so, sometimes we sat in the studio, with all four of us, and sometimes only three or only two, and just made sketches of musical ideas, when we were not walking along the river Weser, or taking a walk in the forest nearby, or drinking tea, or just sitting outside in the sun and relaxing. So, this was a very relaxed period but looking back and listening to the recordings we had during those 12 days, 10 or 12 days, it was also a period of high musical potential, it is obvious that we were in a very creative and relaxed mode. We released a version which Hans-Joachim Roedelius had edited in 1997, and in 2008 I added three more tracks from my own cassette, with mixes I did for myself just on the evening before Brian Eno left and took the tapes with him, because the idea was for him to return after he finished working with David Bowie. This didn't happen but luckily I had my own cassette document, and discovered that there were even more really beautiful ideas, and I choose three tracks, and Roedelius and Moebius agreed that we should add those three tracks to the album "Tracks and Traces," and it was released on Grönland label in 2009, and that's the current version which I really recommend. It's a document of a very productive phase of all four musicians.

ASTRONAUTA - What were the main instruments that you used in the 70s?

MICHAEL ROTHER - Well, the main instruments in the seventies were, of course, my guitars and the small gear I had to treat the guitar, like fuzz box, wha-wha pedal, volume fader pedal, and also a delay you can hear on all the recordings, which was very important to create the sound. But then, in the seventies, I also started working on some synthesizers, especially Farfisa, because I got to know the main guy in Germany, the distributor of Farfisa, so we ended up with quite a lot of Farfisa gear. Farfisa pianos/synthesizers were also used by the bands Can and Kraftwerk, we had some of those sounds on Farfisa synthesizers and pianos in common. Sometimes, if you listen to the original instruments on their own, they sound quite poor and not really very interesting, but in combination with the effects that we could add, some special treatment that you could give the sound, it was possible to create interesting music landscapes, and you hear, for instance, NEU!75, the first track "Isi", that's a Farfisa, a lot of Farfisa, which was treated with some of the very simple old school gear, and suddenly you had a very lively sound. Those were my main instruments in the seventies. And, because I can't really give away musical instruments which I have used to create music, I still have that, nearly everything I have used, I have it in my own small musical museum.

ASTRONAUTA - In November 2010 you played in Brazil. What are your memories from that concerts?

MICHAEL ROTHER - Well, the tour was exciting because before that, before 2010, I had never even visited South America, not played in any of the countries. And Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan, who played bass (Steve Shelley was the drummer), we were a great team and in 2010 we did, I think, 35 concerts in many countries around the world. I think the first concert was in - excuse my bad pronunciation - Belo Horizonte, something like that, at a festival, which would been a very pleasant experience but, unfortunately, one musician decided to commit suicide. I didn't know the musician but we were out, we were driven around town and looking at very nice places outside the town when we were called back to the hotel, and it was a disaster for the festival, this musician jumped from hotel room up... I don't know, maybe the 20th floor, and so of course it was a very dark shadow which lay across the festival and our experiences in Brazil. I would love to return to Brazil, to South America once again, and to experience concerts and travels without those dark occurrences like in 2010.

ASTRONAUTA - What are your most recent projects and plans to the future?

Photo: Hadley Hudson, 2001.
MICHAEL ROTHER - In recent months I've been playing several live shows: the first in April in Copenhagen, Denmark (in a unique lineup together with Dieter Moebius and Tangerine Dream), then in July in my hometown Bevern, in the courtyard of a historic castle, and then in August at a very wonderful festival in Poland, the OFF Festival, in Katowice. For all three concerts I invited Hans Lampe, the drummer, who played drums on the second side of NEU! 75, and also Franz Bargmann, a guitar player formerly of the Berlin based band Camera. This combination works very well, we are a good team. Next month, in September, we will be playing in Norway, at a festival called Phonofestivalen, and I just finished working on a remix for a British band called "Boxed In", and Paul Weller was recently in touch and asked whether I had time to do some production for him, produce some music, and I may come back to that, but there are also other projects I'm working on, and some new instruments, some new technical gear I want to test and develop some new ideas with. There's never enough time to take care of all the visions of music and projects that are possible. But I'm thankful for the opportunity, and I hope to see South America again and perhaps we will meet then.

Michael Rother's official website: www.michaelrother.de

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