"We never saw ourselves as a rock group" - The Prog Interview with Can's Irmin Schmidt

Irmin Schmidt
(Image credit: Steve Gullick)

As co-founder of Can, alongside Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit, Irmin Schmidt left an indelible imprint on the musical landscape of the late 60s and 70s. The German collective, formed in Cologne in 1968, drew from elements of rock, jazz, ethnic funk, classical music and minimalism to create a new kind of language, governed by an intuitive sense of exploration. The band’s keyboardist and (later on) occasional singer, Schmidt remained with Can through to their initial split in 1979, a run that included such peerless classics as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days. “Everybody had ideas,” he recalls of their unique chemistry. “The music had so many different styles because we all contributed everything we knew.”

Schmidt happened to know a lot. Born in Berlin in 1937, he’d attended a handful of music universities across his homeland prior to studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne during the first half of the 60s. Around the same time, Schmidt was busy as a conductor, performing with the Vienna Symphony and others, while also serving as a composer and concert pianist. All of this formal grounding – including work for film and theatre productions and a spell as pupil of György Ligeti – played into the approach of Can, who opted to reinvent themselves amid the cultural ruins of post-war Germany.

Following Can’s first break-up, Schmidt moved to the south of France and immersed himself in soundtracks for film, TV and theatre. 1980 saw the arrival of his solo debut, Filmmusik, followed by the likes of Toy Planet (with Bruno Spoerri), Musk At Dusk and, in 1991, Impossible Holidays. Can briefly reformed in 1986 for Rite Time, eventually released three years later. Further reunions took place in 1991 and 1999, though any subsequent hopes of getting together were quashed when Karoli died in 2001. Liebezeit and Czukay both passed away last year.

Among Schmidt’s other exploits is Gormenghast, a three-act fantasy opera based on Mervyn Peake’s celebrated Gormenghast Trilogy, that had its premiere in 1998. “I’m no longer an avant-garde artist, out to shock,” he declared at the time. “I want people to enjoy my music.” Factor in a ballet (2008’s La Fermosa), various anthologies, collaborations, more film soundtracks and 2012’s Schmidt-curated The Lost Tapes – a glorious three-album box of previously unheard Can treasures – and he’s hardly stopped for breath over the past decade or so.

In 2015, he was knighted by the French Ministry of Culture and was made a Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres for his contribution to art and music. Despite his myriad endeavours, Can is an unshakeable part of Schmidt’s artistic identity. Last year he premiered Can Dialog//, two new pieces written for orchestra, at London’s Barbican. The work is due to feature again this December, when Berlin’s Volksbühne will host the piece alongside other treats. “I will conduct an orchestra with Filmmusik and Can Dialog,” Schmidt explains to Prog. “Can Dialog is not orchestrated Can pieces. They appear as themes in an orchestra piece in its own right. And afterwards, like at the Barbican, a rock group made up of Berlin artists – put together by Jochen Arbeit of Einstürzende Neubauten – will play a Can tribute.”

This all comes in the wake of the publication in May 2018 of All Gates Open: The Story Of Can. A book of two halves, Rob Young examines the history of Can in part one, before Schmidt tells his own story in the second section, which takes the format of famous-fan interviews and diary entries.

And now comes Schmidt’s new solo album, 5 Klavierstücke. Consisting of five minimal piano pieces – what he calls “spontaneous meditations…formed from an emotional memory in which Schubert, Cage, Japan (Gagaku) and Can are equally present” – it was recorded in his south of France studio with producer Gareth Jones. Like most everything Schmidt turns his hand to, it bears repeated listening.

How did the idea for 5 Klavierstücke come about?

I wanted to make a piano record with both prepared and normal piano. I was one of the very first – and sometimes the first in certain cases – to perform John Cage music in Germany, like Atlas Eclipticalis with a symphony orchestra and Winter Music on piano. I’d met him and he showed me how a piano should be prepared, so I did it for 5 Klavierstücke as I’d learned it from Cage in the 60s. Prepared piano is part of a certain tradition in Europe, from Haydn to Stockhausen. And since all my music plays with the consciousness of being in a tradition, my memory functions like this. I have travelled as a pianist doing recitals of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Cage. So it’s all in my head. And of course there’s my personal tradition, where Can has a very important place.

What kind of a mentor was Cage?

