Published Sep 29, 2009There's no denying Michael Rother has some serious musical cred. Since beginning his career in the early '70s, the German has done time in some of Krautrock's biggest, most über-influential acts, cutting his teeth in Kraftwerk before going on to front Neu!, Harmonia and decades' worth of solo material. And while Rother is perhaps best known for his work in Neu!, whose minimalist motorik-driven grooves have influenced everyone from Stereolab to David Bowie to Sonic Youth and LCD Soundsystem, it's his days in Harmonia that again have pulled the 59-year-old from relative obscurity. Formed with Cluster's Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Harmonia only released two studio albums - 1974's Musik Von Harmonia and 1975's Deluxe - before calling it a day. But with Krautrock in vogue now more than ever, the trio have in recent years received some more-than-warranted posthumous releases, the latest of which is the group's one and only collaborative effort with Brian Eno, Tracks and Traces. With the original master tapes once thought to be lost, this kosmische artifact has finally been unearthed 33 years after it was originally recorded, sounding eerily contemporary as it shifts from improvised synth work-outs to atmospheric transcendence, pastoral pop and abstract sound explorations. From his home in Forst, Germany, Rother took time out from assembling the upcoming five-LP Neu! box set to talk to Exclaim!, shining a light on Tracks and Traces' long and complicated history, his late Neu! partner Klaus Dinger, the infamous invitation to join David Bowie's Heroes and his plans to form a super-group alongside the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante and Flea.
So how did this Harmonia record, Tracks and Traces, get lost, so to speak?
Well, Brian visited us in '76 and he then took the tapes with him [when he left]. Then he actually wanted to return a few years later, that was the original idea, but everything went in a different direction. My first solo album [1977's Flammende Herzen] came out a few months later and everybody just had different projects, so Brian never came back. He disappeared and the tapes disappeared. But Roedelius was in touch with Brian, and whenever I spoke to Roedelius he said, "Brian can't find those tapes. They've vanished." And I thought, that's a pity, of course. Because even at that time, I knew those recording sessions were rather good. We enjoyed working with Brian. It was a very relaxed and creative atmosphere.
Again, more years past, and around late 1996, Roedelius said he had transferred all the stuff we had recorded on my four-track with Brian to CD, and sent us a copy. Moebius and I were actually kind of disappointed and angry that he didn't tell us before that he began doing that work. We loved the music itself, obviously, but at the time, there was some serious atmospheric problems between Roedelius and Moebius, so we were distant, let's put it that way. So maybe that's the reason he went on the project on his own. But of course we were very happy to have that document.
We looked around and some record companies here were interested in releasing it. One was a big corporation, Sony Music. But the person very enthusiastic about the record unfortunately left the company shortly before the album came out with Sony. So when this guy was gone, no one at Sony knew what to do with that music. In the late '90s in Germany, they were into trance and electronic music, but nothing as calm as the way Tracks and Traces was. And in America it was out on Rykodisc. But in Europe you could hardly find the record because [Sony] didn't care. They put out a 1,000 copies or whatever and just forgot about it.
So how did this new 2009 version of Tracks and Traces come about?
Eventually, we got back all the rights to that album, and when we released Harmonia's Live in '74 with Grönland in 2007, we noticed that the label did a very good job - they take care of the music, they care for the music. It was a very obvious decision for us if they wanted to release Tracks and Traces, and of course they did. So we started thinking about that project, and I had a tape mixed down in '76 before Brian left. It was just a simple cassette tape. That was only meant as a memo for my own purposes until Brian returned. And this cassette tape was lying on the shelf in the studio all these years, and every once in a while I'd notice it and look at it, but I never listened to it. Then this year, when we started talking about this new version, one idea was to get in touch with Brian Eno and ask him to have another look in his archive for more material. But the situation with Brian is that the guy is so impossibly busy. He gave us the green light [to do the reissue], but said he didn't want to be involved and didn't want to be bothered with any decisions. And we just had to accept that.
