Damo Suzuki :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The mythic Damo Suzuki is out on the road, traveling the highways of the United States, to team with up with “sound carriers,” local musicians assembled from each town he visits. Freelance scribe and One Eleven Heavy bassist Daniel A. Brown—known for his work with Royal Trux, ‘68 Comeback, the Screws, and South Filthy—recently caught up with Suzuki via Skype to discuss his artistic approach and history. Don’t miss Suzuki’s upcoming shows in Miami, New Orleans, or Austin, and don’t sleep on One Eleven Heavy’s Desire Path, available on Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records.

Like much consciousness-changing music of my teens, I heard of Can years before I ever actually heard the music. “Can” was a byword spoke by musicians I admired, and they were cited in pivotal publications like the Rolling Stone Record Guide (the blue version, which also turned me on to Sandy Bull and Fairport Convention) and the fanzine Forced Exposure, but while there were a couple of decent record stores in 1980s Jacksonville, Florida, Can records proved hard to obtain. Like similar touchstones the 13th Floor Elevators and Skip Spence, I was met by frustrating roadblocks in my grail quest to ever actually hear and engage with the sounds I heard discussed so often. I later learned that this kind of frantic pursuit of these elusive albums was about as unique as chickenpox or a black eye.

But when the student is ready, the teacher appears. In 1989, when I was 17, I finally tracked down a copy of Can’s 1971 double album, Tago Mago, handed off to me via the secret handshake of music freaks: copied onto a C90 cassette. The album had been dubbed from the then-new CD reissue on Spoon records, straight to a swanky Maxell XLII. No record guide or indie-rocker name drop had prepared me for where I was being led. Can’s ever-shifting flow of angular grooves, spontaneous freak-outs, waves of electronic sonics, impossible beats, and a singer who barked, purred, and chanted vocals that were just on this side of my comprehension, kicked open doors I didn’t know existed. Years later, when I first heard Miles’ On the Corner, my first reaction was: “Miles Davis ripped off Can!” 

I was a musician decades before I ever somehow wound up writing about music. And my earliest tastes in music guided me in plucking out riffs on a cheap bass guitar. Even though my older brother had turned me on to everything from Iron Maiden to the Germs, the first bands I considered “mine” trafficked in ballroom psychedelia mysticism—the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service—artists that readied me for Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, and Butthole Surfers. Since I was teaching myself how to play music with all of those albums as guides, naturally those collective sources somehow influenced and filtered through what I played. 

But when I first heard Can, it sounded like some coded, cosmic relay had overtaken my stereo. I eventually figured out what Can were playing; it took me years to figure out why they made music that way.  Those early Can records forever change you, and what’s most baffling is how those very same records can change with you. My relationship with Can has outlasted most of my person-to-person relationships. That music has remained a good friend.

Whenever I worriedly tell someone I’m about to interview a certain musical hero of mine, they invariably will say, “Well…they’re just people.” Along with stating the obvious, that kind of yawning, unoriginal observation misses the magic. Interviewing Damo Suzuki was anxiety-inducing for valid reason. He is a “just a person” who is also a personal hero. My inner 17-year-old was sweating bullets. That same kid would be astounded that the same voice intoning the atomic bomb/psilocybin duality of “Mushroom,” would one day address him with an accompanying smile via a Skype screen.

Aquarium Drunkard: This is your first American tour in 12 years. Why has it taken this long to get back to the States?

Damo Suzuki: [Laughs] I didn’t think it took so long. You have Europe, so there are many countries to play.

AD:Five years ago you were diagnosed with colon cancer. How’s your health these days?

Damo Suzuki: It’s okay, but it’s not really like before. For example, if I travel these days I always have to bring a person to support me. I do not have the stomach muscles; I can’t carry things. I also must take very “stoned” medications. I take this one and for seven to eight hours, you are totally stoned. [Laughs].

AD: Is it a bad stoned or a good stoned? 

Damo Suzuki: Yeah, it’s not so great. It’s a kind of medication I must take, so…

AD: Well, you look good. You exude cosmic vibrations. You look youthful and great.

Damo Suzuki: Well, yeah but you can’t smell it, but if you could smell, it’d be totally different! [Laughs]. With this Skype…if it was face to face it’d be different.

AD:  I’m sure I’ve smelled worse. You’re known for being this kind of peripatetic, wandering seeker; did the cancer make you kind of slow down your gigging and traveling? Did it force you to kind of take a step back?

Damo Suzuki: No, I just like to go forward. Just naturally as a person. So that’s why I continue my music as well, you get healthy as well because you create some kind of energy, and you get energy from other people, so it’s actually a good thing.

AD:  I see you as this kind of mystical seeker. Not to put you on some pedestal, but it all seems like it’s more than just the music. Has your career been, for lack of a better term, a spiritual quest you’ve been on?

