IT WAS a time when the world was opening up. Our World, the first satellite television production, broadcast The Beatles performing ‘All You Need Is Love’ to 400 million people across the globe in 1967.
Paris, Prague, Derry, West Berlin, and Mexico City were erupting, nearly simultaneously, in 1968 with young people demanding civil rights; and the space race between the US and the USSR was about to culminate in the 1969 Apollo moon landings.
The late 1960s was a time of great possibility and new horizons, a time when many young people set out to explore continental Europe, India, or the USA. One such young man was Damo Suzuki, who left his native Japan at around 18 years of age to explore the world.
“If you are living in an island, you are interested about what is over the sea,” Damo tells me during our interview, before adding mischievously, “especially if you’re good in geography.”
He did not know it at the time, but this journey would see Damo becoming the lead vocalist with the legendary German band Can, and subsequently an inspirational solo artist to avant garde musicians the world over.
Since 2003 Damo has been on his ‘Never Ending Tour’ and his next stop takes him to Galway where he will play the Róisín Dubh on Monday August 9 at 9pm.
The young Damo’s journeys took him all over Europe and as far west as Ireland. “I was in County Wexford, New Ross, with Mary and Tom Murphy,” he says. “I still have contact with them. My memory of Ireland from that time is of kindly, friendly, people, folk dance and music, fields, cows, bees, flowers, Guinness, Murphys, etc...”
Eventually his wanderings led him to West Germany and the city of Munich. While busking on the street there, two men sitting in a café across the way noticed him. They were in a band and their singer had just quit. They needed someone to take over on vocals as they had a gig that night and they thought Damo might just do the job.
“Oh, they found me on the street doing something, then they just asked me if I can sing that day,” recalls Damo. “They didn’t have singer, So promptly I said OK...I come.”
The two men were Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, bassist and drummer respectively of Can, one of the most daring and extraordinary of the so-called Krautrock bands which sprang up throughout West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.
Despite the exalted status Can are held in, particularly in Britain, Ireland, and Argentina (where their 1973 album Future Days went to No 1 ) German audiences were not quite as enamoured by Can’s lengthy jams and experimental excursions. How did they react to that show where Damo made his debut?
“Upset, boring, arrogant,” recalls Damo. “They were not on the same level, as they like Anglo-Saxon pop culture. A few freaks found us good as they were open for any direction at that time.”
Inspired by modern classical composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and rock bands like The Velvet Underground, Krautrock bands like Can, Kraftwerk, NEU!, Faust, Amon Düül II, and Cluster forged a daring fusion of hard rock, prog, classical, electronica, and avant garde.
It was a deliberate (and successful ) attempt an create an original and defiantly German rock sound which owed nothing to US and British pop and rock. It would later pave the way for ambient, techno, and several different kinds of indie/alternative.
So what attracted Damo to working with these German musicians and what forces were driving them to be so daring and original?
“Germany and Japan were quite the same as we both lost WWII,” Damo says. “There were many people who went in for the mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture. British and American music has been always popular and it’s kind of thing like social stature. The result of the war is a cultural takeover by the winners. However there were also many who did not want to drink the winners’ wine here in Germany.”
Damo would go on to record three albums with Can - Tago Mago (1971 ), Ege Bamyasi (1972 ), and Future Days (1973 ) - three of the most revered albums in the Krautrock canon.
However Damo does not have any particular favourite among them and he “doesn’t talk too much about the period” as he has always been about looking forward, exploring, and making new discoveries in life and music. He showed this in 1973 when he left Can and took time out from music, getting married and becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I was 23 when I left the band,” he says. “There are many things in this world you find interest in while you’re young.”
In 1983 Damo was diagnosed with cancer. Did this frightening experience, along with his recovery from the disease, convinced him to return to music?
“Yes,” he replies, “that feeling to have survived. People who had similar situations like I had, living in coma and survived, you can see real sunshine, and rebirth. That was a really wonderful moment, also I had by that time two kids.”
Since then Damo has released numerous solo recordings, worked in collaboration with other artists, and become an icon to at least two generations of underground and alternative artists. In 1985 The Fall saluted the singer with their song ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’, based on Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’.
“I know Mark E,” says Damo. “He is Damo Suzuki as he is still singing this. I thought there is an another Damo Suzuki in this world...”
Damo Suzuki’s Network
However it is the live performance that Damo truly relishes. It is here he can meet, work, perform with, as well as inspire and challenge young musicians, by encouraging them to imporvise and compose music spontaniously. So what can we expect to see and hear during Damo’s Galway gig?
“Don’t expect,” he declares. “We don’t know what will happen. I will know the sound carriers [Damo’s term for musicians] on the performing day for the sound check. It will be organic communication, super natural, metaphysic. Anyway, if you knew result already nobody would go to football.”
This idea of engaging with local musicians in whatever town or city he finds himself in is what Damo calls Damo Suzuki’s Network. The goal is for musicians to communicate with each other and with the audience in a spontaneous, experimental, way to create new music and musical forms. Damo selects musicians who have the ability to improvise, the potential to communicate freely, and who can respond honestly to each other on-stage.
“You travel alone and meet all those sound carriers for first time and create time of the moment at the spot, finding friends everywhere,” says Damo. “For me, travel is kind of music itself and I learn many things. I perform quite a lot in UK and Ireland. Musicians here are talented and able to ‘Instant Compose’ within Network. These sort of musicians understand what is all about.”
Despite the Never Ending Tour, Germany remains Damo’s base, as it has done for the past 40 years, and as a self confessed “huge football fan”, Damo takes a keen interest in the Bundesliega and he enjoyed watching the German team’s progress in the recent World Cup.
“Power football...attractive, dynamic,” he declares. “Jogi Löw is a great trainer. They found talented young players and you will see in few more years a golden age of German football.”
As an immigrant Damo was also pleased to see that many in the German team came from Polish, Turkish, Brazilian, and Spanish backgrounds.
“It’s a good thing,” he says. “It makes much character in team. And for immigration it’s good. Nationality is not geographical thing...it’s in heart.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.