With a new boxset marking the 50th anniversary of their self-titled 1972 debut album, Neu!’s pioneering krautrock groove continues to resonate. Here, Michael Rother sheds light on irascible Neu! co-founder Klaus Dinger, his time with Kraftwerk, and the Bowie collaboration that never quite came to pass

“Fifty years sounds terrifying!” exclaims Michael Rother, the eerily ageless Peter Pan of krautrock, incredulous that a full half-century has somehow whooshed by since he first began mapping a whole other universe of sonic possibilities as part of seminal Düsseldorf duo, Neu!. “Where have all the years gone?”

Speaking from his current home in Pisa, Italy, Rother is looking back on a rich five-decade career that has seen him collaborate with Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth and others, not to mention a mysterious near-miss with a certain David Bowie – more on that in a sec. Yet Rother’s legendary reputation primarily rests on the intense burst of creative chemistry he shared with Neu! co-founder Klaus Dinger between 1971 and 1975, producing three magnificent albums full of avant-rock, proto-punk, techno-primitive brilliance.

Alongside fellow krautpop founding fathers, Can and Kraftwerk, Neu! imbued rock with a fresh and experimental vocabulary that still resonates to this day. Indeed, the lavish new boxset, ‘50!’, houses not only their classic albums but also boasts a feast of remixes and remakes by an impressive international guestlist of artists, including New Order’s Stephen Morris, The National, Yann Tiersen, Gabe Gurnsey, Mogwai and even Bristol emo-punks, Idles.

Rother approved every track in the anthology, but admits he is not always familiar with the ever-growing army of musicians who continue to draw inspiration from the deep musical reservoir that is Neu!.

“Confession time – I don’t know so much about what these bands are doing,” he grins sheepishly. “I think it’s the result of my decision decades ago to stop listening and focus on my own music. It’s not being arrogant – I’m just so filled up with everything I’m doing.”

Coincidentally, Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter once told me something similar – that he never listens to outside music, only silence.

“I guess Ralf and I have a few things in common,” Rother nods. “He was the first person there when I entered the studio and realised I was not alone. This idea of enjoying silence… I could have said that.”

That first studio experience was alongside Hütter in an embryonic version of Kraftwerk in 1971. Rother was 21 and playing guitar in garage bands while working as an orderly at a Düsseldorf mental hospital – his mandatory alternative to military service as an anti-war conscientious objector. A colleague invited him to an improvised jam session with Hütter and Florian Schneider, which also included Dinger on drums. When Hütter left temporarily to complete his university studies, Rother and Dinger joined Schneider in a short-lived, three-piece jazz-rock version of the future techno-pop titans.

Photo: Anton Corbijn

The rough tracks for a second Kraftwerk album, which the trio recorded before Hütter returned, have never surfaced, but Rother cautions against romanticising these experimental noodlings as buried treasure.

“I can put everyone’s mind at ease,” he laughs. “We were really not that great. Some elements were fine, but I think we were just not ready. The concept couldn’t be transported from the live stage into the studio.”
But Rother’s brief Kraftwerk apprenticeship was not fruitless. It introduced him to Dinger, the percussive powerhouse who almost single-handedly invented krautrock’s fabled “motorik” beat, and the pair duly became Neu!, a dynamic duo whose fiercely inventive musical energy was matched only by the combustible tensions between them. Even today, Rother struggles to define their prickly partnership as a friendship.

“Ha! It was not easy,” he says. “It doesn’t sound nice, and I know it seems ridiculous, but we were never friends. Klaus and I were so different. My girlfriend didn’t like him. Nobody liked him. Actually, my mother did like him, but then she didn’t have to work with the guy! OK, I liked maybe the musical expression of his qualities, and my mother was also very musical. But I couldn’t ever be friends with a person with the traits that Klaus had.”

Rother remembers Dinger as a kinetic, propulsive force of nature in the studio. It was not unusual for him to end a performance with a blood-splattered drum kit from the ferocity of his playing, or hyperventilating so much that he almost fainted, toppling off his stool in a dizzy haze. But behind this fierce intensity lay self-destructive rage.

“When I met him, he didn’t come across as an angry young man – he was just a very strong-headed, determined drummer,” Rother recalls. “Klaus was so powerful. He gave the impression that nothing would stop him. That was what attracted me, of course, this energy. The anger Klaus later developed when things started failing – business ideas, his own label, his relationship with a girlfriend who moved with her parents to Norway – you hear it in the lyrics of ‘Hero’.”

Crucial to the Neu! sound was legendary studio producer Conny Plank, who helped make the duo’s experimental ambitions concrete, even in a pre-digital era of primitive studio effects.

“Conny had a brilliant musical mind,” says Rother. “What amazes me when I listen to ‘Hallogallo’, for instance, is that he could remember where all the good guitar parts were, mixing on the spot with no computer.”

Rother describes Plank as “humble, modest and careful” but disputes suggestions that the producer played a peacemaker role in Neu!.

“There’s a common misunderstanding that he was required to mediate between the two crazies, Dinger and Rother, which was not really true. Klaus and I didn’t fight about music. Just everything else, ha!”

Even after two albums together, Neu! still struggled to make their full sound work on stage. So, in 1973, Rother travelled to the famous Forst farmhouse commune in Lower Saxony to meet Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster, initially hoping to recruit them as live collaborators. Instead, the trio ended up forming a new band, electro-pastoral supergroup Harmonia. It was, Rother says, “musical love at first sight”.

It was also the beginning of the end for Neu!, especially when Rother relocated to live full-time in Forst.
In 1974, while Rother was preoccupied with Harmonia, Dinger began to assemble his La Düsseldorf project with his brother Thomas and percussionist Hans Lampe. The band would eventually enjoy short-lived commercial success in the new wave era. But before Dinger fully mastered his new role as frontman and guitarist, he visited Rother in Forst to propose a Harmonia/La Düsseldorf partnership. The meeting did not go down well, ending in a violent altercation.

“Oh, everyone hated him in Forst!” Rother laughs. “He was already so arrogant, trying to be super-duper… Maybe we would have given it a try if he had been modest, but he came in his Mercedes, trying to be a rock star, and that didn’t work with Harmonia. He went to a local discotheque and provoked people just to be noticed. He was very aggressive in his desire to be noticed.”

The rustic calm of Forst thoroughly suited Rother’s temperament, but darkness was lurking on the edge of town. The 1970s was a bloody decade in Germany, scarred by Baader-Meinhof violence, when long-haired musicians frequently came under suspicion as potential terrorist sympathisers.

Armed officers stopped and searched Harmonia in Brussels in 1974, and the Forst commune was raided by police looking for drugs or weapons. But even though Rother had anti-war principles, his political affinity lay much more with liberal Cold War peacemakers such as chancellor Willy Brandt than with armed hippie radicals.

“No, I never felt any sympathy for Baader-Meinhof,” he says. “They started killing innocent people – they were crazy and totally out of control. There were of course some ideas in the student movements I agreed with, but violence as a political force? I always refuted that.”

Contracted to make one last studio album together, Rother and Dinger reunited with Plank in December 1974 to record ‘Neu! 75’. The duo mostly worked separately and disbanded as soon as the album was released.

Even so, the last part of their canonical trilogy remains a proto-punk classic, featuring anthemic tracks like ‘Hero’ and ‘Seeland’. Around the same time, Rother was invited to rejoin Kraftwerk for their marathon 1975 tour promoting the worldwide success of ‘Autobahn’.

“Florian called me and asked if I would be interested in joining the band again,” Rother recalls. “But I declined. I was totally focused on Harmonia. Before that, I remember meeting Florian and Ralf and playing the first Harmonia album to them in my car. I was happy they seemed impressed, because I was very convinced of Harmonia’s music. Ha! Later, I found out I was quite alone in that, with the exception of David Bowie and Brian Eno, who picked it up very early.”

Indeed, interest from Eno and Bowie would prove bittersweet for Rother. In September 1976, just as Harmonia were starting to unravel, Eno stopped off in Forst for an 11-day collaborative session. The expanded band recorded a gorgeous autumnal album, later titled ‘Tracks And Traces’, which was subsequently lost for two decades. In interviews around that period, Eno called Harmonia “the world’s most important rock group”.

In late 1976, Rother also completed his debut solo album, ‘Flammende Herzen’, an instrumental affair featuring Conny Plank and Jaki Liebezeit of Can. Soon after its release, Rother was contacted by Bowie, who invited him to play guitar on his landmark Berlin album, ‘Heroes’. But this session fell through for reasons which remain murky to this day. Decades later, Bowie would claim in interviews that Rother turned him down.

The guitarist remembers things very differently.

“It was the summer of 1977 when we talked, and we were both very excited about collaborating,” he insists. “Why in the end didn’t it work? I’ve tried to make sense of these contradictions.”

Rother eventually concluded that somebody in Bowie’s management or label baulked at him working with an avant-garde German guitarist following modest sales for the bold synth-rock futurism of ‘Low’.

“Maybe David changed his mind and forgot he’d changed his mind – that’s a possibility too,” he shrugs. “But I don’t even think that. In our conversation, he was totally thrilled. He wanted the guitar he knew from ‘Flammende Herzen’ and ‘Hero’ and the Neu! albums.”

Although they never got to play together, Rother’s influence on Bowie’s Berlin-era albums was pretty blatant, particularly the kosmische twang and clatter of ‘Lodger’. In 2001 the pair exchanged emails, and Bowie apologised for his bad memory after misnaming Rother “Klaus Dinger” in an interview, mixing up the two band members. A decade later, when Neu! were preparing reissues and asking various musicians for promotional quotes, Bowie was fulsome in his praise.

“David was generous – he wrote a nice piece,” Rother grins. “But he got the names wrong again!”

