Critical Questions: Irmin Schmidt of Can
On The Lost Tapes and more
German musical adventurers Can ruled the krautrock roost in the ‘70s, with a sound that defied conventional notions of what could be accomplished within a rock context. Perhaps only the Velvet Underground matches them in terms of innovation and influence. Of late, Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt has been buried in his band's archives, identifying the most intriguing moments and putting them together in the three-CD collection The Lost Tapes (out now on Mute Records) consisting entirely of previously unreleased Can cuts. On the eve of a sneak-preview listening party for The Lost Tapes at New York's Le Poission Rouge, Schmidt found time to talk about what made Can such a rare bird in the rock aviary.
What were some of the styles that influenced the early Can sound?
Classical European tradition and new contemporary music was one thing, and the American roots of jazz and of course rock music. James Brown had a big influence on our rhythmic thinking, and Sly Stone, but also music like Captain Beefheart, and of course, above all, Jimi Hendrix, the way he was playing the guitar.
Can is also known for being one of the first "rock" bands to assimilate what would now be called World Music.
I had studied in university Japanese middle-ages music, also Chinese and a little bit of African. But my main interest was Japan, old gagaku. Holger [Czukay, bass] had even made a record before Can where he used samples of Vietnamese music. Jaki [Liebezeit, drums] had a lot of influence from Arabian music, and Michael [Karoli, guitar] was totally amazed when he found in my records Polynesian music, because he was very into Bali music. And not only this kind of gamelan everybody knows, also these very special choirs, these warrior choirs, which is a ritual of the two groups of warriors sort of making a battle of singing against each other. And I had field recordings from the university of all these kinds of music. So this is something we all had in common, this interest.
On The Lost Tapes, we hear a lot of things coming together as works in progress. How would you develop a piece in your studio?
Sometimes we played it again and again but it changed all the time, coming nearer to something we didn't know yet but found out by playing. Or sometimes we played and we started making montages, editing it and cutting it together in a totally new way, maybe overdubbing it.
A unique element of the Can sound was the tones you got from your Farfisa keyboards - the Farfisa piano in particular wasn't very widely used by other bands.
The funny thing about Farfisa, basically it had it's own sound, it was different from the normal Hammond organ sound everyone played. It was a transistor instrument. The funny thing was the preamps, especially for the organ, there was a very funny fake Leslie [speaker] which sounded awful, but if you distorted the whole gear totally, which I did, overloaded it, then came out very interesting sounds. And then I had a sort of synthesizer, whose idea I conceived, and then I had an electronic engineer who built it after my wishes, because I wanted to have an instrument which I could use onstage spontaneously. Synthesizers like the Moog you had to switch around and then wait until you got a sound out of it, and work on it. I wanted something I could work spontaneously with. I could put a ring modulator, ring modulating the Farfisa piano - I nearly never used its original sound, but it was brilliant for ring modulating, much better than any other electric piano. So I could ring modulate the piano with my Alpha 77,[synthesizer]. There were other things like a very complicated tape loop which created on the piano this kind of weird string sound which was very peculiar, you hear it on lots of pieces, it has one of its great moments on "Bel Air" [from 1973's Future Days].
Did you feel a kinship other adventurous German bands of the ‘70s, like Guru Guru and Amon Duul II?
No, not really, we were very different. The only group which also was very different from all the rest was Kraftwerk, and we appreciated their approach very much, because it was the other side of ours. Ours was primarily body-orientated, a body experience, and Kraftwerk really made this interaction with technology. I appreciate them very much. The rest, they were sometimes friends when we met them, but they didn't have much impact on us. To say the truth, they all tried more or less to be in the sort of normal rock field. Whereas what we did was art in a way, pop art, like Kraftwerk. And the others, Guru Guru and all these groups, more or less were always orientated towards pop music, English rock music, which wasn't our case at all.