Interview ANDREW PARKS
Photography RICK BURGER
Like many other visionary musicians, Michael Rother didn’t mean to write and wrap a new record this year. Dreaming just kind of came together as the Krautrock icon and his longtime label Grönland compiled the second half of Rother’s solo career in a seven-disc box set.
“I was looking for new sounds,” Rother says, when asked about the traces of trance, ambient, and full-on experimental music he made between 1983 and this past spring. “After doing Neu!, Harmonia and the first of my own albums with guitars all over them, I needed some new sonic horizons.”
Solo II and Dreaming are still two weeks away from being released, but we are proud to present the latter’s lead single below, along with a lengthy conversation we had yesterday about everything from Rother’s latest batch of liminal works to NEU!’s long overdue stretch in the spotlight….
How has the whole coronavirus situation been treating you?
It started off a bit scary in March when I came back from this festival in Austria. It was already quite tricky because figures were rising, but I just took the risk. I thought I could justify it, but then we had the lockdown. It wasn’t as severe as the lockdowns in Paris or Madrid, where people couldn’t even leave their houses; that must have been terrible for families with small children for weeks on end. My quarantine was like a luxury thing.
Because you have a home studio?
Yes, and I have a river next to my house, so I could always just leave the house and go for a walk, or hop on my bike and ride around. It was not like in Italy, where you had to explain where you were going to the police if they stopped you. Only shopping, and necessary trips were allowed. This wasn’t the situation, but of course, it had an effect. Friends — meetings were different. There were only small groups of people. In the beginning, we were all very, very careful, keeping distance. No more hugging, and that stuff.
And then of course, my tour to Croatia was cancelled. That was the situation which enabled me to start working on my new album.
Dreaming came out of the fact that you were home then?
Well, yes. If I had gone on playing live, it would have been difficult to find that level of concentration and regular work at home, on music, which is what I need when I work on an album. It has to be some kind of cycle, which is an automatic, day-by-day…. You don’t do anything else; you just get up in the morning, and pick up work on music you left off the day before, and focus on the album. After a few weeks, I was fortunate to be happy with the work…. So far, I think the [feedback] I’ve been getting has been favorable, so I’m very pleased with that.
Have you heard that the figures — the COVID-19 cases — are rising again in Europe?
I have not. I thought it was more under control in Europe.
Yeah, it’s very uncertain. It’s now maybe two weeks that the figures are going up, and rising considerably in France. They already have several thousand new infections every day, like three months ago. And I’m not sure the EU — the governments — they’re trying to control the pandemic without another lockdown. That’s the plan. If they manage to do that, I don’t know.
The easing of the restrictions was maybe too generous. People went on a holiday to Spain, and many infected people came back from the holiday and they spread the stuff in their families, in their workspaces, and then suddenly you have a cluster again. That was the direct result of people — many young people, unfortunately — not being willing to stay calm any longer. They wanted to be out in the parks and celebrating. This is all understandable. The clubs are still closed, and social life really died. And of course, many people are afraid that the clubs won’t survive. But the effect ignoring coronavirus will have could be even more restrictions coming.
Well, you’re still in better shape than the U.S. We just keep going up and up and up, and we have people that are proud to not wear masks.
I know; I’m following the situation quite closely. Please, let’s not talk about this guy with the yellow…. I just get very angry. He’s not the only one. In the world, there are several idiots in control of governments and acting in a very irresponsible way. But let’s stop it there…. It’s terrifying — the death rate in America and Brazil and India. It’s incredible.
Are you nervous about any of this because of your age?
I should be maybe, but to be quite honest, I’m not afraid for myself so much. I try to be careful, but wearing a mask protects other people, not so much yourself. That’s clear. But I realized here in Italy, even more than in Germany, people are used to hugging and embracing and kissing when they meet, but I meet a lot of friends of my partner, and they seem to want to go back to the same procedure, and I just stay apart and put the elbow out.
