Saved events

From the Archive: The Can Project with Irmin Schmidt and Gregor Schwellenbach

Nothing Concrete text
30 Jun 2021
27 min listen

We encounter some timeless music assembled through improvisation, editing and sound collage in this archive episode exploring the legacy of Can, recorded around their Barbican concert in April 2017.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts.


Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and let's enter once again our archive and encounter some timeless music assembled through improvisation, editing and sound collage. Let's explore the legacy of Can. 

Rob Young: "Nobody's really actually managed to sound like Can"

Irmin Schmidt: "We didn't sell millions. We were not a hit group. We were always something avant-garde, something very strange". 

Gregor Schwellenbach: "The main challenge to find ways of making the orchestras instruments groove, like a drum set"

BE: In April, 2017, The Can Project came to the Barbican Hall. In the first half of which you could have seen and heard the might of the London Symphony Orchestra, performing a new arrangement, built on the band's legacy entitled Canned Dialogue, written by one of the group's founders, Irmin Schmidt in collaboration with composer, Gregor Schwellenbach. After the interval, the journey in music continued with musician Thurston Moore, leading a supergroup, which included original Can singer, Malcolm Mooney, they explored Can's immense catalogue of songs and albums. 

So to the interviews. To set the scene. I first spoke to the writer Rob Young, who had then just completed the biography, 'All Gates Open: The Story of Can'. The voice after that you'll hear will be that of Can founder Irmin Schmidt. And lastly, we'll be joined by his collaborator as mentioned on Canned Dialogue, Gregor Schwellenbach. 

So first for some background, from writer Rob Young.

Rob Young: For me as a starting point to the biography, I was really fascinated by the actual first meeting of this group in an apartment in Cologne, June 1968. And that's of course, a month after the great riots in Paris, for example, there's very much a sense of turmoil and revolution in the air in Europe anyway. And in this apartment, belonging to Irmin Schmidt, basically had this kind of people who'd been on different journeys through music suddenly just crunching together at this point. Irmin Schmidt himself had trained as a pianist and was also working in the classical world. And was also very well employed as a conductor, an orchestral conductor. And along with that, you had a guy called Holger Czukay, who had been born in an area between Germany and Poland, very contested zone Danzig, which was basically invaded during the war. He and his family had to escape from there and ended up in Berlin. And Holger had also trained as a composer over the course of the Sixties and was interested in composing his own avant-garde music and was working in Stockhausen's electronic music studio in Cologne. Jaki Liebezeit, who's, the drummer, had come completely differently, through the root of jazz. He was a really successful jazz drummer who lived for a while in Barcelona, accompanying people like Chet Baker and other jazz musicians passing through. And had worked with one of Germany's great free jazz players, Manfred Schoof, in a band in the mid-Sixties. He was just basically playing totally free jazz drumming.

IS: I knew Holger from the Stockhausen courses and when I had the idea to form a group, I wrote him a letter. And asked him what he thinks about joining. So Holger then was quite excited about the idea and he said, I had a pupil in Switzerland, a young beat guitarist who would love to join too. So we had a meeting then at my house. And before I had asked Jaki if he knows a drummer who would love to join the group. And he said, yeah, I'll find you someone. The day I had arranged, he showed up and I said what about the drummer? And he said, it's me. And I said well, you're in Schoof's group. And he said yeah, but I don't want to be in there. It doesn't interest me anymore. I wanna do something new. And that's how we came together in the beginning. And then Hildegard [Schmidt's partner] met Malcolm Mooney in Paris and he was a painter. So Hildegard said to Malcolm, why don't you come to Cologne? Maybe Irmin can introduce you to the gallery scene. And so I said to Malcolm, why don't you come with me to the studio. And he just spontaneously started singing. And there we had a singer. He was wonderful, Malcolm, when he started to sing. Jaki and Malcolm were a rhythm unit from the first second on. 

The idea was to have what then actually happened, to have musicians, that was my idea, from classical, contemporary music, from jazz, to bring it all together and find out actually what will happen. Nobody had an idea how it should develop, what it should become. What.. .We all said we will invent it, all together. The only thing was we decided there is no hierarchy, there is no band leader, there is no composer, single composer. The group, everybody has the same rights... everybody is part of the composer which is the group.

RY: So you basically you have all these people, colliding together at this moment and really wanting to make something new. And really wanting to escape from the kind of genres that they'd been trained in for so long. And basically they wanted to rock! They wanted to go beyond any sort of academic avant garde constraints and actually do the kind of things they were hearing from the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, these kind of figures. So, it's really a great moment at that birth point. 

BE: Why do you think it worked? I mean, as you say, in theory, it shouldn't have done. I mean they were pushing and pulling musically in different directions.

RY: Well that's the million dollar question isn't it? I mean it was just, there'd always been there a good chemistry between these people. The success of Can, I think it's partly due to the extraordinary personalities that combined in the group. It's also a testament to amazing instrumental virtuosity. And at the same time they were discovering technology, recording technology. All that stuff was self recorded One important factor was that they were very much in control of their own production. They never went to professional studios to record their stuff. They were lucky enough to be given a space to rehearse in a castle outside Cologne. A quite wealthy art collector had just leased this old castle building and wanted to make it a commune for artists so they moved in there and basically installed themselves a space that they could use 24 hours a day to rehearse in, to set up a recording studio... And so out of that they developed this way of recording themselves on a pretty simple two-track, reel to reel recorder. But they caught some incredible results out of that. So that was another factor in how they turned out at that time.

IS: I rather liked to use technology totally against its idea and how it was constructed. All the electronic devices at the time, I used always against the actual idea. Later too, all the synthesizers, I rather deconstructed their ideas! But of course, we created them...We developed quite a sophisticated electronic sound system, and a pure acoustic drum and guitar sound.... Pretty soon, in '71, I had a synthesizer which was the Alpha 77, which was specially built for me, and it was built after my ideas. I never would have been able to construct it but that was an electronic engineer who developed that. But it was me who gave him the idea of how it should function. And so, electronics are very important for Can's elements of contemporary music. And it was one of our strengths. 

RY: A big part of their recorded sound was editing. So a lot of what you hear on the records are actually lots and lots of different long tapes that are collaged together, mostly in ways that you can't really hear the join. They really embraced that idea of creating the ideal take by cutting up tapes and re editing them. And that was in a way, one of the big tensions within the band. Some people were very much in favor of doing that, some of them actually the preferred to just play the thing and gets it right first time. So it's a band that also thrived on conflict as well.

IS: What already Can was a collage of people of totally different musical lives, backgrounds, so in a way Can already was a collage. Collage was very much my idea anyway, because I mean being also in the art scene, collage was a very important element of 20th century art here. Also literature. It was a very important element for me, for Hogler too. Less for Jaki, who was a jazz musician, I mean he wanted to play, this kind of editing was not so much his thing. But I mean it was part of the way we put music together. 

BE: So you could also say they reinvented themselves each album. I mean, there are so many variations in Can, especially as different people came and went.

RY: Yeah that's true, I mean you can definitely notice the evolution. It's almost year by year. I mean for me it's just a great run of material between 1968 and about 975. They split up in 1978. But yeah they were evolving really rapidly in those early years. Definitely the character of the music changes - for example, there's a big change of vocalist. I mean, after just over a year Malcolm Mooney left the band, he kind of had a nervous breakdown, had to go back to America. Not so long after they happened to just stumble on a Japanese busker in Munich, called Damo Suzuki, and just really invited him to be their vocalist, practically there on the spot! And he very much characterised Can's golden few years as well. They evolved also with technology as well. They brought in more and more innovations with the way that that they... the effects they used on their instrument. The recording technology, they kind of gradually added more and more. 

BE: You've talked about how everything came together in the studio. Did they perform live during that time?

RY: Yeah I probably played that down in what we've been talking about! But I mean, it's important also to remember that what you hear on the albums is really one tiny sort of elements of what Can did. Yes they did perform live, loads. Right from the beginning. Basically most of their live appearances were around Germany, also in France, where they were actually really popular and very critically acclaimed. And they did several big tours of the UK, almost like in the country for a whole month at a time. Doing lots of tours and festivals in Germany. So yes, they were absolutely a very intensely working live group. Can live is a... there's a whole other dimension there. Which we've lost in time, obviously. But it was an important part of their lifestyle for sure. 

IS: We were very successful but first in Britain and France and then it became Germany. But then we made the title song for three or four films in television, and the title song became high in the charts and we had a hit in Germany. I mean, we didn't sell millions, we were not a hit group, we were always something avant-garde, something very strange. But nevertheless we were successful.  

I was always in heaven, as a kid I was always fascinated by sound, by noise. And it took me a long time until I realised my fascination with noise. It's part of my musical world. Well actually, one of the reasons I understood, when I heard Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, I think I hadn't yet started studying music. Or maybe just I had... I don't know exactly. I decided this I want to understand so I first started conducting and then later in '64, I went to Cologne and started studying with Stockhausen. At the music academy while I was studying composition lessons... and I met Cage. I mean, these are the three, as composers which had the biggest influence on me. Ligetti and Cage and Stockhausen. They were totally different from each other. Cage was wonderful and sort of, yeah, he was very free and very... I mean, the rules of theory and composition, which meant so much to Stockhausen didn't mean much to Cage. So I was in between all that which was wonderful because it was three completely different influences. 

BE: Have you enjoyed working with Gregor on the orchestral work? What were your ambitions for this piece?

IS: Yes, very much so. Very much so. 

GS: The first thing that was very, very clear for both of us, we mustn't do some kind of merely, best of thing. The first talks were how can we do this. What I did was, I wrote a lot of orchestrations of Can songs, or parts of Can songs which we all did not use. It was just to get into the flow, and to collect some experiences in how can you, how can you use those motives in an orchestral work. 

