The Holger Boatman
Mad genius, or just mad? Holger Czukay discusses real musicianship, elephants and God's first law of computing with Tony Bacon.
HOLGER Czukay manipulates sounds and puts them on tape. He used to be in Can, the early 1970s band of German psychedelicists, where he did similar things in a group set-up. Now he's keen to work totally alone.
"I am a real musician," Czukay confirmed during a flying visit to England to promote his wonderful new "Rome Remains Rome" LP. His English is far better than my German. "I call myself a private symphonist, because I play everything. There is no instrument I don't play. There is not one deed that I don't do. That means I even sell the whole thing, there's nothing that is left to someone else. I have been so heavily criticised in the past that I said I don't want that any more, so now I take everything on my own."
Admirable. This self-sufficiency also gives Holger all the time he needs. And he needs a lot. "I work on an album for about two years, constantly." That's a long time. "Oh, it's a very short time. It is really short time. You keep going until you have no more sections to make. I am a good mother of my music — that means if the baby is ready, then it's ready, and you're finished. Up to this point you are pregnant. An elephant takes about two years, and a fly takes about one day or something. I'm more of an elephant."
Does he have anything else in common with an elephant, I wondered? "Oh yes, I have a very good memory."
Can Holger make the sound of an elephant, perhaps? "No... I'm not in the mood at the moment." All right then, what instrument would he choose to make the sound of an elephant? "Er, the horn. The French horn. But I'll play anything you want, it doen't matter what it is."
Maybe there's been an instrument that's surprised Holger lately? "Yes, the surprise was of course what I found out about the dictaphone. It is the fastest computer in the world. Faster than any military computer. It's a very ordinary dictaphone, the one that is made for a boss. All my life I wanted to become a dictator, so I got myself a dictaphone. I bought them all. I place all kinds of things on to my dictaphone, could be a French horn, could be a guitar, could be a kind of whistling. But you see you have to paint these three-inch tapes, but to paint them you have to know what kind of paint is in the neighbourhood of the other one. This is very important as the head runs over it and gets the information straight away, and you haven't any control with the fingers. So a little bit of sensibility is required."
At this point Holger told me that Can had reformed for some recordings in Nice last year, and hope to release something from the sessions later this year. It's the original lineup, including the fine, economical drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Jaki, explained Holger, is something of a secret weapon.
"Because you see the drummers," said Holger, "they live in the fear that they get unemployed by the drum machine. But not Jaki. Wherever he is, he can mentally destroy all the drum machines."
Could he give some examples, perchance? Once at Island Studios, Holger dutifully related, they were working with Jah Wobble and an American producer. The producer insisted Jaki play along with a Linndrum. Jaki was not enthusiastic for this line of rhythmic interplay.
"Suddenly he stopped playing," Holger remembered, "and came into the control room. He was crying, 'If this machine wants to fuck me up, I fuck up the machine.' And from this moment on the Linndrum machine was unrepairable — that means it didn't keep any tempo. They tried to give it away, but it was impossible. The company couldn't repair it any more."
Quite so. And another time, while recording a Whistle Test when still together in Can during the days, no doubt, of Whispering Bob, Jaki put the mockers on a BBC gadget. Holger insisted that this gadget was a chronometer. "It's kind of a watch, a big metal thing," he elucidated, "it measures time, the seconds. These machines have a run-up of about 20 seconds until they are stable. So just in the last seconds I think the organ player said, 'Can we stop for a moment, there is something not right.' And then they said from the BBC, no, no, go on, the chronometer is running. And Jaki got so angry here, that from that moment the chronometer stopped immediately. It stopped."
Holger then complained to me about the computers being on strike. You know, the computers in mixing desks. "You cannot tell them, 'I want to have in my mix the first minute, and then the fifth minute, and then I want to go into the third minute,' the computer doesn't understand that. When you work like that you have to edit, you can't use a computer. But in the old Latin terms that is 'compute'. I don't know if you know the first law of God: 'I am the lord your computer, you should not have any other computers beside me.' That'a a new interpretation of the old law."
I see. Religion now. On "Rome Remains Rome", the sleeve tells us: "We were blessed by the appearance of his holiness popestar wojtyla and his swinging nuns during the easter ceremonies", a reference to the sampled sound of, yes, the actual pope on a track called 'Blessed Easter'.
How come, Holger? "I found out that the pope has a very good voice. That is for sure. He is a serious person, whatever you might think about him. I found out that he sings best when he is praying. And so I got him in the state when he is praying all the time. He couldn't sing that way in the studio, you know, as he does in a live performance. He is in a special state when he is giving a live performance, and that is all right. I am getting interested."
Has Holger ever invented anything, I wondered? "Always I do. If you are a creative musician you can create weapons if you are forced to. You know, defence systems. Something to do with being innovative; when you are, then you are. If music is your language, then that's it. Weapons are a strange thing, for sure, but they are created."
What was the last weapon he'd created? "It was a kind of anti Cruise Missile system." Trust Holger to give you just what you need. See you again in two years, mate.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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