Recorded in a Pisa living room rather than his Forst home studio where he’s worked for five decades, ‘As Long As The Light’, Michael Rother’s collaboration with partner Vittoria Maccabruni, fizzes with life

It is, I’m assured, a grey day in Pisa when I speak to Michael Rother and Vittoria Maccabruni, despite the light flooding into the room where they’re huddled together on a small sofa, gently cajoling and ribbing each other throughout our conversation. As a guitarist and sonic visionary in Neu! and Harmonia, and a solo artist since 1977, Rother needs no introduction. But this is Maccabruni’s first brush with the public eye. Friends since 2005, and more recently a couple, Rother and Maccabruni have made a very fine album titled ‘As Long As The Light’.

When Electronic Sound last spoke to Rother, at the end of 2019, he was finalising his ‘Solo II’ boxset, which included the recording/assemblage of ‘Dreaming’, his first album in 16 years. Much of it was derived from material left over from 2004’s ‘Remember (The Great Adventure)’, so why the big gap?

“I was happy and busy playing live – Japan, China, Russia, Mexico, America, South America,” says Rother. “There was a 20-year gap between the end of Harmonia and my first live performance in 1998. And that wasn’t even my plan – I was invited by a friend to play at their festival. It was such a wonderful change for me, that feeling of being connected with people directly, to be on the stage and see them smiling. In China [where Rother’s work has never been officially available], I had no idea what to expect, but people went crazy. They just instinctively understood the music – although it’s not like you need a theory to understand it. It’s very straightforward.”

It was at a show in Italy in 2005 where Vittoria Maccabruni first encountered Rother. Was she already a fan?

“No, I didn’t know any of his history – I went to this gig because I knew a member of Kraftwerk was playing!” she admits, as Rother groans in the background. “Of course, I then went back to his catalogue and was greatlyimpressed. I did something maybe a bit childish and wrote an email congratulating him the next day, and we started chatting and finding out we had things in common, and we became sort of pen pals. We met again in December 2015 after a concert in Bologna. And then we met a few more times, and life happened!”

While Maccabruni has never been in a band, she had been recording at home for a number of years, producing what she describes as sketches rather than songs.

“I was playing around with sound and creating atmospheres, just experimenting with electronic instruments and programs and playing a bit of guitar. I was eager to play these sketches to Michael to get his advice. It was the first time I’d really asked anyone to listen to them and I was perhaps even a bit pushy. I’d send him files while he was working on ‘Dreaming’ saying, ‘Oh, would you listen to this?’, and he’d say, ‘No, I’m busy!’.”

The couple had been travelling between each other’s homes in Germany and Italy, but with Covid restrictions making that increasingly difficult, Rother arrived at Maccabruni’s Pisa apartment in June 2020 with a carload of possessions and recording gear, and he’s been there ever since.

Rother: “When I came to Pisa, it wasn’t to jump into the next music project. It was just to be together. But of course, I knew Vittoria had all these sketches, and after two months she asked, ‘Would you like to listen to them more closely and maybe play guitar on one track?’. When she played the sketches to me, there were parts I liked and parts I didn’t like, so we had some disagreements and some fights. We transferred her material to my computer, and I listened to the individual elements… and the fighting continued.”

Maccabruni: “Sometimes he would listen to something and say, ‘There’s nothing to add here’, and I’d say, ‘Well, I think some guitar would work!’. He’d say, ‘I’m not sure’, but he’d try it and find it actually did work. This happened quite a few times.”

Rother: “So that was the working method – to take what I would regard as this goldmine of ideas, listen to them, analyse them and perhaps filter them through my old-school way of thinking! Because she’s much more radical than me in many ways. So, without any pressure or haste, whenever we had time, we made music together. The months passed, and gradually the idea dawned on me that this could become an album.”

The end product of that process is ‘As Long As The Light’. While ‘Dreaming’ introduced elements of modern electronica into Rother’s work, the record he has made with Maccabruni is a decidedly spikier, darker and more percussion-driven affair. And in contrast to ‘Dreaming’, just about every song features Rother’s classic surging, sky-scraping guitar sound, from the chiming, elliptical opener of ‘Edgy Smiles’ to the rousing, motorik melancholia of closing track ‘Happy (Slow Burner)’. It’s a brilliant and wholly successful marriage of German avant-rock and software composition – as though Harmonia had been born in the middle of Warp’s Artificial Intelligence heyday.

Sitting at the heart of the album, ‘Curfewd’ in particular has a penetrating, almost gothic sound, crackling with black electricity and harking back to the proto-industrial claustrophobia of Neu!’s ‘Negativland’.

“Ha, I never thought he’d pick up on that one,” says Maccabruni. “The initial sketch was very dark, a bit troubling even. But Michael thought it was interesting and different from what he’d been doing, and he was excited to work on it.”

“I don’t want to be limited,” concurs Rother. “I can do very soft music, like most of the songs on ‘Dreaming’, but if you look at my past, I also like very dynamic and forward-reaching music. I always imagine myself to be open to strong musical ideas and when Vittoria played this sketch to me, I thought, ‘This is strong meat, not middle-of-the-road’. I don’t want to scare or depress people, but I can personally expose myself to some dark material. I added some order and a glimmer of hope.”

With its mechanical heartbeat, ‘CodriveMe’ is the most experimental track, although Rother is having none of my suggestion that it’s reminiscent of early Kraftwerk, jokingly pretending to terminate the interview.

“It’s OK, you can say that!” he laughs. “There are worse bands one can be connected with than Kraftwerk. I have a lot of respect for them.”

“This was the only track I developed after we started working on the other pieces,” remembers Maccabruni. “It came out of a random session on my own on the computer, around the time we were watching the third series of ‘Twin Peaks’. And I suddenly thought, this reminds me of Woodsman – the atmosphere was very frightening and intense, and maybe it was a bit influenced by that. Michael didn’t want to watch the dark stuff!”

While Rother’s albums often evoke a sense of motion in expansive environments, ‘As Long As The Light’ feels like a voyage into inner space.

Rother: “I’m sure that’s Vittoria’s influence.”

Maccabruni: “It could also be a result of the struggles we had to make things match – his aspirations and my ideas – so there is this tension that keeps things together.”

Rother: “But let’s not stress the difficulties too much, as we totally agreed on everything in the end.”

So where does the album’s rather cryptic title come from?

Rother: “Vittoria came up with the title. And I said, ‘Where’s the sentence?’.”

Maccabruni: “Well, it’s an open title. Maybe it reflects this feeling that even though there’s darkness, there’s still always glimpses of light. Or maybe it refers to the world situation – the climate here is very chaotic, but it’s always very bright. We have big windows and sometimes we’d stop working just to watch the sunset. It’s a bit cheesy…”

As someone who’s said they never wanted to go solo in the first place, what’s it like being back in a musical partnership?

“Ask me next year!” jokes Rother. “Being in a couple adds some danger, but Vittoria has very good ears and I couldn’t fool her – she sometimes heard mistakes I hadn’t even noticed. So there’s mutual respect around the music.

“If I look back on the collaborations in Harmonia or Neu!, those were very different times. With Neu!, everything had to happen in just a few days in the studio, so there wasn’t much time for discussion. Although in fact Klaus Dinger and I agreed on just about everything – the reality is quite different from what people often say. Yes, we were fighting about nearly everything else, but not over music.”

Since 1973, Rother has lived in an old farmhouse in Forst, a rural district in Germany, and it’s where he has done much of his recording. What was it like making the new album in Maccabruni’s living room in Pisa?

Rother: “I complain all day long! I wish we had more space. But the real answer is when I’m sitting in front of the monitors and working on the music, it’s all the space I need. The advantages of working at home are great. Maybe the environment of Forst, the peaceful nature, the beauty… Why are you laughing, Vittoria?”

Maccabruni: “Because I know you struggle a bit with this. Here it’s a completely different situation. I have a chaotic life because I have a nine-year old daughter who’s always running around and I also have an office job to do in the mornings.”

Rother: “The beauty of Forst has always left its mark, but my music has never been about looking out of the window and trying to pull those impressions into it. It’s always been about musical structures and melodies and technology.”

When I ask Rother about how he views his musical legacy, he seems slightly bemused by the question, as perhaps you might if you’d just made your most adventurous album in decades.

“I don’t feel a lack of recognition,” he says. “Quite the contrary. I think of myself as fortunate that during my lifetime I’ve had all this positive feedback.”

The krautrock scene of the 1970s has exerted such a powerful hold on the imagination of legions of musicians, with “Neu!-esque” practically a recognised genre now. I imagine that must feel incredible.

“That’s true,” agrees Rother. “For many years, I thought that maybe this was some fashion that would blow over – and it could still do that – but younger generations keep picking up the baton.”

As it is, Rother and Maccabruni’s musical partnership is still very much an ongoing thing. As well as ‘As Long As The Light’, the pair have contributed an extended ambient track, ‘Klöppeln’, to Thorsten Drücker’s recent album about Joseph Beuys, and also a piece for Hollywood music supervisor Randall Post for a project called ‘Birdsong’.

“And Jarvis Cocker reached out to me to participate in a charity project which will come out later this year,” adds Rother. “I’m very happy about the music we did for it. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”

Do the couple have any plans to play together live?

Rother: “The simple answer would be yes, but as of today, we haven’t had time to transfer the music into the right combination of electronics and guitars – we need a technological solution. This year, I’m playing concerts with Hans Lampe and Franz Bargmann, and there’s the Neu! anniversary coming up too, so we will have to juggle all that. But yes, I would definitely love to play it.”

Maccabruni: “I’m feeling frightened!”

Rother: “She will have to sing!”

Maccabruni: “It would be a wonderful experience, but we need to make sure it works. It’s a bit complicated…”

There may be edgy smiles all round, but for Michael Rother and Vittoria Maccabruni, this feels like just the start of their musical journey together.

‘As Long As The Light’ is out on Grönland

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