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Holger Czukay Interview

Holger Czukay was a key figure in the seminal German band Can. Formed in 1968, they were in many senses a product of the creative social and cultural conditions of the time. They were a rock group who were able to avoid rock's cliches because of their members' varied experiences. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit had a free jazz background; keyboard player Irmin Schmidt had a contemporary classical background performing and conducting works by composers such as John Cage, and Morton Feldman, and composing for theatre, film and TV; whilst Michael Karoli had studied gypsy music and worked in dance bands. The group had a powerful organic chemistry and a clear dedication to experiment. Holger's role in the group was as bass player (which he dropped in 1976 in favour of short wave radio, telephone, tape recorders, etc) but also, crucially, as engineer and editor, spending hours turning the group's extended improvisations into finished songs.

At the end of the 80's, a renewed interest was inspired in the group with a CD reissue series on Mute records alongside a calculated reformation of the group for a one-off album. A spate of retrospectives was inspired and the history of Can's legacy of influence (This Heat, Buzzcocks, The Fall, PIL, Loop, Main, etc etc) uncovered.

Holger's solo work has been just as interesting, (a couple of questionable ambient albums with David Sylvian apart), developing the idea of painting with sound through editing and pursuing a music which has a visual character. Much of his work is infused with an infectious playfulness and is buttressed by the work of guest musicians such as Jaki Leibezeit and Jah Wobble. This interview took place shortly after the release of his latest album, Moving Pictures, on Mute.

There are tales of you repairing radios and TVs when you were at school ...

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I didn't know if I wanted to become a technician or a musician. And when you are so young you think the one has to exclude the other. So in the very beginning I thought I am sort of a musical wonder-child, and want to become a conductor and that was very very serious, but there was no chance to get educated as I was a refugee after the war. And then, suddenly, electricity. Electricity was such a fascinating thing - it was something. And then I became the boy in a shop who carries the radios to repair them and carries them back again. That was so-called three-dimensional radio, before stereo. There was one front speaker in the radio and at the side, there were two treble speakers which gave an image of spatial depth. I must say these radios sounded fantastic.
And by that time I learnt how to establish the Can studio, for example. For the first time we didn't build up a control room. So that the studio was more of a temple, like a church you could say. It was a room where more ceremonies happened than used equipment, you understand that? That was because we didn't know what direction we were going to go and it was our first time making records, whatever that is, and we have to find out our experiences. But the set-up of the studio was extremely, (chuckles), holy, (laughs). Everything what happened there was recorded straight, and edited later. It was the beginning of sampling you can say and that was at the end of the sixties.

And you were responsible for all the editing?

I was a bass player - I thought being the bass player of Can nobody will listen to the bass. I could hide myself quite good because I was afraid I was not good enough. So I could with one hand mix everything straight away and with the other one I can play bass. And if something was not right we cut out the mistakes like that. We did not need any multi-track machine and actually it was the best time of Can as everyone was responsible for the whole result. If someone was getting too loud - and there were no limiters or nothing - and disturbed the balance he has destroyed the upcoming album somehow. A special responsibility was required. And therefore I say it was more of a church or a place of rituals than it was a normal tone studio.
After a while we got a little bit successful, we had a hit and we bought a multi-track machine. It was 1975. More or less this was the beginning of the end of Can. Because of the multi-track the musicians thought they want to avoid any mistakes they want to get the best output they are able to do. That means it was not any more this sort of 'underground' idea. No, now suddenly a different programme started.
You were taught by Stockhausen for a while, that seems to have been more of an anti-influence than an influence.

It was at least a very important influence for me as I never intended to become a rock or pop musician. What I wanted to become was like from childhood on I thought I was a creative person. The best music which was classical music created by the composers. Therefore I went to Stockhausen as he was the most interesting person. Very radical in his thoughts. With the invention of electronic music he could replace all other musicians suddenly: that was not only an experiment; that was a revolution! I thought that is the right man, yeah? So I studied with him for about three years. Until I finally said, if a bird is ready to fly, he leaves his nest and that is what I have done.
And then I became a teacher at school and these pupils were teaching me about this rock or pop music or whatever that was, the Beatles, Hendrix and Stones and then suddenly of course, Velvet Underground. As well as Pink Floyd's album.
All the original members of Can seemed to come from non-rock backgrounds and yet it was a rock group.

