Can hero Holger Czukay on Stockhausen, shortwave radio and being “too intriguing”
As Can undergo lavish reissue treatment, their figurehead recalls the band’s origins, and much else besides.
Can co-founder and sampling pioneer Holger Czukay died on September 5 aged 79, leaving behind a formidable musical legacy that spans almost 50 years. In this interview, originally published by FACT in 2009, Kek-W talks to the visionary musician about his formative years, studying under Stockhausen and breaking down sonic boundaries.
Holger Czukay is a maverick, a legendary figure revered for his work with the seminal German band Can and for a series of idiosyncratic, original-sounding solo albums. No introduction I could write would fully do him justice.
After a false start as a jazz musician, Czukay studied in Cologne from 1963 to 1966 with the pioneering avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a mentor figure who made a lasting impact on his approach to life and music. In 1968, he formed a band with the young German guitarist Michael Karoli which quickly evolved into The Can.
Although they were initially inspired by British and American beat music, Can were never a straight-up rock band; instead, they a used a process they called “Instant Composition” to cook up an innovative, potent and still influential stew of improv, jazz, electronics and global musics. At the height of their powers the members of Can were able to connect and musically interact on a level that was near-telepathic. During his time with the band, Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit – the so-called “Human Metronome” – formed a rhythmic partnership that has rarely been bettered. Together, the pair summoned down Can’s bubbling trademark groove, a subtle, understated pulse-beat that was as playful as it was propulsive.
Prior to his departure in ‘77, Czukay increasingly experimented with magnetic tape and shortwave radio devices – a logical extension of his duties as the band’s co-engineer, tape editor and sound archivist. This fascination with tape-splicing and found radio-voices formed the conceptual basis of his solo album Movies. Here, Czukay scanned the global airwaves, plucking snippets of sound from the ether and combining them with live instrumentation to create a series of painstakingly edited montage-songs that foreshadowed the 1980s’ obsession with digital sampling. Movies was a radical and intuitively prescient album, one that was almost certainly an influence on the creation of Byrne & Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
The follow-up – ‘81’s On the Way to the Peak of Normal– found Czukay holed up in Cologne with a massive TV antenna in the garden and metres of tape loops spooling around every available surface. The close-mic’d vocals make the album sound dense, soupy and oddly claustrophobic, yet paradoxically the music is also spacious and airy – as if Czukay has created the audio equivalent of an optical illusion. Sour, queasy-sounding organ chords and breathy vocals hover and slide across a series of creepy Czukay/Liebezeit shuffle rhythms –it’s like an eerily exotic soundtrack for some strange perfume-based narcotic that has yet to be invented.
On Der Osten ist Rot [The East is Red], Czukay and producer pal Conny Plank finally got to play with an Emulator – one of the first wave of affordable high-end digital samplers. The result is an erratic, but very underrated album – the electroacoustic equivalent of a riot. Chinese orchestras, strings and skittering piano lines rampage across a series of sound collages and quasi-ethnic drum loops, while ranting voices spout Dada-like propaganda from loudhailers over rat-tat-tat style martial drumming.The record sounds – in places – like a return to his studies with Stockhausen, yet it also seems to suggest some sort of flashback to his turbulent childhood days during World War Two. There are points where the record resembles a deranged emergency broadcast or an impatient child fiddling with a radio dial, searching for music and trying to make sense of what he hears.
For a bass player – a musician ostensibly anchored by rhythm and linearity – Czukay is a contrary beast, someone who also seems to revel in the idea of sonic accidents and random injections of sound. He thrives on derangement, derailment and surprise, enjoys perpetually throwing his collaborators, his listeners – and himself – off-balance. As well as using short wave radio, he was an early adopter of dictaphones and favoured working with outsiders, non-musicians and fellow intuitives. But in the midst of all the rampant chaos and inspired lunacy, Der Osten ist Rot also offers up ‘The Photo Song’ – a near-perfect slice of pop, a three-minute meditation on memory that still sounds as timeless as it is moving.
