The Wave Goes On Forever: Neu!’s Michael Rother on Hallogallo 2010

Michael Rother at ATP 2010. Photo by Tim Bugbee

From Harmonia to Neu!, early Kraftwerk to his solo recordings, Michael Rother is a living legend in the world of experimental music. After Harmonia, his project with Cluster‘s Hans Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, made its final live appearance last year, Rother resurrected the music of Neu! in a living tribute called “Hallogallo 2010”. Formerly a duo with the late Klaus Dinger, the group now consists of Rother on guitar and electronics, bassist Aaron Mullan (longtime Sonic Youth sound engineer and guitarist/vocalist in the band Tall Firs) and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who has also recently appeared in Pete Nolan’s Spectre Folk project.

Live, the Hallogallo experience is a combination of grooving uplift — provided by Mullan and Shelley’s expert rhythm work — and maximalist processed guitar maneuvers by Mr. Rother. Rother has a long association and appreciation for All Tomorrow’s Parties, and has participated in ATP events on three continents. “I like the ATP family. I’m friends with quite a few of the organizers and it’s great to see their faces again everywhere. I’ve seen them in the UK, America, and Australia. They have a good selection of music and [the festival] has a very pleasant feel.”

Although music is at the heart of ATP, the event is distinguished by its diverse selection of extracurricular activities. “I was too late to baseball, I haven’t played cards yet, but we played tennis yesterday,” explains Aaron Mullan. “Hard court, it’s good. Not too many people [at ATP] are actually good at sports.” Despite his renowned sound-mixing abilities and longtime association with Sonic Youth, Mullan is such a modest guy that we wonder how he was drafted into Rother’s Neu!-reviving supergroup.

“I met Aaron when he did the sound for Harmonia at ATP in Camber Sands in 2008, and he did a remarkably bad job at that,” Rother recalls, to laughter all around. “We did recordings with Steve in September 2008 after ATP [where Harmonia performed]. So we’d been talking about what to do with the recordings and Aaron did some mixes and we actually released a single with two short tracks.” That single, released on Steve Shelley’s brand-new Vampire Blues imprint, quickly disappeared from Hallogallo’s merch table at ATP. New copies from the pressing plant are due imminently, but Rother laments that he probably should have bought a few more while they were available.

The origins of Hallogallo are rather straightforward, and refreshingly devoid of the hyperbolic self-importance of recent big-name experimental and indie reunions. “I was working on the Neu! vinyl box set last summer, and after finishing that more or less, I got busy doing interviews, and still had a lot of things to take care of with Neu!. I thought of doing live shows again since Harmonia stopped working together as a live band last year; that’s actually the reason I was available to concentrate on Neu!, and so I think it was more or less a natural decision to see whether we could do shows together. I had an offer for a first show in Hamburg, and since then things have been developing dynamically.”

Michael Rother and Aaron Mullan. Photo by Tim Bugbee

Hallogallo 2010 remains an ongoing focus for Rother, as the group has been playing as many shows as they can. “There’s offers for more shows and that has to do with these excellent reviews we’ve been getting… [There’s] so much enthusiasm, and promoters from all over are keeping an eye on what’s happening.” The prospect of new material is still undecided: “Well, since we’re all busy, so busy that I’m happy that we can present this music as it is now, there hasn’t been any room for concentrating in the studio and creating new stuff. Though that would be nice to do, of course.”

Mullan has also worked as the house engineer at various ATP festivals in the US and UK, namely for “orphaned” bands who don’t have sound technicians of their own– “the poor bands,” Rother recalls. For Hallogallo’s mix, Mullan works one-on-one with the sound technician, explaining what he wants beforehand. Although Mullan is an accomplished musician in his own right, he doesn’t see much of a separation between the roles: “It all involves technology and sound. What else? You’re on stage [motions to Rother]; you have a guitar you have a mixing board too.” “It’s true, Rother exclaims, “but we have different hats. I have a label [Random Records], it takes care of my own stuff. Sometimes you have to take care of business and organization and the fun part is when you are actually playing music.”

