Louder Than War’s John Robb interviews Michael Rother of NEU! about his musical legacy and what he’s currently up to.
The aptly named NEU! (German for new) were the early seventies underground band whose rhythmic, repetitive songs alternated with fascinating soundscapes that were at once totally original, groundbreaking and eventually highly influential.
NEU! are arguably the forefathers of the so called krautrock scene. They formed as an offshoot of an early line up of Kraftwerk when Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother split from the early Kraftwerk to pursue their own musical vision in 1971 in Dusseldorf in the then West Germany.
Drummer, Dinger had initially joined Kraftwerk during the sessions for their first album whilst Michael Rother left his own band Spirit Of Sound (which also featured future Krafwerk drummer Wolfgang Flur) to join the band. When Kraftwerk founder Ralf Hutter quit the band for six months the pair of them continued with as a trio with Schneider until they left as well and started NEU!, recording their debut album with the legendary Conny Plank and creating a whole new ground breaking musical template.
The resulting record, with its stripped down rhythms and pulling away from rock’s love of Americana and the blues and towards a deeper European music, with classical and even eastern influences sounded startling and like nothing else and whole genre of underground bands were inspired by its eerie and deceptive simplicity. By breaking with the sixties rock band style of basing everything on the blues and avoiding the ‘blue notes’, the pair of them had constructed a new style of music that completely redrew the map and has been used as a template by generations since then.
The ten minute opening track Hallogallo on its own set the agenda for so many future punk and post punk bands who used its driving beat and hypnotic riffing as a constant inspiration with groups like Stereolab and the Fall basing a large chunk of their sound on the song.
On their second album, NEU 2 they expanded the template with added instruments, their third album accentuated the difference in approaches of the two key men and a resulting. tour with the band now expanded to a 4 piece saw the differences become too much with Zinger leaving to form the highly rated La Dussledorf- name checked as a key influence by David Bowie and Rother putting together the equally key Harmonia with members of Cluster and eventually Brian Eno joining the party.
Over the years there have been intermittent reformations of NEU! aided by the band’s growing influence. This year Michael Rother is touring on his own, reinterpreting his past, never resting on his laurels and determined to never fall into the trap of nostalgia and living up to his former group’s great monicker which is German for new.
Louder Than War spoke to the amiable and chuckling Michael Rother, who sounds like a German Michael Palin, about the tour, his legacy and the dreaded blue notes!
Louder Than War: Where are you Michael!
Michael Rother : I’m in Hamburg. I love Hamburg, it’s a great city. I’m then driving to Tilburg in the Netherlands to play there on Sunday, then next week I’m hopping all over the place, from Vienna to Dublin and then Wrexham.
What can we expect from you, the unexpected?
It’s my take on the ideas that we first developed in NEU! with Klaus Dinger and then later on with Harmonia in the mid seventies . It’s not a past tour, it’s more to do with the future. I thought the best idea was to look at the past and reflect on the current idea of music and also look into the future. It would be terrible to have a nostalgic take on the music really. But the basic idea and basic elements of what we were doing back then are still very close to my heart and my basic concept has not changed.
These days I am more interested in the rhythmic structures, so of course, if you know my work with NEU! and Harmonia and some of the quieter music I made you will like what I’m doing. We will explore that but I also really enjoy the fast forward music presented by tracks like Hallogallo and also tracks like Veteranissimo in Harmonia.
The basic idea is to keep the music moving and remain, NEU?
In creativity I enjoy total freedom and I know people like to hear some of the elements that they know. I notice that at many concerts people recognize Lux by Harmonia or Halogallo by Neu and they go wild, which is nice in a way but I don’t feel pressed to do anything. I just play what I enjoy playing and that’s been my objective since I started playing again. You may know or you may not know but there was a big gap when I didn’t play live after the Harmonia disbanded in 76 until I started playing again in 1988.
In that time I had my own studio and worked in solitude which I enjoyed and I was still recording albums but since 1998 the changes in technology have enabled me to present the music live without having a band of seven musicians, which was always very complicated and also had the the problem of that I don’t always enjoy making other musicians play my ideas!
That was the big change when I started playing again in 1998. The first concert was at a festival in Dusseldorf and that went well and we then decided to do a long tour of the United States and since then there was the Hallogallo tour which I did in 2010, which took me to 33 countries and all around the world. That’s something I enjoy very much,taking my music to countries that I’ve never played before and meeting new people. So I guess traveling and seeing countries and cultures is important for my well being.
Are you surprised by the old music having such an eternal reach decades later?
I would be lying because if I said that I did. I have said it many times but it’s true, I love Harmonia as much as Neu, Neu was a moderate success in Germany but Harmonia was rejected completely at the time. With the Harmonia music I had to wait thirty years to find recognition for it.
Even as early as the seventies I had my own feelings about the music, that it’s my story and I would not expect other people to share my joy in the music, if it happens- great but if not I would have to wait till some time later. Because I’m really enthusiastic about that music but obviously sometimes people don’t get it and I would have to wait till some time later till 2001 to get recognised on a worldwide scale.
Now there is so much more happening to my music and so much more attention. I played in Australia last year which was great and quite strange- when I played in Melbourne I had more people there than in Berlin! Now I seem to have fans all over the place (laughs) which gives me a positive feeling. In the end I have to rely on my own positive judgement, and with the praise I get, I have to be careful. You have to protect yourself against rejection as well- that’s the artist’s way. If you get too concentrated on what people say it effects your judgement and you are likely to lose your track very quickly.
Is it strange to hear your music, was which was very original and very underground echoing around in stadium band songs and becoming part of the DNA of modern culture.
