On leaving krautrock robo-gods Kraftwerk, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed a band equally as influential in expansive, experimental music. Edgar Smiths spoke to Rother about his frustrating relationship with Dinger, shunning the blues and releasing a new Neu! definitive boxset
Michael Rother is Krautrock’s great survivor and, considering that the necessarily freeform approach in that genre has made its history more splintered than almost any other, this is no small achievement. Last year, when Kraftwerk played Bestival, only one founding member was on stage. Can legend Damo Suzuki is permanently on the live circuit, endlessly looking for the future in half-lit rooms, with results that vary from cosmic to appalling. Fuck knows what Amon Düül are doing. Rother, by contrast, is still blowing the minds of ATP crowds with his Cluster collaboration Harmonia and has this year put together a band with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and members of Tall Firs and School of Seven Bells. ‘Hallogollo 2010’ is part live project, part Neu! tribute and coincides with the release of a vinyl box set; a fan boy’s wet dream and a consummation of everything Neu! have ever done.
It’s a history that’s worth celebrating, not only as a way into understanding their strange, beautiful compositions but also for its part in shaping art, design, alternative, pop and electronic music and anything else worth your time. However, it began in a landscape that lacked most of the mesmeric distractions we take for granted.
Rother’s talking to me from Hamburg, as the Iceland fiasco has screwed with his journey to Rough Trade East.
“Yeah, that crap made all my plans crash, it was disgusting, haha! You know I had everything packed and in the middle of the night, 4am, I checked the airport and found out that the flight had been cancelled. We have this Neu! twelve inch specially for record store day, also a Harmonia remix CD and of course I wanted to do some interviews and meet some friends actually.”
As it happens, the friends he wanted to see were our last month’s cover-darlings Fuck Buttons. Once the casual chit chat’s over, we get down to the more serious matter of growing up under a generation partly complicit in some pretty well documented atrocities.
“After the disaster of Nazi Germany, the disaster of War and all that shame on German culture, everything was destroyed” says Rother, “and, after about 15 years of restoration with a conservative government still trying to cling to authoritarian structures, this virus of change arrived. I was a student at the time and I remember having that feeling of ‘I don’t belong here, the professor up-front, he wants to be a God’. There was a strong desire to change society, for instance I refused the call to military service. It was a tough time, it wasn’t just filling in a postcard, there was a real court ruling.”
Having managed to dodge the draft, he found work at a mental hospital, something that would lead to a stint in Kraftwerk.
“There was another conscientious objector working there and he was also a guitar player,” remembers Rother, “I don’t even remember his name, I think it was Georg but I’m not sure, and erm, we were on a demonstration in Dusseldorf. He had this invitation to join a band in the studio to do some film music and he asked me to join him. I didn’t know Kraftwerk at the time, I thought it was a stupid name, Hahaha! but I decided to go along and that’s where I first met Ralf Hütter. I jammed with him and it was a musical revelation, you know, to find out that I wasn’t alone in this approach to harmony and melody. Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger were also in the studio and everybody I think knew that there was something in the air. Shortly after, Ralf left the band and Florian asked me to join them.”
The wild early days of Kraftwerk, misrepresented (according to Rother) by the unbalanced, feedback-deprived TV footage available, was an attempt at self-realisation, independent of 60s pop imports.
“It was apparent that we had something in common; an approach to a music that was different from British and American music, that wasn’t based on blues,” says Rother, “it was something based on Central-European traditional forms which, even though I don’t play Bach harmony cycles or anything like that, was deep inside my culture, and blues wasn’t. Of course my mother played Classical piano when I was a small boy at home so I was already, how do you call that? Not infected, but I was impregnated maybe? I was a big fan of The Beatles, Kinks, even Cream and Jimi Hendrix, but of course you had the resentment of the Vietnam War in Germany and that made many people in my crowd critical of America, American Culture, American Politics and its approach to world-ruling, interfering with other nation’s business. German musicians were realising that they had to shake-off this cultural domination from English-speaking countries. Jimi Hendrix was a hero but there was already a Jimi Hendrix and it wasn’t me, so I dropped everything and just went back to one note, one idea.”
1971 was a musical year zero and, having abandoned Florian Schneider’s tension-riddled project, after a failed attempt at recording a second Kraftwerk album, Rother and Klaus Dinger formed Neu!
“Klaus and I had more in common, that was apparent without even talking. We had this idea of a fast, forward movement so we just decided to start Neu! and to record our album with Conny Plank, which was of course the perfect decision.”
He’s audibly nostalgic when quizzed about the first two records:
“The excitement in the studio when you’re doing ‘Hallogollo’ for the first time… we were very lucky to take that away from lucky circumstances – yes, I think the drill [that starts the excellent ‘Negativland’] was just from the sound archive, that was just an idea that we needed this disruption, some of the other sounds were field recordings, Klaus rowing in a boat with his girlfriend – but the outcome could’ve been quite different. We had very little time, not much time for dreaming along, we had to make quick decisions and after I think four nights, we had finished.”
After creatively idyllic beginnings, the relationship between them took a steady nose-dive until Dinger’s heart stopped in 2008. Rother was the introvert counterpart of his drummer’s entropic mania; the schizophrenia in the band perfectly expressed in the half glacial ambience/half death-throws kraut-punk structuring of their third album, ‘Neu! 75’. Things got particularly bad as the pair attempted a fourth record in the 80s.
“We worked on ‘Neu! 86’ for maybe 6 months, then realised that nobody wanted to release it so we agreed to meet at a later stage to pick up the work and both went back to our solo projects. Then the 90s came round and Klaus was getting more difficult every year. He got bitter and just said no to everything.” You can hear the anger and frustration in his voice, even though its blanketed by three decades worth of exhaustion and pity, “Hsssh, I mean he said this on one of his websites so I’m not being, what is the term, insecure? Insincere? But he was proud of taking more than one thousand LSD trips, which I think that had a very negative effect on his mind. He was on a different planet than I was and nearly everyone else I think in fact. His view of reality was so different from mine that we just couldn’t agree on a Neu! album.”
Though the two seemed to have reached an insurmountable creative impasse, the music world was still desperate to get there hands on more Neu! material.
“You know that Daniel Miller for several years wanted Neu! On Mute records,” says Rother, “he was one of the first to approach us, he was very eager. Also, other big companies tried to convince us but in the end, everything crashed because of Klaus.
“He can’t defend himself so I am cautious about what I say; I’m sure he would have different ideas of what went wrong, you know, but he was wild, he was crazy, and he never… he didn’t care what other people felt, how many problems he created, that was something that never crossed his mind or never seemed to cross his mind, he just focused on what he wanted to achieve and everything else could go to hell. It’s very difficult to cooperate with a guy who doesn’t care.
“I guess many factors came together, it was his personality, something that made him a strong artist in the early days, something that impressed me in such a great way, he was such an impressive musician. We had different characters, different qualities but they added up to something that worked. In later years I guess the effect of what he did to his mind and the connection with the psychological aspect of his personality, that really had a very negative effect on Klaus being a social element. I mean, he could charm people, that was so funny. I often speak to people and they tell me ‘Oh, I met Klaus and he was charming’ – Yes, I know my Mother even liked him, you know? Hahaha! but she didn’t have to work with him! Problems came up when something went a different way from what Klaus had in mind. You have to have social qualities to be able to distinguish between what you want to achieve and what others want to achieve and then compromise. If your not willing to do that, you should live on an island or work as a solo musician.
“The climax of the thing was when he sent me this fax saying ‘Congratulations, Neu! 4 will be out in Japan tomorrow’. He was hi-jacking Neu! from me because he felt isolated at the time as an artist and he was desperate for cash, also. He had taken our material and messed around with it, made some wrong decisions, made artwork that did not reflect Neu! in the proper way and made an album that nobody wanted to listen to. I think in Mojo it said ‘avoid Neu! 4’, and they were right because it’s a real failure.”
Considering the heart attack’s worth of emotional baggage, the box set represents the putting to rest of several ghosts. It includes a Rother-amended version of Neu! 4 (now ‘Neu! 86’), approved by Dinger’s widow, along with Anton Corbijn photos in a book with a Rother write-up, a Neu! T Shirt and Neu! stencil (why not buy a spray-can, introduce your whole postcode to Kosmische and ruin your bedroom walls?). You might harbour an aversion to ‘deluxe’ editions and pricey box sets full of superfluous crap (A Lemon-shaped USB-pen, Stone Roses? Really?), but Rother would be keen to separate his from the herd.
“I’m aware that many fans will have to scratch the pennies to get the box but then the record label isn’t making any money, so it’s not that we are shovelling loads of money into our pockets with that, no one’s making any money! Haha! The actual media from which you hear the music is not important really, I love listening to very poor cassette tapes with wonderful music and I think the best idea is to focus on the spirit of the music and not so much the means by which you hear it. Of course vinyl has the advantage of size; all visual elements are so much more beautiful than on CD – that was always very disappointing, when people loose interest in the visual aspect of an artist. But I invested so much energy in that picture book because it’s so important, nobody who was getting paid by the hour would do that. It’s not about making money, you have to have money to pay the rent but this is about love, we believe in it and we want to have it beautiful. It’s the final point for Neu! I will keep on working as long as I can but Neu! is Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother and that’s definitely the end.”
By Edgar Smith
Originally published in issue 17 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2010