With the tape always running in their Cologne studio, Can built up a huge archive of unreleased material. Much of it was brilliant, but all of it was chaotic...
Five years ago, nearly two decades after they vacated the facility, Can's fabled Inner Space Studio in Weilerswist, near Cologne, was finally dismantled and painstakingly rebuilt at the Rock N Pop Museum in Gronau, where it now functions as a working exhibition. The move forced the existing former members of the hugely influential German band to finally empty out the studio's humidity‑ and temperature‑controlled tape store, the contents of which were shifted to keyboard player Irmin Schmidt's home in the south of France.
Faced with nearly 300 reels of quarter‑inch tape, a notion was hatched in the minds of the now 75‑year‑old Schmidt and engineer/producer and long‑term Can reissue overseer Jono Podmore to sift through the band's recorded output and find material that remained unreleased. Both were surprised to discover the sheer volume of unheard material — over 50 hours' worth — which has now been edited down to make up the three‑CD release The Lost Tapes.
"The whole archive was a jungle,” says Irmin Schmidt. "So it was impenetrable and frightening to work with. It was in quite a chaotic state, because there were always tapes running during takes. Sometimes when we ran out of tapes, we played over an existing tape for a few minutes. So then, the tapes were full of snippets from different years. Even on one tape you could find some fragments and bits of music from over a period of five years. But we listened to it, and with Jono we chose the final selection.”
Liverpudlian Jono Podmore had first met Schmidt in the late '90s, when he was brought in to help program the keyboard player's opera based on Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. As a result, he ended up getting involved with the production of Mute Records' reissue series of the Can albums in the mid‑'00s.
"The tape store was always there,” he says, "and it was always in the back of everyone's minds. But it was such chaos. Because of the nature of the way the band worked, especially in the early period, up until they got a multitrack machine, they'd literally jam onto two‑track, then edit the two‑track to find the nicest bits of the grooves. Then they'd play from one two‑track machine onto another, which gave them a chance to do a few overdubs. It was live bouncing, basically.
"When we started going through the tapes, there were a few cases where there was completely different material on the left channel and the right channel, basically using the stereo as a multitrack. They left the machines running a lot just to record the vibes when they were coming up with ideas. And so there was an enormous pile of disorganised AGFA and BASF tapes, which no‑one had had the time or the inclination to go through.”
For his part, Mute Records founder Daniel Miller was astonished to hear the raw material that made up Can's unreleased archive. "If somebody asked me,” he says, "'Is there any material that exists that wasn't released?' I probably would've said, 'Of course, there must be loads.' But I certainly didn't have any inkling of the quality of it, or the range.”
Inspired by such diverse sources as free jazz, Japanese folk music and the pioneering musical experiments of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom both Schmidt and bassist/engineer Holger Czukay had studied), Can first came together in Cologne in 1968. Since then, their repetitive, hypnotic grooves and freewheeling, improvisational musical methods have inspired a huge number of artists, from David Bowie, to Brian Eno, to PiL, to the Fall, to Radiohead, to Portishead.
Before Can began working in Inner Space Studio, their early material was recorded essentially live in a castle, Schloss Norvenich, on the outskirts of the city. "It was a quite extensive mansion and it was not all restored,” Irmin Schmidt remembers. "It had a huge entrance hall which actually was our reverb. It had an exceptional, beautiful reverb, so we were always putting loudspeakers into the hallway and using it as a reverb chamber.
"The owner was an art collector friend of mine. When we formed Can, I talked to everybody, trying to find a room for practising and playing and recording. So he said, 'Well in the castle there is a big room still unused, you can have it.' He gave it to us for free, so we could play there, but the problem was that there was somebody living upstairs and since we were playing all night and using the hallway, he couldn't sleep.”
The core of the band — Schmidt (keyboards), Czukay (bass, electronics), Jaki Leibezeit (drums) and the late Michael Karoli (guitar) — made one album, 1969's Monster Movie, with original singer, American Malcolm Mooney, before he was forced to return to the US on the advice of his psychiatrist, having suffered mental problems. The group then recruited Japanese busker Damo Suzuki, whose freestyling vocal talents first appeared on 1970's Soundtracks, but were fully spotlit on their landmark double album Tago Mago in 1971. "We weren't sure the record company or the public would accept a double album,” Schmidt says. "I think it was the widest and broadest knowledge and experience that had ever been brought to a rock group.”
