Damo Suzuki Remembered: “Life is so short, so face in front of you, not backside.”

In memory of Can’s former frontman Damo Suzuki, who has sadly passed away aged 74, MOJO revisits our 2018 interview with the krautrock outliers’ shamanic lightening rod.

Damo Suziki 2018

by Ian Harrison |
Updated on

In 2010, with a new book, a documentary and more gigs on the go, Can’s shamanic lightning rod Damo Suzuki sustained himself as a freelance “metaphysical transporter”, always looking forward. “It’s my job, ha ha!” he told MOJO’s Ian Harrison. In remembrance of the krautrock hero, who as sadly passed away aged 74, we revisit the encounter in full.

MOJO’s April 2018 trip to Cologne to interview Damo Suzuki coincides with a massive, multi-pronged public-sector strike across Germany. Yet despite hundreds of cancelled flights, plus nail-biting fears of three hours stranded on the tarmac and a diversion to Frankfurt, we succeed in meeting him at the agreed time at a café looking out over the tree-lined Stadtwald city park lake.

Damo, a puckish, slight, long-haired 68-year old in jeans, checked shirt and creamy brown knitted bonnet, is clearly tickled by this smooth arrival against a backdrop of uncertainty and potential chaos, vindicating as it does his own mistrust of systems, habit and regularity. “When by accident something happens,” he says, “it’s much more interesting than if you plan it. I like to live the whole of my life quite free like this.”

Fascinating chance played a vital role in the Japanese-born vocalist’s membership of Can, the Cologne-based telepathic superpower he fronted from 1970 to 1973. In that time he used his voice as ambient texture, percussive instrument and extra-lingual sense-relayer on four essential albums, 1971’s ritual masterwork Tago Mago and the following year’s teeming rhythmic blowout Ege Bamyasi among them. Following 1973’s levitating, ambient Future Days, he left the group and the music life, returning in the ’80s to play freeform gigs. After forming Damo Suzuki's Network in the late ’90s, he maintains a never-ending global tour schedule abetted by a multitude of ‘Sound Carriers’ – local musicians he meets on the day of performance, and with whom he improvises without rehearsal. 2017 alone saw Suzuki play Peru, Albania and the Indian Himalayas, while notable collaborators in the pursuit of high-wire instant creation have included Earthless, Pond and, playing as Imperial Wax, the final line-up of The Fall.

The soft handshake and playful manner, however, belie a man of considerable iron: having been treated for cancer in the ’80s, he is today again dealing with the disease. A still crowd-funding film directed by Yorkshire filmmaker Michelle Heighway, Energy: A Documentary Featuring Damo Suzuki And Elke Morsbach (Damo’s partner) will tell the story of this fight. In September, I Am Damo Suzuki, the singer’s memoir co-authored with Paul Woods, will be published by Omnibus. Such retrospection is arguably surprising, as Damo has often declined to discuss his time in Can at all, citing his preference to look only forwards.

Not today though. As birds tweet and coffee is drunk, this quietly charismatic senior head – whose Japanese-into-German-into-English speech patterns sometimes display a gnomic Yoda-ness, with frequent references to energy in all its positive manifestations – looks back on an uncompromising creative life in pursuit of the eternal moment. “For me, like everybody else, life is so short,” he says. “So face in front of you, not backside.”

How’s your health?

I must think about my body condition. How it will be in the next three or four hours, I don’t know. I am taking every day medicines, which is quite a strong preparation from morphine. Which is opium - so I’m totally stoned, ha ha! On the stage I feel free, I feel better than normal. Everywhere from my body and my soul, I can get free. That’s kind of a therapy for sickness as well. Music is a healing thing because there is harmony.

Details of your early life are not well known. Are you a mystery man?

I’m not mysterious! I just didn’t talk so much.

You were born in Oiso, Kanagawa prefecture, in 1950. What did your parents do?

My father was an architect. My mother was a housewife, which was normal at that time. My father died when I was five years old and my mother had real difficulty, with four small kids she could not support in a financial way. But she did it. She was 36 or something, still young. She is the most respected person in my life, because I learned from her so many things. She was strong. When she was young, she was playing tennis, which was [seen as] quite terrible at that time. I think she liked my life because I’m the only kid enjoying freedom. She lived in the Second World War – really hard times.

What was the young Damo like?

I was an individual. Ha ha! Quite out-law. But never with violence. I had quite enough time for myself, and ideas, because I was not really good with school, I didn’t study that much. Everyone [in the family] finished university – except me! I tried to be empty here (taps temple) because it’s the best thing for creative process. If you don’t have any information you can make many things, you can go in all 360 degrees of direction.

What excited you musically as a teenager?

