January 25, 2017
One of the masterminds of the ‘motorik’ style that defined Germany’s Kosmische Musik scene throughout the ’70s and laid the foundations for house and techno, Liebezeit had an untold influence on contemporary music.
In autumn 2016, photographer Deirdre O’Callaghan published The Drum Thing, a collection of close to 100 profiles and portraits of the world’s most influential drummers in their studios. Among them was Jaki Liebezeit, the founding member of Can and engine room for one of the most idiosyncratic percussive revolutions of the 20th century.
In this extract, Liebezeit remembers how Can was forged from the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe at the end of the ’60s, inspiring a truly individual German sound that pushed the role of the studio to the limit.
It was 1968; it was a year of revolution. That started with some student riots in Berlin and something happened in the mind, worldwide, I think, at that time. Also in music and in art and painting – Pop art came, and that’s why we all had the idea to do something new. We were fed up with that old post- war thing. We came together, all of us had the same feeling, and I think that gave us the power to do something new.
Kraftwerk, we occasionally met them, or we played the same concerts. Otherwise there were not so many bands like that. We met some bands at festivals, but there was no real contact with them – and most of the bands at that time were imitating English bands. It was different with Can, it didn’t sound English at all. So either people hated it or they loved it. I think most of the people who liked it liked it because they had the feeling that it wasn’t just an English copy. It was something different. But we had problems in Germany in the beginning because we didn’t sound English enough.
The studio was essential for us. No band had their own studio, because usually the bands would write a song, then rehearse it in their rehearsal room, and then go to a studio and record it. With Can, there was never anything written – we didn’t want that. We thought we could go to a studio and play together and see what was happening, and if there were good ideas we’d work on them, without writing.
We couldn’t afford to go to a studio every day that cost a lot of money and stay there for four weeks and after that have maybe two tracks. The studio was very primitive, but was just enough for us. Years later we had multi-track machines, but that wasn’t so good for the teamwork, because then we could separate the tracks and someone could do his track again, or play five guitar tracks, and then sort out the best – that destroyed the teamwork a little bit.
We were definitely a collective, or a team. We played every day together, and recorded and listened until we were satisfied. Because there was never one composer, no one was allowed to become boss and we split all the royalties. These ideas also came from 1968, there was that commune idea. Although we were not a commune living in one at together, we shared the money in equal parts.
When I started with Can I had a lot of critics who said we were repeating all the time, and we didn’t have ideas. But I think the repetition, you have to feel it. With Can, for every tune we played I designed a special rhythm, so each of the tunes had different rhythms. It’s not like rock rhythm. I stopped with all that. I’ve given up that old style of – you can call it American drumming. American drumming, it was and still is normal, everybody plays American. So that’s why I don’t play what to me is normal. Like the typical drum set, with hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum, tom-tom, right cymbal – I’ve changed that.
Portrait photo: Deirdre O’Callaghan