It became finally a rock group, we didn't know if we really wanted to become a rock group, but suddenly, somehow we established a rhythm and found out that even a certain sort of impact we got out. And then the desire came, oh yeah, that might be something to interest us. We wanted to try out what can one really do somehow. More by a live concept than by a studio concept actually. And in this state Can started as total beginners. We forgot about what we have studied and we found out that it was very difficult for us all to reduce ourselves to such a limit to such a state where you could say that one tone of everyone was enough. And probably that was the reason how we somehow established a sound. You see if it was too chaotic everything and everyone plays what he has learnt then you disturb more the sound than you create it.
A lot of the original Can material arose as collective improvisations, which you would then go away and edit into finished pieces ...

This is the thing that makes us different from jazz musicians. You know, jazz musicians improvise and they are very proud of the fact that if they play good and they give the soul, they put everything into the music, they say that was it, goodbye. Rock and pop musicians think different, they say 'can I do it better?' and they say 'was that really necessary what I have done, to speak out everything, is it not better to hide something?' If you forget about these questions that follow, you just are a bad artist in this field. Some of your projects involve literally thousands of tape edits, it must be a very time-consuming process. Now you've moved into digital technology which must speed the whole process up.
Shall I tell you some times? Hollywood Symphony costed me two years working. Now Moving Pictures was four years with an interruption. I take time, I don't work in a hurry. If I feel tired I sleep. It even pays off because I don't need to be successful straightaway. We can all live by the income of the old Can records. I don't need expensive insurances. If I make a good album and the people understand it more in ten years or twenty years than now, this is my life insurance.
Can you say a little bit about Movies, because that was your first major solo project? You've already said it took two years to make. Can you say something about how it developed?

When I finished with Can that was such a pressure, suddenly I thought 'what are you doing now?' They have the multi-track machine, you are now alone. I knew that by the slow process of editing - that seems to me a sort of Manhattan Project - the project that developed the atomic bomb - that was sort of a such a nuclear thing, this editing process. I thought it was like finding out something about the DNA code, and cloning and making artificial people, Doctor Frankenstein. Suddenly he became sort of a humorous hero. And it was affordable. I bought Telefunken machines, like the BBC they were standing there, built for the rest of their lives and I've never had any problems.
And so I was at home, let's say I had the television on and had a bass and now I played to a film, something to go with the pictures. And then I listened back to that and said 'oh yeah, that was quite something, we take that' and this could be the first beginning of a piece.
This is what I have learnt: when you play make the first recording together as a group don't say anything really musically-wise, you understand that? Don't be too interesting, just make something which is so cool that you could do everything with it. But not interchangable. You have to reduce yourself and not give too much information about it. Because this would be the second step.
In Hollywood Symphony I played guitar but I couldn't really play guitar, but anyway I played and played and played and edited later what I played. And then I brought it onto multi-track and brought all the other things like a symphony.
And then I made eighteen final mixes. Even the tests, everything was recorded. I took it home and now with four editing machines, I made a sort of four colour print out of the whole thing. That means, here I took from this mix, quite good with the guitar, but it is far too loud over here, and suddenly you start becoming a sort of film maker. Films are made like that, you shoot the scenes and shoot it several times and later you put it together by these different takes, and this is the way I make my music. And suddenly I found out as well that the music creates a certain sort of vision, it has a visual character.
You've also worked with video and you made a video musical, Krieg der Tone (War of the Tones). Were those projects collaborations?

A film director called me up and said he had used my music for one of his films. It was a very cheap and very simple film, sort of a film academy. But I was completely surprised, how simple things he suddenly made such an interesting and such a wonderful movie. And the music fitted perfectly into that. Then I said as well I have made some videos and I would like to show you what I have done. And then he said, 'oh yeah, you have a sort of talent to be an actor' and then he called me up two months later and said I have a little role for you to be an actor. I became the main actor in the movie and made the whole music for it. And the musical was somehow based on my person actually. It was shown nationwide on German TV, and a version was made with English subtitles.
But also Can used to compose a lot of their material for soundtracks.

