Harmonia, Musik von Harmonia,1974

In the latest of our Under the Covers series looking at records and their design, we speak with legendary German electronic musician and composer Roedelius, known for his work with krautrock band Cluster. Here, he talks us through the designs of five records he’s been involved in creating—as best as he can recall.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius likes to give the impression his artwork is less graphic design and more graphic accident. The seminal German musician, one of the architects of modern ambient music and kosmische (AKA Krautrock), is a taciturn interviewee, though that doesn’t mean he’s not a generous soul, too. After I contact the 86-year-old via email, he is happy to snap pictures of his own rare records at home in Vienna at my behest, though when it comes to talking about processes or materials used—these things don’t appear to be of much interest to him. Furthermore, questions containing the word “why” are swiftly batted away. “Because we wanted to,” is his typical response.

Roedelius’ early life may provide clues to his freeform, “anything goes” approach to his art. Born in Berlin in 1934, his father was dentist to the Reichsfilmkammer, the official propaganda arm of the German film industry, which led to the youngster becoming a kinderstar in some Nazi informational films. Strategic bombing by the Allies during World War II led his family to evacuate to the east of the country, and Roedelius defected from the Soviet-occupied zone twice, after the country was divided up following the war. The first attempt saw him wind up in a GDR prison for two years. Once he served his jail time he fled again, successfully, just before the Berlin Wall went up.   

“The music that emanates from this bohemian milieu is often liminal and abstract, and the artwork compliments that sonic terrain”

In the West, Roedelius embraced freedom, whether practicing as a masseur at the Élysée Palace in Paris in ’68, or founding the avant-garde Zodiak Free Arts Club back in West Berlin the following year. Roedelius and co-founder Conrad Schnitzler also started a band, Kluster, with the chef at the art club, a certain Dieter Moebius. When Schnitzler departed to concentrate on his own experimental music, Roedelius and Moebius became Cluster with a “C”. The musicians sought out their own creative commune, locating themselves outside of a small town called Forst, a country idyll situated between Berlin and Dresden. Musicians joined them there, such as Michael Rother of Neu! who they formed Harmonia with, and Brian Eno, who collaborated with Cluster in 1978. 

It was while still at the commune that Roedelius met his wife Christine, who helped him overcome his alcoholism and provided him with a new lease of inspiration, and she became an active visual collaborator, too. Christine Roedelius has photographed many of Roedelius’s albums over the years. The music that emanates from this bohemian milieu is often liminal and abstract, and the artwork compliments that sonic terrain. The cover designs, always conceived and created by the musicians themselves, are never prescriptive and, aside from Roedelius’ self-portrait series, are rarely figurative either. It all adds to the inscrutability of the art and a sense of time being suspended.

Kluster, Zwei-Osterei (1971)

Kluster, Zwei-Osterei (1971)

Meaning “two Easter eggs” in German, there were only 300 copies of Zwei-Osterei pressed up in 1971, perhaps on account of the unusual production methods involved in developing Kluster’s second album. So rare are these original albums that there wasn’t even a picture on Discogs at the time of writing, hence the request to Roedelius to snap the album cover for this feature. [ed note: one copy of Zwei-Osterei appears to be listed on the site now, selling for £1,328.57/around $1,850]. The shocking pink embossed creation is formed like a raised-relief map, with the shape molded by a heating process. When Bureau B re-issued the album in 2012, the record label came close to recreating the contours of the sleeve, though sadly nobody was available to discuss the methods used. Zwei-Osterei had been brought out in several formats for various media in the 50 years since it was first available, though given the intricacy of the original packaging, labels have opted to design new covers instead. “My favourite version is the model by the Japanese label Captain Trip,” says Roedelius. Those puffy black plastic editions were released as a CD box set in 2006. 

Cluster II, 1972

Cluster, Cluster II (1972)

Cluster’s second album as a duo (minus Schnitzler), is a supernova of stars in a blue and gold color scheme. Electronic Sound magazine was inspired to repurpose the picture for its ingenious “150 years of European Music” cover, which was timed to hit shelves in the week that Britain left the European Union. Were Cluster influenced by the Council of Europe’s old flag, which was later adopted by the EU? “It was Moebius’ idea,” says Roedelius. “It was Moebius who did that cover.” Cluster II appears to be made with cut outs à la Henri Matisse, but again, Roedelius can’t be too sure. 

Harmonia, Musik von Harmonia (1974)

“That cover is pure Pop Art invention by Moebius,” says Roedelius approvingly. And it’s true: Harmonia’s first album cover is a masterpiece, rendered with thousands of Ben-Day dots like Roy Lichtenstein, while the spoof product placement with the bottle of detergent is clearly a nod to the readymade or mass-produced output of American artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Even the tiny emblem for the “Brain label” is a subtle nod to Will Münch’s 1934 wordmark for German consumer products company Braun. The sleek exterior is juxtaposed with the band’s studio at Forst, photographed for the gatefold within—a commodious and seemingly bare space full of amps, modular synths, and tatterdemalion furniture. What was the thinking behind these stark visual concepts? “We just did it,” says Roedelis. “We didn’t think.”

Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Durch die Wüste 1978

Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Durch die Wüste (1978)

“This photo by my wife is my favorite,” says Roedelius, of the album cover Durch die Wüste. Meaning “across the desert,” the debut solo album from Roedelius was recorded with producer Conny Plank (who also produced Kraftwerk and Neu!) at his farm in Wolperath outside Cologne. Presumably shot with a fast shutter to capture the sparkling lake and the body sliding into the water, it’s a nicely composed photograph that appears to capture that split second with a fortuitous clarity it would be very difficult to recreate. It embodies what was purportedly a happy time in Roedelius’ life, and the music within reflects that too. 

Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Selbstportrait (1979)

Where Durch die Wüste was playful and ebullient, Selbstportrait is more self-reflective, as the title implies. In fact, Roedelius has recorded eight self-portrait albums since 1979, including Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe last year. These albums share his own personal visual motif: a limewood sculpture he carved with a chisel back in 1973. The Moai-like object, little more than a couple of inches tall, has sat at his desk ever since. The monochrome image shot from below with pronounced shadows gives the first self-portrait a sense of austerity and poise: “It was just a piece of wood that I had left over from refurbishing the old house where we were living,” he told me when I spoke to him for Electronic Sound in 2020. “There was always wood—it was Autumn I think—and I just fiddled around and made a little head. It’s my trademark. The ears are behind. Looking forward, listening backwards.”