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CAN: Interview

We spoke with Irmin Schmidt about the discovery of The Lost Tapes, the future of music production, and the formation of CAN.

Can: CAN: Interview

How to even begin encompassing the highly experimental, enigmatic Can? Whether you gravitate towards acid punk or psychedelic, garage rock or early '80s post-punk, it’s nearly impossible to listen to modern music without hearing the traces of Can seep in through the cracks. Undeniably influential to modern musicians -- from Radiohead to Joy Division, the Fall and Public Image Limited, and granting Austin indie band Spoon with their namesake -- the Cologne group, often known as pioneers of "krautrock," revolutionized not just German music in the late 1960s, but modern rock music as we know it. 

Combining classical avant-garde jazz composition, characteristic repetitive percussion, swelling psychedelic pieces and traces of Eastern influences, Can carefully borrowing from disciplines and varying backgrounds, restructuring them to craft something entirely revolutionary.

With the recent sale of prestigious Can studio in Weilerswist to the German Rock N Pop Museum came an additional surprise -- rows and rows of hastily archived master tapes, holding nearly 30 hours of Can’s music stashed away. Compiled by Irmin Schmidt and edited by collaborator Jono Podmore, The Lost Tapes celebrates an era of Can otherwise forgotten, adding to the group’s repertoire as avant-garde provocateurs.

Released on June 18th, The Lost Tapes ranges from unreleased film scores and title tracks, to live versions of “Spoon” and “Mushroom,” to tracks previously never heard -- until now.

We were able to speak to Irmin Schmidt, keyboardist, curator and the founder of Can.

Let’s talk about The Lost Tapes. Why are they coming out just now?

There was a huge archive, with files and files of music that we had recorded and had just been stashed away. We had recorded them using a two-track tape machine recorder. At some point we ran out of tapes. The archive wasn’t carefully registered and it was quite scary for us to find out what was on it actually. We found more than 30 hours of music, with the final cut of The Lost Tapes being a little over three hours. It consists of live tracks, unreleased tracks and scores to films. Of The Lost Tapes, the film component is the easiest to explain. We know the names of the films because of the release of title songs on The Lost Tapes, most of them were. Vitamin C (from Ege Bamyasi) is also title track to a film. Many of them were never officially released. But they’re pieces in their own right. That’s why it mattered -- it was music overall. 

Was the recording process for this compilation different than say, Tago Mago or Monster Movie?

The recording process for these tracks was not different. We started very spontaneously, developed an idea we really concentrated. We were focused on a certain groove, rhythm structure, a set of melodies. We were very conscious about what we did, it wasn’t just wildly jamming. Of course, it was always different. There were very long, often repeated sessions where we had a central idea of the piece and we finally got it, sometimes playing it for an hour, edited later by shortening. And that one of the processes we had for recording. We made montages - cutting together pieces, forming a whole. That’s the making of modern music, of 20th century.

Listening to the tapes now after so many years, do you find yourself shocked or surprised with how they sound?

Some of the tracks I hoped to find, because I knew they existed somewhere. Quite a lot of songs actually feature Malcolm, our first singer. I was totally surprised with those, I didn’t know they existed. Yes, listening to them has been sometimes surprising, sometimes interesting finally finding what I thought existed.

You and Holger Czukay were both trained under classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen -- what prompted the shift from an avant-garde classical background to CAN?

Yes, I came from a background of playing and conducting contemporary classical music. I met Cage, who had quite an influence on my musical taste. I then intended to find a groove where the members didn’t come from the same background. I found an experienced, professional and fantastical jazz musician (Jaki Liebezeit) who had already played for years and years with other famous jazz musicans. He had played jazz through the whole history of jazz. So he came from something totally different. Holger was like me, classically educated, with a background of composition. Only our guitarist (Michael Karoli) who was ten years younger than the rest of us, was not an experienced and learned and studied musician. Hust a really young guitarist. That’s what I wanted, all of these styles. 

