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Interview: Dieter Moebius

by Geeta Dayal

Dieter Moebius

Dieter Moebius is best known as being one half of Cluster, the trailblazing German duo that rose from the ashes of Kluster, a group formed by Conrad Schnitzler in Berlin in the late 1960s. Moebius was also one-third of Harmonia – a band once hailed by Brian Eno as the ‘world’s most important rock group’ – with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, the other half of Cluster, and Michael Rother of Neu! But Moebius himself remains a curious enigma, despite leaving a tremendous and immensely varied body of work spanning four decades, including solo work and high-profile collaborations with Eno, the legendary producer Conny Plank, the drummer Mani Neumeier, and many more.

Moebius’ fruitful partnership with Roedelius in Cluster spanned nearly 40 years, until the band’s demise in 2010. Roedelius is currently on tour as ‘Qluster’, with Onnen Bock, and Moebius is concentrating on his own solo work, film scores, and various collaborations – including an upcoming tour of Australia with Rother and Hans Lampe (of La Dusseldorf) in Rother’s Hallogallo project, and a new album with Asmus Tietchens.

In this rare solo interview, conducted in a cafe in Berlin at the end of last year, Moebius discusses his art school past in the 1960s, his work in Cluster and Harmonia in the 1970s and beyond, his many intriguing collaborations outside of Cluster, and his unique approach to making music.

Geeta Dayal: The story I read was that you were a cook, and you met Roedelius at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab.

Dieter Moebius: I met [Roedelius] at the Zodiak but I wasn’t cooking… I was working in a place owned by my friend; I was just working there for three months or something.

GD: And then you also met Conrad Schnitzler at the Zodiak?

DM: We met in a bar, really. At this time, all the young people, every night, went to bars in Charlottenburg, which was the place. At that time it wasn’t Kreuzberg. Every night you meet [people], and one night, Achim [Roedelius] and Schnitzler were in one of these bars. I came in, and they said ‘Hey, Moebius, do you want to play with us in our band?’ And I said of course I want to play in your band. And that’s how it began. The next day we rehearsed, and then we played 12 hours in a gallery.

GD: So you, Roedelius, and Conrad Schnitzler do these first two records as Kluster. And Kluster plays this 12-hour gig in an art gallery…

DM: That was still in Berlin – our first gig together. We played 12 hours nonstop at Galerie Hammer. And that was just before we left Berlin. The two records we recorded in Cologne were after this. We left Berlin to make our fortune in West Germany. Berlin was an island, and there was at that time not that much happening in Berlin. Cologne was the art center of Germany – it still is, in a way. So we tried to get out of Berlin. It was always very complicated to go to Berlin or to come with a car or a truck, because it was the GDR, East Germany. So we went to West Germany to be in Europe, in a way. To be able to travel around.

GD: I understand that the three of you recorded the first two Kluster albums in one night, with Conny Plank.

DM: In one night, yeah! [Laughs]

GD: What was that night like?

DM: It was loud, with lots of improvisations of course, and tiring on the other side as well. But we had to do it this way, because it was the cheapest method. Since at this time we really only improvised, it was in a way easy to do it… Conny had a lot of fun with it. Because normally he was working with a kind of music that was not the kind of music he liked. This was 1969, ‘70. I was aged 26 at the time.

GD: Where did you go to art school, when you were in Berlin?

DM: The Akademie fur Grafik, Druck und Werbung. Now it’s called the art university.

GD: Did you finish your coursework? Or did you drop out?

DM: No, we were demonstrating in Berlin, and I stopped, yeah. Then I went to work with my friend in this restaurant place, when I stopped at the art school. And then we had a boat, an empty trawler on the river, where we played free jazz. [Laughs] That was in the ‘60s, I don’t know, perhaps ‘68. I played saxophone with a drummer.

GD: You played saxophone?

DM: Saxophone, yeah. But then when I began to play with [Roedelius and Schnitzler], I played drums. Not the normal drum set. We had drums, like in a big classical orchestra –big metal drum things. And I could change the sound of the drums by putting air in, and letting air out, and things like that.

GD: Did you have any musical training as a child?

DM: I studied music, in a way, because my mother was a classical piano player. So I had to listen to a lot of classical music all my youth, but I didn’t hate it. Of course like all kids I learned flute, a little piano, [and] then I learned saxophone. I got to be a jazz freak in the ‘50s. I saw a documentary movie called Jazz On a Summer’s Day [1959], filmed in Newport, and there they played a lot of jazz, but then came Chuck Berry, who also sang a song in this movie. I was so amazed by Chuck Berry that more and more I became distanced from jazz and I started to listen to this new kind of music. Then came the Velvet Underground and things like that.

