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Clip: Holger Czukay comes to Chicago May 15

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://metromix.chicagotribune.com/music/mmx-040505-musickot,0,3925082.stor y?coll=mmx-music_top_heds Holger Czukay s rock influence lives on By Greg Kot
    Message 1 of 1 , May 6, 2004

      Holger Czukay's rock influence lives on

      By Greg Kot

      Art-rock gadfly Holger Czukay, who headlines May 15 at Subterranean, wanted
      to study music at Berlin Music Academy in the early 1960s, but flunked the
      entrance exam.

      "I didn't want to disappoint my mother, so I tried to go to college, but my
      high school teacher told her that her son is 'completely untalented' when
      it comes to music, " says Czukay, who sounds like an avuncular prankster
      with his thick German accent and impish laugh. "It's fun to tell these
      stories now, because I think my teachers were disappointed that I made this
      into a career."

      Czukay's career has been a 40-year walk along what he calls the "freak
      line." In the late '60s, he co-founded the German progressive band Can, a
      formidable and sometimes confounding quintet whose influence has continued
      to mushroom since it broke up decades ago. A legion of post-rock bands, new
      wavers and electronic experimenters owe a debt to Can, including the Fall,
      Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Public Image Ltd., Tortoise and Gorillaz.

      Though he wasn't welcome at music schools, Czukay wasn't particularly
      discouraged. His world was turned upside down when he attended a 1957
      lecture by the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose
      experiments with electronics, distortion and sound made him a divisive
      figure. A few years later, Czukay would be personally mentored by

      "He presented his music at the conservatory to a packed hall, and I
      thought, 'This sounds like toilets flushing in space,'." Czukay says. "And
      someone else in the audience stood up and accused Stockhausen of doing it
      simply for shock value and to make lots of money. And he said, 'I can
      assure you what I do here is only for musical reasons, and when money is
      concerned, I have married a rich wife, so money is not a concern.' And I
      thought, 'He's right! I will do it the same way, and survive.' So I went
      looking for a rich wife. I found her, but then I got offered a job in
      Switzerland that paid so much that I forgot about her."

      The eternal maverick, now 66, breaks into a laugh. During his teaching gig
      in Switzerland he met a young guitar player, Michael Karoli, who introduced
      Czukay to rock 'n' roll. "I was thrown out of the school because the
      director didn't like my methods," Czukay says. "But the only interesting
      person in the whole school was Karoli, and when he left, I had no reason to
      stay. I was the teacher, but it was my pupil who taught me about rock, and
      I learned to play 'Hey Joe' on the guitar. The concert we gave was so
      successful, I thought why not do this for a living? This was the beginning
      of Can."

      A merger of five distinct musical personalities, Can was more like an
      ongoing conversation among strong-willed peers rather than a traditional
      rock band, led by a "front man" who writes all the music. Czukay would edit
      the quintet's studio improvisations into songs that bridged trance-rock,
      psychedelia and envelope-pushing electronics. The music still sounds unlike
      anything in the rock lexicon.

      "There was a show when [the band's first vocalist] Malcolm Mooney began
      chanting 'Upstairs! Downstairs!' for several hours until he fell over from
      exhaustion, and we played behind him," Czukay recalls. "We knew from that
      moment we would fail at becoming a 'rock' band, but that we had a chance to
      be an interesting experimental band."

      It was only when the band veered back toward traditional rock in the late
      '70s, with the addition of Traffic percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, that
      Czukay wanted out. "We had become a professional band with these perfect,
      second-hand Santana sounds," the bassist says. "I became a disturbing
      factor by trying to use radios and Dictaphones as instruments."

      Czukay ventured out as a solo artist, though he's continued to collaborate
      with his old bandmates. Meanwhile, the Can back catalog keeps selling, with
      "Can DVD" (Mute) only the latest product to unearth fascinating material
      from the band's heyday. Czukay last toured America in 1997, accompanied by
      a deejay. It was a disappointing attempt to transfer the spontaneity of
      Can's improvised music to a purely electronic realm. For the current tour,
      Czukay promises a little bit of everything: "I'm communicating with all my
      instruments, and the music is a bit more pre-defined." But don't expect a
      greatest hits tour.

      "It is far more interesting to play something that is not completely
      finished, and to see the reaction on the audience's faces if a piece of
      music is working or not," he says. "You become immediately telepathic in
      such a situation."

      It also invites blunt responses. "One time with Can, a member of the
      audience threw a tomato onto [drummer Jaki Liebezeit's] cymbal, and that
      made a soft sound," Czukay says. "And we thought immediately, 'What a
      marvelous reaction!'."
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