'I grew up in total ruins': Irmin Schmidt of Can on LSD, mourning and musical adventures

The last founding member of the visionary German band left alive, the 81-year-old recalls how he rejected his Nazi father to find freedom in music

In the dining room of his rambling farmhouse in Provence, Irmin Schmidt pours a glass of rosé in preparation for being interviewed. At 81, he is twinkly, genial company, a little at odds with the image he projected as the keyboard player in Can, the Cologne band once described as “the most influential and revered avant-garde band of the late 20th century”. While his bandmate Holger Czukay used to play up for the camera, Schmidt tended to stare sternly down it from between a pair of immense sideburns, every inch the serious musician who had trained under Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Since the band split up in 1979, he has made solo albums, conducted, written film scores, penned an opera. He says he doesn’t much concern himself with the past. He is dismissive of Can’s brief late-80s reunion on the grounds that it “sounded too much like Can” and balked at a suggestion that he should join an all-star Can tribute group at the Barbican’s 2017 celebration of the band’s 50th anniversary: “It was a wonderful performance they did, but I mean, playing a Can piece as a song, having to learn the fucking piece and remember it …” He laughs. “We never cared about what people expected. I always imagined if one day we would go onstage again, people would think: ‘No, this isn’t Can. This is another group – we are in the wrong place.’”

Can in 1973
Can in 1973 (left to right: Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli, Holger Czukay (standing), Irmin Schmidt and Damo Suzuki. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

But, of late, he has been dwelling on the band’s history. For one thing, 2017 left him the sole survivor of Can’s original four-piece line-up. Guitarist Michael Karoli died of cancer in 2001, while drummer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay both died last year, the latter in the disused Weilerswist cinema that had once housed Can’s Inner Space studio, and where Czukay had continued to live after the band broke up. And then, at the urging of Hildegard, his partner of 51 years and Can’s manager since the early 70s, he has co-authored, with Rob Young, a definitive biography of the band, All Gates Open.

It is a fascinating book, not least because Schmidt’s life was extraordinary even before he formed Can. Born in Berlin in 1937, he can remember seeing Allied planes strafe a German military train with gunfire while he was an evacuee in Austria; returning to Germany in 1946, he found it “absolutely flattened by bombing. I grew up in these total ruins. That was an experience that is still deeply within me: growing up in this town, this land, where everything was devastated, all the buildings, all the culture.” His teenage years were marked not just by the usual adolescent surliness but by an obsessive fury over his homeland’s recent history: he was expelled from school for using its student magazine to expose his teachers’ Nazi pasts, while his relationship with his father – another Nazi supporter who had done nothing to intervene when their Jewish neighbours were taken to Auschwitz – was “pure war”. “Always asking, ‘Why did you do this?’, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’, ‘How could you? How could you?’ I think there is this kind of … mourning within me which I can never get rid of.”

By all accounts a brilliant musician from an early age, he was already a professional classical pianist when he signed up to study under Stockhausen at Cologne’s Rheinische Musikschule. Czukay was a fellow pupil, and Schmidt is rather proud of the fact that, when Stockhausen was later played a selection of experimental German rock tracks, he dismissed all of them except Can’s 1971 track Aumgn. “When he found out who had made it, he said: ‘Well, of course it’s good – these were my students.’”

Schmidt was all set for a life in classical music until a 1965 trip to New York changed his mind. “Germany was very strict; there was this phrase ‘serious music’. But in New York, there was no barrier – people were only interested in whether music was wild and interesting and beautiful.”

On his return, energised by both rock music’s more avant fringe – Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground – and by the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone, he recruited Czukay, free-jazz drummer Liebezeit and Karoli. None of them seems to have had any idea what they wanted to do, other than make “new music”. “But when we came together, we all knew what the other had done and where he came from and what he was able to do, and we all had quite a confidence – a brilliant jazz drummer, a bass player who was classically trained but was also a strange and powerful musician, a guitarist who was immensely gifted and inventive, very sensitive. It was that atmosphere of 1968: let’s dare something, let’s have an adventure, we will find an art.”

