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
*10 p.m. Saturday
*Subterranean, 2011 W. North
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
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!