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Harmonia

So that was the first version, which had all the tracks starting from “Vamos Companeros” until the second last; now we have three additional tracks on the new version. I should add that I knew all the time that I had a cassette of the tapes; I made a cassette copy of all the recordings we did in ’76 shortly before Brian left us, and I had this tape on the shelf in the studio all the time. But I didn’t listen to it for a very long time, and so when we started talking about releasing Tracks and Traces, I listened to that tape and I transferred all of the recordings into my computer and I knew that it was a very good collaboration, but I was really surprised that there were so many good sketches that we had recorded, I think 37 sketches, plus minus one or two.

So there was much more material than Roedelius had found on that one tape. And we started to discuss the idea of doing a second complete album or to just add some elements to the existing album. In the end we agreed on that idea, and the guys were happy that I did all that work; I chose maybe nine tracks which I favored, and at least I remember that Roedelius more or less had the same favorites.

And so I said okay, I’ll take care of that, and then in the end I presented my edits –– I edited the second track out of two short versions –– anyway, everybody was happy with the results. And then I put in two other extra tracks and changed the running order, not as much to add the new tracks at the end but to change the atmosphere, because I think the whole of the album, all of the material we had recorded, I felt the balance of the moods was a bit one-sided on the first version. If you look at these three new tracks –– the first, the second and the last track –– and you compare that to, for instance, “Almost” or “Weird Dream,” which are interesting soundscapes but rather gloomy or very relaxed or remorseful or far-out, the balance I thought could do with a slight change to reflect really what we had developed in 1976. Everybody was happy with what we have on the new version now.

Did you augment the album’s original tracks with new parts or treatments?

I did a remastering at a studio in Hamburg, and the mastering engineer made some adjustments with the equalizer, and I quite like what he put on; the sound is fresher, the balance is better, and of course it was a good job to improve the sound of the three additional tracks, because they were transferred from a cassette of 1976, and had to be de-noised in a special way and treated. But nothing new was added, it’s just the original material, and of course that’s the idea –– we don’t want to change the history, it’s just to get out the hiss and as much of the noise which covers the music, which distracts from the music.

Flammende Herz

What did Eno bring to Harmonia?

My memory is that Brian Eno was very modest and very interested in just being part of the team. It was just four musicians, sometimes only two musicians or three musicians, and it was such an easy, relaxed atmosphere when we were spending those 11 days together and not feeling any pressure at all. It was just the fun, the joy of creating music on different instruments and in different groupings. Whenever you change a team, of course the result also changes, if you have others involved that stand for a specific music. But Brian didn’t try to create something pre-meditated. Sometimes we just jammed; some of those long tracks were the result of just listening to each other, actually more or less the same way Harmonia started in the beginning, when we went onstage with nothing pre-arranged, just the idea: Okay, the next song would start in D, and I would play electronic drums and guitar, and then the others would listen and then join in. And that was the way most of the material was recorded with Brian Eno.

How long did these tracks take to record?

Some of them are very short, just two minutes, two and a half minutes, three minutes, because they were all sketches, more or less. That’s part of what makes it so fresh, because there was no process of analyzing recordings, it was just done on the spot and then we moved on. And that’s how we ended up with so many sketches. The work, the ideas just seemed to flow out of us. We had the possibility to record four tracks, because it was a four-track tape recorder; I had bought that in ’74 for my preparations for Neu 75.

Conventional wisdom holds that the early to mid-’70s was a good time for rule-breaking artistic freedom in Europe. Was there in fact more openness to musical expression?

Looking back, one can have that impression, and of course there were these musicians who started to make a completely new music. But if I remember the reactions that Harmonia got in the ’70s, I must say that the audiences and the critics were not ready for Harmonia’s ideas back then. We were definitely not welcomed. [laughs] We sometimes drove for several hundred kilometers and played for an audience of three people. I remember doing that more than once. And many people just ignored us, or hated the music, even. These days, it seems, if I look at all the press coverage we’re getting for Live 1974, it seems a much better time for our aesthetics, our approach to music, than all these previous years.

You say German audiences weren’t interested in what Harmonia was doing. Was the response better in other European countries?

Unfortunately Harmonia happened in Germany, and didn’t have a fan base outside of Germany, hardly any sales –– really very poor sales of our albums. Neu did much better back then; I think the strong beat that was part of the Neu music made it easier for people to understand or get a feeling for where we were heading. But Harmonia music really demanded more of the audience.

The impression I got was that French audiences were more receptive to the German experimental bands than the bands’ own countrymen.

That could have been true for a band like Tangerine Dream, maybe Faust, Can maybe, and then later on Kraftwerk. But, I don’t know for which reason, it wasn’t true for Harmonia. We tried to survive by doing concerts in Germany, some in Belgium and Holland, but never made it across the channel to the UK, and never played in France. It was a very difficult time to survive with that kind of music.

