"I’m sitting at my window, looking out at the Mediterranean Sea," is the first sentence that Irmin Schmidt utters when XLR8R reaches him at his studio and home in the south of France. He seems fully content—which is not surprising, given what he's accomplished in his long career. This is a man, after all, who's taken an exploratory, inquisitive approach to music since the early '60s, and managed to distill that approach into a still-evolving discography that's without comparison. After studying in his native Germany under the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti, he started working with a group of musicians with an aim to, as he told the New York Times, “bring together jazz and rock with the openness of New Music.” By the late '60s, the project had coalesced into Can—one of the first, and one of the best, of the krautrock bands—featuring the "classic" Can lineup of Holger Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitar, Jaki Liebezeit on drums, and Schmidt on keyboards. (Malcolm Mooney was the initial vocalist, followed by Damo Suzuki.) One of the most impactful bands of its era, Can's shadow still looms large over the outer edges of what could loosely be termed popular music, providing inspiration for everyone from techno producers and and avant-popsters to neoclassical composers and outer-limits noiseniks. It was ostensibly a rock combo, with elements of jazz, electronic music, new classical, the avant-garde and much, much more discernible in the band's work—but Can has a sound that transcends any genre, instead seeming to exists in a universe of its own making.
It's this template (or, more accurately, lack of a template) that also defines Schmidt's hugely varied output since Can disbanded in the late '70s. Starting with 1981's Toy Planet, he's released a myriad of albums, both as a solo artist in collaboration with fellow musical outliers like Bruno Spoerri and Kumo. He's been a tireless soundtrack artist for film and TV, working often with Wim Wenders (among many others); much of that material, some of it made with the help of Kompakt's Justus Köhncke, has been compiled into a series of Film Musik Anthology anthologies; He's been commissioned for numerous theater pieces, composed music for ballet, and collaborated on an opera, Gormenghast, with writer Duncan Fallowell, who has also contributed lyrics to several of Schmidt's albums. Rhythms rife with mood, melodies full of emotion, ambience imbued with occasional hints of mysticism—it's a body of work that's impossible to pin down, and all the better for it. Now, the Mute label, in conjunction with Spoon Records (the home of Can and Schmidt) has released a sprawling Schmidt retrospective called Electro Violet, boasting six full albums, from Toy Planet to 2008's Axolotl Eyes; the five previously released Film Musik Anthology albums, along with a previously unreleased sixth edition; and a 40-page booklet, featuring amazing photos, liner notes from Max Dax and Schmidt, and a heartfelt contribution from Wenders. Over the phone, Schmidt, 77, comes across as charming and gracious, and as a man not yet ready to rest on his laurels.
Earlier this year, your efforts earned you a Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres, the French equivalent of a knighthood. Was for the totality of your artistic output?
Yes—but maybe it was just for loving their country so much. [laughs]
What actually got you started on this lifetime journey? Did you think about the possibilities that music had to offer at a young age?
Both my parents played piano, and my mother and mother was a wonderful singer, sometimes sitting on the piano and singing. But what I can remember very, very strongly from my childhood are sounds—environmental sounds. I would love to sit somewhere, totally alone, and just listen. For instance, near our house there was this forest, and I would sit in a kind of opening in a tree all day, listening all day. Or a journey on a night train; the sounds excited me incredibly. We had a doctor neighbor, and when people would park a car in front of his house, the sound of the gravel was, for me, the sound of arrogance.
How old were you when you where noticing these sounds?
I was only four or five years old. These kinds of environmental sounds were very connected to certain images and feelings. This probably had the main influence on me becoming a musician. Of course, during and after the war, there was always music in the house, and there was always the radio—but it was just listening to all these sounds that had the most effect on me.
It seems to have had a lasting influence—you’ve often used elements of musique concrète in your work, for example.
Yes, definitely. Sometimes, all of a sudden, these sounds I heard at such an early age come back to me. I often wonder why these sounds became so important to me.
Speaking of influences, is it true that the formation from Can was inspired by a trip that you made to New York City in the '60s?
Well, that was part of it. It was January of 1966, and I remember it being freezing cold. I was there for the Dimitri Mitropolous conductors' contest, but then I started meeting people like La Monte Young and Terry Riley. I would sit for hours playing with Terry Riley in some kind of weird cellar in the Bowery. I would go to the movies and see all the Warhol films…I was doing a lot of that sort of thing. And I forgot all about the contest!
What was it about that world that appealed to you?
Here in Europe, classical music—in which I was educated— was high, and rock, jazz or pop were low. There was no bridge between them. But in New York, there was not this strict difference between low and high. It was all the same thing. It was either good and exciting—or it was nothing. So yes, New York did have an influence on me, but it was not the only reason I ended up where I did.
What was another reason?
What I actually wanted to do was make music that contained all that was new in the 20th century. Jazz and rock and pop were at least as new as the new classical music I had been working with, and I had a desire to bring that all together, with musicians that were at home in in one of those styles. Jaki, for instance, was a fantastic jazz drummer; Michael was a wonderful rock guitarist; and I was a very studied conductor, composer and pianist. And without knowing what would come out of that…Can! [laughs]
I suspect some people thought you were just a group of wild men going into the studio and doing whatever you want. But there’s a great video of Can playing on the British TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, and among the video's many charms, it really shows that you guys were really great musicians, and that you knew exactly what you were doing.
