From Aural Innovations #20 (July 2002)
Anyone who is a fan of space rock and/or krautrock has most certainly heard the name Damo Suzuki. Besides lending his unique vocal talents to four classic albums by legendary German avant-rockers Can, Damo has continued to be busy through the 1990's to the present, performing with numerous musicans and bands, all part of what he calls Damo Suzuki's Network. Those who play with him call him an inspiration. Seeing him perform live, that's easy to understand. A charismatic performer, with seemingly boundless amounts of energy, Damo has stayed true to his roots, pursuing his love of "automatic composing", improvising and creating music live for an audience. All of his key later releases are live recordings, as he no longer has any interest in studio efforts.
Born in Japan in 1950, Damo travelled to Europe in his late teens. A chance meeting with bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of Can, outside a café in Munich, at a time when the band was looking for a new vocalist, catapulted the young Suzuki onto center stage. He ended up recording four classic and influential albums with Can: Soundtracks (1970), Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), and Future Days (1973), the latter three especially considered by many to be amongst the finest recordings of the krautrock era. After that, Damo left Can and the music scene to become a Jehovah's Witness. It wasn't until over 10 years later that audiences heard from Damo again. He showed up for some unannounced performances with the group Dunkelziffer, eventually joining the band to record with them for a few albums. Ultimately, he formed Damo Suzuki's Network, a loose collective of musicians from all over the world with similar tastes and ideas to Damo's. Amongst the ranks of his network was the late Michael Karoli, one of his former bandmates in Can; and second-generation American space rocker supreme Tommy Grenas.
I spoke with Damo before his performance with Cul de Sac on May 17th in Hamilton, Ontario at The Raven (Click Here for a review of the show). Damo is a warm, outgoing fellow, always smiling. It was a great pleasure to meet him and to get the chance to chat with him. We talked a bit about Can, but mostly about the interests he's pursuing now and his ideas on what is important in music.
AI: After you left Can in 1974, you didn't resurface musically until 1984. What were you up to during that time? Were you doing anything musical?
Damo Suzuki: No, not during that time. I was taking a creative break for 10 years.
AI: So what brought you back to the music?
Damo: It was my misfortune to have cancer, and I had to have it operated on. After that I had a new opinion of my life. It was a very dangerous operation. I wouldn't have made it without an operation, but at that time, I was a Jehovah's Witness.
AI: That kind of an experience can really change your outlook on life.
Damo: Yes. Not everyone has that kind of experience. I almost died. I have luck to live, and I found music again. But another way, just right after that I had much more of a sense of immediacy in my life. Before I was together with Can, I was just this young guy from Japan. I didn't have any kind of opinion or something. I was just there, I was happy, you know. But now I like to get to things immediately. I can say yes or no, I can say with just myself.
AI: Tell me about how you first met Holger and Jaki.
Damo: I was just bored at that time. I was working in theatre. I played in a musical there. I was quite tired of doing the same thing everyday. I wanted to do something new. One day Holger spoke with me to make some music...
AI: You were busking on the street that day, weren't you?
Damo: Yes, I used to make some kind of happening on the street. I was a street singer, and street painter.
AI: And you actually ended up performing with them that night for the first time?
Damo: Yes, I had no other appointment that night, fortunately. (Laughs)
AI: Why do you prefer to perform your music live, rather than making studio recordings?
Damo: Live performance is much more interesting for me than work in the studio because in the moment, we can play and we can record it, but in the studio, one thing that is quite important is that you don't have an audience. With an audience and musicians together, we can get atmosphere. Music without atmosphere, for me, is not really music, because music for me is communication with people. I can only get that kind of communication with a live recording. And also, it's much more interesting, more spontaneous, because you don't know what will happen. It's really in the moment. If you are in the studio, you can cut it this place and this place and fix it together, or you can play it again, the same thing, 3 or 4 times. That kind of thing is just not in my nature. It's product. For me, anything that is repeating is already product. Maybe you cannot make a profit from it. But even if it has only happened two times, it's already product for me, and this kind of thing I just don't like.
AI: You prefer what you call instant composing?
Damo: Yes. But it must come very naturally. It's really difficult, sometimes. It often has to do with my own conditions, physically and mentally…everything together. It's like if you go to a sport game, like soccer. You don't know what the result is going to be when you go to the stadium, so you can really get in with the game itself. Music must be this way.
AI: So tell me, when you get up there on the stage, and you're belting it out, where does it come from?
Damo: It's not just on the stage, it could be a musician who is instantly composing on the street, when I hear, there is some kind of communication. Because as I said, that's what music is for me. On the stage, I must get into the other musicians, not so much them coming to me. Then you get some kind of trance, and it's naturally a motivation, or passion, or longing, or something. The energy is just coming up.
AI: What musical plans do you have for the future?
Damo: I have a number of ideas for a project, which I won't tell you about at the moment, because I'm still working on it. But right now, it's the tour with Cul de Sac. And I'll be working with other musicians, in my Network. In October, I'm making a tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg, with musicians from there.
AI: I talked with Holger Czukay last year and he was telling me of a project he was developing that would involve a number of musicians from all over the world performing in a live jam over the internet, with a live audience listening in via the web. Do you think that's something that would appeal to your sensibilities?
Damo: Maybe it's a good idea. But for me, the hardware and the software are human beings. I like to play small places, with maybe 20 people coming in, or something like this, and it's really good. Because I can get the energy in my body with a connection to the people, as it comes back to me as a feedback. But with software, you cannot make this connection. Maybe I'm old-fashioned (laughs), but I just don't like any kind of media to come between the musicians and the audience.
AI: You continued to work with Michael Karoli until his untimely death last year. Do you have any plans or hopes to work with any of the other surviving members of Can again?
Damo: I don't think so. All three are quite old. They have their own ways, and I have my own way now.
AI: You're working with a lot of younger musicians these days.
Damo: Yes, absolutely. Much more. Maybe, I can be in this art for the next 30 or 40 years if I'm quite healthy. But when I see that the younger generation is making this kind of music now, that really for me is the happiest moment.
AI: What kind of audiences do you get coming out to your performances? Are they older Can fans, or a younger generation of fans?
Damo: Different, from time to time. Places like in London, the audiences are 14-16 years old to 24-25 years. Quite young. It's different, depending on where you play. But two years ago, I played in Vancouver, Canada, and there was a man in the audience who was around 85 years old! He told me he had always wanted to come to a concert, and he stayed from beginning to end, and after the show, for 20 minutes we spoke about everything. That was a beautiful moment. The kind of thing you can only get when you do a live concert. But if you do the concert through some kind of software, you cannot get this feel, something that creates a really good emotion, so that all of your life you can remember that moment.
AI: Your Network comprises many, many different musicians that you've played with in different combinations. What do you look for in a musician? What makes you think you'd like to perform with someone?
Damo: Most of the people who've played with me, I know their taste. You know, my booking agent may call me up one month before the show, and I don't think much of it, but about three weeks before I take interest in getting in touch with someone who has time for us …getting musicians that have time to get together.
AI: How did you hook up with Cul de Sac?
Damo: There are two kinds of directions I have at the moment, as far as this instant composing goes. One is to get together with musicians of every kind, and put a band together. The other way is that I play together with one group, like Cul de Sac. In Germany there is another band I work quite often with called Jelly Planet.
AI: How has the tour with Cul de Sac been going so far?
Damo: Oh, it's been really great. It's been a good time, I could stay on for a few more weeks. We've had nice audiences, and that really helps to motivate you.
AI: Well, I hope the rest of the tour goes as well for you Damo, and all the best to you in the future. Thanks.
Damo: Thank you.