Michael Rother

With your introduction to the world in Kraftwerk, you seemed to arrive fully formed, with a distinctive, minimalist style of melody and harmony. How do you see yourself in the context of the avant-garde music of the time?

I returned to Germany from living in Pakistan with my parents in ’63, and that was the period when all those pop bands from England came out, especially the Beatles and Stones, etc. That was the time when I really became interested in making music. I had been listening to Indian and Pakistani music and of course the classical music my mother played, but I started playing pop guitar in ’64, really trying to be like Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, later, Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck, all these great musicians, until I somehow realized that there just wasn’t enough benefit to me from all this copying; I wasn’t expressing my own personality.

When I was about 19 I started doing conscientious-objector duties instead of going into the military service; you could choose from institutions, and I chose a mental hospital, psychiatry, because I was interested in psychology at the time. And music was starting to form a part of me, because I was looking around for a way out of this dead-end street –– at the end of the ’60s my band tried to improvise more, to modify the ideas of others, but that’s not all that fulfilling, that wasn’t enough. And I wasn’t sure what way out I could take. I wasn’t listening to avant-garde musicians; that wasn’t my background.

I was more or less in an hour zero or something when I by chance met the Kraftwerk people and jammed with Ralf Hütter. That was a very important step, because he was the first guy I met who had a similar approach to melody and harmony that wasn’t rooted in American or British pop music. Before Kraftwerk I had started to develop my own structured style very carefully, by going back to minimal elements, like just playing one note of the guitar, no finger acrobatics on the guitar neck, and then thinking about the possibilities of expression within very minimal elements, with just one harmony, one note, one direction.

And that was at the time, ’71-’72, when I was with Kraftwerk and I recorded the first Neu album. On the first Neu album there’s only one track that has more than one harmony, and that’s “Weisensee.” I remember very clearly that at the time that was a step I really reflected on, thought about, whether to add that harmony change was right or wrong. And I was really careful to avoid all these clichés, the clichés that I had left behind. On “Weisensee,” it’s an up-and-down movement, it’s like breathing, an in-and-out movement between the two levels of the harmony. That’s how I understood the idea, and then I thought, “That’s okay.” [laughs]

It’s intriguing to think that your studies in psychology might have had some bearing on your very spare and simple style of melody, harmony and tone. Your music does have its therapeutic aspects.

All of these experiences I made in those early years, they had a very, very strong impact on my way of thinking. You also have to consider the importance of my meeting the Arabian and Indian music when I was about 9 or 10 years old. But it’s not possible to extract and say 20 percent is due to Pakistan, and 20 percent due to such and such [laughs]; all of the elements, they led to my way of thinking about society, of life, politics, of art, music; many people I met, all the upheavals of the ’60s, the student revolutions and the happenings in Paris in ’68, the march at the Palais Bourbon. I was a bit younger than all those people, but I was very interested in it, and I was interested in America and the opposition to the Vietnam war. And so all that formed my own personality, and a view on society.

Of course there was a lot to oppose to, and the remaining conservative structures of postwar Germany, of the equally conservative structures of other countries, but definitely in Germany. Well, if you look at some of the politicians, they already had been actors in the Nazi era, and some of those characters were still around at the end of the ’60s, and in power.

On your solo albums Flammende Herzen, Sterntaler and Katzenmusik from the mid-’70s, you collaborated with drummer Jaki Liebezeit of Can. He has his own intriguing theories –– about how each note of a rhythmic pattern has a counterpart in tonality, for example; he sees these patterns as very musical in that respect. There could have been no better match for you; his extremely economical style fits yours perfectly.

Well, of course that didn’t happen by chance. I knew his style, his capabilities –– he was my first choice, of course. I started recording my first solo album in 1976 and I could only be happy that Jaki was willing to join me and Conny Plank in the studio. He’s such an inspiring artist. And all these albums we did together, sometimes we had some discussions, because I asked him to play a slightly different style than what he did for Can, and he did that with such a great way of playing, with all the qualities of a drum machine, but being much better than that because of the actions in the music that he expressed in small variations sometimes maybe people are not aware of.

If you look at a track like “Flammende Herzen,” I played guitar –– I should go back one step: I played my sketches to Conny and to Jaki before we went into the studio; not only were they just sketches, but when we started recording the basic tracks, I just played guitar along, and Jaki listened to my rhythm guitar and then he couldn’t know what kind of melodies exactly that would happen on top of one –– but the accents or the points where he puts on an exclamation mark, for instance, they were all at the right spot. So, he didn’t play the drums to the finished recording, but the other way ’round. Amazing the amount of creation he was capable of playing with.

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