Holger Czukay is a maverick, a legendary figure revered for his workwith 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 jazzmusician, Czukay studied in Cologne from 1963 to 1966 with thepioneering avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a mentor-figurewho made a lasting impact on his approach to life and music. In 1968,he formed a band with the young German guitarist Michael Karoli whichquickly evolved into The Can.
Although they were initiallyinspired by British and American beat music, Can were never astraight-up rock band; instead, they a used a process they called“Instant Composition” to cook up an innovative, potent and stillinfluential stew of improv, jazz, electronics and global musics. At theheight of their powers the members of Can were able to connect andmusically interact on a level that was near-telepathic. During his timewith the band, Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit – the so-called “HumanMetronome” – formed a rhythmic partnership that has rarely beenbettered. Together, the pair summoned down Can’s bubbling trademarkgroove, a subtle, understated pulse-beat that was as playful as it waspropulsive.
Prior to his departure in ’77,Czukay increasingly experimented with magnetic-tape and short-waveradio devices – a logical extension of his duties as the band’sco-engineer, tape-editor and sound-archivist. This fascination withtape-splicing and found radio-voices formed the conceptual basis of hissolo album Movies. Here, Czukay scanned the global airwaves,plucking sound-snippets from the ether and combining them with liveinstrumentation to create a series of painstakingly-editedmontage-songs that foreshadowed the 1980s’ obsession with digitalsampling. 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 thegarden and metres of tape-loops spooling around every availablesurface. The close-mic’d vocals make the album sound dense, soupy andoddly claustrophobic, yet paradoxically the music is also spacious andairy – as if Czukay has created the audio equivalent of an opticalillusion. Sour, queasy-sounding organ-chords and breathy vocals hoverand slide across a series of creepy Czukay/Liebezeit shuffle-rhythms –it’s like an eerily exotic soundtrack for some strange perfume-basednarcotic that has still yet to be invented.
On Der Osten ist Rot [The East is Red],Czukay and producer pal Conny Plank finally got to play with anEmulator – one of the first wave of affordable high-end digitalsamplers. The result is an erratic, but very underrated album – theelectroacoustic equivalent of a riot. Chinese orchestras, strings andskittering piano-lines rampage across a series of sound collages andquasi-ethnic drum-loops, while ranting voices spout Dada-likepropaganda from loud-hailers over rat-tat-tat style martial drumming.The record sounds – in places – like a return to his studies withStockhausen, yet it also seems to suggest some sort of flashback to histurbulent childhood days during World War Two. There are points wherethe record resembles a deranged emergency-broadcast or an impatientchild fiddling with a radio-dial, searching for music and trying tomake sense of what he hears.
For a bass-player – amusician ostensibly anchored by rhythm and linearity – Czukay is acontrary beast, someone who also seems to revel in the idea of sonicaccidents 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 usingshort-wave, he was also an early adopter of dictaphones and favouredworking with outsiders, non-musicians and fellow intuitives. But in themidst of all the rampant chaos and inspired lunacy, Der Osten ist Rotalso offers up ‘The Photo Song’ – a near-perfect slice of pop, athree-minute meditation on memory that still sounds as timeless as itis moving.
Since then, Czukay has collaborated with animpressive list of musicians that includes Brian Eno, David Sylvian andJah Wobble. The 90s found Czukay plugging into the global e-dancenetwork, offering his personal take on techno in a series ofclub-friendly team-ups with U-She and Dr. Walker from Air Liquide. At71, heshows no sign of slowing up, unleashing a slew of self-releasedmaterial and collaborations. Even though the rest of the world seems tohave finally caught up with his ideas, he still sometimes succeeds instartling the listener. A rare visit to London for a performance at theShort Circuit season at The Roundhouseoffered FACT an opportunity to make contact. In person, Holger is anaffable gent, warm and generous of spirit. He also has the mostinfectious laugh you can imagine.
I was wondering about your earliest memories of music or sound. Isthere anything from your childhood that might have filtered down intowhat you do now?
HC: “Yes. My first childhoodexperience was of church music. After the war we had to escape from theeast and the only location you could come into contact with music wasthe church. That was very interesting for me. And this still shinesthrough 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 – itcould be the biggest bunch of garbage, but it always ends up soundinglike church music’.” [laughs]
Was it choirs or organ music you liked…?
HC:“Oh, organ music. And then I heard you were supposed to listen to thechorales. Some of them I didn’t like much, but the chorales of Bachleft me absolutely stunned. I found them very moving.”
Am I right in saying you were born in Gdańsk and grew up during World War Two…?
