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Bittersweet Symphonies: 'Everything in Can was done by necessity. We had some bedroom musicians, and somehow we arranged it all to make a good sound.'

Holger Czukay remains ahead of the sonic curve on new solo album

By Michelle Goldberg

As the bassist and technophile tape manipulator of the seminal German band Can, Holger Czukay has exerted an influence on contemporary music that far exceeds his fame. One of the first musicians ever to use a sampler and to make music based on loops instead of lines, Czukay grandfathered some of the most exciting sounds of the decade, from the diffuse feedback textures of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and the DIY ethos of punk to the undulating atmospherics of the Orb and the sampledelic mechanized funk of techno.

"Can was the first techno band, but we were also the first punk band, because we played spontaneously on stage," says Czukay, in town to promote his new album, Good Morning Story, released by Tone Casualties. He tells of a German television awards show that Can performed at in 1973: "When we starting playing, it was as if we were shooting at them. They all tried to head to the exit, and then nobody was there anymore."

Formed in Berlin in 1968 after Czukay had been expelled from the Berlin Music Academy because of the strangeness of his work, Can released more than a dozen albums until its breakup in the late '70s. Though the band had only one hit, 1978's "I Want More," its cult following continues to grow, especially since its Teutonic free-form funk and dense, spiraling soundscapes sound far more accessible now that Can's aesthetic has so fully pervaded the music world.

Synthesizers, once highly suspect, are now as common as guitars, largely thanks to Czukay, who says that Can initially used them simply because they couldn't afford real instruments: "Everything in Can was done by necessity. We wanted to start as a group. We had just a tape recorder, a microphone--we had some bedroom musicians, and somehow we arranged it all to make a good sound possible."

It was a sound based wholly on improvisation, a kind of jamming that reversed the jazz tradition. "We were behaving like a football team," he explains. "No one of the players knows where the ball will be in the next moment, but they know very well how to react to it and get the ball into the right goal. It was exactly the opposite of a jazz band--a jazz band is always starting with a theme and then improvising around it and ending up in chaos. But Can started in chaos and crystallized it into song structures."

Although many of Can's innovations have been assimilated into the mainstream, Czukay's new solo album proves that he's remained ahead of the sonic curve. Good Morning Story is an avant-garde record that's actually fun to listen to, hurtling from pop to the furthest reaches of structureless ambiance but pulling back before the whole thing becomes incomprehensible.

The album is strongly redolent of his old band. Can members Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli all make appearances, and three songs are based on Can samples, though Czukay emphasizes that they're not mere remixes. "It was the first time I used digital production," he says. "The three pieces made out of old Can loops I recomposed, not remixed. Recomposed means the character of the whole piece is completely changed."

Balancing Czukay's mad-scientist side with a gentle kind of exuberance, Good Morning Story begins with two fairly straightforward New Wavy songs reminiscent of the B-52's before launching into its most experimental pieces. The first track, "Invisible Man," combines loping, playfully ominous jazz-rock with lines spoken by a man torn between paranoia and denial, all punctuated by breathy female backing vocals and the refrain "boom boom, baby, boom boom" enunciated like a stern German parody of an American beatnik.

Like much of Can's music, parts of Good Morning Story seem influenced by world music without being specifically ethnic--bits of exotic melody and percussion will bubble up from time to time and then fade away, like a crackling short-wave radio scanning the world's stations.

On other sections, Czukay works in the vein of his early mentor, the pioneering avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. One of the inventors of electronic music, Stockhausen jettisoned a musical structure based on notes in favor of one built around tones, rhythms and frequencies. "The idea of music as a noise system instead of a harmonic system is something we owe to Stockhausen," Czukay says.

The myriad elements of Czukay's style--his roots in abstract composition, his interest in world music and his use of electronic loops--are most explicit in the amorphous "Mirage," which takes up the whole second half of the album. Hazy and minimalist, it begins with a low, quivering Mideastern melody that, repeated over and over, becomes a kind of drone. Then it stops abruptly, giving way to an indistinct buzz with all kinds of musical drama going on beneath it, as if there's a whole symphony happening just out of hearing range.

Digital squiggles and lugubrious strings materialize and disappear, voices are so small in the mix that they seem like anxious hallucinations. That feeling of waking up and remembering a dream's feel but none of its characters or details--that's what "Mirage" sounds like.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the song isn't remotely pop, it's quite accessible. Many musicians try to access some unconscious realm by manipulating sound in new ways, but such experiments often sound jarring, recondite or random. Czukay, though, pushes the line where music turns into random noise as far as it can go without ever tripping over it .

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From the August 16, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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