Since then, Czukay has collaborated with an impressive list of musicians that includes Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Jah Wobble. The ’90s found Czukay plugging into the global e-dance network, offering his personal take on techno in a series of club-friendly team-ups with U-She and Dr. Walker from Air Liquide. At 71, he shows no sign of slowing up, unleashing a slew of self-released material and collaborations. Even though the rest of the world seems to have finally caught up with his ideas, he still sometimes succeeds in startling the listener. A rare visit to London for a performance at the Short Circuit season at London’s Roundhouse afforded FACT an opportunity to make contact. In person, Holger is an affable gent, warm and generous of spirit. He also has the most infectious laugh you can imagine.
“I was fired for being too, er, intriguing.”
I was wondering about your earliest memories of music or sound. Is there anything from your childhood that might have filtered down into what you do now?
Yes. My first childhood experience was of church music. After the war we had to escape from the east and the only location you could come into contact with music was the church. That was very interesting for me. And this still shines through on my work today. Michael Karoli – the guitar player with Can – always used to say to me, “It doesn’t matter what you play, Holger – it could be the biggest bunch of garbage, but it always ends up sounding like church music” [laughs].
Was it choirs or organ music you liked?
Oh, organ music. And then I heard you were supposed to listen to the chorales. Some of them I didn’t like much, but the chorales of Bach left me absolutely stunned. I found them very moving.
Am I right in saying you were born in Gdańsk and grew up during World War II?
Yes, I was born in what is now Poland. It was 1938 and Austria was being annexed. I remember the war very vividly. There was no way my parents could give me a musical education when they didn’t even have a home to live in. So the church was very important. Do you know the Wilhelm Gustloff – the big ship with 10,000 people that died in the east sea [Baltic Sea] at the end of World War II? It was the biggest disaster – far beyond the Titanic – 10,000 people were torpedoed by the Russian Navy. And we were booked on that ship. But we didn’t make it on board because my grandmother said, “I don’t trust ships. I think we must find a way overland to escape from Gdańsk to the west.” And if I had been on that ship we wouldn’t be speaking today.
Still, much, much later on, I ended up in an amateur band – a jazz band – and we were playing in a festival and the jury came into the dressing room and said, “sorry, but we don’t know what category to put you in” [laughs].
Were you too avant-garde for them?
I can’t say that it was avant-garde [laughs]. It was 1959, 1960. I was a total amateur [laughs]. I was lucky because they expelled us from the festival, but they took me on at the radio station, which was a much better thing. I must say that the whole experience didn’t really convince me to become a jazz musician [laughs].
Later on, the avant-garde man was Stockhausen. I thought: “He is the right person for me!” I studied with him, but in ’68 the whole scene completely changed and I could suddenly see new connections, new approaches. I was a teacher at the time, in a private school for rich girls. Because I thought that – with my taste in music – I will never be able to survive, so I need to get married! [laughs]. And this is what Stockhausen taught me. Stockhausen was giving a performance [‘Gesangder Juenglinge’ in Duisburg] and someone in the audience said to him, “You are giving us a shock with your sounds – and you do this only so that you can make a lot of money with it.” And he said, “No, no. I only do this for musical reasons. I have money. I married a rich wife” [laughs]. And this is why, when I finished studying with him, I moved to Switzerland where all the rich women lived. Rich women and Charlie Chaplin [laughs].
I was teaching French in a private girls’ school. You smiled and said ‘bonjour’ and you got 17 Swiss francs for 45 minutes work: the best money you could get anywhere. But it was all a bit too strange for me. I went to the ‘sister’ school – the boy’s school, where the Mountbattens and the Prince of Prussia were pupils – and they made me teach a lesson. The principal asked the boys, “What do you think about him? Should we employ him?” and there was this one talented boy in the class – Michael Karoli – and he said [puts on a child’s voice] “I want to have him as my teacher!” [laughs] And I was engaged immediately! Later – when he had left school – Michael came and lived with me and we founded Can.
“I only do this for musical reasons. I have money. I married a rich wife.”
How old was Michael at the time?
He was 18 – in Class 13. He took his final exams and left. And I was fired.
You were fired?
