After changing the face of rock in the early 1970s with seminal metronomic anarchists CAN, keyboardist, composer and serial collaborator Irmin Schmidt embarked on a fruitful solo career that saw him compose music for numerous solo and albums, dozens of films and TV shows and even a fantastical opera adaptation of Melvyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a project he considers his magnum opus.

Much like the band’s omnivorous blending of jazz, rock, electronic and avant-garde classical music, Schmidt’s post-CAN output spreads itself far beyond genre definitions to encompass both the cutting-edge and the classically informed, from the haunting theme to the 1983 German TV drama Rote Erde, to the itchy IDM rhythms of his Kumo collaboration with drum and bass artist Jono Podmore, to the postcard romance of ‘Flavia Theme’ from Wim Wender’s Palermo Shooting. That legacy, a lengthy postscript to CAN’s well-documented run of soundtrack work, has now been collected on Electro Violet, a comprehensive 12-disc box set from Mute and Spoon Records containing Schmidt’s entire solo career from 1981 to the present day. Well, not entire – that would span over 100 film and theatre commissions plus the solo albums, the opera and the ballet. Instead there’s a more manageably condensed overview; opening with his first post-CAN album, 1981’s Toy Planet, the collection includes his six solo albums, including many collaborations with writer Duncan Fallowell, and six discs featuring work for film, including one final, previously unreleased volume.

Schmidt’s path to film music was a pragmatic one, he explains over the phone (in near-perfect English, save for the occasional Germanic turn of phrase including, delightfully, regular references to “making a music”) from his home in Provence. “It started when I was a student and I was making music for stupid short films, and it was just a matter of earning money,” he remembers. “And when we started with CAN we did film music. I had worked extensively in theatre, making music for drama, so I was already experienced when we formed CAN. [Composing for film] was a possibility to earn money, because in the beginning we didn’t have any and we needed to earn some. But then it started to be an interesting thing and there were good films to make music to, so I became interested to continue with it. Later when we toured a lot and made records we didn’t make lots of film music, but after we decided to work solo, I got the offer to make film music. So I made this film music all alone – Messer im Kopf, which means ‘knife in the head’, which was a very political film, a very good film – and I made this music for it and it became incredibly successful in Germany, so I got more and more offers.”

Famously, CAN’s 1972 single ‘Spoon’ was a surprise hit in Germany after it was used as the theme to a TV thriller, Das Messer. “But when I put the music on the film, the director was absolutely… well, he didn’t like it,” chuckles Schmidt. “He said, ‘I made a commercial film, and this is avant-garde. Nobody will accept that.’ So there was a big fuss and the boss of the film department had to decide, and he said, ‘Well, that’s wonderful! It’s something else, it’s totally new.’ So the film was shown with our music. ‘Spoon’ sold 350,000 singles in Germany and every newspaper wrote, ‘The best thing about the film is the music.’ So all of a sudden we were very famous, and we thought that was a very funny thing.”

CAN were among the first nominally ‘rock’ musicians to see their work used in film and television soundtracks, but it was by keeping their distance from the era’s standard rock tropes that a song like ‘Spoon’, a freaky hybrid of electronic jazz, wafts of prog-rock and tick-tocking drum machines, could bring the requisite alien quality to the screen, estranged from obvious sources and ideal for a fresh wave of German filmmakers keen to fill the country’s post-war cultural vacuum. Like many other German musicians making what British journalists began to refer to as krautrock – music emerging from communes and experimental venues, which augmented standard rock instruments with early synthesizers and drum machines for longform experiments influenced by jazz and the avant-garde – CAN were trying to create a musical language that didn’t look to America for cues; it had to feel European yet modern, divorced from the horrors of their parents’ generation.

“We grew up in a destroyed Germany, a country where even our culture was totally devastated,” says Schmidt. “It was very normal that after the war, after 1945, new things were important. New music and jazz and all these things were forbidden before, so they didn’t exist in this country, and culture had to be rebuilt. And a lot, of course, came from outside, especially from America, so it was quite normal that America had this mythical image of liberating German culture, bringing freedom and being this promised land. But we wanted to create something which was related to our own experiences, and we were not the only ones. So what we did was really something new, something German.”

