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Holger Czukay 1938–2017

Bassist and co-founder of legendary German rock group Can has died

Holger Czukay, bassist, editing mastermind and co-founder of legendary German rock group Can, has died, his label Spoon has announced. Czukay was found at his home, the old Can studio in Weilerswist near Cologne – a former cinema where the group recorded through most the 1970s – on 4 September. He was 79. His wife Ursula Schüring – aka U-She, a close collaborator throughout much of his post-Can career – is thought to have died just weeks previously.

Czukay was apparently planning new projects in the weeks before his death. Much of his recent years had been spent with editing and reworking recordings from his extensive archive of Can and solo tapes. His last official release was Eleven Years Innerspace, released by Grönland in 2015, a mysterious collection which, as the album and track names such as "My Can Revolt" suggest, incorporated (and radically remixed) numerous recordings Can made at their studio.

He was born in Danzig, at that time a partially independent city state, in 1938. In the early 1960s he became a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the beginning of a lifetime obsession with electronic music and the possibilities of the studio. Alongside fellow student Irmin Schmidt, the pair began to explore the possibilities of working together that could bring composition and experimental music into a group context while responding to the rapid artistic advances of rock. They hooked up with drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli to form a group originally called Inner Space, who played together for the first time in 1968, a performance captured on the limited edition release Prehistoric Future.

Czukay elected to play the bass with the group – Liebezeit supposedly recommended he should try "to play bass with only one tone" – and developed a distinctively hypnotic style on the instrument. The decision to play bass was dictated partially as the instrument was free, but also as it might allow him to operate tape recorders in the studio. A landmark tape work from the early days of Can, Canaxis 5, was recorded in 1969 with Rolf Dammers, and featured extensive use of loops incorporating a haunting vocal recording of a Vietnamese vocalist on “Boat-Woman-Song”.

Can’s work blossomed through the 1969 debut album Monster Movie, the collection Soundtracks and 1971 album Tago Mago, working alongside vocalists Malcom Mooney and latterly Damo Suzuki. The group practised and recorded together almost constantly, and Czukay left the tapes running in many of their studio sessions – when The Wire’s Rob Young visited Weilerswist for a Can cover story in 1997, engineer René Tinner showed him a cupboard containing carefully preserved Revox tapes of hours of tapes, recordings which would eventually come to form part of the 2012 retrospective set The Lost Tapes. "As a bass player, Holger Czukay is comparable only to John Cale,” wrote Julian Cope in his book Krautrocksampler. “But as an editor, he is surely second to none". His editing is crucial to many Can tracks – songs such as "Mother Sky" and "Halleluhwah" exist in multiple different edited versions, with Czukay carving out distinct sections from extensive recorded jams.

By the mid-1970s, the group dynamic of Can was changing, in part because improved recording technology meant that the group could overdub individual instrumental parts, and were no longer required to play together simulataneously as a group unit. By Saw Delight Czukay had ceded bass duties to Rosko Gee, to concentrate solely on working with editing and tape loops, audible on complex constructions such as "Animal Waves".

The 1979 album Movies marked his departure from Can, although the entire group contribute instrumental parts to the album. The 80s saw Czukay collaborate widely and influentially, with artists including David Sylvian and Jah Wobble. As Biba Kopf observed in The Wire 66 in 1989, Can’s innovations had by that time been taken up by groups as diverse as PiL, Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten. By the 1990s he had found a new lease of life working inside the fertile electronic scene in Cologne, recording and touring with Dr Walker of Air Liquide. Electronica’s debt to Can was returned in 1997 with the remix album Sacrilege, which featured artists such as A Guy Called Gerald, The Orb and Brian Eno grappling with Can’s two-track recordings and attempting to work them into new shapes.

In the 2000s and beyond Czukay worked on numerous new recordings and remix projects, often featuring U-She on vocals. The Can collection The Lost Tapes emerged in 2012, followed by The Singles in 2017.