At the end of 1971, Can left Schloss Norvenich and set up Inner Space Studio in a former cinema in Weilerswist. With the seats removed, the facility had very high ceilings, allowing Czukay and later Can engineer Rene Tinner to mic up some of the instruments from two metres above. Providing soundproofing and acoustic treatment were 1500 ex‑Army, seagrass‑stuffed mattresses stuck to the walls, giving the impression of a padded cell.
"Well, we always said it was like living in the stomach of an elephant,” Schmidt laughs. "But then after a while, Jaki's girlfriend made these wonderful tapestries, which we hung on the mattresses, so they got very colourful and very beautiful. It became the real Can studio. It was 20 metres long and 10 metres wide and eight metres high, so you could easily record a symphony orchestra in there if you wanted.”
As Schmidt points out, the engineering‑inclined Czukay would often leave the tapes running to record between‑song ambiences, adding to the flavour of the Can sound. "We had a totally different concept anyway and we accepted, through ideas that I always had, maybe influenced by Cage, that any environmental sound can enter into the music and be turned into music.”
Aside from a very basic sound mixer, four microphones and four cheap pairs of headphones manufactured by the German post office (which Czukay was proud to tell everyone had cost him only one Deutschmark apiece), the centre of Can's recording setup was two quarter‑inch Revox two‑track machines. Schmidt points out: "Now everyone has found out that this technique, playing directly into the machine, makes an absolutely stunning, direct, physical, wonderful sound.”
Can's music was created through lengthy jams, but their former keyboard player is keen to stress that this wasn't in the style of many of their hippy‑era contemporaries' endless stoned noodling sessions, being altogether more focused and meditative. "You should not imagine it as jamming aimlessly until somebody finds a good idea,” he says. "It was starting with an idea and then playing until it was very concentrated, very disciplined, with us listening very carefully to each other. Trying to find the nucleus of this idea and focus it more and more by playing and listening to what the idea was telling us to become, in a very strict way. It was really a work of spontaneous, concentrated inventing and composing together. Because there was nothing written beforehand. There was never one writer or composer, we all did it together.”
As the most technically minded member, Holger Czukay was normally in charge of the complex editing sessions that followed recording. "Holger was the one who had the craft,” says Schmidt. "I mean, I had done editing before too, and I had performed pieces of mine in galleries, which were edited from a few hundred little pieces like we had learned under Stockhausen. But Holger was really a master in finding the millisecond where to put the razor blade. The decision of the architecture of that — where to cut, which pieces to cut together to make the montage, that was a common decision, something that Holger, Michael and me always did together. Then Jaki sometimes got bored by this. He didn't like that very much. He wanted to play.
"Jaki's thing with our editing was to make sure that the groove didn't get lost. So whenever we edited and there was the slightest suspicion that it sort of violated or disturbed the groove, then he was there, and said, 'This you can't edit, the groove is lost.' Sometimes editing took quite a while. It was a very 20th Century tool in art anyway. I mean, collage is one of the main features in 20th Century art, in paintings and sculptures and music.”
With Future Days in 1973, Can created a more laid‑back, atmospheric, almost symphonic album. Schmidt claims, however, that there was no great plan for them to make an 'ambient' record and that, again, the band simply continued to improvise, using whatever sounds came to hand, particularly in the slow‑burning title track. "It was never an intention to make something before we started playing,” he says. "We started playing and an idea grew. So the more laid‑back atmosphere of Future Days came by playing. But I remember when we played 'Future Days', the track, it was a summer day and the doors to the garden of the studio were wide open and Damo sat on this cushion which made this funny sound — a typical '70s cushion filled with these Styrofoam bubbles, and it makes this rustling, strange sound. And the tape was always running and so it was recording that sound and that became part of the track.”
