I interviewed keyboardist and composer Irmin Schmidt in the process of writing this guide to Can for Shfl. (If you like the band, I recommend Rob Young’s All Gates Open and David Stubbs’s Future Days.) My conversation with Irmin took place over Zoom in August of 2022. If you like this interview or any of the weekly posts, please consider subscribing.
Sasha Frere-Jones: You studied with Stockhausen in two different places, right?
Irmin Schmidt: Yes. Stockhausen made these courses in Darmstadt, the New Music Courses. I went there for two terms, and then later he was teaching at the University of Cologne. He had a composition class and I studied with him for about two years.
SFJ: Is that where you met Holger Czukay?
IS: Yes, exactly.
SFJ: And David Johnson, the flautist and composer, was part of this?
IS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SFJ: When you were putting Can together, and Holger came to see you with Michael, was David already a part of the group?
IS: In the very beginning, he was. He was nearer to Stockhausen than me. He worked as his assistant in the electronic studio and went on stage with him for Mikrophonie.
SFJ: Was he part of Hymnen?
IS: Yes, very much. You hear him talking on the tape. Every time I hear Hymnen, I laugh at his little remarks.
SFJ: Can was a rock band, and also not. What were the things that mattered to you when the band began?
IS: My education was taken from classical music, but I listened from very early on to jazz. When we talked about new music, I was always saying, “New music in the 20th century is not only the new music born out of European classical music.” We went from Schoenberg to so and so and ended with Stockhausen. That is one tradition, but new was not only Stockhausen. New was music which grew up in America, which had its sources in Africa. I mean, everybody knows. That was new music—jazz, blues, jazz and, from that, rock. This all started to have a known tradition and a known culture. I was fascinated by this other tradition as much as the one I grew up in. So, I wanted to bring them together, but I didn’t want to bring them together in a way where I composed pieces that referred to jazz. I wanted to bring the people together genuinely experiencing this other music. So that was the idea of creating Can, the fundamental thought.
SFJ: Was David the first person you talked with about that, or did you already know Holger at that point?
IS: I don’t remember. It’s 60 years ago. I mean, we talked all together. We talked about this thing and maybe David was one of the first. He was not so much convinced about bringing rock and jazz into it. David left the group the moment Malcolm Mooney appeared and became the singer. This, for him, turned the music into too much rock. I was quite happy about it.
SFJ: Your visit to New York was in 1966, correct?
IS: Yeah. In January or February.
SFJ: That was for a conducting competition, but then you did all these other things.
IS: It was for the Metropolis conducting competition and, well, I failed. I had been making music all night, doing some crazy things down in the Bowery. Then all of a sudden I remembered that I had to come to this rehearsal with the orchestra. I had no time to go back to the hotel and pick up my scores, so I came without a score, which made it tough. These professors, they’re very suspicious.
They asked me to conduct the Mahler fourth symphony, and this one I knew sufficiently by heart. I didn’t need a score. I started but obviously my appearance of a long night and being a little bit nervous and half asleep was not very convincing. So, I was out. Which wasn’t such a catastrophe. I had more time to visit my new friends, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Reich gave me “It’s Gonna Rain,” the tape he did. For the first time, I heard this kind of technique of the tape loop and it totally fascinated me.
SFJ: Did he give it to you on a record?
IS: No. There was no record. On tape.
SFJ: He just give you a tape?
SFJ: Wow. Like a reel to reel?
IS: Yeah. A reel-to-reel. A real reel.
SFJ: Holy shit. You were playing with Terry Riley the night before?
IS: Yeah. This new kind of minimalism appeared to me sort of very banal and very simple, compared to the complexity of Stockhausen. Just in the first moment, I thought, “That’s really childish.” Then playing with and talking to Terry, I started to understand that there was more behind it. Yeah, I sat on the piano. He played saxophone, I think when I remember it right. He taught me a little bit about what he was going to invent.
SFJ: What he was going to invent?
IS: He was just in the beginning of developing his composition techniques. When I came back, it sort of started working in my head and definitely became part of a musical experience which influenced Can and my thinking.
