Name: Michael Rother
Occupation: Guitarist, producer, improviser
Current release: This interview, originally conducted for German print magazine beat, took place in 2020 around the time of Michael Rother's new studio album Dreaming. After fifteen years of not releasing new work, it had seemed as though, after a fascinating and prolific early phase, his recording career was effectively over. Equally one of the most understated and seminally influential guitarists of the past decades, Rother seemed content to perform live, engaging in meserising, hypnotic and occasionally raw improvisations with friends and colleagues. [On October 8th, he'll be performing at the Spree Festival in Paisley with Hans Lampe and Franz Bargmann.]
But then, the German Groenland imprint, in 2019, began re-issuing his entire solo output in two large box sets. The look back turned out to be inspiring. When the pandemic forced him to cancel his tour commitments, there was suddenly a window to compose and produce again – and Rother opened it wide, as he reveals in this interview. Dreaming is the result of this re-found urge to compose, an aptly titled collection of warm harmonies, intimate vocals and sensual beats. More than perhaps any of his other works, save perhaps The Great Adventure, from which it emanated in spirit, it perfectly embodies both sides of his work: Electronics and rock/folk.
In a way, any new Rother album has the inbuilt issue of competing with a back catalogue which will forever seem more alluring. Rother played in early incarnations of Kraftwerk, he founded Harmonia and between 1972 and -75, released three records with Klaus Dinger under the name of Neu! The influence of that latter band was already big with experimental afficionados at the time, but has since only continued to grow. Dinger's drumming – often somewhat simplistically reduced to the single adjective 'motoric' – turned into the blueprint for the genre, copied and quoted verbatim again and again by new generations of musicians. Rother's guitar work, meanwhile, was just as groundbreaking. But it was so subtle and lush that it remained harder to grasp or to pin down. Rother worked both texturally and melodically, to a point where the two layers could no longer be separated: Tiny, fleeting themes emerged from resonant clouds, only to powder apart into specks of harmonics seconds after. It was music that sounded naïve, pure and innocent but was, in reality, crafted with utmost care and precision.
The new studio release, named as he explains in this interview, after his tendency to embark on expansive travels while sleeping, retains this outlook, but places it firmly within a digital domain. Sweet but never saccharine, grooving but with a very calm pulse, this is ambient music placed exactly at the cusp between the conscious and subconscious, between total presentness and a forever open question: Am I awake or am I dreaming?
If you enjoyed this Michael Rother interview and would like to find out more about him, visit his official homepage. He is also on twitter.
Michael Rother: “From the late 60s onwards, I've always been a political person. I was a conscientious objector in 1969. After looking at the world around me, it seemed like the logical thing to do: The student protests, the fight of the black population against repression and for equality in the USA and the Vietnam war all deeply affected my view of the world.
I wanted to develop my own sound and identity in music. There were obvious parallels between this goal and what was happening politically. It made me realise that I had to distance myself from the blueprints and clichés of pop and rock music.
Unlike bands like Can, NEU! and Harmonia never engaged in endless improvisations. We didn't play for 45 minutes only to extract and edit five minutes for a release. In the studio, we always had concrete ideas for a piece in our mind and we would apply overdubs until we liked what we heard. When Klaus Dinger and me were working in NEU!, it felt like two action painters in front of a canvas, reacting spontaneously to the contributions of the other.
I discovered the Fairlight Music Computer in 1982. It offered entirely novel possibilities for sculpting and programming sound. The system was insanely expensive. Back then, the money spent on a Fairlight could also buy you a small house. But it deciseiely enriched my musical expressivity. For months, I explored the different levels of its software and wrote compositions utilising its full potential.
When I was working with Harmonia in the early 70s, we hardly had any real studio machines – just two Revox tape machines and a small mixing board. This influenced our process for the first Harmonia album. First, we recorded live to tape as a trio. Then, we would play back the recording, and, again playing live, we'd add new elements on the second tape machine. This approach did compromise sound quality a little bit. But we more than made up for that with our enthusiasm and the unlimited time we had in our own studio.
As soon as the commercial success of my first solo album allowed me, I invested in professional studio equipment. I was inspired by the machines Conny Plank used in his studios. This was a pretty optimistic decision, since I didn't know a lot about technology. I would find that out soon enough, as using this equipment and keeping it in shape turned out to be pretty challenging. Still, I never once regretted buying these devices. They allowed me to work on my records without time limitations and get them to sound just the way I wanted. The satisfaction this provided me with was worth it.
Today, I prefer working in my home: In the living room, the kitchen etc. Computerisation has made this possible. Equipment is a lot smaller and portable. Since April of 2020 my daily routine revolves around music. It's important to me not to question this routine. It has become second nature to work on the music, move it around in my head all throughout the day and fill the apartment with new sounds.
In the final stages of a production, all my pieces pass through various transformations. Working with sound is an important element of that. When I put the finishing touches to a track, refining the details, I will often try very quiet and pretty high volume levels. Just doing this can have a profound impact on the effect of the music, so observing this is obviously interesting and revelatory. I will also use headphones to get the mix of the stereo image and the stereo effects of specific sounds right.
Mid-March of 2020, all my tours and gigs were cancelled. As with many other people, there was suddenly an unexpected calm in my life, a kind of vacuum. There was time for making new music again instead of having to constantly prepare for the next concerts and trips. It was a happy coincidence that the Grönland label had already pencilled in the release of a second box of my original solo albums for Autumn of 2020. We thought about the details and what bonus material to add to the box. Then it struck me: This might be the right moment to return to the material from my 1997 session with singer Sophie Joiner. But back then, we'd developed many ideas and only released a small selection of them.
There were 75 compositional sketches in total. Most of them remained in that rough state when I produced the album in 2004. So I went back to that pool of compositions, analysed the material and continued writing the sections I enjoyed most.
About the title Dreaming … I will often have very intense dreams about beautiful landscapes and beaches or of experiences from my time on the road. People from my life, including family members who have passed away or friends and colleagues such as Dieter Moebius, will also make an appearance. It all feels very vivid and natural.
But I will also have dreams abut stressful situations. When I'm on tour or travelling, I often worry about forgetting something or missing a flight. There's this dream which I remember well. I'm at a huge airport in China. Suddenly, I can't find my musicians anymore, there's no one I can ask for information. I'm unable to find my gate – and miss the flight.
I believe that I process thoughts which come to me during day in these dreams. There's probably no direct connection to the music I'm currently working on. But their content matter will often be on my mind. So I'm not surprised by the dreams. They're a valve for my feelings, for my memories, worries and hopes.
It is true that I actually appreciate the absence of music a lot. Mainly, because when it is playing, I find it hard not to think about it all the time - regardless of whether I want to or not. I can't stop following the music. This is especially irritating in public places like supermarkets. I dedicate my full attention to music, but only when I really feel like it and at the right moment.
Others don't have to agree with me on this. But to me, wanting to experience music consciously and not just as wallpaper flows naturally from my deep love for it, for its power to stir the intellect and emotions equally and enrich both.