Being Damo Suzuki: The Man Who Practically Invented Post-Punk and Ambient Music
Talking 60s communes, nearly dying in the Sahara Desert, and channelling the Stone Age with the former member of Can.
Damo Suzuki was born in Japan in 1950. As a teenager, he left Asia to travel Europe and was quickly recruited to be the singer of Can, an avant-garde band from Cologne that lived in an abandoned Cinema who, depending on who you speak to, invented post-punk, ambient music, and The Stone Roses. The Fall even wrote a song about him. Damo left Can after 4 albums in 1974 to walk around the world, and since 1983 he has been on a never ending world tour, playing improvisational music with a network of hundreds of musicians worldwide. We caught up to talk 60s communes, nearly dying in the Sahara Desert, and channelling the Stone Age.
Noisey: What was Japan like when you were growing up? Were you playing music?
I was so young, like 17, so I wasn’t making music, no. Time was totally different compared to now. When I was 8 or 9 years old I got my first instrument, a flute I think, then a clarinet and saxophone. I had a sister who worked in a bank and every birthday she presented me with a musical instrument. I also had a guitar and an organ. She wanted me to play music.
You came to Europe in 1967 and were doing street performance, is that right?
No, not really. I was in a commune in Sweden in the countryside with 50 people just enjoying living and doing nothing, and being in nature. In big cities you don’t have too much air. Last week I was in Slovenia in the countryside by the river and the fishes, I miss these places because big cities - although Cologne is not as big as London - make me quite stressed, they make you lose time and you are not yourself. So you have many solutions that are disturbing you. If you take a tube then you are in a time - you cannot control your time.
Sometimes in a city you’re not in control. Especially in London, you lose your sense of identity a bit.
Yes because you’re in the middle, 0.001 percent maybe. In the countryside you have much more communication with the people, so I stayed in Sweden with 50 people and I spoke with all of them. If you live in London maybe you speak with none of them.
What happened after you were in Sweden?
I travelled around Europe busking and painting, in Germany, France, Switzerland, Finland. I was busking for about 6 months, then I lived in Wexford in Ireland for 6 months, and also in Seven Sisters in London. Then I thought I would go back to Japan and study. But then in Munich I got a good job.
Was that when you joined Can?
No, I had a job in a musical playing guitar. I was getting quite good money but after about 3 months I was very frustrated because I was doing the same thing every day. I can’t really remember what happened when I met Can, but every day I would go into the street and do a kind of street performance or just scream because I was frustrated. But they saw me and asked me to be their singer not because they liked my voice but because they wanted somebody who looked like an alien. Japanese or Chinese people in the early 1970s were seen seldom, totally different to now. Maybe in England you had Chinese people but not Japanese. They wanted me for this, they didn’t know how I sang.
And they invited them to perform with you that night with no rehearsal?
Yes, just spontaneous. I do the same thing now with the Network. I think it’s better this way because it’s interactive. Music is communication, and that’s why a live concert is more intense. There is a total difference between the music of the Network and 99% of other music. It is another world. The most important thing is that you are there at the venue, so it is your time. But if you have a CD at home, it is not your own experience. There you can sit back and go “Oh, it’s bullshit”, but it doesn’t even matter. If you go to a live performance you might make a new friend for example. It is not only the music, there are all kinds of experiences if you come to a show, it is your life.
When you joined Can, were they still living in the castle?
No, by that time they were at Inner Space, a studio they made in an old cinema. It was a kind of a commune, we were there every day for 3 years when we weren’t touring. We had such an opportunity to make records because at that time many bands didn’t have their own studio. We could record at any time without any charge, so we would record for 12 hours and then edit the tapes afterwards to make songs. Because of our different situation we developed a new method of working.
What was your favourite of the Can records?
Nothing, I have no favourite. My favourite thing is whatever I’m doing.
A lot of really great bands and artists came out of Germany in the 1970s. Were you friends with any of them?
Some of them, especially La Düsseldorf people, who were formed from Neu! when they stopped. One or two members of Hawkwind were my friends. We didn’t make music with them, but Nick Turner and Lemmy from that band. I also knew Amon Düül, who I lived with in a squat in Munich before I joined Can.
After you left Can, you became a Jehovah’s Witness. Are you still part of that?
No, not for maybe 25 years. I was married to a Jehovah’s Witness for a long time. I still follow the Bible but I don’t like to belong to any church or any kind of organisation, because I think the Bible has something to do with real truth, so I spend maybe 1 hour a day reading this. But when I was a Jehovah’s Witness I had cancer in the 1980s and had an operation without a blood transfusion.
What did you do after you recovered?
I couldn’t walk or do anything for maybe half a year. But then one day I had a feeling to make music again, but not in an industry. I wanted to express a feeling that I survived and I have a new life into the music, so I make instant music as it’s much closer to life itself when you improvise. If you have composition then it is not life, it’s business. I only wanted music, not business.
Everybody has a different mission. The mission is connecting with yourself, and if you’re finding your way then you navigate and take better of the characters, then you will be much more rich in spiritual sense. That is the most important thing, to be a free person. Many people in this world are not free because they need information from another world - they are watching the TVs, reading the newspapers, they talk to you as if they are the experience - everything is mass media information. So you should find your own way and you can talk your own opinion to the people.
What are your inspirations?
Expression comes quite often from the experience, which begins in childhood. I had a strong mother, and I have so much DNA from her, so this is inspiration too. So inspiration is something that you cannot realize.
You sing in a mix of different languages and abstract sounds that you call ‘the language of the stone age’, does this relate to what you’re talking about?
Yes. Normally this kind of music has a texture. If you have a texture, I have to sing a song maybe 300 times - I can’t do this. It has to be instinctive and interactive, so the audience travels with me. Then in my concert you can have a series of stories inside your head, and the person next to you has different stories, and I’m able to communicate with each person in the audience. It’s a form of trance where anything is possible because I’m not saying anything to the people, they are creative themselves, and this is important.
If you channel yourself you become monotonic, and that’s a very good thing because it’s recognisable. Miro for example I like a lot because when you see a Miro painting you know it’s him and no one else. In one line you know it’s him. Like Miles Davis, in only one or two tones everybody knows that it’s Miles Davis. This is all related because they are all monotonic things; if you are monotonic then people realize who the person that made this is.
You go travelling in Africa and Asia alot, is that right?
Yes, although not as much these days because I am 64 years old and travelling very long distances is becoming hard for me.
I read once that you nearly died in the Sahara Desert. What happened?
I didn’t have too much water. I was walking alone in the Sahara Desert and I almost lost myself, but some strangers driving through saw me and picked me up. This was maybe the end of the 80s.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?
I think that everything is strange in a way. I cannot say especially that one thing is strange, every day is strange. Any idea about something being strange is just me and my conditionings, so everybody’s definition is different.
Do you make any recordings with the Network?
I only do live performances but there has been some people that I have allowed to put out shows from on vinyl - there is one from Sweden, one from Canada, I think 4 in total, but I’m not interested in making many products. I don’t like to think of music as a product because for me it’s a process.
If you could tell your younger self anything, what would that be?
Find your own way. This is the easiest but most people don’t realize. Everybody has a talent, but they take too much information from other people and they cannot create anything within themselves. So if you start from zero then you can make things so beautiful and you are much richer spiritually. Forget the old information, don’t believe in anything, believe in Jesus, and believe in yourself.
What are your plans for the future?
Being Damo Suzuki.
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