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Michael Rother of NEU! on Their 50th Anniversary Box Set

The Glory of Sheer Desperation

Nov 23, 2022
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Fifty years from the release of their debut album, the music of the German duo NEU! sounds as fresh, intriguing, and arresting as it must have for those early adventurous and curious listeners. NEU! 50! collects their recordings of in a 5-CD box set that presents all four original albums and a tribute disc featuring interpretations and remixes from The National, Mogwai, IDLES, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, and more. A 5-LP vinyl version includes the first three original albums and the tribute.

After leaving an early incarnation of Kraftwerk, guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger formed NEU! in 1971. With co-producer Conny Plank, the duo headed in new directions, crafting timeless and influential work over the course of 1972’s NEU!, ’73’s NEU! 2, and ’75’s NEU! ’75, and their reunion on the self-produced NEU! ’86 added memorably to their legacy. Speaking from Pisa, Italy, Rother looked back with Under the Radar on the work of NEU!, including a focus on the wonderfully controversial side two of NEU! 2 that found the duo becoming remix pioneers through speeding up, slowing down, and manipulating their recordings out of “sheer desperation” to finish the album. Also, speaking as a key figure of German experimental rock music of the early ’70s, Rother weighs in with his thoughts on the term “Krautrock.”

Photo by Anton Corbijn
Photo by Anton Corbijn

Hays Davis (Under the Radar): With a 50-year passage of time, the NEU! albums are striking in how they are still so unique compared to anything that has come in their wake, including the music of others that was obviously influenced by NEU! Are there any particular elements of the NEU! recordings that continue to attract or intrigue you, even as a creator?

Michael Rother: If I look at NEU!, for instance, I am always surprised and even confused, in a positive way. I look at a track like “Hallogallo” [from ’72’s NEU!], how that came together with the help of Connie Plank, the wonderful producer who helped us create that sound. We should never forget to share credit with Connie Plank, who not only contributed great mixing but also the total environment of being in a position to create our music in the studio. Back then, 50 years ago, I was totally unable to handle the studio, so I really depended on Connie Plank. Over the years he taught us to be more independent, so in later years, when I recorded my solo albums with him, I was already, through his training, able to do some of the work on my own. But if I look at “Hallogallo,” for instance, how this track, its beauty…

I don’t listen to my music all the time, but from time to time I have reasons to. For me it’s a mystery how we were able to create that sound with the little gear that was available in the studio, that Connie Plank had only a reverb plate and one tape machine and some compressors, and that was it. So, it was his talent as an organizer of sound. He was just as eager to create new sounds as we were, but it was his talent that, in the end, helped us shape those fuzzy ideas into tracks like, for instance, “Hallogallo.”

Speaking as someone who was directly involved with some of the music that led to the creation of this description, how do you feel about the term “Krautrock?”

[Laughs] You know, over the years, if I look back 50 years, there were quite a few categories they created: “Deutschrock,” “electronic rock,” “meditation music,” even. And “Krautrock,” of course, came from the UK, and I remember thinking this term is not meant totally in a positive way. There is some ambiguity about it. Because I, myself, do not need any tag on the music. It’s just my music. But, of course, I understand, with all this music around, and people have the wish to make some order, to order chaos into some order, to put music into boxes. “That’s classical music and that’s Krautrock.”

I thought, “I can ignore that tag.” But I think it was sometime in the late ’90s, when I traveled to America and Australia and Japan, and I noticed that this was the category for German music, especially of the late ’60s/early ’70s, and that this term in a respectful way. So, it was just a name. “Kraut,” as the Nazis or the old German soldiers, I think this has lost any significance for the tag. You just get used to having a name, like “Henry.” When I realized that it was, in the meantime, used in a respectful way, I sort of stopped fighting. I made my peace. I don’t use it myself because I don’t need a tag, and when I talk to people about tags, about boxes, I try to just point out that, if you look at our intentions of being original and different, this hasn’t changed. Like, if you have a telescope and you look into the night sky, if you zoom in, if you have this box of Krautrock and you’re willing to zoom in, [you can] discover all the space in between and the differences, if you don’t expect, just because they are in one box, that they have very much in common. Maybe it’s only the time the music was created. And it always depends on how close you get with the microscope or a telescope. When you are far away things seem very close. And when you’re very familiar with a topic and you come in closer, you see, suddenly, whoa! They’re not so close at all.

There are huge differences between CAN and NEU! and Cluster and Harmonia and et cetera. This is something I try to explain to people. Okay, we’re in a box, but if you’re willing to understand, we always wanted to be unique, different. It’s not being modest if you want to be unique because there are similarities. You can’t avoid that. But, looking back at the early ’70s, my intention, really, was to leave behind all the connections to the rock cliché, the rock music which I had loved and grown up with, those heroes of the ’60s of mine. They are still respected musicians—especially Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles—they still have a place in my heart. But for me, as an active composer and musician, it was important to find a way to express my own personality and to be different.

Do you think the brief time that you and Klaus spent in Kraftwerk had any real influence on what you two came to do with the first NEU! album?

I think it is important for me to know that being in Kraftwerk, playing with this inspiring musician, Florian Schneider, and of course to Klaus, this was a fantastic experience for me, even though there were struggles going on, especially with Florian. He was a very spiky character. I met the Kraftwerk people by pure chance. I didn’t know them. I was just suddenly in the studio, sort of, because another musician took me along and he was invited to do something, and I decided to join him instead of going home or to meet my girlfriend. So, I started jamming with Ralf Hutter, and suddenly I realized that, Ooh, I’m not alone, like I thought I was, because at that time I didn’t know anyone who was on my path, anyone with whom I could connect. And jamming with Ralf Hutter, it was just as easy as that. We played around the melodies, and it was there. And the others in the room, of course, Klaus and Florian, who were listening on the sofa, they also heard it and noticed that, and so that’s why I got invited to join the band.

My experiences playing live with Florian, they were experiences that I didn’t want to erase. So, when we went into the recording studio to do this NEU! album, at least one element—the fast-forward movement on the track “Hallogallo,” the speeding down to the horizon—that was something we already experienced, but sounding very, very different when we played with Florian. For me, in the biographical sense but also the musical sense, there is a connection between my experience with Kraftwerk and the first NEU! album.

How did you and Klaus work together on your first two albums? Did you generally play together as you were writing, or did you bring ideas to each other and work those into fully-shaped songs for the recordings?

At home we never talked about music. There was no possibility of recording sketches. No one did that. We both had what we called visions [laughs], ideas. We started by laying down the basic tracks. I played guitar or bass and Klaus played drums, and that was like the railway track, sort of. And the next step was, okay, now we want to add color to the sky. This is like an idea of an open sky, and we referred to my guitar playing as clouds. That was a matter of the moment. I sometimes compared the way we worked to two painters, actual painters, if you will, standing in front of an empty canvas, and then one starts and throws color at the canvas. And the other one thinks, ah, interesting. I will add a circle on the left, and green, and then reacting to one another. And that was basically how the tracks came together: by listening to what was happening, and also to some of the contributions Connie Plank did like turning around the tape while I was in the recording. Suddenly I heard “Hallogallo” flying backwards. It was wonderful. I love backwards sounds and slowed-down sounds. So, it was very simultaneous. We didn’t come into the studio with storyboards. It was just being very optimistic, I guess, that we would pull it off.

Looking toward your enjoyment of backwards sounds and similar effects and experiments, do you remember what the record label’s reaction was to the different song versions on the second side of NEU! 2? Or maybe they didn’t mind, since the recordings didn’t cost them any more money.

We paid the production costs out of own pockets to be independent from any influence by the record company, and our very clear idea was, we do the album and then we take the album and put it on the desk and say, “This is the album.” There was no discussion. I’m not totally sure if the people silently thought, “Okay, they are crazy and we don’t understand what they’re doing anyway, but people will probably love it all the same. What do I know?” Something like that. There was one guy who later was the founder and owner of Sky Records, Günter Körber, he actually had more of an idea. But the management had no clue what was going on in the music. They thought, “They’re all crazies,” but we seemed to have a market. Of course, that is the way managers think. That’s the job. But Günter Körber, later on he also, when we talked when I was on label, Sky Records, with my first solo albums, he said, “Yeah, we don’t really know what will be successful.”

Everything was very new. It didn’t really matter because we wouldn’t have accepted any request of change. We got the beating for the second side of NEU! 2. There were many people that heard it and thought, “Wow, this is entertaining,” but many people thought we were making fun of them by doing speeding up, slowing down, making the needle jump, and putting the record off-center. We got a critical beating, and the second album definitely did not go so well with the audience in the ’70s. It took, maybe, 30 years for the audience, also for other musicians, to get more used to the crazy sounds like you can hear on the second side of NEU! 2.

The ideas explored on NEU! 2 showed that any song could be considered a template for further experimentation. Since then, people have done a countless number of things like remixes, but yours was surely one of the first instances of that kind of thing.