GD: How long were you in art school before you left?

DM: I already went to art school in Brussels, where I lived before; I went there perhaps for one year. Academie des Beaux-Arts. Then I went to Berlin, when my grandmother was still alive.

GD: What was it like for you in Berlin back then? Politically, socially?

DM: It was rough in a way. It was rough because we didn’t go to university anymore; we were on strike, and we were demonstrating against Springer, and the moguls of the press. We hated all the old guys that were still in power after the war.

GD: Berlin must have been a very strange place to be around ‘68.

DM: Yes, of course it was. Strange because it was like being on an island, and Berlin was really something quite artificial. It only existed that way because the Cold War was going and it was under American, French and British protection. So it could survive, but only artificially. That’s why lots of people left and went to West Germany, because you were isolated in a way in Berlin. The only good thing was that you didn’t have to go do military service.

GD: It’s very striking how different Kluster was from Cluster. When you two split off from Conrad Schnitzler, it became such a different aesthetic, a different band.

DM: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why we split. Because Conny Schnitzler was a really very tough maker of music. He liked a little chaos in the music, which is good as well. The first Cluster album with the stars on it was still in a way a little bit like the first albums with Schnitzler. But then we got to be more musical, more harmonic.

GD: Another thing that’s very striking about Cluster is how different each album is.

DM: Yes. That shows a kind of development, and also knowledge. Because we were autodidactic musicians, we got to learn more and more about doing it. That’s normal, I think.

GD: The change from Cluster II [1972] and Zuckerzeit [1974] is a big one.

DM: Yes it is. Cluster II, the one with the stars on the cover, we made with Conny Plank. It was all very big improvisations, and we recorded it in Hamburg. We didn’t have a lot of time, because it was not our studio. I think we made it in one night, or something like that. The difference with Zuckerzeit and Sowiesoso [1976] was that we were in Forst where we got to live in our own house, and where I still have my home… There we had our four-track machine, and we had all the time we wanted to, to record, to do it again and arrange things, and also to improvise. So that made the difference…

GD: But then the stylistic shift between Zuckerzeit and Sowiesoso is also a big one. Can you talk a bit about what was going on in your own life then?

DM: Well, we were living in the countryside in this house, and we had no money and we were freezing (laughs) It was not a bad time, but it was not a perfectly good time as well. We had to go into the forest to get wood to heat up our home. Brian Eno came to visit us as well.

GD: When you were making Zuckerzeit, I read somewhere that you were using an Elka rhythm machine.

DM: Yes. It’s meant for guys who go to cafes and make dance music – making it all alone with the drum machine. You could play an organ to it and people could dance. You could push the tango button and it would make a tango rhythm. But we realized that you could press the tango button and, for example, the cha cha cha button at the same time, so that it all mixed up together and a new rhythm was born. (laughs)

GD: And then you were putting the rhythms through effects.

DM: Yes, the best was to put it through echo machines and through vibrato machines, to cut it off, the whole thing. To cut it off not in the right places but at the wrong places, so that it was cut and so the rhythm changed totally. We also let it go through wah pedals and all kinds of things.

GD: What was the dynamic like between you and Roedelius?

DM: It worked out quite well because Achim is more of a romantic guy. He knows less than me about technology. [Laughs] I was more of the ‘flippy’ one. Still am. That works a lot with rhythms. Flippy, that’s German. I guess it means crazy or something.

GD: How did you get involved with electronics? You said you loved Chuck Berry, but that didn’t make you pick up a guitar and play rock music.

Harmonia, Musik von Harmonia (1974)

DM: We did when we were together with Michael Rother [in Harmonia]. He was our Chuck Berry. [Laughs]

GD: The Cluster and Harmonia records are all very tight conceptually – not just the music, but the graphic design, the song titles, everything. It all fits together. There is a very distinct visual aesthetic – did you make all of those album covers?

DM: I didn’t make the cover art for Zuckerzeit – that’s one of the only album covers that I didn’t make myself. But I think nearly all of them are by me.

GD: You can tell that many of the album covers are made by the same person. Did you make the Harmonia album covers too?

DM: I made that first Harmonia cover, the one with the plastic bottle.

