Can - The Right Time
In the '70s, Can paved the way for a generation of experimental electronic musicians. Simon Trask talks to Holger Czukay and Michael Karoli amidst the CD rerelease of their entire back-catalogue and a new LP for '89.
A band such as Can could probably only have been formed in the '60s, but they may be a welcome influence in a world now governed by the politics of dancing.
1968: A TIME OF EXCITEMENT, OF HOPE, OF revolution. One month after the Paris uprising of May '68, a small group of musicians came together in Cologne, West Germany with the intention of making a spontaneous music without leaders, a sort of instantaneous collective composition.
They came from diverse musical backgrounds, and were by no means a young band - three of the musicians were 30 years old, with a wealth of musical experience behind them. Keyboard player Irmin Schmidt was an accomplished pianist and orchestral conductor who had conducted orchestras including the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, given chamber music concerts and piano recitals of contemporary music, and studied ethnic music at Cologne University and contemporary composition at Cologne and Darmstadt (with the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage and Luciano Berio). Bass player and sound technician Holger Czukay had also studied contemporary composition with Stockhausen at Darmstadt in the early '60s, discovering rock music in 1966 when he met guitarist Michael Karoli, in turn opening Karoli's eves to contemporary music.
Karoli, who was ten years the junior of the other musicians, started out playing banjo in a dixieland jazz band at school before graduating to the electric guitar, developed musical tastes ranging from jazz and blues to Tamla Motown and ethnic music, and played anything from avant-garde jazz to rock 'n' roll. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit, meanwhile, had spent the first half of the '60s playing jazz in Barcelona with the likes of trumpeter Chet Baker and pianist Tete Montoliu before joining the Manfred Schoof Quintet to play free jazz from 1966-'68. But it was a common desire to develop music which merged free jazz, rock, contemporary music and ethnic music within a collective improvisational context which brought the four musicians together in 1968.
They played their first concert at a castle called Schloss Norvenich in the suburbs of Cologne. The music was an improvisational and eclectic mix of rock, "serious" music, ethnic music and sound collages, with tapes of the Paris revolution and choral music by the Renaissance composer Pierre de la Rue mixed into the lineup of guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. The owner of the castle subsequently agreed to let the group use one room as a studio, they adopted the name of Inner Space and began to rehearse. Can had their "home studio" years before the concept became common currency, and it allowed them to develop in a way which they couldn't had they been restricted by studio fees. Their freewheeling approach to making music meant that recording sessions would often last for hours on end. Rather than go into the studio with carefully worked-out ideas, their only idea was to start with no preconceptions at all, attaching more importance to atmosphere and spontaneity. Tracks on record were almost invariably edited-down versions of what the band actually played. Similarly the group approached their live gigs with no plans or preconceptions, playing spontaneously as the mood took them. Their longest ever gig, at Berlin in 1974, lasted for seven hours.
Schloss Norvenich remained their centre of operations until December 1971, when they moved their studio to an old cinema about 20 kilometres from Cologne, naming it Inner Space. Meanwhile, the group had lost American composer and flautist David Johnson, who had worked with them from the start, acquired a "singer" in the form of black American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, and changed their name to Can (the word means "life" in Turkish, while "kan" means "feeling" or "emotion" in Japanese). Mooney stayed with them for a year, to be succeeded in 1970 by a Japanese musician, Damo Suzuki, who Czukay and Liebezeit came across busking outside a café in Munich. Suzuki stayed with them until late '73, when he left to become a Jehovah's Witness. From then on Karoli handled most of the vocals, though Indonesian singer Thaiaga Raj Raja Ratnam worked with them for several months in 1976. Later that year bassist Rosko Gee joined the group (freeing Czukay to explore other instrumentation), followed in 1977 by percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah.
Can remained together for ten years, producing a succession of albums which, while they fall into the realm of rock music, defy ready categorisation. No two Can albums are alike, yet all are recognisably Can. Their musical policy was one of no compromise, and their music still has a freedom and spontaneity about it which is at variance with all that today's commercially-centred culture stands for. Perhaps a band such as Can could only have come about in the late '60s. Twenty years later, as we stand poised on the edge of the '90s, is there a place for a band such as Can?
