Out of the can


May 14, 2004


When Holger Czukay linked up with several likeminded freaks in Cologne in 1968, he had little experience with rock 'n' roll. Born in Danzig, Poland, he played the French horn and moved to Germany to study composition with the avant-garde German classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Czukay's goal in forming a band was to merge free jazz, contemporary classical music and "ethnic music" or worldbeat. But Can, the band he put together with keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli, wound up becoming one of the most influential art-rock groups of the '70s. Echoes of its haunting drones can still be heard in inventive music today ranging from Radiohead to Wilco, and it recently released a DVD box set compiling some of its best live performances.


*10 p.m. Saturday
*Subterranean, 2011 W. North
*Tickets, $20

The charmingly eccentric 66-year-old musician, who still sports his famous walrus mustache, no longer plays bass and shortwave radio, as he did with Can; in recent years, he has made a name for himself as a techno DJ on the European underground, performing alone or with his wife, U-She. I spoke to him from his home in Germany shortly before his first American tour since 1997, which brings him to Subterranean on Saturday night.

Q. I last saw you perform in Minneapolis seven years ago, and it was a great evening. What will you be doing on this tour?

A. On this tour, U-She will not accompany us because she is recovering from a very serious disease. This time, the music is a bit more prepared, but there will be unknown as well as known material.

Q. So you're going to be doing some material by Can?

A. Yes, from Can. Also remixes of remixes. I made all remixes out of the remixes.

Q. One of your famous quotes said something to the effect that no piece by Can is ever finished.

A. Usually, when you have a product finished, the record company is interested in introducing the product to the media or to the public. They have a party where nobody listens to the music; they just go for the drinks. You know about that, I am sure! Now, my system is a bit different: I present 50 percent of a record which has to see the light one day. And when you present that to the audience, you immediately feel where the weak points and the strong points are, because you listen with the ears of the audience and they listen differently than you, the creator. This is something which is most important. It is one of the advantages of playing live.

I remember when I was studying with the composer Stockhausen. I visited him at home and told him what I was doing, and he listened to the music and said, "You must take care that you are not listening to your music alone." So what I did was, when I had a piece finished, I ran out of the house, looked on the street, found a person and said, "Do you have 10 minutes time, please?" And this person came with me, I played it for him, and he said, "Yeah, it sounds quite nice." But I was listening with his ears. I didn't want to talk so much, because I knew how he was listening. Then I said, "Goodbye, thank you very much for listening."

Q. These days especially, with the advent of computer technology, too many musicians create in a cocoon.

A. You are so right! My impression is that communication is made so easy that it is actually getting harder in many ways. Actual communication between people is more and more difficult. The easier the communication becomes, the bigger the problems become to understand each other. If you are working with a company, you give an order to them -- it's very easy to tell them what you want, but nobody knows what you want. It reminds me of the building of the Tower of Babel.

Q. One of the most inspiring things about your career is your refusal to live in the past. But I'd kill to see you play with Jaki again. Will we ever have that opportunity?

A. Well, as you know, Michael has died, so Can can never perform again as it was. But we have to see -- at the moment, Jaki is touring all over the world, but he is living just 1,000 meters away from me.

Q. What was so special about the combination of people and talents in Can?

A. The thing is that it is nothing special about it, except that Can was an experiment when we started. We tried to behave like a football team -- that is, relying on something we didn't know. A football team doesn't know where the ball is going to, but they are trained to get it to the right goal. And this is what happened with Can, especially while playing live, but also in the studio. We worked from zero -- from no idea. That is, the more empty we have been, the better it became.

Q. There was also a sense of teamwork, of relying on one another.

A. Yes. All of the author rights were completely separated and divided equally, because we know everyone had his own special strong ability that the other one might not have. When Jaki was playing trumpet he played like he was doing it without teeth. I said, "Jaki -- fantastic!" He said, "I could not present this in public!" But I said, "No, this is a good thing!"

Q. Do you miss playing with a group?

A. Not really. Because if you take what I have done, you test out playing an instrument -- something you don't know -- and you can really surprise yourself. I make albums a lot, I don't know if you know them. There is one piece called "La Luna," and I remember that I tested out a synthesizer I had never played before, and U-She came down and said, "Please record this immediately! I'll come back in ten minutes." She came down and said, "Oh, I have the text. Can I make a test recording of the song?" And it was one of my favorite pieces.

Q. So you can still have these musical surprises without collaborating with a band.

A. If you work with someone, this person brings in something unknown, but the instrument is also something unknown. I want to get surprised. It's the same way of playing French horn: I've never learned to [properly] play French horn, never in my life. I only know how to direct the tone, and especially, when to stop!