A Protest Against Bullshit: Irmin Schmidt On All Gates Open – The Story Of Can

With the publication this weekend of Rob Young’s book All Gates Open: The Story Of Can, Sean Kitching chats to Irmin Schmidt about the development of the book, the origins of the band, and the surprising tenderness of Mark E. Smith

Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can embodied a kind of ritualistic minimalism, somehow managing to be both forward looking and primordial at the same time. Constructing their music out of lengthy improvisational sessions, aided by innovative use of basic studio equipment, Can created arguably the best run of albums of all time – seven great records – with the trio of Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, as unbeatable a trinity of recordings as a band ever released.

Despite such critical acclaim and the group’s undeniable presence behind the scenes of popular music, Can remain less well known than many of the bands they have influenced. The publication of the band’s first official biography, All Gates Open: The Story of Can, will hopefully play a part in redressing this.

Related in wonderfully evocative prose by Electric Eden author, The Wire, Uncut and Guardian contributor, Rob Young, the book’s first section provides a detailed biography of Can. The second part, ‘Can Kiosk’, assembled by sole surviving member of the core band, Irmin Schmidt, offers a befitting collage of oral history, interviews with musicians and filmmakers who were influenced by Can, as well as more personal dreams and diary entries. Depicting the disparate backgrounds from which the individual members came, many of the reasons for the band’s singular development soon become apparent.

Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt met on a new music course taught by composer Karheinz Stockhausen at the Rheinisch Musikschule in Cologne in the mid 60s (the course was also attended by the future ‘Fourth World’ trumpet player, Jon Hassell, who “distributed tabs of LSD among the more open-minded students.”) Before that, Schmidt had already received a grounding in the classical repertoire and attended the Mozarteum in Salzburg to hone his conducting skills. The youngest member of the band, guitarist Michael Karoli, was a student of Czukay’s who taught his teacher what could be done with rock music. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit came from a jazz background but was disillusioned by the extent to which free jazz had painted itself into a corner. He was galvanised by a comment from a stranger after a gig: “You must play monotonously!”

It was in January 1966, when Schmidt travelled to New York, saw Andy Warhol’s films and hung out with the likes of La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, that he recognised the potency of this combination. The different perspectives that these four musicians brought to the table, he now saw, opened “a galaxy of new attitudes and possibilities”. The gears of Can were set in motion.

It’s a hugely entertaining story, and the feeling of possibility – to create a new music that was neither pop, classical, jazz, rock, nor minimalism – is likely to make anyone trying to attempt such a thing today envious of that brief moment in time when so many gates seemed open and so many roads were still largely untrodden.

In a quote that captures its collage style with aplomb, Max Dax and Robert Defcon write in their introduction to the ‘Can Kiosk’ section of the book: “Everything seems connected with everything: the cooking recipe with the composer, the music with the philosophers, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time with Can.”

Irmin Schmidt was kind enough to speak to the Quietus, via telephone, from his home in France.

Sometimes a music biography can encourage the mystery surrounding a band or unfortunately work against that. Were you happy with Rob Young’s section of the book?

Irmin Schmidt: Oh yes. We worked very closely in the beginning together. There is still some mystery in the music and every generation has a new generation of musicians discovering something new in it, because you cannot reveal the whole of the mystery. That’s the main thing: there’s always something new to discover in it.

I’m sure everybody always says to you how contemporary Can’s music still sounds today. How do you account for this evergreen perception of the music?

There are probably lots of reasons, but the main reason is that the music is so rich that you can listen to it from so many different angles, so everybody can discover something different in it. That’s what makes the mystery. Which actually comes from how the group was formed, from different musical experiences, like Jaki being a jazz drummer before Can and Holger and me being classically trained musicians. Everybody brought a different personal music history into the band and it’s still there. So it’s so rich in historical and personal musical experiences, which rarely is the case with other music.

I was struck by this quote from Holger Czukay in the book, ‘‘I thought it was like a living organism, Can: it had a beginning, it had a youth, it had a time getting old and a time to die.” I like the idea, that once something is set in writing as well as in music that it becomes a potentially immortal organism

Yes, I’m saying this too – that was our aim. That all these different experiences of ours could form a new organism. It sometimes really clicked. The group was right and we had this kind of telepathic feeling and the whole four people became one organism.

You know, in my part of the book, in the ‘Kiosk’, I’m talking about that and I’m saying it in the same words. I’m describing how it can happen that all of a sudden, the whole thing becomes not four different musicians but a unit which is much more than that.

