June 15th, 2012 | Interviews

darren ragle

Calls to go out and interview Can’s Irmin Schmidt, living legend from progressive rock’s palmiest years, don’t come wafting over my (or any other) transom every day. So the first chance to eyeball for myself one of the founders of German psychedelic rock was the first one I took, arriving at Amoeba Music just before his scheduled DJ set. The occasion was Mute’s release of The Lost Tapes, nothing less than a boxed set full of previously unheard material from arguably German rock’s greatest and most pathbreaking band. Discovered hidden in Can’s old studio as it was being taken apart by posterity-minded museum officials, The Lost Tapes contain tantalizing album odds and soundtrack sods the quintet deemed too fragmentary to release during their 1968-77 run and too cool to throw away. Needless to say, reviewers, fans and the music blogatariat are as of this writing issuing frantic updates and countdowns to the June 19th release of the three vinyl/triple CD set. My girlfriend and I found our subject in the far back room of the massive Hollywood music shop, thumbing gingerly through the avant-classical CDs with that expression of concentrated semi-distaste one typically encounters over in the death metal department. I was given five minutes, but took seven. This interview by Ron Garmon.

How were The Lost Tapes found?
Irmin Schmidt: There was an archive that was untouched for 40 years. So we finally decided we had to listen to it. So I listened to 50 hours of tape that were hidden somewhere in the archives. I went through it and found about three hours of work.
What were these archives?
We always left the tape running in the studio. But very often we ran out of tape, so we overdubbed the old ones and left a little piece—a fragment that we thought precious enough to keep. So the archive was in pretty much of a mess and that’s why no one wanted to go through it, so we forgot it, more or less. Finally, the publisher and the record company and my wife wanted to listen to it, and then she wanted me to listen to it. So I did and became interested and put together three hours of music for the release. We knew there would have to be a lot of editing and shortening and so there was.
So the whole thing is a finished production at three hours. You were one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s students. I’ve always wondered—what was his opinion of the kind of advanced rock music you did?
What was his opinion? He’s dead now, quite unfortunately.
But in life I imagine he cultivated one.
Yes, there is a nice story. He once agreed to a kind of blind test and listened to five or six records of German bands of the time. He liked but one record, nothing else; thought the rest simply no good. But one to him was very good and it turned out to be ‘Aumgn’ from Tago Mago. When they told him it was Can, he said, ‘Well, that’s no wonder. That’s my student.’
Can’s music was often recycled and bootlegged, with some of it winding up on the soundtracks of movies made in Asia and elsewhere.
About bootlegs, don’t ask me. Somebody wrote to me recently offering to sell 364 bootleg records, which is quite a lot.
How generous of him.
If you’re talking about legitimate recordings done with permission, well, Kanye West did a delightful edit of ‘Sing Swan Song’ [off Ege Bamyasi] and that was with permission. It was called … there’s a line of … what’s the name of the song? [Voice from background: ‘Drunk and Hot Girls!’] Yes. That was a line from the original song.
Do you have any favorites among the many, many acts you’ve influenced?
[Genially, but with force:] No!
Very diplomatically put!
I don’t really listen to much pop or rock music of any kind. If you go through my record purchases, there—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven records and only one of them is hip-hop! [Laughs] I’m very much interested in contemporary classical music.
Which was the section I found you in.
Yes! I’m very much interested in Henry Cowell and various 20th-century American composers which are little known in Europe. Harry Partch is another. I can name you one American group whose work I do admire, and that’s Sonic Youth.
[There is a general murmur of awed respect which I break by giggling.]
What is so funny about that?
That’s a highly respectable choice. I’d think you would like Sonic Youth.
That doesn’t mean I’m highly respectable.
Try not to take it personally! Were there any tweaks or other challenges in remastering Tago Mago?
No. For the remaster we went back to the original 2-track tapes we recorded at the time and did the best not to try to make it better. We changed nothing because the CDs were made in the 80s, only to make it sound better, messing with the treble and such stuff. Only with Tago Mago, we went back to the original tape which is perfect and needed no work. The remastered version is the original version on the tape—clean as when it was born.