Artist Feature: NEU!
Listen to the NEU! Radio show selected by Daniel Miller here.
For Spring/Summer 18, Carhartt WIP has created an offcial NEU! Capsule collection, blending the band′s iconic aesthetic with a host of our classic garments. Today, it seems almost passé to riff on the graphic tropes of late capitalist advertising and to subvert the corporate lexicon for one′s artistic endeavours. But in 1971, it wasn′t. NEU!, taking its name and branding from the culture of advertising agencies of its hometown of Düsseldorf, Germany, was a revolutionary force - both visually and sonically. Creating a brand of experimental rock that would ultimately inform genres such as punk, post-punk and Detroit techno, the band′s influence can still be felt today.
NEU! was formed by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, shortly after their split from Kraftwerk. Together with producer and non-member Conny Plank, who shared the duo′s enthusiasm for experimentation and sonic innovation, they would create three unique NEU! Albums. Though the band did not enjoy mainstream commercial success, their work had a profound impact on artists like David Bowie, Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Thom Yorke and Sonic Youth. Dinger is widely recognized as one of the most important drummers of the 20th century, with his signature minimalistic style only rivalled by the likes of Clyde Stubblefield, of James Brown’s band, and Fela Kuti. Rother, meanwhile, remains prolific, releasing music, creating film scores and playing live all over the world, thrilling diverse audiences and inspiring musicians from Japan to Mexico.
Following on from the Sound Of Detroit collection - which high-lighted infuential cover artworks from The Motor City - Carhartt WIP worked with the iconic NEU! motif, applying it to staple items such as pocket t-shirts, socks and, of course, white overalls - just like those worn by Klaus Dinger. As part of this collaboration, Grönland Records has also produced 1000 copies of the rare NEU! - Super/Neuschnee 7′′ single, which will be exclusively available at Carhartt WIP stores. To accent the collection, we asked Mute Records′ founder Daniel Miller to select his favourite NEU! songs and prepare a Carhartt WIP Radio show. To accompany the mix, we spoke deeply with NEU! founder Michael Rother about his life, his adventures in sound and more.
Hey Michael, NEU! is known as a Düsseldorf-based band, but you are from Hamburg right?
Michael Rother: Yes, I was born there, but only lived in Hamburg until I was four years old.
And then you moved straight to Düsseldorf?
Michael Rother: No. My father worked for British European Airways and was shifted to Munich where he became head of the station – so the whole family moved to Munich, then later to England where he started working for Lufthansa, and from England to Pakistan. After three years in Karachi we moved to Düsseldorf.
Originally, Düsseldorf was meant to be only a stopover before my father would have been transferred to central or north America. However, disaster struck the family, my father got ill and eventually died in Düsseldorf, so my mother, my brother and I stayed there. In the ten years in Düsseldorf I finished my school and did civilian service.
That’s quite a moving story when you think about it.
Michael Rother: Yes, all the travelling, the different countries and cultures really shaped me – it’s difficult to imagine how my life would have turned out if I had grown up only in Germany.
Do you have many memories of that time?
Michael Rother: Oh yes, I remember the five years in Munich, living next to the river Isar. The change from there to England in 1959 was easy. Naturally I didn’t speak any English, as an eight year old boy, however, you learn quite quickly at that age. I made friends at school and in the streets of Wilmslow and I was able to communicate – I don’t know the level of my English skills but I was doing all right. The school was very rural and stress-free. Wilmslow is a small town where nowadays a lot of famous football players and similar sorts of rich people live. That is why it has quite a weird reputation. We, however, lived in a very modest house. Wilmslow simply was strategically well positioned for my father, being close to Manchester where he was stationed. It was quite a relaxed life with pets in the school classes and similar nice things…
Not like in the city?
