It was December 1976, and Michael Rother was in the Marien Hospital in Düsseldorf. He thought he was probably dying: a mysterious infection wouldn’t subside, and doctors suspected leukemia. “I didn’t tell my mother,” Rother says. “Nobody survived that here. But from that hospital I discussed the final points for the contract with Sky Records, for my first album. From that hospital, facing death!”
Rother’s situation was about to change in many ways. After a week of tests, the infection suddenly subsided; then, in March 1977, Flammende Herzen was released and connected with a larger pool of listeners than any of the guitarist’s efforts before. The album was the first of Rother’s work as a solo artist, and the beginning of the sophisticated, stately set of records collected here. Melodic, romantic and expansive, they channel the pastoral, bucolic feeling of Forst, the tiny German hamlet that Rother moved to in 1973, and where he still lives today.
“I love this place. It looked a bit different back then, of course – there was no toilet, no running water in these rooms, there was only one tap outside in the staircase, and the water just went through the wall and ran down the outside of the building. But people who’ve left have had longings for the magic of Forst.”
Outside the thick stone walls of Rother’s house, through large windows, lies a grassy lawn, then the swiftly unfolding slide of the river Weser, strangely fast for its width and the size of its floodplain. Behind this glittering, silver stream (which also inspired Brian Eno’s peaceful “By This River”) sit wooded ridges, rising suddenly out of the flat pasture; highland cattle surround the stone and timber-framed buildings of Forst, a picture-postcard of central European rural bliss.
History is all around: outside the guitarist’s front door stands the placard that gave Harmonia their name, while downstairs, in varying states of repair, is practically every instrument Rother has ever owned, from the original, handbuilt Neu! fuzzbox and all manner of primitive drum machines, to his ’80s Fairlight synth and latest effects pedals. “I know that I have a bit too much,” he admits. “Life has been so generous, and I have all those toys and the gear, more than time to work with all that stuff. I feel a bit guilty!” The demand for Flammende Herzen was something Rother hadn’t experienced before. His three albums as one half of Neu! had sold reasonably well (the debut racked up 30,000 sales), but his work in Harmonia shifted a lot less. As with Neu!, there had been struggles within that group – this time between those who wanted more structure, namely Rother, and those who preferred abstract improvisation, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius – and by summer 1976 the band were all preparing for solo recordings. “I was forced really to work on my own,” he explains. “I never wanted to work solo, it didn’t cross my mind, but I didn’t know anyone else.”
Using a four-track recorder he’d bought in 1974, Rother continued the work he’d begun with the title track of Harmonia’s second and final album, Deluxe, tracking out rough, fuzzy demos of brand new ideas. Conny Plank, who had produced nearly all of Neu! and Harmonia’s records, agreed to work with Rother again, and in June 1976 the guitarist headed to Plank’s similarly rural studio, between Bonn and Cologne. Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit was asked to contribute to sessions, while the instrumental palette was kept compact – Rother’s Fender Mustang and Gibson Les Paul, Farfisa Professional Piano, Farfisa Syntorchestra, Liebezeit’s drums and Plank’s Yamaha synth.
“I was always totally amazed by Conny’s ability to arrange stuff, like [Neu!’s] ‘Hallogallo’. That was the amazing talent of Conny Plank – I couldn’t have done it and Klaus Dinger couldn’t have done it. For Flammende Herzen Conny showed me how to do overdubs on my own. I recorded some melody lines for the title track, and got confused with the layers – when he came back he said, ‘Why don’t you go for a walk for 20 minutes?’ When I returned he had assembled the right parts – the main melody was clear, but Conny organised the additional guitar lines and all the melodies together suddenly made perfect sense. It demanded this intro, which celebrates the guitar orchestra. There was a lot of love in that title track, I was totally in love and my girl was far away, and that yearning is in the music.”
Melody is the key to much of this music, with Rother unconcerned with low end (“I hate bass!” he laughs) and Liebezeit keeping his drumming skilfully subtle. The unfussy, folk nature of these melodies comes from Rother’s long desire to create his own personal, more European music, far from the blues tropes that he loves, but has long felt disconnected from. He even resisted the temptation to bend strings: “That’s just one of the clichés which I wanted to leave behind completely. My mother played classical piano, with Chopin as her favourite, so I heard that kind of music when I was too young to remember. It could be the case that the young brain picked up all this input, like how babies pick up language and sounds.”
While restraint was key, then, there was room for improvisation in arrangements. The one ominous-sounding piece on Flammende Herzen, “Feuerland”, was built up in the studio, but it too was inspired by Forst, as well as Rother’s affection for the “high-culture” Donald Duck cartoons created by artist Carl Barks and translator Erika Fuchs.
