Michael Rother has become, sadly by default, the sole voice of Neu! As half of the pioneering German duo (alongside his eccentric, driven, more cantankerous cohort and former Kraftwerk bandmate, drummer Klaus Dinger), he helped make glistening, incandescent pop using every-thing from spacey guitar shadowplays to the shifting speed of the record itself, aided further by Dinger’s self-proclaimed “Apache beat,” a simple, insistent rhythmic style known colloquially as “motorik.” As Brian Eno once famously pronounced, “There were three great beats in the ’70s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk, and Klaus Dinger’s Neu!-beat.”
But by initially refusing all offers to reissue the group’s beloved first three records—1972’s Neu!, 1973’s Neu! 2, and 1975’s Neu! 75, all only appearing on CD in 2001—Dinger essentially served as that longtime voice by silencing it, resulting in years of wide-scale bootlegging by persons unknown. Neu! became “No!” to every label interested in them, and for the better part of two decades, the band became less a working concern (that initial burst of creativity was followed only by an aborted mid-’80s comeback) than an abstract legacy, its power evident only in the echoes of everyone from Julian Cope to Stereolab to Negativland.
After Neu!, Rother worked with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in the similarly Krautrock-steeped group Harmonia; Dinger ultimately decamped to Japan and issued records as La Düsseldorf and, confusingly, La! Neu? He died in 2008 of heart failure. Now, in tribute, Rother is preparing another, even more in-depth look back: The self-titled, all-vinyl Neu! box set, out on Grönland Records, covers the three ’70s records, but also includes Neu! 86 (culled from tumultuous mid-’80s sessions between the briefly reconciled pair) and the live 72 Non-Public Test EP. “It’s something I couldn’t foresee in the ’90s—the ’90s were rather quiet, overshadowed by the problems I had with Klaus,” Rother explains. “We discussed the idea of the box set in the years after we released the CDs. But things just couldn’t move forward—he was very difficult. When we met last year with his widow, Miki Yui, that made it so much easier for me to make decisions.”
In discussing his old partner, Rother is appreciative, yet blunt: “Klaus was a great artist and inspiration for me,” he says. “But as a human being, as a partner, it was very hard—especially in later years.” Back in the early ’70s, “He was already then a figure I would never have wanted as a friend,” the guitarist continues. “He was an exciting musician, an inspiring drummer—but on a personal level, I stood away from him. We were so different in character and temperament. We had something that Klaus expressed as ‘blind understanding.’ ”
Things turned especially sour when it came time to discuss the reissues. “To be fair to him, he was a person who desperately looked for harmony,” Rother says. “He lost this ability to have harmony with the people around him, and although he wanted it desperately—I know that—he had a very strong ego, and I think he was very skeptical, not to say paranoid, about people. That had to do, to be quite honest, with the drugs he took. He said that on his website—he even posted a message that he was proud of taking more than 1,000 LSD trips. The figure may have been exaggerated, but anything even less than half would be enough to explain how that person is on his own planet!”
Back on this planet, Rother has teamed up with Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Benjamin Curtis (School of Seven Bells), and Aaron Mullan (Tall Firs) for a four-month tour, covering tracks from Neu!, Harmonia, and his own solo albums, celebrating the release of both the box set and the acrimony around it, free to let the music speak for itself.
Michael Rother performs August 6 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors