INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut DECEMBER 2017 - by Rob Hughes
Co-founder of Can (1938-2017)
The turning point in Holger Czukay's creative life came in 1968, while he was employed as a music teacher in Switzerland. One of his students, nineteen-year-old Michael Karoli, started playing I Am The Walrus on guitar. Primarily a jazz fan and a former pupil of minimalist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Czukay suddenly saw new possibilities. "It was really something," he recalled to this writer in 2011.
"The Beatles had taken what Stockhausen had done in a serious way and made it much more playful in a pop music way. I thought it was fantastic, so unusual."
This discovery, in turn, ignited his interest in the non-linear works of Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground. A short time later he co-founded Can, initially called Inner Space, with Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, flautist David C Johnson and another ex-Stockhausen pupil, Irmin Schmidt. Czukay quickly established himself as the band's sound engineer, augmenting his duties as bass player by experimenting with drum machines, shortwave radios and sine-wave generators in their rehearsal space outside Cologne. he'd then splice together the best bits from hours of improvised recordings, a process he likened to filmmaking. "When the day was over, I took my tape recorder home and edited those first-generation tapes," he explained. "Then I'd bring them in the next day and say, 'That's it. That's the song.'" As Schmidt once marvelled: "Holger was able to create in the most improvisational way, to edit forms which didn't exist before."
This approach fed directly into Can's anything-goes philosophy, as they twisted jazz, rock and avant-garde elements into innovative new forms. The music's steady pulse, meanwhile, was provided by Czukay's bubbling basslines and Liebezeit's uncanny rhythmic precision. Relocating to the village of Weilerswist in 1971, Can converted an old movie theatre into their own Inner Space studio, which Czukay saw as "a temple, like a church... It was the beginning of sampling, you can say."
Following the departure of original frontman Malcolm Mooney, Czukay was also instrumental in finding a replacement. he and Liebezeit were sitting outside a café in Munich when they spied Japanese busker Damo Suzuki, chanting his way across the street. Czukay turned to his bandmate and said, "This is our new singer", before introducing himself and inviting Suzuki to join them onstage that night.
Can shifted towards more ambient music after Suzuki quit in 1973. Two years later they signed to Richard Branson's Virgin label, gaining access to state-of-the-art multi-track mixers. But Czukay became disillusioned with Can's smoother, less organic strategies, calling it "the beginning of the end". Feeling himself increasingly sidelined by new technology, along with the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah (both formerly of Traffic), he left the band after 1977's Saw Delight.
His solo career began with 1979's Movies, a brilliantly idiosyncratic work that found him goofing around on Cool In The Pool and continuing his collage experiments with epics like Hollywood Symphony. Czukay's ongoing pursuit of sampling, integrating audio clips and using shortwave radio as a live instrument, led him to describe his working method as "radio painting". Aside from his solo albums, the last of which was 2015's Eleven Years Innerspace, Czukay worked with a number of free-thinkers over the decades, from Brian Eno, Jah Wobble and David Sylvian, to his wife Ursula Kloss, better known as U-She. Kloss, who passed away in July, had begun rebuilding Czukay's beloved Inner Space studio for him in 2004. It was there, less than six weeks after her death, that his body was found. At the time of writing, the cause of his death was unknown.
"My wife made this studio so extraordinary," Czukay said of Inner Space in 2011. "I don't think there's anywhere in the world that can compete with it. A friend of mine came here and said, 'I don't want to leave. It's like entering the palace of the King Of Morocco.' He couldn't believe it. It's always been a very magical place."