So what was on that cassette tape, that memo tape?
Well, it was just a simple cassette tape and we just transferred it to a computer, with the three bonus tracks ["Welcome," "Atmosphere" and "Aubade"] on this version of Tracks and Traces coming from that cassette. But when we transferred the material from the tape, I counted about 27 or 28 sketches, and most of them so interesting and so convincing that I thought, "That must be released." Nearly everything from that session was so good and justified for release.
We thought about what to do with that document. My approach is I prefer listening to good music - exciting music - on a bad tape than boring music on the best audio system. But after de-noising the recordings and remastering them, I nearly went crazy. I mean, the fellow remastering them was so ambitious and I think with the second track, we must have started doing it 70 times. After three, four, five, six hours, I thought I was going to go completely crazy. But it was worth all that effort. At least people tell me they hardly notice any difference in the sound quality with those three added songs and the original ones on the record. And of course we also remastered the original tracks.
So have you stayed in touch with Brian Eno over the years and spoke to him?
Nope. Never. Actually, one year after Brian first left, though, David Bowie called me when Brian was with him. You may know that story - that mysterious invitation. When people told David that I had turned him down [to record with him], and they told me the same about him. Strange stuff.
Yeah, did you in fact turn down David Bowie's invitation to work on Heroes?
No, I did not. I spoke to four people at the time in '77, and David was the second. First, the secretary called me and asked [me to play on the record] and I said, "Of course. Please ask David to call me and I'll talk to him." And we were so enthusiastic to do the project. But eventually some manager called me to talk business and maybe I gave the wrong answers, because soon another person called me and said, "I just want to tell you that David has changed his mind. He doesn't need you." I thought, "That's strange. He didn't sound like that." But I was busy. My first solo album was doing really well and I was just getting ready to record my second Sterntaler  that summer.
Then I read a David Bowie interview in Uncut maybe nine years ago, and he said something like, "Yeah, I invited Michael Rother [to play on Heroes], and I was so disappointed when he turned me down. I wondered how my albums in Berlin would have turned out if he had been on the team."
So when he contributed quotes to our Neu! reissue on Grönland in 2001, we exchanged some notes and, well, he invited me to come visit him in New York, but I haven't done that yet. Maybe we can talk, but it's anyone's guess as to what happened [back in the '70s]. A logical explanation for me is that I think he was in a bad state, physically and maybe mentally, when he was in Berlin, with drugs, etc. So maybe someone decided to "help" David not take too many risks, not go into more experimental stuff because the sales were going down. The new direction his music was taking in the '70s - with Low and then Heroes - at the time, it wasn't popular, strangely enough. It's hard these days to imagine that. But I think that some of his handlers thought they were helping David and thought it was best he didn't invite this crazy German guy. Maybe they were right, though. Maybe I would have spoiled the album.
Could you tell me a bit about what you remember about initially recording Tracks and Traces?
Well, the story started in '74 when Brian sat in the first row of a Harmonia concert in Hamburg. We were surprised. I think there were three or four guys completely dressed in black sitting in the first row, and one of them was Brian Eno. He was on a promo trip to Germany and he was in Bermen, which is 60 or 70 km from Hamburg. And he was talking to a German journalist - one of the few who journalists who were fans of our music at the time. Really, at the time, you would need less than the fingers on one hand to count them all. This journalist, he interviewed Brian, and the journalist started taking about his love for Neu!, Can, Harmonia, Kraftwerk. And then this German journalist said, "Yeah, Harmonia, they're playing in Hamburg tonight." So Brian said, please take me there immediately. So he ended up meeting us and jammed with us.
That was in '74 and we invited him to come visit us in our place in Forst. But that didn't happen until two years later, and at the time Harmonia had already split, which was also quite funny. We were all suddenly busy with individual projects, and Brian was there saying, "Is it okay if I come visit you now?" And of course we said, please come. Then he spent about 11 days with us. It wasn't the idea to end up with an album. He was just an enthusiast of our music, and we were fans of Brian Eno's music and of Roxy Music of course. So it was just having the pleasure of having the company and talking and making music. Actually, we did those sessions in the best circumstances you can imagine.
