The Man Behind The Radio!
As a founding member of Germany’s pioneering electronic group, Can, and a former Stockhausen pupil, Holger Czukay has long been associated with the avant-garde electronic music scene in Europe. His past work includes collaborations with Brian Eno, the Eurythmics and David Sylvian, with whom he has recently completed a new album. Mark Prendergast reports.
On Holger Czukay's new album Rome Remains Rome, one can hear Pope John Paul II giving a multi-lingual Easter mass to a vast congregation in the Vatican as various noises, melodies and rhythms fight for your attention. Irreverent, humorous, exciting, unusual or original; whatever words are used to describe the music of Holger Czukay, he has managed to remain the enigma of European rock music - a thorough-going eccentric with one foot in the avant-garde and the other in the outer fringes of modern pop sensibility.
Born in Danzig 50 years ago, Holger nurtured strong musical ambitions as a child growing up in German-occupied Poland. "From the age of three it was clear that I wanted to become, somehow, a creative person with music - I mean someone who is where the music comes from, like a conductor. The Church was the biggest influence for me. Just after the war, when Germany was occupied, we were hungry little children, but I was always singing chorales in front of the American soldiers and so I got everything: sweets, chocolates, money, Coca-Cola, everything that I wanted."
After a period of doubt spent learning the guitar, Holger took a job working in a shop repairing televisions and radios. "My interest was always very technically based and I learned most of my technical things when I was working in that radio shop. I got paid two pounds per week and that was very good."
The major influence in Czukay's life came about when he attended a Karlheinz Stockhausen lecture in Duisburg in 1957. "He was talking about electronic music and it was very fascinating. The hall was full and everybody was laughing because the sounds were like toilets and like space, but unlike normal music. Suddenly a music teacher stood up and said: 'Mr Stockhausen, you do that only to shock us with these weird sounds and you want to make big money out of it.' Stockhausen answered: 'No, no, I really do it for the music because I don't need the money since I'm married to a rich woman!' Yes, a rich wife, that was for me the alarm signal to go the same way."
From then on Holger Czukay followed an academic musical training. During the early Sixties he studied at the Berlin Music Academy and learned the double-bass from the Berlin Philharmonic soloist, Zepperitz. Holger found it difficult to stay in any conventional music college and gravitated towards a summer course in Darmstadt, run by Stockhausen.
"I first attended his holiday courses there but then he came to Koln (Cologne) and took me on his courses for finished composers. He taught me how to have responsibility towards music, towards every single detail, and how to balance and evaluate it. With electronic music, he showed me how to build up forms. With Stockhausen, every decision had to be very strong and definitely based on the pure sense of music. The music that he made in the electronic studios of Koln could not be copied today, even with the highest technology. Uncopyable music - the digital fans would be very proud if they could achieve something like that. He had such a strong identity and was a very adventurous type of man. I mean he could see that calibrating instruments was a natural element of electronic music long before anybody else had even thought of it."
During his important years with Stockhausen, Holger also wrote some orchestral scores. His spare time was taken up with a dance music trio, The Jetliners, and developing his technique on guitar and accordion. In 1966 he ventured to Switzerland to teach "and look for a rich wife". Soon after, he returned to Northern Germany to do further lecturing and met Michael Karoli, a guitar player. Together with Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit and David Johnson they formed Can, and over the next ten years pushed the frontiers of electronic rock music beyond the abilities of most of their contemporaries.
Q: When I heard Can for the first time I nearly had a heart attack. The intense rhythms and driving structures of the album Soon Over Babaluma are quite unorthodox within the framework of Western rock music. How did you approach it?
"That was always a Can thing, the sense of rhythm and the groove, though we were never a born rock and roll group. Soon Over Babaluma was the last album done on straight 2-track, which meant that everything had to be played and recorded at the same time. There were only two dub possibilities, two copies, so everything had to be done with the entire group playing live. The group was responsible for the balance and the quality of sound, so no-one was allowed to go off on an ego trip. The discipline was very good for everybody."
Q: What was the most important thing that you discovered working with a group like Can?
"For me, the sense of innocence which everyone had, especially at the beginning. Our first studio was very simple - just a tape recorder and a microphone, and on this we recorded our first album. Later we had several microphones and a mixing amplifier. We started in a castle and later moved into a cinema. The most important thing about Can was the way everyone had to reduce themselves to a common point of music, so that we could function as a group-orchestra."
When Can attracted more ethnic musicians to their ranks in the late Seventies, Holger Czukay moved over to the electronic side of their music, incorporating short-wave radio broadcasts and pre-recorded tape segments into their sound. Eventually, he left Can and in 1977 recorded with Cluster and Brian Eno at Conny Plank's studio in Cologne. Plank became Czukay's primary adviser during the course of his solo career.
