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Interview with Holger Czukay - CAN

16 Octombrie 2005
de Horia Diaconescu si Ioan Cora

Restrictions are source of all creation (Holger Czukay)

Holger Czukay este o personalitate interesanta a evolutiei muzicii moderne. Basist in cel mai important grup german - CAN, a considerat experimentul o componenta esentiala in creatia artistica. Holger Czukay este performerul care a introdus activ samplingul in muzica, incepand cu 1970 (Klaus Schulze si Brian Eno continuand ani mai tarziu), si primul artist DJ in sensul actual al cuvantului. Inregistrarile document de pe DVD-ul CAN stau marturie pentru aceste afirmatii. Compozitiile CAN, la confluenta dintre progressive, punk si electronica, raman de asemenea in actualitate ca momente de referinta in muzica pop-culturii.

In prezent, Holger Czukay s-a dedicat grupurilor de creatie virtuala si pregateste un viitor album alaturi de vocea feminina U-SHE. Debordeaza de energie si raspunde cu amabilitate la toate intrebarile comode sau incomode. Pentru Muzici si Faze, interviul cu Holger Czukay este mai mult decat un eveniment, este o punte care transcende distanta dintre "receptor" si "emitor". Sau mai simplu... Muzici cu Faze!

Discografie Holger Czukay. Recomandari. 

CAN - Delay (1968 / 1981)
CAN - Monster movie (1969), remaster SACD edition 2005 
CAN - Soundtracks (1970), remaster SACD edition 2005 
CAN - Tago Mago (1971), remaster SACD edition 2005 
CAN - Ege bamyasi (1972), remaster SACD edition 2005 
CAN - Future days (1973), remaster SACD edition 2005
CLUSTER & ENO - Cluster & Eno (1977)
HOLGER CZUKAY - On the way to the peak of normal (1981) 
HOLGER CZUKAY & DAVID SYLVAIN - Plight and premonition (1988)
HOLGER CZUKAY - Moving pictures (1993) 
Various artists - Sacrilege (1997) - The DJ tribute to Can
CAN - Radio waves (1997)
CAN - Live music 1971 - 1977 + The Can book (1999) 
HOLGER CZUKAY & U SHE - The new millenium (2003)
CAN - The Can DVD (2004)

Download video
(wmv, size 292 k)
Muzici si Faze / Can
Holger Czukay - official page
Can / Spoon Records - official page
Photos presented
 by Holger Czukay
© Holger Czukay

01. Since you are rightfully considered an inovator, we will start with a question about the future. Pop culture shows multiple signs of stagnation in musical forms (and styles). Given our post-postmodern time, where could we look for a new (r)evolution in the concept and interaction between man and music?

          There are so many forms left to be explored, for example founding virtual bands or workgroups. I was one among others who started doing that in 2001. Damon Albarn from Blur is also one of them. After a long night of discussion (and confession - alcohol makes it possible) he asked me how I could advice him doing something new he never had done before. I told him using the net as a creation platform and establish a virtual band and so he founded the Gorillas. In fact groups coming together this way are founding new groups as it seems to be easier getting along with somebody you don’t know physically. Elimination of privatisms I would say.

02. Can was rock, experiment, electronica and had good dancing tunes. Over the decades, Can became the archetypical “cult band” for many. Where do you situate Can in the context of pop-culture?

          Can gave younger generations an example how to find their own identity telling them to forget what they have learnt before and start like a new born child. This is what Can did when we started to become a group in 1968.

Photo by Rainer Pfisterer, 1994
03. Do you think the progressive and experimental music from the early 70’s needs to be re-evaluated from new perspectives? Did it gain more value and independence as art in itself through the test of time? Or was it just another (definitely interesting) trend or tendency in a certain moment of modern music?

         Forget about modern music. What you call re-evaluation will be done automatically from time to time when younger ones start to find their own language even when trying to copy in the first step. But when we had been around live the recognition of our fans was enormous and also the recognition by the media was excellent. Young generations are re-discovering things again not knowing what had been in the first step. I myself find out that the discovery of sampling was done before we re-invented it 34 years ago. Just think of the singing dog barking “jingle bells”. My all time hero Spike Jones had done that end of the fifties and you cannot deny that this is one of the very first sampling arrangements.

