Michael Rother talks krautrock, NEU! and David Bowie
These days, no-one would bat an eyelid if a hotly-tipped new band declared that they were heavily influenced by krautrock. It would be more of a surprise if they didn’t. There was a tipping point, somewhere around the turn of the millennium, when krautrock went from being a hazily-remembered musical movement from 70s Germany to a key part of the contemporary musical lexicon.
The scene’s foremost bands featured a host of fascinating figures, and one such multi-instrumentalist is Michael Rother, a hugely influential lynchpin of several pioneering German acts. Now an insanely youthful-looking 66, Rother is touring the world playing selections from his whole career, and he’s coming to Manchester and Leeds later this month.
In fact, Rother has a curious connection to the North. Since 1973, he has been resident in Forst, a town in north-east Germany. As a child, though, he moved about a lot because of his father’s job with the airline Lufthansa. At the tail-end of the 50s, the Rothers fetched up in leafy Wilmslow, just up the road from Manchester (then Ringway) Airport.
Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Rother says: “Yes, Wilmslow is a wonderful place, that was a wonderful time. I think I was eight, nearly nine, and I have very vivid, clear memories of friends I spent my days with, of going to the cinema, being at the train station, and of having chicken on Saturdays. Actually, it started in such a beautiful way. When we moved to Wilmslow, I couldn’t speak English, but I don’t remember feeling insecure about it because everyone was so friendly to us. The first thing the teacher did was, she appointed one other pupil in class to be my guide and take care of me. Then she sent us to a nearby farm to collect some greens for the animals which were running around the class. It was a unique experience for me.”
After only a year, though, the family relocated again, this time to Karachi in Pakistan. Karachi Grammar School was a sharp contrast to life in Wilmslow. Rother says: “I was dropped into a very strict environment. The subjects were so different. In the beginning, I had really bad nights, because I was, I don’t know, maybe scared about the school and the demands.” He recalls having to learn Sir Walter Scott’s poem Lochinvar by heart. “I didn’t even know what I was reciting.”
Much more welcome were gifts from his older brother, which did much to broaden his musical horizons. “It’s hard to imagine, I think, for young people especially, how it was to live in Pakistan then. There were no radio stations, no TV of course, nothing. But when my brother came over to visit us, he occasionally brought me a single. One was Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again. Another was Apache by Jörgen Ingmann.”
It was the latter, a spooky, gently ringing cover version of The Shadows’ seminal hit, that had the most impact on Rother. “I wasn’t a guitar player in Pakistan, but I was so impressed by that song that I tried to modify a local instrument I had into a guitar – which of course didn’t work out. Strangely, a few years later I played Apache with the first band I joined, Spirits of Sound.”
By that time, a 15-year-old Rother had moved back to Germany to live in Düsseldorf, and it was the melodic sense of songs like Apache which shaped his playing style. “I’m not a trained guitar player. I didn’t have any guitar lessons, except the first three steps from a guy in my class, and then we played Eight Days a Week. But it turned out that I was the guy for melodies. When I joined Spirits of Sound, it was obvious: ‘OK, Michael, you can play melodies’.”
Spirits of Sound never got as far as releasing a record, but they did become woven into the story of the German music scene. Rother left to join local scenesters Kraftwerk for about six months in 1971 – although that line-up didn’t release a record either. Instead, Rother absconded with another temporary member, drummer Klaus Dinger, and the pair formed the now revered two-man outfit NEU! (as it happens, Dinger was replaced as Kraftwerk’s drummer by Wolfgang Flür, a former member of Spirits of Sound).
Whole books have since been written about the so-called krautrock scene, a contentious term about which some of the participants remain understandably lukewarm. These books contain a host of theories as to why the scene formed and what it was meant to achieve, from casting off the shadow of the Second World War, to countering the influence of British and American music. But Rother insists that he was far happier being a practitioner rather than a theorist.
“I never belonged with people who theorised about music. I was interested in hearing the music and feeling the music – making the music, not talking about music. When I joined Kraftwerk we never theorised about music. With Klaus Dinger, I didn’t talk about music. We just made music. And these books you mention, I don’t want to say rude things about them, but I’m not very interested in reading them.”
