INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo AUGUST 2016 - by Ian Harrison
Avant-garde joker, the godfather of sampling and the throbbing Kosmische heart of Can, Holger Czukay looks back over fifty years of making music. "I am just an ear," he says, "someone the music goes through."
Deserted by 7pm on this warm May evening, the west German townlet of Weilerswist - twenty miles south of Cologne - is a picture of sleepy orderliness. Yet it was here that Can, the mightiest and most arcane group of the Krautrock ferment, recorded their albums - from 1972's Ege Bamyasi - in a former movie house renamed Inner Space.
Today the cinema is home to Holger Czukay, Can's former bassist and solo artist of innovative renown, and his partner Ursa Major. Entered via the old box office, which can be seen on the cover of a new edition of Czukay's 1979 album Movies, now retitled Movie! - and which still proffers chocolate treats from the Sarotti company - their living space suggests some spectacularly decorated installation, reflecting a world-view that marries whimsy, the esoteric and intellectual rigour. The hundred-plus US military mattresses that formerly lined the high-ceilinged interior are gone to join, ironically, a recreation of Inner Space at a museum in Gronau; now drapes featuring the ancient Egyptian ankh hang on the walls, while below an assemblage of southeast Asian and Tibetan artefacts alongside toy animals, pictures, clothes, flowers, lamps, sound equipment and couches are arranged around a central carpeted space. Directing proceedings, the shirtless Holger cackles toothlessly, "The women must sit, but we men must stand and fight!" Since debuting on record with 1969's Canaxis, Czukay has never failed to hold his ground.
Born in 1938 in what was then the Free City Of Danzig, he emerged from the European avant-garde and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen. He would leave the classical world in 1968 to co-found Can, a group still held in vital regard for the albums of their early classic period. After departing the group in 1977, Czukay returned to his pioneering experiments in sampling, electronics and unorthodox rock, working with like minds including Jah Wobble, David Sylvian and Brian Eno.
Arranged around the room are the many instruments he's played throughout this history, including his French horn, double bass and a well-worn Fender Mustang electric bass. Like the Fender Jaguar guitar with a broken headstock on display, they don't look like they've been used for a while. This writer hasn't spoken to Czukay at length since 1997, when he was a fast-talking and energised presence within a briefly-reconvened Can. Today he seems all of his seventy-eight years, his responses slowed, his voice low.
After some portraits inside Inner Space, and others in his nobly overgrown garden, for which the solicitous Ursa tells him to put some clothes on (he does, declaring, "noblesse oblige") we retire to a couch near his music corner where computers, microphones and vintage equipment wait. As we reflect on a creative life lived at the limits of ingenuity and controlled accident, his posture straightens, laughter comes more frequently and there is light in his eyes once again.
To slim down Movies, to drop one 's'. Because my life has a lot to do with the movies, from childhood on. It started in a bakery, just after the war, in Limburg an der Lahn [near Frankfurt]. That was the place where we moved from Gdansk... from Danzig... we were refugees. I was seven. Here I started with six reels of thirty-five millimetre films, which I somewhere found. After the war you find everything. And I started to show films immediately.
Träumerei, the 1944 Robert Schumann biopic, was an important early film for you.
It was only that my sister she saw that I must have some musical talent, and therefore I should be acquainted with this film, of Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann. Träumerei means "daydreaming". You know the piece? They played this melody for Stalingrad, where Germany was defeated for all times, to remember, as a monument in Stalingrad. You can say it was our destiny, The End, definitely.
Did you always want to be a musician?
I knew from some very beginning of my childhood, say two years old. It was clear that I will ever always become a musician. And nothing else! Later when I grew up and became a teenager I became very, very excited about technical things. I was working in a radio station... you have seen this picture of me? [Smiles]
We have. Was the turning of the dial, and travelling the radio waves, a formative experience?