I’m not really sure; they’re talking about the second wave, but we have to stay calm. You’re totally right, though; I’m in this high risk age [laughs] but I’m not really terrified. Even if I get it, I think I can manage that, because I never smoked, you know? You can’t [predict anything] though. You can walk up in the morning and be paralyzed or blind; we all know that. Nothing guarantees you will be all right tomorrow. But apart from that, I feel well. I’m quite relaxed, but careful.
You’re living in Italy now then?
Well, my partner is from Pisa; she’s Italian. When the borders were opened, I had just finished working on the album, and on the boxed set. Maybe I targeted that date, because they were talking about opening the borders, and when I was finished with the first wave of work, I hopped in my car and drove to Italy. It was a two-day drive, but I took some instruments so I can also work on music a bit here. It’s beautiful [here] — Pisa, and the Italian summer.
Did you start writing Dreaming before the lockdown?
Actually, the story of Dreaming goes back to 1995, ’97, when I met this British singer and cello player…. Sophie Joiner is her name. At that time, I wanted to start working on a new album, and I had this idea that I should use a real voice — like a real singing voice, not just samples of people singing or speaking. Then I met her; we did this session. I think we were fortunate, very productive. I had so many sketches — maybe around 75 sketches — on my computer. And I wanted to have some element of chance so I asked Sophie to pick a number between 1 and 75, and then I played her that sketch. She listened to that idea, and we recorded short… sometimes maybe one or three lines. And then, of course, I worked for years on the material.
But on the album Remember (The Great Adventure), I could only use nine tracks, and there’s only six with her voice. So when Remember (The Great Adventure) was finished, I knew there was so much beautiful stuff — nice compositions worthy of working on, and wonderful recordings of her voice. She has this very relaxed and round, super melodic voice.
I was always asked, ‘Michael, when are you going to release another album?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. This lonely process didn’t really fascinate me anymore — of sitting down alone, and working and working on the material. But with the lockdown, that was sort of the only thing I could do. No more concerts. I could have, I don’t know, started gardening or built a boat, but Grönland had the idea of releasing the second box set of solo albums. And once we started talking about what to put into it, there was the original albums, and of course the so-called bonus tracks which had gone on the [original] re-releases in ’93 and ’94.
So I said, ‘Well, I have this material which I’ve always wanted to go back to. They were excited, of course, and then I listened to the material and felt totally enthusiastic again about Sophie Joiner’s voice. One thing led to another, and I just started working. I developed the sketches — some of them were more developed, and some of them were only fragments — into the dramatic curve of a song. That was the idea from the very beginning: This time, I will give my guitar a prominent role on the album and add the element of inaccuracy and surprise and sudden inspiration of the moment. This is how I played the guitar; most of the guitars I only played once. For instance, I listened to the “Bitter Tang” song without the guitars before I started, and then I hummed a melody and thought, ‘Oh yeah; now I know the melody, of course. And then I sat down, hit the button, and that was the guitar with all the variations which if you’re not yet in a box… you are still more free if you’re spontaneous, if it’s fresh.
So all of these songs go back to those sessions from the ’90s then?
Yes, that’s right. You can have doubts, maybe, about how a composition could still be fresh 20 years later, but I think that can always be the case because I took the liberty of arranging the sounds and the mixes. I had all of the liberty; they are just harmonies, and then of course the beautiful voice.
Did working on this record bring you back to that time period of your life, and was that experience rather emotional on some level — the source of some nostalgia?
Yes, I think you could say that. But the basic ideas and the way Sophie sings, I think this also made it… in combination with the situation of [the] coronavirus, the isolation, being separated from my partner and not knowing when the situation would change. If I think back to late March and early April, nobody could tell you if we would be able to travel this year at all. Will it be sometime next year? And you know, the borders were closed in Europe. That had an emotional impact; maybe that’s also the reason there’s some very quiet songs, which are the opposite of being on a stage and doing exciting, fast-forward music. It is focusing on subtle things, and darker moods — sadness, or something like that. It’s in that album; it’s related to that period from 20 years ago, but it’s also valid for me today. I don’t go around feel depressed, but I do have some kind of melancholic side in my music. If you look back at some of the albums, you will find this kind of mood — yearning, etc. — in several tracks.