Alongside his work with NEU!, Rother linked up with his contemporaries Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius to form a new act, Harmonia, before going solo with the enchanting Flammende Herzen (Blazing Heart) album in 1977. Most of his albums during this period, and indeed so many other krautrock classics, were produced by the legendary Conny Plank, and Rother is swift to give Plank credit.
“We were very fortunate to have Conny around. He was adventurous, he was crazy, in a positive way, and he shared this enthusiasm for the creation of something new, something interesting. In that respect, we were meant for each other. I think it’s fair to say that without Conny being involved, we wouldn’t have been able to create that music.”
The cognoscenti was quick to recognise the strength and originality of Rother’s work. Brian Eno was an avowed fan and made an album with Harmonia in 1976. The following year, another high-profile admirer, Eno’s regular collaborator David Bowie, asked for Rother to contribute guitar to his Heroes album – indeed, the very title was in part a nod to the NEU! track Hero. Due to a breakdown in communication between the two camps, though, the collaboration didn’t come off.
Rother has every right to feel vindicated that his 70s work has garnered so much attention and acclaim.
“I’m very grateful, because it wasn’t a victory right from the start. Some of that music was totally ignored or rejected. NEU! were quite successful, but that disappeared. In the early 80s, people stopped listening to NEU!. In Germany, there’s an expression, ‘a new pig was run through the town’. I was lucky that my solo career was so successful in Germany. That helped me, of course, to survive as a musician and as an artist. But still, there were dark times when it was, ‘OK, people don’t like that stuff. They don’t care about it’.
What happened was that subsequent waves of musicians, from The Fall to Julian Cope to Sonic Youth to Stereolab, seized on elements of the early 70s krautrock sound and sought to spread the word about the bands that made it.
“Young people discovered the music, so maybe it jumped a generation, and that’s something I’m really thankful for. The thing is, I’ve tried to be independent all the time from rejection, because I had to be. With Harmonia, which I loved, I was so thrilled about what we did, and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t interested. So, I had to develop this mechanism of saying, ‘I will only listen to my heart, to what I believe, and try not to pay too much attention to the audience’. Which of course also makes it necessary to be cautious when suddenly people start clapping. You can’t just accept a public vote when it’s favourable. So, I tried to stay balanced with my own judgement.”
Today, Rother’s guitar sound – fluid, expressive, sometimes driving and rhythmic, sometimes cosmically beatific – has become hugely influential. That’s something about which he admits to having mixed feelings. “The guitar sound is also necessarily connected to what I played, the notes I played, how I played it, so it’s not only the instruments I used, like the fuzz box and filters and stuff. It’s like with Klaus Dinger’s way of playing drums. That was his way of expressing himself. He couldn’t do it in a different way, and it’s the same as for me.”
He confesses to being an avid fan of younger bands such as Fuck Buttons, but is often too busy with his own output to keep abreast of contemporary music. At times, he questions the idea that younger musicians have picked up the baton.
“Sometimes I’m a bit confused when I hear similarities, although I’m flattered – I try not to be, but I am in, a way – if I hear people saying that they are impressed by what we did. But sometimes I think, if these people really understood what we were trying to do, the idea was to be unique, to be new and different.”
Indeed, NEU! is German for ‘New!’. To a degree, the band’s name is a sardonic nod to advertising-speak, but it’s also a statement of intent, to make music that’s fresh and original. Arguably, then, drawing too heavily on the sound of NEU! misses the point entirely. Rother smiles: “Well, that’s just it. It’s like when I started as a teenager, when I was 15 and I joined Spirits of Sound, I was a total fan. I was a fan of those British and American bands – Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Cream, Hendrix. But at a certain point, somehow it dawned on me, ‘OK, wait a minute. I have more ambition than trying to sound like my heroes’.”
Rother has lost none of his vitality. His current live shows spotlight his talents while rifling through his mighty back catalogue. Northern Soul was in the audience for his rapturously-received performance at last year’s Green Man Festival, when strangers were beaming at each other and declaring that it was surely the best gig ever. They were onto something there, and the chance to see Rother play live should not be passed up.
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.