Malcolm Mooney Discusses Can, Art & Music

Malcolm Mooney on Sculpting Sounds with Can.

Malcolm Mooney is an American singer, poet, and artist, best known as the first vocalist for the German krautrock band Can. Mooney’s creative career began as a sculptor in New York City before he transitioned to music. His move to Germany connected him with Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, leading to the formation of Can. Their early recordings were later compiled in the 1981 album Delay 1968, which included material from their initially unreleased debut. Can’s official debut album, Monster Movie (1969), marked the beginning of their influence on the krautrock genre. After leaving Can, Mooney continued to explore music and visual art. He reunited with Can in 1986 to record Rite Time. Mooney also released three albums with the San Francisco Bay Area band Tenth Planet. In addition to his work with Tenth Planet, Mooney formed 11th Planet, a band that includes musicians such as Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth on drums, Alexis Marcelo on keyboard, Ava Mendoza on guitar, and Jairus Sharif on  sax.

Featured image by Gerald Jenkins

Can you discuss any early memories or experiences that started your interest in music and art?

My father was both a piano player and an artist. He ran a serigraphy print shop, back in my hometown. He was also known as a piano player in his hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. I guess both of those things influenced me. Those were the main things.

His career was interesting to me because I worked for him years later as a 14 to 16-year-old in his studio. Additionally, I sang in the church choir, which became an important musical experience for me.

There was also a group of us who formed a band called the Six Fifths. We used to sing in the basement of the church and performed a few shows at a community center. Although we didn’t last long outside of the church, we loved singing and were inspired by doo-wop bands like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers and the Imperials.

My father was the biggest influence in my early artistic development. He bought me materials and watercolors, introducing me to quality art supplies. In elementary school, we used poor-quality brushes and paper. My father gave me a sable brush and watercolor paper, and I realized the importance of good materials for painting.

I have an exhibition scheduled for September 4th in New York City at the Jack Tilton Gallery. I also had a show in Düsseldorf in November 2023 at the Max Mayer Gallery. Additionally I had a gig with the band Montel Palmer at Club Jaki in Cologne in June 2023, where we performed some Can music. So, the journey continues.

Before joining Can, you worked as a sculptor in New York. How did your art career influence your musical path?

Well, the documentation of my sculpture career is really not evident. I worked with some sculpture up in New Hampshire, and also in my studio in Boston, at the Chickering Piano Factory. I have some pictures from that time, and I’m still doing drawings, ink drawings, and paintings at my studio in Boston.

The sculptural work was more related to the designs I was working on in Boston. Years later, I designed these music stands for Julius Hemphill‘s sextet. They were made out of hot pink corrugated plastic. These were sculptural but designed for music. Julius was supposed to go to Hamburg just before he died, and I designed six music stands for him. He used them at the Knitting Factory in New York. There are pictures of him and the band with the stands. So, the interest in sculpture has always been there.

I used to teach in Boston. At that school, I consulted with a professor in the hydraulics department to design a piece called Cancentric. It featured a structure in the center and an open ceiling, with inverted musical organ pipes that would swing into the wind. The professor suggested doing it electronically instead of hydraulically. This idea has been on my mind since 1970.

Malcolm Mooney Rehearsals Can Project
Malcolm Mooney Rehearsals Can Project, photo by Gerald Jenkins © Malcolm Mooney

Serge Tcherepnin suggested I contact Bob Dylan, who has a place on the coast with a lot of wind, where it might work. This project still might happen if I get the financial support.

While many people know me because of Can, my background in visual art has been a constant presence. When I was with Can, we worked out of a castle, and a German sculptor named Ulrich Rückriem lived above the studio. I worked as an assistant on a couple of his projects, including installing horseshoe-shaped rebars in a museum in Düren and creating a rebar marker in a cemetery. His ideas were important to me, and I was influenced by his work.

I visited Italy some years ago, particularly Tuscany and Siena, and I was amazed by the art there. I had a friend with a marble business in Carrara, and the art in the piazzas and churches was magnificent. I remember a church with black and white columns where I had a leather-bound book made. The experience of seeing such art without the distractions of modern technology was inspiring.

