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AU56: Krautrock feature

May 1, 2009

The impetus for this article was the release of The Horrors’ Primary Colours album, which exhibited a strong Krauty influence, as well as the release of a NEU! tribute album called Brand NEU!, but I’d been thinking about doing something along these lines for a while due to the number of records over the last couple of years that have leaned heavily on that motorik sound and Krautrock in general. I was lucky enough to be able to speak to NEU! and Harmonia’s Michael Rother as the main interviewee, while David Holmes, Ben Power (Fuck Buttons), David Best (Fujiya & Miyagi) and Faris Badwan (The Horrors) also agreed to be interviewed. By the way, Damo Suzuki of Can declined to speak to me. This is what he (perfectly reasonably) came back with:

“Chris,
Sorry I’m no more interesting to talk about story of 40 years before…..
I’m living today and I have much more important mission than that time….
Anuway wish you good luck with your report…..

Love
Damo@Cologne”

harmonia
Harmonia (Michael Rother is in the middle)

KRAUT OF THIS WORLD

HOW THE SONIC ADVENTURERS OF SEVENTIES GERMANY CONTINUE TO LOOM LARGE

As The Horrors return with a stunning, Krautrock-influenced new album, we speak to Michael Rother from German legends Neu!, as well as some of the countless musicians he has influenced, to find out just why the experimental music of Seventies Germany lives on more than 35 years later.

Something strange has happened to The Horrors. Three years ago, the comically stylised goth-punk band emerged to a mixture of awe and revulsion, so much so that by the time their debut album, Strange House, appeared in March 2007, many had already written them off as a novelty act. Well, there is some humble pie being wolfed down now, as the spindly quintet have resurfaced with a near-masterpiece of dark, experimental rock in Primary Colours, and a lead single that typifies the band’s bold return.

‘Sea Within A Sea’ is an eight-minute epic that owes as much to the everlasting pulse of Krautrock bands such as Neu! and Can as to the other reference points that crop up on the album. The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, The Chameleons and 154-era Wire all swim in the intoxicating murk of Primary Colours, but that relentless propulsion and sonic derring-do seems to have come entirely out of leftfield, shocking the naysayers. Not that frontman Faris Badwan sees it that way.

“To be honest, I think all that stuff was an influence on the last record, but maybe it wasn’t as evident,” he argues in his well-spoken, measured way. “We’ve always listened to all that kind of music, but I think with every record, a different set of influences should come to the forefront. All the Neu! related bands like La Düsseldorf, Cluster and obviously all the Can stuff as well, yeah, totally brilliant.”

The Horrors are far from the only contemporary band to draw heavily on the experimental German bands of the early Seventies, that loose conglomeration of acts that came to be collectively known as Krautrock, even if there wasn’t always that much tying them together at the time. Primary Colours was co-produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, who had a triumphant return of their own last year with Third, a record that itself owes much to the hypnotic rhythms, dark textures and feverish creativity of the same era.

David Holmes is another well established artist to have drawn heavily on his love of Krautrock, last year’s The Holy Pictures shot through with it like a stick of Blackpool rock. And then there are the many acts that have emerged in the last five years or so, some bearing their influence almost as a badge of honour (Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, Kling Klang, Zombie-Zombie), some wearing it more lightly (Fujiya & Miyagi, Fuck Buttons, Holy Fuck) and many others dabbling in it as they see fit – Deerhunter, LCD Soundsystem, School Of Seven Bells, Dan Deacon and even lad-rock icons like Oasis (on ‘The Shock Of The Lightning’) and the Stereophonics (on ‘Dakota’) have all dipped a toe in the Krautrock pond.

If that wasn’t enough, a new tribute album, Brand Neu!, features songs from several of these bands and more, as well as unreleased material from the Neu! duo of Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who died last year at the age of 61. In 2007, Rother reformed his post-Neu! project Harmonia for gigs and collaborations around the world, and he says that he hasn’t been as busy in years.

