The last founding member of the visionary German band left alive, the 81-year-old recalls how he refused his Nazi father to find freedom in music
In the dining room of his rambling farmhouse in Provence, Irmin Schmidt pours a glass of rosé in preparation for being interviewed. At 81, he is twinkly, genial company, a little at odds with the image he projected as the keyboard player in Can, the Cologne band once described as “the most influential and revered avant-garde band of the late 20th century”. While his bandmate Holger Czukay used to play up for the camera, Schmidt tended to stare sternly down it from between a pair of immense sideburns, every inch the serious musician who had trained under Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Since the band split up in 1979, he has made solo albums, conducted, written film scores, penned an opera. He says he doesn’t much concern himself with the past. He is dismissive of Can’s brief late-80s reunion on the grounds that it “sounded too much like Can” and balked at a suggestion that he should join an all-star Can tribute group at the Barbican’s 2017 celebrationof the band’s 50th anniversary: “It was a wonderful performance they did, but I mean, playing a Can piece as a song, having to learn the fucking piece and remember it …” He laughs. “We never cared about what people expected. I always imagined if one day we would go onstage again, people would think: ‘No, this isn’t Can. This is another group – we are in the wrong place.’”
But, of late, he has been dwelling on the band’s history. For one thing, 2017 left him the sole survivor of Can’s original four-piece line-up. Guitarist Michael Karoli died of cancer in 2001, while drummer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay both died last year, the latter in the disused Weilerswist cinema that had once housed Can’s Inner Space studio, and where Czukay had continued to live after the band broke up. And then, at the urging of Hildegard, his partner of 51 years and Can’s manager since the early 70s, he has co-authored, with Rob Young, a definitive biography of the band, All Gates Open.
It is a fascinating book, not least because Schmidt’s life was extraordinary even before he formed Can. Born in Berlin in 1937, he can remember seeing Allied planes strafe a German military train with gunfire while he was an evacuee in Austria; returning to Germany in 1946, he found it “absolutely flattened by bombing. I grew up in these total ruins. That was an experience that is still deeply within me: growing up in this town, this land, where everything was devastated, all the buildings, all the culture.” His teenage years were marked not just by the usual adolescent surliness but by an obsessive fury over his homeland’s recent history: he was expelled from school for using its student magazine to expose his teachers’ Nazi pasts, while his relationship with his father – another Nazi supporter who had done nothing to intervene when their Jewish neighbours were taken to Auschwitz – was “pure war”. “Always asking, ‘Why did you do this?’, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’, ‘How could you? How could you?’ I think there is this kind of … mourning within me which I can never get rid of.”