Holger Czukay

by Jeff Fitzgerald

From Aural Innovations #17 (September 2001)

Holger Czukay may not be a common household name, but one of the key figures behind progressive German rock group Can, and numerous other collaborations and solo projects through the years, has had an enormous influence on 20th century music. Pioneering sampling techniques, and exploring the possibilities of eastern music in western music, Czukay has made an indelible impact during his lengthy career.

Born in 1938, Czukay was interested in music from an early age, and became a student of legendary avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, eventually learning enough to teach students himself. One of those students was a young guitarist named Michael Karoli, who introduced Czukay to the possibilities inherent in pop music. With his avant-garde sensibilities still intact, Czukay joined Karoli, and brought in Irmin Schmit on Keyboards, Jaki Liebezeit on drums, and American born Malcolm Mooney on vocals to form the first incarnation of Can in 1968.

With the exception of its vocalists, Can remained a remarkably stable unit for its lifetime, recording some of the most influential and groundbreaking albums of the 70's. Finally giving up on disappearing vocalists, the four remaining musicians, under Czukay's suggestion, began to look to alternative sources for vocal sounds. Inspired by his once instructor, Stockhausen, Czukay turned to the shortwave radio, listening to broadcasts from the Middle and Far East. This was another step in his lifelong interest in recording with musicians he had not met, and knew very little about.

The first of his own projects to utilize these ideas actually dated back to the earliest days of Can. Collaborating with producer Rolf Dammers in 1969 to record Canaxis, an audio collage of ambient soundscapes and loops. The 17-minute Boat-Woman-Song featured the vocals of two unknown Vietnamese peasant women.

Czukay wasn't to continue his solo explorations again until 1980, focusing rather on the group dynamics of Can, releasing classic albums such as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days along the way. When the group went their separate ways in 1978, Czukay returned to his solo explorations with the album Movies, pursuing an interest in film music he had developed during his years with Can (the Can album Soundtracks, from 1970, was a collection of pieces for film). Movies contained the exquisite Persian Love, which utilized the voice of an Iranian female singer recorded off the short wave radio.

Numerous solo projects were to follow, through the 80's and 90's, including several collaborations with former Japan front man David Sylvian, collaborations with such notables as Brian Eno and Jah Wobble, and his own La Luna project, an electronic night ceremony that consisted of one continuous 47-minute piece. Most recently, his enduring interest in working with anonymous musicians has culminated in a collaboration over the Internet with musicians from all over the world. It also was the fulfillment of another of Czukay's lifelong passions, that of incorporating new forms of media in his approach to composition.

Holger has also recently set up a new "virtual label" called DIGNOSE, and released two new CD's, one of them being the fruits of his Internet collaborations, the other being a collaborative project with his wife U-She (reviews for both of these CD's are also in this issue of Aural Innovations). Fittingly utilizing Holger's beloved new media, I conducted this interview with him, through cyberspace.

AI: Tell me about the new Internet collaborations project. How did that come about and how did you conceive of the idea? How has it turned out?

Holger Czukay: This idea came up because the Internet is asking, or better, demanding for it. For four years my website has had a chat installed and people wanted to get in contact with me directly. This way I experienced something from my visitors; I got to know who they are and not the other way around, that the audience has information about the artist and the artist doesn't know anything about his followers. Actually you don't know someone's identity completely, which might not really be necessary, but my former experiences working with radio sources or musicians all over the world on tape gave me a positive feel to appreciate someone's personal absence.

This seemed to be a most positive instrument, using the Internet with all its capabilities. On my news site, I was asking readers if they would be interested to work out a piece of music with me together. I didn't ask for qualifications, but only appreciated what they offered, and the response was amazing. I started with some basic samples, and loaded them up on a storage account telling my collaborators to enrich them. The development was from a simple enrichment to a sometimes most complex new musical unit.

However, before I started this idea with the Internet I had composed a complete version on my own and now I wanted to know how other people were going to understand the material. As I expected, they all interpreted the samples in a different way, as I did, and this made sense to me. It was as if we were connected to a new virtual band. So three audio collaborations were finished, and released on a CD entitled Linear City on my record label DIGNOSE (www.dignose.com). In the autumn, I plan to start a new project and also continue a video collaboration.