Following Future Days, Damo Suzuki left the band to marry his German girlfriend and become a Jehovah's Witness, leaving guitarist Karoli to take over as the band's singer for their last album recorded on two‑track, 1974's Soon Over Babaluma. With its successor, 1975's Landed, Can tentatively stepped into the world of multitrack recording, which, as Schmidt recalls, was not without its difficulties. "It caused a little bit of musical confusion,” he admits, "because we had the 16‑track and we didn't dare to mix it ourselves. So we went into a studio with an engineer who made the mix for 'Full Moon On The Highway' so loud that you couldn't distinguish anything. It was just a parody of what we intended, so we continued to mix it down in our studio.”
Can finally fizzled out in 1979, their potency diluted by numerous line‑up changes and the sidelining of Holger Czukay. And so it was a pleasure, says Schmidt, for him to revisit their early days when listening back through the material that makes up The Lost Tapes. "I'd forgotten about nearly everything,” he says. "The real surprise was that there were these songs with Malcolm [Mooney]. I didn't know they existed. I knew there was all the incidental score music from the films Can had made because we had always only, especially on Soundtracks, released the title music. So I knew there was music from films that should be worth putting together.”
The process that resulted in The Lost Tapes began when Jono Podmore first began opening up the tape boxes to assess what state their contents were in. "Some of the tapes had less on than others,” he says. "Some had piles and piles of leader tape all over them. Some were just in a really bad state. There were quite a few tapes that were safety copies of things we found in other places, and sometimes there were safety copies of tracks that were released.”
Podmore had the tapes sent to Sonopress in Germany for clean‑up and digital transfer to 48kHz, 24‑bit WAV files, though he admits that he's not sure what the tape‑cleaning process involves, since the company retains it as a trade secret. "The guy that we work with, he's restored so much stuff for us and he refuses to tell us,” he laughs. "I've been led by the hand gently out of the room while they're doing it, so I don't see it. It's really bonkers.”
The next step was that Schmidt and Podmore separately auditioned the digital files, selecting material they thought was usable. "When we compared notes,” says Podmore, "there were quite a few things that I was into that I thought sounded quite hip that Irmin didn't, because for him it just sounded like some sort of hippy nonsense. There were a couple of nice acoustic‑guitary things that to me sounded like very obviously forerunners of the Stone Roses or whatever.
"There were also — between you and me and your readership — quite a few bits that he didn't like because the keyboards were a bit crap on them. But there was obviously this humungous groove from the rest of the band and I was like, 'Wow, we're having that!' and Irmin was like, 'No way, have you heard what I was doing?' Irmin's attitude was very unsentimental. If it was bollocks, it just had to go. Even if it was bollocks of great historical value.”
Post initial listening, the pair then travelled to London to play the whittled‑down 10 hours' worth of music to Mute's Daniel Miller. "There was some stuff they'd got through to this listening process,” says the label boss, "that I thought wasn't as good as some of the other material and I told them. Some pieces went on for a long time and there were good moments in there, but they didn't necessarily sustain a 25‑minute, 30‑minute jam. Inevitably, if you're an experimental band, some experiments succeed and some don't. But I couldn't believe the quality of most of the music that I heard. It spans 1968 to 1975, but any of it could have easily made it onto any of the contemporaneous albums from the time they were recorded. It's one of those things where somebody would make a decision not to use a piece of material for whatever reason. It doesn't actually mean it's not very good, and that's proven here. This material could have been released at the time and would've been thought of as as good as anything they released.”
For the editing and production process, Jono Podmore worked within Pro Tools, while trying to maintain a 1970s attitude, even if working in the digital medium. "So I didn't use any crossfades, didn't use any plug‑ins,” he says. "If there were any treatments to do, I would do that out of the box using analogue vintage gear of the period and bounce it back in.”
Five of the tracks on The Lost Tapes are new collages created by Podmore from Can's many acres of unreleased film music, most notably the propulsive opening track 'Millionenspiel' and the otherworldly, multi‑movement 'Midnight Men'. "There were quite a few instances on 'Midnight Men' where what was on channel one and what was on channel two were different,” he says. "Also, there were bits where instruments were isolated for different cues in the film, so I could lift that off and then overdub that over the groove. Often, to get that to work, I would need to use EQ, a little drop of reverb here and there, and I'd have to use a bit of tape delay. I was using Irmin's Focusrite EQ, his old Telefunken quarter‑inch machine as tape delay, and the spring [reverb] in my ARP 2600.”