HC:“Yes, I was born in in what is now Poland. It was 1938 andAustria was being annexed…I remember the war very vividly. There was noway my parents could give me a musical education, when they didn’t evenhave a home to live in. So the church was very important. Do you knowthe Wilhelm Gustloff – the big ship with 10,000 people thatdied in the east sea [The Baltic] at the end of World War 2? It was thebiggest disaster – far beyond the Titanic – 10,000 people weretorpedoed by the Russian Navy. And we were booked on that ship. But wedidn’t make it onboard because my grandmother said, ‘I don’t trustships. I think we must find a way overland to escape from Gdańsk to thewest.’ 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 wewere playing in a festival and the jury came into the dressing room andsaid ‘sorry, but we don’t know what category to put you in…’” [laughs]
Were you too avant-garde for them…?
HC:“I can’t say that it was avant-garde [laughs]. It was 1959, 1960…I wasa total amateur [laughs]. But I was lucky because they expelled us fromthe festival, but they took me on at the radio station, which was amuch better thing. I must say that the whole experience didn’t reallyconvince me to become a Jazz musican [laughs].
“Later on, theavant-garde man was Stockhausen. I thought: ‘He is the right person forme!’ I studied with him, but…in ’68 the whole scene completely changedand I could suddenly see new connections, new approaches. I was ateacher at the time – in a private school for rich girls. Because Ithought that – with my taste in music – I will never be able tosurvive, so I need to get married! (laughs). And this is whatStockhausen 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 sothat you can make a lot of money with it.’ And he said, ‘No, no. I onlydo 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 toSwitzerland where all the rich women lived. Rich women and CharlieChaplin. [laughs]
“I was teaching French in a private girl’s school. You smiledand said ‘bonjour’ and you got 17 Swiss francs for 45 minutes work: thebest money you could get anywhere. But it was all a bit too strange forme. I went to the ‘sister’ school – the boy’s school, where theMountbattens and the Prince of Prussia were pupils – and they made meteach a lesson. The principle asked the boys, ‘What do you think abouthim? Should we employ him?’ and there was this one talented boy in theclass – Michael Karoli – and he said [puts on a child’s voice] ‘I wantto have him as my teacher!’ [laughs] And I was engaged immediately!Later – when he had left school – Michael came and lived with me and wefounded Can.”
How old was Michael at the time?
HC: “He was 18 – in Class 13. He took his final exams and left. And I was fired…”
You were fired?
HC: “Yes, for being too…er…intriguing.[laughs] But it was no problem. Like Karoli, the pupils brought me tothe 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 DeepPurple’s Jon Lord, amongst others]. He was a member of Remo Four [aLiverpool band who were contemporaries of The Beatles]…so we recordedin a farm-house – me, Michael, Tony Ashton and some members of RemoFour. And it wasn’t bad. So I said to Tony: ‘Let’s form an experimentalband!’ Tony was very drunk and he said, ‘Yes! Well, of course…whatelse!’ [laughs] Tony was a very entertaining guy, but he didn’t reallyunderstand what I meant by experimental, so he eventually drifted awayand didn’t become part of Can.
“When we were touring Englandwith Can we had this roadie from London and when we had a day off hesaid: ‘Come on! Let’s go and visit George Harrison! No, no – he’sreally nice. He’s living in Ascot and it’s a nice ride.’ So we wentthere 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 inand 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,’ hesays, ‘he gave me the key – don’t worry about it!’ [laughs] And twomonths later the same thing happened with Jon Lord – ‘Come on, let’svisit Jon Lord!’ But he wasn’t in either. I visited all these peoplewithout ever meeting any of them [laughs].”
I was interested in the cut-ups…the collage-like elements in some ofCan’s work – like ‘Cutaway’ for example – did that come from John Cage?Was Cage an influence? Didn’t you meet him at one point?
HC:“Yes, I met Cage. But I didn’t have such a narrow contact with him as Ihad with Stockhausen. Stockhausen hated collage. I took Stockhausenvery seriously. The music that came out of his hands was fantastic. Icould see how much he was leading music into the future – especially inthe 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.”
“Heonce 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 youwrite your scores.’ There had been a composer that he admired who hadquestioned his own work so much that he eventually became stuck. So hesaid to me, ‘Sometimes you need to just jump over the wall in order tofind out where you’re going to land.’ And then, suddenly, in my thirdyear of studying with him he said: ‘When the bird is able to fly, heleaves his nest.’ And four weeks later I decided to leave the nest. Iremembered what I had learned from Stockhausen and thought ‘Ah, yes…Imust find a rich wife.’ [laughs]”
One of your musical trademarks is the french horn. When did you first learn to play that?
HC:“That’s very simple. I went into a shop and saw a french horn. I askedhow much it was and they said, ‘Holger, you don’t need to buy anythingin our shop. We give it to you as a present.’ [laughs] I wentimmediately to the studio where we were recording with Jah Wobble andstarted playing…and it was one of the best things I’ve ever played.”
