Dieter Moebius: Musician whose love of experimentation made him a seminal Krautrock figure who influenced Bowie and U2

 

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The Independent Online

The experimental Swiss musician Dieter Moebius was a member of Kluster, Cluster and Harmonia, three seminal Krautrock groups who made a series of influential albums steeped in musique concrète and minimalism and collaborated with the record producers Conny Plank and Brian Eno.

His pioneering use of drones, random elements and instruments and synthesisers planted the seeds for the ambient, industrial, electronica, post-rock and techno genres and, via the aforementioned producers, seeped into recordings by acts as diverse as David Bowie, Devo, Eurythmics, Killing Joke, Talking Heads, Ultravox, U2, James, Coldplay and Julian Cope, the polymath who enthused about the prolific, pioneering Moebius in his book Krautrocksampler.

Indeed, the childlike wonder at the simple possibilities offered by the basic equipment Moebius used, or misused, in the 1970s informed the innovative approach many of his followers subsequently emulated. “With the Elka synthesiser, you could push the ‘tango’ setting and that’s what you got,” he explained. “But it became really interesting when I realised that by pushing the ‘cha-cha-cha’ button at the same time as the ‘tango’ one, I created a third rhythm.”

Born in 1944 in St Gallen, he grew up steeped in the classical music his mother played, as well as jazz. In the 1960s he studied graphic design at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and at the Akademie für Grafik, Druck und Werbung – graphics, printing and advertising – in Berlin, where he moved to live with his grandmother.

This training would stand him in good stead as he designed the distinctive covers for most of the albums he released over the last four and a half decades, including the striking blue detergent bottle pictured on Musik Von Harmonia (1973), and the Andy Warhol-like squeezed tube of toothpaste for Rastakraut Pasta, the first Moebius & Plank album (1980). Indeed, many thought Moebius could have had an alternative, more lucrative career as a visual artist but he argued that “working with music always seemed the normal thing for me to do.”

Being marooned in West Berlin, where he worked as a cook, also informed his radical outlook and the eerie sounds he would create after teaming up to form Kluster in 1969 with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler, the founders of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, the left-wing venue inspired by London’s UFO club. “Berlin was tough,” he recalled. “We’d given up studying, we always seemed to be on strike, demonstrating against the old guard, press barons like Axel Springer. West Berlin felt like an island, an artificial creation watched over by the British, the French and the Americans.”

Nevertheless, the Zodiak Free Arts Lab had become a hothouse for experimental music, patronised by the likes of Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze of the kösmische musik group Tangerine Dream, whose first line-up also featured sound manipulator extraordinaire Schnitzler, and future members of fellow Krautrock travellers Ash Ra Tempel and Agitation Free. Kluster made their live debut at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab and played marathon sets of 12 hours around West Berlin. They eventually issued three limited-edition albums on a religious label before renaming themselves Cluster following Schnitzler’s exit in 1971.

Having recorded a brace of albums with Plank, Moebius and Roedelius moved to Forst, a village near Stuttgart, where they built their own studio and reinvented themselves yet again as Harmonia after they were joined by Michael Rother, a founder member of Neu! who had briefly toured with Kraftwerk, and who instilled a new belief and direction into them. “He was our Chuck Berry,” said Moebius about what Rother brought to Musik Von Harmonia and Deluxe, the pair of enchanting albums they made as Harmonia in the mid-’70s.

Reverting to the Cluster appellation for Sowiesoso, (1976), ushered in their most high-profile and prolific period. Eno appeared with them in Hamburg before they decamped to Plank’s studio for the Cluster & Eno album, which featured contributions from Can bassist and éminence grise Holger Czukay, as well as composer Asmus Tietchens on synthesiser, and After The Heat, again featuring Czukay and a backward version of the Eno composition “King’s Lead Hat”. The Cluster pair also contributed to the dreamy “By This River”, one of the stand-out tracks on Eno’s acclaimed 1977 solo album Before And After Science, and informed his work on Bowie’s Heroes album.

More technically minded than Roedelius, Moebius spent the next 38 years engaging new generations of fans while combining solo releases and collaborative work with Plank – who died in 1987 – as well as Mani Neumeier of Guru Guru fame and the avant garde musician Gerd Beerbohm. In August 2011, at the MS Dockville Festival in Hamburg, I saw Moebius and Tietchens perform a challenging, dissonant set, eerily reminiscent of Aphex Twin, that went down a storm with the hipsters, even if the rumoured reunion with Rother, who guested with the Berlin band Camera at the same event, did not materialise. This was typical of the way his career refused to follow a predictable path. “People used to call me ‘Flippy’ in German,” he said. “It means I was somewhat crazy. Or not far from that.”

PIERRE PERRONE  

Dieter Moebius, composer and musician: born St Gallen, Switzerland 16 January 1944; married Irene; died 20 July 2015.

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