Among Schmidt’s numerous films and TV projects (many of which are not currently available or have never been released internationally) are several soundtracks, both with CAN and solo, for Wim Wenders, who was also grappling with what it meant to make art after the war. “In the beginning, Wim made really German films – I mean, films which said something about German experience and history. But then he made these wonderful films in America with the eyes of a European – looking at America, which is different than importing and imitating. My first encounter with Wim was when he came to the CAN studio panicking, because he had found out that his film needed music only one or two days before the final mix. I was a good friend of his editor, Peter Przygodda, and Peter told Wim, ‘Can we go to the CAN studios? They will do you a music even without looking at the film. You go to the CAN studio, tell them your film, and then they will start on making a music.’ So for Alice In The Cities he came in the evening, and at six o’clock in the morning he had his film music.”

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“I like to work with other musicians, especially when I have the feeling that they know more than me”

Wenders returned to Schmidt and CAN many times afterwards, using their music in films including Lisbon Story, Until The End of the World and, most recently, 2008’s Palermo Shooting, with Schmidt’s score slotting alongside music from Portishead, Iron & Wine and Calexico (Lou Reed even has a cameo in the film). ‘After the screening I had this idea to use a Bach aria, but played by an accordion, and I said to Wim, ‘That’s my first idea.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was a very surprising idea, because the film uses a lot of pop songs – the main character has always earphones on and listens to pop songs – and the first time he has to take off his earphones is when he falls in love with a girl and he has to speak to her. So from when the story starts you need real composed music, and that was my music. And of course this music had to be totally different. I couldn’t make another rock music, which would interfere with the music he listens to in his earphones, so I made something totally different – very classical, but played by an Italian accordionist in the style of Neapolitan folk music, and that gave it a totally new atmosphere.”

Cherrypicked from his extensive catalogue of soundtracks, Electro Violet’s six volumes of music for film and television are just a sketch of the total material, and aren’t even fully credited for any listeners who want to know exactly which 70s German crime drama this or that piece was composed for. But for Schmidt, the lack of context is unimportant. “With CAN we only put film music on records [if it was] music in its own right, totally independent from the film. You don’t need to know the film. I mean, music always creates images in people’s heads. Of course in a film there are illustrating elements which are really connected to the film, but I don’t put those ones on record – I only put on record the music which actually is music in its own right.”

Much of Schmidt’s film music was recorded with CAN’s Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit, but while the players were often the same, the modus operandi was quite different. CAN’s approach was to take an idea and refine it by playing it over and over, so that the composition appears through playing. But writing for film was “quite different,” says Schmidt. “With every CAN piece, the composer is CAN – all four or five or six of us. But when I made Musk at Dusk and Impossible Holidays, or some film music with Jaki and Michael, then I really wrote a song. I said, ‘I want it in this rhythm, I want it like this,’ and then that was my song. Most of the time me, Jaki and Michael worked in total peace with the idea that this time it was Irmin’s song. Somtimes [with CAN] Jaki would dictate the rhythm, and since he is such a fantastic inventor – not only a drummer, but an inventor, a composer of rhythm – there was rarely an objection. But when it came to my songs on my solo record I didn’t always accept his rhythm. There is a song called ‘Love’ which has this kind of reggae rhythm, and it took me quite a while to convince Jaki that I didn’t want the rhythm he’d put to that song, and finally one day he put this very sparse rhythm to it and it was there, what I imagined, and it has a wonderful groove.”

“Music is not for relaxing. For me, relaxing is silence”

Another of his long-running collaborations is with novelist and lyricist Duncan Fallowell, who became friends with Schmidt after writing about CAN in their early days, and contributed all the lyrics to Schmidt’s solo albums Musk at Dusk and Impossible Holidays. Fallowell also turned him onto a book that was to form the basis of his most ambitious project. “One day he came up and said, ‘Read this,’ and it was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. That was at the time when everybody was discussing the Tolkien books, and we were both agreed that there is a quite fascist side to them, and I didn’t really accept Tolkien that much, like everybody else did. And Duncan came and said, ‘Read that, it’s so much better.’ I read it and then forgot it. Then one day, when I was here in Provence, I went to a quite famous healer who I visited if I had, say, a hangover or a headache from a hangover. She would put her hands on my head and I got better. One day she had her hands on my head and said, ‘Oh, you will write an opera.’ And I said, ‘No, I am finished with opera houses – I have done that and I don’t want to go back there.’ She said, ‘That would be stupid – it will be a great work you will do.’ And one morning, looking into my library, I saw this Gormenghast standing there. And it was a flash: ‘Shit, this is the opera!’”

For Gormenghast, which premiered at the Opernhaus Wuppertal in 1998, Schmidt decided to broaden his palette with the most cutting-edge electronics of the period, and he after a search for the right collaborator he found Jono Podmore, who produced drum and bass as Kumo but, crucially, had the classical background Schmidt needed. “I wanted somebody who was much younger than me and was experienced with techno and drum and bass and stuff like this, but also experienced with classical music and a real professional sound engineer, so that wasn’t quite easy to find,” says Schmidt. “It turned out he was the right one.”

“We worked a whole year together on Gormenghast, programming the rhythms and recording the orchestra and recording all these concrete sounds, because you remember Gormenghast is an old castle where the stones are falling down and it’s falling apart. We collected big baskets of stones and made them roll down a staircase in my garden and recorded that, and I smashed china in the studio, which had a stone tile floor. From the mezzanine I threw down masses of plates, and Jaki came and recorded a whole rhythm track with only pots and glasses and knives. With these sounds we created a very peculiar, very special sound world.”

Armed with plenty of raw material for sampling, Podmore and Schmidt decided to continue their collaboration after the completion of Gormenghast and recorded two albums together, Masters of Confusion and Axolotl Eyes, with Schmidt returning to the grand piano, “which I hadn’t played for a long time very much, because with CAN it didn’t fit.”

Looking back over more than four decades of composing and recording, it’s striking that Schmidt has never made a truly solo album; he is a serial collaborator, a musician who wants to be pushed in unexpected directions by minds that work differently to his. “I really like to work together with other musicians, especially when I have the feeling that they know more than me – that’s what intrigues me, and then I learn something new,” he explains. “I mean, in CAN, Holger or Jaki or Michael were musicians from totally different directions to where I came from, and I learned from everybody. Before CAN I had never composed and played jazz or rock rhythms, so I learned all that and Jaki was my master. And there was something, an intuitive knowledge about guitar by Michael, which I had no idea of before. And Holger, I mean, he was the nearest to my experience but he was much more trained with electronics than I was, so I learned a lot.

“Then later I made my first so-called solo record [Toy Planet], which was a duo record with Bruno Spoerri. I met him at a synthesiser convention in Germany in 77 or 78. Everybody was praising the synthesisers, saying ‘this is the future’ and ‘this is the biggest invention of the 20th century’ and all this shit, and we both were sitting there and Spoerri made a little speech and said, ‘Well, it’s not yet an instrument. It might be on the way to becoming an instrument, but it’s still quite a poor thing.’ And I was so happy to hear that, because that was my deep conviction. So he had a studio in Zurich and I asked him, what about making a record together? We made this record together in which I learned from him a lot about electronics which I didn’t know, and most of the rhythms on the record I programmed. We did things I had never done before – we had worked with cutting, collaging, make collages of tape in CAN, but I had never worked on loop things, superimposing 24 different loops of the same thing, which I did for Toy Planet. I wouldn’t have done that all alone, I’m not very technically gifted. I don’t like to sit all alone facing computers and synthesisers.”

With a mind constantly open to sounds from anywhere and everywhere, it’s hard to imagine what Schmidt likes to listen to when he’s just relaxing at home. Jazz? Classical? Perhaps some ambient electronics, or one of the many, many bands who cite CAN as an influence?

“Well, for me, music is not for relaxing. For me, relaxing is silence,” he says, suddenly sounding his full 78 years. “That’s why I live such a big part of my life here in the countryside, far away from the next street, and the only disturbing sound is when the farmer works the field down with a tractor, but that happens about five days in a year. So actually silence is relaxing, or being with friends and not hearing music. Hearing music, for me, is work – and work is my life. I hate restaurants where there is music going on, because then it distracts me. I have to listen to it and just think: ‘Ah, shit, how did he make that sound?’”

Electro Violet is out on Mute/Spoon Records on December 4

Stream ‘Why Not’, an unreleased track from the box set:

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