As interest in late 1960s and early 1970s psychedelic rock soars to an all time high, London’s cognoscenti will be clearing space in their diaries for October’s visit from one of the period’s most iconic figures.
While lead singer of Can, Damo Suzuki unveiled a unique singing approach where he stripped back his lyrics to a few repeated words, phrases and noises. The result was a dynamic, rhythmic improvised style that expressed emotion without necessarily imparting meaning.
Damo’s singing served as a perfect component in Can’s propulsive, exploratory cosmic rock and helped open up new space for subsequent generations to inhabit. Not least among the many who have been influenced by his work is The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, who paid tribute with the song “I Am Damo Suzuki”. October’s Shacklewell Arms gig will feature members of Bo Ningen, another group who owe something to Can’s mighty legacy.
The back pages caught up with the great man via Skype at his home in Cologne. Endearingly, he began the interview by donning a woollen bonnet that he dubs his “special interview hat”.
This month’s gig will be his first in London for a couple of years and one of the first that he has played since returning to performance after taking time off to recover from cancer. He received the diagnosis and was operated on in 2014, with a second operation in 2015.
When asked if he feels fully recovered Damo replied, “No, not fully recovered. Some days I feel up, others down. Never sure why.”
The operations involved the removal of some of Damo’s stomach muscle, which has necessitated the wearing of a special support during performance. Happily, judging by a Youtube video of a recent performance, this hasn’t diminished his singing ability.
Damo’s recent battle with cancer was the singer’s second. The first was in 1983, a period that he describes as “difficult”. Damo said, “I had young children and you worry about what will happen. I had responsibilities.”
Surviving his first bout of cancer served as a turning point, leading to Damo returning to live performance after a decade away from the music industry following his split from Can.
He said, “One of the first things that I did after I started performing again was a festival with Talking Heads. It felt positive to be going out and sharing energy with an audience so I kept on going. I do it on my own terms. Very small, very silent. Not superstar singer of Can. Not interested in hypercars and all that.”
Since his return to music Damo has concentrated largely on improvised live performance rather than getting involved with composed music or recordings. In latter years this has focussed on his “Network”, which is the term he gives to the ever expanding collection of musicians from around the globe who join him on stage. Performers at a Damo Suzuki show will often have never met either Damo or one another before the night of the event.
He said, “I say, “Start from zero. Don’t practice before the gig.” Then I don’t start with information. They don’t start with information. We just communicate in the moment and create something that comes from ourselves.”
At this point Damo rolls a cigarette and lights it, cheerfully declaring that “it is good to do Skype interviews, because I can smoke!”
Damo is a fan of Russian classical composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. However, in response to being asked if he ever feels like experimenting with composing his own music, he replied in the negative saying, “playing written down music is quite boring to me.”
Returning to his information theme, Damo said, “I don’t listen to much music. I don’t like to fill my head with too much information. By keeping your mind free of mass media information you would be surprised how much it frees you up to have new ideas.”
The having of new ideas is illustrated by Damo miming picking them out of the air while saying, “pop, pop, pop.”
Damo now has two granddaughters, the youngest of whom only arrived a month before the interview. “She is sooo cute and small,” is Damo’s unprompted description of his family’s latest addition. Regardless of his settled home life, the overwhelming impression that you are left with after speaking to him is that at some level the young, wandering hippy that Can found busking in Cologne remains intact. He chooses to manage himself, for example, something he explains by saying that he dislikes having “someone else telling me what to do with my time.”
Anyone who wants to experience one of music’s living legends in the flesh should brave fire and flood to get to The Shacklewell Arms when his journey reaches London.
Damo Suzuki’s Network play The Shacklewell Arms on 13th October.