AI: You've been fascinated for years by the idea of working with people you don't know. Linear City seems to be the ultimate expression of this idea, unlike past efforts where the musicians you "worked with" i.e., shortwave radio broadcasts, were unaware of the collaboration. Can you comment more on your idea of the "musician's personal absense"? What new dimension do you feel this process of anonymous collaboration adds to the music? Do you think this is an extension of the idea of 90's electronica artists, who strove for a sense of "ego dissolution", where the music became more important than the performer, and the listener was an equal participant in the experience?

HC: Well, it has more to do with the exploration of the unknown as such. In order to avoid the fate that occurred with jazz, where many musicians became victims of their own skill playing their instruments, I was looking for something that could hopefully prevent me from that kind of a...eh...nuisance. It started with Can, when we were searching for a new singer and as we didn't find the right one. I said we should better look into the radio. Maybe we will find him there. And we were lucky, by surprise I'm afraid, hee hee.

And there is this new something which couldn't be achieved without the media. When you are working with musicians simultaneously, they get, of course, information about what the others are doing, which helps them in their orientation, but also prevents them from feeling free and undisturbed. This is why children can sometimes achieve such nice results and trained experts can't. I think I read a long time ago about the old Chinese emperor who was also responsible for the I Ching, where he said one should not let people know things when they can't handle it wisely, as this is more disturbing to them than it being useful. It could reflect also the situation among musicians. I am very glad when people don't let me know too much, ha. You see, I made a nice track "Blessed Easter" having the Holy Father in Rome in the party, and he didn't know. Maybe he does today, but when it happened, he was absent. I think he should thank God that he was absent, otherwise something would have come out where you might get the impression that our Good Lord has left him for a moment-when I think of his attempts to contribute with his musical wisdom. It never met my taste.

Now, with the electronica artists of the nineties, one can get entirely different impressions as to why they didn't want being identified by their "names". It is true that some of them wanted to not make themselves too important, right. Being integrated into a creative process was it. But I also know others by what they did and do that they are not able to establish their own musical identity by working far too much, too quickly, not allowing themselves to really develop and therefore trying to hide behind a project.

AI: In a very strong way, your ideas for utilizing the Internet exemplify sixties media guru Marshall McLuhan's theory that "the medium is the message." What do you think of that? (Author's Note: McLuhan's theory suggested that the medium itself was a message because it could have just as much impact on the culture into which it was introduced as the message it carried could)

HC: Which was going to be proven, right? I've never read his book actually, but I remember the discussions in Can at end of the sixties about that subject. Now, imagine I would have known about this all by having read The Medium is the Message? Reading takes time and time is precious in my life! So I am glad that I can't read. Or speaking of Can: I'm glad at having become an illiterate again! By the way, I make a difference between intelligent and intellectual. An animal can be intelligent, so can human beings. I have met many intellectual people whose intellectualism has killed their intelligence. May the Gator God prevent me from that.

AI: Do you see this process of internet collaboration (especially the future you speculated on) as a sort of high-tech version of a 60's "happening", where yourself, and members of Can, or any other well-known musicians would be on an equal playing field to all the other participants, thanks to anonymity?

HC: Yes, especially playing live, with some participants on stage and some at home at the computer. Anonymity is an important characteristic guaranteed by the new media. You can see the excitement when children play hiding on the street when it gets dark outside.

You know how I started my chat site? When I used it for the first time I thought that the whole world was going to answer me on my calling all chatters. And as I kept alone most of the time I suddenly found out that I could open more than one browser window. Now I could become several persons at the same time, and I started answering myself, clicking always on another window with another nickname on. I developed a kind of soap opera between four persons, with every day something new happening. Fortunately, the chat system was able to store everything so that people who came passing by at another time could read what had happened during their absence. They could read a chat conversation between "Elton John", "Ray Charles", and me where Elton John was crying for help as the Royal Family had imprisoned him in Westminster Abbey. They didn't like his song A Candle in the Wind. So Elton was using his laptop, getting into any chat system to call for help. I told him to keep cool and wait till Ray Charles would show up with a letter bomb, which he would place under the door of the cathedral. This is what I told Ray Charles to do, but unfortunately he was too timid, and also blind. So he was going to bring him a cup of tea so that Elton wouldn't freeze so much. In the meantime, a lady by the name of Madonna showed up to invite me for a cup of coffee in her woodshed up in Bel Air, but another lady showed up also, by the name of Sophia Loren, who tried to invite me for a candle light dinner in her house in Rome, and of course both ladies started fighting by using words like bitch and witch and blah blah…

The result was that more and more people showed up in the chat. In time, I let my "partners" die and now I have between 60 and 100 thousand hits per month. It was a great pleasure and a thrill being all these persons in one person.