You probably know the story. When we went into the studio, the crazy stuff on the second side was not what we really wanted to do. It was the result of sheer desperation of running out of time and not having an album’s enough minutes of music. One night, in which we had to collect musical stuff that filled up [the album]…

I always loved my “Cassetto” thing [makes a garbled sound], garbled, my broken cassette player. When I put “Für Immer,” the original, the mix, into my cassette player, that’s how it played! [Laughs]. It was broken. We really didn’t have any sophisticated gear. We were poor musicians. Now there’s even a tape of NEU! 1 that has been released by Grönland, which is wonderful. It’s very nostalgic, maybe, but I love these small items. But the sound was terrible back then, especially on my cheap players, and “Cassetto”…that was how my player played.

I personally loved quite a lot of that stuff. Not everything. When the needle jumps, that always sort of gives me a punch in the stomach. I remember that, at the time, many people, not so few, went back to the shop with the record and told the shop owner, “I want a new copy,” because they thought this is a bad pressing or whatever. That really demanded something from the people, this jumping needle. This is tough. But some of these experimentations and variations I like very much. The slowed-down version of “Super 16,” which you can hear in “Kill Bill” when [Quentin] Tarantino used it, this is great. Slowed-down music is fascinating. Very often it’s much more fascinating than the normal speed sounds.

Was “Hallo Excentrico!” a revised version of “Hallogallo?” I’m only asking because of the title.

I think we only used material from the second album in that session. All the stuff was already on the tapes for NEU! 2, and then we sent it through the reverb chamber, through the dustbin, through the toilet [laughs], and that was the result. On some of those tracks you can hear us being excited and talking, even, in the studio. I must confess that I was not totally happy. I feared that we would not get away with the material. People were not ready. And, of course, unfortunately I was right. But then, 30 years later, I know some people think this was especially progressive, especially innovative, to treat material with that seemingly little respect to create new sounds, but it was actually out of sheer desperation.

How would you describe the change in NEU!’s writing and recording when you were working on NEU! ’75?

Yeah, there is a big step, a big change. You’re right. After the release of NEU! 2 I met and jammed with the Cluster musicians Roedelius and Moebius [Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, also of Harmonia], in order to find out if they could help us put NEU! music live on stage, because there was some similarities. I knew some music they had released and thought, “That sounds promising to me.” And so, I went to visit them and fell in love with jamming with Roedelius, and then later to working with Moebius. It was very inspiring to be with these people. I lived with them, and we worked and recorded a lot.

Then I started developing new ideas which I realized wouldn’t work with Roedelius and Moebius but which could well work with Klaus. And Klaus, in the meantime, was working with two drummers, Hans Lampe and his brother, Thomas Dinger. At the time I thought, “That’s a funny idea,” but I understood he wanted to get away from the back of the stage. He felt he was hidden from the audience behind his drum kit. He wanted to be at the front of the stage. He wanted to play guitar and sing. He was a magnificent drummer; he impressed people with no end, and also me. But that was his idea at the time.

And so, we discussed the approach to NEU! ’75. There were these two concepts. He had the wish to record the album with the two drummers, and I had the wish to work only with Klaus. I wasn’t really interested in the two drummers. And so, the compromise we found was, we’ll do one side as a duo, like the first two, and the other side with the two drummers. In the end, that worked out very well.

What people who haven’t heard me talking about this don’t know sometimes is that Klaus did wonderful things on my compositions, “Isi” and “Seeland.” His contributions were just as valuable, I think, as my guitars and piano, etc. were on the tracks that he brought to the session, like “Hero” and “After Eight.” And we both enjoyed both worlds. Sometimes there’s this misunderstanding, that people think, “Oh, Dinger and Rother must have been fighting in the studio.” We never fought about music. We agreed on music, I would say, nearly a hundred percent of the time.

Basically, I just wanted to say that this is a misunderstanding, because Klaus and I agreed on music, even though we had, on NEU! ’75, different wishes, ideas for the concept. When it came to making music together, we were in sync, and “Hero” is still one of my favorite NEU! tracks and compositions of Klaus Dinger, and the way he sings on that track never fails to impress me. I remember sitting in the recording room, at the mixing desk, when Klaus did the vocals for “Hero,” and Connie Plank and I, we just looked at each other and we knew without any doubt that the first flash was the perfect take. And Klaus tried to improve it but that was not as powerful as the first flash. And luckily Klaus agreed.

There was much more understanding and affection regarding the music the other one contributed and the elements the other one contributed to the project NEU! It was basically, I had talents that Klaus wished he had and Klaus had talents I wish I had, so it was a complimentary situation. That’s a very simple explanation but it’s close to the truth.

What led to you two coming together to work on the songs that ended up forming NEU! ’86?

