Holger Czukay dreams again

by John Payne

Holger Czukay is best known as the bass player / engineer / sound wiz of fabled German avant-rock band Can. HeŐs also the creator of several solo albums that have proved influential down the years, including Movies, On the Way to the Peak of Normal, Der Osten Ist Rot and Rome Remains Rome; heŐs collaborated with numerous art-rock-aligned musicians including Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian, Japanese singer Phew and Jah Wobble.

ThatŐs a very, very skeletal view of Herr CzukayŐs career as a major reshaper of the universe. More particulars you can get at http://www.bluefat.com/1001/Holger_Czukay97.htm and at http://www.bluefat.com/0906/Holger_Czukay.htm.

Well, I met Holger Czukay in 1978, when I was a student traveling in Europe. A friend had introduced us. I was a Can fanatic. CanŐs then studio engineer Rene Tinner picked me up at the Cologne Zoo and drove us to the Can Inner Space studio in Weilerswist, just outside Cologne, and I awaited HolgerŐs arrival.

Czukay at the time was working on his now-classic solo album Movies, and I got to witness his working methods / his thinking ways / his painting of sound on magnetic tape and wiping away little splotches of it with a damp cloth (cutting blade, erase heads) to shape it, give it character and a kind of weight and bounce and, mostly, timeless quality. It involved much manipulation of audio sources including his guitar and bass and synths; I noticed that he was working with tapes of Can as part of his paint bucket, in particular the rhythm tracks by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.

ItŐs a bit hard to describe how Czukay worked to achieve the ineffable magic of his hand-sculpted sounds, or how he does it today, and I wonder if knowing exactly how he does it is the point. Suffice to say CzukayŐs musical point is to invite, to persuade, listeners right inside his music. HolgerŐs process in Weilerswist included recording and editing tape, mixing it several ways then combing different mixes of the same tracks in together so that you hear each song from a variety of angles, distances and elevations; that was just a tiny part of the process, however. Nowadays Czukay employs a blend of digital and analog means to achieve his results, but this work at Weilerswist and at his home studio in Cologne was achieved literally by hand with the old, old analog methods.

In Cologne I ended up sleeping on the floor of HolgerŐs home studio for five days. When Holger woke up in the afternoon, we would go have a bite to eat; blueberries in cream one time, another day it was animal organs and sour milk in a Turkish cafŽ. One memorable evening we sat in his friend HannaloreŐs apartment and listened to ŇBel AirÓ from CanŐs Future Days album. I watched HolgerŐs face as we listened intently. That piece has always held a special place in my heart/head; I was chuffed to have many years later be given the honor of writing the liner notes for the remastered release of Future Days on Spoon Records.

Czukay has recently been not re-releasing but say refashioning tracks from his solo albums of the 1980s, On the Way to the Peak of Normal, Der Osten Ist Ršt and Rome Remains Rome. The tracks have been collected in beautiful vinyl presentations available via the Gršnland label (http://groenland.com/en). Gršnland has also released CzukayŐs refurbished Les Vampyrettes EP, which he created with producer/soulmate Conny Plank in 1980.

This is music that defies categorization, much like Czukay himself. It is music that is about a search, about possibility, about humor as a tool; it is about intuition and mesmerization, about stops and starts and meanderings and being yanked back to the path, like the human mind; it is about super-colossal bass sounds, glistening or squawking guitars, the Bulgarian WomenŐs Choir, the Chinese national anthem amid HolgerŐs French horn blats and JakiŐs tumbling toms, all chopped up and reordered and enhanced; inside each piece is global beauty and sparkling in-your-faceness, and the eternal mystery of two notes from different places rubbing together for friction and interaction and a royal convergence in an only seemingly chaotic joy.

So now who/what/why/how this Holger Czukay? Here is a bit of phone chat with the man himself, which may or may not enlighten but should at least give you some sort of hint. He talks to me from the new/old Can Studio in Weilerswist:

BLUEFAT: Hello Holger, good day, oder guten nacht.

HOLGER CZUKAY: Whatever you say is okay. [laughs]

I'm happy to be talking to you again. Are you well? Feeling good today?

I would say yes. I don't work for long times anymore, except when I'm cleaning my coffin. [laughs]

I wanted to talk to you about the re-releases of your albums on Gršnland, but also to find out how life is treating you. How is Cologne?