You’d never played one before?
HC: “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…
HC:“The Dada thing is a bit different to my approach, but you could saythat I use randomness, chance…classical composers were searching forthe music, but what they didn’t realise is that sometimes the music isalso searching for you. After ’68, people began to understandthat more, though Cage had understood that a lot earlier. But thefrench horn: I never practise…but I can only play for 5 minutes then mylips start hurting [laughs].
Towards the endof your time in Can you switched from playing bass to short-wave radio.Could you explain how that worked in a live context.
HC:“A short-wave radio is just basically an unpredictable synthesiser. Youdon’t know what it’s going to bring from one moment to the next. Itsurprises you all the time and you have to react spontaneously. Theidea came from Stockhausen again. He made a piece called ‘Short Wave’[‘Kurzwellen’]. And I could hear that the musicians were searching formusic, for stations or whatever, and he was sitting in the middle of itall and the sounds came into his hands and he made music out of it. Hewas mixing it live – and composing it live. He had a kind of plan, butdidn’t know what the plan would bring him. With Can, I would mix stuffin with what the rest of the band were playing. Also, we were searchingfor a singer and we didn’t find one – we tested many, but couldn’t findanyone – 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?
HC:“Just the one. And no effects – just dry. The radio has a VFO – anoscillator – where you can receive single side-bands, which means justhalf 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 tothese unpredictable uses of instruments, especially in the early days.”
Around the time of Future Days and Soon Over Babalumathe band’s sound changed – it became denser, more syrupy-sounding,almost otherworldy. What prompted that – was it a change ofrecording-equipment?
HC: “Well, we moved from a castle, where we had aroom – a studio to record in – into an old cinema. And I’m speakingfrom there now, out of Can’s old studio – Inner Space – which wasturned into a museum. The rooms were completely naked – there wasnothing here any more. And then my partner Ursa Major said, ‘now youmust get that studio back.’ And she built it up into a fantastic newstudio here. Now I don’t ever want to go home. I just want to stayhere. [laughs]
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re going to be doing at ShortCircuit in London. Are you performing a version of your 1968 album Canaxis?
HC:“I did a new remix of it. I took all the old material and made aspecial version of it – only for London. And I’ve done the same withsome unheard Can material. Can material from about ’68. All previouslyunreleased.”
The Canaxis sessions – am I right in saying they were recordedin Cologne at the WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk – “West GermanBroadcasting”] Studios? Wasn’t Stockhausen working there at the sametime on ‘Hymnen’?
HC: “Yes. When Stockhausen left for home, we hada second key and went in and switched everything on. We went in andCanaxis was produced in one night. In one night the main song ‘BoatWoman Song’ was done. I prepared myself at night at home, so I knewexactly 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…?
HC:“Yes, he helped me. He knew the studio a bit better than me. He wasengineering a bit, switching on stuff, copying from one machine toanother…and that was okay. In four hours the job was done. Dave Johnsontested himself as a musician with Can, but I think he was not convincedby the concept. He was never really a full-time member and he nevertouched rock music later on in his career. He was interested in themore ‘serious’, compositional side of 20th century music.”
It’sfunny you should mention seriousness…there’s a great sense ofplayfulness and mischief in your music, as well as beauty. Do you seecreating music as a form of ‘play’ as much as a serious endeavour?
HC: “Yes, of course it’s serious. But on the other hand, when I play Idon’t take it seriously either. In the beginning, it didn’t matter if Iplayed something or if someone else did it instead. But later on, Iknew what to do with the material…I learned to compose and revise. ButI’m not an expert musician…I’m not a great piano player or a greatguitar player. But whenever I touch a musical instrument somehow I knowwhat to do. I know how to do it. I remember I was working with The Edgeand 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’tplay the guitar. He could play much, much better than me. But I supposewhenever I pick up an instrument I always suddenly have the feelingthat something positive will come out of it, that’s all.”
You’rebetter known as a bass-player, but your style of guitar-playing isunique and easily recognisable. There’s almost an African feel to it –the tonality and style sounds more like High-Life or something. It’s avery non-Western way of playing…
HC: “Yes, I knowwhat you mean. It is because of the sound. I don’t play so fast – I’mlooking far more for single notes than for African rhythmic influences.In Can, Michael Karoli was into High-Life and so forth…I think he wasin the Congo – in Kinshasa – where he was studying. This was 1973, Ithink. I remember we had a Top of The Pops-type show in Londonand we couldn’t get hold of Michael in Africa, so we had to borrow someother guitar-player who we dressed up to look like Micky Karoli…and weall hoped the camera wouldn’t reveal that it wasn’t him. [laughs]
So Can played with a Michael Karoli lookalike?
HC: “Oh, yes! We didn’t want to miss the show! [laughs]