Soon after the press conference breaks up for good. I find myself being politely (but quite surreally) handed a piece of cake by Holger Czukay.
A Serious Case of Inner Space... Incendiary worship at the feet of Can
This is a weird one to relate and no mistake. Being vociferous champions of all things Krautrock, Incendiary magazine found themselves invited to a press launch celebrating the relocation of the legendary group Can's Inner Space studios to Germany's national Rock and Pop museum in Gronau. During the course of the day, we were to be entertained by talks from Holger Czukay, soundman Rene Tinner and Irmin Schmidt, be shown round the reconstructed studio, and invited to an "event" at night... I mean, we weren't exactly going to say no. But where was Gronau?
Gronau is a smallish, unpretentious old weaving town; one which nestles quite comfortably on the Dutch-German border. Being a mere 10 kilometres from Enschede, it seems to be but an adjunct of the Dutch town, as most Gronau residents appear to spend a lot of time popping over the border for their shopping and nightlife requirements. The town can be summed up thus; there's a main old high street with a hotel, a couple of churches and a few restaurants and cafés. And a lot of residential housing. It is by any stretch of the imagination a most incongruous place for a Rock and Pop museum, despite the fact that for the curious visitor things couldn't be better situated. Stepping out of the town's train station one is confronted by the museum itself; a huge ex-mill replete with gaudily painted silhouettes representing various rock stars, including what appears to be the silhouette of Fields of the Nephilim singer. Directly behind the museum is a brewery which advertises tours and tastings. A further five minutes walking and you have a good choice of bars, cafés and eateries to further refresh yourself if so required. Sounds good, non?
So much for Gronau's undoubted charms. One is still left wondering just who the hell decided to site the bloody museum here. Maybe this placement in an otherwise nondescript town on the outer reaches of Germany is in itself symbolic. For, although German rock and pop bands have undoubtedly been at the forefront in creating many of the genre's most memorable and influential works, (and, in fairness, the museum does give respectful and repeated mention of this), many Germans don't seem to be aware of - let alone appreciate - this singular contribution to what is now fast becoming an entrenched, maybe even respected and staid culture. I admit I am generalising wildly, but virtually all the Germans I have met (outside of a disgruntled "elite") are content to see the whole Rock and Pop phenomenon as something resoundingly American or British in flavour and origin. Any music that steps out of line with this preconceived idea of how things should sound is seemingly cast out into utter darkness. So, if you ask ordinary German folk about German rock music, they will mention artists who to all intents and purposes could be American or British; artists like Scorpions or Nena or their Austrian cousin Falco; but do they mention true and original innovators like Can? Neu! or Faust? Not likely...
Musings about Time, Space and Teutonic taste are put on hold for a while. We walk shiftily into the cavernous reception hall and take our seats in front of the podium. It's all rather reminiscent of a school assembly. As you'd expect with an opening launch in a national concern, everything is very organized and business-like... but... but what on earth is happening with the muzak? Some numpty has decided to play an appalling eighties Miami Vice-style montage on the sound system, a noise which is about as far removed from Can's unearthly groove as could be imagined. Still they're handing out free cake...
Soon its time for questions and various VIPs mill awkwardly around the podium, unsure when to begin. Presenter Alan Bangs hurries in after being held up in traffic with news that Can's drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, couldn't make it; but not to worry. Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt and studio owner and mixer Rene Tinner are all sat ready for questions with Holger in particularly good form. The press conference is naturally held in German, and some frantic translating resulted in the following, rather truncated and piecemeal, transcription.
Alan Bangs: How do you feel seeing "your" studio in a rock and pop museum? Does it feel the same?
HC: Well, the atmosphere from the original studio is not at all transportable. It's a different atmosphere. With the original studios, we didn't have any glass wall between the producer and the band, so it was a direct communication. I think we were special in that respect. In addition our sound in the 60s and 70s wasn't totally clear, due to the environment. And you mustn't forget that when we started out we couldn't all play our instruments very well; I was really bad on bass, though I couldn't always hear that myself, because if you stood next to Jaki when he was drumming you couldn't hear anything... but once Jaki stopped I heard the results immediately so I started cutting the bad bits out!
IS: I'm glad that the studio will be seen by people; being respected and "used", I suppose. We loved this space and we still don't really know where the magic came from.
Alan Bangs: What was it like seeing Can at work there, Rene?
RT: Most bands came to the studio with a composition. Can made the music straight on the floor, I had no idea what Can wanted, to work like that as I saw it was pure anarchy.