Yes, for being too, er, intriguing [laughs]. But it was no problem. Like Karoli, the pupils brought me to the beat music that was around at that time. They taught me. They said: “Don’t you want to play with us in a band?” So we made a school band. We played a session with Tony Ashton [a member of Family and Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, who also collaborated with Rick Wakeman and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, among others]. He was a member of Remo Four [a Liverpool band who were contemporaries of The Beatles], so we recorded in a farm house – me, Michael, Tony Ashton and some members of Remo Four. And it wasn’t bad. So I said to Tony: “Let’s form an experimental band!” Tony was very drunk and he said, “Yes! Well, of course – what else!” [laughs] Tony was a very entertaining guy, but he didn’t really understand what I meant by experimental, so he eventually drifted away and didn’t become part of Can.
When we were touring England with Can we had this roadie from London and when we had a day off he said: “Come on! Let’s go and visit George Harrison! No, no – he’s really nice. He’s living in Ascot and it’s a nice ride.” So we went there and rang the bell and nobody was in. Suddenly, he took out a key, opened the door and said, ‘Let’s see what’s in there!’ So we went in and the TV is still on and I’m feeling like an intruder. I’m going, “Quick! Let’s get out before George Harrison gets back!” “No, no,” he says, “he gave me the key – don’t worry about it!” [laughs] And two months later the same thing happened with Jon Lord – “Come on, let’s visit Jon Lord!” But he wasn’t in either. I visited all these people without ever meeting any of them [laughs].
I was interested in the cut-ups and the collage-like elements in some of Can’s work, like ‘Cutaway’ for example. Did that come from John Cage? Was Cage an influence? Didn’t you meet him at one point?
Yes, I met Cage. But I didn’t have such a narrow contact with him as I had with Stockhausen. Stockhausen hated collage. I took Stockhausen very seriously. The music that came out of his hands was fantastic. I could see how much he was leading music into the future – especially in the direction that Can was going. Can hated some of Stockhausen’s stuff – we condemned it to death – but I knew he was opening up the door.
He once said to me: “Czukay, you are thinking too much. Don’t get me wrong – I can see how many questions you are putting to the notes when you write your scores.” There had been a composer that he admired who had questioned his own work so much that he eventually became stuck. So he said to me, “Sometimes you need to just jump over the wall in order to find out where you’re going to land.” And then, suddenly, in my third year of studying with him he said: “When the bird is able to fly, he leaves his nest.” And four weeks later I decided to leave the nest. I remembered what I had learned from Stockhausen and thought, “Ah, yes, I must find a rich wife.” [laughs]
“Can hated some of Stockhausen’s stuff – we condemned it to death – but I knew he was opening up the door.”
One of your musical trademarks is the French horn. When did you first learn to play that?
That’s very simple. I went into a shop and saw a French horn. I asked how much it was and they said, “Holger, you don’t need to buy anything in our shop. We give it to you as a present” [laughs]. I went immediately to the studio where we were recording with Jah Wobble and started playing and it was one of the best things I’ve ever played.”
You’d never played one before?
No, never. The best was the recording of ‘Trench Warfare’, which I played a solo on.
You play the french horn in an almost Dada-like fashion – with great splurges of sound…
The Dada thing is a bit different to my approach, but you could say that I use randomness, chance. Classical composers were searching for the music, but what they didn’t realise is that sometimes the music is also searching for you. After 1968, people began to understand that more, though Cage had understood that a lot earlier. But the French horn: I never practice, but I can only play for five minutes – then my lips start hurting [laughs].
Towards the end of your time in Can you switched from playing bass to shortwave radio. Could you explain how that worked in a live context?
A shortwave radio is just basically an unpredictable synthesizer. You don’t know what it’s going to bring from one moment to the next. It surprises you all the time and you have to react spontaneously. The idea came from Stockhausen again. He made a piece called ‘Short Wave’ [‘Kurzwellen’]. And I could hear that the musicians were searching for music, for stations or whatever, and he was sitting in the middle of it all and the sounds came into his hands and he made music out of it. He was mixing it live – and composing it live. He had a kind of plan, but didn’t know what the plan would bring him. With Can, I would mix stuff in with what the rest of the band were playing. Also, we were searching for a singer and we didn’t find one – we tested many, but couldn’t find anyone – so I thought: “Why not look to the radio for someone instead? The man inside the radio does not hear us, but we hear him.”
