When I called Michael Rother from central New Jersey, he was in Hamburg, suffering from bronchitis and exhausted after a series of days spent trying to secure a US passport. But we got along just famously, which I never would have expected from a man who once refused to work with David Bowie.
I could go on a marathon list of all the accomplishments Rother has under his belt (shredding ax in a brief incarnation of Kraftwerk, cofounding Neu!, later forming Harmonia, releasing solo material, collaborating with Brian Eno, John Frusciante, Secret Machines, and most recently teaming up with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Tall Firs' Aaron Mullan to perform the music of Neu! as 'Hallogallo 2010') but he’s heard that list before and besides, there are other things to talk about. Like how fucking difficult it is to get a passport on time, or that one time he was on a date and saw a bunch of Serbians wig out to Cypress Hill.
How long have you been in Hamburg?
I was born here but I didn’t live here long as a child; only four years or so before we started moving around the world. [Now] I split the year; for most of the year I live in a place in the countryside, and I’m only in Hamburg now because I was in Berlin yesterday, at the U.S. Consulate. They make you go to the consulate for an interview each time you want to play in the states, you know. It’s quite a ridiculous process. The interview – once you are sitting there, that’s the least important stuff – I think it only took five minutes. The lady asked me, “What’s your profession?” I said “I’m a musician,” and I added, “and I’m going to play in the states.” “Ah yes,” that’s what she said.
It seems totally unnecessary.
It’s completely out of proportion. Being in the studio, recording music, preparing music… instead of that, I spend a day and a half working on the form you have to fill out on the website and it’s so ridiculous. “Do you want to murder the president of the United States? Do you want to engage in prostitution and drug trafficking and… blah blah,” and that goes on for pages and pages and sometimes the system crashes and you have to start all over again and what? Let’s stop here. It’s disgusting but I’ve had it twice already; in 2006, when I came to New York and in 2008, when I came with Harmonia, and each time it was a real, what is it… a real nail-biter, because I got my passport at the last possible moment.
You came over with Harmonia in 2008 and now you’re coming with Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullen. Can you tell me when you met them or how ‘Hallogallo 2010’ came to be?
Well, I met Aaron Mullen when he did sound for Harmonia at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK in May of 2008. I noticed that he did a great job at the mixing desk, and so we talked, had a few drinks after the show and became friends. Then he did our sound at ATP in New York in September of 2008, even though he wasn’t engaged to work there.
What was it about his mixing that brought you closer? Was it that he was familiar with your material?
Not sure. You can notice quite a difference if somebody is taking the job seriously, if he knows what you are trying to express, and from what I heard it was obvious that this guy knew exactly what he was doing and what we were aiming at. That’s the way it started. Then he took me to the Sonic Youth studio in September of 2008 to meet Steve Shelley and we recorded a session together. Since then, we’ve been discussing what to do with it; to release it, perhaps. So we’ve been in touch since then. And when I finished working on the NEU! vinyl box set this spring, I think it was in February or so, I started thinking about how to do the live appearances and because Steve and Aaron had already mentioned they were very enthusiastic about this project and would love to join me, it was a natural decision for me. Having two great guys, really good company, and great musicians; makes it very easy. We played at two festivals at the end of May, one in Switzerland and we played in Barcelona, at the Primavera Sound Festival, and the people loved it.
The crowds went wild?
The crowds are very responsive when they recognize tunes, like the melody of Harmonia’s “Deluxe.” I mean, most of what we play is open structured, you know, just having the feeling that Klaus Dinger and I created with [Neu!] tracks like “Hallogallo,” and it’s not my intention to replay those tracks note by note, 'cause it wouldn’t be appropriate. The idea is to create a feeling of freedom in our music.
Freedom to experiment? Freedom to diverge?
Well, of course, I don’t want to… what is it… bore myself. You have to keep moving. I think it would be tiring to try to play the same notes every day. But to put it in a positive way, that’s part of the magic, to be able to leave the track at any moment. When we play tracks sounding like “Hallogallo,” it’s up to the moment for me to decide when I want to change the feeling of the sound and that’s very important to my live performances now.
At this point in music’s timeline, what do you think is essential for proper listening?
Ha, that’s a good question because I have not found out yet and I think, no I’m sure, I will never know what people hear. That’s always been puzzling me because when I talk to other people, non-musicians especially, I get puzzled by what they hear and what they don’t hear so… it’s a difficult thing. If it’s true that each person hears something else and feels something else from music, I’m quite sure that the way I listen to music is not typical. I’m usually distracted when I listen to music and also, what is it… bothered by music? You know, when I’m in some public space and there’s music I don’t like, that really gets on my nerves, you know? There’s no button to close your ears.
Would you feel comfortable going into depth about any music that you don’t like? Nowadays.
I can’t say “I hate rap music” or “I hate folk music,” I could never say things like that because it’s actually quite the opposite for me. I love to listen to very different kinds of music. Actually, I listen to the sound of silence most of the time. And then, when I pick something up, it can be tango music, it can be folk music, Indian music, it can be… there’s so much beauty everywhere. In different ages, different styles. It can be electronic dance music, it can be abstract music, basically it’s always a good idea for people not to narrow their focus too much.
