The Wire SEPTEMBER 2017 - by Rob Young


Rob Young considers the public face and private passions of Can's editor-in-chief and the shamanic mentor to 1980s musicians such as David Sylvian and Jah Wobble

He bounded into the building, set apart by his loudness, his moustache, his sartorial choices (baggy black and white houndstooth suit and patent leather shoes, topped off with a black baseball cap). The first time I met Holger Czukay in person, it was in the disused cinema in Weilerswist, outside Cologne, where the group Can - which he co-founded in 1967 - used as their Inner Space studio from 1971. At fifty-nine, Holger wore an almost permanent sardonic grin, a Cheshire cat looking on the world as his creative playground.

He invited me to his Lindenstrasse apartment in central Cologne that evening. A grand town pad, crisp white walls and high stuccoed ceilings, marble and mirrors in the bathroom. We drank jasmine tea in his comfortable reception room and talked for a couple of hours, while his wife Ursula 'U-She' Kloss sat and worked at her embroidery, offering occasional comments. The Can promotional run that was happening at that moment, 1997 - around the remix album Sacrilege - was the least of his concerns. He had a way of convincing you that he had lots more going on behind the scenes, still playing a catalytic role in the sounds surrounding him: he was currently hanging out at the city's Liquid Sky parties and collaborating live and on record ("trash research") with its head honcho, Dr Walker of Air Liquide. He was running his own website and trying to boost U-She's singing career. Later that night, he took me into another room, a studio/workshop dominated by a mixing console, keyboards and Revox tape recorders. He pointed out the ring modulators and tape boxes stacked on the shelves, liberated from Stockhausen's electronic music studios at WDR in the late 1960s. He played me his and U-She's version of The Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning (competent but hardly inspiring), various Cologne-style minimal techno tracks he had been working on, and recent reworkings of Can's master tapes. For such a flamboyant personality, he was taken with electronic musics anonymity factor: "These people, they are not there in this music. No humanity, nothing. To be unhuman, actually, which is a very good idea as well, because there is so much secret in the crystals."

Holger Schüring tuned into the secrets of the crystals as a teenager, while attending the Gerhard Mercator Scientific School in Duisburg in West Germany, north of Düsseldorf. He had a side job in a radio and TV repair shop, where he became fascinated by the "three-dimensional sound" of old-fashioned valve radios and learned to take them apart. Accidents of history left Czukay's identity permanently in-between like the grey noise between shortwave stations. He was born in a contested zone erased by war. Situated on the Baltic coast, his birthplace Danzig is now Gdańsk in modern day Poland, but in 1938, when he was born on March 24, it was still a semi-autonomous city state between two outcrops of the old German Empire. When war broke out, the city's German loyalists were expelled by the Poles; the Schürings fled the city in 1945. His family had booked tickets on the evacuee ship Wilhelm Gustloff, but at the last minute his grandmother changed her mind and put them on a train carrying wounded soldiers to Berlin. The ship went down, sunk by a Soviet torpedo.

"That I am German is a falsification. That I am Polish is a falsification," Czukay told Exberliner magazine in 2006. "That means that my whole person is a falsification. This happened because my grandfather told the Nazis that we must be Aryan. [So] he made a kind of family tree [which] was just born from fantasy, with no basis behind it. It looked nice... This is how I lost my name Czukay. My father changed it. To Schüring, a Dutch name. When I changed it back, it was with Can."

The young Holger discovered music and film at a very early age - he recalled playing with reels of film he had found and his sister taking him to the biopic of Robert and Clara Schumann, Träumerei. By the late 1950s he was playing double bass in local jazz bands; in February 1962 he enrolled at the Berlin Music Academy, where Czukay lived inside the Soviet zone in a gloomy climate. Among his teachers there was a sense that all avenues for musical innovation were already exhausted. He took lessons in double bass from a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and met important figures in the music world, from American radicals John Cage and David Tudor to the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Eventually he was expelled, but applied for Stockhausen's new music course in Cologne in 1964. Stockhausen told him to "think less".

On the course he struck up a friendship with pianist and conductor Irmin Schmidt. When Schmidt decided to form an avant-garde music group in 1967, he called Czukay first, who brought along nineteen-year-old guitarist Michael Karoli, a pupil at a private finishing school in Switzerland where Czukay was now teaching. With the addition of drummer Jaki Liebezeit and flautist/sound engineer David Johnson, the earliest incarnation of Can was born. It quickly became too rock-heavy for Johnson and Czukay took over the twin role of bass player and sound engineer. Over the next ten years he recorded almost every moment Can spent in a room together and finessed physical editing techniques, many of which were necessitated by the fact that the group were being commissioned to write music for film and television. As a bassist, his style chimed perfectly with Liebezeits monotonous grooves. He reined in his personal exuberance (aside from an immaculate pair of white gloves) and held fast to clipped, invarying motifs skimming off the backbeats or entangling themselves in syncopated bliss. "Can was proud of becoming machines, playing machines," he told me. "The strongest part of Can [was] when they didn't actually play. That means when they got played, by a sort of secret machine behind it."

Can eventually broke down for many reasons. The burden of Czukay's twin roles behind and in front of the desk became too great. He was always happiest working with the limitations of two tracks and a scalpel. Once the group acquired its sixteen-track system, it was easier to isolate faults and recording became less of a collective, all-in-the-moment effort. "This is the beginning of the end of a community," he told me. In Can's last two years Rosko Gee took over on bass and Holger shifted to the edge of the stage, with a tabletop of ring modulators, wireless sets, FX and a telephone. His extreme frequencies interfered with Liebezeit's perceptions, and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah fought with him on one occasion over his appropriation of exotic voices from the radio dial.

He played his last Can show in May 1977 but hung around the studio, working on the material that would become his solo debut Movies. Despite the personal awkwardness, the Can organisation supported him through this transition period and he returned to assist with the editing of Can's final, seIf-titled album of the 1970s.

He privately tinkered with some of Cans back catalogue and outtakes, reshaping the material via thousands of micro-edits. His early solo music often has the perfume of half-remembered Can drifting through it, as if Can refused to entirely let go. A thirteen minute piece called Oh Lord Give Us More Money, for instance, uses the rhythm track and chord sequence of Can's Hunters And Collectors, splurge-gunning it with samples of a TV evangelist, car horns, thunderclaps and concrete noises and audio clips from films; Czukay sings in a hysterical whisper.

Recorded at Inner Space using Can tapes and personnel, and mixed at Conny Plank's studio, Movies was the first seed transplanted from Can into a new garden. Its collage of found elements has become second nature to subsequent generations of producers working in electronic music, hiphop and sampledelia, but it was among the first to propose such an approach and package it as pop. In the immediate term it inspired another influential landmark in early sampling aesthetics: Byrne and Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981). Czukay had been a friend of Eno's since the early 1970s, and their paths had recently crossed again in Cluster's woodland studio. Now Eno was working with Irmin Schmidt's former lodger, trumpeter Jon Hassell, on Possible Musics, which introduced Hasse|ls concept of the Fourth World - a magic-realist zone in which all the worlds music could be fluidly recombined and transmuted. Holger's solo work fitted right in with I this notion, and there was a logic about these former connections circling around each other once more.

"When I was thirty-nine it was a very special year for me," he reminisced to Biba Kopf in a 1984 NME article. "Big things happened in my life. Finishing with Can was a big break, I learned to laugh at WC Fields and discovered telepathy with plants. This discovery made me feel like a newborn child. I could have stayed talking with plants forever. It took me two years to ask myself, what do you want?"

After a couple of years of slightly dazed fallout, Czukay bought himself a French horn and got himself back to Inner Space, where he recorded On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (1981). Hiss 'N' Listen featured PiL bassist Jah Wobble, with whom Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit recorded the dub-infused dreamworld Full Circle. Czukay journeyed through the 1980s as a kind of shamanic mentor to fellow artisan-popsters who required channels beyond their more commercially successful ventures. He popped up with Wobble and U2 guitarist The Edge on Snake Charmer (produced by Francois Kevorkian) in 1983; and was a key contributor to Brilliant Trees and Gone To Earth, David Sylvian's solo albums of atmospheric song, which led the two of them to make a pair of delicate ambient albums, Plight & Premonition and Flux + Mutability. Although he had all but retired from the live stage, Czukay's cultivated image as a puckish Mitteleuropean audio scientist - a seIf-described "private philharmonist" - was paying off, and his music, presciently postmodern in an age of sequenced cut n paste hits, was still regarded highly in the British music press.

Czukay could tell a good story, but he was perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. A jester's antics often cloak an introverts inner sanctum. His last years revealed him as a more private person that previously suspected. From the early '90s onwards, his life merged with that of his wife Ursula Kloss, the singer and artist who painted the extraordinary Holbein-style portrait of Czukay on the sleeve of Moving Pictures (1993): the artist surrounded by the ghosts of his life. In the late '90s, he had high hopes for U-She's career, but never quite seemed to materialise. They produced several albums together, the last of which, 21st Century (2007), showed the couple seated, talking on mobile phones, on a pair of canary-yellow chairs in the middle of the Can studio, now a vast loft-style living space. For the past decade U-She was almost immobilised by illness which kept her confined to a wheelchair. According to Irmin Schmidt they largely rejected conventional medicine, so Czukay became her full-time carer.

It left him permanently tired. I spoke to him several times on the phone in the past few years, but he was not willing to accept visitors to the studio, nor to travel. At one point he claimed to be rerecording all his un-reissued solo albums, so that he alone would have the rights and revenues. However, when Grönland released the originals in 2016 he allowed one UK journalist, Ian Harrison, into his home. Harrison later told me he had aged dramatically and seemed mentally distracted, although he did eventually focus his mind on his earlier years. In May 2016 I made one last attempt to visit him during a trip to Germany. I received a reply by email: "Dear Rob, Sorry - I'm afraid. TIME WENT ON ALL THE TIME. I got old and they plaster me with interviews like never before. CAN became old now as nothing really new had happened."

He could not attend the funeral of Jaki Liebezeit in January as he had injured his neck in a fall. Then U-She died on July 28 this year. He was naturally devastated, but a source close to him says he was trying to pick up a life, buying a new sofa and TV in readiness to move back to his flat in Cologne. He planned to archive his tapes and hard drives and anticipated a Czukay 80 tour to accompany a box set Grönland are planning for 2018. He was found dead in the studio on September 5; the funeral took place in the cityjust over a week later. There are so many things to remember him for, but I remember something he said to me, quoting Katharine Hepburn, back in 1997: "The people can write about me what they want, as long as it's not the truth."

Rob Young's biography of Can is due for publication in Spring 2018