AI: What kind of plans do you have for the future in terms of utilizing the Internet for both creative and business approaches in your music?

HC: There is much to learn for me operating in the Internet that the only thing I can tell you is I will go on with it. As I mentioned before, I have an idea for playing live on stage in connection with the Internet. Let's say you are on stage and people from outside can get involved as well. There is a programmer here who is about to write a synchronizing program in order to achieve this. I only can hope it will not take a too long to successfully test it.

AI: You have periodically worked with your former band mates from Can in the past. Are there any plans to work with them again in the future?

HC: Maybe not as Can, but certainly with the one or the other-maybe also with the help of participants through the Internet, who knows? I had this idea for quite some time though. A reunion could be possible when the members of Can would be involved together in a session and they don't know with whom they play.

AI: You mentioned earlier about a video collaboration. Can you tell me a bit about that?

HC: The video collaboration has been going on for about one year now. However, there are the different difficulties compared to the audio course. High amounts of data are being exchanged, short scenes, the available storage, etc., allow more or less only a specific way of collaboration. I was lucky to have found a Belgian artist who was able to make video animations, which are especially made for the Internet (they can be seen at www.czukay.de/visuals/visuals.html). In combination with it you can find a writing system being installed on my server www.czukay.de/writing/stories/index.html. Here you will find among others a chapter called "possible film scenes", where people are writing storyboards, for example. The Internet may not be predominately a perfect basis for one specific field to cooperate in. More obvious to me, it brings about the evolution of "Artist Rangers", conductors of media orchestras so to speak.

AI: Both with Can and with your solo work, you have done music for films. What is the connection you see between music and film? Which comes first, the film or the music?

HC: The connection between music and film appears to me a bit ancient, if I may say that. Of course the film medium is a classic medium and so it requires classical working methods. However, one thing could certainly get improved. Most of the time the film director is concentrating on his film, like handling an episode. All filming is usually done without the music except it will become a music movie. Then they are asking for a film composer, he is watching the scenes and gets his ideas on how to give them the final glance. This job is more or less an illustration job. I don't have anything against it, but when making film music with Can, we were luckier. First of all, the title song was made before the movie was shot!! But we didn't tell the director, as he would think that this might not perfectly fit for his picture. Wrong, Mr. Director. It fit the best you ever could expect! When two independent worlds are melting together in a kind of "nuclear" reaction you will achieve a result you never have been thinking before. The best solution you can expect from a classical method is that it satisfies you the way you have expected. For many of us this might be a big success. I can imagine better.

I attended a film music panel with Ennio Morricone in Italy in 1988, where he said that his biggest mistake was working in the way I just described, the conventional way. He thought that his best film music job was the collaboration with his school friend Sergio Leone. This man told him what his intention was and asked Morricone to start with a musical idea first and when this could be heard the first pictures were shot. Right the other way round from the usual. The fantasies are so much more free and stronger when someone is telling you what is going to come, instead of watching the picture on the screen. This is more the way to let your fantasy flow with pulled hand breaks. Now, 20 years after its release, a British moviemaker has found out that my piece "Ode to Perfume" would make good film music. I knew that, 20 years before, but I am glad that this happens before my death. You see, people working with the new media are much more flexible and open minded in comparison to filmmakers.

AI: Tell me about DIGNOSE. This is your new "virtual label". What is a virtual label, and why have you set that up? I was told you are excited about finally getting out from under the traditional recording industry. What do you see as the problems with the traditional recording industry, and how do you hope to solve this (at least for yourself) with DIGNOSE?

HC: As I said before, times are changing and the understanding of the media is changing too. According to that, record companies have to get extremely concentrated by selling in order to survive. In other words: no more special projects. Years ago, we had the situation that the label boss was saying, "Holger, we are making our money with Heavy Metal and that enables us to support crazy people like you". Today I can see a lot of unprofessionalism. For example, my last record company was sending unauthorized and bad sounding CD's to the media, without sending me proofs, just to mention one little aspect.