After NEU! ’75 came out I went back to Harmonia, but in ’76 my fellow friends, my musician friends Roedelius and Moebius, didn’t want to continue, and so I was suddenly in a situation that I never looked for: I was a solo musician. I had many ideas, and so I decided to ask Jaki Liebezeit [of CAN] to play drums for me, and talked to Connie Plank and he was happy to give me his studio time. By that time he had his own studio, also for NEU! ’75, and I had, from that point on, so much success that I had the ability to buy all the professional recording gear. It was like the dream of a musician come true that I could have all the tools to record, not only when the studio is available, but whenever I wanted to. After breakfast, go to the studio and have the Dolby and the 24-track MCI professional machine, so that was a dream. And Klaus, on the other hand, had the project La Düsseldorf, and he was also super successful with La Düsseldorf. The first two albums sold, unbelievably, hundreds of thousands of copies. So, for quite a few years I was totally happy working in my studio and doing music for theater and film and recording new albums. That was such an exciting time.

By the mid-’80s there was already [talk of], “Okay, we know we can do this in our studios, and maybe we can give it a try to record together again, this time with the machines.” Klaus also had professional recording gear, so we could take advantage of having much more time than we had for NEU! ’75; especially [for] NEU! 2, and even more [than for] NEU! 1, where we only had four nights in the studio to record. And maybe that was a mistake in thinking that if you have more time then the work will be even better. Maybe there were also other factors which didn’t help, but in the end we spent countless hours, days and days, fumbling and discussing details which, on the first three albums, we wouldn’t have had the time to discuss. We just had to deliver while running forward. And in the mid-’80s we sat there and then discussed whether his mix was one third of a dB louder than my mix, and stuff like that. Nonsense. And maybe there was also some kind of creative low. Maybe. I still think there are some good ideas on NEU! ’86.

We decided to stop after working four months on that album. At the end we were, I think, for three weeks at least in my studio, and then we decided to stop for the time being. And we sealed the tapes. Klaus was becoming slightly paranoid already. He had some…his mind drifted a bit, without going into details. He was also very open about his use of substances. He, himself, said so very openly on his website. Anyway, we split the tapes and agreed to meet again at some later point. I continued working on my project, and Klaus went back to Düsseldorf and worked on his projects, and I was very surprised and unhappy when Klaus sent me this funny…I don’t know if he was cynical, but he sent me this fax congratulating me on the release of NEU! 4 in Japan tomorrow. So, he had broken the seal, taken those tapes, and released them because he needed the money. That is the basic truth. I’m sorry. Klaus is no longer here to defend himself, but I think he would maybe even confess that that is true. He felt kind of blocked because, also, he had, through unfriendly behavior, alienated close friends and many collaborators, so Klaus was quite desperate in the mid-’90s.

The Japanese label guy later apologized to me when I came to Japan. He thought Klaus was entitled to take these decisions. I think he was just a big fan and was happy to get NEU! on his label. And when Klaus died in 2008, and Grönland Records had the idea to do the first NEU! box set, I also talked to the heir of Klaus Dinger, Miki Yui, and I said, “Well, I would like to rework that album, finish the recordings, and try to improve the musical output because I was really not convinced about the solutions Klaus found.” He made some decisions and added stuff, quite crazy stuff. Some people love it. That’s okay. Thoughts about music are always different. Every person has their own thoughts. But that was my intention. I wanted to improve the sound, so I went back to the original tapes, the first-generation tapes, and I spent five or six months reworking and adding some stuff, and all the time with the intention of not seizing the opportunity to put me into the front, but always thinking of what would Klaus would think about this decision, and trying to reflect on what other ideas Klaus would have, maybe preferences. And in the end I was very happy with the result, and also with the fact that his heir was also very happy with my work. That was the story of NEU! ’86. That was also the original title we gave the project when we started working in the ’80s. It was not meant to be NEU! 4; it was meant to be NEU! ’86. People can have their opinions. I know that some people think the first three are the impressive ones. Some say beware of NEU! ’86, or the fourth album, but there are also some very good compositions and elements on the tribute album now.

Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, he did a wonderful version of “Wave Mother.” It really moved me to tears, so these harmonies I brought to that project. They are on, I think, five tracks, the harmony cycle. I think I would play that, and maybe a combination of “Wave Mother,” the original recording, and “Euphoria,” which is the speeded-up version I created later, also with Klaus but on my Fairlight. I love these guitars that sound like bells you hear through a valley, that play, and overlapping, and the harmonic additions. That will be fun to play, I think. Sorry, long answer, but it was a long period. I worked on that for six months. It was important to get it right.

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