Holger Czukay - Biography
“When I was fourteen or fifteen years old,” Holger Czukay said in a 1994 interview with Phil England, “I didn't know if I wanted to become a technician or a musician.” As it turns out, the German musician never really decided which role suited him best, so he took both. From the late ‘60s on, he expanded the vocabulary of modern music in that bifurcated capacity, first as the bassist and in-house editor for the progressive rock band Can, and then as a solo artist who recorded his own distinctive and influential series of albums.
Czukay was born on March 24, 1938, in Danzig. As a youth he was fascinated by music and by radio. He was leading a modern jazz band in his early 20s. In 1963, after his expulsion from the Berlin Musikacademie, he began studying with the important modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. He began teaching music in 1966; one of his students, guitarist Michael Karoli, introduced Czukay to the rock music of The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and The Rolling Stones. Teacher and pupil joined keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and drummer Jaki Liebezeit in Can. From their debut in 1968, the Cologne-based unit was on the leading edge of Germany’s hyperactive progressive rock scene.
With Can, Czukay served as bassist, and also served in a critical editorial capacity, cutting the group’s propulsive yet sprawling tracks into finished form. By 1977, his role within the group had been marginalized by the arrival of Traffic’s former bassist Rosco Gee. Czukay effectively stepped away from the band, though he would return to the bass chair for the 1988 album Rite Time, which reunited the original five-piece line-up fronted by American singer Malcolm Mooney.
Czukay’s first foray into a side project occurred in 1968, when he collaborated with his friend Rolf Dammers on a recording that mated tape loops of Asian, Australian, and French medieval music with “found sound,” like the Vietnamese vocals employed on the track “Boat Woman Song.” (He would employ similar techniques in the context of Can as well.) The resultant album – finished clandestinely in a late-night session at Stockhausen’s Electronic Music Studios – was issued as Canaxis (1969). In his book Ocean of Sound, the English writer and composer David Toop identifies the album as a prophetic precursor to such much later works as David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981).
Movies (1979), the first full-fledged Czukay solo album, lived up to its title by formulating a kind of cinema for the ears; the musician continued on the path first taken on Canaxis, layering music unearthed in short-wave radio transmissions and film and TV soundtracks with deep grooves. Several similarly styled collections followed in relatively swift succession: On the Way to the Peak of Normal (1981), Der Osten Ist Rot (The East is Red) (1984), Rome Remains Rome (1987), and Moving Pictures (1993). A live album recorded in 1984-87, Radio Wave Surfer, was released in 1991.
Czukay undertook a number of collaborative efforts during this period. He recorded with Public Image Ltd. bassist Jah Wobble and his Can colleague Liebezeit on Snake Charmer (1983) and Full Circle (1985); the former album also featured U2 guitarist the Edge. He worked regularly with former Japan vocalist David Sylvian; their impressionistic co-billed projects were Plight and Premonition (1988) and Flux and Mutability (1989). He also appeared as a sideman on a pair of albums by the German prog duo Cluster and Brian Eno.
In 1997, Czukay emerged from the studio for a brief American tour – his first concert appearances in the country -- in tandem with mixer Dr. Walker of the collective Air Liquide. He told Billboard at the time, “For a long time I stayed away from [live performing] and concentrated on the media, until I found these people from the Cologne underground, from the electronic scene. They invited me to a party, and a thousand people showed up. I played with them and jammed with them. That was three hours and incredibly exciting. I went offstage, and I coldn’t believe I could get this feeling back again, like I had in the early ‘70s with Can.” A two-CD collaborative set, Clash (1998), followed the tour.
Czukay’s albums Good Morning Story (1999) and Luna (2000), which increasingly reflected his involvement with house and techno styles, were succeeded by two collaborations with his wife, the vocalist U-She (Ursula Kloss), The New Millennium (2003) and Time and Tide (2007). Another collaboration, 21st Century, with U-She now billed as Ursa Major, was also released in 2007. In May 2009, he appeared at the Roundhouse in London as part of the Short Circuit Festival of electronic music, performing a tribute to his late teacher Stockhausen and a remixed version of his 1969 work “Canaxis.”