Holger Czukay obituary

Founder member of Can who took a prominent role in producing and engineering the German rock band’s albums

When Holger Czukay, who has died aged 79, became one of the founding members of the Cologne-based band Can in 1968, his role was that of bass player. “The bass player’s like a king in chess,” he reflected later. “He doesn’t move much, but when he does he changes everything.”

However, Can described themselves as an “anarchist community”, and the group’s experimental spirit allowed Czukay plenty of room to explore various aspects of electronic music and recording. Right from their first album, Monster Movie (1969), they broke new ground with their fondness for improvised playing shaped by editing, layering and electronic effects, and Czukay took a prominent role in producing and engineering the band’s albums. Can never achieved huge commercial success, though they did achieve a Top 10 hit in Germany with Spoon, the theme from a TV thriller series, in 1972. Nonetheless their work – not least their mastery of the minimal, repetitive “Motorik” beat, which became a trademark, of Can, Neu! and other German bands – left a lasting impression on countless artists who came in their wake.

Holger Czukay, second left, with other members of Can in the early 1970s.
Holger Czukay, second left, with other members of Can in the early 1970s. Photograph: Gesine Petter/Fotex

Czukay remained with Can during the period that saw them release their most accomplished and admired recordings, Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973), on which they brewed a flavoursome concoction of ambient and electronic music mixed with rock and avant garde. By the time he made his last album with them, Saw Delight (1976), Czukay had stopped playing bass to concentrate instead on creating electronic effects.

His subsequent solo career would take him on an open-ended voyage of discovery in which he explored techniques of music collage and “found” sounds, often mixing random fragments recorded from short-wave radio broadcasts into aural tapestries. He built a home studio using vintage recording equipment acquired from a 1950s radio station, and considered material captured on a simple dictaphone recorder every bit as valid as sophisticated studio recordings. He strove to maintain a fresh, almost naive approach to his work. “The universal dilettante is actually the most precious musician you can imagine,” he claimed. His fondness for the films of WC Fields suggested that he did not take himself entirely seriously.

Czukay was born in the Baltic port of Danzig, then the Free City of Danzig, but his family fled as the second world war reached its climax and the Russians advanced towards the city (which became Gdańsk, Poland). Czukay recalled arriving in Berlin by train in February 1945. After the war ended the family were sent to a camp run by the Russians, but managed to escape and reach the nearby American zone.

By the start of the 60s Czukay was studying music with a bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. “He told me ‘OK, if you continue playing like this, you can become a bass player in an orchestra,” he recalled, but this did not appeal to him. He moved to Cologne and sought out the avant-garde composer and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who took Czukay on as a pupil. A fellow student was the keyboard player Irmin Schmidt, who felt inspired to start a band after seeing Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground on a trip to New York. The result was Can, which Schmidt formed with Czukay, the guitarist Michael Karoli and the drummer Jaki Liebezeit.

Czukay credited Leibezeit with broadening his own musical thinking. “Jaki is one person whose criticism I take to heart,” he said. “He made me understand rhythm is the greatest concentration of music, that one single drumbeat can contain all the music in the world.”

Czukay had made his first solo foray with Canaxis 5 (1968), on which he worked with co-producer Rolf Dammers. His post-Can career comprised a string of solo albums as well as collaborations on albums, singles and remixes. In 1979 he released Movies, and further solo works included On the Way to the Peak of Normal (1981), Rome Remains Rome (1987), the live album Radio Wave Surfer (1991) and Moving Pictures (1993).

In 2015 he released Eleven Years Innerspace, a collection of new material and reworked older pieces. In 1981, he and Liebezeit played on Eurythmics’ debut album, In the Garden, and in 1983 he recorded the album Snake Charmer with Liebezeit, Jah Wobble and U2’s guitarist The Edge (Liebezeit and Wobble were regular contributors to Czukay’s solo recordings). He teamed up with David Sylvian on the albums Plight & Premonition (1988) and Flux + Mutability (1989). He played bass on Cluster & Eno (1977), a collaboration between Brian Eno and the German electronic band Cluster, and appeared on The Mermaid (1992), an Anglo-German project that featured Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox.

Czukay’s wife, Ursula, died in July aged 55.

• Holger Czukay, musician, producer and engineer, born 24 March 1938; found dead 5 September 2017


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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