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  Who the Hell is Holger Czukay?
Chris Page

You may never have heard of Holger Czukay but he has been one of the biggest influences on music since Bill Hailey learned how to tell the time and Elvis discovered his pelvis. Kansai Scene recently caught up with him just as he was getting ready to embark on his Japan tour and we demanded to know, "Wer zum Teufel ist Holger Czukay?"

I was late for the interview. It was three a.m. in Cologne and Holger Czukay was waiting up to speak to me. My number one tape recorder had seized up, the number two recorder was fried, and the number three recording device was just dead cranky. Sweaty panic beaded my forehead. I apologised to Holger and sheepishly explained that our recording devices were not as sophisticated as his. "My recording machines have always been pretty rudimentary," he replied patiently.

It was an odd concept that the man credited with inventing sampling and with dragging electronic music out of its avant garde closet and into the rock mainstream had merely rudimentary recorders. It was seemed even odder when you listened to his carefully layered, meticulously textured recordings.

Holger Czukay was a student of the electronic experimenter Karlheinz Stockhausen. He influenced early punk bands with his rough minimalism and has been cited as an influence by the Buzzcocks, The Fall, David Bowie, PIL, Sonic Youth, Tortoise, and Stereolab among others. He is a man who has composed countless scores for TV and film and who has collaborated with The Edge, Eurythmics, David Sylvian, Jah Wobble and Brian Eno. What is he doing with merely rudimentary recording devices?

Yet the remark is very Holger Czukay, and reveals things about the way he works and his personality. Speaking to him or listening to his recordings you are struck by his quiet, his pragmatism, and his fascination with sound. He has a surreal and mischievous sense of humour (he likes to tour foreign cities dressed as a British naval officer and claims it is the safest way to travel) yet is very serious when it comes to his work. As a youngster growing up as a refugee from Danzig in post-war Germany, his sole ambition was to be a composer of serious music. At the age of 16, on hearing at music school that to be taken seriously as a composer you have to show signs of being a prodigy before the age of 15, he thought "One year too late!" With the can-do optimism that characterises much of what he does, he decided to become a conductor instead. He has since succeeded in both ambitions, though perhaps not in the way he imagined as a boy.

For all his evident care for his work, and his regard for Germany’s classical music heritage, his life and music are created out of improvisation, spontaneity, and experimentation. He tells you that he sleeps when he is tired and eats when he is hungry and otherwise seems to spend all his time following his instincts in the studio. And here of course, he was speaking to me at 3 a.m. with no sign of fatigue.

When the musicians that made Can — Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Leibezeit, Michael Karoli and Czukay — first came together they had no idea what kind of music they were going to play or what kind of band they were going to be. They only knew they were going to make music. Without rehearsing, they booked their first gig, improvised their way through a set and only then decided they were a rock band. In those early days, their live improvisations could last 12 or more hours.

"In the beginning with Can we wanted to become independent and free," explained Holger. This was the first thing we wanted. We didn’t want to have a producer from the record company we just wanted to be independent on our own. This is more or less the thing which accompanies me my whole life from childhood on."

The early Can albums have a crafted quality about them that belies the fact that they were born of studio improvisations unaided by even a multi-track recorder. If one person fluffed a note or played too loud the whole recording would have to be binned. This period and these works are the best of this kind of collaborative, improvisational method.

Holger likened the experience to playing on a football team. "To play in such a group like with Can means you have to be trained to listen to the other one what he’s doing and immediately reflect on that. Football players are perfectly doing that. Nobody knows where the ball will be in the next moment but the teams are trained to get into the goal without knowing what happens next."

In this period he developed techniques for integrating conventional instruments with samples, and found or synthesised sounds — this in the 70s before synthesisers or samplers. The band broke more new ground by creating rhythms unfamiliar in rock at that time after listening to African and Asian music — even Japanese Noh. The albums of this period such as Monster Movie, Tago Mago, and Ege Bamyasi still sound fresh and surprising today.

The acquisition of sophisticated multi-tracking recording equipment and a loss of spontaneity mark the break up of Can and a second phase of improvisation for Holger, that of editing and rearranging new and old material into different forms. He became focussed on developing technology and methods for creating new sounds and new forms. He disappeared into his studio for ten years developing his ideas and trying to find out how much of the unlikely was actually possible. Holger laughs when he tells me the size of his unreleased recordings dwarfs his collection of released work. Some of these solo works have made it onto vinyl. Most of them have not.

So complete was his immersion that he nearly forgot about the rest of the musical world until coaxed out by a journalist who insisted there was something going on that Holger really needed to know about. He was taken to a techno event and was stunned. While cloistered away, a new generation of musicians had seized upon electronic music; had effectively continued work he had started, and had taken the form to totally new places.

"I thought: how can machines make such interesting rhythms, all the time changing and renewing. It was absolutely fascinating."

The techno music that Czukay discovered was not just a fertile ground of invention, it was very much concerned with issues close to Holger’s heart: rhythm, texture, simplicity, found sounds, and was a direct descendent of the punk minimalist and do-it-yourself ethic.

The oeuvre he helped to create was in turn influencing him, and Holger has since imported forms and techniques from techno into his most recent works. A few years ago at the age of 60 he went on tour with the DJ Dr. Walker.

Capitalizing on newfound technologies, Holger began a project on his web site designed to be an open collaboration. Participants downloaded a work in progress, added their contribution, and uploaded the growing piece back onto the site. The result was the creation of three pieces that you can hear online at

The response to this project was "fantastic, absolutely fantastic," said Holger, who while admitting that digital technology has taken some of the ingenuity and make-do from the process of creating, is quick to point out the benefits. There is more scope for manipulating sound and the internet provides more chances for collaboration and community than ever before. Can was a synergistic coming together of strangers: the internet is more so because an unlimited number of people can be involved — and even after playing you don’t know who your collaborators are.

"It was an experience like coming together with Can in 1968," he told me. "In Can nobody knew the other one [when first playing], but the internet is much more interesting because I still don’t know the other one!"

And of the future? Is he going to take a break as he heads for retirement age? Not on your Nelly. Incorporating the functions of both DJ and musician, he plans to create a new kind of web-based show. He envisions a performance where musicians all over the world play together simultaneously via internet, while he gathers the sound into its final form live and on stage, making himself the digital conductor of a virtual orchestra of strangers.

"Are you a musician, a technician, or an experimenter" I asked him.

"I’m an open-minded person", he told me.

So, who the hell is Holger Czukay? Er ist genau derjenige, der er ist — he’s the man, that’s who he is.

The Czukay site
Czukay’s record label

This article first appeared in Kansai Scene, May 2002

Mr Czukay passed away in September 2017

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