SFJ: You met La Monte Young at the time?
IS: Yeah. He visited us in our studio at Weilerwsist, the first time. And the second time, I think La Monte was in Cologne and we helped him with material and loudspeakers for the gallery and for Heiner Friedrich.
SFJ: How did Terry talk about what he was going to invent? Did he have a way of talking about it?
IS: He was talking about this kind of minimal music, trying to make me understand what it was about, playing or singing something a thousand times, how patterns start overlaying other patterns and how that starts to create something new. I start sort of understanding it there. Playing patterns is something which very much influenced Can and is a part of the music. Jaki did this, very much so.
SFJ: You’ve talked about wanting a Max Roach type of drummer originally.
IS: Max Roach was absolutely my favorite drummer because he was so much into also polyrhythmic things, which I was very much into.
SFJ: Rzewski had Musica Elettronica Viva and AMM was also happening. How much were these things in your head when you were thinking about putting a group together?
IS: I mean, that was the idea. Rzewski had formed [MEV], which very spontaneously created music and had no single composer. The music was the music of the group, and that was one of the influences for me to found Can. The main thing was that the music happened spontaneously between four, five, six people. And nobody should be the composer—not the situation where one is the song writer, the other is the lyric writer, like that.
SFJ: When it began, did you express that idea or discuss it with each other?
IS: We didn't have much to discuss because we agreed that this would be the spirit of the group. Nobody is the boss or the composer or leader. Leader is a word which, for me, is a little bit toxic. Not a little bit—very much so.
SFJ: From almost the beginning, you guys had your own place to play and record and never had to ask a record company, “Hey, is it okay if we record today?”
IS: That was the other basic condition. We said, “We don’t want to be dependent on people who give us money but then tell us what to do.” It’s the old Marxist idea, to own the production means. So all we could afford to own were two Revox tape machines and three microphones and our own instruments. So we said that’s our production means. And we don’t get into the dependence of anybody who offers us a studio and then tells us what to do and forces us into a direction we don’t want to go. So I got somebody with this famous Norvenich castle, that was somebody I knew from the art scene, because I was making speeches in galleries for openings. All my friends were painters, so I got in contact with him and he offered us tone room in this partly inhabited castle. We cleaned up that room and used it. The best of the castle was the staircase. It had this wonderful reverb.
SFJ: Tago Mago is my favorite.
IS: Mine, too.
SFJ: I was listening and thinking about those two tape recorders and the lack of multitracking, and how it might have affected your playing. You always thought you were creating the final version.
IS: Yes. In a way, exactly. Because it could have happened that it was the final version and there was no mixing. Mixing was playing, listening to get the balance right. So it was you, every musician, who decided the loudness, his place in the mix, while he was playing. And that is a very, very good education of listening to each other. So yes, there was no point to change the mix after we had played.
SFJ: How much did that change when you moved to Weilerswist?
IS: That changed when we got the first multi-track, 16-track machine. I like the idea that if you play a new instrument, it changes. Say, you are used to a chamberlain and you get a grand—the sound changes. So you adapt as a musician and learn to work with that. When we got the 16-track machine, we weren’t used to that. We could open it up endlessly. Not endlessly, but quite a lot. That changed the way of putting a piece together.
SFJ: What was the first album you guys did with the 16 track?
IS: That was Landed.
SFJ: And the first album you did at Weilerswist, was that Ege Bamyasi or Future Days?
IS: That was Ege Bamyasi.
SFJ: But the 16-track doesn’t come for a couple of albums, right?
IS: Right. We made two more albums on two-track, two Revox.
SFJ: If you’re thinking, “I’ll fix that later,” you behave differently. If you’re thinking, “It’s here, it's now, in this moment,” you’ll play another way.
IS: I like both ways. I wrote an opera. I love to sit on a desk and compose. That's one thing, but really, I need both the experience of spontaneously creating with others and composing in the classical, old-fashioned way.
SFJ: The band was recording for many hours a day. Does that mean that there are hundreds of hours of tapes somewhere that have never been used?
IS: No. There was a shortness of tape, so we listened to it and when we decided it's not good, we overplayed it on the same tape. But of course, there has been always quite a lot of tapes around, with pieces on which we never published, never got out on a record. But, together with Daniel, we made The Lost Tapes collection.
SFJ: I love that one.
IS: There are no more old tapes in the archive to make a record from.
SFJ: So that's it?
IS: That's it.
SFJ: The Lost Tapes feels to me as much like a Can record as any of the others.
IS: I like The Lost Tapes very much because it tells a story from beginning to end, over the years, which is very nice. And sometimes it’s very rough, which I quite like.
SFJ: At the very beginning of the band, you did the soundtrack for Agilok & Blubbo.
IS: I forgot about that. We didn’t earn any money in the beginning and there was this publisher who asked us to make music for a young guy who made his first film. And so we made the music to this film, which has nothing to do with what we became later.
IS: We were very unexperienced playing together. We were just starting.
SFJ: That's before Malcolm came, right?
IS: Quite a long time before. I mean, a relatively long time.
SFJ: Is the first recording with Malcolm that art exhibit?
IS: When Malcolm came into the studio, we had finished the instrumental version of “Father Cannot Yell.” We were very happy about it and we played it to him. He was not supposed to become a singer. He was a friend, a painter. We put the tape on and he made up words to the already done piece—he just spontaneously sang. We found that it made the piece better. It was wonderful. So from that moment on, he was the singer.
SFJ: You said “Father Cannot Yell” was the first time that you thought, “Here’s a thing that I want to put my name on and put into the world.” Is that right?
IS: Yes. That was already the case with the instrumental version, the one without Malcolm. I took it around to people and played it, the instrumental version. I was very happy about that one. But when Malcolm sang on it, yeah, it improved.
SFJ: The version without Malcolm on it, is that anywhere in the catalog? Did that appear somewhere?
IS: No, no, no. With Malcolm, it became the final piece. But before, I thought it is already the final piece without saying. It could exist on its own.
SFJ: You also said that Jaki and Malcolm ended up having a relationship that helped push the music into what really became Can music.
IS: Yeah. Some of the pieces where that happened are on The Lost Tapes.
SFJ: And then there was Damo. I just saw the movie that “Mother Sky” appears in, Dead End.
IS: I edited the tape on the Moviola. “Mother Sky” is really edited to the picture and these very, very sudden changes in the scene. This guy is wandering around, getting into the place of this woman, and he turns on the record and it’s our piece. I was the one who had to adjust the music to the film. I talked to the director and the cutter and worked out to the dramaturgy of the music according to the film. That was my job, but everything we played, we created together. These cuts were my idea, some very brutal cuts in the middle of a phrase.
IS: Cutting and putting very contradictory things together is a technique of all the arts of the 20th century—collage. You put very different pieces very brutally together. I mean, in painting, it’s very Rauschenberg. It is a technique of all the twentieth century art or literature. If you go through the Ezra Pound Cantos, that’s pure collage. In the music, we did this. Especially in the early days, the music was collage, like Tago Mago.
SFJ: The hi-hat section in “Halleluwah,” is that an overdub?
IS: The hi-hat is not overdub. I don’t think so. Jaki was very reluctant to overdub himself. He was very much a jazz musician. He just wanted to play. I mean, this collage thing was not really his favorite thing. He had to be sure that the groove was not destroyed.
SFJ: How did you figure out that you weren’t going to have a set list or play the hits?
IS: We never had a set list. We really went on stage without any plan or any idea to play pieces because the idea was always not to reproduce things, even if we played pieces. I mean, we did from time to time, especially when people asked for it. We did it sometimes, but they turned out to be different from the record and they turned out to be different each time. If we played them three times in concert, there were three different versions, which sometimes differed from each other very much. So you find, for instance, “Dizzy Dizzy,” on several live versions and they are totally different from the record. On The Lost Tapes, there is a “Dizzy,” which is really brutal and a very rocky version. Originally, on tape, it isn't at all. It was a very light and friendly piece.