He had a lot of humour and seemed so natural and relaxed. He was extremely charming and very concentrated. 5 Klavierstücke has so much of the spirit of Cage in it. You just let it happen. It has its own life presence and you don’t interfere anymore. That is very Cageian, very Zen. As a painter, you might spend your whole life trying to catch an image of a bird on a bramble. You try and try and paint again and again, then throw it away. Then one day you just go up, do it in five minutes and it’s wonderful. That’s the way these new piano pieces were done. Nothing was written beforehand, except for one little melody that I wrote about an hour earlier. All the rest is totally spontaneous, played once only and recorded at the same time. And afterwards no corrections. When I listened back to it with my sound engineer and producer, we didn’t find any reason to edit anything.

This is also an extension of the philosophy you’ve had right from the start: the idea of turning the acoustic environment into music…

Right. That’s what I did from the beginning onwards. You’d go to dinner with Cage before a performance and he’d tell you about how he tried to find mushrooms in some swamp in Alaska, rather than tell you what’s happening on stage. Then when we’re in the hall, right before we’re due to start, he turns to me and says: “Why don’t we just push chairs around?” For me it was a totally spontaneous and surprising thing. It gave the performance a certain impact that it wouldn’t have had if we’d prepared or composed the thing.

Throughout your life, you’ve placed a lot of value on surrounding yourself with silence on a regular basis. Why do you think people tend to be suspicious of silence?

It’s part of our contemporary culture or civilisation, where people have to have images and sound all the time. So I think it’s very necessary to make big holes into this constant noise. Again, this is very Cageian in a way. One of the reasons I was so attracted to this Cageian philosophy, which is very much influenced by Zen – he even wrote a book called Silence [1961] – is that I’d already been doing it before. It might have something to do with my childhood. I loved to sit all alone somewhere and just have silence around me. I have a very strong memory of sitting in this kind of tree cave and listening to silence or little rustles. My mother was a wonderfully understanding person, but sometimes, of course, parents want to punish you because you did some shit or other. I remember that she put me in my room, refused to let me leave and had the shutters closed. So I was sitting there all alone and I wasn’t unhappy at all. This wasn’t punishment to me. In fact, after some time she heard me singing. In the end, my mother became even more angry, because she’d failed.

She should’ve put you in a noisy room…

Yeah, that would’ve been torture!

At the age of 14, you were either going to be a conductor or an architect. What swayed you towards music?

It was just a kind of need. My father was an architect and from him I learned how to draw and plan houses. And I liked the idea of creating form. It had something to do with structure, which music has too. But finally the attraction of music was so much stronger.

You studied with Stockhausen, who is often portrayed as an unwaveringly serious character. But I believe that isn’t an accurate assessment…

There were two sides to him. As long as he was working on composition, either teaching or analysing, he was extremely straight and severe. There was no humour in an analysis of Gruppen or whatever. It was very concentrated, serious work. But then he’d invite us to his house and we’d have parties, when he became just totally normal. You could laugh with him about silly things. He was able to separate himself like that, because that was his character. For him, music was something holy, like going to church mass.


Is that something you relate to from your own experience too?

Yes, I can totally relate to that, because even if it’s a different spirit – whether it’s piano recitals or conducting or being on stage with Can – making music is something that absorbs everything of you. As an ego, you sort of disappear in it. You don’t entertain yourself by playing music. In the moment you become a kind of medium; you become the music. And if that doesn’t happen, then something’s not right. Ask any classical pianist and he or she will tell you the same.

In 1966 you visited New York, where you discovered Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich and the Fluxus movement. Was it a big culture shock?

Quite. The most astonishing thing for me was that this strict separation between popular music and classical in Germany, between so-called entertainment and serious music, didn’t exist in New York. You just made music and found out whether it was good or not, or accepted or not. And you experimented. America has another music history because of the blues and the population spread of Africans into Western culture. It created a totally new tradition and consciousness for music. And that was really something totally new for me. It was a revelation.

So what did you do when you returned home?

I had several concerts with Cage music, then I travelled on my own and with a group of nine or 10 musicians, only playing [the genre] new music, like Stockhausen. But at the same time I was thinking, “I //have// to change something.”

Most bands are founded by groups of friends. But when you formed Can you hardly knew each other. How critical was that?

I knew Holger [Czukay] from Stockhausen composition courses, but we weren’t friends. And Michael [Karoli] was Holger’s student, or pupil, at the boarding school where Holger taught. So I didn’t know Michael at all when we got together for the first time in my house. As a person, I knew Jaki [Liebezeit] only vaguely. I’d been to see his free jazz group, the Manfred Schoof group, in concert in Cologne, but we didn’t know each other very well. I didn’t actually ask him to join the group, because I didn’t want a free jazz drummer. I wanted somebody like Max Roach, so I asked Jaki if he knew of anybody. To my surprise, he came to me and said: “I’m ready to join you.” I was very suspicious of that. I thought, “Shit, I don’t want a free jazz drummer.” And then it turned out that he didn’t want to be one anymore anyway.