Different kinds of music – quite mainstream. Tamla Motown, Atlantic records, Young Rascals and Aretha Franklin. I didn’t want to be a fan of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles – everybody was a fan of the Beatles! – so I liked The Kinks much more. In ‘64 they were making heavy metal kinds of stuff, this was the start of the real British rock in my opinion. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were not really original, I think. Never have I thought about being a musician, though. It wasn’t my dream. I was much more interested in being a comic painter, a cartoonist.

You left Japan as soon as you were able.

I left in 1968, when I had just become 18, one day after my birthday. For me the world was something mysterious, it was quite scary. Everything was slow. It was letter-time, before the internet. First I stayed in Sweden, with friends, for something like two winters, in ‘68 and ‘69, in some tiny village with 50 people, two shops and a church. It was a lonesome place! I went to Ireland too. I didn’t plan that much, if anything is coming, I take it.

An attitude suited to 1968?

I am a ’68 person, yes – it was good to experiment at this time, when I was 18 years old. All social things were moving at that time, everybody was able to go to demonstrations, against authority, especially the USA. Opinions were not controlled by the media, like today. I liked being a part of it, but I don’t think that time was better, I like now much more. Hippie-time was kind of a trend, not maybe in a commercial way, but it was not like having a free spirit. They were for me, egoists.

Where did the name ‘Damo’ come from? Accounts differ – is it from the accident-prone manga character Marude Dameo, or did you get it in Ireland?

I don’t know. Maybe in Sweden? It just came, maybe I said, I’m Damo. But in my opinion, everybody has to change their own name. Maybe your uncle or aunt is making your name when you are born, but after a while it’s not fixed together with you, so it’s good after 18, 21 to change your name [to one that] fits with your personality. To pronounce, if I’m in England its Day-mo, if I’m in Germany or Japan it’s Dammo.

You ended up in West Germany in early 1970.

I’d made busking around Europe for one year. I didn’t have any pieces to play because I couldn’t play really good guitar. Besides music I was painting on the street with chalks – for me it was necessary because I didn’t have money to travel, for meal. Then I was working for three months for a musical, Hair, in Munich. At that time if you get a job maybe you get 500 German marks a month, something like that. With Hair I had double salary. One day I was outside, and I made a happening, maybe it was quite loud, because I’m unsatisfied and I had frustration because I was working on this musical theatre and (look of absolute boredom) every day same. By accident somebody found me on the street, and since then, OK, I make music.

You’re referring to April 1970, when you meet Holger Czukay (bass) and Jaki Leibezeit (drums) of Can, who were looking for a singer after their original vocalist Malcolm Mooney had departed.

Yes, that’s when Holger saw me. Maybe he didn’t see any Japanese before but he was interested to talk to me. When they asked me to sing, I never thought that I’d stay with this band or be invited to make recordings of LPs, I never had such a dream. Without Holger I am not a musician, anyway. It was really a turning point.

What were your impressions of your new bandmates?

Everybody in the band is quite special. And they had different interests in music. Jaki was free jazz, Irmin [Schmidt] was a conductor of an orchestra, Holger [worked with] Stockhausen and Michael [Karoli] was a young rock guitarist. And I was a hippie! So five totally different people with five different directions. With the chemistry, naturally it came together. That’s why it’s quite timeless music.

You quickly found yourself in the studio.

[1970 LP] Soundtrackswas quite strange for me because I’d never made a recording before, and it became an LP. It’s special for the song Mother Sky. I used to go to one pub, every day almost, and Holger came one time with a cassette and said, “Damo, listen, it’s a good British band.” I was saying, Oh it’s really good, the voice is similar to me… and he said, “It is you, it is Mother Sky!” He was joking.

Holger also helped out when you were nearly deported, early on.

It was ’70, I think. Polizei caught me on the street and I stayed one week in jail. They wanted to send me back to Japan. Holger I think spoke with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Stockhausen made an action to save Damo Suzuki! [The composer wrote to the City of Cologne’s Immigration Department] Before that I was quite a lot of time in the jail because I didn’t have licence and made music on the street. For example, in Tampere in Finland, also in Paris in 1969. At that time they didn’t like anybody to have long hair in Paris. When they brought me out they said – Don’t come back! Ha ha!

Were Can’s recordings always spontaneous?

The music was spontaneous, yeah. We made really long, long sessions, sometimes three or four hours without stopping, and Holger was always recording. It was a luxury that we had our own studio with a private atmosphere. It was kind of a creative home. If we don’t investigate in such things at that times many good moments of our music is not going to come out. This is the power-point of this band.

Tago Mago****, recorded at the Schloss Nörvenich, is still a powerful piece of work.

