Fortunes Of Krautrock: An Interview With Michael Rother
“I don't like the term Krautrock,” Michael Rother says bluntly when asked about the contemporary perception of his work. “I know that journalists and fans like to have boxes, but I don't like to be in a box with a Krautrock tag.”
His ambivalence is surprising, but somewhat justified. Krautrock always evaded neat definition and its blend of psychedelia, early electronic, and avant-garde classical could be better thought of as a musical movement than a distinct genre. Often used as a blanket label for German experimentation, the term is suited for quick categorisation rather than apt description.
“Looking from far away there's the whole musical bandwidth and then there's this very small field in which everything that can be considered Krautrock is kept,” Rother says. “To get some kind of order people enjoy having tags and boxes.”
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Whether a genre, movement, or style that avoids casual definition, Michael Rother was certainly at the centre of it. Co-founding seminal Krautrock bands Neu! and Harmonia and briefly contributing to an early arrangement of Kraftwerk, Rother was a pioneer of Krautrock’s characteristic sound. His work in Neu! sowed the seeds for much of Anglo-American new wave and has received high praise from the likes of John Frusciante and Thom Yorke. Neu!’s relentless ‘motorik’ drumbeats can be heard in the odd Primal Scream or Sterolab song, and David Bowie was a vocal admirer during his Berlin years.
Such accolades make it easy to look at Michael Rother’s career through rose-tinted glasses, and the release of his first solo record in 15 years, ‘Dreaming’, points to the enduring appeal of his experimentation. But his drive to explore obscure musical avenues didn’t provide immediate commercial success. Like many artists bent on following a single, often obscure vision, Rother’s venture into music wasn’t smooth sailing, with Neu!’s aggressive jams initially struggling to gain attention in Germany and Harmonia’s ambient rock failing to find a following.
“It was a one-sided love” Rother tells Clash, refreshingly candid about the initial reception of his music. He admits that his explicit rejection of blues harmonies and structures that dominated pop and rock at the time was met with general indifference from audiences. “Neu! was mildly successful, but Harmonia was really rejected. The reception of the audience was total ignorance. They really just said, ‘Uh, very good, what's next?’ It went into hibernation. Nobody talked about Harmonia and not many talked about Neu!”
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But there is no semblance of bitterness in Rother’s voice. Although disinterested audiences, empty stalls, and waning media attention may have hallmarked his early years, he thinks this time was vital to the cultivation of his artistic vision. “We had some really difficult times financially, but artistically it was a great period for me. I totally enjoyed working with Roedelius and Moebius [the other two members of Harmonia],” he says. “In order to be able to continue focusing on what you really want to do it's a good idea to not listen too much of what people murmur around you and tell you ‘this is great’ and ‘this is rubbish’. You have to focus on your own ideas.”
In the decades since, Rother has faced a less stringent dichotomy between artistic authenticity and commercial viability. Critical and public recognition of his work has expanded, and appreciation of his innovation taken a global presence. “Interest in my music had been growing since the Neu! albums were re-released on Groenland [Records] in 2001,” he explains. “This opened a totally new chapter. The music had disappeared and there were only a few copies around. And then when Neu! was re-released and the Harmonia stuff was re-released, suddenly, especially outside of Germany in England, the States, Japan, there was an audience discovering the music.”
“And it's not only the old guys with beards. That’s actually what I really enjoy because it seems that the music is alive with the young audience and it's not a nostalgic thing of someone going, ‘Oh I heard that song 50 years ago.’ When I travel the world, whether I go to China or Japan or Russia, I’m playing to a young audience. I mean look at me who's talking,” he laughs. “You can't be blamed for becoming older, it just strangely happens.”
Appreciation of his early work doesn’t extend only to audiences. Rother recognises elements of Krautrock in contemporary creatives, too: “Young musicians send me their music and say, ‘You have been a big inspiration and what do you think of this?’ And playing at festivals I meet young musicians that are very open about being influenced.” But perhaps Rother doesn’t fully appreciate the breadth of this influence. “I think there's a single by a band called The Killers coming [released on their recent album ‘Imploding The Mirage’]. I don't know if you know their music. I didn't really. But they asked permission to use something of mine and it was clear that they got a lot of inspiration.”