IS: Ah, work! We enjoyed making music together in chaos; with sometimes four, five, six ideas to work on simultaneously. We had to throw away our musical luggage, forget everything and create a new music for ourselves without any plan. Mixing jazz, classical, pop wasn't easy at all, but it was exciting and you can certainly hear that.
RT: Sometimes people wonder if it was a disadvantage working in one space, as opposed to having a conventional studio. To be honest it wasn't at all. I'd love to set up a studio without walls and windows again.
IS: The studio is an instrument in its own right. Technicalities and instruments are inseparable. Make no mistake.
HC: We came to the studio every day with new ideas, we were never stagnant. Sometimes we would try things out. I remember Jaki building a camera into his drum kit, so he could observe himself drumming, probably to iron out any frills! Jaki just sat there drumming, observing himself. He ended up playing around like a monkey in the end!
At this point, Mute Record's Daniel Miller is invited up to the podium to give a brief, "foreigner's" appreciation of Can, further reinforcing the suspicion that the German media are still not fully aware, let alone appreciative of the influence that this band, a German band let us not forget, has had on the much lauded British rock scene...
DM: I first heard of Can when Yoo Doo Right was played on John Peel's show in about 1969. It was a stark indication of a changing perception of how music was made. Tago Mago still sounds contemporary now. Back then you could say it sounded otherworldly, but very accessible – the sound of people working in a way that hadn't worked before. But this wasn't academic music at all! You could hear that the process of making the music was part of the experience. It was really, really exciting. If any proof were needed that this band are still relevant today, let me tell you that when we approach bands to sign for the label, they normally ask, "who is on it?" meaning what is on our roster and what in our back catalogue. When I tell these bands, usually made up of kids in their teens and twenties, that we hold the rights to Can's LPs, the first thing they do is raid the entire Can back catalogue. Without fail. That should give some indication of how highly their music is thought of, even after nearly forty years.
After this laudatory speech, things more or less break up. People are encouraged to ask questions from the floor. No-one wants to go first. Bravely your correspondent decides to try his arm.
IN: What is it with German bands such as Faust with Wumme, or Kraftwerk with KlingKlang or Can with Inner Space, creating and naming their own studios? Is it a bizarre form of the German love of camping taken to extremes?
IS: I can't really speak for the rest of those bands but with us it was the fact that we couldn't afford it! And we needed somewhere to call our own, somewhere that wasn't expensive. You know, you need to be in a studio for a year before you can create properly, before you can produce anything. Anyway it was the case with us. I don't know if it is a camping gene! (Laughs)
Another English gent in the audience asks how the village took to Inner Space and its inhabitants back in 1971...
IS: Well, they were very unsure at first (laughs) I think they were a bit frightened, but people were amazed that despite our looks, we (gasps) worked hard! And then at one point we needed a carpenter and the villagers said, oh, look at them they're wild, you won't get paid, but... shock horror! We paid! And I used to drink in the pub... so people gradually got used to us. And then, after a year we had a big hit with Spoon and all the villagers suddenly loved us! We were their band! So when journalists came to interview us the village would get very protective... it was very funny.
Soon after the press conference breaks up for good. I find myself being politely (but quite surreally) handed a piece of cake by Holger Czukay. After taking the initiative with a small bow and a very formal (reader, I kid you not here) "how do you do?" he asks me why we are interested in Can... I reminisce about the last time we saw him, which was last concert in Den Haag in 2005; an utterly spellbinding performance. Without warning, Czukay begins to tell a story about Damon Albarn. It goes thus... "Damon was looking for something to do, and he said, ‘Holger, what can I do that's different?' So I said... ‘ahhhh! You are here, my dear, oh how wonderful to see you!" For a brief moment, truly appalling visions of some secret carnal tryst between the Great Holger Czukay and the very unloved singer from Blur swim menacingly towards me, that is until I turn round to see a very attractive lady in her early forties. She turns out to be a visitor to the original Inner Space (a next door neighbour in fact), whose childhood evenings would be spent in clandestine listening parties; together with her grandmother, hands cupped to ears tuning into the unearthly noise emanating from the old cinema. She tells us that despite the warnings of the village she started to go to the studios with her friends to watch what was going on.
"Of course they were really different to what we were used to. They were utterly strange people to us! And Damo Suzuki, he looked like he was drunk the entire time... he'd just wander round the village talking away to himself. When we listened in, we couldn't really hear much; just the thud of the drums, sometimes the drums would go on for hours and hours without stopping".
to find part two of this piece, click here
to look at the studio pictures, click here