IS: I always like new advancements, going back to the orchestra, to the symphony orchestra in Barbican, I come back to this piece with the Can quotations...but also the concert version suite. The Barbican pieces are really meant to only be performed by orchestras - without any electronics. So I decided we won't use even much percussion, but have a real light and classic 19th Century orchestra and doing something different with it. 

GS: We didn't want to try and make the orchestra sound like a rock band. We wanted to keep the orchestra but use the spirit and the structure of Can's sounds, but not the sounds. Maybe that was the main challenge, to find ways of making the orchestral instruments groove like a drum, like a drum set. 

BE: You mentioned at the beginning, Stockhausen, Ligetti and Cage - will we hear echoes or reverberations of their music perhaps within that?

IS: Well, I don't know... But of course here there is always... you always refer to something. You always are influenced. You never create out of the void. So these three probably are very important. For Gregor, for example, the music of Steve Reich, John Adams, Terry Riley, for instance, is very important. So you will hear mine and his with much younger... everything which happened in our life is absorbed somehow. But I don't think you will definitely recognise. I mean this is all these instruments, which of course perform the mind of the composer. My music is the sum of my musical experiences, of my adventures I was looking for, in my head, from the beginning of my studies. Even from my childhood when I was incredibly fascinated by noises. And it's really as a kid I was fascinated by noises. When I was four years old opposite to our apartment there was a doctor whose doorway had gravel and when his car went in and out, I was on the balcony and was totally fascinated by the sound of the tires on the gravel. So, all this, of course it's part of your experiences.

Actually, Faber the publisher, they are planning to release this big book about Can. And the second part I'm editing, and parts I'm writing myself. And one day I interviewed Thurston [Moore] for the book. After the interview, he said well listen, I have a commission doing a concert with an experimental film behind the scenes, would you like to play with me? It was in the Louvre in Paris, so of course, I said yes. So we make that concert just by working so closely together. Actually, we didn't even rehearse for it. And since this kind of spontaneity, which I like so much, and anyway I like Sonic Youth, we just asked if he would like to sort of curate the second part of the Barbican concert. And well, he accepted. And we never discussed what, because that's him, he curates it. And of course, the plan was to have as many Can musicians as could possibly take part in this. But unfortunately, it will only be Malcolm because Jaki died, Holger is sick - but I'm doing my part. Unfortunately, Jaki won't be with us anymore, which is the saddest thing that has ever happened to me in the last 20 years, I'm still...well I can't talk about it. 

BE: The legacy of the band, I think there's a certain argument that they're more successful now than they've ever been. I'm hearing that music everywhere 

RY: It's true isn't it. I mean especially, it's kind of cropping up in a lot of movies, occasionally in TV series. Yes, possibly! They've managed to keep their catalogue alive. I mean, they still run their own label and publishing operation. Every member gets a royalty cheque every month. Yeah, people like Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead, when he's done some music editing work, some of the various movies, he often seems to slip a Can track or two in there. I think there was a track on the recent Highrise movie by Ben Wheatley. I think it's partly they haven't dated in a way that a lot of music has. There's something to something about the combination of sounds that's has managed to stay fresh. Obviously Can, and a lot of the other German rock bands from the seventies, there's been a lot of interest in them over the last ten, fifteen years or so. In the States and Britain and Europe. I think a lot of younger listeners have been turning on to them again. They've been quite creative with the back catalogue. They've released remix albums and repackaged the stuff. They've got quite interesting champions I mean yeah James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem is nearly always photographed in a Future Days t-shirt. That band's success! And I think the sound of LCD Soundsystem owes masses to Can, as one example. But nobody's really actually managed to sound like Can. They're one of those bands lots of people claim to love, lots of musicians love and I can't tell you how many press releases I've read which refer to a band sounding like Can. But nobody actually manages to sound exactly like Can to my ears. But there's certainly an important touchstone for a lot of people. 

IS: When you decide to become a composer and musician of course, you want that it's played, that people listen to it, you get a public which like it. If that happens and it happened with Can, yes, yeah you are quite satisfied that you're happy that the music you make some people like it. Sometimes for certain moments, all of a sudden you are proud. but that doesn't last very long. Most of the time you are just doing and most of the time you are satisfied with it, if you work on it, you don't think about the bigger things... You just think about the work you have to do. 

BE:  Thanks to Irmin, Gregor and Rob for speaking to us. As many of you will know, sadly Holger Czukay passed away in late 2017, making Irmin's comments about him more poignant. I think anyone who managed to get a ticket felt very lucky to be in the audience that evening, to celebrate the evergreen importance of this band's music. Do discover - or re-discover Can. I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes, archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to nothing concrete on Acast, Spotify or whatever you find your podcasts and if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out

Please consider donating

We rely on the money we raise through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising to deliver our arts and learning programme. It forms more than 60% of our income. Show your support by making a donation and help inspire more people to discover and love the arts.