I started thinking about how artists created their works in the past. For instance, when they painted scenes like The Last Supper, they probably used their friends as models. This led me to create a 12-foot painting called “The First, but Maybe Not The Last Supper.” I imagined the artist gathering his friends—the barber, the fruit market owner, the local carpenter—to pose for the painting. They would sit together, drink wine, and the artist would paint.

This concept of using familiar, everyday people to represent significant figures fascinated me. My painting, “The First, but Maybe Not The Last Supper,” reflects this idea. It has never been exhibited, but it became an important part of my thoughts about the actual portrayal of people and events.

Malcolm Mooney III
Portraits of Malcolm Mooney by Gerald Jenkins © Malcolm Mooney

How did you first connect with Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, and what was your initial reaction to their musical vision, or what would become Can?

Well, I met Irmin through an interesting set of circumstances. My boss used to say, “Do you want the truth or the lie?” Years ago, I remember reading a book called “100 Million Dollar Misunderstanding”, well, I don’t think I finished the book. I was staying in Paris and happened to meet Hildegard Schmidt, Irmin Schmidt‘s wife. She was talking about a studio in Cologne, and the person who introduced me to her was Serge Tcherepnin, an electronic musician and friend. I misunderstood what kind of studio she was talking about.

She said, “Why don’t you come to Cologne?” I thought I was going to an art studio. I didn’t have much money, but I decided to go. My best friend at the time, Joshua Zim, was traveling with me.

He decided to go to Elba because his girlfriend had married his best friend, so he wanted to get away. I got on a train to Cologne with directions to Irmin and Hildegard’s house.

When I arrived, Irmin and Hildegard were there. I was talking with Irmin, and then I realized that this wasn’t about art. But you know the expression, “Go with the flow”? So, I met Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, and Jaki Liebezeit. It was a very interesting crew, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I just got on the microphone, and they said, “Do something, Malcolm.” At that time, they might have called me Desi.

I think “Father Cannot Yell” was the first tune we did. The interesting thing about Can was that the group was very open. I was a guy from the States, and when I think about the members of the band, they all came from different musical backgrounds. Irmin studied with Stockhausen, Jaki was a jazz drummer, and Michael Karoli was a folk singer and guitarist. Holger taught Michael. This group of people, coming from different angles, made a new kind of music.

There was also David Johnson, the sixth member of Can. He played the flute and did electronics.

Holger once said in an interview that I was the driving force for the rhythm, but for me, Jaki was the driving force. I bounced off what Jaki was doing, and he bounced off what I was doing. It became this rhythm idea with all these other entities. If we were all trained at Stockhausen’s school, we wouldn’t have made that music. If we were all trained by a jazz musician, we wouldn’t have made that music.

Irmin would disappear in a tux to conduct an orchestra. I came from the States with R&B ideas. I was listening to Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers and the Five Satins. My dad introduced me to Ornette Colman and artists like Ornette. Suddenly, there was a whole new sound in my mind.

When we put the five or six of us together, it became the Can experiment. The reason I called it Can was because I kept telling myself, “I can do this.” Even though I wasn’t sure, I remained positive.

We had access to a major engineering studio, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, where we could use their equipment to process the music. Holger Czukay was an amazing person—strange, but amazing. He could splice tape and engineer the music. I remember recording “You Doo Right” at the studio in Schloss Nörvenich. Michael Karoli and I left to get something to eat, and when we came back, the band was still playing the same tune. I don’t know how long that tape actually was, but it seemed like forever.

We were using Revox machines, and there were open platters on the tape deck. When they lifted the tape off the deck, it fell on the floor and rolled across the room. I don’t know if any of it was lost, but I remember hearing, “Jesus, what happened to the tape? The tape is running across the floor.” “You Doo Right” became a very important piece of music for us: “Once I was blind but now I see.” 

What inspired you to write the lyrics of “You Doo Right”?

If my wife were here, she’d say, “Please tell him to wait for the book.” We’re writing a book on all the lyrics and everything. But I think, in previous interviews, it was mentioned that a girlfriend of mine had written to me, and that was my response. It was about “You Doo Right.” “Once I was blind but now I see, you made a believer out of me.” I think that was both about the band and also about this person, because the drumbeat was going 24 hours a day.

These things are all part of the Can experience and the work experience. I think about it like this: if you’re a journalist and you want to be a journalist but have never been published, and you submit some work, and all of a sudden, a magazine or newspaper says, “We’d like to use your work,” then you’ve been validated.

I think that was part of the validation for me. I was working, and I didn’t know that this was going anywhere. I didn’t know that this music was going to be a historical moment. The first time I saw a Can record, I was walking down 8th Street in Manhattan, New York City, and I went into a record store. There was “Monster Movie.” I think it was on Liberty International.

I said to myself, “What? What the…?” I won’t use bad language. But I hadn’t seen it before, and it was like, “Whoa, wait a minute. Did I sign off on this?” It became a big drama for me.

You start to wonder, it makes you think you’re going under. So, it has caused drama in my life. There’s one side, the music, and then there’s the business side.

What was the atmosphere like during the recording of “Monster Movie”? Any particular moments from those sessions that stand out to you?

No, I don’t think anything in particular stands out. Our work schedule was pretty consistent, from maybe 11 o’clock in the morning until 11 at night, daily. Nothing specific comes to mind except that we worked every day. I think “She Brings the Rain” stands out for me because it was just Michael Karoli and me at the beginning of that piece. I’m not sure if Jaki Liebezeit was there for that recording; it might have just been Mickey and me in the studio, which was unusual.

We did some other recordings years later with Mickey and me down in his studio, but nothing particularly stands out about those sessions. There was always a lot of chatter in both English and German, which I didn’t always understand. For the most part, I would wait to see what we were supposed to do. The putting together of the album wasn’t my responsibility. My job was to write the lyrics and perform the vocals.

How has your experience with Can influenced your current musical projects?

Can has influenced my thoughts about music profoundly. For example, on the 20th of June, I brought my band, The 11th Planet, to the Sled Island Festival, and we received a standing ovation. I love playing with these musicians, and they’ve been influenced by Can at some point.

One of the musicians is Steve Shelley on drums from Sonic Youth. He’s a wonderful drummer, and I really appreciate having him with us. Alexis Marcelo is on keyboard. He was a student of Yusef Lateef and is amazing. He’s my go-to person for notations—a brilliant man. Last December, he was at the Metropolitan Opera as the first piano in a piece called “Malcolm X.” Ava Mendoza is on guitar. She’s part of a group called Unnatural Ways. She is a member of 11th Planet, and her performance was wonderful.

I wrote a piece called “When I Think of You” with The Tenth Planet out on the West Coast. Heather Marie did the vocal on it because I tried to do it and realized it wasn’t my part. Mark Weinstein from The Tenth Planet, also from Amoeba Records, found a musician, I think she’s a backup singer for Johnny Otis, and she did a beautiful rendition of it.

On the 19th and 18th, I rented the National Music Center recording at Bell Studios for 16 hours. We recorded and rehearsed for the show on the 20th. It’s a fantastic facility. We recorded, and Ava sang “When I Think of You.” She has a beautiful voice, and I never knew she sang as well as played guitar. She was fantastic.

Then there’s Peter Conheim from Mono Pause and another group. He also restores film and is a fantastic gentleman on bass guitar and electronics. Daniel Moreno and Luis Tovar are on percussion. We also have Devin Brahja-Waldman and Jairus Sharif on saxophone, who headlined at the Polaris Awards. We had a big band, and they were fantastic. I wouldn’t even have to show up; they could have done the job without me. They were beautiful.

We did a couple of Can songs, but I tried to add something new. Julius Hemphill once said, “I don’t want to play anybody else’s music. I want to play my music and get paid for my music.” So, with Can songs, I try to put a different spin on what we did back in ’68. Time marches on, and something has to evolve or be improvised upon.

