INTERVIEW WITH HOLGER CZUKAY OF CAN.
INTERVIEW WITH HOLGER CZUKAY OF CAN.
It’s not every day I get the opportunity to interview one of my musical heroes. Today I did. I was fortunate enough to spend forty minutes interviewing the legendary Holger Czukay, who cofounded Can in 1968. We spent forty minutes discussing all things Can, Holger’s solo career and even, the merits of vinyl versus digital. That’s particularly relevant given that over the next couple of months, one of the most extensive reissue programs of Can and Holger Czukay’s music will get underway.
For fans of Can, the next couple of months are going to be expensive. Mute Records have just started rereleasing Can’s back-catalogue. Even better, it’s all on vinyl. So is the long-awaited and much anticipated rerelease of Holger Czukay’s legendary solo albums Der Osten Ist Rot and Rome Remains Rome.
On 18th July 2014, Groenland Records will release a selection of songs from two of Holger’s legendary solo albums Der Osten Ist Rot and Rome Remains Rome. They’ll be released on two 10” albums and as a digital download. As an added bonus, previously unreleased remixes versions are included on the album. For Can fans, this is the latest course in what’s a veritable musical feast. Each of these albums showcase the talents of one of the most innovative and progressive musicians of his generation, Holger Czukay. His story begins in 1938.
The future Holger Czukay was born in March 1938, as Holger Schüring. Holger’s home was what was then called the Free City of Danzig. Nowadays, it’s known as Gdansk. In January 1945, Holger and his family were forced to flee their home.
“When I was a child I had to leave my hometown Danzig in Poland. My mother had already bought the tickets for the ship, the Wilhelm Gustlof, when my grandmother warned us that the “water hasn’t got any planks”. I never forgot this sentence, because it saved our lives. We didn’t go onboard the ship, but went to the main station on January 13th 1945. It was a freezing night We were extremely lucky that a train with wounded soldiers picked us up, and they gave us a little bit of room on their mattresses to sleep, and we headed to Berlin. When we arrived i looked out of the window and all I could see were stones and a free field and I asked myself if this can be a capital city?” Having arrived in Berlin, Holger and his family became refugees.
Just like so many children, the war had an impact upon Holger’s education. Like so many displaced children, Holger’s education suffered. Despite this, Holger managed to get a job in a radio repair shop. Not only did he learn how to repair electrical equipment, but became fascinated by radio and the opportunities it offered. This would prove crucial to Holger Czukay’s later career. Before that, Holger served his musical apprenticeship.
For a three year period between 1963 and 1966, Holger Czukay was privileged to study music under the legendary Karlheinz Stockhausen. “A true pioneer, Karlheinz was way ahead of time.” During his time studying with Karlheinz, Holger met Conny Plank and Irmin Schmidt.
Holger remembers “Conny sitting behind him, writing out a score by hand.” At first “Conny was quiet,” but they “soon became close friends,” during their time studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was a thorough musical education, where Karlheinz taught his pupils about aleatoric music, serial composition and musical spatialisation.
Karlheinz wasn’t just a “visionary” in terms of electronic music, but was fascinated by aleatoric music. Essentially, aleatory is controlled chance. With aleatoric music, some element of a piece are left to chance. Granted there will only be a certain number of outcomes, but the musician has to choose the outcome they believe is correct. Serialism was another subject Karlheinz was interested in. With serialism, a series of values are used to manipulate musical elements. This form of composition fascinated Karlheinz. So did musical spatialisation, which would influence Can. Karlheinz was an evangelist, encouraging his pupils, including Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt and Conny Plank to investigate, examine and scrutinise each of these subjects between 1963 and 1966.
For Holger, he could have asked for a better musical education. He admits “Karlheinz taught me so much.” When I asked Holger the most important thing Karlheinz taught him, he didn’t hesitate. Karlheinz told him to “find your own sound.” Holger never forget those words of advice. They became his musical mantra, when eventually, he decided to make a career as a musician. However, when Holger finished studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1966, he became a musical teacher.