Can in full flow performing on German TV in 1970

But even given their backgrounds and the work they put in – they improvised for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, recording everything on tapes pinched by Czukay from Stockhausen’s studio – the art that Can found seems utterly extraordinary. While their music was avant garde, it never sounded like a cerebral exercise. Quite the opposite. It was raw and propulsive and funky, Liebzeit reacting against his free-jazz background by playing hypnotic, cyclical dancefloor grooves. “That was something we had in common,” Schmidt says. “We wanted music that relates to the body. Holger and me, with all this Stockhausen and contemporary music experience, we wanted to be free – we definitely didn’t want intellectual games. If it was intellectual, it never showed. It was even banned in interviews: if I would start talking about sophisticated things, Holger would always butt in: ‘I’ve never read a book in my life!’”

They recruited vocalists – first American expat Malcolm Mooney, later an itinerant Japanese street performer called Damo Suzuki – and between 1969 and 1973 released five of the most acclaimed and influential albums in rock history: Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and the sublime Future Days. They began playing gigs, always completely improvised. “Ask Hildegard how awful we were when it didn’t work,” chuckles Schmidt. “The astonishing thing in the concerts that went totally wrong, where we didn’t get the groove and it didn’t come together, was that the public didn’t run away or scream ‘Shit!’ – they suffered with us, they didn’t give up. You felt that empathy, and very often we’d play a second set and it would click.”

Indeed, how quickly Can found an audience is one of the more remarkable aspects of All Gates Open. Given that the contents of their albums bore virtually no resemblance to any music that had come before, you might expect them to have been greeted with bewilderment, but no. They had hit singles in Germany and won music press polls. Schmidt remembers a gig in Glasgow where one punter expressed his delight by jumping onstage and hugging him so tightly that one of his ribs broke. They enjoyed themselves in time-honoured rock’n’roll fashion: Schmidt’s method of killing time on the road involved ingesting “a microscopic dose of LSD” and then taking the wheel. “Wonderful!” he insists, noting my horrified expression. “You get extremely concentrated, but it is like driving through a movie. You have to drive extremely carefully. Never had an accident.”

It was, he says, “the most wonderful time of my life”; but still, from the outside, life in Can seems oddly stressful. As well as the constant, obsessive rehearsing, and the high-wire act of their improvised gigs, there was the ongoing tumult of German counter-culture, which had curdled from hippydom to political anger to terrorism and which Can did their best to scrupulously avoid (“I met Andreas Baader in a commune in Munich once and from the first view, I didn’t like him,” says Schmidt). Both Mooney and Suzuki left in cloudy circumstances – the former had a nervous breakdown, the latter joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses – and it’s tempting to wonder if day-to-day life in Can wasn’t a contributory factor. Schmidt says no: he thinks Mooney’s precarious mental state was down to the fact that he was dodging the Vietnam draft and thought he would be caught, while Suzuki was “not fragile at all … He thought: ‘That was Can and now that’s enough.’ Maybe he also felt that it would become a routine, which we actually felt that later on it was.”

Can in 1972 in their Inner Space studio
Can in 1972 in their Inner Space studio where they created their groundbreaking albums. Photograph: Courtesy of Faber and Faber

They never found another full-time vocalist, though in a fascinating case of what-if, Can super-fan John Lydon contacted the band’s office in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ split, offering his services. “Maybe it would have been wonderful,” says Schmidt, “but it was too late”: Can had run its course. They had always argued ferociously about their music, but the divisions in the band were becoming too wide, and their albums were audibly less focused than they once had been; the spontaneity that had fuelled them had sagged.

The second part of All Gates Open, a selection of interviews and journal entries edited by journalists Max Dax and Robert Defcon, is testament to Can’s nonpareil ability to turn the most curmudgeonly musicians into gushing fans: the late Mark E Smith, nobody’s definition of a suck-up, seems genuinely overawed to meet Schmidt (“He kept cuddling me,” he smiles); Portishead’s Geoff Barrow describes himself as “a stalker” and pumps Schmidt for information about how Can did it. The thing is, Schmidt says, he doesn’t really know. Something inexplicable happened between the four of them, that all his musical training can’t get to the bottom of. “Like in physics,” he says. “Different parts, when they come together, it creates something new. And that’s what Can is. It’s not the sum of us four – it’s something new.”

All Gates Open: The Story of Can, by Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt, is published by Faber & Faber (£25 rrp). To order a copy for £21.25 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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