Foals frontman interviews Can legend
Personality Clash: Yannis Philippakis vs. Irmin Schmidt

This Personality Clash sees Foals' frontman Yannis Philippakis in conversation with Krautrock legend, Can's Irmin Schmidt.

Foals went from indie hopefuls to pack leaders in 2008. Having discovered underground dance music from their Oxford bubble, they then proceeded to layer together one of the best albums of the year in ‘Antidotes’. They revealed recently their new album is inspired by German krautrock and kosmische music such as ’70s legends Can.

A key member of Can, this man is credited with playing keyboards and ‘Alpha 77 Electronics’ on their albums. Very nice. One of the most inspiring avant-garde bands of the 1970s, Can experimented with electronics much more than their peers with each of the fifteen-odd albums consistently innovating on their last, marking them out as complete originators.

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Yanis: I’ve never done an interview before, so this will be interesting. I was wondering how, now, in the 21st century, you feel retrospectively about the musical legacy of Can and [the effect of] the bands of your era on future generations? How do you feel now, looking back and its effect on the present?

Irmin: Of course I don’t much look back. I can’t give an answer to this question because I don’t think so much about the past.

Yanis: Not necessarily even looking at the past; how do you see the present now? Can you tell there is some sort of lineage from the past to now? What do you feel about the musical climate now, or your place in it, and how you’ve shaped it?

Irmin: I don’t really know how I feel about the present and music. Most of the stuff I’m hearing I don’t find very exciting or inspiring for me. But you know I’m not listening to a lot of rock or pop. I’m in the moment and I’m so much more listening to classical and the new classical music.

Yanis: Minimalist classical music?

Irmin: Not necessarily; any kind of classical music from 13th century.

Yanis: Do you feel jaded or do you feel in some way let down by the current state of guitar-based music? I think one of the things that I enjoy about listening to records from the ’70s in particular is the freedom, and I feel like, personally, at the moment it feels like bands have become so professionalised and so rehearsed and so safe, in a way. Do you feel the freedom has been lost?

Irmin: Well, maybe. It might come back now - with the difficulty in the industry to sell records anymore, it might liberate the minds from the industrial limits.

Yanis: I think people have become preoccupied with selling records. Now that they can’t sell records anymore, maybe it will become purer again. Is that what you mean?

Irmin: Yes, because what I am missing is people daring to do something surprising. I haven’t heard much that really surprised me.

Yanis: Yeah. I can only imagine how you feel, but I’m not surprised that you feel like that. Do you have a favorite piece of work that you’ve made that maybe people don’t know? What is your favorite record to be involved with?

Irmin: I don’t have a favorite really. There are Can records that I like more than others, and there are works that I did, which… it’s less records, it’s pieces. Certain pieces I found succeeded more than others. But it changes. I very rarely listen to things I did.

Yanis: Are you excited about the future? Are there things that still inspire you? Aside from classical music, are there other art forms that are feeding more into your own creative process?

Irmin: Well, I’m not ragging on the rock music… One thing for me that is absolutely necessary is to go to museums and art galleries and look at the old - or any - artists. That’s actually much more important to me than listening to music. I sit down and I want to re-listen to certain things and then I do that and it is a very concentrated work in a way. Besides that, it’s reading books and art. That’s very important to me.

Yanis: Did you guys used to smoke a lot of pot, and do you still?

Irmin: No, no, a long time ago I gave up any kind of drug besides alcohol. I love a good wine.

Yanis: What is your favorite wine?

Irmin: I don’t have a favorite wine. I mean, the region where I am living has wonderful wine.

Yanis: Do you think drugs, done in moderation, can aide artistic inspiration? Do you think that is a bad idea or do you think there is still a place for substances to look at creation in a different way?

Irmin: I don’t think that drugs make you more creative. I think that’s even one of the main dangers that artists think that taking drugs makes them more creative. It can be amusing and it can be nice and whatever. Sometimes it can cut communication or can help to communicate, it depends how you use it. But basically it has no influence on your creativity and making music, and can’t turn you into a genius. But I mean, I love Scotch whisky.

Yanis: I sense you don’t want to talk too much about the past.

Irmin: Yes, we are talking about the present because we are talking about my favorite alcohol, which is a very present thing. But what I wanted to say about this was that never in my life, I never drank a drop of alcohol before going on stage or working in the studio. I am absolutely convinced it is for friends and not for working.

Yanis: If you don’t want to talk about the past that’s fine, but I’m interested because I’m in a band. At the time you were in Can was there a tangible feeling in Germany at the time… Not calculated, but an awareness in Can and other groups at the time that something was happening?

Irmin: There was this kind of mood in Europe in the late ’60s and ’70s, which was no doubt very strong in Germany. But the difficulty in Germany was there was no capital where everything was happening. Between groups in Berlin, or us in Cologne, or others in Munich, there was a distance of five hundred kilometres, so we didn’t communicate much. So, one cannot really talk about that kind of common feeling so much because it wasn’t communicated.

Yanis: So it was decentralised?

Irmin: Yes.

Yanis: Okay. Do you feel that now, forty years on, you relish isolation more than when you’re young in your twenties and you wish to connect with other musicians and feel like there is a collective spirit? At least some people feel like that. Is there any yearning for that?

Irmin: Whenever I feel like that, I work with other musicians. I quite like that I am living in the country, far away from a lot of things. I make a lot of music for film, too. This I never do alone. I always have a sound engineer and a guy who is a judge of the completed work; this is a musician and he is forty years younger than me. I communicate with them…

Yanis: But you like to be able to withdraw?

Irmin: Yes, very much so. Sometimes I’m writing all alone and I appreciate that as much as I do working with others.

Yanis: Do you feel optimistic about the future, about the world, and the idea of being able to make interesting music and art in general? Is it more difficult than it used to be?

Irmin: Well, optimistic is maybe too much, but I don’t feel pessimistic either. Surely there is a purpose. Of course there is.

Yanis: What is the purpose to you? If it’s a matter of self-expression for its own sake…

Irmin: As long as we consider great artwork to maintain… I mean, if self-expression is what everyone is doing, there is a purpose because of humanity and there is still work to do and work to make the world a livable place. Art is one of the most important things. Art as literature, music...

Yanis: Its power has not diminished?

Irmin: No, I don’t think so. It just changes.

Yanis: I agree. Although in a way it could be seen as a bad thing, the whole idea of recorded music becoming freed up.

Irmin: Yeah, the studio is really well-equipped and offered you the ability to create something very special and sounds that were very beautiful. But now, with MP3, it’s all gone down and nobody listens to…

Yanis: The production?

Irmin: Yeah, and that’s a loss.

Yanis: There’s a gain in the loss. Do you still record tape, or have you embraced the digital technology?

Irmin: Absolutely, yeah.

Yanis: Do you still work with analogue machines as well?

Irmin: Yes, it depends on what we are doing. Some music has to be digital, but we still use the old machines. I mean, depending on what you are doing.

Yanis: Okay, finally, my favorite Can track ever is ‘Oh Yeah’ and I was wondering where the thunderclap at the beginning of the track came from.

Irmin: I don’t actually remember, but it might have been a bomb explosion!


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