Interview by Rob Pierangeli (with some question suggestions from Cale)
All Photos: Matt Borowick
You guys are getting ready to release a 3-CD set called The Lost Tapes. How did that come about?
Irmin: There was an archive with a lot of tapes because, especially in the early times, CAN was running a machine where whatever we did there was a two-track mic in stereo. So it came up to quite a pile. But since we couldn’t always afford to buy new tapes, we recorded over the old ones. But there were snippets and bits that were kept. So it could happen that we overplay a tape to years later and kept 10 minutes from before. The whole thing became so chaotic that no one wanted to deal with it and listen through it because it was really total chaos.
Jono: And It was about 50 hours-worth as well.
Wow, that’s a lot.
Irmin: Especially it’s not only 50 hours to go through, you have to connect this with this. Does this go with this? Is it related to the same film music? You had to go back and forth and listen again. It wasn’t simply judging whether it was good or not. You have to listen a couple times to it. So that was major work to do. Then at a certain moment, that was 2000 when it was sold? 2003?
Jono: Yes it was 2003.
Irmin: In 2003 the whole CAN studio, which was about this size, even longer.
It was bigger than this room?
BYT: That’s huge.
Jono: It was a cinema.
Irmin: Yes, It was an old cinema.
It’s amazing to have that much space.
Irmin: Yes, it was. It was only for us. We had mattresses all around for insulation, and the rent was relatively cheap because it was in a village outside Cologne. The setup of the studio was sold to the German Rock Museum, so all the tapestry and the mattresses and gear was sold to them. They bought everything except we kept the archives.
The archives were transferred to my place in Cologne, which was already setup for me to work. It was well insulated and secure. Then we put two big ah, what’s the word, cupboards?
Jono: Yeah, cupboards like office furniture.
Irmin: So we put these cupboards in the space and the archives disappeared again until 2008. Then finally we got around to listening to it.
Do you still have all the tape machines to do that?
Jono: When the decision was taken that the tapes had to be listened to, we took all the tapes and had them transferred to a digital format. They were cleaned up and organized. In mid-2009 I received in the post an enormous box with all the tapes on CDs and all the files in 24bit WAVs on DVDs. It was this enormous, great heap of stuff and it was just a question of then going through the CDs and identifying things that were worthy of attention.
In the early ’70s did you ever think what you were doing would become so influential and relevant over 40 years later?
Irmin: Yes it is. That is very satisfying that it is this way. Of course when you make it, you don’t think we have to be there in 50 years. You do the best you can.
The other thing is – and I’m often asked this kind of question – for me, I’m a classical composer. I’m educated as a conductor and a pianist in classical music. So I was used to playing and conducting music that was 200 and 300 years old. Because that’s classical music. So as a composer, you are very familiar with the idea that if it’s worth being a composer, you should last.
It’s a long-term investment so to speak.
Irmin: I mean, that’s in your head… that’s how you’re educated. If [the music] works it means yes it’s a classical work. And that’s what CAN is: we as a group are classical composers. It might last another 150 years or not. Who knows?
How involved were you in the 1997 Sacrilege remixes? Did you help choose the remixes?
Irmin: No. Daniel Miller put that together. We didn’t choose or influence, Daniel had freedom to choose.
What is your favorite CAN-influenced or CAN-referencing song by another band?
Irmin: I can’t think of any particular songs.
Jono: “Drunk and Hot Girls.”
Irmin: “Drunk and Hot Girls” is a very good one, by Kayne West, who sampled “Sing Swan Song.” Sonic Youth is supposed to be influenced and I quiet like them a lot. Radiohead is. There’s an early piece from Scary Monsters by David Bowie. If you hear that one and compare it to Mother’s Sky, you hear something very definite. And I like that. I mean being influential; again, from talking in terms of classical music. Of course you’re influenced. And of course when I grew up Stravinsky, and when I studied Ligeti and Cage, they were all very influential for me. It’s very normal. You make music in a row of long long tradition, wherever it comes from. And in our case it comes from not only the classical European culture, but from basically the United States.
