Alec Empire In Conversation With Can’s Irmin Schmidt

Two behemoths in German music history unite to discuss Spotify's pitifully incomplete Stockhausen collection and the implications of recommendation algorithms.

Although Alec Empire and Irmin Schmidt were born decades apart, they have a lot in common. Of course, they both formed critical German bands; Empire fronted the rambunctious Berlin digital hardcore outfit Atari Teenage Riot while Schmidt paved the way by founding the experimental Cologne krautrock group Can in the 1960s. They also both drew inspiration from the downtown New York music and arts scenes. We’ll skip the laundry list of other similarities and fast-forward to the present day, when they’ve both got solo releases in the works. As the world awaits the March re-release of Empire’s 1995 effort Low On Ice, Schmidt is gearing up to unleash a 12-CD box set that spans his work since Can broke up titled Electro Violet. With so much to talk about, we thought it fit to unite their like minds and record their thoughts on the implications of high-tech music recommendation algorithms and capitalist motives in the creative industries.

Alec Empire: I have to confess that it took a long time for me to start listening to Can. In 1990 I was 18 years old. All I cared for at that time was producing techno music. For me, that was the sound of the time, and I fully immersed myself into the new movement. I didn’t listen to any other music anymore. But I clearly remember how exhausted I felt only four years later. By then techno had maneuvered itself into a cul-de-sac; the music had become functional DJ fodder.

Irmin Schmidt: How did you overcome that? Did you open up to other kinds of music?

AE: I left for New York. I lived in the East Village and got soaked up in the downtown noise and independent scene, where I met Matt Sweeney, J. Mascis, Will Oldham, Jon Spencer, Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys, among others. It was a pretty intense mix of people, and they were all hanging out together. Everybody I met asked me about my relationship to Can. I guess they asked me simply because I’m German. They basically talked me into listening to your music—and then it clicked. It was like Can offered me an exit strategy. I suddenly started to look at music from a different perspective. This is especially important when you feel stuck as a musician. And as I said, it wasn’t only me—I had the impression that the whole techno movement had come to a standstill.

IS: What element of Can’s music specifically helped you out of your isolation?

AE: It struck me that Can didn’t seem to care about beaten tracks. A typical Can song didn’t follow any known compositional rules. Their sound aesthetics must have been groundbreaking in the ‘70s. I was also blown away by the way you guys had recorded and mixed the music. I immediately realized that Can had been far ahead of its time and proclaimed a musical future. In New York the same people would listen to hip-hop, krautrock, techno and punk rock. There were no fractions. I traveled to and fro, but on New Year’s Eve 1995 a blizzard forced me to stay in my apartment in Manhattan for a week. I was listened to literally every Can record. Earlier that year, Low On Ice had been my attempt to escape the deadlocked situation in German techno. That record was already clearly influenced by listening to Can a lot.

IS: I’ve had similar experiences in my life. You can listen to music all your life, but it needs a specific trigger so you can really connect to it. It especially happens when you make music yourself.

AE: I recently listened to Villa Wunderbar, a compilation of your solo works. It was “curated”—as it says on the cover—by Wim Wenders. It reminded me how important it is to bring tracks that you’ve recorded into a proper order. I was thinking that a film director maybe has different ears and therefore compiles a very unique running order. I liked it a lot. It can really give you a new and very personal access to material you already thought you knew.

Such personal compilations are exactly the opposite of the faceless algorithms that streaming services use to shuffle music into your account. The algorithm has analyzed your listening habits, and that’s why you’ll always get affirmative suggestions. It makes such a difference if you erratically listen to music with friends or on the radio than if an algorithm digitally presents you your “favorite” music on a silver platter. Spotify probably wouldn’t have suggested I listen to “Ege Bamyasi” when I was ready for it. Technology in this case seems to appear like a reactionary gatekeeper that doesn’t direct you towards uncharted territories. No algorithm can sense when you are ready to embark for something new, sonically speaking.

IS: Google and Spotify—and in fact, every music-related industry—must be primarily interested in selling music to you. Their promise is that you’ll get what you want. It’s the same when it comes to recording music. Back then it was new synthesizers. Nowadays it’s new plug-ins that suggest to you what music you could “create” with it. If you are not strong-minded you can fall for that promise and without thinking find yourself repeating musical patterns that have been laid out to you by the programmers.

It was also a kind of a promise when people bought synthesizers in the ‘70s and ‘80s; if you’d know that someone else had written a hit single on a certain synthesizer, this machine sort of promised that you could do the same. So you have to overcome the temptation of repeating something obvious and to trigger your curiosity and imagination instead. It is a conscious act to avoid such a trapping. I can definitely say that I always try to use new plug-ins or machines against the grain and to explore them off-the-wall.

AE: How did Can come together?

IS: I was a classical composer and was facing a promising career as an upcoming conductor of modern classical music. I gave it all up and put together a band of musicians that each were coming from a different field: classical music, free jazz and rock. I had grown up with music that had been written from the 13th century on. To me it was pop music from a different time. And the other group members would bring in their own specific backgrounds. Of course I had heard of rock music. I was going to parties, too. I started to become interested in new pop music when I discovered Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground in the ‘60s. But I didn’t want to copy any of them. I was just interested in the future. I wanted to experience what’d happen if musicians from entirely different backgrounds would form a band and curiously embark on an adventure from there.

AE: But would people in Germany recognize The Velvet Underground as pop music then?

IS: I’m afraid I have my problems with terms that categorize music. What is “pop”? I sometimes have the impression that it is always the industry coining new terms or categories—and it is always the music journalists who eventually pick up the vocabulary. It’s the same in fashion. I can buy a red or a black suit with a short or a long lapel, but it remains a suit.

AE: How did you get aware of Karlheinz Stockhausen? You were a student of his, weren’t you?

IS: I clearly remember the night I heard his “Gesang Der Jünglinge” for the first time on West German night radio. It changed my life. I had heard electronic music before but thought it was boring. But listening to “Gesang Der Jünglinge”, I knew that I wanted to study under his guidance. On Spotify you can hardly experience epiphanies like that. Okay, you can find this particular piece, but you’ll hardly find much more. Almost the whole Klassische Moderne as well as vast fields of classical music are simply not on Spotify.

Daniel Miller from Mute Records asked me the other day to create a playlist with my favorite tunes, but I didn’t find many. I didn’t find the string quartet by Ravel and I didn’t find a piece by Messiaen that I was looking for. Spotify forced me to create a completely different playlist. I used to frequently play piano pieces by Messiaen before I started Can. When we understand the history of music as long strings of narration where one thing leads to the other, how would you describe your relationship to Messiaen or to modern classical music in general?

AE: I have always been excited by modern classical music. I have to add that I didn’t start as a DJ and producer of DJ music. I played instruments and had been in bands before. But it was the DJ mixer that really drew my attention. With this machine you could radically blend all kinds of music together. You could blend Messiaen’s organ with a funk beat by James Brown. Not many DJs have ever done that, really, but at least in the early hip-hop days the DJs were radically cutting up music and collage-ing it on the spot. Imagine trying the same with a band. I also really liked the spirit of the early ‘90s when jungle music exploded. Other examples of musicians using cut-up methods were the dub reggae people like Lee “Scratch” Perry, who’d use the studio like an instrument. As we all know, jungle music heavily drew from dub music. Didn’t Can use the studio as an instrument too?

IS: Absolutely. Playing together in Can was like a constant clash of erratic sources. Different styles and musical ideas would clash. Nobody in the group insisted that his ideas were superior to those of the others. Nobody gave directions. On the contrary, we were listening to each other and each of us was contributing his bits and pieces. I don’t remember any discussions—neither about music nor about daily politics. Not even about money.

AE: Wow, you don’t hear that too often. How did you split up the money?

IS: My wife would handle all the money and all our business affairs. She’d split up the dough equally among the band members. In all the years we never had a discussion about who’d written which melody or bass line or who’d written the lyrics. And this even counted for songs like “She Brings the Rain”, on which Jaki Liebezeit and I don’t even play. Jaki always said, “Not playing the drums was my contribution to this song.” We respected each other intensely, and there’d always be an even split.

AE: You mentioned that there’s a deeper narrative hidden within music. Can you explain what exactly you meant by that?

IS: Every sound has a heritage and a descent. Once you know about it you can use that information. As a musician you can basically create an energy field. You can load up your music.

AE: I once have read a text by William S. Burroughs called Riots Produce Riots. He basically said that every sound is loaded in that sense. You could do a field recording of a street riot and later play it loud in a concert, to a crowd. And you’d certainly have had a have a different crowd reaction without the riot sounds. You basically raise the energy level. Imagine playing riot sounds very loud in a shopping mall. Something would happen. Don’t you think so?

IS: Something could happen, for sure. It actually sounds like a fluxus idea.

AE: There are also plenty of examples when it comes to recorded music. I would, for instance, call Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” a loaded song. Or there are key songs of the civil rights movement that were sung during the march on Washington. Songs by Aretha Franklin come to mind, too. If you edit these songs or their atmospheres or little snippets of them—like a sample of a single drum beat—into your music, you automatically implement into them some of the source music’s history, narration and weight. The music is literally inherited, and on more than one level. And making music always involves at least two people: the musician and the listener. It’s a form of communication that can use conceptual methods from literature or film as well. I once recorded a techno track called “Hetzjagd Auf Nazis” (“Hunt Down the Nazis”).

IS: But wasn’t this an instrumental track? Did people recognize that this particular piece had a political message?

AE: You surely will remember the early ‘90s right after the fall of the Berlin Wall when German neo-Nazis raided asylum seekers’ hostels in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Hoyerswerda. We wrote the track in anger, and I really think that you can hear that anger on the record. We all were afraid that Germany would face backsliding into nationalistic and patriotic times. History is repeating right now, by the way. It is once again the neo-Nazis who are threatening our democratic society. I was playing this January at a theater in Leipzig-Connewitz the day after a neo-Nazi mob had raided one of the streets there and literally had demolished all shops and restaurants there because Connewitz is an anti-fascist hotspot. I don’t think that a track or a song necessarily needs lyrics to be political. “Hetzjagd Auf Nazis” still gets played frequently on demonstrations and people still connect to it thanks to its energy and its message. It is as if people intuitively understand the significance of any given track. How political were Can?

IS: We didn’t ever address topics from the daily politics in our music. But we were political in the sense that I, for instance, consciously rejected a promising career as a conductor. I threw that away in 1968 and instead founded Can. Splitting up the money and the writing credits equally among the band members was also a political act. And last but not least, we only made music if we really owned all the instruments and the equipment and could record in our own place. We recorded our music with four microphones and two Revox machines. We didn’t rehearse to then book a studio owned by someone else to record our music. We did it in our own studio. We didn’t have to bow down for anybody.

AE: And you recorded everything you were playing? The tape was always running?

IS: We recorded a lot. But tape was expensive, so we wouldn’t waste it. And because of that we played very disciplined! We would start to play and to listen to each other playing. We knew that sooner or later a situation would occur that’d catch all of us like in a spell. And from there we had to push the music further. Only later we would edit the tape to cut songs or albums from the material. And all of this is conscious political action. It was our life and life only. We didn’t have to discuss this; for us it was consensus.

Listen to Alec Empire’s mix for Electronic Beats Radio.

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