INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut AUGUST 2006 - by David Stubbs
ALBUM BY ALBUM: CAN
We needed to start from scratch, Can's Irmin Schmidt tells Uncut. Along with Faust, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, Can headed up the Krautrock movement in late-'60s Germany, driven to create a new musical voice to displace the Anglo-American one that had dominated since the aftermath of WWII. Formed in Cologne in 1968, the core line-up - keyboardist Schmidt, bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit - holed up like mad scientists in a castle, embarking on an adventure into a world of sound and strangeness. They were joined by a bizarre collection of front-men, including draft-dodging African-American Malcolm Mooney, who quit the band in 1969 after suffering a mental breakdown on stage, and Damo Suzuki, a Munich busker immortalised on The Fall's This Nation's Saving Grace. Their early records are a deranged mix of weighty, repetitive rhythms and looped, trance-inducing riffs distantly inspired by Pink Floyd and The Velvets. Czukay once explained to Uncut editor Allan Jones that The Velvets were his favourite band because they played like pigs. On Subsequent albums, Can anticipated and put to shame the '80/'90s fashion for world music, crossover and fusion, even prefigured the robotics of techno. They also laid down the template for ambient. Echoes of Can resound in PiL, MBV, The Orb, Julian Cope, Primal Scream and many, many more. One of the most influential bands of all time? Sure - as these six albums prove.
Can's debut album, the product of endless jam sessions to achieve a new, German 'Ur-rock', featuring ex-pat and sculptor Malcolm Mooney on vocals. Stand-out track, the epic Yoo Doo Right, nailed their free-form madness
IRMIN SCHMIDT: We all of us, when we started in Can and gathered at the Schloss Nörvenich [the band's first concert was at a modern art exhibition held there], decided to forget everything we had learned. All our traditions had been destroyed by the war, and German music was then so dependent on Anglo-American music. I was a classically trained conductor, Holger trained with Stockhausen, Jaki was a jazz drummer, Michael a rock guitarist. We simply played, for hours and hours sometimes, to perfect a groove.
HOLGER CZUKAY: It was important, when playing these sessions, that as Jaki put it, we should reduce ourselves to the point where we were only playing a single note. I chose to play bass because I assumed no one wanted to listen to bass.
SCHMIDT: With our playing, we were trying to create a trance. And sure, our singer, Malcolm Mooney, would freak out and get into a mind loop. Later, of course, he had a breakdown, singing upstairs, downstairs, over and over at a gig. But when he sang with us, he was aware of what he was doing, even though he was the most spontaneous man I ever met; Yoo Doo Right is the sound of him reading excerpts from a letter he received from his girlfriend in New York.
Can's second, breakthrough album; a double, featuring new vocalist Damo Suzuki following Mooney's return to the US after a nervous breakdown. It's a schizophrenic mix, one part showcasing their newer, more melodic sensibility with Suzuki on vocals, one part extreme forays into electronic experimentalism.
SCHMIDT: The sound of Can changed when Malcolm left and Damo came in. Malcolm was a rhythmical vocalist but Damo was more melodic and formed a relationship with Michael on guitar - plus both were about ten years younger than the rest of us. By now we were more secure in our confidence and range. Tago Mago was eventually a double album, but it was only when Hildegaard, our manager and my wife, convinced the record company that the more extreme disc containing Aumgn was also a part of Can that they agreed to release it.
HOLGER CZUKAY: Tago Mago in its moods takes you through all the twenty-four hours of the day. I used a sine-wave generator, Irmin had a special microphone with a lot of echo and Jaki Liebezeit used a drum machine on Peking O - but to destroy the rhythm, not to create it! Michael Karoli wanted us to re-record parts of Halleluwah but I said, no, we should use it all. Anyway, I had made the final tape and he would have had to kill me to get it off me. Tago Mago may have helped us in the UK, but I remember visiting the record company there. I looked out at their dustbins. It was full of copies of Tago Mago!
Can's second album with Damo Suzuki saw them abandon their primordial beginnings for an airier, more eclectic sound. And with titles like Vitamin C and I'm So Green, together with a sleeve featuring tinned okra (high in dietary fibre) they seemed to be hinting at future fads for healthy living.