Of course. There’s too much good music out there to stick to one genre.
Maybe you have a slightly different situation in American because you have all these specialized programs but I think a big problem we face in the media and in radio in Germany is that so much is left out. I would love to listen to programs that would surprise me. Like hearing a wonderful tango tune next to an electronic dance tune, not just in a haphazard way but in a sensible connection. That’s something that would always appeal to me more than having just ten Lady Gaga songs, one after the other. I admit that I, in a strange way, also enjoy Lady Gaga.
What do you enjoy about Lady Gaga?
It’s ridiculous in a way. I heard her music for quite awhile, for some months without even knowing it. In the wintertime, in Hamburg, I sometimes go ice-skating. And we have a big ice-skating rink here and they play music and sometimes [they would play Lady Gaga]. That’s one of the situations when I’m really annoyed. I’d love to vomit. [Her music] stops my pleasure in running around the course.
Well, I just hope I don’t see any Lady Gaga covers at All Tomorrow’s Parties this year.
Who knows? You know, in Germany we have Krautwurst; it’s something like a Bratwurst. [It’s just like] really plain food. And you know, I love Japanese food and delicious food, sophisticated food, but once in a while I also like a Krautwurst. And so, that’s where Lady Gaga comes in.
You briefly mentioned hip hop music. Do you listen to much hip hop?
When I met John – John Frusciante – he would listen to music all day. When we drove around in California he had music, especially hip hop music, playing loudly all the time. And he laughed his head off because I didn’t understand a single word of what they were saying. I can’t really give you any names because, to be honest, I don’t follow other music.
Rack your brain a little, if you can.
In earlier years I liked Missy Elliot. Timbaland. And there was also one great song, but you know, I’m not talking about general hip hop but just individual tracks. I was once in Belgrade where I had a girl, and we would go out and once at this bar, people suddenly got completely crazy and started jumping on the countertop, jumping and screaming because of this one track; “If you want to be a rock superstar… with big cars…” I’m not sure what band that was [Cypress Hill] but it had a very heavy guitar and heavy beat and it was exciting. It was so fun, it was ecstasy, you know? Reacting to the excitement this music was conveying, I was attracted by that.
I kind of want to talk to you about the origins of the Krautrock title. Because when it was originally coined by the English press it was meant as a derogatory term, where Kraut was either referencing a German person involved in WWII or marijuana, and I was just curious if you were conscious of the labels that were being thrown on you so early in your career or if you detached yourself from journalists’ spin.
Well, of course we had heard about those labels and I had never agreed with any of it. To be put into a box with other musicians claiming similarities seemed the exact opposite of what I had set out to achieve. I was very ambitious in the sense that I wanted to create something unique. Of course, that’s a very daring thing to say but that was the intention. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the term had been less derogatory. Of all the titles, Krautrock was just the silliest expression. There were many other labels for our music. But everyone uses [Krautrock].
And what do you make of bands calling themselves Krautrock nowadays?
I think it would be a good idea for musicians to concentrate on the idea of freedom we tried to create, the idea of moving forward, of trying to create something new. The formula was not simply the collection of notes I played on the guitar, it was the whole picture of trying to avoid clichés and trying to create, recreate, something that expresses their own personal identity, and if musicians do that today they are bound to come up with something completely different.
Absolutely, I think those are very apt words for this point in music history.
Actually, I’m waiting to hear music that knocks me off my feet, that makes me think “wow, I have never heard this before, this is interesting, this is confusing, I have to think about this.” It doesn’t happen that often. Also, I don’t expect too much praise for being innovative because it was rather easy to feel that way in the late 60s/early 70s, because of the climate and all; the cultural, artistic feeling of change that was in the air.
I actually kind of wanted to talk about that. You were born in 1950, only five years after World War II. I wanted to know if the war was a conscious part of your psyche when you first began making music. Or even, if it’s still a theme you still go back to.
I think I would have to talk about that for about an hour to express all the different happenings of the time. There was, of course, this very conservative structure in the German society and we were influenced by international rock and pop and art and movies that came up in the 60s that had a completely different approach to life and that clashed on many levels – political and social – with those conservative structures. I guess it was quite natural for me to develop this desire to create my own identity after copying my heroes for several years as a teenager, as I discovered that this wasn’t going to be my future because I wasn’t satisfied with being a copy; I wanted to be original. That was a situation that you could find everywhere, with new political theories, new political figures like Willy Brandt, a German who became chancellor and who reconciled Germany with the eastern countries. You know, it was the time of the cold war, there was still this strong division between NATO and the Warsaw Pact state and the feelings brought about by all the ugly stuff Nazi German had done were still in the air by the late 60s. It was still not reconciled, that situation. So new figures like Willy Brandt, for instance, with his new Ostpoliti policy for the east, that was something that really appealed to me. So many different changes were taking place and all of those were the reasons why I came to the conclusions I came to. If I had been twenty in the mid-eighties, who knows? Maybe I would have made dance music.