Damo Suzuki: Yeah, it depends on your perspective. Fifty years ago [in Can] I made music with just German people and it was always the same people. If you play with the same people you understand the chemistry, so you know what they’re going to do next and, you know. But now what I’m doing when I get together with a person—musicians—I learned from what I did before. This is a leaderless communication…because the music is communication. If you’re alone you cannot make music. You feel like you’re giving information to some other people and you’re making music. So also you get the feedback. And this relationship with other people from the very beginning; first I meet them together and then we go on the stage. It’s more pure music: communication.

AD: Your band, Damo Suzuki’s Network, is comprised of various local musicians called the “sound carriers.” You don’t have a “band” as the Network? It’s all players you don’t know. You just meet them at the gig?

Damo Suzuki: Yes. The main thing is that I don’t like to travel with any responsibilities. So if you always play with a schedule of the same people, you kind of have responsibilities. If you play with different people you don’t have to take on any responsibilities. Which is a really good thing for me because I don’t have so much stress. But if you’re always scheduled with the same people you get stress because you know these people quite well and many problems come. Also, it’s quite dangerous, too, because if you’re always with four or five people in the same band you always, when playing, go in the same direction. That means for creativity, there’s not so much directions. 

AD: Before you play with the musicians, these sound carriers, before you hit the stage do you give them any kid of direction or idea? “I want to do this tonight. I want this kind of feel?” Or do you just walk onstage and start playing?

Damo Suzuki: No. Because this is already information—playing any kind of music will result in information. Everybody has such elements and space to go: 360-degree angles, anywhere you can go. I just talk to the people maybe 15 minutes before we go on the stage. However we start is important. How we stop is not that important. The end comes, somehow, naturally. But how we start is actually quite important. That’s why nobody has music charts and nobody gets nervous. Because to make improvisations is not everybody’s cup of tea, not everyone is keen on it. I have to make them comfortable. That’s why for 15 minutes before we go on, just to talk about a good oyster in the world, or something like this. And we talk about how we start. Each time is so different but maybe now I feel like not everybody…because I also feel like audience gets into it, very slowly, and not “rush.” Because it’s not natural. I like to get together with nature and also the show itself, must begin with a natural beginning.

So like last time, I said to them, “Think of minutes in your head. And pick a number between one through nine, and which minute you like, you keep in your head.” And someone says, “I have a two!” and I say, “Good, then you go on the stage and go first!” [Laughs]. But for me, it doesn’t matter which kind of music or instrument they are playing. Because it’s all instant music. Anything just happens. So if there’s a note that’s an “accident,” those are the most beautiful things, you try to match the accident, you try to do something new; you try to get into the time. And you are much more freer, and you are much more concentrated, and at this moment everyone’s going to begin onstage to try and communicate, then after, we come together with the mistake we made. So in Miami it will be different; well, it must be different. Because I played in England, and now in the USA, I must make some different thing. I don’t like to think about so much things, by myself, because today it’s all-better to do it like this. So I don’t “try to create.” Because it’s not my lifestyle.  

AD: I think one of the beautiful things with total improvisation is that it can fall apart. You know what I mean? There’s kind of a weird grace in that when it all falls apart. There’s another kind of surrender.

Damo Suzuki: Yeah. 

AD: When you play with these musicians and want the energy, but not the actual music to shift, is there any kind of cue at all; even just at the level of body language or facial expressions? 

Damo Suzuki: No, no. Because I’m not the leader. It’s the name of the Network, but I don’t like to take leadership in any way. Because if you’re a leader you have some other kind of relationship…I don’t want take any responsibilities for other than just myself. Everybody has their own capacity for creativity and everybody is making something on the stage. Making music is not important. For me, it’s about making energy on the stage. Because energy is the beginning of all sources. That’s why I like to leave the roots of music-making itself.  Because it’s just energy and communication. So that’s why I don’t like to go to the recording studio and compose something because I really don’t like these kinds of limitations. It’s not my world. I don’t say it’s good or bad or better; it’s just not my world to categorize music…I don’t like to have these types of things in my life because for me it’s not free and it’s not working with nature.

AD: Can definitely improvised, definitely in concert, but when did you decide in your life that you wanted to concentrate fully on playing this “in the moment” music? Was there a kind of epiphany where you said, “I don’t want anything to do with music business. I just want to meet people and play”?

Damo Suzuki: I don’t think I’m making anything “special” any more. Actually, this kind of making music is older than anything now. I’m kind of making traditional music. All improvisation, from any age, was somebody composing. Also, in the beginning was improvisation and the roots of music was just this kind of making music. If you don’t know the people you play with, it’s much more interesting because music is communication so that communication was from the beginning, to the present, and to tomorrow. A conversation exists so performing music is a kind of “signal,” too. But having something composed, or a system, is already categorized and at the moment.