SCHMIDT: The can on the cover is not a silly concept idea. It was a can Jaki had found in a Turkish shop. There, the word Can means something like Life. There's no concept behind titles like Vitamin C and I'm So Green, but certainly we were very organic in our sound by now. People imagine Can was all done in the editing, but for Soup there was no editing at all. We'd found out the record was too short; it needed ten more minutes of music by the next morning, so we wrote, played and recorded it the night before. No editing!
CZUKAY: We recorded Ege Bamyasi in a new studio, which had formerly been a cinema. That new environment affected the sound. The drums were not so heavy and rough, the vocals and instruments were separated out. Vitamin C became the title track of Dead Pigeon [On Beethoven Street], a movie by Samuel Fuller. That's often how it was. We made music, then found a use for it later. Soup is my favourite track. In its various ingredients, including electronic and avant-garde, it is indeed like a soup. In the impact of its rhythm, it reminds me of Led Zeppelin.
Many people's favourite Can LP, Future Days is steeped in the bucolic, proto-ambient haze of the title track, but also features Moonshake, the robo-rhythms of which predate the disco era.
SCHMIDT: I have this idea from John Cage in my mind that everything from the environment can be called music. So, the title track Future Days incorporates the sound of Damo sitting on a '70s cushion filled with rustling plastic bits. He put a microphone by his ass and recorded it. On Bel Air, I introduced my new synth, the Alpha 77. I was unhappy with traditional synths , but filtered through the Alpha 77, I could turn a banal organ sound into something highly peculiar.
CZUKAY: Some of Damo's vocals on the title track are recorded underwater. My bass is more prominent on this album. The others had already said that I should concentrate more on playing and less on mixing, but when they gave the editing job to someone else, the results were terrible! We spent a lot of time editing Future Days. Days and nights, without sleep.
SCHMIDT: Jaki reacted against the world of free jazz, which he came from. He wanted to constrict himself. And yes, on tracks like Moonshake, he created his own philosophy of rhythm.
CZUKAY: Jaki once said to me, All I want to do is become a machine, inhuman, without emotions!
The first album recorded after Suzuki left the band to become a Jehovah's Witness, leaving them without a vocalist; Irmin Schmidt and guitarist/violinist Michael Karoli took over. A key influence on Talking Heads' Remain In Light album.
CZUKAY: It was a shock when Damo left the band and we weren't able to find a replacement for him. But what we really had to adapt to was the fact that by now it was the end of the 2-track production era. We had to re-think the way we produced ourselves.
SCHMIDT: A lot of people think that Can changed after Soon Over Babaluma, but the change wasn't here. On tracks like Come Sta, La Luna, you can hear our idea of 'ethnological forgery', with its mock-tango intimations, its South American/African influences and the feel of a lavish dancing and dining hall. We all loved ethnic music, but didn't want to turn it into a sort of 'tourism', as has seemed to have happened now. Which is why we always spoke of forgery.
CZUKAY: On Soon Over Babaluma, there is an easier conversation between the instruments. The rhythms, you might say, are less solid. And Irmin's use of the Alpha 77, his prehistoric filter synthesizer, is immense. He plays like an entire mock-string orchestra - Can were often very orchestral, very European.
As Kraftwerk and Neu! were coming into their own, Can were faltering. This was perhaps their last great gasp. The initial tracks sound like a parody of bad glam rock, but flashes of past glories are there in Red Hot Indians and neo-concréte epic Unfinished.
SCHMIDT: By that time, we had money and could buy a 16-track studio. But this was catastrophic. Now we were no longer playing in the moment, directly to tape. And we could no longer mix our music ourselves - we had to give it to an outside engineer. And he created a shit sound, too loud and rocky. People hear the first track and think we're being satirical, but no, it was a lousy recording job. So the last two tracks we recorded ourselves, including Unfinished., which is built around recordings of this very old organ we had. It started making strange, moaning sounds whenever anyone went near it. So of course, we recorded these. You never know when the magical moment is going to happen.
CZUKAY: After Landed, I became uncertain of my role. The new technology meant recording was no longer so spontaneous. Michael was keen on using multi-track to correct mistakes. I wasn't. I like the element of surprise, which is why I looked to technologies like short-wave radio. There were pressures to make us commercial like Traffic or Santana as well. I didn't fit in any more.