In this sense, Podmore was certainly the man for the task, since the process of remastering Can's album catalogue had already taught him about the band's production techniques and exactly how precise — or imprecise — their recording methods were. "When we were remastering Delay 1968, Holger was there, and at one point we were listening to something with Malcolm singing and he started chuckling to himself. We were getting really into the detail of, like, a tiny little bit of lower-mid here, and he said, 'If only you'd seen the recording process. We recorded the bass and the drums and then we did the guitar, the organ and the vocals as an overdub. We put the guitar cabinet facing the organ cabinet, with a gap in the middle of about a metre. Then we taped together the two microphones and Malcolm sang into the microphones and we just turned up the other two instruments loud enough to get the balance.' That's how basic it was sometimes.”
The Lost Tapes also features a smattering of live tracks found in the tape store, which were edited down by Podmore — a less straightforward process than it sounds. "The original of 'Spoon (Live)' was 20 minutes long and I edited it down to 16. But nevertheless, you're working with a band like Can, who were speeding up and slowing down all the time and so making edits that work on material that jumps around in tempo was a nightmare. You have to find some little bit that will get the flow between them, but you find that from somewhere else in the music where the balance is completely different. That was a tough one in that respect. It was a classic editing problem to make it flow.”
The mastering of The Lost Tapes was done with veteran engineer Kevin Metcalfe at Soundmasters in London. "He's an absolute genius,” Podmore says, "and I was giving him unsullied material that nobody else had tried a bit of dopey EQ on at some point, which meant that we could really polish them and get them to shine. The stuff at Schloss is totally raw — there's no compression, there's no EQ. We didn't have to undo anyone else's work. Y'know, there's no Aural Exciter or third‑rate compression gone onto anything. It's just what the band did themselves to tape.”
And so the release of this triple-CD box set begs the question: are the Can archives finally empty? "Who knows?” says Daniel Miller. "I only know what I heard. Now, what they rejected, they might revisit that at some point. I've no idea. That hasn't been discussed.”
"Yes, that's it,” says Jono Podmore. "I think if we went back in, it would be looking at stuff that had already, for some reason, been rejected. The only other thing that's a possibility is there may be a chance of some more of the live material being released in the future. But Irmin is saying that's definitely it, finito, and I'm totally with him on that.”
"All of the rest of the archives we would never release,” says Irmin Schmidt. "From those 50 hours, that's what we filtered out and that's it. I'm satisfied with what I found in there.”
Central to Can's sound was Irmin Schmidt's custom‑built, one‑off effects processor, which he named the Alpha 77, using it to treat the outputs of his Farfisa Organ Professional and Farfisa Electric Piano, the constants of his setup with the band throughout the '70s. Jono Podmore remembers digging out the long‑unused Alpha 77 from Schmidt's cellar just over a decade ago. "It was designed for the band when they were touring so much,” he says, "so it was sort of part of the PA system, and it weighs an absolute ton. It's a set of modules in a box, basically: ring modulator, tape delay, spring reverb, chorus, pitch‑shifter, high‑ and low‑pass filters, resonant filters and a weird, pitch harmonic shifter thing. There's two inputs and two outputs, all with the wrong sex XLRs, which foxed me for a couple of hours. The whole lot basically goes to a row of two‑pole switches, then there's this bunch of switches in a little mixer where you could effect the individual organ and piano signal paths.
"Irmin really didn't like the first generation of synths that turned up, primarily because he couldn't just immediately get the sound he wanted at any time. So he stuck with the organ and the piano, but messed with those signals in the way that he was used to with his training with Stockhausen, where you'd take a classical instrument and then mash it up with tape delay and filters and ring modulation. So that was his angle: rather than going and buying a Minimoog and having some poor bugger having to tune it all the way through the gig, he stuck with instruments he knew.”
"The Alpha 77 was designed to my wishes,” says Schmidt. "It was built by this electronic engineer who made extremely complicated stuff for cardiology hospitals. The idea of it was that it was giving me the facility to be spontaneous. In the early '70s, with synthesizers, you had to fiddle around until you found the sound. I wanted something where I could just, with one switch, alter the sound of the organ or the piano. So I could go through one line for the organ, one line for the piano, and then for instance, with one switch I could take the organ and ring modulate it. And that was what made the sound so special.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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