Ursula [his wife/collaborator] has been redesigning the last stages of the Can studio. ŇAnd now you'll get it back,Ó she said. She was really working for 10 years now, and made it one of the most beautiful studios I think you can imagine. People won't recognize it at all. It is definitely one of the most exciting places inside, and now it's just something that will be different.Ő

I've seen some pictures of how you've refurbished. ItŐs beautiful.

Conny Plank, Holger Czukay

Conny Plank and Holger Czukay, Japan, circa 1980

And there's a spirit there like that attacked me with Can. It comes back even stronger than it has been before.

I remember in the studio you had mattresses tacked up on the ceiling and walls.

ŇIf I had a hammer / I would hammer mattresses on the walls!Ó [laughs]

Did you replace the mattresses with some other kind of acoustics?

We had to take them all off. The acoustics here are much better than before. Because for good acoustics you need hard walls ĐĐ not too hard, not stone walls, but you need a resistance, and you need to change the reflection sound from getting too crisp, too. To work against that, you must have material all over the room and especially on the walls to dampen that a little bit down. This is what we have done, and it's extremely rich with the acoustics.

You told me that you once recorded Jaki with the drums facing the corner of the room. I have always wondered how you got that fantastic drum sound thatŐs very close and faraway at the same time. A very resonant sound.

Yeah, it was during the Ege Bamyasi time, and Michael Karoli got sick, he got a stomach break-through or something, he had a rather difficult problem. And so Jaki and me, we decided to work together in the meantime. Jaki played drums and this other guy, he played a Turkish baglama, but he only could play what he has studied and what he has exercised and so on. He was not free in these things.

So we had decided to build something like a house at Ankara inside the studio; you see a roof and a room down at this end, and a door which goes from outside, like a space capsule, and then inside was a lamp and a microphone; and so the baglama player could not see Jaki's eyes and not my eyes, and that was most important. We said to him always to look for something that the other partner doesn't expect of you.

And it became that he got very nervous, because Jaki didn't like at all what he plays, and so we watched each other and we knew what we wanted to do: We had to die, recordingwise, you understand?

I think I do.

And we opened the door, the gate, and the baglama player was really frustrated, and so we said, Okay, let's go to the bakery and buy some cake and there let's have a coffee. And that was the moment, when this was over, where he got a little bit different, and Jaki played suddenly serious again, which he didn't before. That was a very good experience, I must say.

It reminds me of how you wanted ideally to make music anyway. In so much of your music, whether working with Can or with Conny Plank in Les Vampyrettes or in your albums such as Movies and On the Way to the Peak of Normal, at least half of the process is like pulling music from the air, or from what is happening around you. Apparently music is both an outside and inside force.

Of course, it always makes a lot of sense to look for something that you don't know. And Les Vampyrettes, we didn't know, but Conny and I were inspired by someone who came from New York and played the puppet theater, or street theater you can say, and he suddenly had the idea to make a theater piece out of, well, you have poisoned garbage all over and slime and so on, and someone comes with this car, and the car runs out of gas, so he gets out and tries to refill the car, and behind him the monsters came out. That was in the track "Biomutanten." And that was when Conny and me were in the studio and it was played live and the sounds were created live onstage.

Some of the sounds on "Biomutanten" are really a mystery, just from the Ňhow did they do that?Ó angle. It's a fantastic recording, one of the greatest I've ever heard. There's so much to hear. Do you remember what some of the sounds were produced on in that track?

They were mechanical electronics, you could say. This is why "Biomutanten" sounds so familiar.

There's that siren at the end that sounds like your voice. I always assumed it was.

The siren is actually a real siren. Do you remember the Canadian composer Edgar VarŽse? Edgar VarŽse, he has also used a siren. His music was always mixed with instruments which we have heard before.

Your meeting with Conny Plank was fortuitous. Did you work well immediately together? Or did it take some time to understand each other?

No, no problem. I remember that, one of the last years before Conny died, he walked into the studio, I think about five in the afternoon, and then I got up from sleeping and immediately you can say spontaneous music was going to happen. Which I had missed with Can for a long, long time: If someone makes a mistake, then you keep playing and get on sync again. And this is what didn't happen to Can at the end ĐĐ if it was wrong then it stopped and left a pause, a space of silence. You feel really frustrated.