I know under pressure I can sometimes get tense. Looking back at the recordings I did with Neu!, the pressure of the clock on the wall created some really unpleasant situations, like "Oh no, we only have one more night, and we don't have enough material for the second Neu! album." Maybe you know the story of what happened, when we more or less freaked out and started kicking the turntable and doing all kinds of strange experiments, which people at the time didn't want to hear. I mean, even now I think some of it is pretty hard to digest. I can't hear that too often. At the time, I was very unsure if people would be unsure about Neu!'s approach to music, and I was proven right. We got such a beating for those experiments in '73 when that album [Neu! 2] was out. People really thought, "These guys are trying to make a fool of us. This is not serious music."
Of course, it was in a way, but we were frantic and we were desperate and we needed material. I mean, the situation with Neu! 2 was that it was our first production where we had a 16-track; we did the first record on 8-track. But having 16 tracks between two musicians, that kind of seducing, making you think I can add another guitar, I can record a backwards guitar, I can add another fuzz guitar, piano forwards, piano backwards. And that all added up to some great sounds like on "Für Immer," the first song on Neu! 2. But at that time, we were at a difficult spot and the 16-track took up so much time. But we took the risk and spent our own money on the recording and hoped we could come out with something convincing at the end that we could present to a record company.
It almost sounds like these Harmonia sessions are the opposite of that, where you only used a simple 4-track and were very relaxed and calm.
That's right. At the time, we used very simple gear we had in our home studio in Forst. And there were no costs other than the costs for blank tapes. Being as poor as we were at the time, though, even the cost of those were too much for us, so Brian brought tapes along.
Why was it important for you to do this new version of Tracks and Traces?
Because Roedelius only had this one tape and he did that on his own. I selected the three bonus songs on Tracks and Traces, and I helped pick tracks that would help reflect the many different atmospheres we created back then. I think the first version was a bit one-sided, in that respect, leaning towards Roedelius. These three new tracks, I think they balance it perfectly, showing the very harmonic and friendly side of what we did. The titles of the new tracks were contributed by Stephen Iliffe, who wrote the liner notes of the reissue. When he gave the title "Welcome" for the opening track, I thought that was perfect. It's a track that greets you in a very friendly way and reflects this one element of our collaboration, which combines the harmonic, melodic qualities of Brian's and mine and ours in a very special way.
There is this Eno quote where he says that Harmonia was "the world's most important rock band in the mid-'70s." And despite everyone likely asking you about this, how do you feel about that quote?
Of course he was right! [laughs] It said so in the New York Times, sometime in the '70s. People keep repeating that. You can imagine German journalists who ignored us in the '70s - later on when they loved Brian Eno, thinking what a great musician and producer, and he's a fan of these people. Of course, the journalists loved it, but I'm not sure how fans react to that. Sometimes I feel as if it's like being the best lover in the world - these idiotic statements where there is no such person that's the best lover in the world. To say something is the best of the world is in itself a very strange statement. But I'm happy he said something so friendly about us. Even if we are only the second most important band, it would still be great.
That quote is just kind of funny, considering how Harmonia was such a commercial disaster at the time.
Not only a commercial disaster, but in general the people over here also ignored us and sometimes hated us. It was difficult, especially for Harmonia. Neu! was a different story. Neu! had something people could cling to - this clean beat, this straight beat. But the music of Harmonia was always more on details or sound experimentation. At the time, people just couldn't digest that. They weren't ready. This has changed luckily, of course.
What was Harmonia like live back then in the '70s?
