INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut MARCH 2019 - by Tom Pinnock
NEU! DAY RISING
With a new boxset collecting his solo works due, kosmische guitar hero Michael Rother reveals the whole story of his epochal band Neu! - a tale involving a thousand acid trips, remote communes, Baader-Meinhof terrorists, David Bowie and Rother's late, wayward bandmate Klaus Dinger. "We started slow, but we always went wild," he tells Tom Pinnock. Spitzenqualität!
"If you had walked the streets of Düsseldorf in 1972, through the city's entertainment district, you might have heard Neu!'s Hallogallo coming out of the doorways of the clubs. A few years later, though, Neu! was gone, disappeared. People moved on, punk arrived.
Because we were not a band, Klaus Dinger and I, we considered Neu! more a project, not a group. Whenever Klaus and I made music together it was Neu!. That's how we understood our situation. There weren't any other musicians that had the same ideas about music. Looking back, of course, that makes sense, because we were trying to be different.
Thurston Moore told me a few years ago: "We always come back to Hallogallo...' I remember being in a rented studio in Hamburg, with our brilliant producer Conny Plank, recording that song. We didn't write beforehand - Klaus and I just got together in the studio and created music. With Hallogallo, we recorded Klaus' drums and my rhythm guitar, and then I got this amazing feedback on the guitar, which enabled me to do these long, syrupy notes. We were so lucky to work with Conny - at one point he turned around the tape, I heard everything backwards and thought, 'Ah, this is wonderful!' He made me play to the backwards sound, then turned it round again, so the new guitar was backwards. The finished recording sounds frail, as if you could take one element away and the whole thing could collapse.
Playing with Klaus was thrilling. He was so strange and so difficult, on his own planet - but he was also this time machine, this amazing drummer who just played and played and played. Creating beauty out of pain, that's the story. We started slow, but we always went wild.
It was pure chance that I ended up in the Kraftwerk studio. At that time I was working as a conscientious objector at this psychiatric hospital in Neuss, near Düsseldorf. One day I went on a demo and this other guy, also a conscientious objector and a guitar player, said he had an invitation to go to a studio and do some music for a film. "Would you like to come along?"
I thought the band name sounded stupid, and I considered going home to my girlfriend, but I decided to join him, and that changed everything. Jamming with Ralf Hütter, I suddenly didn't feel alone anymore. I was not interested in sounding like any of the British or American bands I loved, but I was equally not interested in sounding like anything else from Germany. We would often improvise in my band Spirits Of Sound, but it was a dead end - I needed some expression of my own identity. But playing with Ralf I realised, 'OK, this is possible, it's something without blues...'
We improvised, threw melodies around, and this drummer, Klaus Dinger, and Florian Schneider were listening. A few days later, Florian called and invited me to join Kraftwerk. Because I was so happy at this improvised music session, I left Spirits Of Sound behind. I have a slightly guilty conscience, as the band broke up then, but it was necessary for me to move on. The confusion in my head was my problem; my personal struggle to find my own musical path.
I joined Kraftwerk in February, and stayed for four or five months. So much happened. We played on TV, on Beat-Club. But there was no audience and no feeling of excitement - it was like playing somewhere in orbit, very artificial. We went into the studio with Conny Plank and tried to record Kraftwerk's second album, but when we failed it was clear it was the end of the road for this collaboration. Klaus and Florian were always having these strange fights. Klaus was already quite impressive on the drums in rehearsal, but on stage he finally reached the kind of intense performance he was capable of. He threw in all his willpower and energy. Once, onstage, he smashed his hand onto one of his jagged, broken cymbals, but he didn't stop. I could never have reacted in that way, but Klaus was different, and this impressed the audience.His determination to ignore open doors and just run through the wall... that was Klaus Dinger.
When we left Kraftwerk, Klaus and I began to make music together. We didn't have much money, so we booked a few nights in a studio with Conny, and created the music on the spot. We had some ideas in our minds, but we didn't talk about things before we went into the studio. Really, the music came together while we were doing the overdubs. Klaus and I tried to help Conny mix the stuff, but he was the guy in control. He memorised the good parts of the overdubs - I don't know how he did it. "OK, I remember guitar four was great at 2:31, and then rubbish at 2:50..."
