Special Feature: TNPC interviews MICHAEL ROTHER

Rother on Dinger, Kraftwerk, Harmonia and the Bowie Project that never was. (With thanks to Tim Sommer for helping guide some of the Qs)

TNPC: Your influence on modern music has undoubtedly been far-reaching. Did you and Klaus ever envisage that you would have such a pioneering role in the development of rock music?

MR: The truth is that I never really bothered with thinking about the future or thinking about what influence the music could have. I worked from day-to-day. Now, looking back, maybe I thought about these things, but on the other hand I knew it could have distracted me from what I wanted to do. It was really the joy of experimentation – the ambition was really to create music that was our own. Klaus was certainly as ambitious as I was. We never spoke about it really; we just went into the studio and did it.


TNPC: I am particularly interested in how you would assess your influence upon Kraftwerk, the most celebrated German band of all. It seems clear that after you and Klaus were invited to join them in 1971, they never sounded the same after that collaboration…

MR: I joined Kraftwerk in  1971, February or March. Klaus and I formed Neuafter we were in Kraftwerk. I didn’t know the band Kraftwerk. I was working in a mental hospital but by chance ended up in the Kraftwerk studio with another guitar player who had been invited, and I joined with Ralf Hutter – it was a revelation for me to notice that I wasn’t alone in this approach to ‘music without roots’, which instead focused on a tradition of central European music in the melody and the harmony. That was very surprising for me. I think Ralf and I over the years probably watched what the other was doing with some respect. I know from talking with my friend Karl Bartos, who was in Kraftwerk for 14 years, that Ralf Hutter and he jammed to my track’ Karussell’ [from ‘Flammende Herzen’, Rother’s first solo studio album] in the Kraftwerk studio, so I think they enjoyed my approach to music. Of course they had amazing success when they released ‘Autobahn’, which was quite a step forward – although I really love the first three Kraftwerk albums and don’t really understand why people don’t see these as realKraftwerk albums. I think the influence must have been equally in both directions, not one way. It is clear that Ralf Hutter, if you look at the melodies he created, and mine, we would always be able to just play along without talking. I was very strict about what was possible and not possible as a melody/note. 

You can’t imagine how difficult it was to find people who were on the same path in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Nearly everyone I knew was still so influenced by only British and American music of the time and still stuck to that system. Florian [Schneider] was also a huge influence on me when I played with him and Klaus Dinger in Kraftwerk, although maybe not musically that much, but I was very impressed by the great flute treatments he did and the amazing permutations he produced when we performed live. It is a fact that is not noticed by the sound recording engineers on The Beat Club performance – my guitar is way too loud; they didn’t understand how important the crazy stuff was to the sound. I would have mixed it in a different way.

There was a great connection with Ralf Hutter on a musical level. Based on working with Conny Plank, it’s clear to see the influence of Neuon UK & US bands of later years. Also, when I met Eno in 1974, he mentioned how much he liked our music and how he and Bowie enthusiastically exchanged their ideas and views about our music back then

TNPC: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the impetus to create music ‘without roots’, although I think I read somewhere of your admiration for the 1960s guitar heroes and so on. Neverthelessthere is an absence of traditional western music (blues etc). Might there have been other more avant-garde influences, such as John Cage, LaMonteYoung, Tony Conrad or The Velvet Underground – or did you not hear these people until much later?

MR: I think this is not really true for me. I was the youngest of that whole group of people. My situation was that I really threw away everything as much as I could. Of course you cannot erase your memory, but I did my best intellectually to avoid picking up any ideas, clichés of music that I’d heard until then. Of course, the guitar heroes, The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Clapton and Cream and so on – I still have much respect for those people, and from time to time, when I hear a song by them I am still blown away, like a few years ago when I was in Dublin and I stumbled along the road and ‘You Really Got Me’ was blasting out, I just got goosebumps again…

My girlfriend at the time already listened to The Velvet Underground. She was more into listening to music. I stopped. In the path I was on it was important to ‘stop listening’ and to try to avoid this. I know the minimalists you talk of were an influence on a lot of the people I worked with, so their influence reached me through other musicians but not directly. I remember once seeing Terry Riley and I remember seeing a German film from the late 1960s – there was a track by The Velvet Underground, ‘Waiting For The Man’ I think was the title, and I remember being moved by the flow of that music, Mo Tucker obviously, that kind of…duh-doh-da-do-do-do-do-do…[imitates rhythm] –  is very close to my heart. But I wouldn’t call it an influence, more a similarity, this idea of forward reaching music that looks out to the horizon, not just the next few yards.