Did Sophie hear these songs as you were working on them, or did you fall out of touch after those original sessions?
Before I really started working, I reached out to her and she was happy to hear that I was continuing. Now I see that she’s also following my posts on Facebook and liking them. I think she’s quite excited. In the meantime, after the session, she left Hamburg, went to England, got married, had I think three or four children, and did only a little music, maybe in the underground. Her own music is quite different from [mine]. If you listened to her on my albums, I think you could get the wrong impression of her own music, but that was the deal. I had to be able to take that beautiful voice like an instrument and use it in the context of my music. She is much more experimental, I think — rough. She’s a wonderful cello player, by the way, and these days, I think she shifted from music to painting.
So it wouldn’t have made sense for you to ask her to record new vocals for this?
It wasn’t really necessary because I had all this material. I felt it was my responsibility to use that beautiful voice.
Because otherwise, how else was anyone going to hear it besides you two?
That’s right — one of many reasons, of course. But I also felt a responsibility towards the music and those recordings.
Did she improvise all of her lyrics and vocals?
She had a notebook on her lap, so when I played music to her, she skipped through pages and just had a look — maybe memorized a line or a word for a minute or two. It was very spontaneous, and very clear from the beginning that I had the liberty of extracting, of focusing, of transplanting elements — individual parts of the singing. I even added different harmonies, and found out that it worked so wonderful. I asked her to kindly lend me her voice, because I don’t have that wonderful voice [laughs].
You don’t have a singer-songwriter album in you then?
No, I don’t think so. I’d rather not scare the people with my voice.
I’d love to go through some of the records in the box set, as a lot of them have a bit of an ambient sound which sounds very relevant to what’s happening right now. I feel like a lot of people think of you as a guitarist first, and electronic musician second, too.
I don’t even know that; I’m surprised. And to be honest, the word ‘ambient’ doesn’t even ring a bell with me. I’ve always tried to avoid being in a box. Our music — NEU!, Harmonia, and my solo stuff — that has over the decades been put into boxes with different tags. The tags have changed, and I always thought, ‘Well, I actually don’t want to be in a box with other musicians because it may sound immodest, but the reason I do this is because I want to be different. The individuality of the music is what it’s about. And that excludes being put into a box, although of course, I understood the chaos of the whole musical world makes people try to get some order and think, ‘Okay, this is hard rock; this is maybe ambient’…. As long as people understand that at least in my case, the ambition was to be different — unique, you know?
Well, let’s start with Lust. That was the first time you worked on a solo album without Conny [Plank] or Jaki [Liebezeit] right?
Yes. By the way, maybe I should explain that the German meaning of ‘lust’ is very different from the English word lust. It’s basically a word related to joy. It’s not sexual in any way; maybe you’ve heard expressions like wanderlust?
Oh yeah, that makes sense.
Well, that’s the joy of going hiking. Anyway, the reason why I worked without Conny was not because I did not like his work. Quite the opposite; I admired his work, and he was such a great guy to have on the albums. But it was a case of ambition. When I had sold enough albums — the first three solo albums were incredibly successful in my standards — it was natural for me to buy recording gear. Have a 24-track machine and the whole thing. That’s what I thought I needed; I wanted to find out how I could express myself on the mixing desk.
More about yourself as a producer?
Yes. That’s just a natural extension of all the work that goes before. At least that’s how I see it. Back then, it was maybe more unusual than these days, when electronic musicians quite naturally start from making the sounds and then have a finished production with the help of some tools I didn’t have. Back then, it was a bit more unusual.