Following their 1975 split, Neu! had a troubled afterlife. Rother built a modestly successful major-label solo career in the late 1970s and 1980s, increasingly trading his guitar for ambient, fragrant, ruminative electronica. Dinger’s journey proved more erratic, enjoying brief pop success with La Düsseldorf before the band imploded due to bad business decisions, shifting fashions, bitter court cases and the suicide of keyboard player Andreas Schell.

Dinger and Rother attempted a Neu! studio reunion in late 1985, but recording was aborted due to familiar tensions. Although the tapes were sealed and shelved, Dinger would later release them as the duo’s unofficial fourth album, ‘Neu! 4’, in 1995, without Rother’s knowledge or consent, followed in 1996 by the unapproved rehearsal tapes collection ‘Neu! ’72 Live! In Düsseldorf’. This “act of despair” was reportedly Dinger’s response to the deluge of shady bootlegs available at a time when the band’s official catalogue was stranded in semi-legal limbo, but it soured any possible future partnership between the pair.

Only after Dinger’s death in 2008 did Rother get to polish and correct the raw synthpunk scribbles of ‘Neu! 4’, reworking and reordering them into the 2010 release ‘Neu! 86’, which appears in the new boxset. But at the time, he insists, Dinger blocked all bids to secure the band’s albums a legal re-release.

“Because Klaus can no longer defend himself, I try to be as fair as possible and not use any opportunity to blame him for everything,” Rother says. “If he were around, he would contradict me in many instances. But he gave me a hard time in the 1990s. He had big problems – financial and artistic – which I didn’t have. And then he made some bad choices, releasing music behind my back and saying no to every offer that came our way.”

One keen suitor was Mute boss Daniel Miller, who persuaded Rother to make a deal for the Neu! canon, only to be blocked by Dinger.

“I told Klaus it was a great label and Daniel was a good guy, but Klaus said, ‘No, he’s a businessman!’. He didn’t want to sign. He didn’t trust anyone – he thought they were all gangsters.”

Salvation finally came in the unlikely form of Herbert Grönemeyer. The actor and musician, probably best-known in the UK for his co-starring role in the 1981 film, ‘Das Boot’, is a platinum-selling rock star in Germany.

In 1999, Grönemeyer founded his own label Grönland in the shadow of tragedy, following the deaths of his brother Wilhelm and wife Anna from cancer within days of each other.

“People told him, ‘Dinger and Rother, they are crazies, they fight all the time! Nobody manages to get them together, and you won’t either’. But he invested so much time talking to us, like a psychotherapist. We can laugh about it, but that was the truth. He was so careful trying to find the balance and where the bad spots were. In the end, even Klaus was able to trust this guy. And he didn’t trust anyone.”

Encouraged by their new deal with Grönemeyer, Rother and Dinger began tentatively discussing plans for a new, 21st century Neu! album. They even checked out possible studios in London. But, once again, internal friction proved insurmountable. When Dinger proposed bashing out an album in just two days, Rother raised a red flag.

“I said, ‘Klaus, we couldn’t do it back then, and I definitely don’t trust us to be able to do it now’,” he sighs.
Ultimately, Neu! were fated never to record together again. Dinger died of heart failure in 2008, just three days short of his 62nd birthday. Looking back, Rother says his loss came as a shock, but perhaps it was inevitable.

“Of course, I was totally surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. You probably know the story, but on his website he said he was proud of having taken more than 1,000 LSD trips, and I’m sure there must have been other substances. That’s the way he treated his body. And his mind.”

A whole half-century after his first fateful meeting with Dinger, Rother is almost the last man standing from that first generation of krautrock pioneers. Nowadays he is a revered elder statesman, with a respectable canon of solo releases and a healthy career as a live performer, partly thanks to his evergreen Neu! legacy.

But the journey to this point has been bumpy at times, financially and emotionally. Rother has survived, he says, because he realised early on that the razzle- dazzle rock star lifestyle is actually more prison than prize.
“You think about what is really necessary – what you really need,” he explains. “I don’t need a Maserati. I don’t need to fly first class to luxurious places. It’s not how much money you make but how much money you spend. I made a lot of money with my first three solo albums but I didn’t go crazy. I invested in music gear. The main idea, if I’m lucky to stay in this position, is to stay independent.”

These days, Rother divides his time between his long-time home in Forst and Pisa, where he lives with his Italian partner and occasional collaborator, the producer and composer Vittoria Maccabruni. He’s just shy of turning 72 when we speak, but he looks much younger – full of boyish energy and zen-like calm, remarkably unscathed by the passing decades.

“Ha! Thank you for the flowers, as we say in Germany,” Rother grins. “It’s probably mostly due to the genes. It also has to do with life choices. If you struggle with life, it makes you unhappy, if you have strange wishes which drive you the wrong way, like the need for recognition or fame or materialistic things – I guess that leaves marks. I do it my way. That’s the short answer. This is something I can be thankful for, this present I was given, to be able to live my life working on the music I love.”

The ‘50!’ boxset is out on Grönland

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