My interview with Hans-Joachim Roedelius first appeared on the VESSEL music site, October 28th 2010.
HANS-JOACHIM ROEDELIUS, the Berlin born masseur and physiotherapist turned self-taught composer, has unassumingly continued to produce some of the most viscerally and challenging experimental music over the last forty years.
Traversing multiple genres, from ambient to trance, and even jazz, whilst also pioneering techniques and creating new musical vistas; Roedelius is hailed as one of the founding fathers of electronic music.
A contemporary of Can, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Neu!, Roedelius began working with the Dusseldorf artist Conrad Schnitzler and Swiss born musician Dieter Moebius in the late 60s; forming Kluster and releasing two albums of startling organ-led evocative soundscapes, changing the musical landscape forever.
The trio became a duo when Schnitzler left, changing their name to Cluster and producing an influential body of work. By the mid-70s they were joined by Michael Rother of Neu! – under the moniker of Harmonia – and Brian Eno for a series of innovative atmospheric, and much emulated, albums.
Roedelius embarked on a succession of solo projects for the next decade, before once again resurrecting Cluster in the 90s, inspiring a new generation of fans, as well as collaborating with a wealth of talent, including Alexander Czjzek, Tim Story, Morgan Fisher and Alessandra Celliett; releasing in excess of eighty albums.
At the milestone age of 76, he still strife’s to produce new sounds and tour the world, interacting with technological advances and moving ever forward, never resting on his laurels. Here he discusses the politics, culture and environment that helped to shape the Roedelius sound, covering his time growing up in Berlin during the war, the founding of the legendary Zodiak arts lab and his involvement with the leading exponents of the German music scene, during its most inventive period.
You grew up in Germany during the Second World War, did you and your family stay in the country during this period?
We had to stay in Berlin under the bombings that increased horribly in 1943, and then we were evacuated to a little village in Eastern Prussia until the Russians crossed the German border. We then fled to the former Sudentenland (now part of the Czech Republic) and stayed there in a small village until the war ended.
It’s often stated that Stockhausen was the catalyst for the German music scene in the latter half of the last century, and that his indelible mark can be traced throughout most of your contemporaries work. Did his presence have any particular influence on you?
Not at all, because I am a self-taught composer/musician, and was at the time very much influenced by pop and rock, not the academic school of music. His music doesn’t say anything to me but groups such as Haps Hash and the Coloured Coats, Third Ear Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jimi Hendrix and later contemporaries such as Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and the Penguin Café Orchestra did.
Also because I had to find out how to create my own music (there was no other choice!), I had to experience and decide which particular tone or sound fitted in with my own imaginative ideas, to create the right relevant music for me.
In the later half of the 60s, you met the art student Conrad Schnitzler, and founded the Zodiak Free Arts Lab. Was there a definitive concept behind this venture, and do you think it was successful?
The concept came along with Schnitzler, who was the first pupil of the visionary artist, Josef Beuys, studying under him at the Academy Of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf. Conrad was a natural born aristocrat, he and Beuys originally met in Dusseldorf, and the two really moved the world of art and therefore the world for art/music. He was also the main founding member of the Zodiak Arts Lab. It was his idea and he invested a lot of energy and time to make it possible; even so he left the lab some months after its inauguration. The Zodiak was a big success as one of Schnitzlers ideas that became true in the field of contemporary art. I’m a pupil of Conrad in many ways not only in the field of arts. I successfully went my own way but this wouldn’t have been possible without Conrad’s input as a person and artist.
Conceptual art seems to have played a major role in your work. Which artists and movements at the time inspired you?
I was originally involved in the ideas of conceptual art, up until the closure of the Zodiak club in 1969. After that I decided to switch off from and take little notice of what everyone else was doing at the time, following my own pathway forward instead.
The late 60s and early 70s in Germany were marked by increasingly radical left wing groups, whose doctrine went from protest to active hostility – the Baader Meinhof group in particular choosing an ever more violent path. Where did you stand at the time politically, and how did this affect your music?
I was a burned child, growing up and indoctrinated under the Nazis, as a teen I was indoctrinated by the communists, and then as an adult I found myself crossing the border into capitalism – which in the beginning for me was akin to being left alone in a labyrinth.
Twice under ‘indoctrination’, I didn’t believe anything anymore. By 1960 I was a physiotherapist and masseur, crossing over the border into West Berlin, and mixing with all sorts of different cultures and behaviour, which helped me later on to form my own identity. I knew all the Baader Meinhof group members at the time; I took care of their children when they helplessly discussed about the impossible. I didn’t agree at all with the way they tried to change the society. I wasn’t actively part of the political movement in West Berlin but I looked with sympathy to it, but I also think that what we did art wise at the time was very political. Because of my age and personal experience I found myself caught in between the various groups.
How aware were you of your fellow compatriots, such as Amon Duul II, Can, Faust? Were there any natural ties and kinship between you all?
Of course there were natural ties, especially with Can’s Holger Czukay – who we met with at Conny Planks‘ studio. Czukay played some of the bass-lines on both ‘Cluster & Eno’ and ‘After The Heat’ in the late 70s. I also knew almost everybody on the scene during this period, including Embryo, Kraan, Kraftwerk – I was befriended by one of the sisters of Florian – Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, amongst others.
