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Weird Science

Holger Czukay

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.

Holger Czukay in his home studio.


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.

AHEAD OF HIS TIME



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."

NO PLACE LIKE HOME



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.

Can Studios, near Cologne.


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."
DAVID SYLVIAN


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."

DICTATORPHONE: THE CZUKAY SAMPLER

Turning editing and sampling into as much of a way of life as experimentation, Czukay spent almost three decades cutting and pasting pieces of tape. He sees editing and completely revamping other people's music as a valid way of creating art, as long as the results are unrecognisable to the original performers. "In the past I have mixed and edited things for other groups, and they often complained that it wasn't them anymore, to which I used to say 'good, that means the author's rights belong to me!'" (laughs loudly).

Conventional tape recorders, tape and razor weren't Czukay's only sampling tools. He became famous, and has often been invited to sessions, for his usage of the Dictaphone, or 'dictatorphone' as he affectionately calls it.

It's a 1950s IBM212 machine, about the size of a shoe box, with a very wide 3-inch tape loop running around a magnetic head. The head moves from the left to the right, putting the signal on tape in a spiral fashion and enabling the recording of about 20 minutes of sound. Designed for the secretary, it has a volume knob, varispeed, morse key, and last sentence repeat function.

"It looks a bit like a Cadillac! The dictatorphone is simply an analogue sampler. If you were into the idea of sampling, you could have done it already 20 years ago. You can move the head around any way you want, and blend tracks together. It's like a super synth — you just have to know how to record these spirals and always be aware of what's on tape. Of course it has it's own, lo-fi sound quality."


DAVID SYLVIAN ON HOLGER CZUKAY

David Sylvian has worked with Czukay since 1983, when the German featured on Sylvian's first solo-album, Brilliant Trees. Since then the two have worked together regularly, most notably on instrumental works like Sylvian's limited edition cassette Alchemy — An Index Of Possibilities (1985), and the two CDs they wrote and produced together, Plight & Premonition (1988) and Flux & Mutability (1989). The latter two albums were recorded in Czukay's Can Studio near Cologne. From the USA, where he was working on a joint album with Robert Fripp, to be released this Summer, Sylvian commented on the German's anarchic working methods. He says that capturing unself-conscious performances lies at the heart of Czukay's approach to recording.

"Very often he'll be recording something that you're playing without you knowing that the tape machines are in record. You're probably just dabbling, playing around with some ideas, and he'll record these little snippets and either fly them into a finished piece or use them as a motif for a composition.

"When Holger first described this way of working to me, I thought that a musician must know when he's being recorded and that he would, at that moment, become more self-conscious about his performance. But I found this to be totally untrue. When I was with Holger in the studio there were times when I was playing and thought: 'this is pretty good and I'm sure he's putting this down.' Inevitably he wasn't. And at the times that I got terribly lost in whatever I was doing, just kind of dabbling, he would record me. It's amazing how well it works for the music."

The Can Studio is, according to Sylvian, integral to Czukay's ways of working: "There are instruments set up all around the room, and everything is miked up and more or less ready to go. The studio has a very home-like atmosphere, and most musicians will kind of drift into that space and will find themselves sitting down at one of the instruments, be it a guitar, an organ, a harmonium or some percussion, and that's when things begin. Holger would often help create an atmosphere, for example by playing back pre-prepared loops of radio frequency noises. This had a very calming effect for a particular piece we were working on."

Sylvian agrees that Czukay's approach to experimentation isn't particularly encouraged by MIDI equipment. "MIDI offers many opportunities, especially for live performances, but it's also terribly organised. It can be restrictive if you rely on it, if you get sucked into its way of working, rather than make it adapt to your way of working. I would say a lot of the best musical ideas come out of rather makeshift circumstances, where you have to overcome certain technological obstacles, or where you break the rules. That's where a lot of interesting things begin to happen. Holger is an expert at creating and exploiting such circumstances.

"His approach is totally idiosyncratic, because he's built up a knowledge of technology that's completely his own. Some of the things that he would look for in a recording would be considered technically wrong by other engineers. They would say: 'you can't do that because there's a hum coming from over there' and so on. But for Holger that hum would be part of the music. Or when he worked in Can Studios he would mike up a piano and run tape loops through the speakers, which would obviously be picked up by the piano mikes. The crossover didn't bother him, because the performance is, for him, inseparable from the whole. His whole approach is very organic. It comes from a totally different way of looking at music and sound."


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Drawmer DL441


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Sep 1993

Interview by Paul Tingen

Previous article in this issue:

> Sound Bites

Next article in this issue:

> Drawmer DL441


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