Was progressive music ever on your radar?

Not really. When I founded Can, I didn’t think about a rock group. I wanted to bring together jazz, rock, new music and ethnic experiences of different people and find out what happens. We never saw ourselves as a rock group. We were a group that played something that might be //called// rock, but it was contemporary music.

How difficult was it to implement the Can philosophy of creating music whilst trying to forget your formal training?

Well it //was// difficult. But we were hard-working and we were obsessed with inventing ourselves and finding out how to build a kind of organism that makes a very genuine music. All these terms like ‘effort’ and ‘work’ are OK, but they miss the point, because there was so much //passion//. Something is in your head and you want to define it. And you want to be precise, you want to really //hit// the idea. You just do it.

Do you think Can were never fully appreciated in Germany?

You have to consider that, after the war, there was not the faintest idea left of a German pop tradition. The same applied to modern art and modern music. All this had been destroyed and had vanished. So art or music of the 20th Century had to be re-imported to Germany after 1945. In the 50s and 60s everybody thought that the real thing was what came from America and England. Nobody believed in Germany’s own production, which meant that slowly, in the 60s, culture and art had to be recreated and rebuilt. When we started Can, journalists thought that we couldn’t play, because we didn’t sound like what they were used to from America and England. But we didn’t want to. This all goes back to tradition. When you listen to the melodies, whether it’s with Can or later work, you’ll find the German tradition of the beginning of the 20th Century – Kurt Weill and that kind of music.

There’s a story about you taking LSD and driving the van when Can toured the UK for the first time in 1971. Is that true?

Well, no. [Laughs] Sometimes Michael and I would take a tiny little bit of LSD, which doesn’t give you any hallucinations or anything. It just makes everything look more brilliant, more shiny. But it’s not the truth when it comes to that aspect of my life as an artist.

Irmin Schmidt

(Image credit: Luci Lux)

Were you surprised by the level of adoration Can often received from audiences on that first UK tour?

Not really. When you have something very strong, there’s something vibrating between you and the audience. You feel it. Sometimes it goes wrong of course, because taking risks and inventing on stage isn’t a guarantee for a successful concert.

Did it feel slightly surreal performing I Want More on Top Of The Pops in 1976?

Well, surrealism is part of the tradition of 20th Century art, so why not?

Was composing for film a natural medium for you?

Very much so. It sort of naturally grew out of my work as a student for theatre and making music for plays or conducting. I conducted two Brecht plays with a small orchestra, then I started making my own music for theatre plays and, after that, short films. Even before Can I made two or three film music pieces for movies, which I brought into Can. It was a good way to earn some money, because in the beginning we were very poor. After Can, I was offered film music and thought it was a nice way to do it again. And during the 80s I did it a lot, though I stopped for a while in the 90s to write Gormenghast, the opera.

Is there a division between intuition and improv, in terms of the music you’ve made over the years?

I don’t see it so much as a division, because sometimes my film music is created intuitively. I discuss the structure of the film with the director, and where to put music, and then I might get a very spontaneous idea. This happened, for instance, when I was sitting with Wim Wenders on Palermo Shooting [2008]. He’d asked me to write the music for it and we sat down to watch it together. At some point in the middle of the film I said to him: “I hear an accordion playing in this scene, like something from a certain opera.” It was a totally intuitive idea and later I had to work this out to make it fit. Composing happens after something appears in your head and you start to shape and define it.

Do you still hear music in your head all the time?

Yes. And it’s not always my own. I might wake up in the morning and have the last movement of the Fourth Symphony of Schumann in my head, then go down to the studio, pick up the score and look to see if it’s the same as how I hear it. It could be old music or classical, it might be a jazz record or whatever. But there is always music. Just once in my life, for 10 days, I did not. I had a kind of bleeding in my skull and it was hurting incredibly. But I got more scared by the fact that there was no music in my head. I didn’t hear anything and it frightened me horribly. Then on the eleventh day, all of a sudden I heard a violin concerto. And not an existing one – just a violin with a big orchestra. For six hours I didn’t stop jubilating like mad. That was a very special moment in my life.

Has last year’s sad passing of Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay imade you re-evaluate the legacy of Can in some ways? You’re the last man standing from the very first line-up…

I don’t have to re-evaluate. It’s just there. Of course, Jaki and Holger disappearing is horrible. The work I did with them formed and marked me in such a strong way. Even after Can, on a lot of my solo work I made so much music with Jaki and Michael. So it’s in me. The influence of these guys is part of my most important musical experience.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.