Perhaps best known as the drummer for Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Tempel (with Manuel Göttsching), and Cosmic Jokers, Berlin's Harald Grosskopf was a German electronic music pioneer in his own right. Recorded in the Summer of 1979, his debut solo LP, Synthesist, was the euphoric, arpeggiated culmination of a two-month struggle with a finnicky Minimoog and a Revox reel-to-reel. The record, released the following year by Hamburg's Sky Records, was all but forgotten until Brooklyn label RVNG Intl. decided to re-issue it, along with a bonus disc of remixes by a handful of analogue synth revivalists, including Blondes, Oneohtrix Point Never, CFCF, Stellar Om Source, Arp, and James Ferraro. In April, Harald flew out to New York with guitarist and longtime collaborator Axel Manrico Heilhecker to perform Synthesist live for the first time ever at Manhattan's Le Poisson Rouge, with guest appearances by Alexis Georgopoulos (Arp), Laurel Halo, Julianna Barwick, and other millennial admirers. The AZ editorial linked up with Harald, Axel, and Sam Haar and Zachary Steinman of Blondes the night before the show at a restaurant in Greenpoint to talk synthesizers, Timothy Leary, and the origins of the term "krautrock."
Sam: Is it weird playing your old stuff again?
Harald: Actually, in the beginning, about four months ago, I was so over this old stuff. My idea was to take the original tapes [from Synthesist] and cut samples from it. So I was trying to hold of an 8-track, half-inch tape recorder, which is very hard to get. And I got one, but the machine was fucked, so I found some dude who was able to fix it. I tried to reconstruct it, but then I started falling in love with the music as it was. I hadn’t heard the record in 15 years. And suddenly this interest-- it was very nice. And being able to reconstruct it and improvise with it was really satisfying.
Sam: How did you get in contact with RVNG Intl.?
Harald: You know Manuel Göttsching? He put us in contact. Everything was arranged via the Internet; it’s fascinating. In the old days, it was like 500 envelopes with tapes. Everybody can do it now, and it’s faster. And free, basically.
Zach: Was Synthesist well received when it first came out?
Harald: In the beginning, yeah. Up until the RVNG reissue, I’d sold something like twelve thousand copies. In those times, it was underground. Only like three or four thousand copies. Ten thousand was not very much. In those days, you had to sell like fifty thousand.
Emilie: What equipment were you using when you recorded Synthesist?
Harald: It was very very basic: a small mixing console, a Minimoog, an R-sequencer, and two voice synthesizers, I think. And in those days, everything was analogue, so we had to figure out how to synchronize the sequencers. And there were these guys using soldering machines and cables so I could use the gate out. I formatted the tape with a click track, so I could use that to trigger the second recording of the sequence.
The problem with the first Moogs was that they were so out of tune. You didn’t just have the up and down key; you had octave scaling, which was controllable, and if it wasn’t exactly there, it sounded horrible. It was so unstable that after ten minutes, it was out again. So I would record for ten minutes, and then I would start the second sequencer, and after five minutes there would be this horrible scratch. I had to do every piece over and over again. And we had to use a light bulb to keep it warm. It was miserable. It was the Middle Ages.
Emilie: How did you deal?
Harald: Well, there was nothing we could do, so the only solution was to make different music. I remember Klaus Schulze playing live on stage, with his Moogs, and six oscillators, and they went out of tune as soon as someone opened a door backstage. It was frustrating trying to recreate the sound he was able to get in the studio. In the beginning, I didn’t know how to perform Synthesist; it was hard to keep everything in tune, and the density of the music was not reproducible live. I didn’t even think to do it. But when Ableton came on the market, I thought, “This could be the thing.” Two years ago, I tried using it with the other band I play in. It took 14 days to get it under control, but then suddenly, it was like, “It's all so simple!” Like any piece of software, you know?
Ric: It’s funny that there are indie bands coming up now that would kill to use the equipment that was frustrating to you back then.
Harald: I like the idea of it as well, but there are too many problems.
Axel: Yeah, but it’s good recall those days, and how you rebuilt your sound in and through these struggles.
Harald: Even if you have the same sequence, the same harmony, and you have a plug-in Moog, you never get close to the original idea or sound. It’s impossible to reproduce 100%, which is not the idea anyway. I tried to get as close as possible [for this performance], but it’s impossible, you know? In these days, with digital, the analogue flaws aren’t reproducible.
Axel: My dream is to play the old, out-of-tune synthesizers. [Laughs]
Emilie: I know a lot more about the Krautrock stuff from the '70s, and very little about what happened in '80s. How would you describe the musical climate in Germany around the time you recorded Synthesist?
Harald: I think the '80s were less sophisticated than the '70s. Like Tangerine Dream, they were at their peak until around '82, and then after that, I didn’t like them anymore. Before that, there were a couple of albums I really liked-- like Phaedra , which was really really original. But after that, I didn’t like it anymore.
Axel: In the '70s, there was a contrast between what we were doing and what was going on in the culture. We used the ideas of pop music, which was commercial and intended for the masses, but we were playing music very intuitively and it just started to grow. It didn’t have much of an audience, but it came from feeling like an alien in society. That was the big difference.
Zach: Where were you guys living?
Harald: Near Cologne. Axel was living in Berlin. Yeah, at the beginning of the '70s, we didn’t want to follow Anglo-American rock music anymore. For a very long time, I didn’t like this 4/4 bar, shitty rock thing. We wanted to do something different. We didn’t care where the “one” was when we played music. I lost it. I cared about the seven bar thing, changing every five or seven bars, and every 35 bars you’d have a “one” again. And we really liked that.
Emilie: How did you get into making electronic music?