The Kluster albums,‘Klopfzeichen’ and ‘Zwei-Osterei’ were recorded quite quickly; both in one take sessions.
How did the process work, and was there ever any pre-planned arranging of compositions?
Nothing was ever planned; we just performed live in the studio, in the same fashion as our concerts. The sessions took place at Godorf near Cologne, where we met Conny Plank, our producer, and our cantor and composer Oskar Gottlieb Blarr – who took our material and added well-known German text and poetry from the Oecumenic movement to it.
As Kluster, you were signed to the Schwann label, a name synonymous with church organ music. Do you think that your often reverential and hymn like music may have convinced them that you would fit in with their other releases?
I’m sure you’re right with your opinion; at least the producer ( that cantor I mention above ) was convinced from the often “hymnic quality” of our music…. which is why he asked us to make those records for the Schwann label.
Most of the instrumentation at this time consisted of strings, woodwind and organs. Was it your intention to use classical instruments or was it due to the lack of electronic equipment at the time?
We used strings, but modified the sound extremely by treating it with our effects machinery. We mainly used sounds from our organs and from our specially handmade gear. We couldn’t really play our cello, knee-violin and guitar; we just created the sounds we liked in an adventurous manner. As beginners we had to find out as what was possible, before we could become “real” musicians!
The artwork on these first two albums differs greatly from those of Clusters. How much input did you have in their design?
The first album covers were made by the label Schwann themselves, after this the others (most of them) were made by Moebius.
Schnitzler left Kluster in 1971, apart from leaving you and Dieter as a duo; did his departure have any effect or change to your overall philosophy and process of making music?
Basically Schnitzler’s input consisted of improvising with us, depending on the mood and environment we were performing in. Schnitzler was, as we have already mentioned, a student of Josef Beuys, who once said that “everybody is an artist”, a statement we originally based our methods of making music upon.
You and Dieter both built your very own studio, in a semi-distressed and unkempt building from the middle ages, in the woodlands of Forst – seemingly away from the outside world. What was it like there, making music in the woods? What equipment were you using at the time, and what kind of studio set-up did you have?
It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to in my whole life, there in the middle German countryside beside the river Weser. Firstly we had to refurbish the house, as we were going to have to live in it, but we had to keep the historic style.
Because of our lack in funds, it took a while to make it comfortable.
As for equipment, Moebius and me each owned an organ and some handmade gear; recording onto a Revox. Later on when Michael Rother joined us, we used a four-track machine – that’s it! After we had recorded ourselves we would visit Conny Plank for mastering procedures, sometimes we would record new pieces on his 24-track machine. I recorded nearly all of my ‘Self Portraits’ albums at Forst, usually in the summer after working a hard days toil in the woods and gardens, at night with the windows wide open – it was a delight.
When making music, could you describe the process or what works best for you in composing?
When “nothing” happens, when I’m quiet and empty.
You worked extensively with the engineer/producer Conny Plank throughout the 70s. How did you initially meet, and what unique qualities did he bring to the sound of Cluster?
We first met during the production of ‘Klopfzeichen’ and ‘Zwei-Osterei’. He taught us how to use the recording studio as a tool, and he became the third silent member of Cluster, touring with us and doing many records later in his studio.
In the mid 70s of course you and Dieter began working with Neu! co-founder and guitarist Michael Rother, under the moniker of Harmonia. What interested or appealed to you about working with him? And how did you incorporate his brand of meticulous playing to your sound?
Michael one day appeared in our rural home at Forst, and asked us to collaborate with Neu!, but we didn’t like the idea of that. Instead of returning back to Dusseldorf, Michael decided to stop working with Klaus Dinger, and stayed with us.
We found that after working together for two years, constantly rehearsing the same thing over and over again, that we should call it a day, as it was starting to conflict with our musical aims.
It was at this point that a certain Mr.Eno appeared in Berlin, sniffing around! How did you meet him, what led to his inclusion to your set-up with Rother?
In 1974, Eno came to a Harmonia concert in Hamburg and joined us for the second half of the gig for a jam. Because we knew about him and liked what he’d done with Brian Ferry and Roxy Music, we asked him afterwards whether he would like to join us for some real work in our studio in Germany. He agreed and said that he would like to come and he did two years later. So then and there the now very famous “Harmonia & Eno 76″ was born
How do you feel about Eno’s subsequent adulation and acclaim as an electronic music pioneer, and for his production on Bowie’s Berlin trio of albums, which led to praise but not much success for the acts it borrowed from?
I’m not sure whether it’s true that there wasn’t much success for the acts it was borrowed from, perhaps yes, but it was the time, the change of paradigmatic, the ending of the flower power movement happy ‘Hippieness’. Brian was and still is presenting much more than the type of Zeitgeist that is still alive par example in Moebius’ music, or in Neu’s or Kraftwerks.
In more recent times, you’ve kept highly prolific, with your solo, collaborative and Cluster work. It seems that you’re always keeping ahead, never looking back. How do you feel about the reappraisal of German bands from the golden age of the 70s, and of the resurgence in interest?
I’m happy because now I, or we, can earn the fruit of what we once sowed. And I’m very curious about what’s going to happen next in the future; there are always interesting and unpredictable things yet to come.
Finally, I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it, but it will soon be your 76th birthday. Do you still feel that you have much more left to achieve?
Yes I do, more and more, the older I get.