Sound Carriers of the world unite: Damo Suzuki and United Bible Studies in Galway (2005)


Damo Suzuki would “like to see you and make smile on your face everywhere in the world”, according to the press release for his Never Ending Tour.

His tour is the second ‘Never Ending’ one to hit Galway in the last few months, but while Dylan had the Philistines at Pearse Stadium grumbling about his tweaks in song arrangements and deviations from the Best Of, Japanese vocalist Suzuki travels with less baggage – a blank canvas.

Suzuki sealed his legendary status as Can vocalist from 1970-73, appearing on the hugely influential albums Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days. The 1970s saw Can, along with other emerging German bands, filed by journalists into an orderly ‘krautrock scene’, with little regard to the divergent musical manifestos that were evolving.

As Kraftwerk veered towards electronic minimalism at their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf, meticulously rewiring the popular music landscape, the members of Can were deconstructing the doctrine of conventional rock at Inner Space in Cologne, with album releases distilled from the editing and reconfiguration of hundreds of hours of “instant composing”.

Suzuki, now 55, left Japan in his late teens on a trail to Europe, eventually landing in Germany at the tail-end of the 1960s, where he conducted “public art” as a hobo busker. The self-confessed hippie soon got in touch with his punk side, but barely learned one chord instead of three, compensating his negligible guitar prowess with improvised vocals.

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In 1970, as Can were about to start a residency at the Blow Up club in Munich, bassist Holger Czukay chanced upon a “happening” by the young busker and invited him to sing live that evening. Suddenly Suzuki found himself fronting one of Germany’s highest profile underground acts, and struck a chord with his new group, despite the academic gulf.

Irmin Schmidt was a conductor, Czukay was a student of avant-garde composer Stockhausen and Jaki Liebezeit was a free jazz musician. The drifter with no artistic pretensions became the catalyst in the group’s alchemic experiments and completed the definitive Can line-up.

Damo’s naive and intuitive approach to music contrasts with the academic analysis of Can and other improvised music. His T-shirts bear the logo, ‘The beginning was smoke – established in the Stone Age”. He maintains that smoke signals were the beginning of music, and music is mere communication with others. As he did with Can, he still sings in a stream-of-consciousness – sometimes in random English or Japanese phrases, but more often in non-documented phonetics. It’s music as process, not product, and he likens the growing number of performers in the Damo Suzuki Network to the human hardware and software that channels sound.

45801_455303716453_6669371_nThe network is an ad-hoc body of musicians assembled informally. If you want to perform with Damo you add your name to the “Sound Carrier List” on his website and he will “invite you as sound carrier to create time and space of the momen”t when he eventually comes to your area. “I play everywhere some day,” proclaims one of the many posts on his webiste forum, that all end in the signature: “Keep your good vibes share the one next to you!”

The worldwide Network is in a constant state of flux, and he often plays with a different band at each venue, usually without meeting beforehand, and always without rehearsal. Each concert is a non-hierarchical unit, with the singer placing himself not out front, but in the midst of the group, adapting to their output. He has recently played in Russia with a brass ensemble, and in Melbourne he played with a band featuring eight guitarists, two drummers and a bassist.

Just before Easter he played at Richardson’s off Eyre Square with the collective United Bible Studies, who, according to their website, offer “sparse folk, a more melodic take on free improv and tales of loss and pagan longing”. They also claim to be “protected by the ejaculation of serpents”, but they could be improvising the truth here.

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There’s a considerable queue snaking down the street outside Richardson’s, despite little or no advertising. There’s room upstairs for about a hundred or so, and many sit cross-legged in front of the band’s set-up. There’s no stage in the ‘venue’, which has the air of a practice room or Brian Potter’s Phoenix club (before renovations).

United Bible Studies’ bassist introduces the band and apologises for the delay – car trouble on the way, nothing serious. Maybe thanks to the serpents after all. The six or seven sound carriers summon Damo with an intro of low-end bass swirls and an electronic dirge followed by feedback squalls and sharp tenor sax bursts. He comes through a side door to spontaneous applause, received with a courteous nod. The band spend a few minutes toying with the sound – bass strings are pattered lightly with metal implements, distortion pedals fine-tune feedback from electronic keyboards, and the two drummers initiate a tribal throb.

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Free of narrative, Suzuki’s voice becomes another instrument that initially simmers in the mix, gradually rising from wistful, cyclical mantras to frenetic howls and barks. He occasionally lurches into a bizarre Louis Armstrong vocal routine worthy of a ‘tonight Matthew’. It seems to be his mimic of a chewed cassette though, as it’s often a cue for a lull, leading to subtle harp solos or deft cymbal shimmers.

Each ‘movement’ lasts around 20 minutes, and evolves from sonic tinkering into a repetitive trance-inducing wall of sound, as Damo becomes a wispy mass of hair and beard. The performers often swap their instruments; the saxophonist starts blowing a bugle, more percussionists join in and one lad alternates between wailing into the microphone and playing two tin whistles at the same time.

A mate from Limerick quips, “I can’t see it making number one,” before pulling himself a pint at the bar. Munster’s own Simon Cowell gets kicked out for his troubles, though – seems the improv is the only thing that’s free round these here parts.

After 90 minutes the show’s over, and the amps still hum as Damo mills around the room hugging audience members on whose faces he “did make smile”. He’s due in Limerick the next day, then hitches to Athens and beyond, on the never-ending story that he says will last “the whole story of my life”. Different place, different band, same “good vibes share”. It’s hard to be cynical in the face of such wide-eyed enthusiasm.

We leave Richardson’s and see hundreds of students in a queue, fired up and ready to bounce about to The Strokes in Club Cuba. Alternative, man.

  • Printed in SIN, Galway, 2005

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