Friday, 4 November 2011

Hans-Joachim Roedelius

The electronic pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius is a legendary figure in modern music. He founded the seminal bands Kluster (who later became Cluster, and now Qluster) and Harmonia (where he worked with a young Brian Eno), and he made music using the world's first drum machine- Drummer One. His work is considered across the world to be the blueprint for electronic music. He turns 77 this month, and rarely gives interviews, but Bite My Wire managed to trace him to his house in Austria for our conversation. He's just released his collaboration album with Stefan Schneider (of post-rock pioneers Kreidler and To Rococo Rot) and it's one of the most beautiful things you will ever hear.

                                                                  Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

How did you meet Stefan? How did the collaboration come about?
I met Stefan a long time ago, when I was playing somewhere. He invited me to one of his concert series in Düsseldorf, and that was the first time we played together. Now that's four years ago, I think. When we did these concerts we said "Let's do a record, and let's try something else". We needed about one-and-a-half years to get this thing on tape.

Did you have any idea how you wanted 'Stunden' to sound when you started working on it?
I had no idea which way it would work, so it was very surprising how it came out in the end. The rhythms came out really nice, because of what Stefan Schneider did to it. I'm more the abstract, melodic part of it.

                           Stefan Schneider and Roedelius. Photograph by Fabian Schulz

You've always done a lot of collaborations. Do you find yourself to be more productive in the company of strangers?
I think it gives a lot of new ideas, it enriches my own work and my own type of working. It's a challenge, especially to work with people who are almost half my age. It's a good challenge for me because I don't want to fall asleep whilst I'm still on Earth. I'm 77 now, and it's good refreshment, this well of youth. It's good to get together with young people and work with them. It's only young people I'm working with at the moment- the youngest is a girl from Pakistan. She's living in Croatia, and is a bass player and a computer specialist. She's 30. Onnen Bock, who I'm working with in Qluster is in his 40s... I think I'm only working with the younger generation! 

Your music has appealed to people for over 40 years, without you ever having to try, and without changing your sound. Why do you think this is?
When it's a collaboration, it's always about friendship. I think that's the main ingredient- my love to work with other people. Sharing the same values is basic, for being able to collaborate with people. With Moebius, it was 40 years we were working because we were good friends, but we stopped at a good time- because we ran out of ideas. Especially with the live stuff. It was like we were always doing the same thing. People appreciated it- and they loved it- and it didn't get boring, but I think it was a good idea that we split after the last work. It was a good swansong for a group that existed for 40 years.

So how important is playing live to you? Has the way that you present your music changed over the years?
After I found out that music is my thing to do, it was of great interest to me to work live. It's a different quality from studio work. Playing live in front of the public- who expect to be entertained- they can get into it, get something conscious from it, find themselves in it... find their own reality in it. 

                                              Cluster. Photographer unknown.

What inspired you to start making music?
I had a different approach, I was never bound by music theory. I always wanted to practice, I wanted to find out how I could express myself and my values in life, my being in life, musically. That was the main thing. Since the beginning I just wanted to express myself via music or via text, because I am writing as well, you know?

Of course.
So how would you describe your music to somebody?
It's more or less philosophy in sound, or a cinema in sound, what I'm doing. But I'm always telling people, "Don't look at it as if it was music, in the general meaning, it's something else". It's something else. It's like writing a diary. Every piece is a part of a diary of my life, and it's a joy to do it. It's the way I have to work- to express my respect of nature, of creation, of whatever you call it. To give back what I'm getting. It's a gift what I'm getting. If it comes, then I'm doing it. I don't go "Oh, now I have to do a piece of music that is ten minutes long, to express this", if it happens it happens, and then there's a piece. And then I have to find the right name for it, which is the second creative process, to explain what I am thinking of that piece to make it easier for people, perhaps. But a piece of art speaks for itself. If you listen to my music you don't need an explanation about why I did it or what for. If it's ready, it's something that has a certain value.

It's said that before the artist paints in the abstract, he must master fine art. What do you think?
I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think it's up to the individual. People like me, who had a different profession before... I was a physiotherapist and masseur, so I got together for a long time- for about ten years- with many, many, many people and I touched a lot of bodies and listened to a lot of voices. That was a totally different way of approaching life and of approaching art, and that made a big difference. People who really want to study an instrument, and study music, it's a totally different method. I'm privileged to be able to express how I feel, and my existence, and so called 'reality', and I'm happy to do what I'm doing. Especially because I can really do what I want to do. There are many people who aren't able to do that, because they are not allowed, or they don't allow themselves.

                                             Cluster. Photographer unknown.

When you started making music, the technology you used was new. Now that pretty much everybody is able to make music at home on their computer, how do you think music has changed?
I really had to practice, to find out which sort of sound, which sort of tone, which sort of complex composition would fit my ears first so I could allow the piece to get out to other ears. It was not a problem that we couldn't use the machinery. We started with really simple stuff, and I think that's a good way to practice music. If you learn about noise, if you learn about tones and structures by just trying to find out if it fits your ears. Something different from learning an instrument or being able to read scores or write scores, which wasn't what we did when we were starting, and it isn't how I work now.
With technology, it's nice that it's easier to transport the microKORG (analogue modeling synthesizer), and to transport material to make noises, than it was in the past. It's good that it's easy to compose on a computer, but I'm not really doing it. I'm still very analogue in my mind, and analogue in my whole existence, so I just use what I'm able to. Little instruments. Presets in keyboards, and piano now of course, because my main interest is in piano sounds.