As for Jaki Liebezeit, he was a wonderful drummer — an amazing drummer, really, such an inspiring personality. He did so much wonderful drumming on my first four solo albums, but when I found the Fairlight music computer in ’82, I had the options of creating patterns with a built-in sequencer and thought, ‘Well, this is what I’m doing now.’ I went totally crazy working on the Fairlight, going into the depths and using all the wonderful new possibilities of sound creation and performance. It’s a very mathematical approach, but I always had an interest in that — in mathematics. That was the reason why I recorded Lust on my own; it wasn’t a negative decision against Jaki or Conny.
Did it feel a little overwhelming or empowering once you were producing the record on your own?
I wanted the option to work on music around the clock. That was a new sensation for me. In the years before, with NEU!, Harmonia, and the first three solo albums, there was always the clock ticking away. It was clear, ‘Okay, we have two more days, and then we have to be finished.’ With my own gear, I could work as long as I needed to. That was liberating; it really pushed me forward.
The thing that was a little bit scary was the technical side of the machinery because I lacked the expertise. I had some scary moments where after breakfast I had all of these ideas for what I wanted to do, then I switched on the studio, and suddenly [makes a buzzing noise]. Then of course, ‘Oops, what now?’ Otherwise, it was a really natural development of adding the guitars and then arranging the sounds.
Was the Fairlight one of the most expensive pieces of equipment you had to buy since computers were such a luxury?
I could have bought a house for that money back then, but I needed it to be able to use those orchestral sounds, to arrange the music, to let the sounds play fast stuff like you hear on tracks like “Primadonna”; I could never play that manually. Because I could afford it — I didn’t have to rob a bank or anything — I took advantage of the situation and I was very, very happy with the Fairlight computer. I overdid it, though.
What do you mean?
Using the Fairlight, you know? And maybe neglecting other sounds, going totally crazy. I remember working for months, digging into the software. But yeah; that’s what you got on Lust.
Were you trying to go for a joyful sound with it?
For me, it’s always the other way around. I have feelings I put into compositions, and then it’s a piece of music for me, but I need a word to transmit it. People want words — names. You know? With my third solo album, Katzenmusik, I decided to call the songs ‘Katzenmusik 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…’ until 12. People weren’t so happy with the numbers. ‘Is Katzenmusik 8 my favorite, or is it 6?’ It’s not very emotional if you focus on the number side.
Being a musician, it’s just a piece of music for me. The whole structure of melody, harmony, and emotions doesn’t need a word, but other people like to have words.
Let’s talk about the other three records in the box set. What’s the first thing that comes to mind with each of them?
Süssherz Und Tiefenschärfe is a very strange name; it’s an example of me playing with words, like Katzenmusik. If you asked people in Germany about Katzenmusik, they would say it’s something like cats screeching. It’s disharmonic. I read the remarks of some fans: ‘Why does he call his music Katzenmusik? It’s so harmonic — not at all like cats fighting or screeching. Of course, the deeper meaning if you look beyond the surface is my admiration of these creatures. I love cats. So if my music has the kind of effect on people that cats have on me then I’m happy; then I did everything right.
Süssherz Und Tiefenschärfe is another example of playing with words. ‘Süssherz’ is a word that doesn’t exist in German; it’s the direct translation of sweetheart. A friend of mine called his girlfriend ‘sweetheart’ and I translated it and came up with Süssherz. People didn’t like the title at all in Germany; it was terrible. And Tiefenschärfe comes from optical words — like depth of focus, with cameras. So on one side, you have the emotion, and the balance is organizing the intellectual level. These two elements come together to make music. That title was a failure though; people didn’t know what it meant, so they had to accept the title and focus on the music.
On Süssherz Und Tiefenschärfe, I had this MIDI setup for the first time; you hear it on “Tiefenschärfe.” The whole studio was synced — the Fairlight was synchronized with the MIDI gear, and I went completely crazy playing the harmonies and melodies. Then I sat at the mixing desk for 25 minutes; I just went crazy doing the live mix. I still think it has this ecstatic feeling I should play live one of these days.
