INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo NOVEMBER 2017 - by Ian Harrison
RADIO WAVE SURFER
Holger Czukay, bassist/tape editor with Can, sampling pioneer and musical trickster left us on September 5.
Film, and its synthesis of action, soundtrack and storytelling, was close to Holger Czukay's heart. An important early memory, he said, was seeing Träumerei, the 1944 screen dramatisation of the marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. From late 1971, he worked at Inner Space, a studio based in a former cinema in Weilerswist outside Cologne, initially with experimental thaumaturges Can and then as a solo artist. After leaving Can, his first release was called Movies.
A film of his life would have been an intriguing one, too. Born on March 24 in the Free City of Danzig in what had been East Prussia, the young Czukay and his family were refugees of war who moved west to the American-occupied zone of Germany, initially to Limburg An Der Lahn. As a youth he aspired to be an orchestral conductor, and later worked repairing televisions and radios. A convert to the power of pop music, he played guitar and formed his own jazz combo, The Holger Schüring Quintette. In later years he proudly remembered this group both winning prizes and being disqualified from music tournaments.
After a period learning double bass in Berlin, where he met Herbert von Karajan and John Cage, he became a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen, from 1963 to 1966, in Cologne. It was here that Stockhausen gave the young Czukay some life-changing advice. "He talked to me, like your father," Czukay told me. "He said, 'When I didn't know what I wanted to do, I had to spring, 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."
Initially this leap involved teaching music in Switzerland where, Czukay admitted, he was looking for a well-off wife. A life change of a different sort came when his young pupil, guitarist Michael Karoli, played him I Am The Walrus. Soon after, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt - whom Czukay had met on the Stockhausen course - contacted him with a plan for a new group that, in an attempt to create anew on the ruins of the old world, would meld rock, jazz, modern classical and what would later be called world music, while maintaining a spirit of free improvisation. Billed as 'technical laboratory chief & red armed bass' on the cover of Can's 1969 debut album Monster Movie, Czukay was soon honing a sparing, rhythmic style and pursuing an expansive kind of hypnotic minimalism with Schmidt, Karoli, master drummer Jaki Liebezeit and American vocalist Malcolm Mooney. One of the most thrilling adventures of the rock era had begun, with band members comparing their combined efforts to a sentient living thing independent of themselves.
While Can was putting down roots at the Schloss Nörvenich castle near Cologne, Czukay was working with musician/artist Rolf Dammers on an album sparked by Stockhausen's use of tape manipulation and non-western musics. Recorded by night in Stockhausen's studio using recycled tape, 1969's Canaxis 5 was a pioneering work of sampling, meshing sombre church choirs and Vietnamese singers culled from Czukay's trawls of the global radio ether into a ritualistic whole. Czukay's skill as a tape editor would also be vital to giving Can's free extemporisations their final form on classic albums including Tago Mago (1971) and Ege Bamyasi (1972). As Schmidt told me in 2011, "Editing, building long pieces, and structuring - to work on that with Holger was pure joy, because he is so caring. The passion, the impulse... to not give in before it's perfect."
Czukay's urge to use the potentials of radio in its receiving and broadcasting forms would also lead to schism. Though Can scored a UK Top Of The Pops appearance with their summer 1976 hit I Want More, he would soon vacate his bassist role in favour of a 'Sound Table' which enabled him to add tapes, radio broadcasts and even live telephone calls to performances. It was prescient, but not to his bandmates' tastes. After a fist fight with percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah in London, Czukay left Can in May 1977.
The solo career that followed picked up where Canaxis left off, using material culled from the radio given form by painstaking, skilled splicing of tape. 1979's Movies was arguably his masterpiece, though all his albums are worthy of attention, as he embraced the random, maintained a dilettante mindset and employed instruments irrespective of his facility on them (one of his favourites was the French horn). Additionally, lessons of space and rhythm learned from Can - assisted by the presence of Liebezeit on nearly all of his sessions - helped Czukay's surreal, disruptive sense of humour to manifest. A Maoist song of China's Cultural Revolution was groovily mangled on 1984's Der Osten Ist Rot, while 1987's Rome Remains Rome found Pope John Paul II singing with a blues band. One piece of satire that went unrealised, says regular collaborator Jah Wobble, was a proposed video for 1979's danceable oddity Cool In The Pool, which would star infamous figures from the Third Reich. "Sometimes Holger's humour was very hard to get by," says Can engineer René Tinner. "It was not always humorous for anyone else other than Holger. But that was part of his personality. Holger's opinion of music was, if someone knew, it was only him. But we had a lot to laugh, always."
Czukay also worked with Conny Plank, Cluster, David Sylvian, Eurythmics, The Edge, and, for 1989's reunion album Rite Time, his old bandmates in Can. He recorded into the noughties, and in recent years moved back to Can's old Inner Space studio in Weilerswist, where he lived with his wife and collaborator Ursula, AKA Ursa Major/U-She. I interviewed him there in May 2016, and though he seemed all of his seventy-eight years, he remained good humoured and speculated on the possibility of new creation. "The music would sound different, I know," he said. He was found dead on September 5. U-She, who had been in poor health, passed away in July.