Michael Karoli on Guitar Improvisation
We interview the legendary improvising guitarist from German rock band Can
The influence of Germany's legendary improvising rock group Can on progressive music as a whole has been incalculable. From their foundation in 1968 to their temporary suspension ten years later, the band showed how a conventional-sounding line-up of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals could be made to produce amazingly innovative and emotive music. During this time their guitarist Michael Karoli contributed greatly to the energy and expression of the band's music, and in the recent past he's been working on solo projects which promise to be equally interesting.
With the release of a new album of material from the very early Can archives and these solo projects in mind, Mark Jenkins interviewed Michael in London on the history of Can, his guitar techniques, and his future plans.
Michael Karoli was born in Straubing, in Lower Bavaria, on 29 April 1948. As a child he took violin lessons for six years, then took up the banjo at eleven and guitar at thirteen or fourteen. He went to Lausanne University in Switzerland, returning after 4½ years at Holger Czukay's invitation to join Can.
"At the time I was playing what was going then — Dixieland! That was the popular music of those days, and the step from violin to tenor banjo had been very small — the left hand is practically the same. I hadn't studied guitar much — I'd studied a little law!
I was into jazz and before the Stones I was actually totally uninterested in rock. In the sixties it seemed to be getting more interesting, and nowadays I hear the older stuff with greater pleasure, but then I was really into jazz. The next step after jazz was actually Can! I made practically only jazz music before then, and I'd met Holger and we stayed in touch because we were both very interested in avant-garde jazz.
"Holger was a music teacher at the time, and although I never had regular music lessons with him I asked him to show me some tricks on the guitar. I wanted to form an avant-garde jazz group with him, and then Irmin Schmidt apparently rang him up to say he was forming a rock group so I went along. Otherwise I had been thinking of becoming a dance musician playing in bars because I couldn't get on with law."
The early days of Can are captured on the recent Spoon release, Delay 1968. I asked Michael how much preparation had gone into the pieces, and whether there was any unreleased material prior to this, since the band's sound already seems well established on the album.
"I liked the Stones really for the energy in their music..."
"These were the very first things that Can ever did. The four of us had done a film soundtrack, then Desi (Malcolm Mooney) came along — Hildegard (Schmidt, Irmin Schmidt's wife and manager of the band) had met him singing in Paris and invited him to come to Cologne, and the first day he came we did Nineteenth Century Man and Father Cannot Yell. That was the original version, not the one on Monster Movie, we played it again because it was too chaotic the first time and the sound was very bad — I probably still prefer the first version although I haven't heard it for ages. All the pieces were done in one take, with the exception of Star of Bethlehem which had one overdub. We didn't even put chords together in advance, although Thief was for a film and it's almost Holger's song — most of what I play on that is what Holger sang to me first. Malcolm put the words on as he felt."
After getting used to the idea that all the early Can music was improvised, the next important concept is the technical level at which the albums were produced. The studio in the Castle Norvenich was equipped only with two Revox 2-tracks, with Holger Czukay acting as highly imaginative recording engineer. Surely 'Soon Over Babaluma', with its multiple layers of drums, string effects and sequencer like percussion patterns needed at least a 16-track studio?
"No, 'Landed' was the first album done on 16-track after we moved the studio to a converted cinema. We did 'Soundtracks', 'Tago Mago' and 'Babaluma' in 2-track, as well as 'Monster Movie'. 'Monster Movie' is much more serious and refined than 'Delay 1968', there's much more work during the making of the music although it was done with the same equipment, in the same place, and in fact at the same time — parts of 'Delay' were made in between sessions for 'Monster Movie'. Work for film soundtracks was more or less keeping the band going, Irmin already worked in this field and got us a lot of jobs. But however refined the music became on 2-track the problem was always with balance. For me to play well I needed the guitar to be a little softer than what would be good on the record, so most of the guitars on 'Babaluma' are too soft because we had no way to make a different mix afterwards — it was all recorded as we did it."
I asked if the band ever felt limited by their unsophisticated equipment. "No, because the limitation is the most creative thing; Holger would probably have done less well with better equipment at that early time. That's why there are still people who think that the 2-track work of Can is better than the 16-track; it was through limitation that the strong atmosphere came."
"Can music was always a war between musicians..."