TNPC: In your quest to create something ‘new’ you clearly wilfully avoided listening to too much music, and the Neualbums are certainly exemplars of a new approach to music. Was there a ‘eureka’ moment when you realised one chord was enough?

MR: I don’t think there was this kind of moment. It grew. It started when we played live with Kraftwerk. There was no harmonic change when we played live, it was just on one level and the details happened with the dynamics – starting slowly, relax, building up tension, going through the ceiling at the end, just going wild, and when we recorded the first Neualbum, if you look at tracks like ‘Hallogallo’ which is such a puzzle really – I don’t know how that came together – but it was spontaneous music. Klaus and I had a vision which we had together; this idea of music just running forward and then some of my elec-lines just flying on top – but how that really turned out was the result of very spontaneous decisions and some fortunate things happening, like the wonderful feedback I had on my guitar in the studio which enabled those long long notes, and of course Conny Plank’s amazing skill at catching the most important parts. He was great at that. He had nothing – a reverb plate, a limiter, a tape machine for short delay – that was it, so the whole organisation of the music was of course the result of what we played in the studio, but the way he constructed the final sounds was so impressive.

TNPC: Can I ask you about the first three Neu! albums, in terms of the progression in the music? Sometimes when I listen to ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Für Immer’ and ‘Isi’ from ’75, you can note the similarity there, but often when I hear ‘Neu! 2’ it almost sounds too adventurous, in the way the tempo of the music changes, speeding up, slowing down – there are lots of ideas floating around. By the time you get to the third album it sounds like you have really hit your stride. There is space for long silences, you can press the noise button at times, there is great variation. Were you and Klaus moving in different directions and really becoming different artists, or had you just reached a point where you were connecting very well?

MR: Well, after ‘Neu! 2’ I started the project Harmonia which took me into completely new fields. I cannot imagine composing or recording tracks like ‘Isi’ and ‘Seeland’ without working first with Moebius and Roedelius [of Cluster] in between. I was able to learn more about music going back and forward with Neu! and Harmonia.

On ‘Neu! 2’ the two sides of the album are quite different. What we wanted to do, well Klaus isn’t around anymore and he may have some other points to stress about this; we certainly didn’t agree on many things. I am actually quite convinced that what we wanted to do was something like ‘Für Immer’. We would have done something like ‘Für Immer’ on both sides, but it took us too long to record all those items. Neu! 2’ was recorded on 16-track as opposed to 8-track on the first album. I got carried away, adding backwards guitars, forwards guitars, backwards pianos, sideways, all those colours which are fun and are hung up are important for the picture – particularly for something like ‘Für Immer’, but at the end we didn’t have the time for all that because we didn’t have enough money. We paid the studio out of our own pockets. And so, we sort of realised we had only one night shift left and we still needed to finish the whole second side! So those experiments were the result of very spontaneous decisions around ‘what can we do to end up with a complete album here?’ Of course the critics hated it. The fans thought we were making fun of them. People did not really accept it. The perception of the second side has changed dramatically over the last 30-40 years. I am not sure if all people want to hear the needle jump and scratch! It certainly turned my stomach around when Klaus kicked the turntable. I thought these experiments, slowed down music, backwards music – I was quite sure that people would stop following us – they were not ready for this at the time. The two tracks ‘Super’ and ‘Neuschnee’, the original tracks, they stand out – that’s what we really wanted to do. We really wanted those on the album, because the record company hadn’t cared about promoting the single. They didn’t. We pressed the single on them. They didn’t want to have one. So that’s the explanation for the second side of ‘Neu! 2’

TNPC: You say that people ‘hated’ the second side of ‘Neu! 2’. More generally, how successful were you in Germany at the time – in terms of sales and so on? The albums were long unavailable in the UK and were the kind of thing you had to pay good money for if you were fortunate enough to find them at record fairs. They were treasure items but success would have been limited here in the UK, at least until the renewal of interest in your music more recently. But in Germany, were you quite successful from the beginning?