You don't compose on a computer at all?
With Stefan, we composed on a computer. He took everything we did here in my studio on to his computer, and he produced everything on his computer. He brought it to me and we listened to it together before we agreed to release it. When I'm playing my piano I put the digital recorder on, and I put it on digital tape, and if I like it afterwards I'll possibly put it on my computer. I have a very easy computer program, it's called 'Reaper'. I'm not even able to use a computer with eight, or ten, or even 24 tracks. I always have friends who can help me to do it! 

Stefan in this case.
Stefan in this case, and Onnen Bock in Qluster. These guys are really able to handle the material. Onnen Bock really is a genius in every field he works. I'm very happy to have him as a colleague in Qluster!

You've put out a tremendous amount of work in the 21st century. What's inspired you to be so busy over the last ten years?

I have to take care of a big family! I have three kids, and two grandchildren. I'm hoping I am taking care of the house. My wife is a teacher so she gets regular money. I'm promoting, and taking care of my career myself. It's not a long time ago that I got an agent, in Berlin, who takes care of my concerts. My day is full of work. I'm cooking for when my wife is coming home. It's all part of my art, because my life is not divided into an 'art part' and a 'living part', it's all together.

                                       Hans-Joachim Roedelius. Photograph by Camillo Roedelius.

Do your children, and your grandchildren, listen to the music you do?
My children love what I'm doing. All three, and my grandchildren- the oldest is 11 and he likes very much what I'm doing! He's sometimes in my studio, playing piano and trying to find out if he ought to want to be a musician. But that's not decided yet. He has to learn. He has to go to college. I think because I'm so in love with my art, everybody around me is infected by it!

Are you impressed by any modern music?
The only time I have to listen to music is when I'm driving my car for some distance, and I'm listening to the radio. But I'm not listening on purpose to modern compositions, I have no time. I have masses of CDs to listen to listen to but I can't do it because there is no time to do it.

With digital distribution and file-sharing, all music is now available to everybody. Is this the end of an era or the beginning of a new one?
It's very nice that every bit of music that's been done in the world is available online, so people can make a picture for themselves of what's going on in the world of music, or in the world of art. For me, online distribution is good because now it's feeding me! Just a few years ago it started that I get some money for my work. If my wife hadn't been there I would never have done such a lot of work, such a lot of recording. She allowed me to do it. Also, in Austria I'm privileged to get support from the state, and by many institutions, so if they wouldn't have helped me I wouldn't have done it. All gifts. When I came to Austria in '78 the institutions and people enabled me to work easily and freely, and with restriction. I could do what I wanted to do.

How did Harmonia come about? What was it like being in two groups at the same time?
Michael (Rother) came to us when Cluster had been five years on the road, and we settled down in the middle of Germany. I think he was a little bit bored with the work with Klaus Dinger in Neu!, so he tried to find a new situation, a new feel to work with, so he found us. Because we liked him and we liked his guitar playing we said "OK, let's try a second project beside Cluster". And it worked out.

Did he come to you wanting to join Cluster?
He came to join Cluster. I think the idea- which we didn't know about at the beginning- was to create a kind of 'supergroup'- Neu! and Cluster, under a different name, but it just didn't work out. So he stayed with us, and Dinger stayed in Düsseldorf and created La Düsseldorf instead of continuing working further with Michael Rother and Neu! So we tried to do a different thing with Harmonia, being influenced by Rother's guitar playing and by Rother's ideas about how to create music. We thought it could be a little bit more successful, because Cluster at that time was not very well known. It was well known, but not very successful money-wise. So we tried, and in the beginning it was fun to do it, but we couldn't really afford to rehearse the same piece of music every day, so we left it. It was not our aim to re-do the same stuff every time, all day long, so we left Harmonia after two albums. We had a last shot with Brian (Eno) when he came to our place to work with us. So we had three albums. The last one was 'Harmonia '76' with Brian. We did this when Harmonia had already split, but we still didn't get together anymore afterwards. This came out twenty years later, or so.
With Cluster we continued to work, and everybody did his solo stuff. There was a lot of solo stuff. I'm really glad that Bureau B is re-releasing so much. They're doing good, good work.

They're a fantastic label.
They're fantastic, and it's so noble. The quality of what they're doing is just perfect.

Do you think Brian Eno took a lot of your ideas when he went solo, or were these ideas that he already had?
Brian sent Cluster into the spotlight. He came because he loved what we did before, and he wanted to support us, in a way. And that's what he did with 'Cluster & Eno' and 'After The Heat'... It kept us alive for the next five years, the success of these two albums. Brian was more or less an ambassador for art, and he came to us to give us advice about how to work, and about how to get deeper into what we did. Not to be produced, just to do our thing. He still supports us in many ways. He wrote the foreword for the book, he wrote forewords for my new records, we've just been interviewed by him in London for a little festival in Austria. So he's still on our side because he's a big fan, and he's a good friend of ours.

Anything you think the readers of Bite My Wire should know?
Well, first of all, that Bureau B is doing splendid work. Not even just the re-releases, but all the new stuff they put on the market, like the 'Stunden' record. And they're taking care of the legacy of Conrad Schnitzler (contributor to Kluster and Kraftwerk who died in August). They're bringing out some music we did after the band split, and they're bringing out the first three Kluster records, which I'm very happy about. Please say hello to Brian Eno (laughs)! I've been invited to play Moogfest in Asheville at the end of October, in the states. I'm playing there as a soloist as with Tim Storey as party of the Lunzproject. So I'll see Brian there. Say hello to everybody in Britain. I hope I can come there again soon. I played a solo show at the Vortex Club in May and it was very nice. People liked it a lot.


  1. cool, but a little correction: the microKORG is an analogue modeling synthesizer, meaning that it's not a true analogue synth, but a digital synth designed to replicate the sounds and interface of an analogue synth.

  2. Duly amended. Thanks for the correction- much appreciated!