Kid Millions is a Brooklyn-based drummer who founded the bands Oneida and Man Forever. Here he pays tribute to one of his formative influences: Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who died Sunday at the age of 78.
“We were a pure collective,” Jaki Liebezeit once said of his band Can. “Nobody had the chance to become … the Fuhrer!”
If the best bands create their own occult language, drummers draft the grammar behind the spells. Liebezeit (could a drummer possibly have a better surname than one that translates to “Love Time”?) was the sorcerer directing Can’s cataracts of sound into the monolithic, unavoidable influence they became, despite their relatively obscure West German origins.
Jaki Liebezeit played simply, powerfully, with prodigious technique, but instead of drawing attention to his chops in the mode of a Keith Moon or Billy Cobham, he created drama through restraint. There is a decidedly German influence on a certain flavor of experimental rock drumming of which Liebezeit was an occasional purveyor: the metronomic, minimalist groove known as Motorik. Can’s German contemporaries Kraftwerk celebrated the ceaseless efficiency of the “Autobahn”with a machine-like pulse, and Neu’s Klaus Dinger (once of Kraftwerk) continued in that vein on tunes like “Fur immer” (“Forever”). While these contributions were crucial, Jaki Liebezeit made the Motorik beat funky, despite his penchant for glorious repetition.
In his formative jazz-playing years a possibly tripping audience member approached Liebezeit and said, “You must play monotonously.” Thus directed, Liebezeit ventured into radical simplicity, with such dedication he once chased Can bassist Holger Czukay around the studio with an ax, insisting that he play fewer notes. His emblematic playing combines crisp syncopation between the snare and kick drum with dynamic accents to create a Liebezeit-ian “umwelt”; the rhythmic world through which the entire Can oeuvre must pass. Liebezeit’s playing embodies a meditative and even lulling flow. This grants any percussive event – a snare crack, or even a single-stroke fill across the toms – a tremendous power not accessible to drummers who blast relentlessly. Liebezeit was a master of control, doling out accents and attention with a surgeon’s precision. But his foundational beats were far from simplistic: They were compact and crystalline, infused with an almost lapidary complexity.
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Though Can made their best music from 1968 through 1975, Liebezeit’s drumming still sounds contemporary. His quartz pulse has been poorly modeled by computers in the Swedish hit mines: His own dry and tightly tuned snare and toms are unburdened from the telltale studio effects that mark various recording vintages. Perhaps the band feels out of time because of the despair and degradation from which their creativity arose in post-Nazi Germany. As Liebezeit said in the BBC doc Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany, “The war was definitely finished, the old way of thinking had to be destroyed.” The band was driven to create something new and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations: a perfectly balanced blend of funk drive and psychedelic drift. In addition to their 12 official albums and various archival releases over the years, the 2012 three-CD set The Lost Tapes somehow contains more than three hours of additional brilliance, much of it etched indelibly with Liebezeit’s articulate and soulful playing.
The most immediate example of Liebezeit’s rhythmic signature might be “Vitamin C,”with a break so deeply funky the music supervisors of Netflix series The Get Down synced the tune to a bunch of subway-car graffiti expeditions set in the boogie-down Bronx of the Seventies. Also witness the slinky otherworldly percussive groove of Ege Bamyasi‘s “Sing Swan Song,” which Kanye West lifted for his 2007 jam “Drunk and Hot Girls.” The lead track from that same album, “Pinch,” showcases the drummer’s virtuosic serpentine flow.
Liebezeit’s influence can still be heard all over popular music. Radiohead goes for the Jaki-feel with “These Are My Twisted Words” and during the middle section of “Ful Stop.” Portishead’s brilliant album Third reflects a deep reverence for Liebezeit-style groove. “Jaki Liebezeit’s playing has influenced me more than any other musician,” that band’s Geoff Barrow told me. “His creativity and expression created his own distinct sound that was uniquely his. [He was] a jewel in recorded music history and his drumming will be in [my] head till I pass.”
As with all true originals Jaki’s playing is instantly recognizable and almost impossible to reproduce. As a young drummer I listened to Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days over and over and could not for the life of me understand how it was possible for one drummer to create all that music.
When it came time to apply the teachings of Liebezeit to my own playing, the best approximation I came up with was the driving pulse in the Oneida tune “Caesar’s Column,” off our 2004 album Secret Wars. I tried to keep each beat extremely articulate, while I dropped a syncopated kick drum into the chorus and bridge sections. It’s a pale imitation, but perhaps my closest tribute.
In the midst of the horrors of our current president’s fascist tendencies, the passing of Jaki Liebezeit – a musician deeply committed to the idea of harmonious flow – reminds us of the true potential of creative democracy and equality for all.
RIP Jaki Liebezeit. RIP Love Time.
Special thanks to Jan St. Werner and Sarah Richardson for research assistance.