MR: Well that always depends on the scale I suppose. There were many many musicians in Germany making pop music and selling hundreds of times the numbers, but in my view the first Neualbum was a real success and we made really nice money. I mean I wasn’t interested in buying stuff. I was happy simply with the freedom some money in the pocket could give me. But the money from Neumade it possible for me to help the project Harmonia, which was a commercial disaster! Compared to Neu!, Harmonia was nothing. People did not enjoy our music. It was terrible at the time, so difficult to survive, not only economically but also emotionally. I mean I loved the music from Harmonia. I didn’t understand and couldn’t make sense of why one was loved and one ignored. Of course, I’m so happy to see in recent years the recognition Harmonia is getting. It’s so sad that Dieter Moebius passed away last year. He was involved in all the decisions until the very end. Only two weeks before he died he thanked me for my work because I was the one who did all the work, because he was too weak by then, and Roedelius was busy with his own projects. But Harmonia was always something that came from my heart. I owe them I don’t know how much. I couldn’t have done Flammende  Herzen and my solo work and also ‘Neu‘75’ without having spent those three years working with Moebius and Roedelius.

TNPC: Often Klaus is portrayed as the angrier of you. He is seen to have had the more punk temperament, and that perhaps musically you are seen to be the one creating landscapes around the metronomic/motorik rhythms he created. At least that is the way people often perceive Neu!, but I was wondering if your musical relationship was more fluid than that. Did your contributions cross over and overlap more than some imagine?

MR: It’s not black and white for sure, much more complex. Klaus once said, maybe ten years ago “Michael and I had a blind understanding in music” – a bit romantic I think but it comes close to the truth. We never had to discuss music, but both admired and respected each other’s contributions. I loved his drumming style, his artistic inspirations. I did not really enjoy his personality to be honest. He could not be my friend. I could not have people like that as friends, but as soon as we made music it was great. He was such an impressive, strong drummer. Obviously I can’t say what Klaus would say now, but I think he felt the same positive way about my contributions, and we met in the middle. He had a heart for melody; maybe not…as…’talented’ [laughs]- but the same is true for me with the rhythms – I also played rhythm guitar – it’s not only Klaus doing the rhythms, it’s also me, but he was in that respect more ‘talented’ than I am.

TNPC: And did he therefore, when punk came along embrace that more fully than you?

MR: Oh yes, Klaus always had a very different way – to do with his personality, his upbringing, with the things that did not go his way. If something goes wrong for me, I’m sad but I try to make sense of it and work around it, but with Klaus, he became furious, angry, would blame other people for things which he was also responsible for. Yeah, Klaus was the punk. I never was a punk. Klaus would often say: “I was never a punk. They copied me!” 

TNPC: I can hear your influence Michael in a lot of the post-punk music. ‘Seeland’ for instance from ‘75’ – you can hear Eno lifting the idea for ‘The Overload’ on ‘Remain In Light’ but more generally that patient, building, brooding sound in Joy Division and other bands. But I also hear an Eastern influence on ‘Seeland’. I wonder if that was to do with your time in Pakistan – did you accommodate those influences as well?

MR: Not purposely, but I can remember being blown away by the music – I have a soft spot in my heart for Indian hypnotic music, like The Ali Brothers –  I have a wonderful CD of recordings of classical Indian raga – actually two Pakistani men and an orchestra. Intellectually, I would think my heart for music must be a mixture of Chopin (from my mother), Bach maybe also, Little Richard and Indian music; then mix in a little Jimi Hendrix and Beatles.

TNPC: There are a lot of organic, natural or found sounds (wind, tidal waves etc). Was that aspect your idea?

