Basic Truths

18 March 2012 | 1:03 pm | Doug Wallen

Musical development happens in circles for Michael Rother, but you’d have to point out to him the influence he’s had on modern music, as Doug Wallen discovers.

Whether with Krautrock progenitors Neu! or the equally revered Harmonia – or even a prior stint in Kraftwerk – German musician Michael Rother has seen his work go in and out of fashion (and back) over the years. One would hope, though, that today his reputation as an elder statesman is sealed. Having toured Australia once in the '80s and twice in the '90s, Rother was last here with Harmonia in 2009, as part of an ATP line-up curated by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

Now, accompanied by Dieter Moebius (Harmonia, Cluster) and Hans Lampe (NEU!), he's coming back to reflect on his whole career, including his two hugely influential bands and his solo albums. In recent years he has played the music of Neu! with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs as Hallogallo – named after a classic Neu! song – so the idea of revisiting the band is something he's accustomed to. He also manages Neu!'s legacy – from reissues to box sets – with Miki Yui, widow of his late bandmate Klaus Dinger.

“I think we're quite a good team,” says Rother via Skype from Hamburg, where he's enjoying a sunny winter's morning. “She takes good care of the legacy of Klaus. She's doing an exhibition of his work in Dusseldorf in March [and] April. Miki is very polite. But of course it's up to me to do the talking [because] she joined Klaus in his later life and she wasn't there when we did the recordings.”

Those recordings, including three albums in the first half of the '70s, won over David Bowie and Brian Eno and later everyone from Radiohead to Stereolab. But Rother doesn't sugarcoat the Neu! days or his personal clashes with Dinger.

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“You probably know that Klaus and I had a problematic relationship,” he shares. “Not inside the studio, but on a personal level. But [I have] a peaceful way of thinking about Klaus now. I'm really thankful we had the chance to collaborate. Neu! will always be an important part of my personal life, especially since the basic ideas that I started in the seventies are, to a large extent, still of value for me these days. It's not that I don't want to move on – the development happens in circles, but the basic truths are still in my mind. That's why I can go on tour.”

He goes on, observing with a laugh that the headline of the tour is “Michael Rother Presents Music By Neu!, Harmonia and Selected Solo Works” but that a more accurate headline would take up an entire page. “Because, of course, I would have to add that it's my take on Neu! music,” he says. “That's an important aspect. Klaus would have a different approach. And [we're] doing a selection of the ideas of Neu! Music. It's quite impossible to present all of the aspects.”

That's because Dinger obviously can't contribute. Speaking about the band's third album, Neu! '75, Rother says tracks like Isi and Seeland were based on his ideas but still featured Dinger playing drums and adding his own ideas. And vice versa with Rother's eventual input to Dinger-originated tracks like Hero and After Eight.

For someone who's constantly told how influential his music is, Rother isn't always aware. He was surprised to hear Noel Gallagher has name-checked Neu! in recent years and before that when Sonic Youth's Madonna-inspired Ciccone Youth guise included the song Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu! on 1988's The Whitey Album. “I actually need people to tell me about the influences,” he reveals. “Because I don't actively go around listening to music all the time.”

He recounts a friend taking him to see Stereolab before he was familiar with their work. “I didn't know what to expect,” he tells, “but I had a puzzled expression on my face because I thought I was listening to myself playing.” Laughing, he adds, “It was just a straightforward, Hallogallo sort of groove. But that was a new sensation, because at the time nobody was playing like that.”

When Rother's own influences play out, on the other hand, they're likely to be less detectable than the above Stereolab example. “For me,” he says, “if I hear something fascinating, it certainly has an effect on my feelings and thinking about music. But it doesn't come out as an echo of that piece of art. At least, that's not my intention. It should be something filtered by my musical language.”

Mind you, he's not dismissing Stereolab as much as musing about the way Neu!'s influence has played out over the years. In 2009, an English tribute compilation Brand Neu! paired some of the most unlikely names you could think of – Oasis and LCD Soundsystem, Holy Fuck and Kasabian – alongside the inclusion of Melbourne's Pets With Pets. So at this point, the whole thing is a bit novel.

He adds, “Sometimes you hear about [influencing] musicians and bands where you wouldn't expect. Of course, if some electronic, experimental, instrumental guy tells me, that could be expected. But sometimes it's from unexpected areas.

“The honest answer is,” Rother continues, “it's nicer to know that people love your music than what I experienced in the seventies. Especially Harmonia, when people rejected our ideas. There was hardly any recognition, if you don't mention Brian Eno and David Bowie. Those two were the first, actually. Of course, before the internet came around, we didn't know who was listening to our music.”

Things look bright for Neu!'s legacy, as Rother has signed a ten-year contract with Germany's Grönland Records. But that doesn't mean Rother has forgotten the days when the bottom fell out from beneath him, in terms of commercial success.

“It's amazing to see the echo the music is getting all over the world,” he says. “It wasn't always that way. The eighties were quite dark after the initial sales went down. Neu! was a rather nice success in the seventies, which enabled me to survive as a musician when Harmonia was a commercial failure. A disaster, actually.”

Rother recalls that while his solo albums in the late '70s “were an amazing success in Germany”, sales for Neu! “gradually vanished” in the '80s and the band's original label stopped pressing the records during that decade: “Nobody in Germany cared about us and we didn't know what was happening outside.”

What was happening outside, fortunately, was the gradual building of a legend. A legend that stands so tall today, it's not likely to fade again anytime soon.