Harald: I was doing it from the beginning. The thing is, I was a rock drummer, but I loved electronic music. There were times when nobody wanted to play with me, and I was like, "Maybe I should make a solo record." I had no idea how to handle it, like a Moog or something. I would see them in studios, and it took me an hour. I would turn it on but nothing would come out, and I’d be like, "Fucking shit." So when I made Synthesist, I had to learn how to handle the equipment.
Sam: When did you start accompanying Klaus Schulze?
Harald: We met at the same record company [Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser’s bootleg label, Kosmische Musik], with the guys that liked Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Temple. And they liked my playing. The first record from Klaus Schulze-- I thought it was horrible. It was intellectual, “bleep, bloop, bleep” stuff. But then I was listening to the radio and he had just released Blackdance , and he was using sequencers, and I was like, “Hey.” So I called him, and was he was like, “Why don’t you come visit me?” And we went into his cellar where he kept all his equipment and he switched on the sequencer and I was fascinated from the beginning. I took a plastic bucket and started drumming, and he liked it! And he was like, “Next record, you’ll be with me!” And we did it; it was Moondawn . So then I moved to Berlin and lived there for a long time. In Germany, you know, our music wasn’t so popular. The whole movement was seen as unnatural stuff. But in France they loved this music. So we toured France a lot. They called it “Musique Planètes”-- “Planet Music.”
But I had rock band, Wallenstein, until around '71. Kraftwerk would headline and most of the people ran out. They had long hair and had tables on stage, and nobody knew what they were doing. These strange sounds... The people couldn’t handle it. And then suddenly, they put out Autobahn , and that became a worldwide thing. Until this movement came about, German bands tried to be very American, very English, but Kraftwerk didn’t care one bit. They had very strong German accents, and they were wearing suits on stage. It was the opposite of rock music-- nice music, with simple lyrics. And they still tour.
Zach: Who was the original audience for Krautrock?
Harald: Originally, "Krautrock" was kind of a prejudicial term, created by the English music press to describe German musicians. Like kraut and German soldiers. It wasn’t English music, so it was somehow imperfect. But a couple of years later, it became a musical term. Actually, electronic music wasn’t Kraut as such. But the English-type German bands were never popular outside Germany.
Sam: What was it like doing the Cosmic Jokers records? Was it just like constant partying?
Harald: Yeah, it was. We all just dropped acid and when we started, nobody really knew what it was doing to your head. Timothy Leary was in the group, and the guru. He was a Harvard professor of psychology and it was legal in the US to give his patients LSD, and he kind of made a religion out of it. And I think the CIA hunted him down because he was a political figure-- because so many people thought, “This is the guy.” I think he escaped the States and went to Switzerland, and so he was living there for a while. And he had good contacts from pharmaceutical companies and all the big firms in Basel, Switzerland. And they produced the best stuff you’ve ever had. The Cosmic Jokers' producers had contacted him, and so we had incredible, high quality acid. It was very pure. But it’s very dangerous you know? The bass player of Ashra [Hartmut Enke] died 6 years ago, and I remember when he was just like [makes insane laughing noise], and he never really came back. He may have had a psychosis anyway, but under the normal circumstances, he probably would’ve developed like anybody else, but I think the LSD blew his mind. The same thing happened with the bass player of my band Wallenstein [Jerry Berkers]. All in psychiatric hospitals. He died in some park in Holland. I’ve experienced some great times, but I stopped doing it a long long time ago.
Emilie: I read that you were also into meditation.
Harald: I did that too, yeah. I did 18 years of transcendental meditation. I was a vegetarian. But we had a lack of positive fathers in our lives. I was born in '49, and our fathers belonged to the Nazi generation, and we had incredible fights with that generation. Often, they didn’t want to talk about it, and it wasn’t easy to pick a fight with your father. The spoiled generation. Their minds were so fucked. And we fought against that.
Sam: So you think cosmic music was in some ways a rebellion?
Harald: I guess so, I guess so. It was a time to rebel. I was 20, taking drugs, and dressing to provoke-- playing in my rock band, Blitzkrieg, to provoke. But this sort of provocation, it isn’t the pure being. You can’t try to provoke all your life, but I think that electronic music, in its essence, was a reaction against the Nazi generation. During our parents’ lifetime, there was this tight-knit family life, this Nazi ideology, these criminal sentences. We needed space and reverb and echo. It was a reaction; we were reaching for space. Away from the what felt spoiled and unclean. It was a subconscious rebellion.
Emilie: Would you also say that Krautrock and Kosmische was very "German," in a sense?
Harald: Yeah, of course. We have a strong technological tradition. We invented rockets and the jet engine, and we built the best cars. So we have a kind of connection to technique, you know? And the music is a reaction to that. Music always develops along with technology.
Emilie: What about the title of Synthesist? Where did that come from?
Harald: It was a message about synthetic music. It was representing the methods and technique of synthetic life.
Emilie: Like man and machine together.
Harald: Yeah, like driving a car. In those times, it was about flying to the moon-- like the title, “Aldrian.” It was a mistake, because I was referring to Buzz Aldrin, who was an astronaut-- the second guy who walked on the moon. And Valerian is a natural herb that relaxes you. So it was Valerian and Buzz Aldrin.
Emilie: Is it crazy to you that young people in America are listening to your music?
Harald: Yeah, it’s very crazy. In Germany, the fans are as old as me, you know, mostly male, which is very strange, and single. The young generation in Germany, they don’t see that techno and trance is connected to those roots. But they’re slowly discovering that.
Grab Synthesist LP re-issue + Re-Synthesist CD from RVNG Intl. Blondes' "Business/Pleasure" 12", the second of three RVNG releases based on "duality concepts," drops June 14th. Grab "Lover/Hater," the first, here