Can in 1973 (left to right: Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli, Holger Czukay (standing), Irmin Schmidt and Damo Suzuki. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
But, of late, he has been dwelling on the bands history. For one thing, 2017 left him the sole survivor of Cans original four-piece line-up. Guitarist
Michael Karoli died of cancer in 2001, while drummer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay both died last year, the latter in the disused Weilerswist cinema that had once housed Cans Inner Space studio, and where Czukay had continued to live after the band broke up. And then, at the urging of Hildegard, his partner of 51 years and Cans manager since the early 70s, he has co-authored, with Rob Young, a definitive biography of the band, All Gates Open.
It is a fascinating book, not least because Schmidts life was extraordinary even before he formed
Can. Born in Berlin in 1937, he can remember seeing Allied planes strafe a German military train with gunfire while he was an evacuee in Austria; returning to Germany in 1946, he found it absolutely flattened by bombing. I grew up in these total ruins. That was an experience that is still deeply within me: growing up in this town, this land, where everything was devastated, all the buildings, all the culture. His teenage years were marked not just by the usual adolescent surliness but by an obsessive fury over his homelands recent history: he was expelled from school for using its student magazine to expose his teachers Nazi pasts, while his relationship with his father another Nazi supporter who had done nothing to intervene when their Jewish neighbours were taken to Auschwitz was pure war. Always asking, Why did you do this?, Why didnt you do that?, How could you? How could you? I think there is this kind of mourning within me which I can never get rid of.
By all accounts a brilliant musician from an early age, he was already a professional classical pianist when he signed up to study under Stockhausen at Colognes Rheinische Musikschule. Czukay was a fellow pupil, and Schmidt is rather proud of the fact that, when Stockhausen was later played a selection of experimental German rock tracks, he dismissed all of them except Cans 1971 track
Aumgn. When he found out who had made it, he said: Well, of course its good these were my students.
Schmidt was all set for a life in classical music until a 1965 trip to New York changed his mind. Germany was very strict; there was this phrase serious music. But in New York, there was no barrier people were only interested in whether music was wild and interesting and beautiful.
On his return, energised by both rock musics more avant fringe Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and by the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone, he recruited Czukay, free-jazz drummer Liebezeit and Karoli. None of them seems to have had any idea what they wanted to do, other than make new music. But when we came together, we all knew what the other had done and where he came from and what he was able to do, and we all had quite a confidence a brilliant jazz drummer, a bass player who was classically trained but was also a strange and powerful musician, a guitarist who was immensely gifted and inventive, very sensitive. It was that atmosphere of 1968: lets dare something, lets have an adventure, we will find an art.
Can in full flow performing on German TV in 1970
But even given their backgrounds and the work they put in they improvised for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, recording everything on tapes pinched by Czukay from Stockhausens studio the art that Can found seems utterly extraordinary. While their music was avant garde, it never sounded like a cerebral exercise. Quite the opposite. It was raw and propulsive and funky, Liebzeit reacting against his free-jazz background by playing hypnotic, cyclical dancefloor grooves. That was something we had in common, Schmidt says. We wanted music that relates to the body. Holger and me, with all this Stockhausen and contemporary music experience, we wanted to be free we definitely didnt want intellectual games. If it was intellectual, it never showed. It was even banned in interviews: if I would start talking about sophisticated things, Holger would always butt in: Ive never read a book in my life!
They recruited vocalists first American expat Malcolm Mooney, later an itinerant Japanese street performer called Damo Suzuki and between 1969 and 1973 released five of the most acclaimed and influential albums in rock history: Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and the sublime Future Days. They began playing gigs, always completely improvised. Ask Hildegard how awful we were when it didnt work, chuckles Schmidt. The astonishing thing in the concerts that went totally wrong, where we didnt get the groove and it didnt come together, was that the public didnt run away or scream Shit! they suffered with us, they didnt give up. You felt that empathy, and very often wed play a second set and it would click.
Indeed, how quickly Can found an audience is one of the more remarkable aspects of All Gates Open. Given that the contents of their albums bore virtually no resemblance to any music that had come before, you might expect them to have been greeted with bewilderment, but no. They had hit singles in Germany and won music press polls. Schmidt remembers a gig in Glasgow where one punter expressed his delight by jumping onstage and hugging him so tightly that one of his ribs broke. They enjoyed themselves in time-honoured rocknroll fashion: Schmidts method of killing time on the road involved ingesting a microscopic dose of LSD and then taking the wheel. Wonderful! he insists, noting my horrified expression. You get extremely concentrated, but it is like driving through a movie. You have to drive extremely carefully. Never had an accident.
It was, he says, the most wonderful time of my life; but still, from the outside, life in Can seems oddly stressful. As well as the constant, obsessive rehearsing, and the high-wire act of their improvised gigs, there was the ongoing tumult of German counter-culture, which had curdled from hippydom to political anger to terrorism and which Can did their best to scrupulously avoid (I met
Andreas Baader in a commune in Munich once and from the first view, I didnt like him, says Schmidt). Both Mooney and Suzuki left in cloudy circumstances the former had a nervous breakdown, the latter joined the Jehovahs Witnesses and its tempting to wonder if day-to-day life in Can wasnt a contributory factor. Schmidt says no: he thinks Mooneys precarious mental state was down to the fact that he was dodging the Vietnam draft and thought he would be caught, while Suzuki was not fragile at all He thought: That was Can and now thats enough. Maybe he also felt that it would become a routine, which we actually felt that later on it was.
Can in 1972 in their Inner Space studio where they created their groundbreaking albums. Photograph: Courtesy of Faber and Faber
They never found another full-time vocalist, though in a fascinating case of what-if, Can super-fan John Lydon contacted the bands office in the wake of the Sex Pistols split, offering his services. Maybe it would have been wonderful, says Schmidt, but it was too late: Can had run its course. They had always argued ferociously about their music, but the divisions in the band were becoming too wide, and their albums were audibly less focused than they once had been; the spontaneity that had fuelled them had sagged.
The second part of All Gates Open, a selection of interviews and journal entries edited by journalists Max Dax and Robert Defcon, is testament to Cans nonpareil ability to turn the most curmudgeonly musicians into gushing fans: the late Mark E Smith, nobodys definition of a suck-up, seems genuinely overawed to meet Schmidt (He kept cuddling me, he smiles); Portisheads Geoff Barrow describes himself as a stalker and pumps Schmidt for information about how Can did it. The thing is, Schmidt says, he doesnt really know. Something inexplicable happened between the four of them, that all his musical training cant get to the bottom of. Like in physics, he says. Different parts, when they come together, it creates something new. And thats what Can is. Its not the sum of us four its something new.
All Gates Open: The Story of Can , by Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt, is published by Faber & Faber (25 rrp). To order a copy for 21.25 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com