“It was a hot day and there was a storm coming,” Rother says, “you could really feel the electricity in the air – and this channelled into the track. Something nice happened when I was trying Conny’s Yamaha synth. I didn’t know the synth, and all of a sudden, something resembling Donald Duck came out, and you can hear it on the track!”
Flammende Herzen, named after a heart-shaped flower, was released in early ’77, with multiple re-pressings following. The album even inspired a film, its every scene based around the ebb and flow of Rother’s music.
Harmonia and Neu! had played live, with mixed results, but Rother declined to tour his solo debut, instead burying himself in work on a follow-up. The process was the same, but Rother had more money and time, and recorded some of his new music at Forst using Plank’s mobile equipment. The results were released as Sterntaler in early 1978.
This new work sounded more confident – at times harder, as on the opening gallop of “Sonnenrad”, and at others supremely melodic. Rother had also got into the habit of buying unusual musical instruments, and his new Italian vibraphone from the ’50s showed up on the jazzy detour “Fontana Di Luna”.
“It’s maybe, nearly cheesy?” says Rother of the album’s title track. “I don’t see it that way, but I can look at it from the outside and see that it could be considered sentimental and heart-warming – but for me it was about notes and harmonies and combinations, so it was not trying to be cheesy.
“Sterntaler is a fairytale in German culture. It’s about this poor orphan girl, she has this apron, and suddenly these coins fall from the sky into her apron – ‘stern’ means star, ‘taler’ means dollar. The way things changed for me, suddenly selling tens of thousands of albums, that changed my economic situation so drastically, it was a bit like the fairy story. Although I’m not a nice little girl with an apron…”
As layered as his first two solo albums were, Rother’s third would introduce an even more pronounced sophistication – 1979’s Katzenmusik swapped the motorik pulse for more dynamic beats, as Rother experimented with repeating themes and complex chord modulations. It was a blissful, positive suite, recorded between March and July of that year, and innocently inspired by the guitarist’s affection for the feline species.
“Someone asked, ‘Why does Michael call his music ‘cats’ music’? It’s not so disharmonic at all.’ But I named it this because I was already so in love with cats,” he explains. “I’m a helpless fan, an admirer of their grace… They give me so much joy – I love to imagine what they think, I love to touch them… So that’s the reason why I called it Katzenmusik.”
The only time that Katzenmusik and its 12 tracks dipped from this romantic mood was on “KM 10”, a favourite of Rother’s and a return to the darker feel of the debut’s “Feuerland”. Its beginning was particularly striking, a freeform soundscape drizzled with drones from Rother’s favourite new toy, an eBow he had recently bought in London.
“Of course I was excited about the possibility of having endless sustain,” laughs Rother, “and that’s why you hear the eBow all over the place. On ‘KM 10’, which has this long, floating intro before the beat comes in, it sounds a bit like crying cats. I remember I was in the studio and I was really sad – we had three or four female cats and they had kittens, and we had to give them away, otherwise we would have been swamped. But you fall in love with these creatures. I remember it was not my intention to express my sadness on that track, but I still remember it.”
Katzenmusik was Rother’s bravest and most complete solo work yet, but it was also the end of an era: next time, he would produce himself without Plank’s help, and record entirely at Forst. To this end, Rother spent months constructing a 24-track studio on the ground floor of the building, with its large windows looking out on the Weser.
With his own studio to maintain, Rother was a little more concerned with wiring and microphone placement than the area’s changing seasons, and so 1982’s Fernwarme felt less rooted in Forst than its predecessors. It sounds more industrial, from the machine-led textures of “Klangkörper” to its title, which refers to Hamburg’s ‘district heating’ system but also doubles cleverly as ‘warmth from a distance’. “It can be about yearning, emotion, heart, feelings. That playing with double meanings went on for other titles, many of which came from my friend Jens Harke, so I was sort of famous for having awkward titles.” There was a darkness to Fernwarme as well, demonstrated by the shadowy, monochrome sleeve. “The original title of ‘Elfenbein’ was ‘Heavy Blood’. My uncle died of a heart attack while I was recording Fernwarme, and it is very dark, this track, but it’s an emotional reaction to his death.”
Jaki Liebezeit was present – even gloriously double-tracked on the opening, sun-dappled “Silberstreif” – but this would be his last album with Rother; from now on, the guitarist would delve deeper into electronics, and would work mostly alone.
“Maybe it wasn’t very smart not to continue working with Conny,” says Rother, “but for me it was the natural step, not only making the music, but also sculpting it into the final shape. It’s about experimentation, it’s about adventure.”
This collection, then, comprises Michael Rother’s entire solo work with Plank and Liebezeit, his most guitar-heavy records under his own name, and the music that most beautifully captures the idyllic surroundings of Forst. Some of the most pastoral electric records ever made, these albums remain timeless, beautiful and in constant motion, like the river Weser itself.
The 21st century has, in many ways, been Michael Rother’s most free and experimental period as an artist, as the two extra LPs in this box demonstrate: here is a musician flitting between adventurous performances, soundtrack work and freewheeling collaborations as a guitarist and remixer.
The hermetic, studio-bound composer of the late ’70s and early ’80s now expends most of his creative energy in a live setting, performing the music of Neu! and Harmonia alongside his own solo work, plenty of it from his first four solo albums.
“Recording is thrilling, but it’s also a lonely experience,” he says. “You circle around your ideas for weeks and months, fine-tuning the material until the brain starts to melt. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to spend endless time in the studio but the downside of this process is that it totally exhausts me, and the feedback from the audience always took months to reach me. Playing live, on the other hand, is a very direct experience that you share with other people. The joy is in the air.”
Captured on one LP is a brand new composition – perhaps more of an improvisation – performed live by Rother and his two able bandmates, guitarist Franz Bergmann and drummer Hans Lampe. It’s a fine example of his live sound, and something of a thread to his ’70s work.
“‘Groove 139’ is a good example of why I enjoy playing live,” he explains. “In February 2018, we played at the Jazz Café in London and there was this buzz and anticipation in the air when we went onstage. I brought a delay pedal along, through which I played some new guitar elements I created on the spot. The whooshing intro on the Kaoss pad was also the result of a spontaneous decision onstage. All in all, the track reflects a mixture of pre-meditated material and improvised actions which I enjoy very much these days.”
Also present here is a track by Hallogallo 2010, formed after the guitarist met Sonic Youth’s sound engineer Aaron Mullan at Camber Sands’ All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2008 – Mullan introduced Rother to Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and the trio then jammed at Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon West studio. The thrilling “Drone Schlager” was one result.
“We followed the music where it took us,” says Rother. “Steve is such a powerful and intuitive, natural drummer. It was an exciting experience for me to join forces with him. Aaron did a great job mixing and editing the songs like ‘Drone Schlager’, and we all enjoyed the outcome of collaboration.”
In 2010, they toured the globe, playing a number of ATP festivals, the Lincoln Center in New York and London’s Barbican, among other venues. “In Mexico, the enthusiastic reactions from the crowds overwhelmed me.”
Rother hasn’t released an album since 2004’s Remember (The Great Adventure), but his exemplary sense of space, texture and melody makes him perfectly suited to soundtrack work. Here, the guitarist has chosen and crafted a selection from two recent scores: his work for Houston is 12 minutes of weightless drift which would have fitted perfectly on Harmonia & Eno’s Tracks And Traces, while the four pieces from Die Räuber are more compact and playful, with electronics often to the foreground.
These two scores were born from very different situations: Houston director Bastian Günther requested that Rother dig out old instruments for the soundtrack, and so he utilised his Framus bass from “Negativland” to conjure some layered, bowed bass drones, and the ‘dehgitarre’ from his early solo work for fluid melodies. “It was one of those magical moments when you just have to let the music flow without thinking,” Rother says. Die Räuber, meanwhile, was finished, but with no satisfactory score, so Rother was enlisted to develop sketches from his archive of ideas.
“It was a completely different approach compared to the recording process for a solo album. Working on the scores, I reacted to atmosphere, tempo and emotions of specific settings in the film. I took a lot of inspiration from this way of creating music – maybe I’ll love chiseling music in my studio for an album again sometime in the future.”
Also collected here are Rother’s stunning remixes for Paul Weller and Boxed In, wherein this master musician keeps the original tracks’ vocals but adds his own backdrop of sustained fuzz-tone guitars and motorik beats. It’s a sound that’s quintessentially Michael Rother, and one that many have attempted to channel over the years, often forgetting the lightness and artfulness of his touch.
Rother’s music has long seemed to flow steadily, sparklingly, almost effortlessly, from his inner being. Today, over 45 years after moving to Forst, he’s still able to tap straight into the bucolic, natural source that nourished his first solo albums.
“Where does inspiration come from?” he says. “It’s a question to which I haven’t found a real answer yet. What I know is that Forst is an environment in which my heartbeat slows down and my breathing deepens every time I return home from a trip. I love to travel and to see the world, and I can enjoy crazy city buzz like in Tokyo for a certain time, but I couldn’t stay exposed to that kind of stress, of noise, traffic chaos and crowded places. I try to balance both worlds because it’s clear to me that I need a mixture of both.
“I don’t look into the future, like ‘Where can I be in five years? What can I achieve and how do I get there?’,” he muses. “This is not how I think – and I haven’t changed.”
Tom Pinnock 2018