Moebius & Plank, Rastakraut Pasta (1980)

GD: That pop art aesthetic. You must have made the toothpaste cover too, for Rastakraut Pasta [the first album by Moebius and Plank, released in 1980].

DM: Yes.

GD: Can you describe your process of making the album cover art?

DM: At that time it was really an artwork. The toothpaste [cover art], this was a real toothpaste tube. I spray-painted it white, glued on the text and made a photograph of it.

GD: Why did you leave graphic design? You’re a really good visual artist. What made you decide to leave that to do music?

DM: Because I thought I’m the best musician on Earth, of course. [Laughs] It was just because it was easy to do it, to change to music. I was always very occupied with it, and it was normal to work with music.

GD: Eno did that at the same time as you – art to music.

DM: David Byrne as well.

GD: I meant to ask you about Eno. The more I researched his story in the mid-1970s, the more it brought me back to Cluster and Harmonia. I was writing about Another Green World [1975], which was his Sowiesoso in a way, his pastoral record.

DM: Yeah, that’s true, possibly. I think he was searching for his music, what he was trying to make. I think he was really searching for something. He found some stuff with us, and he found some also with other people.

GD: In Forst it must have felt isolating sometimes, to be out there in a house in the countryside. You had your small group of friends, but you couldn’t really go out and do things the way you could in a city.

DM: Not very often, no. But we toured a lot – a lot. We had a big truck which we could live in, and we toured and toured. We played in Munich once, in the Kunstverein, in the arts center. And we got an incredibly good [review] in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, which was very important. And an important critic wrote it. So this was the entrance card for the art circles in Germany, also in Europe maybe. We could play at openings of exhibitions, for example. But we could play in all the kunsthalles and kunstvereins in Germany; we just phoned up and they’d say ah yes, you can come and play here, and you get the entrance fee and things like that. So we toured and toured. We were in the art scene, really.

GD: So Cluster in the mid-1970s was thought of as an art band in Germany?

DM: Yes, in a way, yeah. The records were not really what we played live. We always just improvised live. So in the art scene it fit in because it was quite abstract music. Art people like things they don’t understand. [Laughs]

GD: You’re still living in the same place that you were living in back then, in Forst?

DM: It’s three big houses from the Renaissance period, very old. It’s where the song ‘By this River’ [1977] was made by Eno, because the river is close to the house, the Weser River.

GD: You own all three houses?

DM: We don’t own them; we get them from the government, to keep them in order, because they are protected. You’re not allowed to tear them down, because they’re historical houses. And we got them from the government for 100 years. So I still have some years left.

GD: How did you get the place in Forst to begin with?

DM: I only remember that we went there to look at it, because an antiques dealer invited us to come and live with him. He got it by telling the government guy that he will make a cultural centre. So he needed some artists to live there. When I saw it for the first time, I didn’t even want to leave the truck! I said, I’m never going to live in this place. There were no windows, it was all muddy… it was all really fucked up. You had to be very optimistic to imagine that you could live there. There was only one water place, one tap for three houses. There were no toilets, no electricity.

GD: No windows in three houses?

DM: There were windows but no glass! [Laughs]

GD: One of the things I find interesting about Cluster is the creative tension between you and Roedelius. When you were with him in Forst, hanging out with him all day, working with him, living with him, did you ever fight?

DM: No. It worked nearly automatically. We didn’t have any major problems. By accident, our personalities fit together creatively – on the human and the musical level. We didn’t have to fight. By accident, it all fit together.

GD: I wanted to ask you about your collaborations with other people. When you were doing these records, let’s say with Conny Plank and Mani Neumeier. What makes a good collaboration? What do you look for in a collaborator?

DM: It has to be fun. And I try to realize my kind of taste. I just worked on a record with Asmus Tietchens. We played together in Hamburg at a very big festival, and it worked out quite well. For 25 years, we’ve been talking about it. Each time we meet, we say ‘Oh, let’s make something together,’ and we never achieved it. But now we are finished. It’s already done. It will come out, perhaps not until Christmas, 2012.

GD: Some of my favorite records that you worked on weren’t Cluster or Harmonia records at all, but albums like Rastakraut Pasta and Zero Set [1983, by Moebius, Plank, Neumeier]. And then this Double Cut record you made with Gerd Beerbohm in 1983, it sounds like techno music.

DM: It was very bad recording quality. We made it in Forst with a four-track cassette recorder. It will be re-released again, on Bureau B. Perhaps it is already. There are so many releases of old stuff from us…

GD: Can you talk a little bit about these records you made with Beerbohm?