Michael Rother: No, but the change came in 1960. The move to Karachi was a real “kaboom” – I went to a strict school with a military past from the British colonial era. They already had French in classes and I didn’t even know what they were talking about. It was a very demanding time for me because I had to catch up in nearly every subject. In Düsseldorf, more problems were to follow. By then I was lacking four years of German schooling, so consequently my results in school were really bad in the first year. When I joined the school, the principle put me under some kind of protection – the teachers weren’t allowed to give me a lower grade than E - so that I could catch up. I recall how the German teacher once called me up to his desk and with a strange smile said, “I should actually be giving you something lower than G”. The teacher in latin was equally tough and once said to me, "Go back to Karachi if you can´t get this!" It was depressing and tough, but I caught up eventually and my latter time at school was easy until the revolutionary spark from the students´ protests reached me in the final years at school. There were many conflicts with conservative teachers.
Did you meet Klaus Dinger early on?
Michael Rother: Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk was at my school actually, but we did not know each other. He is a little older than me and was one or two levels above me. Back then he already struck me as quite an eccentric: weird walk, weird looks. Later I experienced it personally, very angular and stiff – but a very interesting musician no doubt.
I didn’t meet Klaus back then in the 60s. I was in an amateur band called “Spirits of Sound”. We started with Pop music imitations, later we gradually got more ambitious and added our own ideas, but by 1970 I lost interest in copying or even adapting other artists´ creations. The need to find my own musical identity became so strong that it demanded a total change. I was doing my civilian service as a Conscientious Objector and I felt quite alone with my wish for a new music free from the clichés of the Anglo-American pop music tradition. It was a pure coincidence that I ended up at the Kraftwerk Studio in early 1971. Another guy who was doing civilian service like me, also a guitar player, had an invitation to record music at Kraftwerk’s studio; it was for a movie if I recall correctly. He asked me if I wanted to come along. For a moment I considered going home to see my girlfriend, but I decided to join him instead. I thought Kraftwerk, what a weird name, but when I starting jamming with Ralf Hütter I realised I wasn’t so alone after all. It was a complete consensus of our musical notion about harmony and melody. Everybody in the studio noticed that something special was happening, and one thing led to another.
What happened precisely?
Michael Rother: I have quite a clear memory of how Klaus and Florian sat on the sofa and listened, they seemed to enjoy our jam just as much as Ralph and I did, and so we exchanged phone numbers. Two weeks later Florian called me up and asked if I wanted to join them for a couple of concerts. I was thrilled. The crazy thing was, Ralf Hütter, the one I originally connected with, had in the meantime decided to leave the band and to return to university. However, it turned out to work just as well with Florian and Klaus eventually. We played some really exciting shows together. It was an improvised and brute music. Every song effectively started in a very cautious and quiet way, and ended up in a dramatic finale – sparks flew.
I can tell one story that was particularly symptomatic for Klaus and his decisiveness. Klaus had these broken cymbals, I don’t know if he used them mainly for sound reasons or if he just couldn’t afford new ones. Anyway, we played a Kraftwerk concert and I would usually look down while playing, deep in sound and all ears. Suddenly I felt something was strange and I looked up to the crowd. They were standing there, eyes wide open, staring at us, and I realised Klaus had cut himself on one of his cymbals in the heat of a musical climax. Blood was splattering out of his hand all over the stage but he did not stop playing for one second. That says a lot about his passion. There was no drummer I knew who played with a similar determination. I would have probably said, wait a second, I need to take care of this wound but for Klaus that was out of the question. This attitude impressed me, but unfortunately he was equally inconsiderate towards other people, I have got to say.
Years later we had some very difficult times – he made himself a lot of enemies with his self-centered behaviour. In our artistic starting time however his eccentricity was the source of exceptional creativity. You can also hear it on the records if you check out a track like Hero. For me it’s one of the most impressive examples of Klaus´ artistic expression. Klaus was very frustrated at the time – his relationship with a girl he loved was over and life wasn’t going well economically. After Klaus and I recorded the backing tracks for “Hero” (together with the two drummers, Hans Lampe and Thomas Dinger), he went into the recording booth, we started the reel and he started singing – you can’t really say singing, he blared it out and I remember precisely how Conny and I looked at each other in the control room and we both knew, this was it. He tried to re-record his singing in a more organized way afterwards but it never reached that energy of the first take. His willingness to totally expose himself was very characteristic for Klaus.
Did you have practice room together? How did you guys work? Where did you make music?
Michael Rother: Initially at Kraftwerk’s, they had a large rehearsal room (which later became the Kling Klang Studio). We played together a couple of times in order to get the feeling of the programme. We played Ruckzuck and I hardly even knew the record. What I played was totally different from what Ralf Hütter played on the record but with the flute and the rest it was “Ruckzuck” nevertheless, and the crowds went wild. With NEU!, it was different. We didn’t rehearse, and after the release of our first record we tried to play concerts as a duo but it just didn’t work. The music lacked too many elements. I wanted to create a certain texture of sounds and that was simply not possible as a duo and with the available technology at the time. Our problem was we didn’t know anyone who remotely understood what we wanted to do. We tried out two musicians, one of them was Eberhard Kranemann, who later became known as Fritz Müller. His contributions to our live shows unfortunately were no help to Klaus and me because he was focussed mainly on noise and deconstruction. Then there was Guru Guru’s Bass player Uli Trepte, a very likeable and interesting human being. Unfortunately he was a little too laidback for us [Laughs]. He didn’t share our idea of a fast-forward running type of music. All this was quite frustrating for Klaus and me.
In November 1972, we played a concert in Düsseldorf in support of Willy Brandt, a political figure whom I admired for his agenda of reconciliation with the countries of Eastern Europe, a concept which was totally rejected by conservatives circles. It was the time of the constructive resolution of no confidence when Rainer Barzel tried to oust Brandt. The Jusos (young socialists) booked us to play at their event. A representative of the English record company United Artist attended the concert and offered us to come to the UK and play a tour. Our first record attracted quite some attention in the UK, also amongst musicians like Brian Eno or David Bowie. But how to do a tour without a proper band lineup capable of presenting the music of NEU! on stage? That’s what made me think of Roedelius and Moebius of Cluster as a possible addition. One of the tracks on their Cluster 2 album, Im Süden, made me believe that their combination of experimental and harmonic sounds could work for NEU!. I took my guitar and drove up to their farmhouse in Weserbergland. Here, things took a surprising turn – jamming with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, I discovered possibilities for a fascinating and different new music which I simply had to explore. Six weeks later I moved there. Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and I started the band Harmonia in Forst by the river Weser. It’s still my home whenever I am not on tour. From that moment on in spring 1973, I concentrated mainly on my work with Harmonia, and NEU! continued to exist exclusively in the studio whenever Klaus and I met, like in 1974 when we recorded NEU! ´75.
When we think about the NEU! bib overall that is part of our NEU! collection we came to the question: was NEU! a hardworking band?
Michael Rother: No [laughs], we always relied on our ability to be spontaneous. You have to understand that we had no recording devices at home, not to mention a computer. All I had was a cassette tape recorder, I think it was mono. It enabled me to record and memorise a melody or sounds, but Klaus and I never “worked” on music – no exceptions. The NEU! music was created in the studio on the spot and in cooperation with Conny Plank as our co-producer, of course. He is someone whom we shouldn’t forget to mention because he contributed fundamentally to the success of the records with his creativity, his understanding and his willingness to participate in all kinds of weird experiments. Klaus and I went into the studio with basic ideas, like for the song that later became Hallogallo. It was to be upbeat and fast-forward, have a strong rhythmic basis of drums and guitar, and feature melodies as what we called "clouds" on top. We always recorded the basic parts together, Klaus on drums and me on guitar or bass. When we were satisfied with the basis we went on to record overdubs, one after the other. “You want to do some overdubs now, or should I?” – that was the way it went back and forth. Especially with a song like “Hallogallo” – this was a totally spontaneous process. Coincidences like a wonderful feedback I suddenly had on my guitar enabled those long melody notes. At some point Conny reversed the tape while I was in recording room. The backwards played music intrigued and inspired me to add more melodies. All those individual tracks were skillfully organised and mixed by Conny Plank, focussing on the best parts in a very fluent mixing process.