Traumreisen was when I discovered the world of sound within the Yamaha DX7. That enabled me to have these sounds on songs like “Südseewellen” and “Lichtermeer.” Traumreisen was also the first album I mixed with the help of a computer. At that time, there was a company in Dortmund which developed a mixing unit with an Atari computer. It was great if you only have two hands — only about volume, going up and down.
Esperanza was a few years later….
Almost a decade.
Yeah, but in those years, after Traumreisen, it got more difficult to reach the audience because people were busy with other music. There was little interest, so I had my contract terminated earlier. I wanted to get away from them. But when I started recording new material, I couldn’t find a company that was interested enough to release the music. I did that twice; first I recorded an album, talked to the big players, and spent months trying to convince…. The product manager was excited and presented it at a meeting, but then the next level said, ‘Wait a minute; does he play live? Does he have a management? We don’t really see the chances.’ Everybody has those stories. I lost four or five years talking to big companies, waiting for them to be excited. And then I decided to start my own label because I wanted the music to be out.
Esperanza was on my label. At the time, I had an Akai sampler and many sketches which were short pieces of memorized compositions and production ideas. Then I decided it would be interesting to keep them in that stage — just short, three-and-a-half minutes maximum — and then move onto the next.
So that was Esperanza. Now we’re in the mid ’90s, and NEU! was in the background. I had recorded with Klaus Dinger in the mid ’80s…. and we were talking with people like Daniel Miller of Mute Records. He was chasing us; he wanted to release NEU! on Mute, but my partner back then always said, ‘No, I’m not convinced. That’s not enough money.’ And I always said, ‘Look at all these bootlegs; I found stacks of bootlegs in New York everywhere. There were gangsters distributing them on a global scale.
I’m pretty sure I have a NEU! bootleg actually.
Everybody had a copy because they weren’t available! The record company stopped producing NEU! records in the early ’80s. There were no CDs — nothing. But then, luckily at the end of the ’90s, Herbert Grönemeyer — the famous musician in Germany — came up with the idea of releasing NEU! on his label. Then things really took off — releasing the NEU! albums in 2001 was a really big step for us. We sold more albums than in all of the years before.
And then, it was like two trains traveling next to one another. I was working on my stuff, and really fell in love with playing live.
Did you try and separate what you were doing as a solo artist with the sessions you and Klaus had?
Well, if you work with someone like Klaus Dinger, it’s the sum of the music — the ideas that come together lead to something different than when you work on your own. It’s like two painters; if you’re suddenly not alone in front of the canvas, and there’s another painter throwing his ideas, you think, ‘That’s interesting,’ and then you add another color. That was the case with Klaus Dinger. In the ’80s, that project was a bit…. To be quite honest, I think we were a bit less creative than years before, and we ended up struggling about really silly things. We both had studios, so we could spend endless hours and days working on music, and then Klaus was a very strong-headed guy, so that sometimes got out of control…. I remember sitting in front of my mixer, and there was this bar graph. We were looking at it, and then after the mix was done, we were arguing, ‘My mix is a third of a DB louder than your mix.’ If you run into that alley, then you’re lost. You won’t find nuggets of gold.
It was a mixture of wills clashing, because Klaus got a bit more strange. Because of his strong personality and his special forces driving him — which also led to great music — in the ’80s, there’s one thing I can say. At some point, he posted something saying he was proud about taking more than 1,000 LSD trips. The thing is, he thought this would make him more brilliant and understanding of everything. For me, he was on a different planet, and it became more and more difficult to agree on music — on anything actually. It was quite a miracle that Herbert Grönemeyer managed to rein in Klaus. He was very, very paranoid and afraid of losing control over the music.
I feel totally lucky, and am thankful forever to Herbert Grönemeyer for all of the trouble he went through to convince Klaus and focus on us. He spent endless meetings talking about our problems, and in the end, it was a very narrow race. I think Klaus even demanded that the release should be stopped one week beforehand, and then Herbert Grönemeyer told his office, ‘Don’t listen; just go ahead. Do it.’
And then everybody was happy. Even Klaus was, in a way.