Still Growing: Hans-Joachim Irmler And Jaki Liebezeit Interviewed

Ben Graham speaks to Hans-Joachim Irmler of Faust and Jaki Liebezeit of Can on their revivifying sonic partnership. Photographs by Agata Urbaniak

In a packed room above a bar in Brighton, two distinguished German gentlemen are manipulating time according to their will. Everyone enclosed in this too-small space finds the regular clockwork progression of their lives halted as they are removed from the time stream entirely and hung suspended in a weightless eternal moment. Then, like a spider creating a web, the two men teasingly spin out a thread of moments once more. They pull it back on itself, they double it over; they create a web of motion and memory, anticipation and release that entraps us forever yet releases us to find that little more than an hour is missing from our evening.

What futuristic technology do they use to perform this feat? What sacred, mystic totems are required? A battered transistor organ and a primitive electronic keyboard; a few mysterious black boxes and a spaghetti junction of cables; a floor tom, a simple snare, a couple more modest toms and a trio of cymbals, sparingly used. With these tools the two men generate minimal, cyclical rhythms and warm, shifting tones that resonate from the stage to hypnotic effect. Time is controlled through music. It’s the oldest – or the youngest – trick in the book.

I meet Hans-Joachim Irmler and Jaki Liebezeit in a cramped and noisy dressing room after the show. It’s hardly the location for an in-depth interview, but nevertheless they’re relaxed, courteous and forthcoming. Both these musical timelords are best known, of course, for their work in bands that redefined the European musical landscape of the 1970s; Irmler as organ player with Faust and Liebezeit as the drumming force behind Can. But both have continued to be industrious outside of this context. Irmler still manages Faust Studios, with clients including Circle and the Nightingales, and was part of the initial Faust reunion from the early nineties onwards. When the band split in two in 2005 Irmler focussed on production work, and in 2010 his version of Faust released the excellent Faust Is Last LP . Now in his mid-sixties, Irmler has collaborated with FM Einheit, To Rococo Rot and Gudrun Gut among others; he also co-founded the Klangbad record label in 1996, which continues to go from strength to strength, and from 2004 to 2011 organised a highly-regarded experimental music festival of the same name.

As for Liebezeit, he was already a respected jazz drummer prior to joining Can in 1968. He played with Chet Baker in Barcelona and then joined the Manfred Schoof Quintet, generally regarded as one of the pioneering European free jazz outfits. In 1966 he played on the album Globe Unity which featured Peter Brotzmann on alto saxophone and Liebezeit drumming in the left channel while Mani Neumeier, later to form Guru Guru, drummed in the right.

Following Can’s break-up at the end of the seventies Liebezeit was increasingly in demand for his ground-breaking, hypnotic drum style, playing with among others Jah Wobble, Brian Eno and the Eurythmics. He formed the Phantom Band in the early eighties and Club Off Chaos in the nineties, and in the current century formed a productive partnership with electronic musician Burnt Friedman. Liebezeit and Irmler first played together in 2011 as part of BILL, alongside Clive Bell and Robert Lippok, before going on to record last year’s brilliant Flut LP, and it’s that album’s improvisations that set the tone for the performances on this short UK tour. The 77-year-old Liebezeit’s deceptively simple sticks-only playing (no footwork) strips the art of drumming to its basics and then reimagines where it could go, while Irmler plays textures rather than melodies, using the resonant tones of the organ and electronic keyboard to get as far away from piano-based notions of how those instruments should sound as possible.

Jaki, I was interested in your drum kit. This might be a stupid question, but although I’ve listened to your records for years I’ve never seen you play live before, and I was surprised to see for instance that you don’t use a kick drum at all.

Jaki Liebezeit: I used to. I used to play a normal jazz and rock drum kit. But then, first of all, I stopped playing jazz, and then I stopped playing rock music- if I ever really played rock music. Because many people had doubts as to whether I was able to play rock music. So in the nineties I gave up completely actually, and tried to get rid of all American influences, because I discovered the whole world. I’d discovered it a long time before, but American music is so dominant- I don’t want to say imperialistic, but it makes it so that you cannot think in another way. So I always try to find out what all these forms of music have in common. That’s the thing I’m interested in; not in specialist style, in Charleston style or reggae style or things like that. I started to think more abstract. And then I thought that the old jazz and rock community was in a way finished, because the old grand masters are all gone. A few of them are still living, like Billy Cobham; he was a grand master. Art Blakey I love very much, but he died some years ago. There were a few rock drummers I liked, who have also died; John Bonham for instance, and not to forget Keith Moon.

