May 10, 2002


Pioneering German art-rockers Can were at loose ends in 1970 when their original vocalist, African-American Malcolm Mooney, abruptly quit the group. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay were walking the streets of Munich, discussing their dilemma, when they happened upon a 21-year-old Japanese singer busking outside a cafe.

"I saw Damo [Suzuki] from far away, and he was screaming and sort of adoring the sun," Czukay recalled in The Can Book . "I said to Jaki, 'Here comes our vocalist!' And Jaki said, 'No, no, it can't be true!' '' When Suzuki joined the band that evening, he began screaming at the audience, clearing the room in record time--and assuring his position in the band.

The albums Suzuki made with Can--1971's "Tago Mago," 1972's "Ege Bamyasi," and 1973's "Future Days"--are considered art-punk classics, and they've been hugely influential to two generations of bands that followed. The Fall wrote a song in homage titled "I Am Damo Suzuki," and a critically hailed group from New York called Mooney Suzuki takes its name from Can's two vocalists.

"Every 10 years or so, people seem to rediscover," Suzuki says by phone from his home in Germany. "But I have to forget about Can and be Damo Suzuki. If somebody says, 'Can was an [important] group and Damo was great,' that's nice. But I am always trying new things. Nostalgia is really bad because people want to have a place of comfort, and I am not fond of comfortable things. Comfortable things are the enemy of creative things."

Suzuki last performed in Chicago at the House of Blues in the fall of 1998 with Can guitarist Michael Karoli. For the few hundred faithful in attendance, it was a rare treat. But the Chicago Cubs had clinched their first playoff berth in nine years, and House of Blues' staff inexcusably dropped the curtain on the group in the middle of Can's "Mother Sky." The singer lay on his stomach and finished the song with his head poking out from under the curtain.

"It was terrible! I can remember," he says, laughing.

The show is now all the more poignant for the fact that Karoli died from cancer last November. "He was special," Suzuki says. "We were not really best of friends, but we played music much more together. He had really special taste, and he played music in a way you could not really compare to anybody else. He had a really good instinct with my voice, and we played so well together. I don't really know anybody else like him."

Now Suzuki is returning to the States. This time, he'll be backed by the long-running Boston psychedelic band Cul de Sac.

"Damo got in touch with us, and [synthesizer player] Robin [Amos] and I both fell off our chairs," guitarist Glenn Jones says. "Somebody had given him copies of a couple of our CDs at a show during that [last U.S.] tour, and I guess he finally got around to playing them when he got back to Cologne. We got an e-mail from him in broken English, basically introducing himself like we didn't know who he was, and asking if we'd like to set up a tour with him singing.

"We all grew up on those Can records. We bought them as they came out, so we knew that stuff very well. Without sounding stupid about it or whatever, it was an honor to have someone like that ask to do something with us."

There was just one catch.

"Damo has three rules: 'No improvisation. No rehearsal. No prepared songs.' It's like, 'What else is there?' Basically, he wants the songs to be composed on the spot. When he says 'no improvisation,' I think he means in the non-jazz sense of guys wanking off. It's got to be focused--something with an implied structure or cohesion. That's quite a challenge, and it's far looser than we ever play it. We're sort of looking at it that if it succeeds, we can take credit for it, and if it fails, we can blame Damo!"

Can worked in a similar way, and Suzuki has since made numerous recordings for his own label ( by following the same methodology. But this tour is even more of an artistic risk, since his bandmates are essentially strangers.

"We are just going to meet and make music, because that's the way I like to do it," he says. "It's much better for me, because you can enjoy the music of the moment. I think it's the best way to make my feelings instinctive. For 20 years, I only make music this way."

This, I tell him, is why he's a hero to many young rock musicians.

"Not hero," he says. "I'm much more a shaman or something like this."

Suzuki appears tonight at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Cul de Sac will perform a set of its own material before the singer joins them, and Defender opens at 10 p.m. The cover is $10; call (773) 276-3600.