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CanPhotography Paul Baille-Lane

Mark E Smith speaks to Can’s Irmin Schmidt in one of his final interviews

In one of his final interviews, the late Fall frontman talks to Irmin Schmidt about the greatest gig that never was

In All Gates Open, Rob Young recounts the story of how Can met their future frontman, Damo Suzuki. The band was in Munich to kick off a four-night residency, and bassist Holger Czukay noticed a man making “an incantation to the sun” while sitting with bandmate Jaki Liebezeit in a cafe. He asked him if he’d like to be the singer in a band for a sold-out show, and the man agreed, giving an impromptu performance in which he “started very, very calm but then developed into a samurai fighter”. He cleared the room. 

It’s a moment that the late Mark E Smith, no stranger to clearing rooms in his 42-year tenure as frontman with The Fall, immortalised on the song “I Am Damo Suzuki” in 1985 (mistakenly identifying the city as Cologne). Smith had been a fan of the group – part of a wave of wildly experimental ‘Krautrock’ groups coming out of Germany in the late 1960s – since buying a mail-order copy of their second album, Tago Mago, as a teenager. He even called up their founding member and keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt, in the late 70s to ask them to play with The Fall – but Can were no longer performing live and, with that, a brief window into a parallel musical universe slammed shut.

“We said it was too late, we had decided not to play together any more,” Schmidt remembers now. “But he really insisted, he phoned several times and he said, ‘Well, c’mon, we should do this together!’ I think he thought I was making excuses, you know. This was around the same time John Lydon wanted to be our singer. He called us up and I had to tell him the same thing!”

It’s a missed connection Schmidt returns to in All Gates Open, a comprehensive chronicle of perhaps the greatest psychedelic rock group that ever was. Opening with a ‘straight’ biography of Can from Young, the book’s second half assembles a collage of interviews, dreams and musings from Schmidt, including the following encounter with Smith, recorded in 2016.

“Mark was very surprised (to hear from me), but it was a nice talk,” says Schmidt. “He was extremely warm-hearted, he was all the time touching me and he was very happy after all this time to finally be meeting me. I had heard so much about him being rough but he wasn’t – it was a very funny conversation. What I took (from the interview) is that I met a very lovable person.”

Mark E Smith and Irmin Schmidt meet in a crowded craft-beer brewery near Highbury and Islington, London

Mark E Smith: How are you, Irmin?

Irmin Schmidt: Fine. Still. 

Mark E Smith: That’s like a shock. I am finally meeting you. I was told that you wanted to meet me. I thought it was a joke.

Irmin Schmidt: Do you remember that you once called me? That was in the 70s.

Mark E Smith: What are you suggesting here?! I don’t think so.

Irmin Schmidt: Maybe you’ll remember when I mention what you proposed: you said that we should do a gig together. That must have been in 1977. Long ago... 

Mark E Smith: Fuck me! That’s fucking right!

Irmin Schmidt: But it didn’t happen.

Mark E Smith: I was an insane fan of yours back then. I had just begun and formed a band. I had formed The Fall in 1976. Ah! Here comes the beer!

Irmin Schmidt: I like the temperature of the beer in England. In Germany they usually serve it way too cold.

Mark E Smith: These microbreweries brewing craft beer in the backyards are the biggest-growing business in the country. Four years ago there were only 60, and now there are over two thousand. They’re popping up like mushrooms. The people who are running these are fucking shit, certainly. In Manchester and Liverpool they wouldn’t let people like me in.

Irmin Schmidt: I’m more into wine. But I read in your book that wine isn’t your thing, is it?

Mark E Smith: I also drink wine – if it has to be. But why are we meeting anyways? What is this interview good for? 

Irmin Schmidt: We are doing a book.

Irmin Schmidt: Did you ever see Can perform?

Mark E Smith: No, never.

Irmin Schmidt: Do you remember when you first heard of Can?

Mark E Smith: I recently saw a vinyl rerelease of Monster Movie in a record shop in Manchester. It’s hip to buy Can records nowadays.

Irmin Schmidt: That was our first album. It was released in 1969. You must have been twelve years old back then. You were born in 1957, weren’t you?

Mark E Smith: Yep. Do you still play live?

Irmin Schmidt: Sure I do! I recently did a collaborative concert with Thurston Moore. In 2017 I will turn eighty years old.

Mark E Smith: So what? That’s no age.

Irmin Schmidt: Exactly!

Mark E Smith: It is an honour to finally know another Smith. A Schmidt-Smith from Germany.

Irmin Schmidt: Welcome to the club.

“Can saved my life. Irmin, you fucking saved my life! And because you saved my life I even bought Soon Over Babaluma” Mark E Smith

Mark E Smith: You know what Can’s problem is? Many people just pretend that they like Can. But they don’t. For them it’s just a hipness thing to buy your records. You could have called your band ‘Coffee Table’. Then your records would be considered ‘coffee-table records’. For most of the Britons, Can were consisting of Damo Suzuki and the bass player, Holger Czukay. But I know that Can were Irmin and Jaki. People in Britain and America pretend to know the Can. But what they don’t understand is Irmin. And the problem with the Germans is that they are like fucking English people. They pretend to know you, but they don’t have a clue. The Germans never do appreciate what’s on their own doorstep.