Often during a show, two hours were mostly spent searching - that was typical of Harmonia during the first period. We took ages, sometimes got nowhere, but because it was improvisational music, it very much depended being in very much the right mood and finding inspiration, and sometimes we didn't find any. But on the other hand, working that way you can reach very special results that you could hardly create if you tried to do something on purpose. The ratio was sometimes a bit hard to digest, where you play two hours of music and only have five minutes of great music, and the rest sometimes falling apart.
I heard that Appleblim and Shackleton would be remixing some songs from Tracks and Traces.
That's right. After that there will be one more perhaps or maybe two [12-inch remix singles]. But yes, Appleblim and Shackleton are on the first remix vinyl, doing one track each for a 12-inch single. To be honest, I can only say I rather liked the remixes, though some were rather far away from the original. But they must be good, otherwise they wouldn't be on the vinyl, because we have to give our consent for that material.
Since 2007, Harmonia has reunited for a handful of live shows. Do you see more of those taking place in the future?
No, we stopped the collaboration again already. Yeah, even quicker than in the '70s. We returned from Australia, and there were some interesting offers, but again there was some trouble in the band. I'm only one-third of the band, and if the others don't want to continue, it's not really possible. In recent years, I've become very interested in the dynamic music, the idea of Neu! That's something I also tried to express during the Harmonia shows, since we started in 2007. Of course, there is a cross section of Harmonia ideas and Neu! ideas - that's in my person. And I think the very enthusiastic reception my live ideas got during these Harmonia shows did not make the boys so happy. But I should shut up...
Do you have other live plans?
Next year, I hope to be performing live again. I've already contacted some of my musical friends, especially from the States. You may know I've been working with John Frusciante [Red Chili Peppers' guitarist], Benjamin Curtis [School of Seven Bells] and Josh Klinghoffer [Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gnarls Barkley] in recent years. My idea is to put do this straightforward Neu! idea, with strong beats and strong forward movement, and crashing guitars and walls of sound, on stage. Of course, we'd be doing my version of Neu!, some of the Harmonia tracks that I composed or contributed to in the '70s and some of my solo stuff. That is something that would really make me get quite excited. And my friends - Flea would also love to be part of that project - they are all just waiting to hear about the ideas. Doing it really depends on finding a really good festival or doing a good several concerts. It will largely depend on my friends being available.
Do you think you would record an album with those musicians?
Why not? I mean, it would be a unique opportunity to bring those people together and imagining the power of those three guitars is enough to make me jump around. We did some great improvisation jam during the last Red Hot Chili Peppers show in Hamburg [in 2007]. Josh Klinghoffer joined the Chili Peppers on that tour on guitar, but I love his drumming. Josh is such an amazing drummer so he would be my choice as a drummer. Also, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth is great on drums.
Yeah, you've done stuff with Shelley before, correct?
Yes, in September last year, I did some recordings with him. The soundman of Sonic Youth, Aaron Mullan, did the recording in their studio in Hoboken [NJ].
Is that something you'd ever release?
I'm not sure. Like everyone, it's the same problem where all the Sonic Youth guys are busy. But I know from my work that material can sit on the shelf for ten, 20 years, or even longer, and then it can come out of the oven at the right time. And time is not the most important factor. You just have to be lucky that it happened.
I heard that you may be re-releasing Neu! 4.
Yes, that's right. Soon I'll be back in the studio again working on that. I've already spent weeks transferring from Neu! '86, as we used to call it, onto my computer and started editing it. Part of that stuff was unhappily released by my late Neu! partner Klaus Dinger in Japan in the mid-'90s. That was a very sad story. He sent me a congratulatory fax in late 1995 saying, "Congratulations, Neu! 4 will be out in Japan tomorrow." That was very funny because when we stopped working on that project in '86 we sealed the tapes and agreed to meet again at a later time. But, well, things got worse with Klaus. Once on his website, he wrote he was proud of taking more than 1,000 LSD trips and definitely some other substances. That put him apart from most people. He was in a different orbit. I must not forget of course to point out that Klaus was a great artist and drummer and collaborator, but he was a very, very difficult person and he grew more difficult over the years, and that culminated in the early '90s.