How influential was the New York music scene in the ’60s on what CAN did?
Irmin: I was the only one who came over to the states. I came because I was invited to take part in the Metropolis conducting contest. When I came to New York, after some time I met Terry Riley, which 10 days ago I met again. We visited him in northern California.
So I met Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, Le Monte Young and Cage. This whole experience of New York had a big influence on me. And when I came home I thought, well maybe it’s worth trying something other then conducting. So that had a big influence on me. Less of this or that composer, or this piece of music, and the whole spirit I mean, in Europe, especially Germany, there was a huge difference; there was classical culture and pop. There was nothing in between. It was so different in New York, when I came in ’66, this gap didn’t exist. So when I came back I decided I have to do something about that.
Can you talk about drug use from 1969 -1974? What was being used, if anything, during the writing and recording process? What where these experiences like when you were making music, it seems like a loose jam session, very much in the moment.
Irmin: Yes, it was loose, but it was a very disciplined and professional act of creating music because we were all professionals. I mean, we didn’t get high on drugs and then start jamming.
Of course everybody took drugs in the ’70s, and so did we. But they didn’t have any influence on the music actually. It might have done something to our experiences of the world, which was then expressed in the music. But we weren’t high on drugs while making the music.
CAN had two singers: Malcolm Mooney only played with you guys for a year and then Damo Suzki joined the band. Do you have any stories you can share about them? How would you compare them as performers and people?
Irmin: Malcom appeared because we invited him to Cologne as an artist; he was a painter and sculpture. And since I was very connected to the art scene in Cologne — I gave speeches and I wrote about art; I knew all the galleries and museums — we invited him because we thought we could help him.
Actually, what happened was because I spent most of my time at the studio, I brought him along and he just started singing. And then he stayed. There was such an immediate chemistry between Jaki and him. They immediately formed a rhythmic group that was so strong. And then he had to go because he had difficulties.
And then I don’t know how much later, we had a gig in Munich without a singer. Holger and Jaki were sitting in a café and looking at the street. There was a small funny Japanese guy busking (Damo Suzki), and Holger said what about asking if he’ll join us. And they asked him. And he said, yeah why not. And he came and joined us, and it was a very wild gig. It was like he had been with us forever.
What’s your take on the current uses of music technology? Specifically, do you think a band like CAN would have happened today when we are living in a world with Protools, Virtual Instruments and backing tracks? Do you think it’s easier to create music with technology verses people getting in a room together and feeling things out collectively as a group?
Irmin: Well, taking off what you said, never is making “good” music easier than in other times. It’s always the same difficulty to create something “good.” So no matter if you write for a string quartet or a rock band with modern technology, making good music means having the gift, the talent, the knowledge and the creativity.
Does technology make music a more singular process and less collaborative? For example, one person can do so much these days. What people can create in their bedrooms with their computers is pretty insane.
Jono: My feeling about the whole thing is that it’s just too easy. The problem is without some degree of struggle the quality of the music goes down. The band I’m working with at the moment, we made a manifesto where we don’t use any computers at all; we improvise with purely analog synthesis. We have to build our own equipment. Building the equipment and learning how it works makes the music much for fun and exciting. I hear a huge amount of music all time made by people on their laptops, and it’s so lacking of a really vital spark of energy and creativity. There’s a lot of skill missing.
If you think about it, if you made an album in the ’80s or even ’90s, you had an engineer a programmer, the musicians, a composer, a producer; a team of specialists. Now we are in this ridiculous position where one person has to do all those jobs. Plus be the graphic designer, plus be the record company. And you can’t be good at all of them. If you are good at all of them, then you’re very old. You’ve worked very hard.
Irmin: Yeah, but on the other side, I don’t expect from all these kids that fool around with technology that they are great composers. At other times there were all these educators and daughters, which learned piano that never became a musician. It was just part of their culture. One thing good about technology is that it’s part of the culture. Even by fooling around a little bit clumsy with technology and putting out some stupid music you learn something about it, and you learn something about real music. If not, then you never would have understood it anyway.