Interestingly enough the incredible effects of tracks like 'Vernal Equinox' and 'Chain Reaction' were achieved without using synthesisers. "We never used synths until the very last records. 'Vernal Equinox' uses a ring modulator applied to Irmin's piano and organ; a synthesiser allows you to get a very large number of sounds from which you can choose, but Irmin's idea and everyone else's was to take an instrument with a certain sound and to change that sound into something else. That's more creative, again because of limitations; using a synth is too easy, you just turn a switch and you get a completely different sound. The Alpha 77 unit we used wasn't a synthesiser, it was a sound modification unit built to Irmin's specification. We used its ring modulators on the guitar and bass, and it also produced flanging which was really a fault in the machine; it used a tape under tension for echoes and it tended to slip a little. Many of the effects in Can music came about that way, which is still for me more interesting and more creative than intentional things."
By this stage Can were used to playing and improvising live, having made their first radio broadcast on WDR Cologne as early as 1969 and their first TV appearance at the Beat Club, Bremen in 1970. "We never went out to play pieces exactly. For a while we played 'Paper House' or 'Mushroom', but although the themes were the same the pieces actually weren't. There was never any 'head arrangement'. 'Head arrangement' is a jazz thing, all rock music has always used it but we didn't. We have never said, OK, we'll make two choruses with singing and then up comes a guitar solo and then the next solo. The idea of solos was out. All of us have kept this old concept, which is definitely valid, that firstly one doesn't do the same things twice, and secondly that every moment makes its own music, and it's still only the music of the moment that interests me."
With such a demanding form of creating music, some tension was inevitable. This partly contributed to the splitting up of the band in 1978. "Can music was always a war between musicians, a musical war. It was strategy between the musicians, that's why it remains very true music. It was what you might call composition by action and reaction, and with all the emotions. It doesn't just use violent noises because we wanted to make violent noises, but because somebody felt so violent that he made those noises, and somebody else would react to it." Michael's guitar style, then, had to feed off the other musicians' styles as they were feeding off him, both live and in the studio. "My guitar sound is defined by a kind of feedback system. It's all very subjective, but I find interesting music works best if it's based on this kind of system, that's why I don't like pre-arranged music. On stage there is the musician and the instrument, the public and the other musicians. The direct chain would go equipment, ear of the musician, brain of the musician, hand of the musician, instrument, and back to the equipment. The best music for my taste is when the brain is short-circuited and what goes into the ears is automatically put, transformed again, into impulses from the hand into the instrument, without thinking about it.
"I haven't really ever practised in my life..."
"If there are other musicians involved the only difference is that the signal that comes back is multiple. If there's a new tone — and Holger has a habit of playing new tones in a completely different harmony — what do I do? It's very quickly realised by the ear and the hands if the sound's any good or not. and how long I should keep holding a particular note. If the public is there you have to listen to them as well. They also form a sound, and if there is a jet plane flying over that forms a sound to which I have to react. If I don't react it means I haven't heard it, which means it's a limitation of my capability."
If Michael never used prearranged music with Can and avoided rehearsal, I wondered how he had gone about learning keyboard technique for his more recent projects. Had he sat down at the piano learning chords and scales? "No, never like that. As a musical concept I tend to play only what is easy for me to play anyway, also on guitar I've never tried to play anything which forced me to practise. I haven't really ever practised in my life — I think generally people do practise guitar a lot, but I've always found it's dangerous to do that and I see the proof everywhere. Rising technique usually means originality sinks — I've never seen a case where that isn't so. The only solution is to let your style come from within yourself naturally, but if you do that you never want to practise. Practising what you can't play is exactly the wrong thing to do."
Michael's style is certainly well-defined, and is probably displayed at its best on the epic 'Oh Yeah' from 'Tago Mago'. On this track his guitar alternates between glassy rhythm chords and screaming lead lines without a moment's hesitation. "That was the distortion pedals, exactly the same ones I'm using now. There's a very old Schaller Wah-Wah, and a Big Muff distortion box. I've never used any special amplification, I think it is very important for a musician of quality to be able to play on whatever equipment is at hand. If you play with your ears any instrument will do. I'm getting even more radical in these beliefs because I've found that people have to play their special instrument and if asked to play another one they have a problem. Having said that I did have a very special guitar once, a Stratocaster; I bought it because Jimi Hendrix used one, although he wasn't a great musical influence, and I liked the longer neck because it gave a more 'twangy' sound somehow. It was stolen after a gig in 72 or 73; before that I had a Framus and a few others, which like the Gibson Les Paul I found less powerful because it had a shorter neck.
"It seems to me that in my playing I have always done two things — one that gradually builds up, like a plane running up, and then when it's really moving the other, which is stepping on the distortion pedal and taking off. But when it did take off it wouldn't go into a solo as such — I don't believe in solos! With Can instead of it being collective improvisation it became collective composing, because the composition took place during the playing in all cases, including on stage. Pieces were newly composed each night around the same theme; I never got tired of this because one could do anything. If, for instance, we played 'Paper House', what was fixed was the rhythm and the key and nothing else, and the real happenings like an acceleration or some climax either happened because we felt like that, or they didn't happen.