(Chuckles) That always give me very mixed emotions because it’s only part of the NEU! sound. You cannot add just the beat like Stereolab did. When I saw them in concert I was very confused. It was like listening to a version of Hallogallo although I actually I quite liked Stereolab’s music. Some of the big names make the mistake, not in their own eyes of course, but in mine- to not get to the core of what I was doing with NEU! music. For me, it’s not just enough to pick one element and just use that. The innovative character that people are willing to say that was about our music cannot be reduced to one drum beat or one idea.
Sometimes I’m very surprised about what people think our music is and it’s interesting when people like Iggy Pop say something like that as well, when he said about Hallogallo being not just about the beat and how people missed that.
For me, if you take away the other instruments, you get nowhere. No-one wants to listen to ten minutes of beat as if that was all of the NEU! music that we created. The stadium rock bands- they just focus on one element and that works, it’s like adding some flavour, some ice to their music and it doesn’t come close to the heart of what we did. At the heart of NEU! and Harmonia music was a true love of repetition and of sound creation and these sound adventures and we were trying to find new territories in sound and it’s something that cannot be replaced by combining one element of the sound with popular song structures (laughs).
It’s always fascinated me how you came up with so many startling sounds and textures!
It’s hard to remember how! You are talking about decades ago! I only trust my memory, I trust that from 40 years ago and I’m sure that I did not care about the future then, everything I cared about at the time was about the present day and what was happening in that moment. I didn’t care about the music being revolutionary or ending up in a museum of musical history. Those were categories totally out of my site. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if some totally smart guy had said that in 1972 our music would be influential in the future. We would probably have frowned and said ‘what are you talking about?’ It’s only looking by looking back and explorations with musicians that I can make sense of it. We grew up with not looking behind and not looking ahead and just making the music.
Your music was outside the norm and sounded totally original…
The idea was to make music that had no cliche of rock music in it and to steer away from the heroes I grew up with. In the sixties I learned guitar by copying guitar players like the British guitar plays like Jeff Beck , George Harrison, Eric Clapton and also Jimi Hendrix- who was a great hero but I had to forget that to make something important to me.
Growing up is about having your own ideas as a person and your own musical identity and I get bored of people copying other people’s ideas. The real satisfaction is in creating something different and the way to get there was to avoid other people’s cliches and not play lots of fast notes which was boring to me.
The idea was to reduce the music to the basic stuff, to the simple straight forward rhythms and to a repetition, maybe it was because of my love of Indian music that got me interested in the repetition which has been with me all my life and also the love of the endless forward stream of sound which has been at the base of all my music.
Also it was the idea to use the instruments that were available. You must remember that we were very poor and we had to use the simple instruments – the cheap rock gear used by every other musician at the time like the fuzz box and the wah wah pedal but we would use them in a different way, a different concept. My guitar sounded very different and people thought that they were listening to a synthesizer and not a guitar. I played the guitar in a different way, I was not pulling at the strings which rock guitarists have been doing for ever. It was the ideas in the music and how to use the simple gear to achieve that and that was the most important part.
There was also a stripping down of the music to the bare essentials and working in an isolation.
Before I met Kraftwerk, I didn’t know that there was anyone around who had a similar desire to not play music derived from the blues. The basic idea of the blues was everywhere in music, it was not only in Hendrix and Cream but in all rock music, our music, though, had roots in folk and European classical music, which in combination with the idea of endlessness that originated in the eastern music and the Indian musicians that I had heard when I lived in Pakistan as child for three years, had had a lasting impression on me. When I lived in Pakistan I was fascinated by this endless stream of music that went to the horizon like a stream.
Did the music you heard in those three years of your childhood spent in Pakistan have a profound affect upon you?
When I was a child in Pakistan there was not much music around. It was not like there is these days. There were no radio stations, no TV. I had a brother who was ten years older than me and he brought 5 or 6 records when came to visit which had a big affect on me and if it was not that it was the music I heard in the streets, or the musicians coming to our house, or the snake charmers and that endless monotonous music. Today you can’t compare to then, there is now lots of music on the radio, on iTunes, on TV- young people today have so much music and no filter. It’s a lot more than in my childhood when I had more time to read and ride on my bicycle and we would sit and stare at the ocean and lose ourselves. There was no social networking, I would just get on my bike and cycle around. It was a very different situation.
And this different environment fed into NEU! And Harmonia?
It was a non blues idea of music and all people I worked with, we all without talking about this- we all had some idea of having no blue notes and no blues in our music, that was the one element that we had in common. It was not the most important but it was vital. I remember a live appearance in 1972 and I was absolutely determined not to hear a single blue note and I would get quite upset if I heard something like that. We accepted that there were no other musicians around who thought like this. We were a small number. That’s why I got in touch with Cluster when I heard their track that sounded familiar in a melodic sense and I thought maybe they would be the right people to put my music on stage when we were invited to do start tour of the UK in 1972. So we drove to this place in the countryside and jammed with them. Interestingly was beginnings of Harmonia. I didn’t know any other musicians who had the same radical desire to leave pop music cliches behind.
Was there any sense of a movement with you and Kraftwerk and the other bands?
What was most important was to be individual and to be as unique as possible. It was not about looking for similarities. I didn’t care ever, I was quite happy exchanging ideas with other artists and when I did hear something it would be very rare because there was not much communication between the musicians because everyone was quite far away from eachother. There was not the Internet or YouTube taking you round the world. There was hardly any music media writing about music or radio stations playing our music. When I did hear something I liked I had no inclination to get in touch with them and that might sound big headed but I wanted to avoid interference with anyone else working outside the way I was working
Yes! ( laughs…)