And there was something we all had in common, the four of us, which was our deep interest in Eastern stylings as well as European culture and music. I had, besides composing piano, specialized in Japanese music of the middle ages in university. Holger had already before Can made a record where he had assembled Vietnamese traditional songs. Jaki had spent some time in Morocco and had a profound knowledge of Arabian music. Michael was into Balinese music, finding tons of records and tapes within the university. So that was another significant thing for us, and really a phenomena of the 20th century -- this opening towards African and Asian art. In the beginning of the century, it was a very important movement like with Picasso and with German expressionists. So I wanted to bring together all these movements and ideas which were new in the 20th century in one group. That’s why Can has so many elements.

What was the scene like in Cologne when you began?

Well in Germany people were used to English pop music - the Stones, The Kinks. And at the time, all of the German groups coming out at that time tried to imitate them. Since we didn’t, everyone thought we cannot play. But that was only the very very first short reaction because our music caused a kind of shock. It was only short and people realized this is was something new and exciting. Especially when we started touring up from 1970 in Britain and England and France and all of Europe, we were really celebrated in England. From the first movement it was a triumph, they had never heard anything like this before. They didn’t want an imitation of what their own groups did.

How do you feel about the term “Krautrock” and its implications?

The word Krautrock doesn’t mean anything to me - journalists just need a way to categorize how music sounds. It doesn’t mean much to me except it means music from Germany, how Brit rock just means music from England. I don’t identify with it.

Do you go back and listen to any of your older works?

Only very rarely, when I’m with friends usually. But whenever I do listen to it, I listen to it with the ears of music that someone else did for me. Once it’s done, it’s like music from another person. It does makes me very happy to know we have younger audiences discovering Can however.

Countless musicians have cited Can as an influence -- Radiohead, Joy Division to name a few. Is it strange to have prolific post-punk groups constantly referencing Can as a formative influence?

Well primarily, we are a musician’s group. If you’re a real musician or whatever, you don’t just create out of the blue. You have influences. I had them, everybody has them. You cannot create alone, you create within a cultural environment. You have a tradition and you choose that, and everyone chooses something different. I have been influenced by first this classical education, classical European music, and going deeply into Stockhausen. So of course this influenced me. Then I discovered rock music. The real discovery for me was Jimi Hendrix -- many of my influences came from America, actually. Of course you have influences and you create something that is going to be a part of this forever-forming tradition, you influence others. That’s normal for creation in the cultural sphere.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the production of modern music today?

Hard to say. Technology in a way creates this illusion that it is easier to create. Which is an illusion. The good thing that technology does is that it has a lot of kids and people making some kind of music. But that doesn’t mean it’s all worth listening to. If you imagine that there are at least 45 million music pieces on Youtube or on Facebook, nobody could, in any way, listen to all of it. Now what people do is make music which is an educational thing and that’s okay. But you must not necessarily consider everything to be music. It’s on the way to music. But you must not think it is all music -- out there, a lot of it is crap.

In the 19th century, in at least in middle and high class education, girls and young women played piano. They learned a bit of Mozart and some played very well. Some even played Chopin, but they never aspired to become composers or pianists. 

There are a few good pieces of new music out there. Many critics will tell you that the danger, of course, is that there are a few really genius pieces that get drowned in all of this. I don’t believe in that. Real creativity, artists that create art that is worth listening to, that I think is proportionate. The real artist has to have the passion to fight for his or her piece. Sooner or later, it will come to the surface.

Yeah. It’s very difficult to have a certain degree of quality control when the amount of music is just so vast, and anyone Can make it now.

Yes. Today there is less of a notion of quality, especially with the shitty quality of mp3. Whereas there exists music produced with fantastic subtlety in studios, which is all gone on the Internet. People that are really interested in music, they will come back to the physical means of a quality. product. The rise of vinyl in the moment is a sign of that. People want to have something that they’re really interested in. Not the 45 million tracks on Youtube. The ones really interested in culture and art, they will come back to the real thing and buy things they Can touch and listen to in the highest quality. Lots of people now buy vinyl. 

Also, the whole Lost Tapes collection will come out on vinyl before the end of the year in one very precious box. It has 17 or 18 pieces of vinyl. It’s quite a heavy thing.

Are you currently listening to anything?

I don’t listen to very much music. In the last month, because of professional intentions, I was listening to a vague amount of violin concertos. I’m usually not always listening. I very often sit and study the scores. That is as much listening to me, because I hear it when I see it.

Coffee or tea?

Tea.

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