Inside this German synth pioneer's home studio.
Holger Czukay's music is weird, wonderful and wildly uncommercial. Paul Tingen meets the mad professor of music.
You're sitting at home or in a studio, waiting for the ideas to come. You want to do something original, something slightly out of the ordinary, yet you can't think what. You've exhausted all your riffs and mannerisms, programmed all the different rhythms you know and thrown in countless weird modulations. In short, you've tried everything. Yet your music still sounds uninspired and lacklustre. Solution? Well, you could try spending a little time with the German maverick composer and musician Holger Czukay.
Czukay, filled as he is with abundant, childlike enthusiasm and wonder, overflows with ideas which range from the bizarre to the merely outrageous. Like getting a live drummer in and letting him play a track at low speed and then speeding the recording up to the desired tempo, EQ-ing it so that the playback sound is almost normal, but it feels like the track is floating lightly above the ground? Or what about playing and recording all your instruments at different speeds to playback speed so that guitars sound like ethereal mandolins? Or turning your radio into a synthesizer, lifting faraway and mysterious music and voices from the short-wave and building a track around them?
Apply any of these zany ideas, and chances are that you will come up with something new. It will surely widen your horizons and give you inspiration. Of course, the resulting music is likely to be wildly uncommercial. But you'd have fun making it.
Holger Czukay has found a simple solution to the problem of uncommerciality. He has elevated weirdness, quirkiness, eccentricity to an art form, both on a personal and a musical level. He exclaims, with a grin, "I think I would be the perfect A&R advisor for any record company. I'd simply say to them: don't sign anything I like. If you do that you're on the road to success!" Yet at the same time this 54-year old German has a profound sense of his value as a composer.
During our conversation Czukay explains that he's working on three new albums and that a fourth one, Moving Pictures, is already finished. He adds that he's currently without a deal — record companies are presumably already taking his advice to heart — but that doesn't appear to bother him in the least.
"Everybody thinks very commercially and few are interested in really new things. There was some interest to release Moving Pictures last year, but that was too early for me." Then, moving closer and lowering his voice: "I've always done that you know, I've kept several albums behind in the past. I make them, keep them at home and give them out five years later, because I know that they will still be 10 years ahead of their time!"
He laughs out loud here, aware that, though his records will never sell in large amounts, they are nevertheless influential. Among his admirers and collaborators are The Eurythmics, Brian Eno, The Edge, Jah Wobble and David Sylvian. He has worked with Sylvian extensively, and they released two albums together, Plight & Premonition (1988) and Flux & Mutability (1989) and have guested frequently on each other's solo projects.
Ever since he appeared on the German music scene in the '60s, Czukay has explored virgin musical territory. After following a classical musical training in Berlin — during which he attended some Summer courses with Stockhausen, whose emphasis on the importance of chance was a major influence on Czukay — he became bass player with Can, the avant-garde band who were part of the same German experimental wave which brought us Kraftwerk. Between 1969 and 1978 Can produced a dozen or so albums, full of extraordinary music ranging from the highly entertaining and challenging to the unlistenable, yet always pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible. (A good compilation of Can's work, called Cannibalism 2 [Spoon CD21] was recently released in the UK by Mute Records).
In 1979 Czukay went solo, releasing Movies (EMI), a milestone album containing the hilarious 'Cool At The Pool', as well as the breathtakingly beautiful 'Persian Love'. On the latter track he had Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit practising the drum part for two days at half speed, and EQ-ed it so that it sounded normal when played back at double speed. Why? "Why do things easy when they can be complicated!" comments Czukay. In any case, it gives the track a dream-like, gliding quality, as if it floats just one inch above the ground.
"That was exactly the point. Drums normally sound massive, and this was a way of making them sound lighter, without taking away the power of the groove. I often record drums at different speeds — make the tape go faster and/or slower in different places, and Jaki adjusts to that perfectly. The end result is that the drums will fluctuate in sound and feel throughout the track."
"I'm very happy that I'm such a bad player. The only reason punk musicians created something new was that they couldn't play."