Another quote, from Rob Young’s part of the book: “‘The catastrophe of war, Irmin insists, is the black heart of the music he would later make in Can…”

We all had experienced the war. But the main thing was the time after the war, this devastated country we grew up in. Of course, this is another example of Rob turning this into very beautiful words. I agree, though, of course, for me personally the experience of after the war, of the devastated country town where I grew up, is something which has a big influence on your feelings and how you see the world. Then if later you can still see the world very positively, that in itself can be a reaction to this childhood in such a devastated country.

The book details your own musical influences – Stockhausen, John Cage, the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix. Also the visit to New York in 1966. How important was that for you?

That was very important, because in Germany at that time, there was pop coming from America and from Britain, and there was classical music, and there was a deep separation between these two things. I was a classical musician. Pop and entertainment was one thing and it was of less worth than culture and classical music.

Coming to New York, there was no split. It all was one and it was either good music or not good music, no matter whether it was jazz, classical, or something new, minimal or whatever. There was no judgement about which had more cultural worth and that had a big influence on me.

When I came back, I saw this separation in Germany between what they call serious and entertainment and all of a sudden, I realised what bullshit that was. Of course, the creation of Can, among lots of other reasons, was a protest against this bullshit of separating pop from classical. I realised it’s all about making good music, whether it’s jazz, classical, or contemporary electronic – it’s all one.

Another thing that the book stresses is the importance to the band of the filmmaker’s methodology – the process of cutting and splicing of tape

That was already an experience for me before Can. I brought it into Can because I had worked with film long before Can. Cutting and splicing was also a technique in the electronic studio of Karlheinz Stockhausen. That was a very current kind of thing in New York in 1966 also.

In New York for instance, I met Steve Reich, and he had just finished his first loop, which is also a kind of technique of cutting tape. It was the It’s Gonna Rain piece. So it was not only the film technique which gave Holger and me the idea of making collages of different recordings and putting them in a new form together.

It is one of the basic principles of twentieth century art in every context. In literature, think about William Burroughs, or in art, in painting – collage is one of the basic forms of the twentieth century. so collage with tape music was, especially for me and Holger, something we grew up with. Film of course was one of those influences.

It was interesting to see in the book that the editing techniques didn’t always go down so well with Jaki, who wanted to keep the primacy of the groove

Well, he came from a jazz background, and in jazz – until Miles Davis – nobody did that. At the same time, he also started to edit tapes and put them together differently. But basically jazz musicians hated this idea, for them it was just playing and playing. But when a collage succeeded, he was happy with it.

I’d like to touch on the subject of vocalists. It seems as though Can might have begun differently without the catalyst of Malcolm Mooney

Every member of the band made a big difference, because that was the basis of the group, that we made the music together, we composed together. There was no single author. The whole group was the author. So if the structure of the group changed, of course, the whole organism changed. That was the case when Malcolm came to it. Let’s say more spontaneity – even explosiveness. There was another change when he left and then again when Damo came into it. They both were a fifth of an organism. If you take a fifth away then the organism becomes another one.

I thought your classical pieces at the Barbican Can Project show were excellent. How did you feel seeing the group that followed playing your music onstage, so long after those pieces inception?

It was wonderful. I like very much Sonic Youth and Thurston is a great musician. I really like what he was doing. I don’t understand these critics who think it wasn’t like Can. It should not be like Can. It should be like Thurston playing Can pieces and there’s no reason they should sound exactly like Can. That was really what I found interesting, that our pieces can be played differently.

How do you feel about the interior of the Can studio being bought and exhibited in the rocknpopopmuseum in Gronau?

We gave it up. We left it behind us. So there was no reason not to agree to their thought of recreating it. But at this moment it’s not even clear if it will still exist. You know, it’s just material. It’s not very important. What is important is the memory of how it was when we were in it. I don’t care where the mattresses and materials go.

I really liked the conversation in the book with the late Mark E Smith. Was that the first time you met him?

Yes, it was funny. We had phone calls in the late 70s, the very last days of Can’s existence as a live group. He was calling us, always saying we should play together. He was very into that idea, and I could only tell him, “I’m sorry but we don’t play live any more.”

He was very insistent. He called several times. And what a pity, we should have played together.

I’ve read interviews with him before and he could be quite antagonistic towards some people, but seeing him talk to you, it’s like seeing a different side of him

Yeah. He was even sort of tender [when we met]. He touched me and caressed my hand. He was very warm.

Can: All Gates Open is published by Faber.

Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt will be touring the UK and Ireland in support of the book:

3 May – Manchester, Waterstones Deansgate – Rob & Irmin with Stuart Maconie

4 May – London, Cafe Oto – Rob & Irmin with Frances May Morgan plus DJ Cherrystones

6 May – Dublin, Vinyl Festival – Rob & Irmin

7 May – Bristol, Rough Trade – Rob with Jude Rogers

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