This came later. At the time it was, the radio papers showed when every tune can be heard. I was about fourteen, working in this radio shop, repairing televisions and radios. It was Saturday, two o'clock, and I knew there was a piece of music which I wanted to hear, so I switched on all the radios in the shop, at once! It was unbelievable! The tune was called Don't Turn Around To Foreign Shadows, it was what they called hitmusik or Schlager. It's one of the best pieces I can remember, even these days. Fifteen, sixteen years later I heard this piece on the radio and I thought, Jesus Christ, it is still there. This is not a hit buster, but when it appears it is a special moment. Immortality!
Did a career in Schlager ever appeal?
No, I was never interested. It was always that I wanted to become a classical pianist, but I knew I was not able to become a good pianist. I could play guitar, and I studied a little bit at home, and I became the leader of the Holger Czukay Quintet, which immediately won prizes at festivals. To be a radio recording artist was at that time something incredible, and to record in these big studios, where the jazz orchestras recorded. I thought, Maybe I could perform something? I was really proud.
So you had a classical mind and a popular sensibility, with a knowledge of radios.
Popular music, I never minded it. But I knew that I never could become a good jazz musician either. I knew there is something else, I just have to know what it is.
You go to Berlin to study in early 1962.
Yes, living in the Russian zone, though the houses were noted in the American zone, I had special permission. It was very cheap - the KGB was listening to how I played on the piano! They were really assholes, these people who were controlling the area. But I got to know some people. One time I was talking to an East German soldier 'til dawn, in between the zones basically, and I said, "Can you give me your machine gun in my hand?" He explained to me a little bit about his Kalashnikov, and suddenly an alarm signal went up. So we said he was helping me with his torchlamp with my little moped, which was not working. This is why they didn't take me to prison in East Germany! It was a close escape.
How did that period affect your musical development?
When I studied in Berlin you could say I met lots of interesting people. I met Karajan - he had never a score in front of him, he conducted it by heart. I thought, How can he have such a memory? John Cage was there. David Tudor. All these people. And for the first time I could see what they are doing. John Cage had such a sense of humour! I had difficulties to understand all the things he meant.
After that, you go to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne - another interesting person.
When I introduced myself to Stockhausen, I said, "Mr Stockhausen, I don't have any idea really of what music I want to make." He talked to me like your father would, saying, "You have to take a risk, to do something when you don't know what will happen to you." Three years later, I had again such a talk with him and he said to me, "Holger you have a task to solve. Everything you do needs a different environment, not here. These people here are conservative students of composition, in the academic way. You are different." He said to me, "When I didn't know what I wanted to do, I had to spring, to do something which I didn't know, and you have to do the same. You have to take this risk and leap into the water." I was crying, because he was talking out of my heart, I must say.
In 1966 you go to St Gallen in Switzerland - was this a risk?
Do you know why? I wanted to look for a rich girl! Immediately I met a young lady in Geneva. And besides, I thought maybe I get a job in an international school. So I became a music teacher. The director of the school brought me to the class where I should give a test lecture, and in this class was Michael Karoli, in the last year before he left.
What did you see in Michael?
Michael was arrogant, really arrogant. But he was trying to teach me something about music. He knew something that I didn't know. When The Remo Four with Tony Ashton came to St Gallen and did a radio session, for the first time I could see, how are they working? I did not know [rock'n'roll] at all, it was these people from the school, they taught me what it is all about. I was saying, "What do you think I'm getting paid for, I'm teaching you about music and you want to tell me something?" Ha ha! But I listened, always. Because I felt immediately they have something to say which I didn't know.
Michael played you I Am The Walrus - a mindbomb, for you.
Of course, of course! That was something for me that was special. It was a kind of my first meeting with The Beatles, and I thought, How can they make something like that? It sounds sometimes more to Stockhausen than to The Beatles! Stockhausen told me later how proud he was that The Beatles have put him beside WC Fields on [the sleeve of] Sgt. Pepper.
Your teaching gig in St Gallen did not last.