On the other hand, I am glad at having worked with the record industry for more than 30 years. When EMI signed me up 1979, I started to explore the record company from top to bottom, no matter if I was contacting marketing people, production engineers, or porters. I remember that the marketing people wanted to do an interview with me and I asked why. They said, "Because the sales people don't know who you are." "No problem," I replied. "You don't need to do an interview, I'll do it for you". So I began to make an audio feature telling the sales people who I am and I presented them with my music in a special personal feature. EMI, and later also Virgin and Polygram, immediately printed maxi singles and cassettes and distributed them among the shops. Then radio stations made a special program in order to present this product, etc., etc. I may not be a born businessman, but I don't have any problems creating marketing ideas. This might be one of the reasons why sales managers from the companies have kept contact with me. And I am sure being a fan of entertainment in general that this will pay off also for my new label DIGNOSE.

AI: The second release (after Linear City) on your new label is a collaboration with your wife, U-She, called Time and Tide. How does the music differ from the Internet collaboration project? Is it true that some older material "from the archives" will be appearing on Time and Tide? If so, what period is it being drawn from?

HC: U-She is definitely my most important artist and also a collaborator for 10 years now. When I discovered her musical talent I started to make a song orientated album with her. I was absolutely convinced that this was going to be appreciated by some major record companies-EMI signed her up but were unable to handle the music-but with time I came to understand that the music business was making a big change according to the impact of the new media.

Time and Tide has 16 song tracks, 2 of them contain rehearsal material from 1973 and 1982. Can fans can enjoy trying to recognize which is from where and when.

AI: What is your take on the whole Napster/file trading scene? Do you think that the major labels virtual killing of file trading on the Internet has ultimately hurt independent artists such as yourself?

HC: No, not people like me. At least not in such a way as pop stars were affected by that. I know that I will do things different when presenting a product to my customers. For the industry, a customer is just a number, in terms of receiving his money. For me the first customer is someone unique. And the first 1000 customers will receive a different packaging than the next thousand, etc. The image of the CD has devaluated so much these days. This is what I am going to stop with my label DIGNOSE. Time and Tide took me several years to do and Linear City also took me months of intensive work and you can hear that. If I would give these products to a company XYZ they would distribute it as one of their devaluated products.

AI: Do you have any overall philosophy in your approach to music, and if so, has it remained a steadfast direction over the years, or has it changed? How has it changed?

HC: I don't have a special overall philosophy to offer so that I could write a book about it. I still believe in the uniqueness of a genuine personality. But the more I start thinking about that I wonder what to expect from a genuine clone…

AI: If you could clone yourself, and work with yourself on a musical project, what form do you think it might take?

HC: Hmmm…the way you describe it, it could easily lead to an incest I'm afraid.

AI: Many critics have said that the influence of the early Can recordings has had an incalculable impact on modern music. How do you feel about this? How do you see the work you did with Can influencing modern directions in music?

HC: There's no doubt that Can has influenced generations of young musicians and that makes us more glad than having earned millions of unnecessary deutschmarks. When I was visiting Russia about 5 years ago, I wondered why they had such a high respect of Can. They told me that it was because Can had given them an example to start music from the elementary beginning and not from a cliché. This would give them hope to also develop their own identity, as Can did.

AI: Tell me about the process of starting music from the elementary beginning. How did Can approach that when you were setting out to record your early, classic albums?

HC: We wanted to forget what we had learned, so far as we felt we had arrived in a deadlock. We had to admit that we had to start again, counting to 3. Doing this truly saved us from rotting in intellectual nothingness.

AI: Looking back, what do you feel is the best Can album?

HC: I usually love the first albums most as we all moved on the same path at that time. Can Delay is certainly one of my favorite albums and Little Star of Bethlehem one of my favorite pieces. Together with Uphill, and Father Cannot Yell, and Soul Desert, and Future Days, and She Brings... You see, I feel like a mother for her children. Therefore I cannot really hit on one of my favorites. They are all my favorites no matter if they come from the beginning of Can's period or from the later ones. Thief is one of Can's strongest pieces in my opinion... I could go on and on...