One of the pieces we did was “Outside My Door.” I try to change it up, not so much by the melody but by the breaks and the intro to the song, to give it more emphasis. I can’t write the notation, but I can give direction to Alexis or the band on how I want it to go. I had this idea, waking up at four in the morning, that if I could get Ava to play “Thief,” we could bring in electronics on top of it. I’ll tell you more about that next time.

I like drama, opera, and classical music. I like structure, like in John Coltrane’s impulse records. There’s drama with John Coltrane’s music. In some music, I’ll hear timpani’s, a sound that grabs attention, and then it drops to something sweet. It’s like a wave; it doesn’t just crash, but comes in and then recedes. This makes sense in music and art. I want drama in art too. There’s a time for quietness, but sometimes a loud red or a bright cadmium yellow with white tints can pull everything back. I’m constantly working on this, trying to make people aware. One day, I’ll try a simple video project about people becoming aware.

Sled Isl 2024 21
Photo by Julie Davis © Malcolm Mooney

What inspired the sound and style of Tenth Planet?

Tenth Planet is a Bay Area group, very inventive. The approach is similar to my work with Can, focusing on creativity without relying on a written structure. Musicians improvise, and written structure may come later. In painting, you’re taught about structure, composition, color theory, and the golden rule, but that doesn’t make a painting. Similarly, in music, knowing the basics doesn’t make a composition.

Improvisation in music involves stored information, like RAM in a computer. Each musician has their own knowledge—guitar, drums, bass—and they bring this to the performance. For instance, if the drummer plays something, the bass player might respond with something different, creating a new entity.

When recorded, this improvised music can be revisited and developed further. I initially thought I could sing like other groups I heard, but adding new influences like Ornette Coleman changed my perspective. His work, for example, combined different styles, creating something new. People didn’t initially accept Coleman because his style differed from the norm, but innovation in music, as in art, involves moving forward.

In art history, we see transitions from one style to another, like from Giotto to later artists, or from Dalí to Rothko. This progression shapes the future. My first painting was a revelation. Looking at works by Julius Hemphill or Frederick Brown, or my paintings from Tuscany, you see how different experiences and perspectives influence art.

At the Alberta University of the Arts, where I teach abstract painting, I used to teach every semester but now prefer intensive classes. These one-week, six-hour-a-day sessions allow students to immerse themselves in their work. It’s fulfilling to see ideas crossover among students.

I don’t teach music but play it. My degrees are in studio arts, and I’ve been showing my work. I haven’t played with Tenth Planet in a long time but now perform with the Eleventh Planet band, mainly on the East Coast. We’ve played Union Pool in New York three times.

My painting sales are slow, but my work is being shown. I exhibited at Ulrik Gallery in New York in 2022 and will show it at Tilton Gallery this September. Ed Clark, a painter and mentor, used to ask me if I wanted the truth or a lie.

What about your next project?

I’m working on a sculptural idea. I’ve been building some sculptures in my backyard. Currently, I’m focused on a piece involving a large cable spool I found a few blocks away. Someone left it on the road, so I brought it back to my garage. I’ve been cutting and shaping it for a few days now, trying to see what I can create.

It’s very much an improvised project. The spool had been sitting in my yard for months, maybe a year, and one day I decided to try something with it. I’m also working on organizing my garage, which often leads to new ideas. For instance, I recently found a load of Styrofoam and thought, “Why not build something with this instead of throwing it out?”

On the music side, we have plans too. We just recorded a show on the 20th and are working on a new Atmos version of the Hysterica album, originally released in 2019. We aim to incorporate new technology into the album. Additionally, we have recordings from a session at the National Music Center, so we’re looking for a label to release this new material.

My wife has written a couple of grants to bring the band back and record more music. We’re hoping to continue our work, though the future can be uncertain. We’re trying to get it done, even if the road ahead is long.

Photos courtesy of Malcolm Mooney
Malcolm Mooney ‘s official site

Last Updated on July 11, 2024 by retrofuturista

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