*This feature originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Uncut.
Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki is a performer so dedicated to the art of improvisation, you could even say he’s improvised his own life. Leaving Japan at the age of 18 to pursue the hippie dream in Europe, he landed – via Sweden and rural Ireland – in Germany, where he was spotted busking in his own inimitable style on the streets of Munich by Holger Czukay, who instantly recruited him to replace vocalist Malcolm Mooney in Can.
Suzuki’s stint with the krautrock legends ushered in their imperial phase, yielding experimental rock touchtones Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, but he left Can after just three years citing spiritual differences – he soon became a Jehovah’s Witness, quitting music and taking a job laying pavements. Yet his free-spirited nature couldn’t be suppressed forever. In the 1980s, he joined Dunkelziffer before forming The Damo Suzuki Band with ex-Can colleague Jaki Liebezeit. Eventually he rejected the idea of performing with a regular band altogether, embarking on a ‘never-ending tour’ in which he turns up alone at each venue, improvising a set of new material on the spot with a group of ‘Sound Carriers’ that he has sometimes only just met.
For a while it looked as if Suzuki’s never-ending tour might be permanently derailed by a life-threatening bout of colon cancer, but he has recovered to the point where he’s regularly back out on the road, even if his “quite strong” medication has limited his ability to wander at will. Instead, Suzuki estimates he has about 10,000 books, “500 of which are about cooking”. Not that he consults them for recipes. In fact, Suzuki’s approach to preparing a meal is not dissimilar to his approach to making music. “I don’t have a plan,” he explains. “My girlfriend buys something, mainly organic food, and I just improvise. My life is like this! I don’t take any kind of information, only football. If I have so much information in my head then creativity is not flexible. If you don’t have any plan you can get more from time.”
What was it like to leave home on a one-way ticket to Europe at such a young age? Lucy Harminster, Sheffield
For me it was quite necessary and important to have a kind of adventure. Things were not so much possible in Japan, so if I stay in Japan I must go the same way as other people – go to university and get employed in a good company or something. Not very interesting. So that’s why I went out. The situation was quite different because at that time if people went outside the country maybe they don’t come back again. Now you’ve got airports everywhere and cheap flights. Why I bought a one-way ticket is because I didn’t have much money to buy both ways. But I cannot really remember the feeling, it’s more than 50 years ago!
I’m fascinated by your strategy of ad-hoc backing bands. What do you do if they turn out to be rubbish? Mark Thompson, Deal
Rubbish or not rubbish depends on the perspective. And I like every kind of sensation, so maybe there are no rubbish things if you make music in this way. Things that happen by accident can be a very special moment. That’s why I say nothing is rubbish, just the opposite: everything is beautiful. And if somebody experiences a rubbish concert, I think it’s quite interesting too – to know what is their meaning of rubbish! Because I don’t know the meaning of it. But when [the musicians] start playing a Can song, that’s not so good. I really don’t like if somebody is forcing me to do something. It destroys my curiosity. It’s horrible! It’s better people playing with me don’t have any information in their head and don’t think I was once a singer of Can, because the answer is already there. I don’t like to have any kind of answer.
What do you miss most about playing with Jaki Liebezeit? Karim Mouvedi, via email
He’s a special drummer and he had his own style. When he played together with Damo Suzuki Band, for me, that was his best time. He played really much more wild. Also this band was only four people, there was no bass; it was his dream to play without a bassist. Jaki was quite a hard person, so everybody had sometimes a problem with him. But mainly he was right!
Do you still have the half-pink/half-red velvet jumpsuit your wore at Can’s 1972 ‘Free Concert’? Alistair Morton, Whitchurch, Shropshire
No! Many people are asking me to buy it but I don’t have any fancy dress from that time any more. I don’t know what happened to it. Some rock music museum in Germany, they were asking for this one too. But I’m quite easy to say goodbye to any kind of thing, so I don’t have any stuff from old times. I designed it myself but I had a special tailor to make it. She usually designed only for ladies. I brought her my ideas and some textiles and she made it. It wasn’t so comfortable to wear! It was quite tight and I didn’t really think of how to go to the toilet. I had quite a few such things: trousers with many butterflies, long scarves, orange-coloured dresses, silver trousers, many things. But the material was quite expensive, so it wasn’t so great when I was smoking a cigarette and the ashes dropped down. It was quite an expensive hobby.
What did you think of The Fall’s song about you? And what did you talk about with Mark E Smith when you met? Lee Phelps, Wigan
It was a strange moment! I didn’t know the band and suddenly they made this piece. Actually first I thought maybe there is another Damo Suzuki. But it was also funny to me. I think it’s good.
Some people said I must make a song about Mark E Smith, but I didn’t, so… I understand him changing quite often the band. If you are travelling with people together for a long time, opinions can be totally different: where to go, where to eat. So changing a member is not such a bad thing. You need a fresh moment sometimes, it keeps creativity more fresh.
You ran a Kinks fan club at school. What did you prefer about them over The Beatles and The Stones? Andy Clough, Kingston-Upon-Thames
The Kinks were my favourite at that time because The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were already mainstream and everybody listened to them. But The Kinks were special for me because they made interesting things with simple chords, and their melodies fitted together with me – sometimes very sentimental. I think The Kinks are true British rock. The Rolling Stones played almost only American ideas; Beatles is a kind of schlager music, from the Germans. The Beatles are like Abba, they are everybody’s darlings. So The Kinks is the only band from that time I could follow.
I read that the making of Ege Bamyasi was delayed by the fact that you and Irmin Schmidt were obsessed with playing chess. Who won the most games? Vincent Jaunes, Montpelier, France
I feel like I won. But he’ll say a different answer, I’m sure! We both got quite into chess. At that time we liked to play chess more than music, so we were in trouble with Holger. Strategy? No. I improvise always. Every good chess player already has ideas for maybe 15 moves but I think that’s quite boring. If you are too good, it’s not so interesting for me. It’s like a too-good guitarist, playing so quick – there is no space I can get into.
Is it true you once painted your bedroom completely black? Dave Franklyn, via email
Yes! Black was good because I wanted to have it without any information. If you have some colours, it’s already information or direction for you. If you are in a dark place, you don’t know if it’s a really small space or really huge. I like to have this moment when you are hanging on the air, or something like that. Every time I went into that room I felt different. That was a thing I needed at that time.
Do you ever have the urge to write and record a more traditional pop song? Alex Hinton, Newmarket
Not really, I never thought about this. Melodies come sometimes and I think, it could be a good pop song. But I never think why I should make this kind of stuff. I’m not rich, but I have enough things. Plus I’m already quite old, next year I’m 70. So why would I make a pop song? Pop music is like a hamburger – easy to eat but without any substance. It’s not too good for spiritual things if you eat this kind of food all the time, you get really like a lobotomy.
When was the last time you cried with joy on stage? Alisha Jones, via email
This happens sometimes because I’m really sensitive about having these special moments and I can share this with other people. If you share your music with other people you have much more feeling. It’s difficult to remember exactly the last time – maybe I’m too much on the medication! Once after a concert a girl came to me and she was really crying because she was so thankful. I’m happy that I can have these beautiful moments sometimes.