German Experimental Musician Michael Rother: “I am always very optimistic because I love music…”

Original photo: HPschaefer. Handmade collage by B.

Michael Rother has been making music for most of his life—he is a sound pioneer that is always evolving and very passionate about his work still to this day. Rother is a founding member of Neu! and Harmonia, as well as an early member of Kraftwerk. His latest album Dreaming is lush with a fragility and beauty that can only come from being vulnerable and opening one’s heart, as Rother does here in this very personal piece of art. Gimmie spoke with him about its creation, of creativity and freedom.

How important is it to you to have tranquillity and solitude when you create?

MICHAEL ROTHER: I can concentrate better when I’m on my own but sometimes it’s good to be in a group of course when playing live, this is also in a way being creative, maybe not the same as when you’re working on new material but tranquillity and absence of noise are really important factors for me. The place where I live – now I’m actually in Italy with my partner – in Germany is a perfect example of tranquillity because there is no big city nearby, no autobahn, of course now in Corona times there are even less airplanes in the sky. There’s a big river in front of the house and fields and hills in the distance, this is an environment I started loving when I first moved there in 1973 to work with Harmonia.

Yes! That’s when you built a recording studio.

MR: Yes. I started a professional recording studio. We always had a room we called our studio which was filled with the gear that we could afford, for the first Harmonia album it was simple stereo recording devices, a very simple mixer and our own sound creating gear. In the late ‘70s I started with my professional gear because I was so successful [laughs], strangely with the three solo albums, that I could afford to buy the same gear Conny Plank had in his studio, that’s the old analogue 24 track 2-inch, which is in the studio. Now days, for quite a few years I have a living room studio which I especially like working in. It’s always been my dream to not separate the music from my life, the other life, daily life. I always had this idea of one big loft, but this is being immodest because I have such great opportunities, it’s wonderful to have a studio like the one that I have. That’s the problem with wishes, you always get more wishes, one wish is fulfilled and the next wish is born.

The last album I recorded and worked on in my living room studio with mostly the gear I use when I play live, it’s small, a computer and some effects and of course the necessary hardware and monitor system, which I don’t carry around. It’s the best state for me, to come from the kitchen corner and sit down and listen to the new mixes I’m working on when I’m around the corner. Are you a musician?

Yes. I’m not one for labels much but I do like making noise and sounds!

MR: I can relate to that! You can call everything noise. I would like to know how cats hear my music! So you will know the situation, that it’s very different if you sit in front of your monitors like ears straight-ahead and listen intensely to what’s happening or you go five meters away around the corner and you let the mix play, then you suddenly have a totally different hearing, listening possibility. You notice somethings are maybe too loud or just get drowned, you have to maybe work on better to keep them listenable. Anyway, this is a situation I have been enjoying working on Dreaming.

Dreaming is such a beautiful album there’s a real intimacy to it, it’s very dreamy.

MR: The history of the material on Dreaming goes back to the late ‘90s when I did a recording session with the British cello player and singer, Sophie Joiner. When I worked on Remember (The Great Adventure), I had so much material, much more than I could put on that album and I left it unfinished, some of the material were only sketches with some voice material; I knew that I would always come back to that material. In the years that followed I very much enjoyed playing live around the world, I was in Australia twice, after that also Japan, Russia, China, Mexico and all-around Europe. I did some film scores and other music, that kept me very busy and I enjoyed being on the move and being in a live environment, enjoying the music with an audience in front of me instead of working on my own and getting feedback months or years later, which is nice. That’s why the material was sleeping all these years and when Corona hit us in spring this year and suddenly all the concerts were cancelled, I had time. I had so much free time that I thought, this is the opportunity to pick up that material, it was some kind of duty that I felt. It sounds a bit strange but it was not only the joy of going back to that material, it was also some kind of duty because I felt that it was so beautiful. Sophie Joiner’s voice is unbelievable.

I talked to the label and they were very happy that I could record a new album to also include in the second boxset, which was released a few weeks ago—time just flies, it’s crazy! I had a plan and a purpose. It wasn’t a total lockdown but we had restrictions in Germany which were in no way as bad as in Paris, Madrid and Italy for instance; the situation now as I’m talking is actually exploding again, the situation is frightening. It’s troubling just today the child of my partner received a test result, fortunately there was no Corona.

That’s great news! When you were finishing Dreaming did you have an artistic vision of where you wanted it to go?

MR: I’m not always fully of aware of the motives and where the music is leading me. It’s actually the material that also makes me follow. It’s not having a wish and forcing the music to become as you would like it to become, it’s more the other way around, I guess. A track like ‘Quiet Dancing’, this was the original sketch then I reacted to the basic idea. When I recorded the melodies those were reactions, they weren’t premeditated. Especially because there was this time gap of maybe nearly twenty years with some of the sketches, I had a new start—everything was still deep in my system though. I remembered every moment – it’s strange how music stays so fresh in the system – I remember every second.

Artistic vision, it’s not some kind of formula that I develop on a storyboard then put into music. I work with material, some artists would use clay or paint colours, I work with sounds and melodies. It’s not a theoretical thing. I’ve never been someone that is interested in discussing theories about music, like when Brian Eno was in force, he was full of theories; he’s a very interesting person. It was the same with Klaus Dinger in Neu! or with [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius and [Dieter] Moebius in Harmonia—we were always musicians who worked on music and that was the result. It was different from the Kraftwerk people that maybe had a vision, some kind of idea; let’s make an album that has this vision of a train running through Germany or Europe and make Trans Europe Express. It’s always connected to sounds. If you ask someone who is capable of analysing the ingredients of the music, the deeper connections they find in the music, they will probably be able to explain some theory to my music but I’m not that theory guy.

