An Interview With Holger Czukay
by Richie Unterberger (January 1997)

What were Can's main influences from the world of rock, as opposed to classical and avant-garde?

Everybody a little bit different. But mainly I would say the influence, for me, of [the] Beatles and Velvet Underground was most important. The Velvet Underground especially. They had something achieved which others didn't achieve. Even Jimi Hendrix didn't achieve that. One could have the opinion that this group is not able to play really properly right. They didn't get the right rhythm, they couldn't make a real tight rhythm. But the music was incredibly convincing. And this feeling made us encouraged, actually, to go on with rock music in general, instead of, let's say, making avant-garde academic music. Academic music was somehow finished by the audiences. Not by the musical idea itself. But we liked to do something without notation. We didn't want to read music off papers. We really tried to make instant compositions from the very beginning. This Can tradition actually achieved [this] very much when we played live.

How would you compare the group's sound live and in the studio?

Usually live is far more wired and little bit unpredictable. People of our generation, I think they were not influenced [by Can] at all. No, that's what I found out. When they attended to Can concerts, they thought maybe it was exciting, maybe it is this. But nobody of these people were ever thinking of "Hey man, this is something we should take as an ideal, we should take as a way people follow up." In Germany, actually, Can didn't [attain] such an image of being heroes. But younger people who attended our concerts, [the] next younger generation, especially in England, they became addicted, actually, to the way of how Can made music, and what I found out in the last year, especially in Russia for example, Can will be treated with young people sometimes [like] the Rolling Stones. The Russian people see a good way of making progressive music on their own without being forced to copy rock and roll.

How do you think Can has influenced the music of today?

Actually, I think they are not such a direct influence on these electronic people as was a group like Kraftwerk. For example, in Germany the DJs and the young people, their fathers was not Can, it was Kraftwerk. That has something to do [with the fact] that Can actually was a real band. But the new music is not based on the idea of forming a band. They make teams, they work in teams, that's what I can say. But as a real band of musicians, this idea is not so strong, especially in Europe. Therefore Can was probably not such an influence. But when it comes, let's say, of making a party or a live evening, making a big performance of nothing, then Can can become very important, because this was how Can was going on stage. Actually with an empty head, nothing pre-performed or nothing pre-whatever. We just went onstage, and who[ever] was throwing the first stone, we caught that and threw it back. And that was the beginning of the concert.

It had something to do, actually, with a lot of sports. I think this music Can made had something to do with football or with sports. That means, you can't really say in the next minute, where is that ball going to? It is a team which is playing with such a ball [that] knows very well about those strategies and something like this. But actually you can't say, by definition, when is the ball in this or this area. It's the same with Can music. We know how to build up the whole thing, but the actual sound and the actual development of the thing was not foreseen, and was something which was given to us by whatever powers, by spiritual or whatever that is.

Each album was unpredictable.

It was like that. We had our studio. We had that from the very beginning, as we knew making records, as other groups were doing. That means pre-performing the whole thing, practicing songs and something like that, and then going to the studios and then just perform and produce it. And after a short time, you are getting out of it again. This was not our intention. As I said, we didn't have anything on our mind. We just had to stay together for a certain while. Such an album was taking about two or three months. And we just played together live in the studio as we would do it on stage, without audience.

Were there any directions you or the band wanted to explore that you wish you had?

First of all, we were bloody beginners altogether. Maybe except Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer. Jaki was a quite experienced drummer. He played one year with Chet Baker for example in Barcelona, in Spain, and was a real jazz drummer. He certainly has performed before with people he could take seriously. But the rest of Can was different. Who was I? I was just nothing. I just studied with Stockhausen, I didn't have any practical experience. I had some sort of weird ideas or something like that, but nothing in my hand I could prove who I am. Karoli, the guitar player, was my pupil, and of course he started to study law, and he had nothing in his hand too. We were all bloody new beginners, and tried somehow to grow out of our soil.

Irmin, he had some sort of experience being a conductor. But he was a beginner in playing in such a group. For example, counting until four. Keep counting until four, he had really sort of big problems in the very beginning. Every one of us.

Were there records you preferred more than others?

I regard the very first albums being the most important, as Can was most innocent at that time. If a group is new, young, and starting from the very beginning, actually you can't do anything wrong. You do something wrong when you try to learn, and when you get older, and getting experienced, this is [the] time when you can do mistakes and have some errors. It's quite normal. I think, for every group. That's the reason why I really love Monster Movie, Tago Mago, Soundtracks is a great album, especially Can Delay. All the pieces which were even recorded before Monster Movie, just delayed because no record company wanted to take us on. So we kept that, and still keep some of the material.

When Can hooked up with Virgin, was there any sort of pressure to go commercial?

That was one of the reasons what made problems in the group. In the beginning, we had, for example, we were a real group, an entire group. And that means we were recording straightaway on two tracks. Then we became successful, we had a hit in Germany, and we were able to afford a multi-track machine. From this moment on, you can say it was the beginning of the end of Can. In such a group, everybody has to criticize the other one about what he's doing wrong and so on. But at this moment, when the multi-track machine came out, it was "I want to hear guitar," or "I want to hear the bass," "Who made this wrong?" And the musician was getting a little bit afraid, and said "okay, okay, I do my part now and play it as good as I can," and the others shouldn't be in there because it makes him nervous. This was the beginning, where the group suddenly was not such a strong group again. Even if they were more sophisticated about production. This was the reason, for example, they thought the bass was not very good playing anymore. So Rosko Gee had to come up, and he wasn't such a great bass player.