Ooh. It took us quite a long time. It wasn’t the idea to make a double LP, it came from an idea from [Irmin’s wife and de facto Can manager] Hildegard, or something. Every piece was created differently. Mushroom was actually I and Jaki and our road manager Manni Löhe – he was the craziest person – playing together. The explosion at the beginning of Oh Yeah – Irmin had the idea to put a small firework in the hall, which we recorded. Things like that happened. It was kind of a patchwork for Holger mainly, you know. He edited everything on Halleluwah.

Were the group friends?

Not really. Just five different people with an interest to make new things, who came together. Maybe Irmin and Jaki were friends, maybe if I say friend, maybe Michael Karoli was my friend, he was quite near to my age. Irmin, Jaki, Holger, they’re 10 to 12 years older than me. And also, maybe Jaki, because I performed a lot with him later.

With Ege Bamyasi – and its hit single Spoon – Can found commercial success.

Yeah. That time it was really popular. Strange time. But a good thing about this piece, Spoon, I made it in maybe only three or four minutes, singing and writing my words and melody. Maybe I did it two times. The band at that time was getting quite famous, on the front pages of teenager book, pop music magazines. I have to give autographs on the street. I really don’t like this – if people are accepted for the music it’s OK, not because this is a ‘famous person’.

Was there an optimum period for you in Can?

When I left, I think! Or when I joined. Middle is almost getting like work. Not really, but scheduled. Even when I was playing with the Can I was hitchhiking to some places. I lived the same, like how hippie life was at that time. I think everything is OK. I think the best thing is Future Days. This is the point where I left the band. For me, two or three years is quite enough – it was only five per cent of my life!

You had found religion around this time.

Yes, I became a Jehovah’s Witness during my time with Can. I am not anymore – I was with them maybe six, seven years. I’m a Christian too now, but I’m believing much more in The Bible. I really don’t like to belong anywhere, that’s the reason I left from Can as well. Do I think I should have stayed? No. Partly it was like this. I was only 23 years old. I wanted to see another world.

What did you do afterwards?

After I quit from Can I had jobs. I worked in Essen in hotels, as a street worker, in an office for a Japanese company… it was a good time to try something else. I learned many things from this period. Like, if I am working in hotels I must be always patient and friendly – there are many strange guests! It was a good time, actually.

Did you keep up with Can’s career?

No. I don’t listen to any kind of music actually!

In the 1980s you returned to music.

I came back to music in ‘84, or something, after my cancer operation. Half a year after my surgery, I went to a one-day festival in Cologne and Jimmy Cliff and Talking Heads played. I liked the atmosphere so I wanted to make music again, but in a different way. I never developed my own band before The Damo Suzuki Band. We played 40-50 concerts, and after finishing I released a 7-CD box.

In 1985 the The Fall released I Am Damo Suzuki, some UK listeners’ first encounter with you as a concept.

Yeah, yeah, Mark E Smith. I met him only two times so I cannot say so much about him. A strange person – he was singing, “I am Damo Suzuki” – so, he must be! But it’s quite usual nowadays. On the internet many people are using my name.

In 1989 Can released their reunion album Rite Time, but you did not take part.

From 1986, they asked me. The a-side is for Malcolm, the b-side is for me. They wanted to make a special contract, Malcolm and I get money, the other people get some percentage or something like that. Conditions for both singers and the other members were different, that is one of the reasons I didn’t make it.

One reason?

Another was I didn’t want to repeat my time. To get together for this - for me, it’s not natural. To get together you must be constant, as a friend, then I would make it, maybe. But we didn’t talk and we didn’t meet, we had such distance. It was too late. Many bands are doing reunion-stuff and I really don’t like this.

In the ’80s and ’90s you also play with Dunkelziffer and Damo Suzuki’s Network. Was your approach still improvisatory in nature?

It was improvised, sure. I make things which I can do. I really don’t like to do anything which I cannot.

After the Network, you instigate the Sound Carriers, with a freer, transitory attitude to line-ups.

It was quite a political reason. On March 19, 2003, the America bombed Iraq. This day I was on an early flight to New York. Two, three days before that millions of people all over the world were protesting against the bombing. So I thought maybe I should make some things with the music. I’m not the kind of person to make leadership, in front of people, making big speeches. Music is a communication, and there is violence because there is no communication. I wanted to make something [to promote] understanding.

Since then you’ve travelled the world on a never-ending tour playing with local musicians, without rehearsing.

The minimum I have made concert with is two people. I’ve performed with 50, 35, a string quartet, a soprano singer. The youngest one was a 15-year-old guitarist from Glasgow, the oldest was more than 80 years old, an Irish harp player. I have performed together with only females – a totally different energy and a different challenge. It’s not about technique, know-how or music interest, or being male or female or young or old. During the concert we are developing and getting together. The responsibility is not only mine, it is the whole Sound Carriers together. Together we go further. That is why I started this project.

Can you prepare the musicians, at all?

