Perfect Sound Forever


Courtesy of Spoon Records

"I hate music!"
Confessions of a Can man
Article/interview by Jason Gross

When Julian Cope unleashed Krautrocksampler in 1995, the book exploded onto the indie scene, reviving interest in the German music from decades ago, including a lapsed fan like myself. One particularly fascinating tale in there was a Cologne combo named Can who lost their lead singer Malcolm Mooney, after their first album, 1969's Monster Movie. The rest of the band- bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt- didn't take long to fill in the gap though. Kenji 'Damo' Suzuki (who died on February 9th, at age 74) became the group's vocalist from 1970 to 1973 after being 'discovered' as a street singer by the band when they were looking for a new crooner. Damo's madcap vocals fit in perfectly with the rest of the band, creating some of their best albums (Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, Future Days), until he gave up on Can and music then for the rest of the decade. Can itself would give up the ghost in 1979, with occasional brief reunions, though none with Damo.

Krautrocksampler led not just to a revival of interest in the music but for some of the musicians themselves to take the previously unthinkable step of finally coming to the States. For us Yanks, until then, Can was something of a legend and a myth too that we only heard about or read about. Czukay arrived in early 1997 with a new techno sound- I managed to interview him after his NYC debut. A few months later, a Can remix album, Sacrilege, came out and Holger returned with Liebezeit, Karoli and Schmidt to promote it, though not perform.

But there was more to come soon. After a seemingly decades-long silence where he had some low key releases and live shows in Germany and Japan, Damo had put out V.E.R.N.I.S.S.A.G.E. in 1998, a wild self-released live album that featured Jaki on drums- although this album also came out in Germany and Japan, it made its way to the US as an import too. The design for it was remarkable too- cardboard sleeves with velcro and foam holding it all together. Appropriately, the music was live improvs that occasionally roped in Can tunes.

Following in the footsteps of his former bandmates, Damo was also ready to take on the U.S., coming here with a new band featuring Karoli- this would be the first time either of them had played in America. At this time, I had just started writing for the Village Voice, having only done one article previously. When I got word that Damo would be performing in NYC on September 25, 1998, that was no small deal for a kosmische/krautrock fan like me and I managed to get a Voice assignment to cover it.

Luckily, the tour manager was the same person who arranged Holger's tour, my old friend Thomas Ziegler, who's also been gracious enough again to now provide mucho context for the article here. Ziegler estimates that after taking the time off from music, Damo re-emerged "around 1981- he started singing again with the band Dunkelziffer." Damo would put out two records with them in the mid 80s (In The Night (1984), III (1986)) and then a live album from that time a decade later (Live 1985 (1997)) and Jaki had worked with the group prior to that.

Damo's new band was Sound Carriers, with Mandjao Fati (Bass), Michael Karoli (Guitar, Cello, Violin), Thomas Hopf (Drums), Alex Schönert (Guitar). As Ziegler, (who started working with Damo a year before the NYC show) explained of the group, "Hopf and Schönert are from Dortmund. They met Damo in 1989 when he played with the Damo Suzuki Band at the same festival as their band, Yellow Sunshine Explosion. After the show, Damo came to us and said: 'hey, I'm bored with my band. Can I sing with you guys?' And Damo's new band was born."

I arranged to meet up with Damo and this group beforehand to get some background for the story, chatting briefly then and referring back to some of it when I did my interview later. We went out to a Japanese restaurant in Chelsea and as everyone ordered sushi (which I had for the first time).

Later, I went with the band for their soundcheck at the Cooler (a wonderful little long-gone underground club that was in NYC's Meat Packing district). Backstage, I further interrogated Damo with my little tape recorder. The fact that I had the tape lying around, untranscribed, stupidly never really occurred to me until news of Damo's death reached me.

As the time went on that evening, the band was practicing, chatting in the background. On top of that, Damo kept rolling and smoking joints, which led to his answers becoming shorter and shorter. Through all the time, he alternated between being a lovable goofball and dipping into cosmic, Zen-like statements.

As I started through my notes, I accidentally mispronounced his name and he quickly corrected me:

"I'm not called 'day-mo,' I'm Dah-mo! (laughs) Everybody gets it wrong! English speaking company say to me, "day-mo"! But I'm Dah-mo."

Some of his phrasing seemed a little off but hey, the guy knew Japanese, English and German, which was two or three more languages than I knew. I did wonder about this though so I asked Ziegler about this:

"I wouldn't describe his vocabulary in German or English as limited. He was somewhat fluent in both languages with a funny accent. His Can lyrics were mostly garble and I remember there was a Can Lyrics website, I enjoyed 'reading' it, but it was closed down many years ago. Fans decided to decipher Damo's lyrics with very interesting and funny results.