Although Can split up in 1978, they frequently worked together on one another's albums. Of the four core musicians, Czukay is probably best known in the UK, not only for his own albums but for his collaborations with David Sylvian. Now Can have returned with a new seven-track album Rite Time which sees them reunited with Malcolm Mooney. Mute Records are currently in the process of releasing all the old Can albums on CD, Phonogram Records are releasing the new album, and Czukay's latest collaboration with David Sylvian, an album called Flux and Mutability, is being released by Virgin Records. So it is that I'm sitting with Czukay and Karoli in a back garden somewhere in Notting Hill on a balmy summer's afternoon. The owner of the hotel where they're staying has taken exception to interviews and photographs, and we've taken refuge at a nearby house owned by a friend of the band. Czukay confirms that Can's approach to music-making is in stark contrast to today's get-rich-quick mentality:
"Today people want to be successful, they want to have a hit. If you want to do that then you have to calculate very clearly, you have to shape the product towards the formulaic way of listening. But Can was never thinking about being commercial, even though we had two hits. What we planned was that our music would survive as long as we lived, and be our life insurance. That has happened for the last 20 years, and I hope it will happen for the next 30 years. It has kept the whole group alive all the time.
"Can is a very uncompromising group. The only arguments we have are musical arguments. And also being a life insurance, you have to be totally convinced that whatever the reaction of someone is, you don't care if they like it or not. You can call that arrogant, but that attitude has always worked. It is real, the life insurance. And we were lucky, people even followed us."
And what of the new album? Has their musical approach changed at all?
"Nothing has really changed in the way we work when we're recording. Even the fights are the same! About the same stupid things, with the same sort of aggression. These things are the fate of the band. We are always thinking that Can is a band and has to remain a band; if you lose that then I think you miss the point."
The Can studio started out with a couple of two-track tape machines, a Studer B62 and a Revox A77. An eight-track mixer (built by Czukay) was added after the first two Can albums, Monster Movie and Soundtracks. The recording process involved recording the complete band on one machine, then dubbing that performance onto the second machine while adding further parts live.
Czukay: "When you make a two-track recording you still have the choice to erase, to put holes into it! The holes are sometimes even more important than the actual sound."
"You can cut away some of the dubbed version and splice in bits of the first-generation tape", adds Karoli. "We did a lot of that. We would also make, say, three different overdubs and splice together bits of different dubs. That way of working was quite fun, actually."
Czukay: "Of course, you always lose quality on the overdubs, and this is why we were so restricted. The band has to play the first recording in such a way that the next overdub - by the whole hand - has to make optimum sense. If you miss the point then you just make a bad record."
The band continued with this way of recording through four more albums. Then for the recording of Landed in 1975 they took delivery of an MCI 16-track tape machine.
"The more limitations you have the luckier you are."
"I found it more difficult to work with the 16-track machine", comments Czukay.
Karoli continues: "Because the atmosphere that was captured in the earlier days, once it was on tape it was there. If you have to remix afterwards, it's harder to recapture it. Especially with Landed, which we had to remix with somebody who we hardly knew, and who hardly knew our music. But in the end both ways have their advantages and their disadvantages."
Can experimented with a drum machine as long ago as 1971, on a track called 'Spoon' from their fourth album Ege Bamyasi.
"It was from a Farfisa organ", reveals Czukay. "The cheapest and first development of a drum machine, with switches for selecting preset rhythms like samba and bossa nova."
"But on 'Spoon' we turned the rhythm over", adds Karoli. "We had, I think, a samba rhythm, and we started our count on three-and-a-half, so we were playing against the rhythm."
Czukay again: "Just by changing where we started playing we changed the understanding of the rhythm. But Jaki became a big critic of drum machines. He always says that he started first with them and he has the most experience with them, and he knows how stupid they are. Not that they make him unemployed; he's a very good drummer, you can't make him unemployed."
"People play rhythms into a sequencer from an Octapad or a keyboard", says Karoli, "and they can play rhythms that a drummer couldn't play with his hands and with his feet. I think people will find out in the long run that some rhythms have to be played with the hands and the feet. The feet work differently, from the hands. Jaki's bass drum rhythms are very organic."
Czukay: "Hip hop patterns are very sophisticated, but organic? I make a big question mark. The worst thing is quantising, which gets the human being out. Now people are putting feel back in with the humaniser and the groove. Then I can have a puppet on a string.
"Can was always uncopyable. Even if someone wants to make a cover version of Can music it becomes strong, different. But if you make a cover version of something that has been quantised and then humanised and grooved, it sounds exactly the same. It all has one face."