04. a. How do you understand the connection between composition and improvisation, given the fact the arbitrary played a major role in Can’s studio and live music? To which extent did you plan or allow the alleatory element to interfere and take part in your music?

         Composition is an art of intuitive thinking and deciding, sometimes even visionary. When you start a creation process from scratch you better get your head empty. Therefore Can wasn’t so much improvising like Jazz musicians do, we were making instant compositions instead. The real composition became effective a f t e r we had played and recorded. In these days electronic progress gives us a key in our hand to lay off paper and pencil and turn over to compose by listening and not reading.

b. By the way, on the 2nd track of Plight and premonition (1988), after a first set of Morse code  we hear a strange feminine voice reciting a religious poem in Romanian. Was it an alleatory insertion recorded from the global radio wave net?

        Yes. David Sylvain and me recorded that spontaneously...

c. If we were to dechiper the Morse code recorded throughout the album, are we going to reveal a premeditated meta-message conceived by you and David Sylvain?

        Musically you certainly do. Message wise I wouldn't be too surprised if the Morse code was sent by Bin Laden's father in order to redirect an oil tanker into the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert.

Prepared to be hanged by studio cables, 1975

With David Sylvian after having finished Flux-mutability, 1989
05. a. A rather delicate issue now. Our  subjective opinion is that vocalists in Can have always been more of an auxiliary element. It is true that frontmen like Malcolm or Damo had unique and very charismatic performances, but we think the band wouldn’t have been too different with other good vocals. Do you agree with this? 

          Can had tested various singers after Damo had left (NR: in 1973) and none of them could replace the former two. It was a pitty, really. You will find those kind of musicians very rarely. However, in one thing you are right. Both singers were not real front men stars, they both became another instrument in our little orchestra. 
          One of my today’s favorites is the singer from The Mars Volta, Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez from Texas. Another one is U-She with whom I am working at a new album at the moment. U-She has an incredibble sense when creating lyrics for example. The other night I played 4 very rough ideas. Within 30 minutes she had the lyrics for all of them and insisted immediately to record. In most cases the vocal tests become the final recordings.

b. Mr. Johnny Rotten said the only band he would be in, apart of Sex Pistols, is  Can. It may be a sincere statement, as well as some declarative exhibitionism. Nevertheless, it is an interesting association of Can and punk. How do you perceive the statement of various journalists and musicians, that Can (among others) laid ground for the punk musical culture?

          Can was actually a punk band without sharing social punk aspects. John Lydon wanted actually to get drummer Jaki Liebezeit in his band. Also heard that he wanted to become the new Can singer. Well, I don’t know how this would have turned out… but becoming a singer in a virtual re-united band Can or Public Image why not? That can be all possible, technically possible I mean.

c. Jaki Liebezeit has often been described as the most inhumane drums player, compared to which machine music or techno seem soulful. It comes difficult to visualise Can without him. How would you describe him artistically?

         Jaki attacked me once with an axe. I only can warn everyone meeting him in the darkness. That man is a  d a n g e r o u s  good drummer who has dedicated his life to music and in particular to get behind the secrets of rhythm.

06. The longest Can concert it is said to have lasted one entire night. Please tell us something about that mantric marathon-night. 

         Don’t remember that special night but I have good memories about nights or concerts where we didn’t play the music rather than the music played us. You get especially open minded and the waste of unnecessary energy gets reduced towards zero. Lucky moments so to speak though I must admit that a long session doesn't necessarily guarantee every moment of enlightened music.

07. Please select a relevant Can album and present it in three or four phrases. Think that you address to an open minded person aged 20 – 30 years old, who hadn’t yet had the chance to listen Can.

         Let’s take Monster Movie. Can becoming a monster machine. Once started to run it can’t get stopped overrolling you when trying to resist. And if you don’t you will love getting eaten up by it. Wasn’t there something similar with Count Dracula?


Holger Czukay and Damo Suzuki
1971, in the Can Studio "Inner Space"

Can, 1975
Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli
08. a. The kraut-rock scene witnesses nowadays a certain revival thanks to the CD editions on various labels (Mute, SPV etc.) and the enthousiastic authors such as Julian Cope. People tend to visualise Can, Faust, Cluster, Amon Duul II, Ash Ra Tempel etc. as a compact underworld, alternative to everything else that happened in pop-culture. How did you perceive “the scene” back then, as member of the most succesful German rock band?

        Hmmm… sounds as if I shouldn’t feel being ashamed thinking back of the good old times. However, I am not a nostalgic person and honestly speaking sometimes I feel ashamed of our weak moments and that includes also myself. (These thoughts can come up when you get older.)

b.  Back in the end of 60’s and 70’s, could we speculate an identity crisis of German youth (or perhaps to an even larger social segment) that spawned that peculiar trend of experiment and alternate takes on music? We are asking this question thinking that most of German musicians in the 70’s were basically the first generation born right after the WWII.

        You speculate right, dear. I myself was born before WWII and I remember very well when we had arrived in the American zone as refugees. All appeared great for us children, the bombed houses – you couldn’t find a better playground hiding yourself from your other friends. Just one thing I didn’t understand: why had our family to escape from Gdansk and get hunted by foreign soldiers when Germany was so great and superb? I could not explain that to myself being 8 years old. Two years later in school we learned that the Romans got defeated by the Germanians and suddenly I got very proud again being German. The big big Romans got beaten up by the Germanians by throwing stones and hitting them with sticks, wow !!!
        Nevertheless, America was stronger leaving young artists in doubt presenting us Jazz and so Germany started to produce respectable Jazz musicians but also adventurous composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, the beginning of electronic music or the Fluxus movement. 
          Jaki Liebezeit
played one year with Chet Baker in Barcelona till he got so depressed that he moved to Ibiza island where he climbed up a rock named Tago Mago every morning from where he wanted to make suicide. Thanks God he didn’t succeed so some fans have the pleasure to listen to the most merciless man-machine. Honestly, sometimes when we were fighting I wished he had made suicide. 
        But coming back to your point… the fact that the evaluation of arts in general was cut off in the Third Reich threw us back into stone age in a way and slowly, very slowly we started to re-orientate ourselves again. Building up destroyed houses goes much faster.


1984. This British navy officer uniform gave me some surprise during the Falkland war. After the video shooting "Red guitar" together with David Sylvian all my clothes got so dirty that I had to put on this uniform flying back home. When I arrived at London Heathrow Airport a porter asked me: "Beg your pardon, Sir - which ship are you on, Sir" "General Belgrano, Sir" I replied. Our baggage man couldn't laugh at all. 2 days ago the Argentinian warship General Belgrano was hit by a Brit torpedo and sank with 550 people on board. 
09. Speaking of destroyed houses, Einstürzende Neubauten is a German band that payed tribute to Can throughout their entire career. They are perhaps the most appreciated kraut group of the 80’s and 90’s (Blixa Bargeld also did an inspired cover for Can’s Soul desert). How do you view their musical output?

          When I heard them I thought they were much better organized than Can. But I didn’t like so much when Blixa Bargeld went solo.

10. Klaus Schulze and Kraftwerk made electronic music known to the masses, by transfering it from the elites to the popular culture. Can is another band with its own importance in this process. Where do you think Can stands closer – the elitist music or the popular music?

          As I already said Can was a merciless punk band which became clear when we emptied a venue more than once during a concert. One funny event may also prove that. In May 1973 Can was invited to play during a TV award ceremony of the best TV stars and productions. The stage was full of flowers and prizes were given to the artists blah blah… This happened at 11 a.m. and when I returned home in the evening I passed by a gas station to fill up my tank with gasoline. When I entered the chashier room in order to pay my bill the news on tv were showing a report from the ceremony. Can had just started playing when the audience rose up from their seats as if someone was shooting with a machine gun into them heading towards the exits in panic. I gave the cashier a good tip as I was very proud of what I saw. In other words Can was neither with the masses nor with the elite in the one or other form.

1998, Photo by Fritz Kissels

2001, with Brian Eno in his studio testing his fretless bass. Ahh, you wanna know what I say? "See Brian, Jaki has tortured me so much to give up bass playing and now you come up with such a delirious desire taking your bass in my hands. Look at me: am I not enough bass brandmarked? Better give me an apple!" Photo: Michi
11. How do you see the modern (mainstream) electronic scene. Could you give us an opinion on a DJ that you find stimulating. How about the underground, home of Aphex Twin or Autechre?