I was thrown out. I think I was too dangerous, intriguing a little bit, a little bit too self-conscious, but nine months was enough. But Michael and I, we both stayed together and founded Can. Irmin [Schmidt, keyboardist] came and said, "Come on, let's start with the new band." I said, "OK, why not? I have a guitar player." It was a risk, but Michael Karoli was the only one who could play guitar and was knowing something about this music at the time, so Michael was the teacher.
Did Irmin, who had conducted choirs and orchestras, have more of a composing role?
Composing is right. But the way I tried to compose was to be a dilettante, with the conviction that the dilettante would take over.
When you started with Can you also worked on the ethnographic, tape-based Canaxis. Did you have to choose between a solo career and Can?
Never. Canaxis was made with pieces of tape, with thousands and thousands of splices - it was too dangerous to tell Stockhausen I did it in his studio! Ha ha! Canaxis was completely out of its time, it has nothing to do with rock music. Can was young, don't forget that, when Can got older they understood [it] quite well.
Was Can the required leap into the water?
Well, I said I am not able to play bass - nothing else was left. And Irmin said, "Can you play a piece by Chopin on the bass?" And I said, "I don't think I can." He said, "I feel you are able. Come on, try." So I tried. Later with Can on our first recordings, first of all I tried conventional bass, but then [drummer] Jaki [Liebezeit] said, "Holger, don't play where I play. Never try to double a foot drum, you play somewhere else." And then I thought, I have to play the bass like a guitar, and that is Father Cannot Yell, where I play typical guitar, something in between. That was my breakthrough with Can.
What was your objective with the group?
To get a job. To get something to do. And to find a target where I could develop myself.
Vocalist Malcolm Mooney was hugely important for Can, at the beginning.
He was really a talent. First of all, the rhythm - and he could record with extremely little material, just like that. But he became a bit too complicated for us and he had to go back to the United States. Yes, I wish Malcolm Mooney had stayed longer, and we had a lot of pain from that, we were looking like hell for a new singer. We tested so many. I felt it was over, already. We tried to reorientate ourselves to the new situation.
Then fate brings you Damo Suzuki.
Fate was again, me! We were in Munich, sitting in a café, Jaki and me, I saw someone coming up, it was on Leopold Street, and he was going down to pray or something - behaving a little bit weird. I said to Jaki, "This is our new singer." He says, "How can you say that, you don't know." I said to Damo, "Do you want to become a singer in a sold-out concert? No rehearsals, we just go on." And he did. David Niven was there!
Was Can a chaotic thing at the start?
We were not thinking. When you make music together, you have to reach a common account. This is what Can really tried, to reduce themselves to a language that was able to survive.
Was there a best time for Can?
I think the very beginning of Can, Monster Movie, was one of the best periods for Can. It's funny. When bands start to orientate themselves, the luck is getting under your wings, and makes it possible for you to survive. The second record, most of the time, is getting too intellectual. The third record is always getting problematic! Not with every group. Can was able to grow up, to get more matured.
Tago Mago in 1971 is also a startling work.
It was a real composition. Created spontaneously. It was not just a piece of rock music. But not only that, we were thinking about taking spontaneous recordings and putting them together into one unit, editing them. On Outside My Door off Monster Movie I took the recordings back home and spliced them, here you are definitely hearing my version of Can. Later, Irmin and Michael and me, we could work together, from Tago Mago. Everyone, because we are a group. Can was always best when we always edited everything together. Jaki was not really open for that, after every recording he said, "Delete it, delete it!" Ha ha!
Maybe he was more into the Can live entity.
[Exhales] That would be full of surprises. I remember the best Can concert has been in Nice. We played like gods, I would say, and nobody in the audience clapped, no one. I thought, This cannot be true? But if you know the south of France you know it can be true.
How did the group relate as individuals?
In music we understood each other very well. As personal, we tried to do everyone living in his own flat. That was completely against the hippy syndrome of the time. We make music together yes, like crazy, but we never stay together, after that it was private. It was good for the music definitely, I would say to everybody who wants to found a band, that he is establishing his own identity about music or whatever it is.