Let's say now the question is the digital vs. the analog way of making music. I mean, if you need to take a lot of time to make your music, well, analog ways of musicmaking take much longer, whereas one could make music a lot quicker digitally. But it's the slowing down of the process, and the physicality of analog means, that can add immeasurable richness to the music. Or something like that. Is this something you've thought about?

This can happen, what you say. To find something that you have known may be easier than to find something which you don't know on a digital basis. So from that point of view, it is a bit more alive and could be a bit more rich. What I like actually is a combination of all of the digital and analog worlds. That really makes sense.

About the handmade quality of analog music, the one who has worked so much on this was one of the greatest heroes in America, Spike Jones. "Spooktacular" was a masterpiece; he worked for over one year on that, and it was definitely a masterpiece, because to make it he was absolutely alone.

He had a good sense of humor. [laughs]

Are you going to re-release the rest of your catalog on Gršnland?

These are not re-releases, they are originals. And when it all runs out, it never will come back again. Each issue is not like it was before. We decided never to do a re-release, because it is boring. Re-release is like you are chewing gum that you have spit out before. It doesn't make sense. But to create a correction, and always with different material, then each record becomes valuable because you can number it.

I suppose you never need to make another note of music on an instrument because you can continually reshape the sounds you have already. But how are you reprocessing the music for these Gršnland releases?

Well, okay, the analog tapes turn to the digital world. For example, in "On the Way to the Peak of Normal" there is a verse which comes out and is replaced. The verse is actually off old versions, and is much better than the original. The treble and the frequency range goes down a lot as well. I had a problem with "Peak of Normal" that the clarity certainly was going to make problems.

And "Ode to Perfume," at that time when I was working on it the vinyl time which you could use was 18-19 minutes per side, which is short; if the piece ran much longer I had to cut it off. To mix it in the new version, it becomes an original piece. And when I'm starting to play again, then you can be sure first of all it's already better than before, because I was heavily taking the scissors on the tape.

Do you know Bert Kaempfert? You know, Bert Kaempfert was very famous for a sound, and both Conny and he made this sound. They made it completely different from the Anglo-American way of recording, like tracking every instrument separately and then mixing it in the desk together. But not Bert Kaempfert: The orchestra played in a room with only one stereo microphone ĐĐ and he was searching for the point where one microphone is getting positioned, and really made research in this room where it would sound perfect ĐĐ then just take it all together in that perfectly placed stereo microphone.

So the music gets mixed in the air. I believe the cassettes of Indian pop and film music I grew up on had such special sound quality because of a similar way of recording, with one mic absorbing the sound of these massive studio orchestras.

I can imagine that, because it was necessary for them.

In fact, I'm pretty sure they were mono microphones. It's a lot of sound to cram into one track, but the roar of it all has its own kind of magic.

Have you heard the Can album The Lost Tapes? Around the middle, there was a free concert in Cologne, which I technically prepared for recording. [The concert was also being filmed/recorded for TV.] Now what happened was, the film crew were changing the working of their recorder, and suddenly their main recording was getting really distorted. But I had, right and left, every mic onstage was only mono, and I decided to take this film crewŐs distorted stereo microphone as the main master microphone and then all the rest of my onstage mono mics would pick up the huge sound. And it just sounds incredible.

Your attention to detail like that always makes a difference, because you are making music that one doesn't just hear on the surface. You have been making music that a listener can go inside of ĐĐ not quite but almost literally.

Good music has to have a good sound. That's what Jaki always said.

Tell me a little bit more about life in Cologne. What do you do for fun?

Actually I'm staying here, I'm not going out at the moment. I don't meet people. Because the older you get the more you start to concentrate on yourself very much. That's what I do. No television, nothing. I don't get enough sleep. We are working day and night. We don't have a regular day and night rhythm with sleeping and not sleeping, but you get up and you continue. It's a bit like Lamonte Young, you remember him? He started this idea to work over the clock, that means the day would have 25 hours. It's quite clever. [laughs]

You know that the Can catalog is coming out as a vinyl package?

Oh yeah.

It's a lot of money. And you need a lorry. [laughs]

I'm glad you and Ursula are happy and healthy.

This is our most creative time. For us this is fun. Incredible, really.

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