So Conny Plank used the Studio as his instrument?
Michael Rother: Yes, exactly. It was his instrument. But you have to bear in mind that back then he didn’t have sophisticated studio effect units – there just weren’t any. That makes his accomplishment even more impressive. He created a stereo picture by organizing the instruments in a certain way. He had the amazing memory of a conductor. To explain Conny´s work we would have to go much further into detail. He was not a presumptuous producer, more like someone who senses the artist’s idea and who tries his best to support the process. In his modest self-conception Conny in an interview he did in the 80s actually compared his role to that of a midwife. He saw himself as the one who had to provide the perfect circumstances for the musicians so that they could deliver their baby.
Would you say Conny essentially was a NEU! member?
Michael Rother: No, you can’t really say that. He wasn’t involved in the composing of the music but he was an equal member of the production team. Conny helped us in a very clever and intelligent manner to overcome the barriers we set ourselves. He wasn’t the kind of person like some producers who see musicians merely as an instrument for their own ideas. Conny, Klaus and I were a perfect team. One needed the other, otherwise the NEU! albums would have never seen the light of day, I am sure. We couldn’t have done it without Conny, and he needed us to create unusual sound worlds that were not limited by pop music standards. We were actually a studio project and never really called NEU! a “band.” Essentially those are just words. NEU! was two artists who complemented each other. Klaus and I knew that the other one had special qualities to contribute to the project that oneself didn´t have
Did you record all records at Conny’s studio?
Michael Rother: No, because Conny started his own studio only in 1974. NEU! ‘75 was recorded in his studio near Bonn, and many albums of our other projects that followed. The first 2 NEU!records were recorded at the Windrose Dumont Studio in Hamburg. We had to work in exhausting night shifts because the studio rent was cheaper at night. Money was in short supply... Another remarkable thing about Conny was that he shared the financial risk.
Michael Rother: Yeah, we pooled the money, a third each and we said, ‘Ok, we can afford one week in the studio.’
So it wasn’t about money but purpose itself?
Michael Rother: Nobody could predict the outcome. Although we rocked a couple of concert venues with Kraftwerk – it was an exciting time – there was no guarantee that NEU! would become equally successful, from a financial no an artistic point of view. There wasn’t even any certainty that we would end up with any presentable material. The recordings for the first album could easily have crashed, leaving us saying: ‘Well, we tried.’ [Laughs]
And who came up with the iconic NEU! logo?
Michael Rother: Klaus developed it. The album was done and we needed a name for the project. I didn’t really have any compelling suggestions to make. Klaus had a background in advertisement. He thought NEU! would be a name that jumped at you from the window of a record shop and stick out. I remember how I thought the name was too cool or even cold for my music. I was also very sceptical about commercialization. However, I couldn’t come up with a better idea, and so we agreed on the name NEU! and the logo. The picture of him painting the lettering on the floor is still a very vivid memory.
How important is a period an album is recorded in? Today a lot of things have already been done but in the early 1970s many doors were still unopened.
Michael Rother: It’s always difficult to compare different eras. I agree that today it is very difficult to find a musical landscape that nobody has touched before. However, a real move forward towards innovation always requires that one first overcomes the heroes of the past. Basically, this is possible today just as much as it was for us.
Back in the days, in the early 70s, I radically removed all the structures and cliches of Anglo-American music from my mind and from the way I played the guitar. Every single note had to have a meaning. No more fast finger movements on the guitar fret, and no more bending of notes. I was willing to start at zero and determined to develop my own musical language. It was a very ambitious and totally uncompromising attitude. There was this one song called Weissensee on the first NEU! album where I debated with myself as to whether the harmony change was even justifiable. In the end, the idea of breathing, breathing in and out, up and down, came to my mind and that, to me, justified the use of the two harmonic levels. All new elements added to my music were the result of careful considerations.
Over the years, I have become more relaxed, but my original wish to stay free from influences from other musicians (except the ones I collaborate with, of course) has stayed unchanged. It has been a long journey until now, and it is still going on, there’s still so much to discover.