AI: What about your own early collaboration work, such as the Canaxis project. You were one of the first to use the idea of sampling, and to introduce worldbeat sounds into Western music. What got you interested in the distant sounds of the eastern world, and of merging them with innovations in western music?

HC: The most exciting thing for me was to make music with people I didn't know and would probably never meet. Technique, and especially the world of media, made that possible.

AI: You were working with (compared to today) fairly primitive studio techniques in order to create your music. How has modern technology changed your approach?

HC: You are right. I started with very primitive hardware devices. Can also started with the most rough and primitive setup, unlike the average studio development. It was our unstoppable desire to remain free and independent. All our decisions were born through necessity and that's why we finally succeeded.

Music still depends on the one who does it, who makes up his mind, and not so much on what kind of computer I have or which devices I use. Except one thing: It is good to have a wide variety of machines, instruments, and media starting from historic machines up to the newest developments. The wider this range is-also in your mind-the more distinguished your "private orchestra" will become.

AI: You were a student of the great Karlheinz Stockhausen, and have been influenced by his groundbreaking work. Tell me about your first encounter with Stockhausen. What kind of impact did that have on you and your approach to composition? It was Stockhausen that got you interested in using shortwave radio recordings, wasn't it?

HC: Stockhausen was visiting the music conservatory in Duisburg 1958 where I attended his performance, where he presented his first electronic studies and cycle for one percussionist. What I heard there made me think of toilet flushes in outer space. Shortly said. I got the most bizarre and fascinating impression by what I could hear from him. He also had a great way of explaining to the people what was behind his musical thoughts. Suddenly, a man sitting beside me raised his hand and said that he thought Stockhausen was doing all these shock treatments in order to make a lot of money. Stockhausen denied it by saying that he had married a rich wife and he didn't need to care about money at all. From this moment, I knew that I had to become his student one day, if only for how to survive. Actually, I also looked for a rich wife when I had finished my studies with him but wasn't so successful. Or better, I was, but didn't want to accept. Thank God.

AI: I read a few years ago that someone provided Stockhausen with a tape of modern electronica artists who cited him as a "major influence" like The Aphex Twin, I think, and he couldn't understand how he could have influenced it. He thought it was far too repetitive to be interesting. Where do you feel the 90's electronica scene has sprung from and is there a causal relationship between it and the work of Stockhausen? How do you think your own work has influenced it?

HC: Undoubtedly KH Stockhausen had a major influence on popular music in general without becoming popular himself. In his work, repetition is just one element among others, but not THE key to a musical universe. I do remember the beginning discussions in our group about the value of repeating something. For us, repetition finally became one necessity among others. Without it, we would have been left rather helpless. In addition, the problem came up of repeating something correctly, meaning how could we create a line that became more and more interesting by repeating it (possibly forever) and without becoming boring by evoking an "importance" attitude.

Since the very beginning of Stockhausen's electronic performances, he was sitting in the midst of an audience directing and adjusting what could be adjusted, dynamics, sound, or balance between 8 channels, for example. In this way you can regard him as one of the first tape jockeys or DJ's ever, using exclusively his own compositions. These days he has changed his mind by the way. He is pretty fond of the fact that young musicians are referring to him and he also became rather bored by academic music journalists and their constantly boring repetitions of musical views. He said that the only guy who particularly understands him in a way that others don't is a former taxi driver who became a famous pop journalist of a rather big boulevard newspaper here in Cologne. He is the only one whom he trusts these days in terms of getting promoted, as he never got before. So it is no wonder that Robert Baumanns became the person whom he allows to do interviews with him. Robert also participated live on stage in the Can Solo Projects tour in 1999. My own work had also been of influence to today's music generation I think. At least in the sense of understanding the media a bit better than we did before.

AI: Well, thank you, Holger, for allowing this interview.

The interview portion of this article is © Holger Czukay and Jeff Fitzgerald, 2001

Reviews of recent Holger Czukay releases:

You can visit Holger Czukay's web site at: http://www.czukay.de/.
Visit the DIGNOSE label web site at: http://www.dignose.com/.

Click your browser's BACK button to return to the previous page.
Or CLICK HERE to return to the main Aural Innovations page.