MR: Well, maybe it’s a cheap trick – to add drama! Both Klaus and I agreed on that. I love water, the sound of heavy rain, thunderstorms, and of the wind blowing the music away. I don’t want to say and I don’t want to lie about who took what sound or proposed which at a certain point. ‘Hero’ of course was a track that Klaus brought in – I brought in ‘Seeland’ and  ’Isi’ –  and a wonderful example of the amazing energy he could create with his music – and a good example also of the frustrations he felt. We did not talk about this, but I knew that he was very unhappy about the situation – so many things were wrong in his life: the record company, the label that he started going bankrupt; his girlfriend going away. You can hear it in the lyrics. It was the first take, spontaneous. We did the backing tracks together, we recorded the guitars and the drums, and then he went to the microphone and sang the lyrics and belted them away. He tried to improve upon this in the second recording, but that was more organised, but less powerful, so Conny Plank and I were sure about the first take being the right one. It is one of the most impressive expressions I know and one of my favourite Neutracks.

TNPC: Often people say Bowie stole it for ‘Heroes’ of course but I think there is a song on ‘Lodger’ (’Red Sails’) which is more like ‘Hero’ than ‘Heroes’. But obviously Bowie and Eno were borrowing heavily from you during that time…

MR: Well you know that David wanted me to play along on what on what became ‘Heroes’. Somebody prevented that from happening. I did not turn him down.

TNPC: It’s often reported that you declined the invitation, but you can set the record straight…

MR: We were both very enthusiastic and then his manager called and something had gone wrong on his side, not mine.

TNPC: Perhaps you regret this, or do you believe things turn out the way they are supposed to turn out? Even still, might there be a sadness that the opportunity to work with him did not arise?

MR: I don’t know. It was a thrilling time. It was between ‘Flammende Herzen’ and ‘Sterntaler’. My career was taking off. I was having so much success and recognition suddenly. I earned enough money to enable me to buy my own professional recording studio here. I felt like a small child getting a train set. But I was still surprised to get this last phone call from someone from his staff saying ‘You don’t have to come, David doesn’t need you anymore.’ I thought ‘that’s strange’ – we had been so enthusiastic, looking forward to the collaboration, but then I just went into the studio and recorded ‘Sterntaler’ and if I listen to ‘Heroes’ now, it is obvious that Robert Fripp did a great job. So no regrets but still a mystery. You know it took something like 25 years for me to realise there was something wrong, because he started saying in interviews that “Unfortunately, Michael turned me down”. But maybe he was fooled. Maybe someone took liberty in making decisions for him (“We don’t want this crazy German”) You know that his sales were dropping dramatically back then. These experimentations were not popular with David’s fans. “These crazy Germans guys won’t help us make money.”

TNPC: You are going out on tour, Japan in July – back to Glasgow in September – what can the fans expect when you are performing?


MR: The billing says it – it will be a mixture of tracks by Neu!, Harmonia and from my solo work. I  guess I am still enjoying playing this fast forward kind of music, just rushing down the road and running to the horizon. This is something I love doing live now. In recent years I have done some film scoresmelodic and abstract music, but playing live, I like to feel the energy. When I played in China 18 months ago, I was totally fascinated to experience the crowd. I didn’t know what to expect but they went wild, jumping around inside the venue, they were so excited. The joy and the positive energy was something to behold, and that is what I intend to bring to Glasgow.


Special Feature: ‘THE FIXER’ – TNPC interviews DAVID THOMAS (PERE UBU) for Shindig! Magazine