Irmin Schmidt: That’s why I’m living in France.

Mark E Smith: I bet you did this one right.

Irmin Schmidt: Still, I’d be interested in your first encounter with ‘the’ Can...

Mark E Smith: I heard it then.

Irmin Schmidt: You heard it on the radio?

Mark E Smith: No, I ordered it by post. It was called mail order. The first record I bought was Tago Mago. When I was 15, I was a hardcore Velvet Underground fan. And other friends of mine who were also listening to The Velvet Underground told me that I should listen to Can. So I filled out a postcard, and two weeks later I got back a Can record – from London.

Irmin Schmidt: And did Tago Mago live up to your expectations?

Mark E Smith: Fucking yes. It formed my skills listening to it. I went to grammar school at that time and everybody was listening to Pink fucking Floyd and The Beatles. They were shit. But Can were great. As was Gary Glitter. And The Velvet Underground. Manchester people always liked Can. That’s why we are called ‘The Can People’ since 1973. To earn some money I was working on the docks. All music during that period was fucking shite – David Bowie, Genesis, Pink Floyd and James Taylor. Crap. Can saved my life. Irmin, you fucking saved my life! And because you saved my life I even bought Soon Over Babaluma.

Irmin Schmidt: I actually still quite like Soon Over Babaluma. At least to me, that was the last of the good Can records. After that we somehow lost the focus, I’d say. But that happens to a lot of bands.

Mark E Smith: We could have had this conversation in 1977. 

Irmin Schmidt: I listened to The Fall’s records during the 80s. But I never saw you live.

Mark E Smith: You are joking. This is a cruel joke.

Irmin Schmidt: But it was me who wanted to meet you. Don’t you remember?

Mark E Smith: I should play the south of France more often then.

Irmin Schmidt: And we played Manchester quite a few times.

Mark E Smith: Ja, ja, ja. That was in the early and mid-70s. You had to be a student to get in. You had to be academic. But I was working at the docks.

Irmin Schmidt: We’d never have allowed only students at our gigs.

Mark E Smith: Didn’t you get it? That was a joke, Irmin.

Irmin Schmidt: We played for everybody.

Mark E Smith: Fuck the 70s. I don’t want to go back in time. Never ever, ever. But I would like to have a jukebox in this micro-draught-beer brewery to spin a Can record. In Manchester there is a bar with a jukebox that has tracks by Can in it. I always go there. I always spin ‘Yoo Doo Right’. Once I even played it twice.

Mark E Smith: About what?

Irmin Schmidt: It’s about Can. Actually, it’s less about Can and more a book about music and being an artist.

Mark E Smith: So it’s a book floating between Can and music. I like it when it’s floating and when everything suddenly changes.

Irmin Schmidt: You know, I recently read your book again, Renegade.

Mark E Smith: Oh, that was written a long time ago.

Irmin Schmidt: I loved the story about how you kicked out your band in America.

Mark E Smith: I have a new band now. Not like you.

Irmin Schmidt: I would probably come to see a show if you were playing Marseille.

Mark E Smith: I won’t go there. The French hate The Fall.

Irmin Schmidt: I don’t think so. The French actually love music like The Fall are doing.

Mark E Smith: But we played Marseille. And they fucking hated us.

Irmin Schmidt: Can were never well received in Marseille either. 

Mark E Smith: We played there three years ago and it was a disaster.

Irmin Schmidt: We played there twice in the early seventies and stopped playing there thereafter for the same reasons. But in other French cities we’d always have a great time. In Bordeaux they even opened a club and called it Tago Mago.

Mark E Smith: It’s funny because we have a promoter in Paris. But he books us in cities like Nantes. I had to look at the map to find out where this city was supposed to be. You know, I’m English. It’s in the blood. I have a hate relationship with the French. I’m not a Londoner. I’m a real Englishman. I am allergic to France. Of course, I try to be nice. But they don’t like me and I don’t like them. And let me add that I get along very well with anyone else. The Japanese, the fucking Londoners, even you Germans.

Irmin Schmidt: Do you regularly play in Germany?

Mark E Smith: We often play Berlin. Almost every year we play there. And we’ve been very warmly received in Israel the other day. Before going there I received letters from London not to play there.

Irmin Schmidt: Why?

Mark E Smith: Because of the Palestinians.

Irmin Schmidt: It’s stupid, because as a musician you play for people – and not to political parties. I would try to play in Palestine and in Israel on the same tour.

Mark E Smith: I even got blacklisted by the Londoners because I played in Israel. You know what? We should play together in Israel. I might need a new keyboard player by then.

Irmin Schmidt: But I don’t play rock music any more.

All Gates Open: The Story of Can is out now from Faber. Click here for further details