The Lost Tapes: Irmin Schmidt

"...we just made music."
Can LostTapes Packshot.jpeg
Can dreamt of the future.

Born of an era where every day seemed to represent a new epoch, the collective seized upon the twin possibilities of rock music and the avant garde. Fuelled by an egalitarian drive to smash through artistic boundaries, Can's back catalogue has inspired countless groups, musicians to question the artistic landscape which surrounds them.

It's a back catalogue which - remarkably - has just increased. Several years in the making, 'The Lost Tapes' is a collection of unreleased compositions, featuring both studio and live recordings from a wide span of the group's career.

Including contributions from both of the band's singers, 'The Lost Tapes' moves from 1968 - 1977. A remarkable, enthralling and inspiring document it both expands what we know about Can and refines their place within the cross-currents of Western music.

Working from his home in the south of France, Irmin Schmidt agreed to chat to ClashMusic about the new release, his career and ongoing artistic beliefs.

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You were initially steeped in classical composition, what was the spark which led to the formation of Can?
I was a classical composer and a conductor and pianist, and when I was in New York in winter ’66, I experienced so much new things that were so interesting: meeting the Velvet Underground, and Steve Reich. That was a turning point because I saw that in the States there was not that difference made between high and low culture, between the classical music and entertainment and pop. It was the high time of pop art and it all mixed and had a totally different and much freer feeling - the art. That was a turning point. Jazz and rock and pop was a new phenomenon, and for me became as necessary as theory. So I wanted to bring it all together.

'The Lost Tapes' includes numerous work drawn from film scores, did visual art act as an inspiration for the group?
Yes. Especially me, because i was always very into art and into painting. I wrote about it and curated exhibitions before, and I’m still like this, still going more to exhibitions and museums and galleries than actually to concerts. But also I’m a great reader, I have to read all the time. I start the day with reading, at least an hour in the morning and finish the day with reading in the bed. So I’m reading contemporary and old literature, whatever. So that means a lot to me and has always inspired me. It was different in the group, but I could exchange ideas with Michael, because he was also a big reader and had a big lover for paint. Of course it made me very receptive to film, which actually I brought into Can, I had already made film music before Can and I had worked on theatre, so that means also it’s dramatic and visual and it creates pictures and images. So that is inspiring or influencing. But in the moment then when Can made film music, we actually didn’t think about the image and the picture, we just made music.

In the sleeve notes you point to the often basic equipment used by Can, and emphasise the role of the studio. At times, you almost seem to hint at the room becoming an instrument in itself.
Yeah, that’s one idea, but the other was, especially on me, quite an influence of the musical thinking of John Cage, which meant accepting every sound, every environment, every ambience which is around you... accept as music, as something a sound with which you create. No matter what sound it is, you can create with it and create an atmosphere with it, and accept it as part of the music you are creating. John Cage’s philosophy did have an influence on me.

Can are often viewed - in Britain, at least - as being an obscure, lesser known phenomenon. Is this a fair representation?
I can’t say because, especially in Germany, France and England, we did every year touring and we made at least about 30 concerts every year in Britain in universities and halls. Not 10,000 but normally between 1,000 and 2,000. All these concerts were very successful, we sold quite a lot of records at the time. We were a very experimental, and even live, a very special group. We did not have for the following, some kind of rock group which has lots of hits in the charts. We were not a real chart group. We had two or three hits in the charts, but that was not at any time. We had a public and we still have it, but of course this group is...this music between old style pop, is also art, and it’s a little bit harder to...you must invest a little bit more than... it’s not easy listening, always. So the followers are less but very more dedicated over long time.

Germany in the 70s is an extremely politicised country, did this filter into the band at all?
Of course the way the group was founded and the way the group played and functioned, this kind... let’s call it artistic idea to have no band leader, no composer, no hierarchy, of course this is an idea that is very much at the time of ’68 where this came out. And also very normal, serious classical musicians throw everything away and is founding a group that then becomes a rock group, even though it’s very arty and experimental. But doing this and throwing the the baton at the conductor, a very promising one, is very ’69 and is very much born in a political environment where especially in Germany and France at the time.

Can - Deadly Doris



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The new compilation contains both vocalists, marking massive stylistic shifts...
There are also other pieces before Malcolm joined, and there is a big piece between Malcolm and Damo, whenever we didn’t have a singer we would still function with a singer. The singer... two signers would join for some time. But when the group functions like us; like an organism where every member has the same importance, every new member changes, in a way, the whole thing. But we four, Jaki, Holgar, Michael and me, as a kind of nucleus of the band, always functioned well without a singer.

What stems, tastes do you notice flowing through Can's output?
I can look on the work in these ten years and the whole thing, of course. It makes a kind of work of art, and the most important unit is that it... one of the important thing is it was changing all the time and you still identify Can. But it’s still something new and it’s changing all the time. Although it’s changing, it has identity... unit... the work.

Is there anything left in the vault?
From this archive there are these 3 CDs and that’s it, there won’t be anything from the archives anymore. The rest is not worth to release. So that’s it. But, there is a whole lot of live recordings of different quality, because we didn’t make live recordings, but there’s a friend of ours - a big fan - who collected from all over Europe and the world, any of our live recordings he could get a hold of. We didn’t go through all of that, because it’s hundreds. One day we will go through these live recordings and find more. There is already a lot of tapes and live recordings and some good ones. If that is the only possibility we might find in this collection some more live recordings which are worth to release. But the problem with them is more of them are technically poor quality because they are on cassette recorders from the middle of the public... things like that.

You emphasise in the sleeve notes that you are not a nostalgic person, what will you do next?
Well, of course, I create and produce music until I die. It’s just what I’m doing and still doing. I did in the last year these records and I wrote an opera and I wrote a ballet for a big orchestra about a year or two years ago, and I’m still writing music. That’s my life.

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'The Lost Tapes' is out now.

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