And I was immediately inventing a new sort of instrument. That means I knew where the weak point of Can was. Because there was too much dealing just with themselves, and nothing which came from outside. So I looked out for radio and all these sort of devices, including telephone. Looking up for something from an outside work. That means that you suddenly get an information from outside, stop getting off from your routine, and getting fresh again from the very beginning. But in terms of becoming more commercial, maybe, the other members didn't like this idea very much, and so that was the reason why I got out and started on my own, towards the end of Can.

I wonder if you could compare the band as they were with Malcolm Mooney and as they were with Damo Suzuki.

With Malcolm Mooney, we were very fresh. Malcolm was a great rhythm talent. He was a locomotive. That was the right singer from the very beginning, as this was our weak point. Maybe we were creating rhythms, but you could say we were not very stable in ourselves in doing that. That means [we needed] someone who was pushing us into the rhythm, and giving us the feel that this is the right thing to do. This was Malcolm Mooney, and he got integrated very much into what all the other musicians did. I think he was the right singer in the right place at the right time. When he left because of psychological reasons, Damo came in. The group was far more experienced by that time. Damo is not such a pusher. He is a different sort of a singer, and therefore the group achieved such a stability. Again, Damo fitted perfectly into that. So you can say by the follow-up by the musicians who came in. Everything was really perfect.

The problem was, when Damo disappeared, Can was now without a singer. Suddenly we felt a hole in our music. Michael was singing, but he is not - a guitar player actually should not sing. Except like Jimi Hendrix or something like that. Actually, a guitar player should play guitar. That was our problem, suddenly, what we had. We tried out so many singers at that time. And nobody really fitted again into this group. It was somehow Can's fate, or tragedy, or whatever you call that, that it happened like it happened. But that's what was given to the group.

It seems you could call Malcolm and Damo joining the group inspired accidents.

Actually, you can say, if you're a religious person, they were given by God for starting something for mankind.

Does it come as a surprise to you or other people in Can to learn about the group's cult following in the U.S.?

Yes, you see this following came up by the years. It was suddenly, not from the very beginning. When we started in '68 with Malcolm Mooney, let's say into the beginning of the 1970s, I always thought if Can makes it, it will make it in America. I thought the way the rhythms were done, the way how we played live, it was a hell, actually, of rhythmic impact. I thought that would fit far more into America than into Europe. But in England, it was in [the] beginning, let's say, accepted with greatest enthusiasm. Then the French people reacted on that very strong in the beginning of the '70s. But from America, we didn't get really any reaction. We heard that we should come over and play, but somehow all this was so unstable and nothing was really confirmed in such a way that we could say, okay, let's do it, let's go over. It was just, some people think we should come over. It's no reason to go to such expenses, [to] bring the whole group over to America.

How have you drawn upon Can's influence in your solo career?

When I started my solo career, I only could do that because Can was such a good time for learning everything [that] you need to stand up on your own feet. Without Can, that would be completely impossible. I have learned to play all the other instruments. For the first time I could play, you know, whatever played. I could go back after more than 20 years to my guitar. And with Jaki I was always connected anyway very closely. And I could manage the studio. Everything technical. I didn't have any technical problems to get my ideas on tape and onto the final mix, actually. I could do that all along. So this was something, Can was most important to learn that.

Have you been in contact with Malcolm at all?

No. Malcolm lives in New York, but he has a group here in San Francisco. And he's playing with this group. I heard a tape from him, what he was doing. I think he has musicians here around, and therefore I think he's playing sometimes. I don't know how professional they are, but I would think they are not unexperienced to that what I heard. It looks like Malcolm really tries to have a restart as a singer.

Are there plans to release any more unreleased material?

First of all, there will come out I think in March this Brian Eno, the Orb, Sonic Youth, A Guy Called Gerald, they all have made remixes. This will come out on Mute. And at the same time now, I think in February in Los Angeles, there was someone who made a Can tribute album. American groups or solo artists have performed Can pieces. I haven't heard that yet, but the album is finished, and I think it is about to be released in the next six weeks.

What happened to the soundtracks for Wim Wenders?

We don't know where the tapes are. I know only that Wim has taken them at the time. He was in the Can studio, and he somehow made us play a little bit as he wanted us to have. I think he got all the tapes, and I have no idea where they have disappeared, or if he still holds them. I have to ask [the] manager about that. You must ask Hildegard.

What I can say, for example, is that working with other people that I have done, with Jah wobble for example, or with David Sylvian, all this Can experience went into this collaboration with these people. For David Sylvian, it was completely new to have that style of working, actually. For him, it was the first experience. I thing the Edge was interviewed half a year later, and he said it was the first time he was making a production out[side] of U2, and he thought that we are all going completely nuts! He didn't really understand what that was. He seemed to be very excited, but that was for him a completely new world.

This open-minded conception which Can established, I think is a good way to master the future. And I can se that now, working with other people, with the young people from the electronic scene. They understand me perfectly. They are able to interact right away. And I think actually this music now, with all these devices, is perfectly designed for the electronic world, it looks like. This is very living electronic music. Nothing is bad about that.