  The Fixer 

When Pere Ubu emerged from the wreckage of Rocket From The Tombs to infect the industrial heartlands of mid-1970s Ohio with their throbbing, squealing sonic architecture, few would have seriously considered their candidature for rock longevity a viable prospect. But David Thomas had other plans. He always does. “When we started, nobody liked us in Cleveland. We accepted that this was the natural order of things – that nobody would ever like us, much less HEAR us. So when that becomes your world-view then everything is very easy.” An A&R man’s worst nightmare (they stubbornly refused to be pigeonholed), the band have sculpted their own unique trajectory with singularly relentless conviction over these past forty years. Thomas, along with the latest incarnation of Pere Ubu (he is the only remaining original member), is making the final preparations for The North American Coed Jail! Tour, where the current line up – one of the band’s strongest ever – will perform classic material from their ‘historical era’ (1975-1982). While that prospect may be a mouthwatering one to long term fans, it is not something you might expect from him. Thomas has taken great care to ensure Pere Ubu remains a constantly evolving entity, always moving forward, so for him this seems an uncharacteristically retrospective move. But then, David Thomas is hardly likely to do the predictable thing. He thinks about music in pretty much the same way as he does life and art. The great French film-maker Jean Renoir once explained the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour by noting that “in life, everyone has his reasons”. Thomas concurs: “I am not a playful guy when it comes to work – there’s always a reason. Orson Welles was asked why he made Anthony Perkins act in a certain way as Josef K. The critic said ‘Kafka meant the character to be an innocent victim of the machinery.’ Welles responded, “No, he’s guilty – guilty as hell.”‘ 
  Given his own very individual worldview, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pere Ubu is one of the most misunderstood bands in rock music. Steadfastly oblivious to even the remotest commercial instinct, yet paradoxically, possessors of a panoramic perspective of pop’s colourful history, they have outlasted almost all of their contemporaries: a particularly impressive achievement considering they didn’t fit in then and don’t now. “The arty people dismiss us because we’re too pop and we despise talk. The pop people because we are too arty and we talk too much.” Does the lack of commercial success bother him? “We’re still here. I am Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the UN, screaming ‘We will bury you’.” Sixteen albums down the line, two into their ‘Orange period’ and in robustly good health, he may have a cogent argument. As Thomas explains: “Pere Ubu is a continuum. I’ve often said we don’t do conceptual albums – we have a conceptual career. If you look at the body of my work it’s soon apparent that it is one novel-like endeavour with characters, stories and plots interweaving and reappearing over the decades.” Perhaps then, revisiting the work of another era makes logical sense. 
Thomas likes to keep himself busy – for him, making music is not the assuaging of some inexorable creative impulse, but something more fundamental. The need to work. At the moment this means ‘fixing’ music. One of his most pressing recent concerns – as the output of Pere Ubu’s last two long players (‘The Lady From Shanghai’ & ‘Carnival Of Souls’) testifies – is his need to ‘fix’ dance music. “Part of that project is an effort to realign how meter and time are incorporated into music. How do you break up the mafia-like hegemony of bass and drums? But I need to stress that I do not react or counteract – I reinvent or realign as if the current world doesn’t exist and never did exist. I reimagine history. For example, what if English prog rock had been the true punk movement? What if Henry Cow had become the Sex Pistols?” Now there’s a thought…

Sometimes misconstrued as a punk band (not many punks nurture a fondness for The Allman Brothers for starters), that sense of hyper-alienation (‘data panic’) from technological society, the dissonant nonlinear song structures, not to mention Thomas’ curdled wails stretching over fizzing garage riffs – certainly at least invited the rather lazy comparison. But there was always substantially more to Pere Ubu, an expressionistic adventurousness far beyond the reach of the punk fraternity, which while leaving them at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, kept their integrity intact. As the band prepare to revisit and perform their late 1970s repertoire, how does Thomas now feel the music they produced over that period fits in the context of the ‘punk era?’ “I stood apart from it. We were dedicated to our own path. Sometimes two different roads converge – going through a mountain pass or along a river or what have you. The difference between the two roads seems negligible at that point. Twenty miles down the line they may diverge and head off in distinct directions.” 
As 2016 will see the release of two retrospective box sets (the first, ‘Architecture Of Language’, was released in March, the second is scheduled for August) alongside the forthcoming tour, Thomas clearly has no plans to give up making music just yet. Songs like ‘Golden Surf II’ from ‘Carnival Of Souls’ contain the original vitality, the vital originality, that made the band such a thrilling proposition in the first place. One senses Thomas and Pere Ubu will be at it for some time to come yet. “I have a job that I do and I do it well. I’ll do it (a) as long as I make a living from it, and (b) as long as I do it well.”  (JJ)

(This article was first published in the wonderful Shindig! magazine – click here: http://www.shindig-magazine.com/?p=1165)