What is the significance of the title Dreaming?

MR: Dreaming has been an important element in my life for many years. I sometimes have very great dreams, not always but I’m often travelling at night and dreaming, also meeting people that are no longer there, this happens frequently. I’m not any different from any other people but for me the state of sleeping and dreaming is important. I enjoy when I have the chance to wake up slowly and remember what happened at night, what I was dreaming about, to think about those impressions and how they came about.  The album Traumreisen that came out in 1987 was already an indication, that was a word game because traumreisen in the German language is an expression used by travel agencies, I sometimes do that although it’s not very wise because people get it mixed up and don’t understand the joke. It’s like a dream voyage, mostly known as an expression of travel agencies. For me of course, it was something I did at night, travel at night in dreams.

Wow! That’s really cool.

MR: Yeah. I sometimes like to play with titles, with double meanings. I have noticed that quite a few people just stick to the surface, the first meaning, they don’t even expect a second meaning to be hidden or beyond that. Also, my album Katzenmusik ‘cat music’ was an example. There were comments from fans saying: why does he call his music cat music? It’s not screeching like cats fighting! [laughs]. It’s not very wise of me but I enjoy it and playing with language.

With the album title Dreaming this was very clear though. I don’t know when in the recording sessions I thought, that was so magical the way she uttered that word. To be honest I wasn’t sure if it was too sweet but then I stuck to it. Now I am totally happy that I didn’t waiver.

I think it really fits the music. Where does the cover image come from?

MR: That’s a family photo. It’s my brother, my mother and me. My father took that photo when we were in Karachi in Pakistan. It is very personal. It’s actually the same with music, music is also, how personal can you get? It’s connected to my person and my history; it actually means a lot to me. This photo is wonderful, I enjoy looking at it every day.

It’s a beautiful, emotive image. I get the feeling that you are very fond of water too? You seem to have a connection to it.

MR: [Laughs] Oh yes! I really do. I don’t’ know if that’s typical but if you see little children they also enjoy running into the water at the beach. I feel very at home in water. Thinking about it, I’ve lived next to water all my life. I had the opportunity of swimming in the Mediterranean in the summer and it’s wonderful. I like waves actually, so Australia would be great. Although I’m afraid of sharks, I must confess.

Same! Me too.

MR: [Laughs].  People talk about fears of flying, I don’t have that. I tell them just look at the statistics and yeah, hmmm… with sharks it’s the same, more people die falling off ladders or hit by lightening than from sharks. It’s just something from the subconscious. I wouldn’t want to hurt a shark but I wouldn’t want to be attacked by one either.

I remember once when I was in California, I was staying at Flea from the [Red Hot] Chilli Peppers’ beach house with friends and they took me on a canoe trip on the water and I remember looking suspiciously at the water [laughs]. I felt quite vulnerable. It’s crazy. I am very, very much into water and water activities also. I hope to still have the chance one day to learn to surf, real surfing, maybe when I’m ninety! [laughs].

In Karachi we were at the beach every weekend, Saturday and Sunday. I was in and out of the water all day long. I remember there being nice waves and doing bodysurfing. It was so much fun!

Living next to the river like in Germany now or in Munich, we also live next to a river in Hamburg and even when we were in Winslow near Manchester in the UK there was a little small river, which I was in a lot. I don’t want to say this is more pleasure for me than other people, but it is a real pleasure to be in this element. Also, to look at the water surface, the mystery, you don’t see what’s below the surface and the imagination of how the sea bed develops—that’s something that drives my imagination.

Yes, and we are composed of a lot of water and water can be so many different forms liquid, frozen and it can be rain or perspiration, so many things.

MR: Yes [laughs]. Very good!

I really loved the film clip for your song ‘Bitter Tang’. It contains footage from your archive of when you were young.

MR: That’s right. You see my father; he died many, many years ago when I was fifteen, he died in ’65. And my mother… it’s also a very personal piece of work the video. My friend Thomas Beckmann edited it in collaboration with me. I will use his expression, “We did a great job!” [laughs]. Thomas did a wonderful piece of work with the video; I am very happy we have it. Some of the footage I filmed. Thomas was also with me when we found Sophie Joiner in Hamburg.

I know that, in regards to your creativity, you enjoy total freedom and in your music you like to create a feeling of freedom; what does that freedom look like or what does it mean to you?

MR: That’s an interesting question. Freedom is like for a cat, a cat needs to be free, if you try to hold a cat, she’ll go crazy. The possibility of deciding upon your own personal wishes, not being forced by some problems regarding money, being independent, artistic freedom is of course a part of that. I was fortunate from the beginning, it was the same for Klaus Dinger and my Harmonia colleagues, we were in the same spirit. We wanted to be free and we accepted the downside of this freedom, although we expected the best; I am always very optimistic because I love music. Being independent of the record companies, of their decisions and decisions made by other people, this I think was one of the most important elements.

Please check out: Michael Rother; on Facebook; on Instagram. Dreaming and Solo II out now on Grönland Records.

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