"Conny has the best relationship with the medium of production technology. He knows its secret. We discuss new instruments and work out if they make much sense. When I came across the Solid State Logic mixer for the first time, I thought it was a very stupid desk! Then Conny had to use this desk when he was working with Ultravox, and after that he came back and said 'What a horror!' You see, most of the time myself and Conny find out that most modern equipment is useless."
Holger's solo output started way back in 1968 when he recorded an ethno-electronic album with Rolf Dammers titled Canaxis 5. His next personal project was the post-Can Movies, which displayed a deep interest in multi-editing, ethnic colouring, and the humour of pop music. After some powerful percussive experiments with Jah Wobble and Jaki Liebezeit, Holger released On The Way To The Peak Of Normal, a suite of quizzical instrumentals that made him Germany's most likeable and respected rock musician.
"With that album I started with a guitar, and the frequency of the chords that came up sounded a bit homosexual! I had to build up a kind of DNA code so that the guitar was not played at all like plastic. It took me months to get down the guitar part for 'Ode To Perfume'. It was all done on a normal 2-track machine: one pulse code and one guitar playing. Then I went to the Can/Inner Space studio and copied it on to 16-track and asked Jaki Liebezeit to play drums."
Even though Czukay describes himself as a "real dictator" in the studio, his input has been much sought after in recent years. Such names as The Edge, The Eurythmics and more recently David Sylvian come to mind in a career that grows ever broader as he gets older. His involvement in a recording project can range from his distorting cassettes on an old IBM dictaphone to completely remixing a group's work to his taste. His views on producing are unorthodox to say the least: "I encourage people to make a lot of mistakes. I say to musicians that they are welcome - 'Go ahead, never mind what you play and don't worry about mistakes - make more mistakes if you like, it doesn't matter to me at all!' You see, you have to get everything out of a musician first in order to evaluate it later. People play for me only once and there are no second takes. I'm not interested in the kind of situation that demands perfect sound and I'm not interested in experts or routine freaks who play things over and over again."
Holger seemed to reach the height of self-indulgence on Der Osten Ist Rot, a 1984 album of peculiar cut-up noises which is the farthest away from melodic music that he has ever ventured. "It's really something you have to listen to a little bit. It's a kind of chamber music." The album seems to work better in terms of background ambience than direct listening, but the sheer volume of 'found sounds' on the record point to an unusual compositional style.
"In my private studio at home in Koln, I have a simple 7-channel desk with one mono and three stereo inputs. I have four valve radio/recorders cum amplifiers. These machines are perfect, the last of their generation. The tape deck I use is an M10, which is the best machine I know, with perfect tape transport. I work here on the short-wave radio inputs and then go to the larger Can studio, which has a Fairlight, 24-track deck, video synchronisation and an Optimix computer mixer - a French model. But you see, with the Optimix you do not have the access rate that I have on my four machines, because all the information is bound to the tape. You can't get it off unless you edit it and therefore I edit them like crazy."
Q: Are you cognizant of high fidelity when you are making a record?
"It's not really something which counts for me, even though all my recordings are always perfect quality. You can have very low quality sound inputs like the dictaphone, but to put them in the right position takes a certain skill and when it happens it can be a kind of nuclear ignition to the hi-fi sound."
Q: Does the reprocessing of old records for compact disc offend you?
"Not at all, I'm a fan of the compact disc. It gives you a chance to really hear the dynamics of music, and classical music was a real music of dynamics, so it makes a lot of sense. Crackles on records don't disturb me because I'm not a tasty person, but the CD I think is really good. The thing I would say is that the resolution of 16-bit technology is not enough, and it will not remain there. It's still too slow because when I make a digital recording with very short pulses that go round and round, the conversion process cuts off the very peaky pulses. There are so many frequencies that at present cannot be accommodated by CD. Analogue is still much better for these kind of frequencies. I can see digital recording and CD going to 24-bit."
Holger Czukay looks eccentric but behind the long, wavy grey hair and strange clothes lies an intellect of the first rank. On the subject of world music he contends: "In the Western world not a lot of interesting music comes out. In the Islamic and other non-industrialised countries, all the music is grown music, not somehow thought out but with a long history of development and settlement."
On his aforementioned Rome Remains Rome album and, more specifically, David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees and Alchemy projects, Czukay injects a kind of fundamental Third World characteristic into the proceedings which gives the results an addictive quality. "I'm interested in things from outside that bring a spirit into the studio. I mean, if something is really somehow vivid with the spirit, I think it's very good. David Sylvian is like this, a real artist. The Eurythmics I would regard as an excellent pop group because they don't bring the listener 'taste euthanasia' as many others do. Brian Eno has always been very, very good and, of course, I would like to work with Talking Heads. If you're talking about music to me, James Brown has always been the real emperor - he's the measurement, he's essential."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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