Ex-Can man Damo Suzuki at home “under the sky”

Oct 9, 2007 at 4:42 pm
The ornate, placid beauty of Old Louisville’s Chapel of St Philip Neri, replete with turn of the century architecture, murals and acoustic richness, will be in for a mood elevator of a night unlike any it has harbored past next Tuesday evening with Louisville’s first ever sojourn from Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, former leader singer from the now legendary German group CAN.   The Louisville Film Society and Wild and Woolly Video have teamed up to provide a complete derangement of the senses for this event that also includes multiple 16mm experimental film projections through out the night’s music performance.

After Can’s demise in the 1970’s their influence and cult following grew exponentially into what is today one of the most widely cited bands of the last 40 years.  The band’s music, myth and recording techniques have percolated just about any musical stream that is rooted in innovation.  Considerable lip service has come by way of from leading figures in punk rock, avant-garde, experimental, underground, ambient, new wave and electronic music.  Brian Eno’s song “The Bogus Man” on the 2nd Roxy Music album has been acknowledged by the author as essentially a “Can rip-off.”  Sonic Youth remixed Spoon on a tribute album and has repeatedly cited Can has a major influence.   Mark E. Smith wrote a song titled “I am Damo Suzuki” on The Fall’s 1985 album “This Nation’s Saving Grace.”  Following the break of the Sex Pistols, Johnny “Rotten” Lydon tried out for the lead singer spot with Can (after Damo Suzuki left the band) and when he did not get it he formed Public Image Ltd in direct compensation.  Troubled singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, author of the song “If I Where A Carpenter,” attempted to fill the lead singer slot for Can, playing a few shows with the band.  Even Kayne West sampled their tune “Swan Song” on a recent album.

Born in Japan in 1950, Suzuki left at the age of 16 for Moscow where he lived briefly before spending most of the late 60's busking through out Europe.  Can members Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit met Suzuki by chance on a street corner in Munich where the young Japanese man was performing.  On a whim they asked him if he would care to sing with their band at concert that very night.  He accepted and the rest is history.  Suzuki filled the void that had been left after Can’s first singer, Malcom “Dessie” Mooney, left Can and returned to America for unclear reasons, though most reports allude to mental health issues.  Mooney, an African-American gospel singer, originally fled America for India in order to dodge being drafted into the Vietnam War.   From India, Mooney ended up in Paris in the voracious spring of 1968 where he met a woman who was to become Can’s manager and through whom he met and joined Can long enough to record what eventually became two and a half albums.

Damo replaced Mooney’s soulful shout with a lilting whisper.  Though he occasionally hot wired a holler, Suzuki’s delivery bore more resemblance to a melodious grasshopper swinging on a leaf transmitting voice as sound, as an instrument in a unknown tongue more than voice as a literary narrative or storyteller.  As a Japanese man, in a German band, singing in English; Suzuki’s unique set of variables proved to be the perfect finalizing ingredient in the Can elixir.

The four albums he recorded with Can are widely considered the band’s creative apex and certainly consist of the group’s most popular period through out Europe.   Specifically in France and England the group was more warmly received than in their own Germany where they were leaders of a small but extremely fertile scene of outsider bands that are now known to make up “Krautrock”.  The phrase comes from a song by the band Faust, who alongside Can, Amon Duul II, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Guru Guru, Neu, Embryo and Agitation Free are prime examples of the center of the pale of the Krautrock scene.

“Countries defeated in war through out history are forced to capitulate to the culture from winners,” said Damo Suzuki in a recent interview with the LEO.  “Still in Japan and Germany today you can see this influence, especially from the US.  If you travel to Germany, everybody speaks with you in English instead to speak German. The Japanese still have much of a complex to the US, you can see in their politics...too much pro US, no own politic.  If US catch cold, Japan get one in seconds.”

The post-World War II climate played a major role coloring what became the Krautrock zeitgeist.  Nearly all of these bands cite major inspiration from American music, especially the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart.  Yet the end result was often very much in a different direction.  Though the German musicians never denied their American influences, the best of them were creative enough to shape these forms into their own unique cultural contributions.

“Germans are placed in middle of Europe, so politics are much more orientated on a social basis which is one of the reasons I have lived in Europe for a long time,” said Suzuki.  “On the whole, Germans don't have as much character as the French or Italians even though they do have a rich culture and history. But, Germany has 9 neighboring countries!  If you have no direct neighbors like Japan or Britain, or the US with just Canada and Mexico it's much easier to keep wrapped up with in one’s own nationality.  If you have 9 countries next door, this is very different.  Imagine if you have 9 friends over to you home. Someone has this and that taste in music, another one doesn't eat meat or etc.”

At their best, Can were able to successfully fuse a wide variety of musical roots into something new.  Much of their value lies in their juxtaposition of the erudite head and the visceral body and their balance of the peur and senex.  In an age when the counter culture warned not to trust anyone over the age of 30, half of Can’s core line up was in fact well into middle age, while the other half was barely out of their teens.  Prior to starting Can the elder members all performed and composed music of various stylistic extremes only to eventually find more freedom in combining elements of these outer reaches of musical innovation with pop music.  Founding members Holger Czukay and Irwin Schmidt both studied under Modern Classical giant Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Czukay had also worked with Vietnamese singers and Schmidt had lived in New York at the Chelsea Hotel in the mid-60’s and left a position as a modern classical music conductor to form Can.  Jaki Liebizeit’s spent years as a free jazz drummer and also spent a number of years living in southern Spain where he frequently made trips to Africa to study non-European percussion.   Twenty year old guitarist Micheal Karoli convinced his more academic older band mates to let down their guards and open their minds to the merits of pop music such as the Beatles and American Rock and Roll.

Most immediately undeniable is Can’s infectious use of rhythm as melody.  The foundation of the band’s sound is laid with in the rhythmic hooks that seduce the body before the mind is even conscious of the dance.  Equally important was Can’s scientific zeal in the studio.  Thanks to funds procured from various film soundtrack gigs, the band was able to convert an old cinema into their own “Innerspace Studios.”  In a time before home recording was easily available to the musician, Can was able to work in their own studio free of the anxiety that comes along from both the hourly commercial fees of using someone else’s studio and the outside influence of working with studio engineers who do not share the same philosophy as the musicians.

This freedom to work on their on terms lead to a recording process that was as important to the band’s sound as was their instruments.  This process blended improvisation (generally on a theme), sampling and tape editing.  It allowed for a result that was uncannily visceral, spontaneous and unworldly yet structured, intentional and catchy.  This combined with the quality of the studio technology and care given to the construction of the studio has left the lion’s share of Can’s recordings sounding as if they were recorded 20 or 30 years after the fact.

When asked about political orientations, Suzuki commented, “I don't force anybody with my ideology and I don't like to talk about. If you hear me and see me on stage then you can feel it. Thousands of words are nothing, thousands promises are nothing.”

Though they were formed in the turbulent year of 1968, unlike many bands of their day Can never claimed an interest in politics.  Though they did not preach answers, the organization and structure of the band does provide an interesting example of particular philosophies as applied to their various processes as a collective of musicans.  In the days of “Lennon/McCartney” and “Jagger/Richards”, Can’s song writing credits were always attributed to the entire group and never an individual.  Even if a particular member did not play on a particular song, they were still given their cut of the credit.  This is manifested in the band’s sound as well.  You can count the number of songs with guitar solo’s through out the bands 9 year history on one hand.   They are a rare case in music history of a band with out an individual leader.

Suddenly at the height of Can’s musical career, Damo Suzuki left the band to become a Jehovah’s Witness.  He virtually disappeared for 10 years before and dropped out of the music scene all together.   Theories of his whereabouts were cooked up by various arm-chair music detectives through out Europe and America in direct proportion to the rising status of the band based on their early 70’s work.  After Damo’s departure Can continued to make records though with a great degree of inconsistency.  Occasional brilliance surfaced.  “Quantum Physics”, from the 1974 album “Soon Over Babaluma,” holds its own with any glacial marvel of the Popol Vuh catalog.  Unfortunately the same can not be said for Can’s disco single, “I Want More” or the plodding directionless feel to many of their catalog’s later cuts.  The group spent significant energy attempting to find a replacement singer after Suzuki split, but instead the group died a slow death.

After years of living away from music, Suzuki has returned with “Damo Suzuki’s Network,” a shape-shifting experiment that has lead to living the gypsy life style, constantly on the road journeying from gig to gig for nearly the last 10 years.

Suzuki remarked, “People need a house and material well being to protect and have some sense of control, fortune and satisfaction.  This is where they find their answers.  I don't need answers.  I don't need a home. Home is everywhere. Under the sky there is no difference.”