At a time when Germany was literally rebuilding itself from the ground up, artists in Cologne (both visual and musical) flourished, giving birth to a new post-war culture. In fact, the revolution was in full swing from San Francisco to Europe. While students rioted on campuses around the globe, experimental electronic music spread boundlessly in cities everywhere. A pupil of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pianist Irmin Schmidt was at the eye of the storm, channeling all manner of sounds and politics, and assembling what would become the band most synonymous with the Krautrock sound: Can.
From his residence near Avignon, France, Schmidt is still susceptible to the whims of electronic technology. Our telephone conversation is briefly interrupted as the cycles of nuclear power shipped out to his countryside home encounter a delay and cut the phone line temporarily. In keeping with Schmidt's Cagean philosophy, it turns out that our interview, too, is subject to the indeterminacy of its environment.
XLR8R: Set the scene for us in Cologne in 1968.
Irmin Schmidt: Cologne was a very lively place at that time. It was the center of electronic music in Germany: Stockhausen had founded his electronic music studio in the radio station WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk); the orchestras all performed works by Stockhausen and Boulez; and there was also quite a lively jazz scene. In fact, [Can's] Jaki Liebezeit was the drummer in a jazz orchestra when we found him.
How about politically? What was going on?
Lots of things happened politically. I was not very active in politics, though. My main action was quitting classical conducting and composing, and founding a rock group, which was, in a way, also a political statement. For a classical musician with a decent career as a pianist, conductor, and composer, [to throw] that away to found a totally crazy group seemed a fairly insane act of waste.
So why did you do it?
I was rather unsatisfied with the state of contemporary music at that time in this circle...because it was very dogmatic. It claimed to be the only way to be contemporary, to be new. On the other hand, I thought of 'new' in terms of Western culture, comparing what Western jazz artists did to re-contextualize boring instruments like the saxophone with what Stockhausen was doing. [Jazz] was at least as new a cultural phenomenon as Stockhausen was for me.
So what did you think of electronic music when you first heard it and brought it into Can's sound?
In the beginning, I hated synthesizers. I found them quite boring, so I invented my own. What was very important was that I wanted to create electronic sounds spontaneously on the stage without long preparations.
Was this always thought of as a problem with electronic instrumentation, that there was too much programming or not enough human emotion involved?
I don't ever think that electronic music should replace our rich instrumental possibilities. It's most interesting when the two are combined with each other... I don't really understand the argument of human or inhuman. When people have a drum machine and try to make it a little bit imperfect to sound human, I find that quite strange. All electronic instruments are human creations, so what's inhuman about it?
When you went through the process of re-mastering these discs for reissue, what was your main goal?
We wanted to go back to the originals because the existing CDs, which were mastered in the '80s, were always too contaminated by this euphoric belief in the new early '80s technology. There were all kinds of effects, which one thought could improve the sound. Actually, what happened was that it got worse...
We very carefully de-noised [the original tapes], so that nothing of the sound was changed. We loved that the environment was part of the music. We left the windows open. If somebody came in and started talking, we still recorded. it was a very Cagean idea. And when we put it on CD, like the origianal tape sounded, we came to realize that what we really wanted now actually sounds very modern.