“I would be lying if I said that I couldn't care less. Of course, it's much more fun to hear, ‘Oh I love the first album.’ I still get the feeling that we are getting rewards for work. I enjoy hearing that the music of Harmonia and Neu! is around, and Harmonia sold more [records] since the early 2000s than we did in the 30 years before.”
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But his appreciation for the ongoing recognition of his work is matched only by his amazement of its endurance. Following years of commercial stagnation and the relegation of his records to the realm of music aficionados, Rother is somewhat surprised that his music has continued to find a foothold in the contemporary space. “I thought this would be just a fashion trend,” he says. “In the early 2000s, I thought this will blow over and people will just go back to the same behaviour and disinterest of earlier years. But it doesn't seem to be the case.”
Rother can’t say why this resurgence has stuck around, but his surprise that it has done tells of his wider relationship with musical trends. When it comes to his own work, Rother has always distanced himself from existing fashions. Determined to carve out an original musical path, he sought to avoid the influences of others and find a new space to explore.
“When I started with Kraftwerk I was determined to not be influenced, to try and exclude information as much as possible,” he says. “I didn't care about German musicians and whenever I heard something from Munich or Berlin I thought, ‘Nope, I don't need this.’ It sounds maybe arrogant, but I was on a different path. I wanted to keep distant from everyone.”
“I stopped playing guitar with all the guitar hero, fast finger stuff – that was completely erased. I left none of that in my music and pushed it aside to make space for a new beginning, avoiding clichés and structures that have been around before. It’s very ambitious, but I didn't care. I think I am, in that respect, a very ambitious person.”
Composing in a vacuum is a tall order for any artist, and Rother’s success in avoiding the influence of other musicians is perhaps equally a result of his determination to foster creative originality as it is of his unfamiliarity with contemporary music.
“I’m the last one to hear about a new, interesting band. Sometimes I’m asked, ‘Hey Michael, do you know anything interesting,’ and I say, ‘I'm sorry please ask someone else,’ because I'm usually the one who's be being told about new and interesting stuff. Because I don't follow trends, I'm the last person to know what is in demand. There are some smart producers or musicians who feel, ‘Ok, this is it, now drum and bass is coming, or something’ but when I find out, it's already passed, so I have no other option than to try to develop my own thread and follow the line ahead.”
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As his career has progressed and his discography expanded, this commitment to avoiding the artistic influences of others hasn’t completely slipped but might have eased a little. “I haven’t totally changed,” he says. “I’ve become a bit more relaxed over the years because my own path has become clearer to me. I’m more sure of where I was and where I wanted to go. It’s now less like trying to avoid and more like continuing the thread has been my path ever since Neu!. Building one brick up on the next. It’s up to the people who listen whether it's refinement or boring repetition or whatever. But this is okay, this is the part for the listener to decide for themselves.”
Rother is certainly confident that he’s moved past any semblance of the blues-rock that he rejected so explicitly in his youth. Now, his musical development stands in relation to broader styles. “The question of ‘do I want to avoid blues?’ is settled and has been for the last 45 or something years. I love Little Richard, I love a lot of chuck berry stuff and Jimi Hendrix, but they were the originals. There's so much beautiful music from not only central Europe or Southeast Europe, but everywhere. There’s so much to discover so I can only recommend opening the ears and be ready to discover new horizons.”
Does this ceaseless forward-looking approach throw out any possibility of another project with his past collaborators, like Brian Eno? “Never say no,” Rother says hesitantly. “I haven't been in touch with Brian and I'm sure he's still a very interesting person and musician. If chance makes it possible to meet and to talk and maybe enjoy each other's company – who knows.”
“But even in the next world I would also want to play with Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard, and maybe have a sit down with Bach and Mozart. I'm totally happy with the way my musical life has developed. In Germany we have this funny saying, ‘I can't complain better’. It would be ridiculous to.”
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Words: Callum Bains
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