Dan Goldstein talks to the Can founder member whose current interests include providing the Pope with a backing band, recording with four valve tape machines, and chopping-up bits of Bulgarian folk music.
What do a seminal German rock band of the '70s, short-wave radio recordings, and Pope John Paul II have in common? Answer: oddball musician Holger Czukay, whose new album is just out.
AS THESE WORDS go up on the word-processor screen, five of the top six singles in the UK chart are either cover versions of old songs, or simple re-issues of records that date back more than 15 years. It's a sad state of affairs, and though this is neither the time nor the place to discuss all the possible reasons for its existence, there's simply no shying away from the fact that Nostalgia is the one dominant trend in today's popular music.
More people are buying old records, either because they remind them of their mis-spent youth, or because (in the case of record-buyers who are still busy misspending their youth) they allow them some insight into what young people got up to in earlier, more exciting times.
So whereas, in the late '70s and early '80s, it was fashionable for young musicians to assert that their main artistic goal was originality, today's equivalents are more likely to proclaim (loudly) that they are going back to their roots — jazz, blues, Merseybeat, psychedelia, punk... you name it.
One musician who hasn't, as yet, stopped claiming to be an original is Holger Czukay. And more than most of today's soundmakers, Czukay is a genuine individual. His clothes are thrown together with a refreshing lack of concern for coordination; his lifestyle seems anarchic and unrestrained; and his music stands out like a beacon of originality in today's murky sea of repetition and, like I say, nostalgia.
Czukay is an eccentric, and probably always has been since he was born in Germany just before the Second World War. His first musical experience was singing chorales for American servicemen in exchange for Coca-Cola, after the War was over. He then progressed through a series of abortive attempts at tuition in music theory and composition, after which he saw playing live jazz as his only possible musical opening. He played guitar in a Dixieland band, continuing his studies in harmony, theory and basic composition under his own steam. The guitar remained his main performing interest, but he tried learning to play "as many different instruments as I could".
In the mid-'60s he secured a place studying composition alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen, an arrangement that lasted for three years until Stockhausen told Czukay he was "too intellectual" for him. So the pupil acquired pupils of his own, teaching music in a Swiss public school. The syllabus was classically-orientated to the exclusion of almost all else, but one member of Czukay's class — a young guitar player by the name of Michael Karoli — encouraged his teacher to listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Czukay did just that, and eventually joined forces with Karoli and other musicians to form a unique rock band, Can.
What set Can apart from the majority of rock outfits in the early- to mid-'70s was their emphasis on improvisation as a means of composition, and their willingness to accept new technology and incorporate its use into a method of production that ensured the band's sound remained "street", for want of a better term.
The various members of Can went their separate ways towards the end of the decade, with Czukay opting to make solo albums at the band's studio near Cologne. The first of these. Movies, was an unexpected cult success — for though Can boasted a loyal following among musicians, their music was never likely to enter the mainstream on its own account.
That success enabled Czukay to lead "a modest bachelor life", which was all he required to continue his work. Two further albums, On the Way to the Peak of Normal and The East is Red followed at the start of the '80s, and this spring, they are joined by another solo outing, Rome Remains Rome.
It's this new album that Czukay seems most eager to discuss as we sit in an unoccupied corner of Virgin Records' press office in London. He talks confidently, almost arrogantly, and he gives the impression of being pretty much set in his ways: his favourite expressions (his English vocabulary is excellent, his grammar nothing special) seem to be along the lines of "this is perfectly good" or "that would be absolutely stupid".
"It took me two years to produce this new album", he says. "That's a year-and-a-half of real work, and then some months of putting it into the cellar; it has to mature, like a wine. But in that two years, I actually produced four albums' worth of material. The rest of it is still in the cellar. I'm waiting until the time is right, until the world is ready for me to release it."
So Holger Czukay is more prolific than the level of his recent recorded output would suggest. He's also — in common with visionaries like Cage, Stockhausen, Eno and Zappa — as much concerned with the process of making music as he is with the music itself. The idea being, of course, that if you go about working in the right way, your work will ultimately benefit.
For Czukay, the most important part of his compositional process — which has hardly changed since Can days — is his own studio, a collection of ancient Telefunken M10 tape recorders and auxiliary valve equipment which forms a unique music "computer" with which Czukay obviously feels very at home...
"One of the things I hate most of all is writing music down. I really hate writing. It's something that went out of date 200 years ago. It makes a lot of sense, much as I condemn it. It means you have total data access; you tell the musicians exactly what you want them to play.
