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Michael Rother - Sterntaler at 40

"There's so much to do," says an uncharacteristically flustered Michael Rother. The normally unflappably beatific German guitarist, composer and former member of Neu! and Harmonia, who also had a stint in a nascent Kraftwerk, is packing for live dates in Russia and the UK, including this weekend's show at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow.

"It has always been my choice to take care of these things myself and not have a manager," he says. "Somehow for me the independent aspect of doing things is really important, but it has its disadvantages."

As well as playing selections from Neu! and Harmonia, the trio he formed with Dieter Moebius and Hans Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, Rother's Glasgow date will see him play a fortieth anniversary rendering of his second solo album, Sterntaler, in full. Rother will be accompanied by guitarist Franz Bargmann and drummer Hans Lampe, the latter of whose musical involvement with Rother dates back to Neu! days, as well as playing alongside original Neu! drummer Klaus Dinger in La Dusseldorf.

Originally released in 1978, Sterntaler – it translates as Star Money and is taken from a Brothers Grimm fairytale - followed by the success of its predecessor, Flammende Herzen (Bleeding Heart), and featured Rother playing a series of propulsively poppy instrumentals with drummer Jaki Leibezeit on a record produced by Conny Plank. Both records marked a sea-change in how Rother and the generation of German musicians he worked alongside were perceived.

“I have great memories of when Sterntaler came out, "Rother says. “It had been a long period of low sales with Neu! and Harmonia. Mostly it had been a great time making those records, but it was so disappointing that people didn’t share that love. Then my first solo album came out, and suddenly people wanted to hear it. It wasn’t like a rocket, but was a slow-burner that just got stronger and kept on selling. It's a mystery why that was. I remember the label calling me up and saying they were going to have to do a repress of the first record Some voices said, oh, that guy Rother, he's so smart knowing that this is what the public wants, but that wasn’t the case.

"It was the same recording it. For me, it was a strange situation. When Harmonia collapsed, I was quite frustrated. I didn’t not want to work on a project, but I didn’t want to work with Klaus Dinger at the time either. I had some hazy ideas I wanted to explore, and I got in touch with Conny Plank and Jaki Leibezeit, and that was what came out. It wasn’t story-boarded, but working with Jaki and Conny, imagine three different chefs adding different spices, and that's what happened. They were both very important to the record. I still feel close to the material, and playing it again, I can take liberties with it, but the shape of it remains unchanged. "

Making music too is a mystery for Rother, and has been since his days with Neu!

“Something like Hallogallo,” he says of the first Neu! album’s ten-minute opening track that came to define the sound of German kosmische music. “I can’t explain how it happened, but it’s one step away from the edge of falling off a cliff. It’s so frail. People say, oh, it’s all about the drums keeping it together, right, and yes, it is, but you don’t have to take much away from that and it all falls apart.”

Rother's early exposure to music came through his mother, a classically trained pianist, while his older brother had "rock and roll parties. I still get excited hearing Little Richard, and seeing that BBC film, where he starts off talking to the audience, and then, bang, bang, bang, off he goes like a rocket."

Living in Pakistan also had an impact on Rother’s musical raison d’etre. 

"It was so exotic," he says, "and the music there was so different to what I knew. I would need psycho-analysis to find out how that influenced my idea of total endless forward moving European music, but I also had an interest in repetition."

Back in Germany, this didn’t stop the influence of the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles seeping into Rother's own mid-1960s band, The Spirits of Sound, which also featured future Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flur. 

"We were ambitious," he says, "but we were copycats. In the beginning it was just okay to sound like our heroes. "

Rother soon switched to the more progressive sounds of Cream and Jimi Hendrix.

"I saw Hendrix live in Dusseldorf in 1968," Rother says, "and I had to accept that the world already had one Jimi Hendrix, and didn’t need another one."

Rother moved increasingly away from blues-based music.

“In the late' 60s I ran into a crisis,” he says, “and picking up ideas from other musicians wasn’t good enough. I had to find my own way, and that was quite a rocky road. I felt very alone trying to find other people to play music not based on blues, but through very lucky circumstances I met the Kraftwerk people, Florian Schneider and Rolf Hutter, as well as Klaus Dinger, and then Conny Plank, and realised I wasn’t alone. It was clear to all of us there was something in the air that was about making a European music."