Did you fight a lot?
Yes. Oh yes! Ha ha ha! [Fondly] Jaki attacked me with a knife here in this room [indicates carpeted area in front of where we are sitting], there in the area where you could move free. I had to run to escape. He was so angry about me, and about my way of how I understood about music that he really said, "This is enough." But every day we had breakfast together, not with Can, just us at his home, he made coffee and I brought some rolls, and we understood each other very well, always, but when it came to music, it could become heavy. Irmin was an opponent and for me too intellectualised on the whole thing. I was never intellectual about music, therefore I got spontaneous at times. But Irmin and me, it was very good together, when he played organ and I played bass, on the symphony basis, you understand? Polyphonic. [1973 LP] Future Days is such a good record, a good example of how Can really played good together.
In 1976, I Want More is a UK hit. Could Can have been more of a chart act?
Yes that was good. It could have been bigger but it was OK. I never wanted to do more music like that, no - I knew it was an exception and never becoming an example to imitate, ever. I was convinced that I would survive as someone who is not making hits.
When you bring Rosko Gee in on bass in late '76, you move over to operate a live-mixed assemblage of radios, telephone and tapes.
Malcolm Mooney left. Damo left. Suddenly we didn't have any singer. So I said to them, "Why don't we look in the radio for one we can work with?" My idea was to use someone who is in the radio, and make him function as he was playing with Can. The idea was how to manipulate a singer so he becomes our singer. It is more than weird!
The group were not in one hundred per cent agreement with you?
At the end of Can... it became very, very dangerous. At the very end. I had decided that if Reebop [Kwaku Baah, late-era percussionist] or someone else from Can is trying to stop my music, I make a test of three times, where they try to pull out my plug. And the third time I said, enough.
After being punched by Reebop before a Berlin gig, you are absent from 1978's unfortunate Out Of Reach, an album omitted from official discographies for years.
Out Of Reach. I said, "No I don't want to participate." And they said to Conny Plank, "Can you mix this?" Conny got very angry that I said, "I don't touch with my hands this music!" He was saying to me later, "Why have you done that? Now I have to take on my shoulders all the shit."
You return to help edit the band's 1979 swansong Can. How did you regard them at the end?
It was most important to getting matured. I knew at the end, I will be alone, doing something with others, all the time, but not any more with Can. It is a different chapter.
When I played for the first time out of Can, and was playing bass or guitar, it was just as the first moment, you understand? Hollywood Symphony is not at all a rock music piece, it's as if someone was singing and playing spontaneously. Stockhausen told me, "If you work alone, then you must play it to other people and get them to give their opinion." And this is how I did it. When I was working on Ode To Perfume I was running on the street, out of my home studio, and I asked someone, "Would you like to come up? I would like to play something to you." Whatever his comment was, I could now see I was also on the right way. And this record still sounds really familiar to me, today.
David Byrne, he had obviously studied my music a lot. I never [minded that], I thought he was good. I think it was nothing where I would try to target this kind of music. He tried to meet me but I never was interested to see him. I met later Jerry Harrison, I liked him a lot, I must say. Brian Eno and I became friends later. It was very funny, Brian Eno always was fancying tits! Tits, tits, wherever, tits, tits. I said, "How is this guy thinking about tits when we are coming to talk about music?" Did it inspire him? Obviously, it did.
Ha ha! Becoming a conductor, really. I always think, actually when you feel responsibility for the grouping, then you feel like a conductor. If it is weak, I would never go and say, "It doesn't matter that it is weak." One cannot allow that. It has to be matured, it has to be correct in a way.
In 1986 Can reunite to record Rite Time.
This piece, In The Distance Lies The Future, you know it? Immediately I said, "This is really a good Can piece." Irmin said no. Irmin and me became really separate. We recorded it together at Michael's studio, together, I was working with Michael the music out, and I said to Michael, "Go to Irmin and say Holger doesn't want to work with him." I think Irmin was really angry about the fact that he was suddenly not in the centre. But [the album] is typical, not a youngster's, a beginner's work - it is a good work and there is no need to be ashamed of it.
