The Age JUNE 8, 2012 - by Anthony Carew


West German band Can found relevance in a lost archive, writes Anthony Carew.

"With Can, there is a certain awareness of the historical moment in the music," Irmin Schmidt says, "and that makes it last." The seventy-five-year-old is speaking about the birth of his legendary band - a progressive outfit inspired by social revolt, rock'n'roll, and avant-gardist art - in Cologne in 1968, and how that watershed countercultural year kick-started, with Can and fellow West German bands Neu!, Faust and Amon Duul, the krautrock movement.

But Schmidt is talking, at the same time, about Can's legacy, which has survived, and thrived, for four decades. Brian Eno, Public Image Ltd, New Order, Radiohead, Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips are among the many to be influenced by their experimental approach.

Can have made only one LP since 1979, but now they're back. In archival form, at least. The Lost Tapes is "a new record, even if it's an old record": a three-CD collection of old studio jams, unreleased compositions for film soundtracks, and live recordings drawn from 1968-77.

"I felt like an unlucky critic," says Schmidt, Can's synth wizard, of his time spent slowly combing through a vault of archival tapes; a series of poorly and/or unlabelled masters that had been left "forgotten" in an old cupboard in Can's studio. "I don't have any nostalgic emotions connected to any of these recordings, I just listen to it and it's either good or bad. That's all."

This isn't to say Schmidt felt as though he was picking through the rubbish in search of anything usable; he feels as if The Lost Tapes is "a record that can match the best of the other records we've ever made". In fact, he is trying to make sure no one portrays the project as some emotional voyage. "You are searching for something sentimental with questions like this," he says, laughing.

Though they were a ferocious live act, Can were studio rats at heart, spending effectively the entire '70s jamming in their studio, tape rolling all the while.

"The fact that we didn't use this material doesn't mean that it was less good than any other," Schmidt says. "We always had so much more material than we could ever put on a record. So it was put away. But because Can was always changing, whatever we had done never fit on anything we did afterwards, either. So it just got forgotten."

Part of Can's legend comes from that recording process, from their devotion to "montage", in which bassist Holger Czukay would cut up and splice hours of jams into compositions. It was music-making on - quite literally - the cutting edge, peering into the future. Which, essentially, explains Can's persistent legacy.

"When you are doing something, you are in the middle of it, you don't think for a second about being immortal," Schmidt says. "But I'm educated as a classical musician. I studied, practised and played music [that was] from the thirteenth century to the 1920s. Even if it was hundreds of years old, it was still contemporary to me... Playing Chopin or Debussy or Schubert made it self-understanding that, if you call yourself a composer, you aim for your work to last. So, to me, that was the test of the music I did: if it lasted it was good; if it didn't, then I had failed. Luckily, for the last forty years, I've been able to feel that I didn't fail. Yet!"

The Lost Tapes is out June 15 on Mute/EMI