I was totally focused on myself at that time. We played with Can once, but I didn't make contact with those guys. It was my decision to figure out where I was heading, and not mingle too much with other bands. I remember once listening to a transmission of a Tangerine Dream concert in 1974, and I thought, 'No, no, no...' I was not impressed by Amon Düül either. I thought they still had too much blues and American influences. It sounds so arrogant now, but it all makes sense if you understand that it was necessary. Back then I was still trying to figure out the next step, I was still assembling the blocks of the music.
Neu!'s first album sold over thirty-thousand copies, ten-thousand of which went to the UK, and af ew thousand to America. People liked it. Naturally Klaus and I thought of playing live when the first album came out, but we didn't know any musicians who were on the same path. It was very difficult, so first we tried performing as a duo, but it was destined to be a failure with just one guitar and drums. I played back recordings of bowed bass or some watery sounds on my little monocassette recorder, but people were puzzled - in 1972, this was not considered playing live.
There were two musicians we tried to incorporate: it was interesting with Eberhard Kranemann, but it was so completely different from what I had in mind. Eberhard played on this pedal steel, deconstructing the music, but it didn't work for me. The other one was the bass player of Guru Guru, Uli Trepte; he was a very nice and interesting person, but when it came to bass playing he was on a totally different rhythmic path. He played bass as if he were on a sofa, really laying back, and we wanted to rush forward.
We played between five and seven concerts in '72, then gave up and recorded our second album, again in a few days. But at the last concert in Düsseldorf in the autumn, we played for the German chancellor Willy Brandt. I was a huge fan of him and his idea of reconciliation with the east. He promised change, promised to move away from traditional, very conservative post-war politics. A guy from United Artists came over to this concert, and he had this idea to take Neu! to the UK fo a tour. So I really had to find a new solution. I'm not sure if I even discussed this with Klaus, but I remember hearing the second Cluster album, and the track Im Süden, and just the idea of those four notes on the guitar gave me hope that a collaboration with them could work.
I visited the two guys in Forst with my guitar, and suddenly another door opened. Just playing with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, on his electric piano with some delay, I knew this was something I had to follow. When Dieter Moebius then joined us it was clear that this was where I wanted to go. Full of enthusiasm, the three of us recorded for months in 1973, creating material that was then released on Harmonia's first album, Musik Von Harmonia, in January 1974.
Klaus was very unhappy when I decided to leave Düsseldorf and move to Forst to live with Cluster, so he tried to convince Roedelius, Moebius and I to throw all our forces together with him. But at that time Klaus was already becoming a difficult person. He was so strong-headed right from the beginning. It was amazing to work on music with him, but on a personal level he wasn't among my friends.The whole gang at Forst thought he was a person they didn't want around. He later boasted about having taken over a thousand LSD trips, and claimed in the '90s, "My LSD ratio against Rother is a thousand to zero!" But, because I was fascinated by psychology, everything that could explain the brain or the way people function, I had taken one LSD trip, in 1970 when I was working at the mental institution, where I met a lot of young people who had some psychosis due to drugs.
Strangely it was a doctor who gave it to me, and he got it from California, so it was the best stuff! It was not a habit for me, it was almost scientific curiosity that made me take the trip.
Klaus and I decided to record a third album, though - our contract was for three albums, but the main reason was that some of the ideas I was coming up with were better suited for Neu! than Harmonia, I thought. By this time Conny Plank had started his own recording studio and he was willing to give us much more time, so we had two weeks to record Neu! 75.
Klaus wanted to move away from the drums, that was his big desire, he wanted to be right in the front of the stage and to get feedback from the people. So we agreed to split the time in the studio, with half the album recorded as a quartet with the two drummers, Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe, and the other half as a duo.
Hero is such an impressive example of the qualities of Klaus. I remember clearly sitting with Conny Plank in the mixing room listening to Klaus next door belting away. Conny and I looked at each other and were just totally blown away. But Klaus wanted to improve it,he wanted to do a second recording that was more structured, but we convinced him to use the first version. It's just amazing - even today when I listen to Hero, I get goosebumps. We combined the elements, so it's wrong to think Side One is Rother and Side Two is Dinger.