Maybe before the show some musicians are getting nervous. I make some kind of lottery, everyone must pick a number to see who is going first, second. If the supporting band are playing really loud music, then I must have contrast. Let’s play something ambient, with synthesizers, something like that. Or it might be, OK, let’s make a noise beginning, and I will jump up on the stage and everybody makes a noise. But I only tell them one minute before. It’s much interesting like this.

When you are using your voice as an instrument – ‘the language of the stone age’ as you once called it - are you consciously communicating something?

It has no meaning. I don't like to have any text, singing the same thing hundreds of times, covering myself. Maybe it’s comfortable and not risky to have a lyric, but I take much more of an emotional thing from that spontaneous feeling, the feeling you cannot programme. Maybe I'm communicating the endless wide possibility of joy to come.

Does it ever go wrong?

Every concert is different – Sound Carriers different, place different, audience is different and my condition is also different so why should I compare?

How do you stay match-fit?

Every day is training, almost like a mirror for the music. Am I free? Maybe. It’s kind of a life process, and a study for me, to try new things, and new cities and places. It's kind of a challenge and an adventure too. It’s like a football game. Every game starts from zero-zero, yeah. Because I cannot play football, that’s why I’m using my music as a football.

You’re a big fan of Liverpool FC.

Football I really like, It’s like a drug. Everyone is so crazy – especially the Liverpool fans, the scousers! I never supported them before – I’m still fan of Dortmund – but [ex Borussia Dortmund manager] Jürgen Klopp is at Liverpool now, that’s why I’m supporting. It’s the kind of football I like – heavy metal football, he says himself. Aggressive!

Is football like music?

You cannot compare it. With the music there is no winner and no loser. But it is a sport – a mind-sport, with the result of making everybody happy.

Wouldn’t a Can reunion have made people happy?

In the beginning of this century, 2002-3, Michael was already died, there was an Australian rich man asked me, do you have interest to play with Can with original members? He said he liked to arrange tour of America, everywhere, he wanted to pay everyone enough money to live the rest of their life! I said no. The guy from Australia was quite upset, for him it was quite meaningful. I played with Jaki and Michael again, but I accepted them as good musicians, not as Can.

What’s wrong with reunions?

The audience – all the times older people! This kind of nostalgia and sentimentality, getting old times again, is totally against creativity for me. Terrible sad! So many big-name bands, the audience come like a tourist, like taking photos in front of Tower Bridge. I like to have the audience asking, What is Damo Suzuki doing, with our local musicians? They are coming for special event, not Halleluwah or Future Days.

Do you fear your illness could get in the way?

I must take medicines and it’s up to me if I make another surgery. I can live like this, because there is many things I like to do, to stay creative. And I have 25 concerts this year, and there could be a lot more. I get on the stage and I feel really free, this is the best moment to see audience smiling. All space is getting together and we are in a kind of trance moment.

Your business card says ‘Metaphysical Transporter’.

It’s my job, ha ha! A metaphysical transporter, what I am doing, without anything, I can transplant my idea and my philosophy to another people. At the same time, we are creative together.

You are also working on a book.

If somebody comes with a project, I say, OK, let’s make it. Paul had the idea for a book, three or four years before. I feel a little bit arrogant if I made a book by myself. But if somebody asks me to do it his way… OK, why not? It’s a biography but I think it will be a different biography than anyone else’s. It’s not only my perspective on my life. Like the film Rashomon – different people have different truths, and also lies.

Your life will get a film version too.

It’s a documentation film. Michelle showed up two, three years ago, maybe it was first time I was in the hospital. She wanted to make something about energy. It’s a story about before and after my surgery. I have another film project, with Cameron Lee, a young film student. They’ve reserved locations in Jura in Scotland. I’ve never been an actor before! It’s called The Future Stone. Maybe one day I’m going to make a film by myself, as a director. It’s my dream but I don’t want to speak about it – three years later, people asking, what is Damo doing? He doesn’t make anything!

Are you a custodian of the Can spirit?

Irmin and Hildegard are thinking I am. I don’t play the music of Can but what I am doing, they wanted to make music this way. It’s strange. After fifty years almost, young people are still buying the Can LPs. Every ten years another generation – hip hop people, new wave people – is listening to this music and getting into it. It’s really funny!

How do you regard the last 50-odd years?

It just happened. Maybe some people will be surprised, but I don’t think so much about this. After the illness I had for three long years, you’re simply happy to be here breathing air. I feel I’m very thankful to all people in front of me from the stage. You think, can I get a better thing than this? Life is so, just good. You can go like a locomotive train and go straight, keep on going and reach the next station, and then to another station… this is never-ending. This is all peoples’ dreams, to be never-ending.

Portrait: Vincenzo Buscemi/Getty

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