A Neu! day dawns for Michael Rother
Some 40 years on, the krautrock pioneer and veteran of such bands as Kraftwerk, Harmonia and Neu! is bringing his minimal genius to an eager new generation
Some of the best things in life take time. A great idea will often need years to make its way around the world and take root in people before changing their perspectives forever. At the heart of Michael Rother’s music is one such idea, startlingly simple when it’s laid out, but revolutionary in its impact upon entire generations of musicians who followed him.
When Neu! first emerged out of Düsseldorf in the early 1970s, Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger had split from an early incarnation of electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and were set on distilling the short-but-vibrant history of rock music into something minimal, powerful and entirely new.
Few people at the time were paying attention but Dinger and Rother nailed their parts perfectly; Dinger with the endless forward propulsion of his motorik beat and Rother with the glistening one-note focus of his guitar. Together they practically invented krautrock and changed the course of rock and electronic musics in the process. When the rest of the world cocked an ear and began to listen, the effect was electric. Even now, some 40 years on, Rother’s focus on refinement and simplicity animates and drives him.
“Quite often, less is more,” says Rother over the phone from his home in Hamburg. “It sounds simplistic but it’s true. It’s still a process, I’m still learning. I tend to move towards many details, trying to show many details in the music, and sometimes with an act of will I leave away certain elements I thought we necessary and I find the message is clearer. I think it will always be a necessary process, to think about what is really necessary. Starting from scratch, more or less, basic instruments, basic elements, like in late ’71 with Neu!, that was the starting point, just one idea, one note.”
To make the idea work, Rother had to re-imagine what was possible with that bare minimum of instrumentation.
“To understand the situation, you must try to imagine what kind of a trip it is, what a voyage it is, to leave behind everything you’ve grown up with,” he says. “I started making music by copying English and American heroes. When I felt that desire to move onto something that really reflected my own personality, I had to steer away from all those ideas I had picked up.
“I think it’s natural to be very cautious, trying not to step into something you tried to forget. It was an element I had to leave behind, the complex harmonic songs which tried to impress by adding complicated harmonies or many details.
“The new idea was about simplicity. That was the way to move forward and try to make sure whatever was added to the musical palette was something that was essential.”
While he and his musical companions continued to explore the outer reaches in seclusion, they were something of a commercial liability. While Rother describes the first Neu! album as a “moderate success”, they received very little attention from local press and promoters.
“You always had a few people who were really big fans but there was no big media scene in the early 1970s in Germany,” says Rother. “There were only maybe two or three journalists who were interested in what we did and they only had limited capability of presenting the music. I remember Harmonia concerts were sometimes quite tough because people fell asleep or started talking or just didn’t show up in the first place!
“I can laugh now but back then it was a different feeling. We drove for three hours to a discotheque here in the north and there was no fixed fee, the idea was we’d get money from the door. I think three or four people showed up. We had bills to pay so perhaps you get the picture. It was quite difficult.”
However, the music was passed around by die-hard fans and eventually it found a young, willing audience in distant corners of the world. While Bowie and Brian Eno went to Berlin to find the magic there, the generations of musicians growing up at the time picked up the minimalist baton and re-imagined it all over again. Rother couldn’t but notice the band’s posthumous change in critical fortunes.
“In the mid-to-late 1990s, very slowly, Germany started picking up on us – again as an echo of things happening in the UK or America,” he says. “I remember (German) journalists being impressed by Julian Cope’s book Krautrocksampler or a band like Sonic Youth calling a song Two Cool Chicks Listening To Neu! and that enabled them to write about it. We know that phenomenon. What do we say, the prophet in his own country?”
These days Rother is joined on stage by Camera, a trio of young Berlin-based musicians who have taken Rother and Dinger’s ideas to heart in both form and spirit. Having avoided security to approach Rother as he packed up on stage after playing a festival in Hamburg, Rother went to go see them play in a subway station in Berlin where they used to perform regularly.
“When I watched them in that tube station, maybe three out of five people just rushed past, had no time or no interest, but so many people stopped and took notice of the music and started to dance and move and get carried away by the music in a great way. That’s these young guys, they sort of picked up the message, they’re big music lovers.”
The age gap seems to make no difference as Rother concentrates on communicating his timeless musical ideas directly to a group who grew up listening to them on record, handing down the form and continuing its eternal forward propulsion, constant and constantly changing.
“Age really doesn’t count in my experience with musicians, the only thing that counts is whether you can connect to them on the musical level,” he says.
“We exchange energy. It’s something that doesn’t need explanation really, we don’t talk so much about music. I never really talked about music, even back in the days with Klaus Dinger in Neu!, or in Harmonia, we made music, we didn’t discuss music or plan music. So that’s still the case today. Playing with these young musicians, it gives me a very positive energy.”
yyy Michael Rother presents the music of Neu!, Harmonia and selected solo works at The Village in Dublin on Monday, April 29th.