Avant-Garde Pioneer Irmin Schmidt on Can’s Singular Sonics

When Can began releasing their structurally challenging, progressive/electronic music out of Cologne, West Germany in 1968 — essentially ushering in the movement that came to be known as Krautrock — they pioneered a sound born out of avant-garde compositional leanings tinged with psychedelic improvisational fortitude (and with a little bit of funk thrown into the mix for good measure). Actually, it’s not all that surprising, really, since Can’s co-founding keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Holger Czukay both studied with the legendary unorthodox (and sometimes controversial) German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen that very same year.

Can’s far-reaching influence has been cited by such convention-defying artists as David Bowie, the Talking Heads, Radiohead, Primal Scream, and Spoon, to name but a few. “It’s nice to hear people like what you have done. I mean, it’s always nice!” says Schmidt with a hearty chuckle. “It’s also been nice to get the respect of new generations of listeners and musicians now getting interested in our stuff. It’s beautiful, yeah.”

With all that in mind, Can recently released The Singles (Spoon/Mute), a collection of both known and somewhat rare 7-inch versions of 23 songs the band released between 1969–78 (plus one 1990 edit to boot). And while The Singles has already been met with much acclaim, all related celebration has been tinged with a bit of melancholy, as two of Can’s founding members passed away in 2017 — namely, powerhouse drummer Jaki Liebezeit at age 78 in January, and the aforementioned experimental-leaning Holger Czukay, who left us just this past week on September 5, at age 79.

Schmidt, 80, called me from his homebase in the south of France to discuss the band’s singular improv-compositional style, when surround sound mixes are (and aren’t) options for their catalog, and what Can song Stockhausen gave his rarely handed out seal of approval. Can so einflussreich wie sie kommen.

Mike Mettler: “Spoon,” which was first released as a single in December 1971 [and later appeared on November 1972’s Ege Bamyasi], was essentially the first track you used a drum machine on, wasn’t it? The song’s groove is basically defined in the first four bars, and then you take it from there.

Irmin Schmidt: Right, yeah. At the time, drum machines were ridiculously little, funny gadgets that people had beside a piano when they were playing in a bar, or something. (both chuckle) Actually, we first used it on [February 1971’s double album] Tago Mago for fun, on “Peking O” [the 11-minute track that opens Side 4]. We used it really funnily; we didn’t used it very seriously there. That was the first time we used it, but we didn’t use it in the way it was conceived. We used the rhythm totally differently. Jaki [Liebezeit, Can’s drummer] played with it and liked it, but that made for a very peculiar rhythm for that groove.

Mettler: Can originally used that amazing reverb chamber in the castle you were recording in before you went and built that great studio of yours known as Inner Space.

Schmidt: In the first 1½ to 2 years of the band, we had this great castle [Schloss Nörvenich, a 14th-century castle in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany where the band recorded from 1968-69], yes. The entrance hall and the staircase had an absolutely wonderful reverb, and we used that on the first two records [1969’s Monster Movie and 1971’s Tago Mago, as well as for the songs they composed for use in films that appeared on 1970’s compilation album, Soundtracks].

Later, when we were recording “Spoon,” we were already in our own studio, which we had built. There, we didn’t have that hall or anything like that wonderful staircase anymore, so the sound, of course, was totally different. [Can’s Inner Space studio was located in a former cinema in Weilerswist, a town just outside of Cologne, Germany. It also doubled as a living space for the band.]

Mettler: And that’s the place where you had the 8-meters-high ceilings and put mattresses on the walls, right?

Schmidt: Yes, that was the one with the mattresses on the wall! Being an old cinema, it was pretty big — 20 meters long and 10 meters wide, and 8 meters high like you said, so it was a really huge room. To make it acoustically sound, we were nailing 1,500 mattresses on the walls and on the ceiling, yeah.

Mettler: Wow! How did you get ahold of so many mattresses? That must have been some bill to pay. . .

Schmidt: (laughs) We got them from the army. They were used mattresses, so we got them for nearly nothing. They didn’t need them anymore.

Mettler: Well, that was clearly a decision that worked out for you, because there’s a certain, I’m going to call it, “Can Character” to the sound of you all working in that space together — and very diligently too. You all improvised there together before turning the music into final compositions, is that fair to say?

Schmidt: Um, no, I would say improvising and composing were one and the same thing. We invented by playing. We played until the groove was going right. Sometimes we would play for 2 hours, and if the groove was good, we would be editing what we had from those 2 hours into a piece. Sometimes, we would edit them into those 20-minutes long pieces that we did.

Mettler: There’s a certain infamous 18-minute piece that takes up all of Side 2 of Tago Mago, “Halleluwah,” which is represented on The Singles in its shorter, edited version [which runs 3:30].

Schmidt: Right, yeah, I think we put that edit on a B-side; I don’t remember for sure anymore. [The shorter version of “Halleluwah” was the B-side to the “Turtles Have Short Legs” single in March 1971.]

And we made that edited version because it’s a little bit like having a film you make a still out of; you just make some pictures out of that hour-long film. That’s what we sometimes did, because the original pieces were very often edited, so you could edit them again in a totally different way. The 20-minute version of “Halleluwah” is very much edited from some long, long sessions, and that’s how we also got to what’s on the albums. Yes, that’s how we worked.

Mettler: Since you’ve also worked as a film composer, do you prefer the stereo soundfield, or do you like doing surround-sound, multichannel compositions?

Schmidt: That depends on what you’re doing. When you’re doing filmwork for something that will go in the cinema, you of course have to work with surround. On records, on a CD or a vinyl, you go with the stereo.

Stereo is a quite good medium, but with Jono Podmore, who is also known as Kumo, I did a sound installation with 16 channels moving around in a room [at the Barbican Centre in London], which is another very interesting thing to do. For the DVD of the sound installation [2008’s Flies, Guys and Choirs], we did a 5.1 surround version. All kinds of sound designs are interesting, depending on what you’re after.

Mettler: I’m a fan of surround, so when the Can reissues came out in the SACD format in 2004, I was hoping you had thought about remastering some or all of those albums for a surround presentation. I’d love to hear all 20 minutes of “You Doo Right” from Monster Movie in a surround mix, for example. Was that something you thought about doing at all?

Schmidt: We have done four pieces in a kind of surround [“Smoke,” “Get the Can,” Below This Level,” and “Half Past One,” which can all be found in 5.1 mixes on the 2004 2-disc deluxe release, The Can DVD]. But, you know, doing some of the early music of Can in surround would be an artificial surround, because we didn’t record them in multitrack. We recorded only on 2-track machines. That’s all what we had to record on until the fourth or fifth record. And since we were first recording on 2-track, there’s no way we could make a surround of that.

Mettler: That’s just my own wishful thinking there. (chuckles) By the time you got to Flow Motion (1976), you had enough tracks to do a full surround mix, didn’t you?

Schmidt: That one we could have done, yes, but I’m not very interested in doing that myself. If somebody does it and I like the outcome, I wouldn’t object. But I’m not very much interested in fooling around with the old stuff.

Mettler: I can understand that. As for the best way to listen to Can music, do you prefer the vinyl format or the CD format, for your listeners?

Schmidt: Well, I do like the CDs, after we remastered them. And we remastered them so they would really sound like the original date of recording, and like the original vinyl. When the first CDs came out, there was a lot of trying to improve the sound, but that didn’t work. When we remastered, we went back to the way they exactly sounded when we recorded them, the way they sounded with the old, original tapes.

The difference with the remastered CDs and the original vinyl is negligible. People still like the original vinyl, and that’s OK. It sounds a little bit warmer, maybe, but I think the difference is not enormous. But if you listen to the remastered CDs right after you listen to the vinyl, you’ll find out they sound exactly like the original vinyl.

The only difference with the original tapes, maybe, is because at the time in the early ’70s, the tape would have so much bass on it, and they would try to play that down a little so that the needle would not jump out of it [i.e., out of the LP’s groove]. So they cut the bass a little bit when they mastered it, but now the technique is different with CDs, and they don’t have to do that.

The vinyl that exists now, the vinyl that’s made with the remastered Can, really sounds like the original 2-track stereo tapes — and that’s great! That’s a great sound.

Mettler: I would agree. And I have to tell you, it was really hard finding original Can LPs over here in the States when they were first released. To hear the version of [1972’s] “Vitamin C” that’s on this Singles collection is a real treat, and an ear-opener. You get the whole sense of space in the track, and the surface noise that appears at the end of it — I mean, it really sounds like I was missing something all those years.

Schmidt: Yeah yeah, that’s great to hear! (laughs)

Mettler: “Vitamin C” also seems to be the most popular Can track in the streaming universe too. It has over 5 million listens/spins on Spotify, for example. Why do you think so many people have listened to that specific song?

Schmidt: That track is more than 40 years old, and it’s become the most popular song of ours! (chuckles) It’s been in different films, and it’s used by a lot of filmmakers. And it’s been used by the Netflix series, The Get Down. So yeah, it’s very popular. [“Vitamin C,” originally from 1972’s Ege Bamyasi, was the theme for Dizzee, The Get Down character played by Jaden Smith. It was also featured in the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, Inherent Vice, his adaptation of the same-named Thomas Pynchon novel, as well as in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Broken Embraces.]

Mettler: Earlier, you were talking about being careful about bass content. What’s the difference between the sound of Can music created in the studio and Can music played onstage?

Schmidt: With “Vitamin C” and “Spoon” — when we played “Spoon” live, like on [2012’s] The Lost Tapes and different occasions, for example — for these live versions, we never played them like they were on the record. Sometimes we would play versions of them that were 20 minutes long and they sound totally different, because we never “reproduced “something. We always created it new.

Mettler: So maybe we need another live collection next, in the vein of The Lost Tapes. Would that be possible? Are there more archival Can releases ahead?

Schmidt: There will be, next year, starting with a live collection. It’s all coming from different tapes recorded in concert — sometimes by friends, which are not the most professional recordings. Nevertheless, it will be an interesting collection.

It might be over several records that come out one after the other. I don’t know yet the way it will be released, but it certainly will start next year.

And those live songs don’t sound like the records. They don’t start like the studio recordings — they start from some kind of improvising, like a quotation of or a “ghost” of the theme of a song like “Spoon,” and then it disappears again. We never really played the recorded pieces live.

Sometimes we would even play three pieces at a time. I might have done the harmonies of one piece, Holger [Czukay] would play the bass of another piece, and Jaki [Liebezeit] would play the rhythm of another, and then another — and all at the same time. We sort of juggled with three balls and four different themes, you know?

Mettler: It’s quite a unique sound, that’s for sure. I would have to imagine Stockhausen himself was ultimately proud of what Can wound up doing, wouldn’t you say?

Schmidt: Yes, he was! He was interviewed once in a blind listening test. He didn’t like any of the music which was played to him — except “Aumgn” off of Tago Mago, and he really liked it. He asked them, “Who the hell made that?” And they said, “It’s Can.” And he said, “Well, no wonder! They’re my students!” (both laugh)