"Can music was a very good mirror to life — you were very dependent on luck..."
"My main influences come from piano players such as stride players, or from whole bands. I've never really been into 'guitar playing', more into the guitar as a means to make music generally. I was very much into polyphonic playing, so I never used to use a plectrum except on banjo."
I asked whether the increasing need for musical and technical sophistication had begun to signal the end for the band from the days of the later Virgin albums to their final offering, 'Can'. Was this intended as a farewell album? "Yes, that was actually the breaking up of Can. On 'Saw Delight' Holger was taking more of a back seat, there was a new bass player (Rosko Gee of Traffic) who he'd brought along and Holger was happy to do a lot of other things he wanted to do. Everybody enjoyed playing with Rosko and because he didn't play anything else we had him play bass. But the next album 'Out of Reach' was different, it was very uncomfortable. The whole thing had changed, Rosko's experience as a musician in English studios was one factor. It wasn't because of technical things that we felt the band was changing, we were always quite happy to use any technology at all. It was group dynamics that had changed."
"By the time of the last LP the group had new members who came from a world where a piece is written by one person and the person who has written it gets the credits and the money. Can when it was really Can has always rejected that idea totally. Single characters making their own music was all that was left, and on the last album everybody went their own way, everybody opened up and did things that possibly they wouldn't otherwise have done. I'm just talking about a general feeling, not specific pieces. For instance, on one track I put a short wave radio sound which was later vocoded by the voice — or which later vocoded the voice, whichever you say! — and the whole thing became really personal and all ideas of being commercial were dropped. It was clear by then, Holger having left, that somehow the band didn't exist any more."
"Limitation is the most creative thing..."
After the breakup of Can Michael went to live in a remote valley where he has a recording studio in his house, and occasionally flew to Cologne or Switzerland to help on Irmin Schmidt's film soundtrack music. Over the last few months he's been working on a solo album, with lyrics and vocals provided by an English girl who as Polly Eltes appeared in The Moodies, a musical/theatrical review group of the mid-70's.
"The solo album represents a new musical style for me, although if compared to Can it'll probably be most like 'Tago Mago'. It will probably have seven tracks, each based on a one-off improvisation, so later comes the moment when each idea has to be clarified and made apparent. The weight is equally on guitars, keyboards, saxophone and drums, so everything's new to me except the guitars. I'm not using any synths now except for the Wasp; I had a Prophet for some time and I did a lot with it, but I find an atmosphere is a delicate thing, and if you have a machine where you turn one control and everything changes, you can't really create an atmosphere. You can't match an acoustic sound like a splash of water on synthesisers anyway.
"I'm only very reluctantly using digital delays in mixing the album such as the AMS. I'm used to tape echoes, which are more alive because of the distortion. In order to perceive an echo you have to have deterioration in the sound, otherwise it's simple repetition, and if necessary you have to put it in artificially. I use the valley for natural echo; all the saxophones are played outside, even in the deepest winter so my fingers and the keys started freezing. Towards the end of the piece there are more and more wrong notes, but that's good! I prefer that.
"I have a nice 16-track recorder and desk, but I don't have a dead sound in the studio so it's no good for mixing. It has a strong ambience and if you play back in the same atmosphere you make mistakes. I mixed once with virtually no drums, for instance; we've remixed everything in London and hope to obtain a UK release — otherwise the album may come out on Spoon as an import. I think times are hard over here, especially for music that is a little unusual. It's a question of timing — it's very clear that people will get tired of rhythm machines! I'm using them partly, a very old German 'army surplus' model, very nice sound. In the Can style I've used everything from electric violin to saxophone and frying pans, anything that produced a sound of some sort. I'm not good at writing words; I make music because I cannot convey my ideas other than by music, I cannot put into words the way I see the world. I can only put it into music; words are very one dimensional unless you're a poet, they can only state facts. That's why I'm working with Polly; we haven't decided yet what name the LP will be under though."
Michael explained that working for twelve hours a day for twelve years with Can was extremely tiring, and that the band produced at times more suffering than enjoyment for all its members. Finally, I asked him in the light of this comment whether his solo projects were intended to express ideas that wouldn't fit in with the Can concept?
"No, it's quite different. I've gone away from the city and I've done something totally by myself, with perhaps some influence from the pop world but with as unorthodox an approach as my own concept of Can. By the end of Can the spirit of the group had left and died, or rather it had gone underground because it couldn't 'happen' any more. I guess we'll bring out something again, that there will be a new Can. We all just needed space to work apart for a couple of years."
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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