So why has Rother’s music, celebrated only among the most dedicated experimental music fans in the ’80s and ’90s, enjoyed such a great resurgence in recent years? Rother is grateful for the attention but unwilling to jump to any conclusions. “I guess all of you could give me better answers than I can because I’m always surprised. My heart is with the music, it has been all the time. With Harmonia in the ’70s, when nobody wanted to hear Harmonia, I loved Harmonia just as much as I loved and believed in Neu!. So I got used to not having a great audience for what I love, just having to accept that. The ’80s, even the ’90s, were quite quiet for our music. I don’t really have an [explanation] for what is happening now.” Maybe it has to do with other musicians — the next generation, or next two generations — picking up the ideas and citing us.”

Hallogallo 2010 at ATP. Photo by Tim Bugbee

Rother acknowledges the impact of Julian Cope‘s 1995 opus Krautrocksampler, a subjective survey of German music from the ’70s that also celebrated groups like Faust, and Ash Ra Tempel. Most importantly, the book impressed German journalists. “They tried to ignore us, but then they had a reason to write about us,” Rother remembers. Regarding the reception of Hallogallo 2010, and Rother’s musical legacy in general for German audiences, Rother is optimistic but circumspect. “I think Germany is still behind; it’s still catching up, slowly catching up. I know this year there were some big German magazines doing stories about Neu! and the Neu! vinyl box set and Hallogallo 2010. But you just look at the people who are excited to see us; there’s much more expectation in America and in England.”

A recent show in Mexico City was unexpectedly galvanizing, says Mullan. “I’d been to Mexico a few times, but the people there are just so excited. There were girls on shoulders in the first three rows and it just seemed so… unlike anything I thought would happen at our concerts!” According to Rother, Hallogallo’s free show at New York’s Lincoln Center brought in nearly 5,000 people.

Although the influence of Rother’s music has spread far and wide, he remains refreshingly naïve about contemporary bands. “I always feel bad because I know so little about other musicians […]. I have to be honest, I don’t listen to music that much. And if I listen to music, it’s not contemporary pop or rock music, it’s everything from Bach to music from the early 20th century.” Rother doesn’t limit himself to classical music, however, and is quick to compliment some British rockers who were underrated in their own rite. “If I listen to The Kinks, I get excited.” He does concede, however that he is interested in checking out Dungen and T-Model Ford later in the day at ATP.

As for Sleep, Friday night’s headliner, Rother “was quite impressed. This idea of a wall of sound… There’s no mistaking the kind of music that will always appeal to me. [It’s like], this is ‘The Music’.” Rother’s beatific smile during live performances, the uplifting, positive momentum of his music, leaves no doubt as to the positive feeling one is left with after witnessing a Hallogallo performance. Rother, however, feels no particular religious inclination. “ I left the Church. I was Catholic as a child but I left the Church and I don’t know about religions. I’m skeptical about organization, about clerical structures.”

Michael Rother. Photo by Tim Bugbee

Rother knew that performing Neu!’s music without a live drummer would be pointless, and is quick to compliment Shelley’s drumming prowess outside of Hallogallo. Referring to the previous night’s closing set by Sonic Youth, Rother recalls: “I’d seen them before so I knew what to expect more or less, but the way he beats the drums, it’s great. It helps, of course, to transport the idea of my music, that physical experience.” Mullan is less reflective about his playing, stating plainly (and perhaps rather facetiously) that playing bass is like playing guitar, except “they’re bigger strings, and you hit them less often.”

Despite his status as an elder statesman of experimental music, Rother’s musical ambitions remain exceptionally simple and human. “My hope, my wish, is to transmit positive energy. The joy I feel playing that music, creating that noise, that’s what I want to reach the audience. And if they have a similar experience to mine, then everything’s done well […]. I also like creating a wave that goes on forever. If you listen to tracks like ‘Hallogallo,’ that’s the idea: endless music.”

Words: Max Burke
Photos: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography

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