We didn't see it that way. You can't take away my guitars from Hero, and neither can you take away Klaus' drums or his inputs to tracks on the first side like Isi or Seeland. David Bowie might have heard Hero, because a few years later I was asked to play on the album I think became "Heroes". But it never happened - I believe someone wanted to prevent David from making a mistake. Because his sales were going down, and some people were not happy with the music, it makes sense that his management or label might say, "David is so enthusiastic about these [krautrock] idiots - maybe we should stop that." So they told me he'd changed his mind, but it seems he was told I'd changed my mind.
There were recordings on the first LP from a boat trip Klaus had taken with his girlfriend. She was from Norway, her parents decided to move back and they took her with them. Klaus was heartbroken. He was still singing about this girl on Neu! 75, on Hero. It went on for years. I think he cultivated this loss, even to the end, as some source of creation. I also had my heartbreaks, but we had a different way of presenting them to the public.
There's only one short video clip in existence of Neu! playing live, from near the end. You see Klaus Dinger on guitar, playing the frontman, doing the Pete Townshend moves. You see the two drummers beating the drums as if the devil was whipping them. And then I was at the back, with two Revox tape machines running these huge loops; the camera goes to me and you can see that I was totally unhappy. This was not the music I wanted to make.
Harmonia for me was a very valuable step. Being in the countryside in Forst was an experience of liberty, very different from what I knew of being a tenant in a flat in Düsseldorf.
The police were very sceptical about us. 'Is this a sex commune? Drugs? Are they maybe nutcases? Are they going to do the Manson thing?' There was even a police raid on Forst. Back then the police were trying to catch the Baader-Meinhof members, so there were roadblocks everywhere,police searching cars and making people show their IDs. We were in our Mercedes in Brussels in'74, and suddenly there were all these policemen with machine guns standing around us - they thought, 'OK, maybe we have these people!' It was a bit scary.
Nowadays people have got so used to others looking a bit different, but back then, the ninety-five percent of the population who didn't have long hair thought the other five percent were into terrorism, drugs, sex, abuse and whatever. It took years until the neighbourhood warmed to us, and they realised that we were just musicians, more or less. It was not exactly a bourgeois lifestyle, but we were not terrorists or dealers.
In 1977, after Harmonia had split and my first solo album, Flammende Herzen, came out, it was the Deutsche Herbst, the 'German Autumn', when there were a lot of assassinations of politicians and more. Radio stations would often play my instrumentals to calm people down before the bad news came on. It was very strange. I'm not a cynic, but I was benefiting from these events, because the music was suddenly on the air all the time.
That year, Klaus and I did a radio show together, for NDR in Hamburg. They played Flammende Herzen, and I remember him sitting there and saying, "Hmmm. Yeah. Good." He seemed quite impressed. Klaus sold even more albums with La Düsseldorf than I did with my solo work!
In 1985 we decided to give it another try and see whether we could come up with something. So we started out in a small studio in Düsseldorf, a rental studio. Klaus was becoming very strange. I must say, we were both rather foolish, fighting over issues that weren't really important. I remember once we were sitting next to one another at my mixing desk in Forst seriously discussing that his idea of the mix was a third of a decibel louder than mine.
I wasn't against releasing Neu! 86, but we had to do it together, the final work, and the contract. Klaus released it in 1995 without telling me and, because he was already broke, he spent the advance and couldn't share it. That was a very sad and terrible time.
In the late '80s and early '90s, there was no demand for my music. I recorded albums and nobody wanted to release them. Neu! began to get offers from labels in the '90s, but Klaus was determined to get a million advance. It was not important to know the currency, but it had to be a million!
Suddenly [German musician and actor] Herbert Grönemeyer wanted to start a label, and discovered Neu! by accident. The sad story is that his wife had just died, and also his brother, and so he decided to invest all his energy and a lot of money into Neu!. He was told by some people in London who were after us, "You can forget Neu!. You will never make it, because all these people have already failed. They are just crazy, these two." That's what he was told!
Herbert was very clear from the beginning, there was no pressure, but he would have loved to have a new Neu! album. The problem was that at that time I still didn't trust Klaus, he still owed me money, and he kept on dodging, saying, "Well, if you sign the contract and we start work, then I can give you the money..." It wasn't really about the money, it wasn't that much, but it was a matter that had to be taken out of the way.