Well, we did do what we wanted to do. But actually, what we wanted to do was a kind of art.
Even though you were striving to create art, are you at all surprised that people are still talking about it and thinking about it four decades later?
Not really! When you grow up with classical music, most of what you play and what you listen to is hundreds of years old. So while you don’t really think about it, it’s totally natural that your aim is to last, like the others before you.
Your post-Can work has also stood the test of time, and now you've compiled that output on Electro Violet. What was the genesis of this project?
My wife Hildegard runs Spoon Records, and Spoon had been licensing Can’s music to Mute for a long time; this is a collaboration which has already lasted more than 25 years. We actually had a jubilee in our house for having such a long collaboration! Anyway, the idea of doing this was actually Hildegard’s—and Mute agreed.
In that case, the world owes Hildegard a big thank you.
I’m thanking her every day. [laughs] I’ve been with her since early '57, so I’ve had the opportunity to thank her for many things.
It must be great to have that kind of consistent support.
Absolutely. This whole thing—Can and my own work—exists because of her. It needs care, and she gives that care.
Where does the name of the compilation come from?
That came from my old friend Duncan Fallowell, who wrote the lyrics for Musk at Dusk and Impossible Holidays, as well as the libretto for the opera. Whenever I need a title, I’ll ask him “What do you think I should call this?” I liked this name because it has so many connotations. If you say “violet,” it sounds very near to “violence,” for example.
"I have to change my direction. I need surprise. And sometimes, I need do to things that I’m not sure that I’m able to do."
Much of your work since Can has been collaborative, but it’s rarely been quite as fully collaborative as Can was. Was it difficult to transition from being in a band to working in a more solitary mode?
For me, it’s a continuum: There’s everything I did before Can, there’s everything I did with Can, and there’s everything I did afterwards. I’ve had a musical life that’s full of new directions—but in the end, it’s all a variation of one thing. Like I said, I was just interested in using everything that was new to the 20th century, and I look at everything as working towards that in different angles. Working with a group, where the entire group is the composer; being along and writing an opera on paper; having a collaboration with a techno musician who could be my son—it looks discontinuous, but it isn’t. It’s all using new ideas to compose music the way I imagine it. I would never be able to work in just way my whole life; I have to change my direction. I need surprise. And sometimes, I need do to things that I’m not sure that I’m able to do.
Is that where collaboration comes in?
Sometimes. I like to collaborate with musicians who interest me because they know something that I don’t. But whether alone or in collaboration, it’s all one stream, and that stream helps me to find out about myself, and what I want to find out about music.
There’s obviously a wide range of music on Electro Violet, but for the most part, it seems pretty tightly composed in comparison with much of Can’s material. Has improvisation played much of a role on your work since Can?
Oh, yes, naturally it does, even from the first solo releases. There are always things that appear when I’m working on music that you perhaps were not expecting. For instance, when I made Toy Planet, on “Rapido De Noir,” the process started with my idea to use the sound of a train on the rails, this rhythm that really doesn’t exist anymore. But then, what I played on it, this long solo on the Prophet 5, isn’t composed—it’s played. Improvisation maybe isn’t the right word, though. Stockhausen brought up this term, “intuitive music.” And that’s what it is—being very concentrated on the context or on the musicians around you, and then spontaneously inventing. I’ve done that on every record, even on the film music.
For something I did for one of Wim’s films, I decided to have an accordion playing Bach [“Flavia Theme (Variationen Über Ein Thema Von J.S. Bach)”]. I was looking at the film, and all of a sudden I said to him, “I’ll use an accordion playing Bach!” I think this is a kind of improvisation—it’s a spontaneous invention. Even when I write a score, there will be something on a piece a paper…but then you write something, add something, that you hadn’t thought of before. Things are always coming out of nowhere. Is that improvising? I don’t really know, but it is spontaneously inventing—and that is what I always do.
You’ve had a long relationship with Wim Wenders; he even contributed a lovely little piece for your liner notes.
Yes, that was lovely. Wim is not only a great director who I admire, but he’s also a great friend.
Do you approach composing music for films much differently than you do for your non-film work?
Sometimes yes, but generally not. There are parts of a film when you do need to serve the film’s atmosphere, of course. The first thing I always think about is the film’s structure; what is the narrative, the architecture, and how could the music possibly add to that? So you are thinking about the film. But then when it comes time to write and play the music, it’s not much different that anything else.
"I have enough plans to fill the next 50 years."
Do you have plans to ever retire?
No, no…well, there will be an eternal one someday. [laughs] But until then, know. I have enough plans to fill the next 50 years. Next, we are working on a book, a Can biography—a big, very precious coffee-table book—which will contain two volumes. One is the actual biography, written by Rob Young; the other will be edited by, and partially written by me, with interviews with artists and others from the music business. That’s scheduled for 2017, and at the same time, I’ll be doing another collaboration where we’ll be arranging Can pieces into a suite for a symphony orchestra, and we’ll be doing the same thing for my own work. So that’s something that I’m working on.
That actually sounds like a lot of something.
Yes, it is a lot of something. And I have plenty of ideas for after that. But right now, I’m going to continue looking out at the sunset.