Karoli: "Music is made by humans - that is in the definition, I think."
What about combining human and machine feel? That can be very interesting.
Czukay: "That is still something very important."
Karoli: "You can have a rhythm machine and a good singer, like yesterday we listened to Neneh Cherry. A good singer can give soul to a rhythm machine."
Czukay: "I remember a cover version of 'You Go To My Head' by a Belgian singer, where all the accompaniment was machines and even the voice was behaving like a machine, but it had such coldness and ice beauty that it was very very good. So even with all the attacks I do against this, I will immediately recognise something that is good from it; it's just that so many things produced from that approach are not good."
CZUKAY'S APPROACH TO RECORDING emphasises the setting of a mood in the studio out of which the music can develop.
"We are always thinking that Can is a
band and has to remain a band."
Czukay: "For example, when I work with David (Sylvian) it is to set up from the beginning such an atmosphere. For Plight and Premonition I put a match in the keyboard, and had one sound playing continuously in a corner of the studio very softly. Something else we do is have a radio playing in between stations, having just some sort of atmosphere. So the whole studio is put 'under perfume'. David is immediately, like a Can member, able to react and give out something which you don't need to work very much on, it is almost the final result. As a producer I like this very much, to help someone to feel so good that they are able to produce something they wouldn't have thought they'd be able to do. Always be positive towards someone, help them, don't tell them they are making mistakes; the negative can be edited away later. Producers are very good when they just make you feel uninhibited."
But this concept of the producer as catalyst for the creativity of others is not one which holds great sway, these days. With the power of today's technology at his disposal, the producer has become creator, even dictator, and musicians as individuals are less important.
"I understand this very well", says Czukay. "These people are some sort of orchestral conductors. Karajans!"
Karoli: "That approach has always existed. It is the opposite way of working to Can. It's just like writing out a piece of music and getting musicians to play it, except that the musicians don't even have to know what you like; you can walk off with the tapes afterward and treat them."
Although (perhaps because) the Can musicians are skilled players, music for them has never been about demonstrations of virtuosity. In fact, Karoli maintains that it's more difficult to be a virtuoso and make good music. Can's lengthy and informal recording sessions in their own studio often found each of the musicians playing instruments other than their own.
"You should be able to make music on whatever is to hand", elaborates the guitarist. "That was a thing about Can music, that any sound makes music, it's only a question of who is behind it. Very important also, to become a musician, if you play guitar you shouldn't listen only to guitar players, and with every other instrument the same. You should listen to musicians. A singer can learn an enormous lot from Miles Davis, for example; that means they're not following another singer, and so they're automatically creating something new."
So what, in the view of Czukay and Karoli, makes a good musician?
Czukay: "I ask you. Is it talent? Is it good hearing? Is it good voice? Fast fingers? Clever brain?"
Karoli: "It is that you hear music in everything around you. That makes a good musician, I think."
Czukay: "It's sort of an inner associative ability to listen to something and get something out of it."
Czukay stresses that listening is central to making good music, and the ability to listen is something which separates the men from the machines: "The listening is always done by the musicians. That's the difference between a band and another kind of constellation where the listening is one-sided. Listening is for me a female aspect, it's the most important aspect in music. It's not so much how you play, how you give out, as how you are able to receive and bring something out as an answer. If all the members of the band are in this situation of listening then you have a really good band."
Karoli: "For most non-Can musicians it would be called jamming. But jamming is not what happened with Can. It was some other thing which grew, it was more of a concept, really."
Czukay again: "A jam, like improvisation with jazz musicians, that means to play along a red line. If you jam, you play and you have all your hooks. But with Can it was play as little as possible and listen as much as possible, and get surprised and react to that, like in a football game: you have to watch the ball and know when to come in."
"What is required from an improvisor is different today", says Karoli. "When Monk and those people improvised, you could hear they were creating something new so they played very few notes. It sounds almost awkward, but it also sounds very powerful. Nowadays people who improvise on that basis play too many notes, because they have practised that style and found they can play it all four times as fast. It's not so much improvising any more, because improvising means doing something unexpected, and nowadays people know too much what they want to play. They should take instruments that they can't play, so they have to look again, they're forced to really play with few means. Instead they have too many means, too many possibilities. It was one of the ideas of the Can concept that the more limitations you have the luckier you are."
"We planned that our music would survive
as long as we lived."