Having graduated, Holger was enjoying life as a music teacher. Holger was enjoying his newfound career as an educator. He wasn’t a fan of pop or rock music. That was about to change in 1967.
That’s when Holger heard The Beatles’ I Am A Walrus in 1967, he was captivated by this psychedelic rock single. Holger describes this “as a life-changing moment…the music of the past and present came together.” At last, “here was music that made the connection between what I’d studied and I was striving towards” With the innovative use of bursts of radio and the experimental sound and structure, “I went in search of similar music.”
So I asked Holger about what type of music he started listening to? Specifically, I asked about Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground? Did they influence you, and ultimately Can? “Frank Zappa I didn’t really get.” “Velvet Underground they were different, they really influenced me and my music” “They influenced the music I made…I remember the first time I heard Velvet Underground and where I was when I heard it”
Much of the music that influenced Holger, he heard whilst spending time with friends. Holger is a huge fan of vinyl. He remembers “sitting in a friend’s flat “looking through piles of albums. We’d study the sleeve-notes and then spread the album covers all over the floor. We scrutinised them, then immersed ourselves in the music. It was a shared experience. We listened and discussed the music. I can remember these times well.” Listening to Holger speak, he’s a real music fan. His enthusiasm is infectious. So much so, that it’s as if your sitting in the flat with Holger and his friends, looking at the album covers, listening to the music and discussing it. This music would go on to influence Holger’s future career.
It was then that I mentioned the forthcoming vinyl reissues of both the Can back-catalogue and Holger Czukay’s legendary solo albums Der Osten Ist Rot and Rome Remains Rome. He’s “pleased to hear they’re being rereleased, especially on vinyl. That’s the perfect medium, you hear the music as you’re meant to.” Listening to Holger he’s evangelic about the vinyl. Not compact discs though. “Compact discs reduce music to background music. No longer do you have to immerse yourself in the music. Instead, it becomes background noise.” In a way Holger is correct, music becomes an accidental soundtrack to daily life. That’s not right. Music is much more important than that. Especially for someone who founded one of the most influential and innovative groups in musical history, Can.
Inspired by what he’d heard, Holger decided to form his own band in 1968…Can. Can’s roots can be traced back to the previous year, when one of Can’s co-founders was studying in time. This was Irmin Schmidtm who’d studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, at the same time as Holger. The two fellow pupils of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Irmin Schmidt and Holger would eventually form Can. Before that they went their separate ways,
After graduating, Irmnin headed to New York, where he spent time with avant-garde musicians like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Soon, Irmin was aware of Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground. This inspired him to form his own band when he returned home to Cologne.
In Cologne, Irmin a pianist and organist formed Can with American avant garde flautist David C. Johnson and bassist Holger Czukay. Up until then, the trio had exclusively played avant-garde classical music. Now their ambitions lay beyond that. Their influences included garage, rock, psychedelia, soul and funk. So they brought onboard three new members of the group, which started life as Inner Space, and then became The Can. Eventually, they settled on Can, an acronym of communism, anarchy, nihilism
The first two new additions were guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Vocalist and New York-based sculptor Malcolm Mooney joined the band midway through 1968. By then, they were recording material for an album Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom. Two tracks, Father Cannot Yell and “Outside My Door were already recorded. Unfortunately, record companies weren’t interested in Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom. As a result, it wasn’t released until 1981, when it was released as Delay 1968. Undeterred, Can continued to record what became their debut album, Monster Movie.
Despite not being able to interest a record company in Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom, Can were confident in their own ability. So Can continued recording what would become their debut album Monster Movies. That’s despite being what Holger referred to as “a poor man’s band.” They didn’t have the equipment that other groups did. What they did have was “an ambition to create innovative music.” However, before long, there was a problem.
David C. Johnson left Can at the end of 1968. He was disappointed at the change in musical direction. Little did he realise that he’d lost the chance to be part of one of the most groundbreaking band’s in musical history, Can.
Monster Movie had been recorded in Schloss Nörvenich, a 14th-century castle in North Rhine-Westphalia. Can recorded Monster Movie between 1968-69. It was the released in August 1969. This marked the debut of Can. Their career started as they meant to go on, creating a groundbreaking, genre-melting fusion of blues, free jazz, psychedelia, rock and world music. Monster Movies has a Velvet Underground influence. It’s as if Can have been inspired by Velvet Underground, but pushed musical boundaries to their limits.
Throughout Monster Movie, Can improvised, innovated and experimented. Multilayering and editing played an important part in Monster Movie’s avant garde sound. So did spontaneous composition, which Can pioneered.
Spontaneous composition was hugely important in Can’s success. Holger remembers “that the members of Can were always ready to record. They didn’t take time to think. It was spontaneous. The music flowed through them and out of them.” Holger remembers that he was always “given the job of pressing the record button. This was a big responsibility as the fear was failing to record something we could never recreate.” In some ways, Can were an outlet for this outpouring of creativity, which gave birth to a new musical genre.
This new musical genre was dubbed Krautrock by the British music press. So not only was Monster Movie the album that launched Can’s career, but saw a new musical genre, Krautrock coined. The founding father’s of Krautrock were Can, lead by Holger Czukay.
1969 saw the release of Holger Czukay’s debut album. Credited to the Technial Space Composer’s Crew, Canaxis 5 was a collaboration between Holger and Ralf Dammers. Canaxis 5 is an often overlooked album, which features two lengthy tracks. It shows two innovative musicians pushing the musical envelop, as Can would continue to do.
Released in 1970, Soundtracks, was Can’s sophomore album. Essentially, Soundtracks is a compilation of tracks Can wrote for the soundtracks to various films. It’s the album that marked the departure of vocalist Malcolm Mooney. Replacing him, was Japanese busker, Kenji Damo Suzuki. He features on five of the tracks, contributing percussion and vocals. The addition of Damo wasn’t the only change Can were making.
Soundtracks was a coming of age for Can. It marked a move away from the psychedelic jams of Monster Movie and a move towards their classic sound. That saw the music becoming much more experimental and avant-garde. The music took an ambient, meditative, mesmeric and thoughtful sound. This marked the beginning of what became known as Can’s classic years, when albums like Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days were released.
The first instalment in the golden quartet was Tago Mago. This was the first album where Kenji Damo Suzuki was a permanent member of Can. He and the rest of Can spent a year in the castle in Schloss Nörvenich. It was owned by an art collector named Mr. Vohwinkel. He allowed Can to stay at Schloss Nörvenich rent free. For what Holger described as “a poor man’s band,” this was perfect.
Holger remembers Can during this year as “just jamming and seeing what took shape. Songs started as lengthy jams and improvised pieces.” This Holger remembers is “how Can always worked” After that, Holger worked his magic. He edited them and these mini masterpieces featured on Tago Mago, which was four months in the making.
For four months between November 1970 and February 1971, Can recorded what would become one of their most innovative and influential albums, Tago Mago.
A double album, Tago Mago featured seven groundbreaking tracks. Tago Mago was released in February 1971. Straight away, critics realised the importance of Tago Mago. Here was a game-changer of an album. It has an intensity that other albums released in 1971 lacked. Jazzier with an experimental sound, the music is mysterious, mesmeric and multilayered. It’s innovative, with genres and influences melting into one. Nuances, subtleties and surprises reveal themselves. No wonder. Can deliver an avant garde masterclass.
This comes courtesy of jazz-tinged drumming, improvised guitar playing and showboating keyboard solos. Then there was Kenji Damo Suzuki’s unique vocal style. All this, resulted in an album that was critically acclaimed, influential and innovative.
Released to widespread critical acclaim in 1971, Tago Mago was the start of a golden period for Can. Their reputation as one of the most innovative groups of the seventies started to take shape. Can had released one of the most innovative albums, Tago Mago. Holger remembers the reaction to Tago Mago. “I knew Tago Mago was an innovative album, but I never realised just how innovative an album it would become?
On Tago Mago’s release, it was hailed as Can’s best album yet. However, not in Holger’s opinion. “Tago Mago is a classic album, but I much prefer Future Days.” Despite Holger’s preference, several generations of musicians have been inspired by Tago Mago, a true Magnus Opus, that belongs in every record collection. So does the followup Ege Bamyasi.
Can were on a roll. It seemed they could do no wrong. They released Spoon as a single in 1972. It reached number six in Germany, selling over 300,000 copies. That was helped no end, by the single being used as the theme to a German thriller Das Messer. It seemed nothing could go wrong for Can. The money the made from Spoon, allowed Can to hire disused cinema to record what became Ege Bamyasi.
Can advertised for a space to record their next album, Ege Bamyasi. Recording began in a disused cinema, which doubled as a recording studio and living space. The sessions at Inner Space Studio, in Weilerswist, near Cologne didn’t go well. Irmin Schmidt and Kenji Damo Suzuki took to playing marathon chess sessions. As a result, Can hadn’t enough material for an album. This resulted in Can having to work frantically to complete Ege Bamyasi. Despite this, Can were still short of material. So Spoon was added and Ege Bamyasi was completed.
Ege Bamyasi was a fusion of musical genres. Everything from jazz, ambient, world music, psychedelia, rock and electronica melted into one. When it was Ege Bamyasi released in November 1972, it was to the same critical acclaim as previous albums. Critics were won over by Can’s fourth album. It was perceived as a more accessible album than its predecessors. Just like Can’s previous albums, the quality of music was consistent.
Critics hailed Can as one of the few bands capable of creating consistent and pioneering albums. They were one of the most exciting bands of the early seventies. Can were continuing to innovate and influence musicians and music lovers alike. Just like its predecessor, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi is an essential part of any self respecting record collection. Having released two consecutive classic albums and their first single, it seemed nothing could go wrong for Can.
Despite Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi being referred to as two of the most influential albums ever released, Holger Czukay prefers Future Days. This is the album he calls “my favourite Can album.” It was the third in Can’s golden quartet, and marked a change in direction from Can.
Future Days saw Can’s music head in the direction of ambient music. The music is atmospheric, dreamy, ethereal, melancholy, expansive and full of captivating, mesmeric rhythms. It’s also pioneering and progressive, with elements of avant garde, experimental, psychedelia and rock melting into one. Rather than songs, soundscapes describes the four tracks. Future Days and Bel Air showcase Can’s new sound. Bel Air was the Future Day’s epic. It lasted just over nineteen minutes, and sees can take you on an enthralling musical journey. Just like the rest of Future Days, critics hailed the album a classic.
On its release in August 1973, Future Days was hailed a classic by music critics. The move towards ambient music may have surprised some Can fans. However, Brian Eno was just one artist pioneering ambient music. This move towards ambient music must have pleased Holger’s guru Karlheinz Stockhausen. He must have looked on proudly as Can released the third of a quartet of classic albums. The final album in this quartet, Soon Over Babaluma was released in 1974.
Soon Over Babaluma.
Soon Over Babaluma marked the end of Can’s golden period. It was the end of a period where they were releasing some of their most innovative and groundbreaking music. There was a change of direction on Soon Over Babaluma. Can were without a vocalist. Kenji Damo Suzuki left Can and married his German girlfriend. He then became a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the lack of a vocalist, Can continued as a quartet. They released Soon Over Babaluma in November 1974.
When Can released Soon Over Babaluma in November 1974, it received praise from critics. With a myriad of beeps, squeaks and sci-fi sounds, Soon Over Babaluma is like musical journey into another, 21st Century dimension. A musical tapestry where layers of music are intertwined during five tracks on Soon Over Babaluma. It followed in the ambient footsteps of Future Days and brought to a close the most fruitful period of Can’s career. Following the “golden quartet,” Can didn’t go into decline. Instead, Can continued to reinvent themselves and their music.
Landed was released in September 1975. It had been recorded between February and April 1975 at Inner Space Studios. Just like previous albums, Can produced Landed. Holger and Tony Robinson mixed the first four tracks at Studio Dierks, Stommeln. The other two tracks were mixed by Holger at Inner Space Studios. These six tracks marked a change of direction from Can.
As well as a change in direction musically, Landed was the first Can album to be released on Virgin Records. Gone is the ambient sound of Soon Over Babaluma. Only Unfinished on Landed has an ambient influence. Instead, Landed has a poppy, sometimes glam influence. With uptempo, shorter songs, Landed was a much more traditional album. How would the critics react?
Critics were divided about Landed. Some critics saw Landed as the next chapter in the Can story, while others praised the album as adventurous, eclectic and innovative. Others thought Can were conforming. Surely not?
Flow Motion was Can’s eight album. As usual, it was recorded at Inner Space Studios. Produced by Can, Flow Motion was an album that drew inspiration from everything from funk, reggae, rock and jazz. It was an eclectic, genre-melting album. It’s also one of Holger Czukay’s favourite Can albums.
Holger remembers Flow Motion as an “Innovative and eclectic” album. He calls it “one of Can’s underrated albums.” Flow Motion also marked a another change in Can’s way of working.
Released in October 1976, Flow Motion featured lyrics written by Peter Gilmour. This was a first. Never before, had anyone outside the band had written for Can. It worked. Can enjoyed their first UK single I Want More. It would later be recorded Fini Tribe and then Italo disco group Galaxis. With what was just their second hit single in seven years, maybe Can were about to make a commercial breakthrough?
Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Saw Delight which was released in March 1977, wasn’t the commercial success many people forecast. That’s despite the new lineup of Can embracing world music.
Joining Can were bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist and vocalist Rebop Kwaku Baah. They’d previously been members of British rock band Traffic. Rosko Gee replaced Holger on bass. Holger decided to add a percussive element, Holger added a myriad of sound-effects. This was Holger at his groundbreaking best. Experimental sounds including a wave receiver was used. The result was one of the most ambitious albums can had released.
Despite the all-star lineup and a bold, progressive and experimental album, Saw Delight wasn’t a commercial success. It was well received by critics. The problem was, Saw Delight was way ahead of its time. If it had been released in the eighties, like albums by Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel, it would’ve been a bigger commercial success. Sadly, by then Can would be no more. That was still to come. However, things weren’t well within the Can camp.
Out Of Reach.
Nine years after Can had released their debut album Monster Movie, they released their tenth album, Out Of Reach. It was released in July 1978. The title proved to be a prophetic. After all, commercial success always seemed to elude Can. Not only did Out Of Reach fail commercially, but the Out Of Reach proved to be Can’s most controversial album.
So much so, that they disowned Out Of Reach. On Out Of Reach Holger was left to add myriad of sound-effects. Bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah of Traffic returned. They were part of the problem. Holger confirms this.
When I asked him what he meant by this, he said “During the recording of Out Of Reach, I felt an outsider in my own group. I was on the outside looking in. I was on the margins. All I was doing was add sound-effects.” For Holger, he felt” his group had been hijacked by Rosko Gee and and Rebop Kwaku Baah.” Things got so bad, that Holger quit Can.
Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah dominated Out Of Reach. Gone was the loose, free-flowing style of previous albums. Even Jaki Liebezeit’s play second fiddle to Baah’s overpowering percussive sounds. The only positive thing was a guitar masterclass from Michael Karoli. Apart from this, things weren’t looking good for Can. It was about to get worse though.
The critics rounded on Out Of Reach. They found very little merit in Out Of Reach. Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah were rightly blamed for the album’s failure. Even Can disliked Out Of Reach. They later disowned Out Of Reach. Despite this, Rosko Gee and and Rebop Kwaku Baah remained members of Can.
Unable to play with the necessary freedom Can were famed for, the two ex-members of Traffic stifled Can. Rebop’s percussion overpowers Jaki’s drums, which have always been part of Can’s trademark sound. At least Michael’s virtuoso guitar solos are a reminder of classic Can. A nod towards Carlos Santana, they showed Can were still capable of moments of genius. There wouldn’t be many more of these. Can would breakup after their next album.
Following the failure of Out Of Reach, the members of Can began recording what became Can. Remarkably, Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah were still part of Can. Sadly, Holger was not longer a member of Can. He’d left during the making of Out Of Reach. His only involvement was editing Can.
Can, which is sometimes referred to as Inner Space, was released in July 1979. Again, critics weren’t impressed by Can. It received mixed reviews. No longer were Can the critic’s darlings. The music on Can was a fusion of avant garde, electronica, experimental, psychedelia and rock. Add to that, a myriad of effects including distortion and feedback, and here was an album that divided the opinion of critics. The critics agreed, it was better than Out Of Reach. They agreed that Holger was sadly missed.
Even Holger’s renowned editing skills couldn’t save Can. Try as he may, he could only work with what he was given. He did his best with Can, which the eleventh album from the group he co-founded. By the time Can was released, Holger “had come to a realisation, that it was time to go his own way.” Holger describes this as “necessary.”
Can decided to split-up after the release of Can. Sadly, Can was their swan-song. However, even before that, Holger “felt marginalised, this had been the case since he Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah became part of Can. They’d hijacked Can.” Now, Holger would embark upon his solo career.
Holger hadn’t really been making music since 1976. The last two Can albums saw Holger editing the music. So, Holger set about finding “his own sound again.” He’d “been through this with Can,” Now he’d have to do so again. It would be worth it though, when he released his first solo album since 1969s Canaxis 5, Movies.
Recording of Movies took place at Inner Space Studio, Cologne. This was where Can had recorded the best music of their career. It was like a Can reunion. Jaki Liebezeit played drums on Movies. Irmin Schmidt and Michael Karoli played on Oh Lord, Give Us More Money. Even Baah was drafted in to play organ on Cool In The Pool. Holger threw himself into the project. He recorded Movies and played guitars, bass, keyboards and synths. Then when the four songs that became Movies were completed, Holger mixed and produced the album. Movies saw Holger hailed the comeback King.
Released to critical acclaim, Movies was hailed as one of the best albums of 1979. It was an eclectic album. Described as variously psychedelic, cinematic, melodic, moody, understated and progressive, here was the next chapter in Holger’s musical career. The one track that everyone agreed was a minor masterpiece was Cool In The Pool. It was Movies’ Magnus Opus. Holger’s decision to embark upon a solo career had been vindicated. He was back doing what he did best, creating ambitious, groundbreaking and pioneering music. That would continue in 1981, when Holger released On The Way To The Peak Of Normal.
On The Way To The Peak Of Normal.
When I spoke to Holger, he said “one of the albums I’m most proud of, is 1981s On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. It was Holger’s first collaboration with Conny Plank.
Working with Conny Plank Holger remembers, was a revelation. Holger felt Conny was a consummate professional. “Here was someone who understood what I was trying to achieve.” He ensured that I never made music people neither understood, nor wanted to buy. The sessions were organised and disciplined, very difference from the indiscipline of late Can albums.”
Recording took place in the familiar surroundings of Inner Space Studios, Cologne. The only member of Can were present was Jaki Liebezeit. Other members of the band included Conny Plank and Jah Wobble, who Holger and would collaborate with on the 1982 E.P. Full Circle and the 1983 Snake Charmer E.P. They’re two of many collaborations Holger would be involved with. That was still to come.
Before that, Holger released On The Way To The Peak Of Normal in 1981. Just like the early days of Can, Holger was the critic’s darling.
Critics were won over by On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. The albums was a fusion of ambient, avant-garde, electronic, experimental, funk, industrial, jazz, psychedelia and rock. Genre-melting describes an album of bold, challenging, innovative, inventive and influential music. It was a case of expect the unexpected on On The Way To The Peak Of Normal, which saw Holger continue to create groundbreaking music. Here, was one of the most inventive albums Holger had recorded.
