A Can of classics
Can. Picture: Supplied.

Cult German avant-rock band Can are rightly hailed as the frontrunners of the genre unflatteringly called krautrock. Their unique blending of rock, jazz, neo-classical, electronica and African highlife music into their own relentless, minimal, free-form sound has made them one of the most important groups of the last century.

"Yes, those contradictory styles of music were all brought together in Can's music," Irmin Schmidt says over the phone from his home in the south of France. "We managed to create this chemistry together because there was no hierarchy in the group. We created everything collectively."

The 75-year-old classical-trained German keyboardist, who formed the pioneering band in Cologne in 1968, is revisiting his past due to the recent release of The Lost Tapes box set, which features previously unheard Can material.

In the years before their split in 1977, Can's minimalist approach was in stark contrast to the prevailing assault of prog-rock and jazz-fusion. Their groundbreaking albums such as Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), Future Days (1973) and Soon Over Babaluma (1974) are other-worldly classics.

Not surprisingly, various post-punk and modernist artists such as PiL, Radiohead, Joy Division, the Fall, Portishead and Sonic Youth have cited their striking, individualistic music as a major influence.

"It's not so strange to hear Can's influence in other artists' work," Schmidt says. "It's because nobody creates out of nowhere - everyone, including me and every Can member, are influenced by a tradition or style. Everybody borrows from somewhere. And all that acclaim we've received is very satisfying. It's good to know that what you did made sense to others."

Interest in Can's formidable body of work has never waned. Last year the band's label, Spoon, re-issued all 12 of their studio albums on vinyl, as well as the 40th anniversary issue of their magnum opus Tago Mago. Now The Lost Tapes is a much-anicipated treasure trove of unreleased material from the halcyon days of krautrock that stands equal to their greatest albums.

The three-disc box set was compiled from more than 50 hours of private tapes stored at the group's famed Inner Space studio in a disused cinema at Weilerswist near Cologne. When the studio equipment, including the army mattresses that lined the walls for sound baffling, was sold to the German Rock 'n' Pop Museum in 2007, the band's archives were moved into Schmidt's climatically controlled storage facility.

These boxes revealed years of master tapes of studio work, shelved soundtracks and live performances recorded between 1968 and 1977. They feature the core band of Holger Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitars, Jaki Liebezeit on drums, Schmidt on keyboards, singer Damo Suzuki and, amazingly, vocals from founder member the late Michael Mooney, who bailed out before their debut album because of mental illness.

Coincidently, Suzuki is in Perth on his world tour of live improvised performances with various backing bands. He will play with local experimental rockers Pond at the Bakery in Northbridge tonight.

Can's oddball, spontaneous approach to songwriting saw them jamming together as a unit for hours, sometimes days, experimenting with grooves and riffs.

"We always had a tape running and we recorded nearly everything," Schmidt says.

"But in the early years we didn't have the money to buy new tapes so we would often re-record over them and keep the bits that we considered worth keeping."

Schmidt's wife, who oversees the Can legacy, insisted he sit down and listen to the tapes and find out if there was something worthy of release.

"It was a lot of work to get through all of it because it was so chaotic. Sometimes the pieces that belonged together - film music, for instance - were on different tapes. So you had to find the bits that belong together."

Schmidt says he had to use very cold-blooded judgment to select the tracks for the re-releases.

"It was all a question of quality. And this was the best I could find. The next best is never going to be released … it is going to hell."

"It's not so strange to hear Can's influence in other artists' work . . . it's good to know that what you did made sense to others." <div class="endnote">

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The West Australian

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