So now the time has come for the drums to change. The drums have changed anyway if you listen to music today, especially pop music. You hear drums but they are not real. They’re computer generated or drum machine generated, it’s more an imitation of drums. I don’t mind; I like them, drum machines. I have more fun playing with them. Yesterday I met somebody in London who told me he plays with a guy from Kenya, and he said, "He has the same drum set as you, only with African drums!" There are four African drums in that kit and he plays them in the same way.

We think of the standard drum kit set-up as a fixed thing, but that’s only fairly recent isn’t it? That’s only been around since the jazz or early rock & roll period, to have the bass drum in the middle and the snare and all the cymbals.

JL: And also in the Velvet Underground, do you remember, they had a woman playing drums, Maureen Tucker, and she had the bass drum like that [upright] and beat it with a stick. I remember when I found out; I’d always thought they had a normal drummer. It can sound like a normal drum kit, except you don’t hear that ride cymbal all the time, that hi-hat sound. It’s like, I don’t need that. Sometimes you don’t hear it, and then you hear the music when it disappears. Otherwise you hear the strong tones of drums, the bass drum and some higher drum maybe, but mostly it’s just ‘tssh-tssh-tssh-tssh’. If you have a very good music system with good speakers then you can hear it okay, it’s possible. But it shouldn’t be necessary.

Hans-Joachim, I asked Jaki about his drums; can I ask you about your organ? Is the organ that you’re playing the same organ that I understand you made yourself, back when you started playing in Faust?

Hans-Joachim Irmler: It’s the same one, yes.

And are they the same effects boxes that you also made yourself?

HJI: I had to change them a little bit. I’m always changing, even from gig to gig; that’s why I like it so much, because before the gig I’m thinking what can I change? How would I like to sound? So that’s the main plus of this combination of things. It’s not stiff, it’s always really flexible and I’m always happy to be thinking about what I’d like to change.

I’ve been listening to the album you did together, Flut; it’s got a great sound, very warm, a really good groove. But how did you both go about recording that? What was your approach? Did you just go in, sit down and play and see what happened?

HJI: We had already recorded an album, as part of BILL, and after this was done we asked each other, why don’t we carry on making music together for a while? So we met up and just started playing, because we really needed to know how the other one worked. If you’re in a group you can hide behind something, but if there’s only two people you both have to be skilled! And so we just played together and in a short amount of time it was really on point. We only had to take the tapes and edit the beginning, and eventually add something on the end. That’s the trick – if it is a trick. It’s the same when we play live – we like improvising very much. Because this is really something that calls you; you have to be aware of what you’re doing. It’s not only fun, it’s really- I can’t express it, but to me it’s most important anyway. Working together with Jaki is great because he’s an unbelievable individual and I can count on him at any time.

How long have the two of you known each other? When did you first meet?

JL: We never met when the groups Faust and Can were in existence. We met because Hans-Joachim puts on a festival in Southern Germany. I was invited to play at the festival and then something happened. We made some recordings in Hans-Joachim’s studio; we played together and we found that it could work. At least we had fun together, and it’s been growing [since].

HJI: Yes, since that time, it’s still going on and still growing. Just before you came in we did something like a resume, and we said this time went very well for us because it wasn’t standing still on the same level, it was really growing and growing. For us it’s fantastic and we still have fun during the show. What else can you ask?

Even though you’ve not known each other that long, relatively speaking, you must remember the first time you heard Jaki playing with Can. Can you remember what your thoughts and impressions were?

HJI: To be honest, no! I think it was when, eventually, you released Spoon from Das Messer.

JL: That was an almost commercial thing. It was a television detective movie, or a mini-series, and the theme music on every episode was ‘Spoon.’ The movie was called Das Messer – ‘The Knife’. So that’s why we called the piece of music ‘Spoon’. And that became something like a hit, or made us a little bit popular in Germany. So we played a couple of tours, and a lot of people came.