It was the more volatile Dinger who named his and Rother’s band.

“I didn’t like the name at first,” says Rother, “but I couldn’t think of a better one, so it stuck. It was all about advancement, and I was very critical of the counter-culture at the time, and the political situation in Germany. You could see Paris burning, and the war crimes of the American army in Vietnam, and this made me furious.

“Don’t misunderstand me, I have American friends, and I know there is a different America. I still watch documentaries about the Vietnam War, and it’s crazy how the politicians could be so wrong in their judgement. I feel sorry for the soldiers and the people caught up in it.

“I was surprised when Moebius and I visited Vietnam in 1999, and I thought people would throw stones at us, but they were so nice.

Rother and Dinger released three albums as Neu! between 1972 and 1975 before breaking up. Key to their rediscovery was Krautrocksampler, the sprawlingly enthusiastic book by former Teardrop Explodes driving force and weird music fan, Julian Cope, published in 1995.

"When Julian Cope's book came out, that was the first time young journalists were able to convince their editors to write about us," says Rother. “Traditionally the German media looked to America and Great Britain, and in the ‘90s it was still very unusual to write about German music, but then people like Sonic Youth started saying they were influenced by Neu!, and that's all to do with Julian Cope.

"I met Julian when myself and Dieter Moebius played in Bristol in 2007, and he apologised for the mistakes in the book. Because there was no internet then to do fact checking, a lot of it came out of his imagination, but I think what impresses people is his love for the music. That changed things, because we were underground of the underground, and we're still not mainstream."

Rother has visited Scotland several times since then, playing in a duo with Dieter Moebius in Edinburgh in 2006, then as Hallogallo 2010 in a trio featuring Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tall Firs bassist Aaron Mullan. The last time Rother visited was in 2018 at Leith Theatre as part of a night programmed by Edinburgh’s Neu! inspired spoken-word and music night, Neu! Reekie!, when he shared a bill with New York spoken-word queen Lydia Lunch, Edinburgh’s original post-punk incendiarists Fire Engines and Dunbar-based all-female rap trio, Honey Farm.

“When I first read the name, Neu! Reekie!, I thought it was a bit cheeky,” chuckles Rother, “but then they explained the meaning, which related to the old name of Edinburgh, and I thought, that’s okay, and they were nice guys as well,” he says of the night’s ring-maestros, poet Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson.

Rother also attributes the rediscovery of his back catalogue and subsequent raising of profile to Gronland Records, the Berlin-based label founded by Herbert Gronemeyer. Gronland has championed Rother's work, re-releasing Neu! and Harmonia's back-catalogue, as well as Solo, this year’s box set of Rother's first four solo albums.

"Gronland did a great job with Neu! and Harmonia, "he says, "They care about the artists and the music, and I'm so happy to have them as partners. They helped me fight to get my first two albums back from Universal, who didn’t really care about the records, and made some bad mistakes. "

While the vinyl edition of Rother's Solo box set featured some unreleased live material, he has not released a full new album since 2004's Remember (The Great Adventure). Since then, it is the live arena that has enthused Rother most.

“I enjoy playing all over the world,” he says. “the only place that’s a bit difficult just now is North America. The U.S. authorities make it hard for foreign musicians to play, which is due to various restrictions and the costs of visas and so on, and this is pretty disgusting. It’s easier to play in China just now. I remember going there for the first time, and not knowing what to expect. Would they know the work? And would they just stand still and listen? But it couldn’t have been more different.

“For this tour, we’re going all over Europe, which is great. We don’t have any roadies or anything. It’s just three guys going out and enjoying being together.”

Given Rother’s notion of forward-looking music, what happens next?

"I'm thinking about the next step," he says. "I'll be playing the Gronland twentieth anniversary party, and I think they're hoping for a live album at some point. I think they might just like a new studio album, but I'm not sure I'd be happy to spend all that time in the studio to do that. For the moment, it's the live experience I enjoy the most. Live, live, live! "

Michael Rother, Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow, September 6.

An extended remix of an article that appeared in The Herald, September 5th 2019



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