When I’m with the Sound Carriers onstage, I really don’t like to have any kind of categorization. Because categorization makes people separated, in a way. You can be categorized when you’re playing Krautrock, or punk rock you know, it’s almost like you are a product. [Laughs] And that’s not in my world. I don’t belong to any world. I’m good. I don’t work with any recording company, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a road manager…in the States it’s different. It’s a different system. I must have a booking agent and they must get me a working visa. For anybody, it’s quite difficult to make a U.S. tour. Unless you go there regularly, and tour with a touring band. But I cannot make this, you know? 

AD: Our reputation precedes us, even in the music realm.

Damo Suzuki: Yeah [Laughs].

AD: I’m sure you still get people in the audience yelling out “Play ‘Spoon’! Play ‘Mother Sky’!” Does that ever aggravate you?

Damo Suzuki: [Laughs]. Yeah, but it’s not like this. When I play in England, the audience there is different. They like to hear this kind of music, and one piece of music could be 60-minutes long. Because people like this because it’s something different; English people especially because it’s always an interesting thing. It’s been 20 years of doing this, and there were some Can fans saying, “Can you play this or this?” But I can say probably 90 percent aren’t asking me to play this older music. But people know me and I don’t like reputations. It’s kind of a reputation because at that point you’re only copying yourself. You’re abandoning yourself. I cannot, because time for me has been important. Time is ticking every second so why would I make the same thing as before? Because I am “leaving.” That’s why it’s always better to get some new things, new atmosphere, new energies, and new landscapes. Anything. Not to repeat old things, like I have history or something. To say, “I don’t see ‘now.’” It’s not interesting. Instead, I go further and I can see everything with my eyes. I can see new people and many different things. What’s now is much better than old things. Why be a tribute band or a cover band? People are too sentimental. They’re so sentimental. Being sentimental is not a positive thing. It’s quite sad. You’re in the past. Because you can’t make a dream or vision over Future Days. [Laughs]. But it’s not my problem.

AD: You’ve been improvising for decades. When the variables in performance are at play—the music, your mindset, the crowd, etc.—have you noticed a specific shift in consciousness that occurs when you’re in the middle of improvising?  

Damo Suzuki: Actually, I don’t think so. Especially like this, because I’m just making sense of my daily life. My daily life I can do something like this and I’m not forced to do something else. So actually, I’m just “doing myself,” so… no. I’m not so much interested in studying or training for anything. So I just do myself. That’s why I don’t have any problem.

AD: I guess it goes back to that energy. So you had a memoir [I Am Damo Suzuki] that came out two years ago and now filmmaker Michelle Heighway has a documentary [Energy: A Documentary About Damo Suzuki] coming out. With both the book and the film focusing not only your creative but also personal life, was it ever uncomfortable or strange to have so much attention focused on you?

Damo Suzuki: No, because it was not my project. It was the project of  [memoir co-author] Paul Woods. He contacted me and it’s his project because he is a writer, a ghostwriter and did interesting ghostwriting, too. And if someone has a project and asks me, “Can you do it?” and “Are you interested to do it?”…I just agreed. Also, with Michelle Heighway, I made this film. Because it was a “heart” project. But I don’t really care about this. I really appreciate those two things. But it’s not really my project. It’s their ideas: it’s not my ideas. For me to write my own autobiography, I think it’s quite arrogant. And if someone else is writing about me, it’s okay. But for me, it’s so strange. Because such a book is written for someone that’s been dead for 50 or 200 years. [Laughs] Because it’s not the end. I’m still alive. 

AD: You don’t want to be put in the grave by some writer. I know you said you’re disconnected from the music industry by your own choice, but do you have any plans of releasing a new album in the near future? 

Damo Suzuki: I don’t know the meaning of the word “solo” album, actually. A solo album for me would be just me singing for myself.

AD: Yeah. A cappella. “Damo Sings Sinatra.”

Damo Suzuki: Yeah, maybe Stevie Wonder did this before, I think. I dunno. I’m not about…“Product,” you know? The music is not the product. Process is music for me. If we are painting, or making movies, that is always product. Singing and playing music, you don’t have to show them anything. Just process; that is why I only like to make process. Not product. Because product for me is visualist. You can already see it because it’s visual. Music production is not visual. This is much better for me. In the visual you something formed and flying. Deformed…deformed flying is the music process. That’s why you can go anywhere else and anywhere you like. And the most important thing for me is that music is a total different thing than any other art. Actually, you can make this interesting, all over your life. And there is no limit. The music is real freedom and you go into other dimensions. You are not just in one dimension. You can go to another world. 

You can help support independent media. Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine. Patronage includes bonus audio, podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records.