He absolutely was a sweet guy, very easy to work with, very dedicated to his work. With or without pot."


Q: Before you joined Can, you were in a touring group for the musical Hair. How did you come around to Germany?

DS: Yeah, it's all very far ago! I wanted to be like President Clinton and I would like to study (abroad). Because before, I was in Ireland and they are really nice peoples. I think they are the best people in Europe because they like to drink Guinness and they like to say so much jokes and they are fighting also but after the fight, they are drinking together.

Q: Why were you traveling so much then?

DS: Why, why... (talks a deep breath to think) I was really hippy at the time and I was used to traveling around and I loved to get much more experience and things like that.

Q: You told me before that originally, your hope was to go back to Japan to study politics but were you studying that in Germany at all?

DS: No, no, no. I was quite lazy to study actually. Now I'm almost 50 years old and I still am. I think it was a stupid idea to be a politician. I think it's stupid for someone to be an authority over people. I'm not a communist though.

Q: You're pretty liberal though.

DS: Because I think everybody's equal, in a way. Also, if somebody is the president of a car company or something like that, I think it's not so interesting because everybody still meets his end. And it's actually better to think of how many real friends he is having- it's much more important than how rich you are or how much of a portion you get in your life.

Q: Going back to the production of Hair in Germany, you said that you weren't happy with doing it.

DS: No. It was quite boring. I like to get a joint (laughs) and trips and LSD and so on. I like doing such a thing. Also, I wanted to go back to Japan.

Q: But you were also doing performances in the street.

DS: Because it was quite boring to do a musical like Hair- every day was the same and repeat and repeat and repeat. Most of the people are living every day just repeating. But it's nothing to do with create. You cannot make the same speech you write or you write the show or you write to sing, it's not (creative) because all things are fixed. I don't like that kind of thing. The kind of thing I like is when I'm with my guys, making different kinds of music all, equalized music. Otherwise, it's a product and I don't like to be a product.

And also, I don't like to make any kind of 'piece.' 'This is my piece and my song.' I like to make movement as a complete thing as music. Actually, I don't like to make any kind of music- it's kind of like a canvas because you don't know the result before. Nobody know what's happened. That's much more interesting than when you know what we played. That's how the Rolling Stones keep doing it and I don't know how they do it when they're like 60 or 70 years old and for 20 or 30 years, they are doing "Satisfaction" and they are getting 'satisfaction'- they have enough money but all the time, I can't get no satisfaction! It's quite boring! (laughs) That's not what I'm doing.

Q: In Germany at the time, you had no idea about the music scene there then?

DS: Yes, because I hate music. I don't hear any kind of music. I only hear classical music and some of the kind of pop music from Africa and Asia. But I don't listen to rock music. I never liked to hear any kind of jazz music though the last concert I heard was a saxophone player and that was pretty good.

Q: What did you think of the music that Can was doing before you joined them?

DS: I'm sorry but I wasn't interested in hearing what they were doing. [ED NOTE: Michael was playing violin in the background at this point] I'm not saying that I didn't like (it) but I'm saying that I'm not interested in it.

Q: But what about when you started working with the rest of Can- you still didn't know their music?

DS: (laughs) It's quite a good question which I cannot really remember it. I think at the time I liked their music much more than Grateful Dead... No, not Grateful Dead... Grand Funk Railroad. That was in the 70's and because I used to hear Grand Funk. At that time, they (Can) had Monster Movie and I listened to that and I heard Grand Funk Railroad then and Monster Movie was much better music anyway.

But I thought there was also something missing because they would play for a very long time... But it was not so bad actually.

Q: What do you think you added to the group when you joined Can?

DS: I like all the pieces which I'm involved. Before and after I was with them, I don't like that. (laughs) Not so much interesting more than I don't like that.

Q: So what did you see as your contribution that changed the group?

DS: I think I was quite an important person there.

Q: What was in particular that you added?

DS: Oh, it's quite difficult to say... Without me, they couldn't make music. (laughs) I don't like to say so much things but... I think there was something I bought different because I'm Japanese. And also the art from Japan was not so much in the (rest of the) world. Maybe Yoko (Ono) but I don't like stuff from her anymore because she had so much money when she came to America and it's much more like the hippies because they came from much more of an establishment and more of a practice [ED NOTE: I took this to mean that they came from well-off families]. But I just come from a normal family. But it's something else anyway.

Q: So you thought that Can wanted you in the group because you were Japanese?