"But you don't need to do it at all. Today's technological systems make it possible for people who are unemployed to produce something, and you have total access to the data anyway — though not with computer systems, which have not progressed that far. But my system works like that.
"You could say that my system works like a stone-age system. But it is so effective and so fast, even the best computers cannot follow it. It's very simple. There are just four very reliable stereo tape machines, a good watch, and professional editing units — the kind of setup you'd find in a radio station, like a BBC studio.
"The difference between today's system and the writing system of 200 years ago — which is definitely a computer system of a sort — is that now you can hear the input data instantly; you don't need an orchestra, and most important of all, you don't need the unions.
"You are fully responsible for the end-product, and that's a good thing. I think people should feel responsible for what they're doing."
THINGS DO NOT begin, however, at Czukay's ancient and individual studio. Stage one takes place at Can Studio, a more conventionally equipped multitrack facility where he records his own instrumental playing (guitar, synth, French horn, or whatever) along with that of guest musicians. In the case of Rome Remains Rome, those musicians included Michael Karoli and Can percussionist Jaki Liebiezeit; ex-PiL bassist Jah Wobble; and an American broadcaster by the name of Sheldon Ancel, who provided much of the album's vocal content.
Most of what these people play is improvised, in the Can tradition, and the starting point for their ideas can be, as Czukay asserts, absolutely anything at all.
"My source can be anything. These days I have what you could call outside sources. The East is Red, for example, which is just a reworking of the Chinese national anthem, came about simply because one of the Chinese communist party leaders told the young people of the country that they shouldn't listen to western pop music, because it creates bad habits, makes people homosexual or whatever. A friend of mine asked me to listen to the Chinese national anthem to see if it had any elements of western rock music in it, and after listening to a lot of the world's national anthems (and especially those of communist countries), I realised that the Chinese anthem was the only one that had a real rock rhythm to it... I decided to make something good out of it.
"One of my most used sources is from the short-wave radio, or I could get inspiration from some kids. 'Hit Hit Flop Flop', on the new album, was just me going out to the beach and asking some kids to say 'Hit Hit Flop Flop'. I got them into the studio, tried to get them into the rhythm — which is quite difficult for kids of about ten — and recorded those words maybe 200 times. Of those recordings, you may have five which are usable. So the kids go home, and it's up to me to access the data and decide which of them is good.
"What I like, practically speaking, about working with other people, is letting people do just what they want to do. I don't want to get another musician into the studio and say 'do this' or 'do that'. I like to set up an atmosphere that enables somebody else to do something that suits us both. And then he can make as many mistakes as he wants... And after that, he can go home. Then it's up to me to access the data he has input, and start working everything out."
And it's that stage, the "working out", that takes place on Czukay's venerable Telefunkens. As he's mixing, processing, remixing and re-recording, however, he has no particular goal at which to aim, nor any pre-conceived notion of what he may be able to achieve.
"I never allow myself the luxury of having pre-conceived ideas. Because if you have those ideas, you have to follow them through to a certain extent. You tell me: how can you be spontaneous if you have to follow some kind of pattern? Your hands are tied. You should make music clearly, freely, and with plenty of life. Then start thinking about what you have done, and what you may do with it.
"I start questioning my music after it has been created. And the system I have with these machines enables me to question everything I do. Let's say I have a guitar solo, 20 of them. I can do 20 different mixes, make notes about them, and then make the final mix as a result of listening to all of them.
"At this stage I still have no idea of what I am going to do. It's important to start off with a completely empty head. This time, the last thing I put down was the voice of Sheldon Ancel. He is a radio announcer for the Voice of America in Germany. He's someone who has musical talent, but who was completely inexperienced at making music. He integrated perfectly, even after all the rest of the mixing was done. It was only then that I thought about having a singer at all, not before."
But if Czukay starts out on his road to composition without any ideas, how does he know when he's finished?
"Quite simply, when I have no more questions to ask. And actually, that's something that happens quite quickly. You find that you have done a load of recording and mixing and processing, and suddenly, that's it — no more questions spring to mind.
"So you have your finished product, though you can do a counter-check — which is to listen once again to everything that you've thrown away, and compare that with your finished product. Do that, and you soon start asking questions again.
Which is all very fine and cosy and intellectually satisfying, but not, all in all, terribly democratic. This is just Holger Czukay, remember, taking the work of other musicians, and blending it with his own until he is satisfied with the result. Doesn't he ever ask anyone else's opinion?
