Michael Rother says he isn’t concerned with the future. His past, informed by the still smoldering rubble of post-war Germany amidst a global counterculture insurgency, found him creating Neu! with the late drummer Klaus Dinger, as well as Harmonia, after leaving a small group called Kraftwerk. Working steadily since the early 1970s, Rother hooked up with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tall Firs guitarist Aaron Mullan early this year for a reconfigured Neu! and Harmonia exploration called Hallogallo 2010. Due to a BBC Krautrock documentary and cumulative praise over time from David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, and others, Rother finds his profile larger than ever. When he ironically created futuristic sounds that make Hallogallo 2010’s performances still sound ahead of their time, he couldn’t have anticipated an expanse of accolades as he faces down 60. Age is relative to the individual, and Rother seems a genuinely happy and devoted individual deep in current endeavor but intuiting that the best is yet to come. We met up with the guitarist and ambient auteur as Hallogallo 2010 hit New York to play the decidedly art-minded venue Lincoln Center.
The propulsive beat in Neu! is often cited as the group’s essential characteristic. Was that a conscious structure in your sound?
Klaus [Dinger] was capable of adapting per the specific idea. But there was a distinct way he played drums. We met in Kraftwerk, and he was an amazingly powerful drummer and radical figure. We played live once, and he cut his hands on these cymbals with broken edges, and blood was getting all over the place. It never entered his mind for a second to stop. I looked at the audience, and they were as amazed as I was. That says a lot about how Klaus approached music and life. He had an idea of crashing through all the walls like a powerful machine. We never discussed the need to change the natural way he played. He liked my guitar style, and I was fascinated by his drumming. Maybe I’m destroying the myth, but if you look at the drumming of Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground or even Canned Heat, the way that Klaus played didn’t fall out of the sky. He wasn’t technically skilled — the timing was off if you analyze the tracks — but it didn’t matter because we shared the idea of a whole music. He was never just a drummer.
In the BBC Krautrock documentary, you stood by a river talking about forward motion. Pushing post-war Germany into a different future pervaded much of the documentary too. Do ideas about motion whether musical, political, or natural still affect you?
My situation now has to be different 38 years later. Everything was new, and I had no idea where my undertaking would lead me; that’s part of the story. All the time we developed a musical language and took steps forward and maybe to the side. There’s a big bandwidth of possible musical expression. My fundamental feeling about music hasn’t changed and the center, which has something to do with my personality, hasn’t changed, and I revolve around the center, with new sounds and new technology around the creation of music.
The musical language you developed added to the vocabulary that musicians draw upon. Are you aware that you have the respect of musicians across generations? What does it mean to you?
The effect you have with your ideas is always relative. Think about Mozart: How much influence did he have? Of course I’m happy it’s accepted, but we also took beatings. Harmonia was rejected by the public in the ’70s. Neu! was nothing that anything [the larger] public wanted. Later musicians like Sonic Youth and Stereolab started picking up some ideas, and it took a while until bands picked it up. Nowadays the awareness grows bigger, and this is a great improvement for my feeling about my work, my person. But with media and hype there can be praise to the top and then the next step is, “They were good then, but now they’re crap.” It’s wonderful to get pages full of British and German articles of Neu! and Harmonia that we never had before, but I am skeptical of the mechanism.
Krautrock for American musicians always had a mystique about it, this collection of innovative and mysterious bands. It’s strange to even see the faces of these prolific, creative people. Yet the question remains fascinating how this formation and amalgamation of bands took place.
Maybe it’s a disappointment for us to step out of this darkness and have people say, “Hey, he’s a guy, he’s not floating.” But it was a special situation in Germany, with social, political, and economic problems and this strange music but nothing in the early ’70s resembling a music industry. There was a very conservative structure still there, as well as the psychological effects of moral and physical devastation brought by the war. We were attracted to this idea of a special task [and stewardship], something the complete opposite of Nazi Germany. I came back to Germany from Pakistan in 1963, and growing older I was affected by the hippies, Jim Hendrix. He actually seemed to come from the stars, and he was a huge inspiration. That was so detached from our political and social reality in Germany. In 1969 I finished school, and I refused the draft because in the background we followed students rising in America protesting the Vietnam war, we also had [riots in] Paris in 1968. No power could have made me join the military. It is a long answer but there are so many details to focus on.
I chose to work in a mental hospital as a conscientious objector because I wanted to know what makes us tick, how we function in our souls and minds. I had a girlfriend who was into Velvet Underground and art; we saw the films of Fassbinder in the late ’60s/early ’70s; there was a political and cultural opposition. Berlin during the Cold War was unique. Driving to West Berlin there were corridors with East German soldiers who hated me and I hated them. You could feel it, the power they had over you. A general feeling of imminent war was there. It terrified me. But on the mainstream political scene we had changes. There was Willy Brandt, who [first gained office] in ’68, someone not conservative. As chancellor he went to Poland and kneeled at the monument that remembered Polish resistance fighters, and that’s an iconic picture, him asking for forgiveness on behalf of Germany. Many people couldn’t believe it, but the younger people said yes, this is what we have to do. Neu! actually played with Willy Brandt in Dusseldorf. People in parliament tried to topple him, so there was a Willy Brandt support party. That was the last concert Neu! played. Klaus and I never discussed it, but we rejected the conservative and reactionary system, our natural enemy. They hated us so we hated them.
Returning more to the music, repetition is a big theme in your work. What effect does the repetition in sound have on you as you perform it?
It brings you into a state — I wouldn’t say a trance but that direction. I came in contact with this music in Pakistan, and I remember being totally fascinated. I have this knack for endlessness. My mother had to keep telling me this same story when I was young that goes around in a circle. On a musical level, I experienced this in Indian and Pakistani music, in the melodic scales and the sounds and way they played. This feeling of going on and on, this music wasn’t like a folk song with three sections. You have the impression it’s not meant to stop. I don’t want to analyze the effect too much. I’m aware of it and I enjoy it. The magic is not in the repetition alone though. You have to find the right elements. I have no recipe for that but you notice when it happens. I don’t work premeditated, I always come from sound, harmonic, or rhythmic structures and see what happens. I don’t want to know what goes into the special moments if you can even know it.
That’s inspiring you can retain that fascination. You’re deep into the moment as well as open to possibility.
You’re not safe. You wonder, Have I lost the touch? I’m always grateful for that spark when I hear it. I’ve never worried too much about the future. I’m focused on the present. I was completely excited doing Neu! and Harmonia, and I never thought about doing it 20 years or more later. I’ll be 60 next month, and that has no significance other than the knowledge that there’s no certainty of life, even today. We keep doing dates this year and will do so into next year. But what could I think about the future? I think of my friends and family and different lives, and I know that happiness can be temporary even when being praised, that personal problems don’t go away. You have to suffer rejection sometimes.
There’s the story of time — people like Klaus Dinger dying. I’m still here in the physical world, and he’s around in his music. Friends die, family dies. Time’s like moving on a shoal of ice. I don’t understand it. We are as limited as a goose. I noticed this when I lived in the countryside in Germany. My neighbor had geese, and they kept on attacking us. When we shut the door to the house, I thought, What do they think now? What do they know? They know nothing of that world behind the door. We are like geese in that we have no idea beyond a point in understanding our own past and future. Can anybody tell me what we’re doing here? I can’t.