DM: Yes, it was in Forst. Beerbohm, who is a Berliner as well, was for a very long time my best friend. He was not a musician, but he listened to a lot of music. He really surprised me.

GD: How did he surprise you?

DM: He was playing an electronic drum, but one you have to beat on with a stick.

GD: On the beat, for 22 minutes on the track ‘Doppelschnitt’?

DM: Yeah. [Laughs] We didn’t have loops, but I don’t remember very well. It was not a sophisticated machine; it was a very simple electronic gadget.

GD: What are your favorite things to work with?

DM: I always buy quite cheap things. When they come out new I buy them, and then I play arond without reading the manual. And then I wait until the next one comes. [Laughs] It’s all cheap things. Nowadays you can get something for 200 euros.

GD: Back in the 1970s, what were your favorite things to work with?

DM: I had an ARP Odyssey – I still have it. That was also a nice machine. I don’t know, I used it on most of the things because I didn’t have a lot of other things (laughs) In the very beginning each of us just had an organ, like the guys in the bars would have. Farfisa or things like that. Big and heavy and not very creative.

GD: But then you were using effects, and you had the Elka rhythm box too.

DM: Yes, and we also had a little machine that was built for us by an engineer.

GD: What was it?

DM: It made sine sounds, and we also used things that [electrical engineers] would use. To measure things, and it makes sound … there was this thing called a [tone] generator, these things make totally clean perfect, I don’t know if it’s called, sine waves.

GD: It makes things that are totally clean and perfect, and then you mess them up.

DM: Yes! We messed everything always up.

GD: In terms of instrumentation in the 1970s, what else were you using?

DM: We also had a little cello, and of course we had echo machines. And we had flute, also, but they were all instruments that we could change with our effects machines so that they didn’t sound anymore like [themselves]. At that time, we couldn’t afford to buy a synthesizer; it was very expensive. In Germany, you could just buy things like very simple organs. Shit in a way. Now we are very lucky nowadays that you can buy whatever you want.

GD: Schnitzler was a visual artist, as you know. When he found the EMS Synthi, that’s when he thought, I’ll make music. One of his friends told me that Schnitzler showed Ralf and Florian from Kraftwerk a Synthi in 1972 or so, when they were transitioning from a rock band to electronics.

DM: They also worked in Plank’s studio, and he showed them how to do it, I’m sure. But they didn’t get along together very well.

Cluster: Hans-Joachim Roedelius (left) and Dieter Moebius (right)

GD: Going back to Cluster – can you talk a bit about Curiosum [1981] and Grosses Wasser [1979]?

DM: Grosses Wasser was produced by Peter Baumann, from Tangerine Dream, here in Berlin in a really big studio. That’s why it sounds very different to all the other records. The last Cluster record, Qua [2009], which was produced in the USA by Tim Story, that’s also a very different Cluster record. Curiosum, I think was also produced in Vienna.

GD: It was much more low-fi.

DM: Yes. I work with very simple machines. The recorder, it all has to be easy to handle. All my records, like the last three, I make them with an eight-track digital recorder. And of course it’s a very different thing to produce in a studio with a guy who knows about recording, a recording engineer. When I’m working at home, it’s really the most simple way of recording, and I don’t have to pass my time with complicated machines. When I want to be creative, I need to have something that works nearly on its own if possible, that I can handle.

GD: In Berlin it’s been techno techno techno. Have you followed electronic music, and how it’s changed over the last 30 years?

DM: I don’t know about all these things. I don’t care about them. I don’t listen to electronic music. I don’t even listen to my music when it’s done. [Laughs]

GD: What was your favorite music in the ‘70s?

DM: I liked David Bowie, for example. Of course. And as I mentioned earlier, the Velvet Underground.

GD: The fuzzy low-fi sound the Velvet Underground had seems to have similarities with Cluster.

DM: In a way, yes. And also their monotone, long tracks.

GD: Which visual artists did you like? Did you have any particular inspirations?

DM: I’m not specialized in one thing… with art it’s the same as with music; when it’s well done I like everything. I like ABBA, for example, because it’s well done. They are good songs. And I still like a lot of classical music. In the arts, of course, I like Andy Warhol… I like Joan Miro. You decide for yourself what you think is well done, because you love it.

About the author

  • Geeta Dayal's photo

    Geeta Dayal is a journalist and critic based in San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to frieze.

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