DS: Yes, I'm sure. It was much better that time because I could make sushi on the stage. (laughs) And I'm also singing and making it for everybody, every audience. 'Here is my sushi!' Maybe you can make sushi as a ticket.

Q: What do you think of the albums you did as part of Can?

DS: Oh, it was one of the best music which I ever had! (laughs) I really like them.

Q: You were involved with the writing and creation.

DS: Yes. I wrote things with them and they also added much more ideas with me together, because it was quite secret. Anyone else (from Japan) from that time there was quite seldom because that time was when Japan was not quite the big industry country, maybe from the beginning of the '80's or something like that. It was much magic music inside.

Q: So you think that it was important that you were getting the word out then about Japanese culture?

DS: Yes. It was also really important because German music at this moment was not famous in the world. Nobody wanted to hear that music from the 1960's. It just happened.

Q: What did you think of the other German groups in the early 70's?

DS: I don't really like any kind of German groups! I'm not interested in them. But we were different because I don't think we made 'German' music. We made much more inner space music. (laughs) Something different than other German groups, maybe because of me.

Q: So Can didn't have a lot of interaction with other German groups then?

DS: Right.

Q: So you felt than that Can was really on its own and not part of any community?

DS: Yeah, that was also quite an interesting thing, because before, they (Can) were studying classical music...

Q: With Stockhausen.

DS: And Jaki was into jazz and Michael was the guitarist so it was all kinds of different people getting together. And I was just a hippie who don't know this group. (laughs) If somebody already listen to Can, then they know that they didn't only make the kind of music which I made.

Q: And you listen to those album that you did with them and they each sound very different from each other. What do you attribute that to?

DS: Yeah, there must be change because one year, I made Soundtracks and another year, I made Tago Mago and the others. It's because with 365 days, you get much more different things because I was so young also and you can get so much influence but just not from the music. And everybody is going to get different things each year. You also. Maybe 10 years before, you are another kind of soul.

Q: But then you left the band.

DS: There are much more things to do than to eat sushi or something else. (laughs) And I was much more young and there were much more interesting singers doing shit music. (laughs)

Q: The story is that you left Germany and married a Jehovah's Witness.

DS: That's half true. She was a Witness and I became a Witness but I was so tired about making music and I was in search of something else.

Q: So what did you do then at that time?

DS: At first I was working in a hotel.

Q: So you went back to Japan?

DS: No, no, no. I was still staying in Germany. I was interested in the German living.

Q: So how long were you doing other work.

DS: About 11 years I wasn't making any kind of music and I wasn't listening to music. I just had an intermission after such a long time. that had something to do with my (visa) sponsor and it was really quite a hard time.

Q: How did you do music again then?

DS: One time, I made a session with some young people who were 17, 18, 23 years old. And it really interested me because some people can make really good music together. And it was all improvised and we did only one concert.

Q: What influenced you to be a performer again?

DS: (pauses) It was not so that I must make music but it was my own way. It was not like anybody else made me do it. That's why I decided to make music. I was working in a company and I'm still working at a Japanese company but I don't like to be not making music.

Q: What's your work at the company?

DS: As the president! (laughs) Not good. I was a so-called 'salary man.'

Q: So you work in an office?

DS: Yes, I am working in an office. I think I've been there almost 22 years now.

Q: What kind of company?

DS: (laughs) I cannot say here! Just that it's some kind of interesting company.

[ED NOTE Via Thomas Ziegler- "Damo had worked in the office of a Japanese company in Cologne. Despite the high salary, he gave up the job in favor of his never-ending tour!")

Q: So that was after you stopped working at the hotel?

DS: No, before that, I worked as a street worker, for about 14 years. And besides that, I had some other jobs that were not so much interesting.

Q: Going back to the music, how did it feel to playing and performing again after you took the time off?

DS: It was really a great feeling, doing it again with younger people, who were almost 10-15 years younger than I.

Q: Did you see this music you were doing in the '80's as a continuation at all of what you were doing in Can?

DS: No, I don't think that I thought about it so deep, but I wanted to be out there and I didn't want to be (in the) past.

Q: I wanted to ask about your singing style- you go from whispering to moaning to screaming to made-up languages. How did you come up with that?

DS: Maybe I told you this because but I don't like to make some kind of (musical) pieces. If you want to make one piece, you need text. But I don't like doing that. Same as a product I like to make our concert different. The concert is a part of my life and everybody else here can enjoy it at the same time. I like to get such a kind of a project that blue exists and time exists. Such a kind of thing is my thing.

See Part II of the Damo interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER