From the late ‘60s to the mid ‘70s, Can unleashed a string of seminal albums that foreshadowed everything from punk and post-punk to techno and trance. The intrepid German sonic explorers didn’t just break the rules — they used the rulebook for kindling, and built their musical world around the sound of the pages burning. Can and the other aural experimentalists of the era came to share the appellation Krautrock, and these German giants are enjoying an unusual amount of visibility in New York City these days. Kraftwerk had their eight-night run at MoMA, and Tangerine Dream is set to hit town in July. Can, of course, has been out of commission for decades, but keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and his cohort Jono Podmore have gone through the massive Can archives to cull three CDs’ worth of previously unheard music for The Lost Tapes.
As a sneak preview, Schmidt and Podmore appeared at Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge last night (April 17) to play cuts from the forthcoming collection, talk about the provenance of the recordings, and answer questions from Can fans, making for the highest amount of Can-related action in ages. In a more intimate conversation earlier that day, Schmidt told Hive how The Lost Tapes came about, starting with the fact that they were never literally “lost.” “They were always there,” explained the 75-year-old keyboardist. “They were first in Can’s studio archive, then when the Can studio was sold to the German rock museum, everything was sold except, of course, the archive, so this was transferred to my place. It was very unorganized. There was always a tape running when we played in the studio and even if we didn’t play. Nobody wanted to go through that work and find out if there’s something worth releasing on it. So finally I had to, which we [Jono and I] both did … and came up with the choice which is Lost Tapes.”
“That’s sentimentality, we are not into that.”
Several of the tracks were edited together from various pieces, in a manner not unlike what Teo Macero did for Miles Davis’s pioneering jazz-rock recordings of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. “They’ve actually come into existence with the editing process,” Podmore says. “For example, the incidental music for films, we found a couple of tapes that Irmin would have taken to the editing room to dub with the film, little vignettes, little bits of one instrument playing … I worked out a way to create a piece of music from those little snippets. There’s about 10 or 11 pieces that are really constructed [that way].” Schmidt adds: “Lots of pieces were just forgotten because they didn’t fit at the time on the record. And when we did the next record, we were on another planet; that was old stuff and didn’t fit on the new record, so it got forgotten.”
Fortunately for the cross-generational masses that continue to worship at the altar of Can, these recordings are forgotten no longer. In a crowded room occupied by gray-haired hippies and eager young acolytes in equal measure, Schmidt and Podmore stood behind a mixer for two hours sharing tracks from The Lost Tapes and the stories behind the sounds, while video screens behind them showed vintage Can footage.
After the relentless 10-minute rocker “Waiting For the Streetcar” from 1968, Schmidt deadpanned, “That was the short version,” explaining that the song sometimes went on for a half hour. “Millionenspiel” was the first of many film soundtrack pieces recorded by Can, and it began like the Peter Gunn theme on amphetamines before evolving into a proto-industrial throb and buzz, then a mind-bending blend of free-jazz saxophone and psychedelic fuzz guitar, before coming full circle back to its original motif.
Demonstrating some of the techniques he’d learned pre-Can in his studies with avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Schmidt played the film piece “Graublau,” for which he’d made tape loops of shortwave radio sounds, which the band played to. The results were all edited together in a stormy swirl of overdriven, Velvet Underground-like rock riffs, itinerant clouds of sonic dissonance, and one-note organ ostinatos that prefigured minimal techno. Discussing this collage approach, Schmidt called it “one of the basic ideas of 20th century art,” going on to reference Stockhausen and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters in this context, and quoting multi-media artist Marcel Duchamp for the credo of “putting pieces which don’t fit together.”
A short Q&A session closed the evening. When an effusive audience member asked whether we’d be seeing any further excavations of the archives, Schmidt gently but firmly replied in the negative. “The rest is not worth putting out,” he explained. “That’s sentimentality, we are not into that.” He did, however leave one small window of possibility open, mentioning a man who is “a great collector of all our live stuff,” and allowing for at least the hypothetical plausibility of an archival live Can collection.” Another fan inquired “with all due respect” as to whether the band ever took acid in the hippie era. “Yes,” Schmidt said simply, engendering a round of titters from the crowd, before adding, “It was unavoidable in the late ‘60s.”
The Lost Tapes will be out June 19 on Mute Records. Listen to “Millionspiel” below: