Damo Suzuki – Capturing magic in a moment

June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, February 14, 2009.

No two Damo Suzuki performances are the same. Dan Rule reports on this unique artist.

JAPANESE-born, Cologne-based vocalist Damo Suzuki creates sound-worlds free of rules, borders and historical context: on-the-spot live collaborations, entirely improvised jams and, as he puts it, “nonsense words”. Songwriting, composition and arrangement are of no concern; planning and preconception are an antithesis.

“I don’t like to have any responsibilities,” he says in a thick Japanese accent. “I like my music to be free, so the people on the stage are making music purely of the moment.”

He’s not exaggerating. For the past decade, Suzuki has drawn on an ever-growing international group of what he dubs “sound carriers” — known to most as the Damo Suzuki Network — to take part in random, psychedelic musical encounters on his “never-ending world tour” and guest on upwards of 11 Suzuki Network live recordings.

Since founding the network in 1998, Suzuki has plied his free-form, trans-lingual lyrics and swooping, fluttering vocals to collaborations and performances with artists as divergent as Melbourne avant-guitarist Oren Ambarchi, Mani Neumeier of cult German group Guru Guru, Canadian ensembles Do Make Say Think, AIDS Wolf and Broken Social Scene, the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Quintet, Japanese psychedelic act Acid Mothers Temple, and Edmondo Ammendola and Dave Williams of Augie March. With every leg of the tour comes a host of new musicians and, in effect, an extension of Suzuki’s musical horizons.

The 59-year-old, however, frames such work in surprisingly straightforward terms. For him, music is an act of exchange — pure and simple.

“This music is real communication because nobody knows what is going to happen before the performance,” he continues. “The audience don’t know and we, the sound carriers on the stage, don’t know anything about what is going to happen. So it is real communication — it’s organic and it’s supernatural and it is sharing positive energy.”

While improvisation is nothing new in the worlds of jazz, experimental music and even rock, Suzuki’s traversals push the vernacular a step further. His collaborators are usually total strangers. “I make music with people I’ve never met, most of them, most of the time,” he explains. “I have to get my brain quite empty because I don’t know what they are going to do. If I have a head full of information or if they have a head full of information, we cannot make music of the moment.

“Luckily, it’s quite easy for me to get my brain empty,” he laughs. “I don’t have much capacity anyway.”

This is where Suzuki’s notion of the “sound carrier” (as opposed to the musician) finds its orientation. While ideas of musicianship hold connotations of patterns, repetition, technique and skill, the sound carrier is, as Suzuki puts it, “lost in the moment” — at the whim of pure expression and interaction. “In my mind, musicians play what has already been composed and they play it right, but sound carriers are different,” he contends. “They make different things every day that have their own character, no matter what style or genre it is.

“In the last 40 years, sound has become the main point of the music. With noise and ambient and electronic music, sound became much more important, rather than the correct playing of an instrument.”

Born Kenji Suzuki in the Kanagawa prefecture outside Yokohama, he grew up under the United States’ post-WWII Marshall Plan. By the time he was a teenager, he began to feel stifled by life in Japan and wanted to get out. “I was very curious,” he recounts. “It’s almost like Australian people: when you live on an island I think you are naturally very curious. In Europe it’s so different because there are so many, many countries that you can get to so easily. It just makes sense. But when you live on an island you become much more sentimental about things which are not familiar.”

Still a teenager, Suzuki landed in Europe in the late ’60s and began wandering the streets, performing, painting, reading poetry and enjoying “a hippie time”. Music was an aside at best. “When I was playing in the street, I began to sing because I couldn’t play the guitar that well,” he laughs. “I had to cover that with the vocals. That was the extent of my singing.”

It wasn’t until Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Krautrock pioneers Can noticed Suzuki busking outside a Munich cafe that his creative endeavours took a more serious turn. Bewildered by his unique vocal delivery, they immediately asked him to join the group as replacement for former vocalist Malcolm Mooney. Suzuki performed with the band that very night.

It was the beginning of a prosperous creative relationship, with Can releasing three of its most highly acclaimed works with Suzuki at the helm — 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi and 1973’s Future Days.

But it didn’t last. At the height of his fame, in 1974 Suzuki left the band and withdrew completely from the music scene. In the following decade he would marry, become a Jehovah’s Witness and battle cancer, before suddenly re-emerging in 1983 to sing in Dunkelziffer and later form the Damo Suzuki Band. “After I got healthy, I went to one festival and it was really nice to hear music again,” he says.

“I knew I wanted to play again, but not like before.

“I knew I didn’t want to work together with the industry — I just wanted to make it happen by myself.”

Indeed, in the time since, his stringent autonomy from the music industry has mirrored his singular approach to creating music. Running his own micro record label and booking every show and performer on his worldwide jaunts, independence — both commercial and creative — is tantamount to Suzuki’s ethos.

“I just didn’t like to make any kind of music like other people or be involved in the business like other people,” he says. “Because it’s my life I want to make my own stuff without anybody else’s ideas or covers or compositions in my head.

“Some artists spend their lives covering themselves, singing the same songs over and over. Even for the second time I cannot do it.”

For pure communication to occur, the slate must be wiped clean. “If you are an instant composer then you don’t need to remember what has happened before,” he says. “Each concert is a beginning.

“I make nonsense words when I sing so the audience can make their own stories during our performance. I am not the leader — they are also part of this. It’s an interactive music.”


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