A month shy of his 75th birthday, German keyboardist Irmin Schmidt is old enough to have lived through World War II. But the spirit of his music with Can – one of Krautrock's key groups and an influence on pioneering bands from the Sex Pistols to Radiohead – remains eternally young. While relaxing with a pot of tea on the back patio of his San Francisco hosts, Schmidt unraveled the mystery of a long-dormant ensemble currently anticipating the June 19th release of The Lost Tapes – a triple CD of previously unreleased material from the late Sixties and Seventies that's so primal and yet so forward-minded that much of it sounds as if it had been recorded yesterday.
How important is the Germanic identity to Can?
We never said, "We are a German group" because early on we had an American singer [Malcolm Mooney] and then we had a Japanese singer [Damo Suzuki] and much later a percussionist from Ghana ["Rebop" Kwaku Baah] and a Jamaican bassist [Rosko Gee]. But the nucleus of Can, three of us experienced the War. We were brought up in ruins without talking about it, but it was in our minds. I had this fight against my parents' generation, fighting anti-Semitism and Nazism. I think there is a very strong German identity in this music and also a very international openness to anything. I heard Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" and something opened.
One of the things that distinguished Can was that the band wasn't organized around a soloist or a vocalist. If Can had a star player, it was your drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, and the groove was primary, which was uncommon for rock bands of your era.
Yes, it was very uncommon, the un-hierarchic structure of the band. I had been a conductor and a virtuoso playing piano recitals and concertos, but with Can we started from scratch, and virtuosity was not the thing. None of us had the desire to show fast fingers, and Jaki reduced his virtuosity to something very essential.
Can you explain Can's technique of improvisational songwriting that your bassist Holgar Czukay described as "instant composition"?
There's an idea that came by playing, but then we concentrated on that thing, that groove, another riff, and played it again. It was very spontaneous, but also it was very disciplined work. It was not jamming, which is just playing.
Did you do ordinary things that regular bands do, like ask each other to try different parts or critique each other, or how your music fits into the world?
We discussed what we were doing in the studio, even very fiercely. It came to real battles. It was putting the finger on what in the groove didn't work. Jaki was very harsh with that, like when the timing was off, or maybe when I played harmonies that didn't really fit. We were very rarely theoretical. We didn't really enter into the political discussions of the late Sixties, early Seventies. We approached our music as a pure art, but of course the fact that we had no hierarchy, is a political thing.
Did you rehearse before you committed your music to tape?
Rehearsing would be the wrong term for it. We repeated things, but every repetition was sort of creating the piece again. It was never in the final state. Everything that you hear on a record is a moment in a process where we said, "OK, we should stop it now," but it could've gone on. It was never, by playing it again, the same piece.
Had you performed some of these pieces for a live audience before recording them?
When we came on stage, we very often didn't even know what we were gonna play, so we invented. Something that had very consistent conceived ideas, we kept in mind while working in the studio. And it went the other way round. We played things live that we released, but it very often happened that people asked for "Spoon" [a Top 10 single in Germany] and we played it, but they didn't recognize it, and they kept asking for it!
Was composing, recording, and performing music that at times evokes madness and violence and cataclysms at all cathartic?
Well, I don't know. [He laughs, then takes a long pause.] I'm quite reluctant to talk in metaphysical terms about music I had done. Every day you feel different, and four persons or five, if they form something where they get so much together like one organism, there is something mystic, something metaphysical, something transcendental, maybe, if it succeeds, which makes the mystery last. I hear people say that they always hear something new in it.
Why did Malcolm leave the band?
There was the Vietnam War going on, and he feared that maybe they already had drawn him and that he didn't get the letter and wouldn't be able to return to the States without being put in prison immediately. Being in a country where you don't understand the language makes all this trouble that you have already in your mind even worse, so we said he had to go back and sort it out, which he did.
The romantic version of this story is that the madness of your music got to him.
No. It was his situation that drove him to a panicking state. He had to see a psychologist about it, but we understood it. There was nothing romantic about it. If you read my notes to The Lost Tapes, you'll know my estimation of him.
But the story about how Holger and your guitarist Michael Karoli found Damo, and that same night he was onstage with the band . . .
The romantic aspects of that story are totally true. They sat in a café, saw him busking out on the street, and Holgar said, "What about him?" And Jaki said, "Yeah, why not?" That's how we function. We were booked to play in a club that we didn't like at all. [British actor] David Niven was there with this unspeakable manager we had. He cheated us and brought us to this club, so our extremely weird and aggressive performance was a protest against this manager, the venue, everything, and Damo joined as if he'd been with us for years. The poor public didn't know what was going on. They kept leaving, and the rest was totally stunned and fascinated. I didn't speak to Niven, but I was told that being there was the weirdest experience in his life.
Could anyone in the band follow Damo's lyrical content?
It never had a structural meaning. It was always more rhythmic and melodic; he was more of an instrument than what we call a lead singer. It was more Dada, more Fluxus, a little Japanese mixed with English mixed with German, and whatever came into his mind because he's a big traveler. But there are a couple of websites where people need to find out the content of Damo's lyrics, and they come up with the most adventurous lyrics you can imagine. [Chuckles] I love that!
Why did Can break up?
The way we played, we created, is so intense that after some time it loses the tension. Jaki always compared it to a rubber band, which stretching for too long gets floppy. But Michael and Jaki played on all my solo records, and I spent lots of time with Michael because he was my closest friend. God knows if we would have gone on stage again if Michael [who died in 2001] had been still alive. But just as there were times that people didn't recognize we played the piece [they requested], they wouldn't recognize the group anymore because we would've played such different music from what people would expect from Can.