Yes. That kept us alive. You know a film composer, he usually has to watch a movie and this is, in my eyes, a big danger. He should better never see the movie. He should compose the whole thing being completely independent but someone should tell him the story. And this is what Irmin Schmidt, Can's organ player would do. He talked to the director, saw the movie, came to the studio and told us a story about it.
Recently I was invited to give a lecture at an Italian film festival. It was called, "To the musicians: How can I fire unneccessary musicians?" Ennio Morricone was there and he just shook his head, saying this man is absolutely nuts. Then I met him a year later and we had a dinner together and I played Der Osten ist Rot ("The East is Red") and showed the video and he said the unbelievable thing was that this what you say is even true. He was absolutely surprised by the result.
Stockhausen has a lot of complaints working with musicians, especially orchestra musicians, there are very very traditionally educated as you know, they are working far more by regulated times, when it is five o'clock we don't play one minute over five o'clock and this of course is disgusting, especially when it comes to modern music usually they are on strike.
I'm interested in the integration of the different... media, I suppose. You were saying that when you were young you thought that being a technician and being a musician would be two seperate worlds and you've managed to combine the two. And you're also working towards some sort of integration of music and film. I notice the last piece on the new CD is about cyberspace, which is where multi-media is heading, is that something you're interested in?

Yeah, I think music is as well a very artificial world. And this artificial world has sometimes saved somebody's life - getting too depressed for example - and sometimes changed his life. Especially when you are young you are so sensitive, music becomes such an important factor to your soul especially. Music is not the only language which is able to do that. And I don't want to say that the artificial worlds are only called game-hall playgrounds I think that it could be even more, possibly. At the moment it is like that, but it's the very very beginning. Everything which is somehow artificial is somehow fascinating as well.
You're in London to meet with a Hollywood film director...

John McBride called me up and he was a secret follower all the time of my music and asked me if I can do the soundtrack. Now we find out how we can manage it, arrange it. There should be something you can say where these things work perfectly together. This is what I'm looking for when I make videos, I make a lot of care with the pictures, how they really go together with the music. The film is just shot in Spain. It's called the Flemish Port.
You know that Alfred Hitchcock has made an album, Music to be Murdered By? There is an orchestra and he is talking, welcome, sit down in your armchair, feel and relax yourself and wait until the murder comes...
Tell me about the fashion show you're involved with.

And now I became top model on a fashion show. The fashion designer, she's a lady around fifties like me and she asked my wife to become a model to wear the clothes and so I asked if I can go on stage and what happens I arrange the whole music for the fashion show. There's even a sort of theatre action was involved the whole show. There was a sort of random action going on with murder with everything like that. "Hello I am the Murderer".
And so first I became a photographer who photographs the girls. And then I filmed it with a handi-cam. And then I looked up the pictures and decided this could be a very interesting video for All Night Long. And what better can you do with a camera than looking over the street to a showcase with the light on and something happens inside. And you get near with the camera between the clothes and everything and the girls are practicing how they are walking, and just take the camera along the ground and look only for the feet, and build up the video. And you can say this video doesn't cost me more than two pounds. John MacBride said his cheapest movie was $2,500. I said $2,498 more than mine.
The fashion show is coming in next May to England, to Liberty's, Regent Street. That was an unusual fashion show. You must have a completely different style of men and girls running around. It was good.
Are you familliar with the other people working with filmic music, for example John Zorn's Spillane and Barry Adamson?

Yeah, I know John Zorn but not Barry Adamson. And Brian Eno has done that before now: Music for Films. Music for imaginary films seems to be far more interesting than to make music for existing films. What I have done for example I have made a video out of a Hitchcock movie called Riff Pirates and it's a finished movie. And I like that to look to such a movie and say take the scenes and build up a video which fits perfectly. I did that for a piece on Radio Wave Surfer to find out how pictures which were meant to do something completely different worked suddenly as a video. It has to be the right music for that. Not everything is working. It is very very interesting for future videos I think. Because you are not only interpreting sight you are leading two worlds together again to become something melting into something else.
The current album is quite minimal, 'ambient' almost. It has been described as "gaseous" and has a floating, ethereal quality. What is the next album going to be like?

The upcoming album will be completely different. It will be far more a dance floor thing, far more rhythmically orientated. That interests me very much what's going on in the techno side at the moment. Even these days young kids do something half techno-wise, that means half played half being sampled but to be based on samples. It's an interesting development.
Interview by Phil England 1994.

Essential Discography

See The Can Book for full details.