And so, it’s just part of the culture. It’s not part of the real creation of good music. It’s only part of a practice like learning Clementi on the piano in the 19th century. I see it like this. And the process of creating good lasting music, I think the number of gifted composers…
Jono: The proportion, the proportion stays the same.
Irmin: Yes, the proportion stays the same.
Jono: A gifted musician or composer can make a compelling piece of music with a piece of string and a piece of wood. A boring idiot with the most fantastic technology will make the music of a boring idiot.
What was the band’s reaction when they found out Holger was secretly record their jam sessions during Tago Mago?
Irmin: No, we knew we were being recorded. You know there are these myths going around, some are true, some are half-true. We knew that all the time the tape was running.
Sometimes of course somebody did something, let’s say on LOST TAPES, there is this story, which I call True Story, where I’m fooling around on this poor organ, and Malcolm is telling this totally crazy story. And probably we were not aware that the tape was running. We thought we were getting warmed up for the more serious work. But, basically we were aware that the tape was running. But we’d forget about it, that was the thing. We weren’t really aware.
Everything we did was taped, but we could even sit around and talk, and have a pause like you hear on Lost Tapes, go to the loo. And even that was taped.
Haha, keep it rolling, this is a keeper?
Irmin: Of course we weren’t always aware. We forget about it, which is a good thing.
CAN is typically known for their long improvisational jams. However, on records like Tago Mago, Future Days, and Ege Bamyasi there are some shorter more pop jams. (i.e. “Mushroom,” “Moonshake,” “Vitamin C”). What was the difference in the creative approach?
Irmin: Very rarely – except when it was the title song of a film, like “Vitamin C” or “Spoon” – was there an idea that a song should be three minutes or this should be a long thing. It’s just the way we played it, which we found out it cannot be shortened, that should be long, or like others were just sort of supposed to be concise. Like “Mushroom” is a very concise and constructed song. Even the guitar, the melody, and the organ make a 12-tone construction. We played it and it just came to us as a short piece.
With Jaki, sometimes within the first four bars of a real groove would decide about the length and structure of a piece. To a certain extent that’s very true.
How involved was the band in the 2004 SACD remastering? Anything interesting happen while revisiting the original masters?
Jono: Very closely involved. The remastering process we went back to the original tapes. They were cleaned up and digitized using a secret method. And then the actually re-mastering process me and Irmin were at ever session, and Holger was there for a few.
Irmin: Holger was there for quiet a few.
Jono: Yeah, he was there for quiet a few. We’re basically sitting there with the engineer working on the eq and the balance. And that was sort of the first stage of the mastering process. Then I would get the first few copies and go through and suggest a few changes. So it was quiet a long process. But has worked out really well for us. Just because the art of mastering in the ’70s and particularly the early ’80s was so dismal, it’s wonderful to hear the pieces now as they were actually intended.
And that process has gone on to another step: now all the masters are being cut to vinyl ready for release hopefully sometime this year. And to get the intended, and then get it onto vinyl – with all the nice warmth vinyl has to it – is really exciting.
Irmin: And that was the main idea, to restore what was intended when we played it. The real sound on the original tapes. In between, when the first vinyl came out and when CDs came out, there was always a little bit of effort to improve the sound. This time we went back to earliest form of it. To the real intended sound.
What’s your favorite piece of vintage gear?
Irmin: Back to the roots, the grand piano. This is my favorite instrument.
How did some of the iconic album covers chosen?
Irmin: At the time it was more less the graphic department at the label, which made it and then discussed it with us. Sometimes we worked it out and sometimes we changed it. Some are made by ourselves, like Flow Motion is a photo montage which Michael did.
What about Ege Bamyasi?
Irmin: It’s Turkish and it means okra from the Aegean Sea. It was in a shop, in a Turkish shop. There were these cans, and we saw them, and we just bought one. Then we photographed it and used it for the cover. The record company was like who can pronounce Ege Baymasi?
No one. I haven’t met one person, haha.
Irmin: In any country, but it’s part of the fun.