“Definitely, the situation has changed compared to, say the early Nineties,” he tells AU from his home in Hamburg. “We [Neu!] had vanished from the surface, really. Of course, there were already musicians all over the globe, but I only found out later that they had been listening to the bootlegs and the vinyls all the time. The general public just lost touch with us. That changed in the Nineties, and especially since 2001 – that’s my perception. Since we started the re-release of the Neu! catalogue [that year], there has been a lot of attention. So that has really changed for the better.”

Speaking to Rother, as charming as he is, it is with some trepidation that you mention the word ‘Krautrock’. It is no secret that many of the artists associated with the term disliked it; indeed, even the band that once named a song after it – Faust – later distanced themselves from it. For one thing, it contains a racial slur against Germans. For another, the many bands shoved under that umbrella are so impossibly diverse. Krautrock superfan Julian Cope, the former Teardrop Explodes frontman whose book Krautrocksampler (now unfortunately out of print but available online in PDF format), helped kick-start a revival in interest in the Nineties, contended that Krautrock was “a subjective British phenomenon”, i.e. that the ‘genre’ only really existed in the minds of British listeners, many of whom were first exposed to it by John Peel’s Radio 1 show. The influences that shine through most strongly today are from the sleek, minimalistic likes of Neu!, Can and Kraftwerk, as opposed to the more out-there Amon Düül II and Ash Ra Tempel.

“When it started, I thought more or less [‘Krautrock’] was a terrible name,” says Rother. “I still think it’s a stupid name, but it seems that people all over the world have agreed on it, so it seems more or less futile to fight the use of that expression. As long as people recognise and understand that so many different kinds of bands and music are put together into that pot.”

Rother says that he didn’t personally know most of the other bands active at the time, and even that, to this day, he has never heard the music of Amon Düül II, one of the most successful Krautrock bands. He was, and still is, almost exclusively interested in his own music, but it somehow ended up that the approach he and Neu! cohort Klaus Dinger took in Düsseldorf (also home to Kraftwerk, of which they were both early members, and Cluster, the duo Rother later joined to form Harmonia) had much in common – in mindset if not in musical output – with what was going on in Munich or Berlin. This was the first post-war generation, the generation that was responsible for the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 and the near-worldwide explosion of youthful protest and civil unrest in 1968. Change was afoot, and not least in Germany, where young people were still coming to terms with the sins of their parents’ generation.

“It was a very ambitious approach to music,” says Rother. “We wanted to really create something new; something that didn’t compare to music that was already available. One of the main objectives was to forget blues, the pop structures I [grew] up with. Maybe the electronic guys these days don’t feel that tradition, they don’t feel linked to the blues tradition, but I was very choosy with the steps I operated in the music. I was very careful about the elements I adopted.”

Rother’s role in Neu! was to paint soundscapes – often beautiful, sometimes unsettling – with guitars and synthesisers. Krautrock was arguably the first musical movement to mix synths with live instrumentation, and Neu! were right at the heart of that. The band’s third album, Neu! 75, was a perfect example and their best record. The six tracks were split into two, with Rother in charge of the first side and Klaus Dinger the second. To hear the record is to understand the difference. ‘Seeland’ and ‘Leb’ Wohl’ from side one are awesomely beautiful, weightless pieces of music, the apotheosis of Rother’s work with Neu! On side two, however, Dinger, the drummer and vocalist, breaks loose and basically invents punk music. Listen to ‘Hero’ and ‘After Eight’ to figure out where John Lydon got his ideas from. Dinger’s deranged vocals coupled with the bracing tempo and hard-charging, perfunctory power chords were the total opposite of what Rother was doing, but somehow the two men combined to create something truly great.

“That’s the great thing about Neu! 75,” says David Best of Fujiya & Miyagi, one of the best of the new bands that take inspiration from the work of Neu!, Can and others, “The Michael Rother side is so beautiful, but you’ve got this pre-punk, primal scream side. But that’s great that they can co-exist on the same record.”

Despite Rother’s best efforts in Neu!, Harmonia and as a solo artist, however, what most people think of when they heard the word Krautrock is something known as ‘motorik’, another phrase invented by journalists and rejected by many of the artists, not least Dinger, with whom it is most associated. He preferred the term ‘Apache beat’, whereas others just call it ‘the Neu! beat’. High praise. Put simply, it refers to the curiously monotonous, minimal rhythm of much of the best of Neu!. Tracks like ‘Hallogallo’, ‘Negativland’, ‘Für Immer’ and ‘E-Musik’, as well as ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Europe Endless’ by Kraftwerk, ‘Mother Sky’ by Can, ‘Monza’ by Harmonia and many others feel infinite; the sense of “rushing to the horizon” (Rother’s very apt phrase), never changing course but full of energy and subtle shifts in tone.

“It’s immediate,” says David Best, many of whose band’s best tracks have that streamlined, robotic feel. “Captain Beefheart said he didn’t want his music to be 4/4, because the heartbeat was 4/4 and he wanted it all irregular. Whereas Harmonia and Neu! is the total opposite. You know what’s coming next but it’s still got surprises in the music.”

In a more subtle way, synth duo Fuck Buttons also owe much to their German forebears. Though mostly eschewing the rhythms used by Klaus Dinger, their lengthy, often euphoric tracks have a compelling sense of momentum and propulsion, not to mention visceral power and sonic adventure. Michael Rother became a fan earlier this year when he met them at an Australian festival, fascinated by the sounds they were making in sound-check, and he says he hopes to collaborate with them soon. Benjamin Power from the band returns the compliment. “I remember someone first played me Neu! when I was about 16 and it just kind of blew my mind. At the time I was like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this. How does it keep going like that and not lose any interest?’”

When the topic of motorik is raised with Michael Rother, you quickly get the sense that he feels misunderstood. He believes that fans, journalists and many musicians are too fixated on Klaus Dinger’s drumming, and don’t appreciate his contribution to the overall effect. He may well be right, though it should be noted that for many years the two men had a difficult relationship with each other, which was resolved before Dinger died last year.

“I sometimes wonder, ‘Why are they always talking about motorik?’” he says. “Maybe it’s because [the rhythm] is the easiest thing to describe. But it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that rhythm in combination with all the other elements of our music made it special. I’m sure that if you take one element away – either the harmonic, melodic sound system or the rhythmic system – from our music, it would be less than half. It would more or less lose the meaning. It’s the combination that works and that’s the magic, if you can apply the word.”

It was that combination that had such a massive effect on David Holmes when he was writing The Holy Pictures. “I think it was more to do with the melody as much as it was to do with the simple, restrained rhythms” he says. “There are a lot of people who put in a Neu! beat and go, ‘Yeah, I was really influenced by Neu!’, but I was more interested in that feeling that you get from tracks like ‘Forever’ [aka ‘Für Immer’] and ‘Isi’. The more thoughtful melancholy that you get in some of those tracks, you know?”

In the end, the most amazing thing about this music is how relevant and even futuristic it still sounds, up to 40 years on. Krautrock may have been a primary influence for David Bowie, Brian Eno, British punk and post-punk bands like Joy Division, Public Image Limited and The Fall, ambient music, dance music and many other strands, but much of it still sounds like it has just been beamed in from decades hence. “If that’s your impression, that’s something that I hoped it should be, and I’m happy about reactions like that,” says Michael Rother.

“It was the future back in the early Seventies,” says David Holmes, “and the fact that it’s still being called upon as a major influence says so much about how strong it is.” Just ask The Horrors’ Faris Badwan. “It’s free but it’s also monotonous,” he says. “It’s a weird thing to say, but I like music that feels like it has no limitations.”

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