Will you release new music, do you think?
[Long silence] No. Not at the moment. I am not any more so active. That could change, and the music would sound different, I know.
How do you regard your life's work?
I wonder, am I an average musician? Which I would think I am, because I am not able to perform in a good way. Or are you something special? I was always thinking what is special about you, and why are you not an average musician? Why? And this way I become religious.
How do you make that leap of understanding?
I always think I am a horrible guitar player, and suddenly I see, after these years, I'm a really good guitar player. How is that possible? It can't be me! You understand therefore, that is why I am a religious person. Nothing is me on my own behalf. Nothing of myself. I am someone who the music goes through. He is just an ear, this person, who plays it.
This applies to all the things you have done?
Yes. This is not given on my own talent. This is not coming out of me. Someone gives it to me, and uses me.
Does that mean you are free of ego?
No! Ha ha ha! Oh, Ursa and me are having horrible fights about that!
So your approach is rigorous, but it does not suggest profound seriousness.
No, I was not serious at all. You are right. I was the typical example of someone who is so arrogant and says, "I play better than all the musicians together!" But somehow I trusted myself.
What does that make you?
I'll tell you what I think. I'm a typical Symphonist. Karajan was one of those people who really evoked this desire of, if I make pop music there must be something which is so genuine that it can stand [next to] the classical music. I play the guitar or other instruments as all instruments, because I feel myself as a symphonist... no soloists, no characters. Jaki hated it when anyone would say, "Play your drum solo." He is someone who wants to integrate and serve into the common sound. That is definitely Can. I still feel this today
WE'RE NOT WORTHY
David Sylvian on Holger's sampleadelic skills.
"I believe Holger more or less invented the art of sampling on Canaxis and brought it to a state of near perfection on Movies. He has always claimed this accolade belonged to Stockhausen as Hymnen was his source of inspiration, but I personally don't agree with him. He brought sampling to the forefront with élan, humour and an amazingly unorthodox technical proficiency. Persian Love remains the touchstone for all who venture into this territory."
Ian Harrison calculates the Holger top three.
BAND CLASSIC Can: Tago Mago - Never was Can's art of editing down free improvising into cogent pieces of intense force better displayed than on the group's first album with Damo Suzuki. Named for a magical island off the coast of Ibiza, its seven pieces offer sublime contrasts, with the lysergic levitation of Oh Yeah and the swamp-wading, Ur-Madchester epic Halleluwah finding anti-matter analogues in Aumgn's acid dungeon mouth-music and Peking O's broiling delirium. The group's telepathic communion made it possible. Czukay's spare, challenge-mounting bass playing an essential part of the hyper-stimulating whole.
SOLO CLASSIC Holger Czukay: Movies - Was Czukay's dilettante role ever played better than on his first post-Can solo release? For a groundbreaking work of radio sampling-meets-live instruments experimentation, it's a light and mood-elevating experience. Featuring layman's French horn, Cool In The Pool is a relative of Can's eurodisco hit I Want More, while Persian Love mixes Afrobeat, reggae and electronics with voices from Radio Tehran in a beatific aural fantasy. You even get a Can reunion when his old bandmates join him for Oh Lord Give Us More Money. That all the sample placement was done by ear and manual tape splicing makes the achievement even more impressive.
NIGHT MOVES David Sylvian & Holger Czukay: Plight & Premonition - Possibly because of Sylvian, the antic side of Czukay's personality is only fleetingly present on these two side-long ambient improvisations, realised over several late sessions at Can's studio using tape loops and sounds plucked from the radio dial. Plight was edited later, Premonition was left to stand as it was recorded, but both offer absorbing night-time unrealities of the sub-aqua moonlight variety. Consider the following year's Flux + Mutability, which also featured contributions from Jaki and Michael from Can, as a daytime companion piece.