Photo by U-She
Today, Holger Czukay is a busy man, running back and forth as he packs things up for the big move back to the old Can studio in Weilerswist, near Cologne. This is a very special thing: The Weilerswist studio, a former movie theater also known as Inner Space during Can’s time there, is an enchanted place, the scene of the making of such prime-era Can classics as Future Days, Soon Over Babaluma and Landed.
Shook-eye, it’s pronounced. And a bit of background: Holger was the bassist–chief engineer of revered German band Can circa ’68–’76. Can’s legend looms large in recent times for their enormous impact on (no exaggeration) just about every kind of contemporary music, though let’s say mostly in the techno, electro, hip-hop, trip-hop, ambient, DJ and punk-rock spheres. In Germany the band is the stuff of legend, too (though never saleswise), so much so that Inner Space, which had in post-Can times been used for normal commercial enterprises, was recently purchased and moved intact to a museum, where it was re-created in minute detail.
Czukay himself is the famously mad musical genius who created such influential solo albums as Movies in 1979, which was the virtual blueprint used in the subsequently even more influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne (which both admitted to in later years); he has collaborated with Jah Wobble, David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto and numerous others in recent years, and his latest album, in collaboration with his artist wife U-She, is called The New Millennium. Czukay will make a rare American appearance on May 18 at the Knitting Factory, and it’s an important occasion for a number of reasons, one of which is that Czukay, as the principal sculptor of Can’s sound, is the secret, key background man behind so much modern music that you owe it to yourself to hear the source, and, more importantly, where it’s arrived in 2004.
The New Millennium is another odyssey into fantastic worlds of highly organized yet purely spontaneous sound, each polyrhythm-percussion-based track a massaging low-frequency waterfall of sampled, electronic and analog stupefaction. On many of these pieces, like “Djinni,” for example, Czukay does something in the archetypal Czukay mode, which is to convey that something is happening, though you’ll never know exactly what. Czukay’s explanation of the thinking behind it all is, a bit typically, something that clicks with you weeks after hearing him say it.
“‘Djinni’ is . . . how can I say? Today everything is based on effects. ‘Djinni’ is based on neutral effects.”
It has episodes and interludes, and cutaways — like a film, obviously.
“As I said 20 years ago, I’m an acoustic-electric landscape painter. But that landscape painting is trying to tell a story — not delivering a message.”
Another great excursion is “Chittagong,” with more creeping into dusky alleyways, where further adventures might take place. He couldn’t possibly have planned the intricacies of these mysterious nooks and crannies . . .
“It’s strange. I bought a synthesizer, and tested it. And suddenly U-She came by and said, ‘Have you recorded that?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m just only playing around.’ ‘Can you record this now?’ ‘I will try.’ ‘I’ll come back in 10 minutes.’ In 10 minutes she came back, and I just finished the recording of the ground track. And she came down, had the words ready, and said, ‘Can we make just one vocal recording of this?’ And this one recording was it.
“She has a vision, and sometimes she is leading, as she was on [the track] ‘Millennium.’ Usually we don’t start from a lyric, she only listens to something that I am trying to establish on an instrument, very carefully. This is where she is overtaking me, because I will go to bed and say forget about it, and she’ll say, no, you record this immediately, and then I can’t escape it. ‘Millennium’ you can say was finished in five minutes. But the four weeks following was her opinions on how my guitar was too loud, etc. [Laughs.] The typical arguments in bands, always the same.”
Czukay departed Can to get relief from the egotistical bickering that ultimately prevents bands from presenting a unified vision. On his solo albums, he enjoyed working alone, without distractions. But, always looking for a different way of doing things, on Linear City, he shared the recording/editing process with fans via his Web site (www.czukay.de).
In Can’s last interesting period, Czukay ceded the bass playing to former Traffic man Rosko Gee in order to concentrate on bringing spontaneity back into the group, via shortwave radio “playing” and his own analog sampling machine — a modified Dictaphone. “This is why I was lucky at the time — switching on the shortwaves, and working with this radio as an unpredictable sound source. Working with the Internet, with other people together, has somehow the same quality.”
On Linear City, what is perhaps not too surprising is how Czukay’s warm, inviting personality comes through, even in collaboration with several other people.
“Yes, because this is what I have learned: In Can, 95 percent was listening to the others, and only 5 percent was saying something with your instrument. This is what Can really learned — playing by listening.”
Holger Czukay likes to work in the dark. He doesn’t want to see anything when he composes. That might interfere with the music’s visual effect. For many years he has turned night into day, burning the midnight oil, alone in his studio with his cobbled-together equipment.
“When the night gets in, then I am getting awake, I’m ready to work. But I can do that the same way in daytime. Somehow it’s similar to Bach. Bach was like an officer, a musical composer officer, writing from morning at 8, then eight hours or 12, then if dinner was not served punctually at 12 o’clock, he got very angry!” He laughs.
One of the ways Czukay has achieved recordings that sound unlike anything else you’ve ever heard is his method of mixing — a piece will be blended as many as 20 times, then sampled from and edited back together.
“This is partly still true, but now different methods are melted together. Now, when I record, I record with the final sound, I don’t put on any effects when mixing. And actually, I don’t mix, really. I’m at any time able to play the whole piece as it was recorded and how it should be at the end.
“These things are not the type of ‘masterpieces’ that come by thinking and torturing your brain; that has nothing to do with creativity. These things are in the air, and you just grab at the right time. This idea is based on an old way, an ancient way of producing. Very effective, actually — there is a chance to be surprised by something, and accept something that was not to be foreseen.”
It was Czukay’s vision about the correct amount of playing/not playing that gave Can its special sound and impact. The live Can and the studio Can were completely different birds; in the studio, everyone except human-machine drummer Jaki Liebezeit needed heavy editing. Czukay offers insight into how a band can find its own sound:
“Emotion, intelligence and wildness: These three elements made Can, and somehow make myself. Can was a punk group; we didn’t want to be social outcasts, but the way we were playing — actually as beginners — was something we had done freely and emotionally.
“Usually young bands today are following a certain kind of a trend. When you are getting older, it’s better to develop something like your own patent recipe; it’s like a medical mixture, your wonder medicine, and you shouldn’t tell everyone what it is. All I can say is, I’m using the whole spectrum of what I’m available to have, from Dictaphones, very old sound sources, up to the most up-to-date administration tools and sound sources. These things together make your unique sound at the end.”
So much music is so very predetermined, and so shiny it hurts. Whereas Czukay once said the poorer the sound, the better the quality.
“It’s funny, when we started with Can, we found how many mistakes we had made, and I was saying, yes, I think the microphone was in the wrong position, I mixed poorly, etc. But it doesn’t matter. As long as the music is fine, the sound quality doesn’t matter at all. Because every music will sound good as long as it’s played well.
“It’s the same thing when I play French horn. I cannot play French horn. But the worst that could happen is that people start smiling.”