An artistic problem was that Klaus had this idea of going into the studio for a weekend and coming out with a new Neu! album. I said, "I don't believe that we can do it that way, artistically..." We were extremely lucky to be able to record the first two albums in a short time - but it's a different thing to say, "Let's just be brilliant and geniuses and do everything in two seconds, and then just declare it great." I would not be satisfied. Of course, maybe this is also just because I wasn't very happy in the company of Klaus, after all the bad blood in the '90s.
Now I am playing with Hans Lampe again. It is strange how life goes around in circles or in spirals. He was very happy when I invited him to join me and Dieter Moebius in Australia in 2012, and in 2013 we went to Japan together. [Rhythm guitarist] Franz Bargmann joined us soon after and we're a good team, a small, friendly team of musicians that get on well. Nobody needs friction.
On my solo albums, though, I have built on the experience I had with Klaus, and Conny Plank told me that Klaus had me in his mind when he started La Düsseldorf too. It's like a filter - Klaus trying to sound like me brought a different result, and me taking inspiration from him also created a different thing than working with him would have done.
Am I proud of Neu!'s music? That's a tricky thing, pride. "I'm proud to be an American..." I've always felt a lot of gratitude towards fate, and to Conny Plank, and to history coming back to Neu!, to Harmonia and now to my solo work. We were so lucky. And some of our music, like Hallogallo, remains a mystery even to me.
Rother recalls his formative influences
"In the early '60s, you didn't hear any music for youth on German radio. There was only schlager, or folk music on TV. Then through Radio Caroline and Luxembourg, I got in touch with The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones. Even today I get goosebumps if I hear You Really Got Me. In the beginning I was struggling on guitar, because I was just trying to sound as much as possible like George Harrison or Dave Davies or Keith Richards or Hank Marvin. But things changed in the mid-'60s - suddenly you had Cream, stuff that impressed us a lot. And then Jimi Hendrix, and the way he left the normal boundaries of guitar-playing and what you expected of a musician by using the whole studio as an instrument. This was where things started changing dramatically in my mind. I saw Hendrix live in 1968, but he was not great in that concert. It was a hall for classical music, the sound was so poor, the bass player had a small amp and Jimi had just one guitar. But onstage he was a really sympathetic figure and I became a huge fan."
How to buy Neu!'s music
NEU! (Brain, 1972) - The birthplace of the driving motorik sound: simple ingredients, sure, but the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts. Hallogallo is sublime, with Negativland its unrulier sibling.
NEU! 2 (Brain/United Artists, 1973) - Kicked off by the eleven-minute odyssey of Für Immer, Dinger and Rother's second album soon gets stranger - when they ran out of money, they were forced to 'remix' their recent Super/Neuschnee single. Lo-fi, but pioneering.
NEU! 75 (Brain/United Artists, 1975) - After Rother forms Harmonia, he and Dinger reconcile for this lusher third effort. Side One is gorgeous and elegiac, Side Two roaring space-punk that mixes The Stooges and Roxy Music, and points to Bowie's Berlin Trilogy.
NEU!86 (Gröland, 2010) - An unhappy reunion, but there are high-points among this slightly of-its-time set, improved by Rother for its 2010 release. Crazy is bubblegum motorik, Wave Mother a beatific mix of La Düsseldorf's Viva and Rother's Flammende Herzen.
MR on his late-'70s work, collected in the new Solo boxset
"I didn't want to be a solo artist, it was just the fact that Roedelius and Moebius lost hope in Harmonia. The band was an economic disaster, with no positive feedback. In spring '76 they told me they didn't want to continue, and I found myself alone. But I cannot really explain why Flammende Herzen became a success and Harmonia didn't - in my heart, it was just the same. On my first four solo albums, Jaki Liebezeit did incredible stuff on the drums. He just picked up all these vibrations, all these emotions, and played all the right things. I asked him for a certain steady motorik beat, but all the patterns and the accents, where one thing leads to another part, he did it all in an intuitive, perfect way. The same journalist who brought Brian Eno to Harmonia's concert in '74 had a radio show, and he played the whole album when I was a guest. This opened the door. I remember sitting with him after the show in the studio, and the phone kept on ringing, people calling in asking for information. I didn't know what it meant, but he said, 'Michael, watch out... I know what this means.' And that's how things suddenly took off."
Michael Rother's Solo boxset is released on February 22 by Grönland