There was no set list of pieces. We came on stage, and the ambiance, the public, the acoustics, everything had influence. The light influenced how we started and sometimes we carefully tried to feel and get into the feeling of this ambiance. Out of that, something developed and became a piece. So every time on stage, it was inventing a new piece together.
SFJ: You think you’re going to hear “Vitamin C,” but then it’s not “Vitamin C.”
IS: We liked that. Sometimes, one of us started a piece and the others didn't follow. So this line or part, which was from a certain piece, became part of another piece, which was very funny. Holger and me, we liked to do that. We sometimes fooled each other. I played something and he played something different to it, and the other way around. Since we both were educated classically, we sort of fooled around with the harmonies. I mean, he would be playing a sort of a bassline, which was suggesting a certain chord and a certain harmony, but then I wouldn’t play it. I played another one. Then he sort of changed my harmony into something different, and this was a game we liked very much.
SFJ: Are there records or bands that came out while you were working that you all agreed on? “Oh, they’re pretty good.”
IS: Captain Beefheart was one. We all liked very much his music, and there were others. We all liked James Brown, he was very important. I remember this day when I found the record of the the Holy Modal Rounders. We liked that. And of course, Frank Zappa when he appeared, I liked very much and everybody. Maybe Jaki less.
SFJ: What was Jaki really into?
IS: I don’t know, really. I never found out. He was very much into lots of Asian and African music. He adored Art Blakey. This I know. He had met him and I met him on a different occasion too, but I don't know. He never added too much about other musics. I can't remember now. The Velvet Underground, of course, we liked them very much. But Jaki, for instance, the drums of Moe Tucker was not his thing. I mean, not because she was a girl.
SFJ: Are there singers you really liked working with after Damo in the context of Can?
IS: There was no singer with whom it really worked. We tried out with two or three and it didn't work. They were too harmless. They were not evil enough.
SFJ: I love that.
IS: Well, there was one who would have been evil enough. That was John Lydon. He phoned at night and day to try to convince me that he would be the right singer for Can, but it was too late. That was when we already were separating. No more playing, no more live shows. He would have been maybe the right one, maybe as a personality. Yes. But could he integrate into this not very easy group? That is the question.
SFJ: You think of it as a not very easy group?
IS: No, it wasn’t easy. My idea was to have different characters from different traditions, but that means a lot of friction, a lot of difficulties. We fought a lot. Yes, we did. I mean, not physically, but I mean, there were fights.
SFJ: What would you fight about?
IS: If the group is right or if what I played was the right thing for the groove you played, if it fits or not, if it should be. We never fought about personal things. We had no personal problems with each other. We were practical in the moment. You played something and then somebody said, “No, that doesn’t work.” And then you might insist and say, “Yeah, but I think it should.”
We never had discussions about money, about who has contributed more or less to a piece. Authorship didn’t play any role. Authorship was the group from beginning on. In “She Brings the Rain,” Jaki and me both don't play but we get the same royalties from the piece as everybody else. Jaki said, “Well, not to play is a compositorial decision. It's a musical decision.”
SFJ: I like that.
IS: Nobody ever would have said, “I played more,” or, “This line is from me and it made the piece succeed.” No, this didn’t exist. But we had fights about if this harmony, on this place, in this moment is the right thing to do. And this could really inflame big fights.
SFJ: Do you remember a specific track where you guys argued more than normal?
IS: There were moments in “Halleluwah,” because this is a collage piece.
SFJ: Is there something about Can that you think people often get wrong?
IS: No. Sometimes, there are opinions or points of view which are totally unexpected and new. I love to be surprised by this. I wouldn't say this is wrong. I mean, who am I to say, “He got me wrong!”? I mean, when somebody feels about the thing I have made, the music we have made, has a certain opinion, a certain feeling, a certain point of view about it, why should I say he is wrong? It's his experience. I love to hear new and unexpected opinions about it. That was what Can did. No record was like the one before. Somebody said to me, “It’s always a new group.” I said, “Yes, it is a new group because it’s one year later. We are different.”