FOR A CAN CONCERT AT LONDON'S NEW Victoria Theatre in December '76, Czukay moved from his usual role of playing bass to using tapes, a shortwave radio and a telephone. He was moving in an increasingly experimental direction which was to alienate him from the rest of the band and led to his departure from the group in May of the following year. As he recalls, his intention in those days was "to become a disc jockey of Can", not only integrating radio broadcasts from all over the world into the band's music but broadcasting their concerts live using a shortwave transmitter. Nowadays, it comes as no surprise to him that DJs have moved from playing music to creating it.
"When I started using shortwave radio it had only one function. It was something from outside of myself that was somehow unpreconceivable. When you get some information from outside, which is what a DJ has, you can handle it in such a way that you become a creative person. That is what I knew 20 years ago, and it is what has happened 20 years later.
"Using shortwave radio is a strong mood thing, like the uniqueness of a sunset, a special atmosphere which you got once and can never get back again. You have to be grateful for that, and you have to respect it and discipline yourself in the way of devotion. Yes, you should listen and work with the radio in terms of devotion. If you have reached a point where you don't know what to do, then the radio puts you in a position to listen and to react on something, and possibly to turn down many of the decisions you have made before. The art of minimalism is always important. Most of the arguments we have when recording as Can are over what parts we should take out."
Can's emphasis on listening, their openness to the sounds around them and Czukay's use of shortwave radio have more than a hint of the tactics of chance and indeterminism first espoused by John Cage. Cage himself was the first composer to experiment with radio, in his 1951 piece Imaginary Landscape no. 4 for 12 radio receivers.
"Stockhausen always said that Cage showed him what he had not to do in his life", comments Czukay. "Somehow with Can it's the same, we just interpreted Cage in our own special way."
And what influence did Czukay feel that Stockhausen had on him?
"He gave me the feeling for responsibility for each little thing that you do in the music. I met him again after Can, and he said I was the only student of his who did something really different afterwards and that he liked that. Of course, his way of inventing is incredible. Everyone else tried to imitate him all the time because he was such a strong person. He is the last classical genius, in the old sense of being a composer."
Czukay is dismissive of today's "serious" music, however: "Most of it is administrative music, just administration on paper."
Can's ears were also attuned to music from other cultures around the world. They even recorded a number of pieces which they wryly labelled Ethnological Forgery Series, and Schmidt has said that all of Can's music was an EFS.
Czukay: "We were always impressed by music which was somehow naturally grown instead of thought out."
"But we just loved it", continues Karoli, "we didn't study it and play it. Today in France, where I live, there are African music bands which consist entirely of French musicians who have studied African rhythms and play them like Africans would play them. We never did that. It was more somebody had heard something and used that element, but the others hadn't heard it and would use totally different things. Whatever sound came out would make the music that was being played. Can has always only adjusted to the sounds they heard; that was the secret, to play only with what you hear."
Czukay: "Sometimes just by chance it came up through association that the result sounded like gagaku music from Japan, say. Through these associations we came up with the Ethnological Forgery Series: don't say that it's gagaku, it's just a forgery."
Karoli: "You need a strong inner vision to make music when you are exposed to all these influences. Otherwise you get 'OK, let's make African music now', and you practise exactly what the Africans do until you can do it too. That's not interesting; it doesn't work. For a long time already we have been citizens of the world, musically, because we can hear every music of the world. Even if you have heard something once only, it has still influenced you whether you want it to or not. Once you hear a Chinese opera you have it in your musical setup, and you can't do without it any more, it's there. Now if somebody tells me I'm not German enough in my music, what am I supposed to do, play the 'Horstwesselleider'? That's musical apartheid, to say such things, it's bullshit. Really, it's racism. Why not become multi-coloured in your mind even if you're not multi-coloured in your skin?"
Currently, Karoli is working on his second solo album, which includes contributions from Czukay and Leibezeit. Meanwhile, Czukay has a tape of a live performance by himself, Karoli and Leibezeit which he intends to take around the record companies, and is planning another solo album which will make use of the more than a hundred answering-machine messages and associated replies he has accumulated.
Finally, do they feel that the ratio of good to bad music has changed in the 21 years since Can started making music?
Karoli: "Only the dimension has changed. Where you had one before, you have one hundred now. Let's hope that a certain freedom approach stays. If all music one day is dictated by the big music company which is ruling the world, then it will be time for a revolution!"
And no doubt sounding the clarion call to arms will be the musicians of Can.
Interview by Simon Trask
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