Sampling and editing are two of Czukay's most important working tools. He also applied them to great effect on his subsequent solo albums. On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (EMI, 1981), The East Is Red (Virgin, 1984), Rome Remains Rome (Virgin, 1987) and Radio Wave Surfer (Virgin, 1991). Czukay stresses, proudly, that he was "the first to sample, even before samplers existed. I would go as far as to say that everything on my albums is sampled. But I did it all using tape."
Not surprisingly, Czukay's two studios are littered with tape recorders of all kinds. Can Studios, 20km outside Cologne, is a 48-track Dolby SR commercial facility. The other studio is in his home in the centre of Cologne, a 19th century house with 16 foot high ceilings, where he has turned the two front rooms into recording area and control room.
Czukay's home facility is as weird and wonderful as its owner. Probably every tape recorder he's ever bought is standing in a semicircle, in the middle of which Czukay works, sitting on a rug on the ground, with the recorders towering high above him like a New York skyline. Other evidence of unusual tastes are a double bass and a 1930s wheelchair, both graced with angel wings. The room is decked with all manner of weird photographs of Czukay, a 1950s, gold-coloured broadcasting table — including microphone, clock, gong and mute knobs — and a 7-foot antenna, which overlooks the piles of old and bizarre looking equipment.
Czukay announces with a grin that he's transferred virtually the whole contents of some of Cologne's former 1950's broadcast studios to his house. He explains conspiratorially that he got a lot of the equipment in 1979 from an undertaker, in return for the secret of eternal life and a specially adapted coffin. The undertaker happened to have piles of old radio equipment in his basement. "He was a freak," Czukay remarks, still relishing the memory.
Over the years Czukay has bought "everything that had to do with old analogue, valve technique" he could lay his hands on, professing that he likes the warmth of the analogue sound — "you can't measure it, but it's more pleasant to the ear".
Other bits of old broadcast gear lying around include tube amps, a self-cleaning patchbox, a 7-channel Rîhren mixing desk, Klein & Hummel monitors ("the best monitors ever made") and something called a Maihak W49 'airplay distorter', a filter device used for special effects in radio plays.
After concluding the tour of his "museum", Czukay suddenly exclaims loudly, as if to defy the idea that he's merely a retro-tech freak, "I work with both very old and very new equipment," and guides us to an Akai DD1000, placed right in front of his rug. This, he says, is now his main workhorse, on which he does all his edits and overdubs, replacing the razor blade and sticky tape he used in the past.
"I was a very fast tape cutter for over 20 years, but with the DD1000 I'm five times as fast. I record everything I do into the DD1000, I don't need a multitrack anymore. What I'm doing now is reminiscent of the way overdubbing was done on the 2-track recorders in the '60s, where you added your overdub with the stereo original onto another machine. I've worked it all out on the DD1000. I mix instantly when recording, and make sure that every 'overdub' has the final effect and EQ that it needs. I have a cue list of all the tracks, so that if I'm not satisfied with the result, I can redo the whole thing, laying the tracks onto a multitrack and synchronising them with time code. But the old studio way of overdubbing and mixing doesn't appeal to me. I do recording and mixing together in one go, which means I don't need a mixing desk anymore."
"His whole approach is very organic. It comes from a totally different way of looking at music and sound."
Czukay doesn't use MIDI and sequencers. It may be the reason why his records sound so radically different from most of the music produced today — most of his forms of experimentation would very difficult to perform with MIDI, although sample editing freaks could certainly try many of the same tricks. "I don't need MIDI for my way of working. I use time code and synchronisers in my work with video and I use the DD1000, and that's it. I can't play more than one instrument at a time, so there is no reason for me to use MIDI."
He is in full flight now, recounting half a dozen other inspired ways of doings things the hard way, easily: "These days a guitar player will, whilst recording, usually listen to the track he has to play guitar on. I don't do this. What I do is listen to the track beforehand, think of something to play, switch the track off, play the part without listening to anything, just by imagination and edit it back in."
But doesn't this create timing problems? The German smiles broadly, almost triumphantly, "But you are never out of time! Even if you'd play on the moon you can't be out of time, because you can synchronise everything in the way you want — digital and the DD1000 is great for that kind of synchronisation, even though I've also done it with analogue. You will see a big difference in the way you play things."
It is the element of spontaneity and surprise which Czukay is trying to capture when he plants musicians in his living room and secretly records them: "I do a lot of domestic recording, where people don't know whether they're in a recording studio or at a little party. One of my favourite ways of recording is to record people whilst they're not aware of it. Sometimes I'll have a strange, subliminal tone going in the background, to which people respond. You must look for situations where things happen by chance and not on purpose."
It's not surprising that Can Studios, Weilerswist, just South West of Cologne, is one of the recording world's more unusual facilities. Acquired by Can in 1971, and now co-owned by Czukay and engineer/producer Ren Tinner, the thriving residential studio is located in an old cinema. As in the large room of Peter Gabriel's Real World studio in Bath, there are no partitions between control room and recording area, the studio consisting essentially of one enormous space. Thousands of ex-army mattresses serve as sound proofing. Originally conceived to save money, the idea has grown into a way of recording. "There's no intercom, no separation between producer, engineer and musician. Everybody who is in the room is involved in the working process, so you can't have people making a telephone call or having a conversation whilst someone else is singing."
Years ago Czukay would engineer the Can sessions whilst playing bass at the same time: "We had a house of mattresses here to put the vocalist or someone playing an acoustic instrument in, and Jaki would also be sitting in the middle of a big mattress heap. The studio became integral to our way of working. We composed things together so it was natural to record them together. We used very simple setups, sometimes with one mic for three instruments, and played straight to stereo, so everyone had to play very controlled so as to not disturb the balance."
Can Studios is choc-a-bloc with all kinds of instruments, ranging from xylophones to ancient organs. They are another important source of creative inspiration, says Czukay. In his own home studio a Prophet VS is his only current synth, and there's also a pedal steel guitar and various electric guitars. Other studio gear includes a Roland TR808, a Lexicon LXP1, Korg Stage Echo, and Sony DPS-R7 reverb.
Czukay asserts that he's "very happy" that he's "such a bad keyboard player, bass player, guitar player and French horn player. You see, I cannot play more than two or three notes a second. It makes me very happy, because this is the basis from which I always have to start — the very beginning, which is the best place to start if you want to make something new. The only reason the punk musicians in the past created something new was that they couldn't play."
He describes himself as a "private symphonist," and can't define his first instrument but admits that not being able to play is "not a guarantee for making good music, but at least it's a start."
The symphonist cites certain developments in modern dance music as another example: "There are several good and exciting things in dance music of people starting something new, like Massive Attack or MC Hammer. They stole everything from everywhere, but that doesn't matter, it sounds good. They're good examples of stolen things becoming something new."
Czukay expresses his excitement about the "interesting new sound" of dance records. As a consequence he would like, he says, to choose his next collaborator from the world of dance music. "I would certainly want it to be a dance floor thing." And one of his three unfinished new ventures is dance music orientated.
The other two are collaborations, one with his girlfriend, the singer Ushe, and one with Jah Wobble. Czukay stresses that however much one experiments with chance and however useful it is not to be able to play an instrument, there's no getting away from the 'vision thing'. "When I edit things I splice them up into 1000 pieces — it's a kind of human digitalisation, splitting the music in small information units — and put it all back together again, under the condition that it has to sound better than before. When you separate and splice things you destroy something and if you don't have a vision as to where you want to go with it, if by the end it all sounds worse, or the same as before, then your work was in vain. It has to actually sound better."
Nevertheless, concludes Czukay, this shouldn't deter anyone from trying to re-invent the wheel once more, and risking making many mistakes along the way. "I'm sure that young people will start from scratch again with something that is not very perfect, but which is somehow quite rough and that will be a real start and create a movement."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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!