THE POWER ISSUE
Irmin Schmidt is the founding member of Can, the experimental rock band that came to define the late-60s krautrock movement. Formed during Germany’s cultural revolution of ’68, their radical methods of composition were analogous to the political protest that surrounded them both geographically and ideologically. Cited as influences by musicians as diverse as David Bowie and Kanye West, we spoke to Irmin about what it was like training as a classical musician in the destroyed city of Berlin, spontaneous composition, and his vast and varied catalogue of work.
You were born in Berlin at an incredibly powerful time – did growing up amidst those circumstances affect your work?
Well, I was born in 1937 and I lived in Berlin until I was six, so I experienced the war as a child until we got evacuated. I remember that one day, we went out into our garden and there were lights going into the sky, these big lights which went searching high up to catch the planes and once they had the plane in the light, they could shoot it down. The whole family was around and they were all shouting; “now they get him, now they get him!” It’s a very important memory of the war for me because, at six years old, all of a sudden I was aware that they wanted that somebody be killed. I got really out of my mind and stumbled into their legs and started screaming, especially at my uncle and my grandma who were quite… worrying. As a young child, of course those kinds of experiences stay in your mind. Then, later on we were evacuated and so I spent the rest of the war in Austria, in the Alps, where there was not so much happening. The main thing was coming back in ’46, as a nine year old, and seeing it all in ruins. Growing up in a totally devastated country had a very deep effect that has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It was not only physically devastated, but mentally, intellectually, culturally – all of civilisation was devastated. All I wanted to do was to help to rebuild, to restore this culture that had been a wonderful one before.
That was another thing I wanted to talk to you about – you formed Can at a time of cultural rebirth in Germany.
Yes, in 1968. I was quite well on the way to being a successful conductor and a classical pianist; to throw it all away and emigrate into rock is very ’68. [Laughs] Although by then I was already 31, so I wasn’t this young revolutionary. But, of course, the time itself helped to initiate sudden thoughts – maybe in a quieter time I wouldn’t have done that, but for some years there had already been this feeling in me that composing only classical music is not what the 20th century was about. In our western culture, there had never been a moment like the 60s; so rich and open to so many things… when you go to a museum and you look at the Renaissance or 18th century, there are many different artists and many different views on the culture of that era, but it has homogeneity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, western culture doesn’t have that anymore and I wanted to find that richness in my own music, which meant that I had to accept jazz and rock alongside my classical music. And, of course, something else happened in the 20th century which is very, very important for all arts, and that’s the opening to other cultures: you see it in the German Expressionists, Modigliani, Picasso. I wanted to do something that reflected the direction of the incredibly sudden diversity, so I looked for a jazz musician and a classical one, and a much younger ‘real rock beat’ lead guitarist to see what came out! I didn’t say, “I’m founding a rock group” and I didn’t want to be the leader or the composer – I just thought we’d try something out. Which of course had something to do with ’68, with the social ideas of that time, to create as a community.
With regard to that – as a community, a collective almost, Can doesn’t have that hierarchy of a front man. Was that consciously your intention, to play into a broader political ideology?
Can is political, it was not reflecting any political idea and of course we all reflected the time and the culture although we never talked about it and never made a song which lyrically reflected politics. It’s not communist or whatever, but the idea to do it was a political and social statement although there was no specific ideology behind anyone in the group. It was just that the way we worked was a statement because not only did we refuse hierarchy in the group and composed collectively, but also we refused to use the material that the industry offered and then made you dependent on. So we had our own studio, we worked as long as we thought we had to work. We had very little material but it turned out that you can achieve an enormous sound with that!
Coming from such a classical background, it’s interesting to me that you moved into spontaneous composition. How did that happen, did you get sick of traditional methods?
No, I’m still writing things traditionally, I even wrote a whole opera. I didn’t get sick of it, it’s just that spontaneity seemed like a means of escaping from getting trapped in something that I didn’t want to. I could have become a conductor or composer– and I’d probably have been quite successful, because I hate not to be successful. But somehow, those careers didn’t really reflect the incredibly strange richness of what the middle of the 20th Century meant.
You speak about maintaining an independence from the music industry – I know you have your own record label…
That’s Hildegaard, my wife. Spoon Records was founded by Hildegard in ‘78 and she got the rights of all the records.
It must be great to be able to work with the freedom from that, it must remove a lot of potential problems.
The industry totally recognised that we have to work like this and they all accepted it. Of course, sometimes there were deadlines – deadlines are a life hazard – and there are certain mechanisms, sometimes people say, ‘you have to bring out the record now!’ Some of the nicest pieces, some very strange pieces were invented because we sat down in the studio and said, ‘okay, it’s missing say ten minutes so now we sit down and play and as it is, it goes on the record.’ That’s how we did the piece ‘Soup’ [on the record Ege Bamyasi] – I mean its length is the time it took to record. Improvise is not the right word because we tried to create a form, not just jam, but that’s how it was. But I never complained about deadlines; it’s part of the profession and it’s part of a certain discipline that actually is necessary in the profession. With the opera, Gormenghast, I set myself a deadline which was nearly missed… there was a deadline with the Mervyn Peake estate, but then the opera house postponed the whole production for a year and then in the last rehearsal, the main character wanted to impress this violinist in the pit and jumped down there and broke a leg. Two days later should have been the first performance, and five days later my deadline for the rights were going back to the estate. So he had to do it! I forced it because the theatre didn’t want to have him with the plastered leg on stage… that was the only deadline in my life that was really hard.
There was a healer nearby where I live in the south of France that I visited one day with my sister when she had a problem. I was very impressed by her and visited her sometimes, sometimes only to talk to her because she was a very interesting woman. One day I went to her and I had a headache, nothing serious, I had just drank too much the day before, and she put her hands on my head and said, ‘ah! You want to write an opera!’ And I said, ‘no, never, I have worked for a couple of years in an opera house and it’s not really my idea to go back to that.’ And she said, ‘but it would be a great work.’ So she had planted this idea and I forgot about it, and then one day Duncan [Fallowell] turned up with this idea that Gormenghast would make a fantastic opera. Because Mervyn Peake himself tried to make an opera out of it, he asked even Benjamin Britten but he wasn’t interested because the story is so complex that Britten was spread out in too many directions. Then all of a sudden the idea of Gormenghast fascinated me from the very first moment on, the thought was born… and this woman sort of did something. Besides Can, that was the most important work I did.
In a broader sense, as this is our power issue, what in your life do you find powerful now?
[Responds immediately] My wife.
You’ve been together a long time?
Wow! How did you meet her?
On a train… I was 19, not yet 20, and I was playing French Horn in the orchestra of Dortmund Conservatory. The orchestra was invited to a youth festival in Eastern Germany – at that time the wall didn’t yet exist – and she was in a guitar mandolin orchestra that was also invited. So, our two orchestras met in the train and there she was with her sister, who is her identical twin, and these two looked absolutely amazing… they were so beautiful, everybody tried to get them interested. I didn’t even look at them because taking part in this competition was too important but at 3’o’clock in the morning, I was sitting there and reading contemporary poetry, a small anthology that had just come out. She came and looked and asked, ‘what are you reading?’ and I said ‘oh, just poems, they wouldn’t interest you.’ But there she was, sitting beside me and we talked about poems. And then of course, I didn’t let her go… it really was teenage love, she was 17 and we fell terribly in love on that voyage and at the end we travelled back, another 10 hours or something, holding each other. She’s what gives me my power now.