When Günter Körber left the pioneering Hamburg label Brain to found Sky Records in 1975, most of the big names currently associated with Krautrock such as Can, Faust and Neu! were either petering out, neutered by the mainstream or splitting up. But it was also the year in which Kraftwerk were beginning to gain worldwide recognition as a prototype electropop quartet, while both David Bowie and Brian Eno were about to confer a new respect on experimental German music of the era, which hitherto had been largely disregarded or sniggered at by the international music press. Krautrock was both dying and taking on new life, new forms.
Eno’s association with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster would result in two Sky albums, 1977′s Cluster & Eno and the following year’s After the Heat, which would help establish the new label financially. There was a brief period in which Sky played host to a number of Krautrock and neo-Krautrock artists who specialized in studio-based experimentalism, leaving behind the guitar-based, long-haired collectives of the late ’60s in search of more compact, electronic ways of musical being. These included the Cluster members, Asmus Tietchens, Neu!’s Michael Rother, Conny Plank and the ill-fated, blue-lipsticked Wolfgang Riechmann, who made a single electropop album, 1978′s Wunderbar, for Sky, before being murdered in a barroom brawl — the Great Lost Elektronische Futurist Boy.
Tim Gane, founder of Stereolab and Cavern of Anti-Matter, is a long-time fan of the Sky catalogue, which he regards as “different but no less groundbreaking” than the first great ’60s wave of new German music. Asked by the Hamburg label Bureau B to put together a collection of his Sky Records favorites, he curated Kollektion 1, the first in a series of releases exploring the breadth of the label’s catalogue, with later installments to come from Death in Vegas’ Richard Fearless and Holger Hiller.
What was it that initially appealed to you about Krautrock?
There was this lack of reverence to this venerated generation of British and American bands. Nowadays, there is this great reverence towards the classic rock bands. But they made this great break. It was an even bigger break than punk represented, really, which was still going by that same rock tradition.
How did the influence of Krautrock feed into Stereolab, who seemed to provide a template for an alternative ’90s music?
Before I joined McCarthy [one of the indie groups featured on the NME's legendary C86 collection], I was into electronic music. I did loads of cassettes [as Un-kommuniti, who were commemorated with a four-LP box set on Vinyl On Demand last year] all influenced by Faust, as well as people like Throbbing Gristle. So Stereolab weren’t really the big break from McCarthy everyone assumed them to be. I made first recordings for Stereolab in 1990. I began to re-listen to those bands, people like Neu! The minimalism and the beat opened up the possibility of having this beat on top — also I needed something where no great technical ability was required, just an exploratory spirit. At that point, I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing that.
How were the particular tropes of Krautrock — repetition, minimalism — relevant to Stereolab, who also had a radically chic, French-derived pop dimension?
I wanted to break away from stuff around me. The minimalism and repetition was important but what was also important was the way it frees up the higher regions for really melodic stuff. I wanted to be a pop band, not a rock band — a pop group but with non-pop influences. My position was that we started off as pop, then took things on board, rather than start off as avant garde. And in that respect, I don’t think we were very much different from My Bloody Valentine.
What drew you to Sky Records as a source for a compilation?
It’s not meant to be representative of the label as a whole — a lot of their output was hard rock, “Euro-rock”, you might call it, which was more mainstream and wouldn’t have worked alongside things like Michael Rother. One thing I like is that it’s the phase where the music is moving away from its jazzier beginnings. With the earlier years of Krautrock there was always that element of jazz — a lot of the players had come from jazz backgrounds. When they drew away from that, many groups ended up sounded conventionally rocky, less innovative, or improvisatory. However, people like Cluster, for example, or even Wolfgang Riechmann were carrying on doing what they’d always done but with new, modular equipment.
Sky Records came after the main events of Krautrock — do you think some of the music from this period was blasted from the historical timeline by punk?
Well, certainly as someone into punk at that time myself growing up in Barking in my teens, I wouldn’t have liked things like Cluster and Eno. To me, Eno was the equivalent to Yes. Punk for me was all about the reassertion of the rock group, whereas there are no groups among this lot — artists were working solo or in pairs. That would have seemed self-indulgent to me back then.
And yet that self-indulgence is actually part of its appeal. These instrumental electronic pieces are “useless” creations, like mobile sound sculptures — Moebius & Conny Plank’s “Conditionierer” or Asmus Tietchens’ “Trümmerköpfe”…
Yes — they make a point of being pointless…It’s music that finds out something about itself after it’s done. People like Roedelius were doing what they felt like doing rather than trying to sell it as a product. These days, there’s always one eye on image and your place in the scheme of things, where you fit in. This stuff is more playful, more introspective. They’re using new technology such as sequencers. They’re also unselfconscious and relaxed, less worried about the eyes of the world being on them — and yet at the same time, highly focused and intense.
Eno was clearly a great patron — in a way he was working in the same spirit as the Krautrock generation, seeking out new tools, new modes and shapes and templates for an imaginary future pop music — but with a visual artist’s sensibility.
Yes, Eno took a lot of the credit internationally for the sort of music he made with Moebius and Roedelius, to the annoyance of some people — but Eno was exploring these ideas already. And despite punk, these ideas were progressive — in home studios, the way people like me work today, which is much more commonplace. Now, in the last decade thanks to house and techno there are lots of collaborations, people messing around with different names and different identities. This music informed Neue Deutsche Welle, people like Der Plan — it does cross over, it does look forward. The sensibility feels modern. It doesn’t relate to the period at all, the way that even some David Bowie does.
Finally, you live in Berlin — what do Germans themselves feel about their Krautrock legacy?
When you talk about “Krautrock,” Germans think of more ordinary, rock-orientated bands — so Guru Guru or Grobschnitt are more popular than, say, Can. They like the stuff that’s more conventional but they’re quite happy to take advantage of foreigners who are willing to pay vast amounts of money for vinyl editions of these records! People seem to be more proud of the ’80s scene, the Neue Deutsche Welle. The Krautrock bands, not so much. And in Berlin, they’re eager to champion bands like Pudys, the old East German bands — they’re really loved.