          I am a big fan of Aphex Twin. Great man! Also of Luke Vibert , for example, alias Waggonchrist. I don’t think that the electronic scene in its exclusivity has a big potential in the future such as techno. I personally prefer creating music like a medicine where I wouldn’t talk about the secret of its ingredients. Everyone has the chance to create his own sound just by making decisions on his own and not by the machines. And here we may enter the back door towards human soul qualification.

12. On a subjective selection, what are your favorite 5 albums or compositions? 

          Never like such questions as I must think backwards…
          Beethoven: 6th symphony
          Bach: Art of the Fugue
          Mozart: Requiem
          Stockhausen: Hymnen, especially Third region
          Velvet Underground and Nico
But don’t forget tomorrow it could be another serie.

1998, photographer Fritz Kissels asked me which would be the most important thing I would take with me when I had to become a refugee one day. You see the IBM 213 dictaphone machine in my hands, certainly the first analogue "sampler" of all time. The hat is good for a bank director's disguise. 

13. How should Stockhausen’s music be approached after year 2000? There are opinions that stress his vision has rather a theoretical and cultural value, and less a musical one. To put it in a simplistic form: “we learn from Stockhausen, his compositions and recordings may even be mused at, but can’t be listened”. Where do you stand in relation with this idea?

          For some of Stochausen’s work one might see it this way. I personally love parts of his early works like Gesang der Juenglinge or Kontakte as well as the electronic scenes from his monsterous opera Light. If someone has really sense for the purity of music he cannot deny that Stockhausen is one of the greatest composers of our time. Only the way how we listen to music these days makes it difficult to follow him. But that is not his fault. You will find very seldom people who are able listening in concentration. The way of listening becomes more and more randomized if I may say so. Stockhausen never followed such attitudes to my knowledge.

1963, studying composition in the class of Karlheinz Stockhausen 
14. A short questionaire. Please choose in accord with solely your subjective preference.
          - Velvet Underground or The Beatles?
          - Robert Moog or Oskar Sala?
          - Rammstein or Kraftwerk?
          - Frank Zappa or Robert Fripp?

          Cross out Zappa, Fripp and Rammstein and enjoy the rest!

15. What is the story of your first encounters with Brian Eno? How would you describe your common artistic affinities that resulted in music made together? 

          Met him backstage when touring with Roxy Music. What Brian and myself have in common is that we both discover same or similar things independently at the same time. For example to record without mixing later. 
          Think he is an open minded and intelligent person. And also funny is that when I looked through his records I found a disk with music from Bulgaria. And when I listend to it I immediately was overwhelmed by a feeling like having finally arrived at home. We played together live during his exhibition in the Kunsthalle in Bonn in 1997 as if we had played together for a long time.

Brian Eno & Holger Czukay, 1997, playing together live in the Noble Austellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn. Eno called me up in august asking if I could give some support with my radio while soundchecking. A short visit there told me to bring all my instruments along as it became obvious that this would not only end up in a test soundcheck. For Eno it was his first live appearance after ca. 20 years absence from stage. I immediately could tell how he felt - as it was the same with me having been in the same situation some years ago. 
16. Holger Czukay is known to be a workaholic musician. Your projects and discographic list is impressive. Tell us, please, a few words on the album you currently work on together with U-She.

          Strange that you say I would be a workaholic. Actually I know very well how to relax and most of the time you will find me sleeping watching television.
          The last 2 years U-She and myself have restored the former Can studio or better the left ruins changing it to an online studio. We both are working on a new song album together with a Can fan via Internet who lives in Houston, Texas and who has otherwise 28 oil platforms under control. He also controls my website constantly. He sends me some starting stuff like samples from time to time asking  what I think of it. And then he gets surprised when my answer is a new piece which I made out of it.


1997, with U-she during Sacrilege promotion

17. After seeing the DVD published by Mute Records, we have been impressed with the Echo Awards prize that has been dedicated to Can for your entire artistic activity. Recently, your original studio has also been included in the German museum or pop music in Gronau. How does it feel to receive this form of recognition after a 40 years musical career?

          Good. And if  the financial recognition would also follow fame and honor even better. 

Interviewed by Horia Diaconescu and Ioan Cora
September 2005

1944, in front of our house in Danzig. 
Had already evil plans in my mind

My Great Web page
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