"Oh yes, always. I have one golden rule, which is: 'I am the Lord my computer, and I shall have no other God but me". That's while I am actually in the process of recording and mixing and processing.
"But then, when I have my finished product, I always get other pairs of ears to listen to it. That can take another month or two, to play the music to other people, to get their opinion, to feel what they feel, and to go back into the studio and ask yourself: was he right about that?
"When that is over, you can say for the first time that your product is ready for the public. Not before."
WELL, HOLGER CZUKAY obviously didn't ask this member of the public for his opinion of Rome Remains Rome before declaring it a finished product. For although it contains the germs of several great ideas and offers a couple of real gems (more of which later), the overall sound is confused, fragmented, and altogether too deliberately "whacky" to really succeed. On this album, it seems, Czukay is wearing his eccentricity very much on his sleeve.
The first gem of a track is 'Blessed Easter', a sleazy, downbeat rock instrumental, overlaid with a recording of Pope John Paul II singing his Easter greeting to the world, backwards, forwards, and in a variety of different languages...
"The Pope just appeared on the television one day", Czukay recalls. "I was listening to him, and I suddenly realised what a good singer the Pope really is. I heard that he had actually done some concerts in Germany that were a terrible flop, but that he was selling a lot of records. It suddenly became obvious to me that all he needs is a good band. So I decided to help him, and provide a band of my own creation."
After 'Blessed Easter' comes the second gem, 'Sudetenland' — a more anarchic track that laces cuts from 4AD's Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (an album of Bulgarian vocal music released in the UK last year to considerable critical acclaim) in and out of some wild percussion-playing and Jah Wobble's nonsense vocal wittering. Curiously, Czukay denies taking the Bulgarian voices direct from the disc.
"That track happened the other way around to 'Blessed Easter'. We were creating a rhythm without really knowing anything about where it was going or what we were doing. And suddenly, on the short-wave radio, there were the Bulgarian voices, just waiting to fit in.
"The voices are chopped about and edited an awful lot. Then again, on the other hand, you have to retain a form that is understandable, and so they are totally in synchronisation all the time. The rhythm we created was quite complex, but that is one reason why these Bulgarian voices fitted so well. The Balkan people are born rhythm-makers, as are the Turkish people. Everyone says rhythm was born in Africa, with the drums and so on, but actually the Africans got it from the Arabs."
For the rest of the album, Czukay seems content to pursue two themes that have pervaded his work since before the premature death of Can. The first is his preoccupation with traditional polyphony (by which several melodies are interweaved in the classical tradition to create chords, rather than block chords being created on one instrument), and the second is his assertion that rhythm, not melody, is the key to successful music.
"Rhythm is a digital language, like a morse-code language", he says. "It does not require great frequency-response for people to understand it. You can broadcast it over a telephone line, which is one of the worst sound systems there is, and it can be understood perfectly at the other end. It can pass through all systems.
"That's why people can latch on to a groove easier than they can latch on to a melody; the groove is easier to communicate. You can have rhythm without melody and it is still understandable. You can have melody without rhythm, also, but as soon as you create melody without a groove, you start to lose the gift of making music."
CLEARLY, THOUGH, THIS particular composer isn't about to lose the gift of making anything. At the time of our meeting, his much-publicised collaboration with David Sylvian was due to be extended to include a separate album release (the material is already there, according to Czukay), while on a slightly bigger scale, Karoli, Liebezeit and company are preparing for a Can reunion, which should also result in some vinyl output before too long.
Busy and influential he may be, yet Holger Czukay isn't about to invade the singles charts I mentioned at the start. Alas, his brand of music is simply too idiosyncratic to make the national airplay listings, even if small groups of musicians mutter quietly about every note he plays.
"Of course I am never going to be communicating to a mass audience. I see no point in making any concessions towards that; it would be completely stupid. On the other hand, it would also be very stupid for me to say that I am making my music only to satisfy me, and that nobody else could understand it because it was very personal to me.
"But one of the great fallacies of the rock business is that people who have hit records think they are influencing a lot of people. If somebody has a No. 1 hit record in the UK and the record sells two million copies, then what is two million people against the five billion there are in the world, or the one billion that there are just in China?
"My music lasts longer than most hit records, it gets better with each play, and my music stays with me. I am just as capable of making music now as I was 15 or 20 years ago. Many superstars have just one or two years when they can make music, then the pressure gets too much and suddenly they can't do it any more. I have the luxury of knowing that will never happen to me..."
Interview by Dan Goldstein
Previous article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!