Was that the first time that you were really popular in Germany? Were you known before then?

JL: We’ve never been very popular. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones have been so much more popular! And so many other English groups were popular in Germany. But because of that so many German groups tried to play English music, and it doesn’t work. Because the language is not your mother language; you sing in English and you try to play like English bands, and I don’t think there’s any need for that. But Faust and Can were two examples of groups that didn’t sound at all English.

I should ask you then, when you first heard Faust, what did you think?

JL: I thought they were chaotic! A chaotic band, but in an original way; they weren’t trying to sound like the Beatles or anything like that.

HJI: In the very beginning we found out what fun you can get out of having your own studio. So that’s why we started editing and making loops, and we used the whole place there, night and day. I have to go from the kitchen to the studio, I’m half running a tape and I have to keep an eye on it because I don’t know if maybe something’s gone wrong. The editing was very much in the foreground for us; to bring all the beloved and the hated stuff together in a row, or not in a row or whatever. That’s what really made it a lot of fun for us. But in a way we were throwing things out like Can did also. We refused to play English beat music because these other bands can play it better, so why should we do it as well? And yes, we had the idea to create something of our own, for sure.

From a current perspective it looks as though bands like Can and Faust and also Kraftwerk and Neu! and a few other German groups were all part of one big movement. Did it feel like that at the time, or were you all very separate?

HJI: It was in a way a big movement, but an unknown one. Maybe it felt like one, but it was just a feeling. And there were only maybe five bands really involved in this.

Jaki, did you feel like part of a movement of experimental German music pushing forward, or were you just doing your own thing?

JL: We were trying to find our own way. We thought like artists. Imagine a painter saying I can’t suddenly paint like Andy Warhol or like Jackson Pollock, so I have to find something else, something original. It takes a while, but it is possible to find.

You started out playing with free jazz groups, didn’t you, with Manfred Schoof and Peter Brotzmann and people like that?

JL: With Brotzmann, of course, yes. It’s like many painters, they have these different periods. They have their blue period and then their red period. First they start out painting realistically, and then later…

You seemed to pare it down; your drum playing became more minimal as it went along.

JL: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s minimal. I think I play too much. The music should have more space. But it’s difficult to have space; it’s like building an arch or a dome. It’s difficult. To make a ball is easy.

You’re always looking, like a painter, as you said, for something new.

JL: Yes, I only want to develop and find new ways to go, and not to repeat the old. I mean, I’m repeating some parts, it’s in cycles, but I’m not repeating the past.

Both of you seem very keen on lots of collaborations with different musicians. Obviously every musician likes to collaborate, but both of you seem to be always looking for new people to work with. Is that very important to you, to always work with new people?

HJI: It happens sometimes, but I’m not really always looking for it. I’m happy with the few [musicians] I’ve met and that I’m able to enjoy it with. That’s a very important point to me. You can make music in different ways but I prefer really enjoying it and being able to work something out at the same time. Anyway, it’s quite exhausting playing, so it would be stupid if you’re not happy when you’re doing it! If you’re enjoying it then that’s as good as it gets; it’s like you’ve won the top prize. And with Jaki, when you came in we’d just been talking about how we feel playing together. It’s really fantastic, and I’m sure it would be hard to find another individual like Jaki. So if he would like to go forward, I would like to say ‘Ja!’

What do you think Jaki? Do you prefer always looking for new people to work with, or do you prefer to have ongoing projects?

JL: It’s possible to do that; it depends on if suddenly you meet somebody and you have some common ideas or a common belief, and then you play together. All the people I’ve played with I met incidentally. And maybe there was something going on and some resonance was there, so we attracted each other, and one day we met.

I suppose after a certain point though other musicians who knew your work sought you out.

JL: Like casting a play? That would never work, I don’t think. If somebody else puts some people together and thinks they can make nice music together, it never works. People have to find each other themselves, and trust their telepathy, or something similar. I don’t know; it might be something else. Resonance!

So at the moment do you think you will do more work together, the two of you?

JL: As long as we have common ideas, then we can play together. Maybe one day…

HJI: …we won’t have any ideas anymore! [Laughs]

JL: And then we say decisively: Mozart only!

HJI: And that’s when we have good reason to stop the act.

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