Apparently, he broke the seal of a few of the tapes we had put away and just decided to take the money and run. This Japanese label, Captain Trip, was eager to release the material. I met the guy [from the label] later and he apologized and said he thought Klaus was entitled to act as Neu!, which of course he wasn't on his own. That only reflects part of the material.
Klaus added some material that I would have not used. The commercial trash for instance, it's not so interesting anymore. It wasn't so interesting in the '80s. And there are some recordings I discovered in my archives that I actually had forgotten, recordings we did in the first studio that we didn't continue working on. So I'm reflecting on many ideas, making changes and listening to that material, and I've discovered my feeling for Klaus are different now. They are much more positive. There are no more ego fights, no crazy aggression stuff that I have to defend myself from. It's a completely different psychological situation, and I can concentrate on the positive artistic quality of his work. Well, that's something that goes on in my mind. I hope I manage to present the quality of Neu! I mean, the '80s were maybe a bit different of course, and the aesthetics were a bit different. I'm also quite optimistic that what I find will find more recognition than the release Klaus did in the '90s with some of that material.
Are there any plans to release any more Neu! material?
The idea is to release the vinyl box set by the end of this year. But that would mean I can't sleep tonight and for the rest of the year. I will do my best, though. I'm serious about that. Already Grönland people are asking when I can come to Berlin to discuss the artwork and the big booklet that is to go along with the vinyl box set.
So what will be in that box?
The idea is to collect all of Neu!'s music, all of the recordings, and to make that available legally for fans. Also, we want to collect texts that have been written about Neu!, photos that haven't been shown of Neu! - to show the bandwidth of Neu! One of the ideas is to also make edits of an album Klaus also released illegally in Japan called '72 Live! In Dusseldorf, which was a rehearsal tape and that I think just showed that we failed to put our Neu! music on stage in '72.
We will do five vinyls. First, Neu!, Neu! 2, Neu! '75 - but we won't touch those, don't be afraid. Then we'll have Neu! 4, or Neu! '86 as I like to call it, as the fourth. And the fifth vinyl would be the edits of '72 Live! There are some other ideas of things I want to include, but I have to discuss those with myself first.
What about that booklet? What will it contain?
It will be filled with pictures by some really famous photographers, for instance Anton Corbijn. He did a photo session with Neu! in 2000. Unfortunately, at the time Klaus said no, and we couldn't release the photos. He didn't like them. At the time, Klaus was still quite unhappy and he looked very fierce in some of the photos. I'm just guessing that he was astonished when he saw the photos and that's why he didn't want others to see them. They are interesting photos. One is actually even quite funny, I can tell you, because it was a spontaneous situation where we tried to shake hands but the hands didn't meet. I'm smiling at this and Klaus is looking at the camera with a sly look, and it is funny in a way.
Also, Neu! '86 will likely come as a single CD. And you can't release all the music as a vinyl so maybe some of it will be exclusively made as downloads. But I'm working as an archivist. That's part of my job now, and I love the result and I'm so happy about the enthusiasm everywhere. I just do my best.
So back to Tracks and Traces, what do you hope this adds to the whole Harmonia story?
Tracks and Traces is unique in the way that it's the only time the four of us worked together, and it definitely adds colours to the complete output of Harmonia, some elements that aren't available on some of the other albums we've done. It's just adding one more piece to a puzzle - one colour to the picture. It surprises me talking about decades' worth of material. Talking about recordings done nearly 40 years ago is frightening in a way.
I'm surprised you remember everything so well.
You know, music helps me remember. Even some occasions six years ago vanish more quickly than something that happened in connection with music I maybe worked on 30 years ago. Maybe it's a selective memory or maybe the memory is even corrupted. We noticed discrepancies in our memories when we first released Tracks and Traces. It's sometimes very strange what memory does. You believe something is true but you did quite the opposite. But hopefully you can take my word for all this.