Damo Suzuki sees promise in young artists

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

“I don’t like to make music, I like to make energy. Music is just a way to get energy, so why not just make energy?”

Damo Suzuki, the 63-year-old singer and guru of a growing global commune of what he terms “sound carriers” doesn’t like perfection, rejects systems and isn’t interested in answers. For him, performing onstage is all about the moment and the process. Banning rehearsals, he insists that the musicians he performs with simply create in the moment, and at a marathon seven-hour event at Roppongi’s experimental music laboratory SuperDeluxe on Nov. 2, he’ll be teaming up with 25 musicians to do just that.

“There is no such thing as a mistake,” Suzuki declares. “I don’t know what a mistake is. A mistake makes you able to create the next step and if there is no mistake, you cannot create. It’s such an opportunity. Everyone’s trying to be perfect, they always like to have answers. Perfect stuff always has some sort of structure, but if we are creative enough and free, then you don’t need any answer.”

Freedom is at the heart of Suzuki’s approach to both life and performance. Running his activities by himself is hard work but he considers that a price worth paying for not being beholden to management, and even the idea of “music” feels too restrictive and structured to him. He has released CDs of some of his performances, but he insists that the live experience is superior.

“With regular recordings,” he explains, excitedly, “you can’t catch the atmosphere of the place, but with the live show itself, everybody is living in this time together in the same space and creating. And the audience is not just listening, but also we can get some sort of feedback from them, so we are creating a kind of quantum field and everybody is involved. With a recording, you listen alone at home and it’s already a material thing and it’s nothing to do with your real involvement.”

There’s a passion and fearlessness in Suzuki’s declarations that suggests someone very at home with himself and largely free of petty social anxieties, but there’s also an easy smile and laughter to his demeanour that helps others feel at home in his “quantum field” as well.

Leaving Japan in the late 1960s, he arrived in Germany at age 18 where he eventually found himself performing as the vocalist of highly influential psychedelic “Krautrockers” Can, with whom he recorded such seminal albums as “Tago Mago,” “Ege Bamyasi” and “Future Days.”

While talking about Can is “like talking about my school days,” he still occasionally plays with contemporaries from that period, including members of GuruGuru and Faust. Nowadays, however, he seems to be playing with younger musicians more often.

“If I play with the younger generation, then I get younger audiences as well,” he says with a laugh. “That means I can play music for another 40 years.”

From his home in Cologne, Suzuki believes he has an outsider’s eye on Japan and he doesn’t shy away from criticisms of Japanese society.

“Japanese society is like a pyramid,” he says, after eventually settling on a metaphor he feels comfortable with. “Each stone is exactly the same, and it’s built up into a pyramid. Each of them is able to function, but all together it’s not very flexible to react to something. So they must be part of this society, but out of the society they cannot do anything.”

He cites public indifference to the ongoing imprisonment of 1970s radical Fumiaki Hoshino, and the ongoing catastrophe surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and the government’s nuclear policy as examples of the way power structures manipulate information to keep the current generation brainwashed and politically apathetic. Nevertheless, he is full of praise for the music of young Japan.

“Most bands from the ’60s were just cover bands of The Beatles, or something, and didn’t do something original,” he says. “But if I compare Japanese music now and 10 years ago, Japanese music is really getting interesting. Young people have developed their own styles, they’re not copying too much from British or American bands and that’s a good thing.”

Suzuki feels this runs parallel to his own youth in Germany in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the flowering of creativity that grew up around Can and its contemporaries such as Neu!, Kraftwerk, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Faust and many more.

“I don’t like the name ‘Krautrock’ ” says Suzuki. “But they just avoided any kind of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon, and I think a similar thing’s happening with young Japanese people’s music.”

This isn’t a problem so much with British and American music (he is a staunch admirer of British musicians even as he retains a skepticism of American cultural hegemony) as it is with succumbing to an established form or orthodoxy about “the way things are done.” This is true just as much for the macrocosm of a music scene as it is for the microcosm of his own live performances.

“If you’re a creative person, it’s important to break rules,” he states, warming to the theme. “If you’re in the middle of the system, you can’t create much, but if you’re on the outside, you can just avoid it, start from zero and make your own stuff with no influence at all.”

Of course, for all the attraction of Suzuki’s philosophy, sometimes mundane, real-world factors form their own restrictions. Since SuperDeluxe is a mid-sized venue with a capacity of about 250 people, Suzuki is unable to realize his ideal of having all two dozen of his sound carriers onstage at once (he performed earlier this year with 40 people onstage in Sheffield, England) and he has been forced, likely against his better judgment, to make a timetable.

For a man as disinterested in perfection as Suzuki, however, a setback like this is just another part of the process, and he points out that “a new approach is not so bad.” Indeed, setbacks, like mistakes, are part of what keeps the process alive.

“You have to be able to break stuff,” he muses later on. “You build up, break, build up, break, always this kind of process. Look at any painter, they have different periods, they’re not always painting the same stuff.”

When it comes down to it, whatever happens around him, he has a simple axiom that sums up the kind of power the man brings with him onstage. When asked if he needs to adapt what he does to the wide range of different kinds of musicians and environments he works with, he laughs once more: “No. I’m Damo Suzuki and I play Damo Suzuki. I’m happy to be Damo Suzuki.”

Damo Suzuki’s Network takes place at SuperDeluxe in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 2 (8:30 p.m. start; ¥2,500; 03-5412-0515). The event is part of the Redbull Academy Music Weekender (Electronic Music of Art Festival), which runs Nov. 1-4 and features shows by Henrik Schwarz, Yann Tomita, Gilles Peterson, DJ Sprinkles and more. For more information, visit www.redbullmusicacademy.jp/jp/events.

  • Helen Bedd

    Wow, Ian…last week Nakata, this week Damo!

    quite amazing,,,,