Although Holger had been making music for three decades, he still had plenty to say musically. That would continue throughout the rest of the eighties, with his various collaborations and his 1984 album Der Osten ist Rot.
Der Osten ist Rot.
There was a three year gap between On The Way To The Peak Of Normal and Der Osten ist Rot. During that period, Holger was busy collaborating with other artists. A new generation of artists discovering his music, and Holger was discovering their music.
He remembers spending time with Conny Plank in Cologne. Devo and the Eurythmics had been working with Conny. Holger was able to spend time in their company. One night, Holger remembers “Devo jamming, and they asked me to join them. I was impressed by their discipline and stability. It was a pleasure to play with them. Compared to Can in the end, it was totally different and a great experience. Especially with the Eurythmics watching.” Conny Plank, Holger remembers, was a hugely important influence on him and his music.
When recording of Der Osten ist Rot began at Inner Space Studios, Cologne, there was still a Can influence. Holger had written six songs and cowrote three with Jaki Liebezeit of Can. Jaki also played drums, piano, trumpet and organ. Conny played synths and Michy took charge of vocal duties. Together, they played their part in another groundbreaking album from Holger Czukay.
Released in 1984, critics welcomed another ambitious and groundbreaking album. The combination of Holger, Conny Plank and Jaki Liebezeit had proved a powerful partnership. This is apparent when you listen to Der Osten Ist Rot, which remarkably, was released thirty years ago. Ambitious, progressive and eclectic, Holger and his band weave musical genres. They become something other artists will never have envisaged. These artists however, aren’t a visionary like Holger Czukay. That’s obvious on Der Osten Ist Rot
To celebrate this anniversary, Groenland Records will released a selection of songs from Der Osten Ist Rot and its followup Rome Remains Rome on 18th July 2014. This is a very welcome release.
Rome Remains Rome.
Neither Der Osten Ist Rot, nor Rome Remains Rome have been released before. There’s a good reason for this. Sadly, previously, the master-tapes were damaged and several songs lost for good. So, unless you’re fortunate enough to own a copy of the original albums, then Groenland Records’ rerelease will be a tantalising taste of a musical pioneer at the peak of his powers. That’s apparent on Rome Remains Rome.
Rome Remains Rome saw Holger joined by some familiar faces. This included two of Holger’s old friends from Can, guitaristMichael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Bassist Jah Wobble completed what was a fearsome rhythm section. They provided the heartbeat to Rome Remains Rome, which was released in 1987.
On its release in 1987, Rome Remains Rome saw the continued reinvention of Holger Czukay. Rome Remains Rome was a fusion of art rock, avant garde, electronica, experimental and rock. Determined not to stand still, Holger takes you on a mesmeric musical adventure. Veering between musical genres, the album is like a musical tapestry. Layers of music go into the making of Rome Remains Rome. Again, it’s a case of expect the unexpected. No wonder. Holger as always, was a musical chameleon. That’s why no two Holger Czukay albums are the same. Far from it. Holger’s music continued to evolve. That’s what you’d expect from one of the most innovative musicians of his generation, Holger Czukay. It seems that after leaving Can, Holger had been rejuvenated. He agreed with that. That wasn’t the end of my conversation with Holger Czukay. We’d much more to discuss.
Listening to Holger, he enthuses about his solo career. It’s obvious that Holger feels his solo albums are overlooked. As a longtime Can and Holger Czukay fan, I don’t need convinced. He’s preaching to the converted. The problem is, that having been a member of one of the biggest and most innovative bands in musical history, anything that Holger released would be compared to that.
Even today, I told Holger, that still, a generation of bands still reference Can as one of their main influences. When I asked Holger who that felt, he quietly and modestly said “nice.” “We never expected that. We were just a poor man’s band making music.” He did admit that “when we made albums like Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, we knew these albums were good, special even. However, we never knew the effect they would have. It’s incredible. I’m proud to have been a part of that.” As our interview drew to a close, I’d a few questions left for Holger.