Just one radio at a time, or more?
Just the one. And no effects – just dry. The radio has a VFO – an oscillator – where you can receive single side-bands, which means just half of the waves and you can decode it – it’s like a ring modulator. And that’s more than enough. The other members of Can were very open to these unpredictable uses of instruments, especially in the early days.
“Classical composers were searching for the music, but what they didn’t realise is that sometimes the music is also searching for you.”
Around the time of Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma the band’s sound changed – it became denser, more syrupy-sounding, almost otherworldly. What prompted that – was it a change of recording equipment?
Well, we moved from a castle, where we had a room – a studio to record in – into an old cinema. And I’m speaking from there now, out of Can’s old studio – Inner Space – which was turned into a museum. The rooms were completely naked – there was nothing here any more. And then my partner Ursa Major said, “now you must get that studio back.” And she built it up into a fantastic new studio here. Now I don’t ever want to go home. I just want to stay here [laughs].
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re going to be doing at Short Circuit in London. Are you performing a version of your 1968 album Canaxis?
I did a new remix of it. I took all the old material and made a special version of it – only for London. And I’ve done the same with some unheard Can material. Can material from about ’68. All previously unreleased.
The Canaxis sessions – am I right in saying they were recorded in Cologne at the WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk – “West German Broadcasting”] Studios? Wasn’t Stockhausen working there at the same time on ‘Hymnen’?
Yes. When Stockhausen left for home, we had a second key and went in and switched everything on. We went in and Canaxis was produced in one night. In one night the main song ‘Boat Woman Song’ was done. I prepared myself at night at home, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so in four hours the whole thing was done.
I’m curious about David Johnson. Did he help out with the recording?
Yes, he helped me. He knew the studio a bit better than me. He was engineering a bit, switching on stuff, copying from one machine to another…and that was okay. In four hours the job was done. Dave Johnson tested himself as a musician with Can, but I think he was not convinced by the concept. He was never really a full-time member and he never touched rock music later on in his career. He was interested in the more ‘serious’, compositional side of 20th century music.
“Whenever I touch a musical instrument, somehow I know what to do.”
It’s funny you should mention seriousness – there’s a great sense of playfulness and mischief in your music, as well as beauty. Do you see creating music as a form of ‘play’ as much as a serious endeavour?
Yes, of course it’s serious. But on the other hand, when I play I don’t take it seriously either. In the beginning, it didn’t matter if I played something or if someone else did it instead. But later on, I knew what to do with the material. I learned to compose and revise. But I’m not an expert musician, I’m not a great piano player or a great guitar player. But whenever I touch a musical instrument, somehow I know what to do. I know how to do it. I remember I was working with The Edge and he said in an interview sometime later that he had – at that time; it may have changed since – two guitar players who had influenced him: one was BB King and the other was me. I wonder why? Because I really couldn’t play the guitar. He could play much, much better than me. But I suppose whenever I pick up an instrument I always suddenly have the feeling that something positive will come out of it, that’s all.”
You’re better known as a bass player, but your style of guitar-playing is unique and easily recognizable. There’s almost an African feel to it –the tonality and style sounds more like high-life or something. It’s a very non-Western way of playing.
Yes, I know what you mean. It is because of the sound. I don’t play so fast – I’m looking far more for single notes than for African rhythmic influences. In Can, Michael Karoli was into high-life and so forth. I think he was in the Congo – in Kinshasa – where he was studying. This was 1973, I think. I remember we had a Top of The Pops-type show in London and we couldn’t get hold of Michael in Africa, so we had to borrow some other guitar-player who we dressed up to look like Micky Karoli – and we all hoped the camera wouldn’t reveal that it wasn’t him [laughs].
So Can played with a Michael Karoli lookalike?
Oh, yes! We didn’t want to miss the show! [laughs]
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