I was interested to hear his thoughts on Neu and Kraftwerk, who I described as the Holy Trinity of German music during the seventies. Holger remembers “spending time with the members of Neu. Sadly, we never got the opportunity to play together. That’s a regret. We didn’t even share a bill.” There’s a sense of sadness in Holger’s voice at the thought of two giants of German music sharing the same stage. What about Kraftwerk I asked?
“Now back then, Kraftwerk were a very different band. They were just an ordinary band, not the art band they’ve become. Their music was very different, especially when you listen to their first two albums.” Holger isn’t envious of Kraftwerk’s success. He seems proud to have known them, and seen them play, before they changed direction. Looking back, the Holy Trinity of German music are all success stories. They’ve all played an important part in modern music. Can, Neu and Kraftwerk were all innovators, who influenced several generations of musicians and music lovers. They’ll continue to do so. However, what if Can were a new band nowadays I asked Holger?
“Would I like be to starting Can today?” Holger said “no. “I’m happy we founded our poor man’s band when we did. We achieved more than we ever expected.” I mentioned the technology available to bands nowadays? He seems happy that Can had to “make do, mend and innovate.” Holger is also a huge fan of “analogue equipment and vinyl.” He recommends that “people should listen to Can on vinyl. That’s how the music was meant to be heard back then. We recorded our music with vinyl in mind, not eight-track, cassettes or compact discs.” Holger is disparaging about compact discs. He’s far from a fan of their sound.
Instead, Holger is an advocate of vinyl’s superior sound. He chided me for having listened to all my Can albums on compact disc. “You must buy the albums on vinyl. The music comes alive.” Fortunately, I’ll have the opportunity to do that.
Mute Records are in the process of rereleasing Can’s back-catalogue on vinyl. Then on 18th July 2014, Groenland Records will release a selection of songs from two of Holger’s legendary solo albums Der Osten Ist Rot and Rome Remains Rome. They’ll be released on two 10” albums and as a digital download. As an added bonus, previously unreleased remixes versions are included on the album. As I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be an expensive time for fans of Can and Holger Czukay’s music. Even better, there’s more to come
Holger’s partner Elsa, a former DJ, who masterminded The Lost Tapes box set project, has been delving into Holger’s vaults. There’s a myriad of delights within these vaults. This includes music by Can and from Holger’s solo career. Gradually, Holger said, “some of these unreleased tracks will be released. It’s just a matter of when” With that, my time with Holger was almost over. I had one question left.
So, with a new generation of musicians in mind, I asked Holger what would his advice be for a new band? Without hesitation, he said “find your own sound.” That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen told Holger to do. “It’s what Can did, and I then had do so as a solo artist.” With those words of wisdom from the legendary, maverick musicians, we said our farewells. It had been a pleasure spending time with Holger Czukay, one of the greatest musicians in the history of modern music.
Although innovative is an overused word, that’s the perfect description of Holger Czukay. He truly is an innovative and pioneering musician. Whether it was with Can, or as a solo artist, Holger Czukay wasn’t afraid to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. That’s what you expect from a maverick musician like Holger Czukay.
Throughout his long and successful career, he released some of the most ambitious, innovative, inspiring and influential music of the past fifty years. He’s also a musical visionary who was way ahead of his time. That’s why in the future, the music of Holger Czukay and Can, will continue to influence and inspire further generations of musicians.
- Posted in: Krautrock ♦ Psychedelia ♦ Rock
- Tagged: Can, Canaxis 5, Conny Plank, Der Osten ist Rot, Ege Bamyasi, Flow Motion, Future Days, Groenland Records, Holger Czukay, Inner Space Studio, Landed, Monster Movie, Movies, Mute Records, On The Way To The Peak of Normal, Out Of Reach, Rome Remains Rome, Saw Delight, Soon Over Babaluma, Soundtracks, Tago Mago
Very interesting thanks. Must have been amazing to meet & talk with Holger.