'The beat goes on': Can's original vocalist Malcolm Mooney to bring new group to Sled Island

Article content

There is an awkward silence when Malcolm Mooney, the first lead singer of pioneering krautrock act Can, is asked if he thinks much about the lasting influence his former outfit had on popular music.

It’s certainly not an obscure idea. Formed in Cologne in 1968, the band is considered a pioneer in avant-garde and experimental music and key in developing what became known as krautrock in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The word “influential” appears in virtually everything written about the band.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Mooney was one of several vocalists the band had over the years and his original tenure, from 1968 to 1970, was short. But he was the first. He convinced the band to abandon its proggy-sounding original moniker, Inner Space, in favour of Can. Founding member Holger Czukay has said that Mooney was instrumental in developing their sound, writing in his book that “Can wasn’t sure which way to go musically until Malcolm Mooney jumped up to the microphone one day and pushed us into A RHYTHM.” Mooney is on the band’s earliest recordings, although they wouldn’t be released until 1981. He was also the vocalist on the band’s official debut, 1969’s Monster Movie which, his official online bio correctly proclaims, offered some of the most influential music of the past 50 years. Can helped pave the way for post-punk, various shades of electronic music, avant-garde and numerous other hyphenated subgenres.

“And the beat goes on …” Mooney says, somewhat cryptically, after a pause. “I can’t live in the past. I’m glad people listened to the music and keep listening to music.”

For Mooney, who has been living in Calgary since 2010, the beat hasn’t stopped. While he has lived a relatively quiet life here for more than a decade, he has hardly been idle. He moved to the city with his partner, Jo Steffens, who was executive director of Wordfest from 2010 to 2015. Since 2015, he has been an instructor of abstract painting at Alberta University of the Arts and exhibits his artwork all over the world. He has recorded albums with San Francisco’s The Tenth Planet, Ava Mendoza and with composer Sean Noonan.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Malcolm Mooney
Malcolm Mooney poses for a portrait in Calgary’s East Village. Brent Calver/Postmedia Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia /Brent Calver/Postmedia

Mooney, 80, will be making his Sled Island debut this year on June 20 at Central United Church, leading the relatively new project Malcolm Mooney and the Eleventh Planet. It will be the first performance featuring this lineup, which includes local percussionist Luis Tovar and saxophonist Jairus Sharif, guitarist and longtime Mooney collaborator Ava Mendoza and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, among others. A version of the act recorded an album in 2019 in New Jersey and, at the time of this interview, Mooney had booked a few days at the National Music Centre to both rehearse for Sled and record new material. He says he hopes to have a digital version of the new album available later this year.

“There is a lot of improv,” Mooney says. “The musicians I’ve been working with have great ears and they produce great sounds. Whatever happens happens. When we do something we try to figure out how to develop it instantaneously, or sometimes we’ll go back after we’ve done some improvisation and reach a common thread and then work from there. They are seasoned people. I give them credit for putting up with me.”

Advertisement 4

Article content

Born and raised in Yonkers, New York, Mooney’s mother was a school teacher and his father was a silk-screen painter and jazz aficionado who introduced his son to the music of Ornette Coleman among others. Mooney’s development as a visual artist and musician went “hand in hand,” he says. He began showing his art in middle school – he was even selected to exhibit at the Hudson River Museum – while singing with an a capella group. By the late 1960s, Mooney had graduated from Boston University and began travelling extensively. While in Paris, he was introduced to the wife of Irmin Schmidt, a keyboardist and co-founder of the group that would become Can. He was invited to Schmidt’s studio in Cologne. Alas, in what he dubs the “$100 misunderstanding,” Mooney originally thought it was a studio for visual arts, not music.

He eventually met bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Musically, they were all over the map. Liebezeit was a jazz drummer, Czukay was into electronics, Schmidt had worked as a kapellmeister and had studied under German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Karoli was influenced by folk.

Advertisement 5

Article content

“I was an R&B, jazz-oriented guy,” Mooney says. “Like Holger stated, I sort of pushed the envelope. I pushed them into trying to capture this rhythm. I don’t know if I made it happen, or if the combination of all of us made it happen. We lived together. We worked daily, I would say from 11 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock in the evening every day.”

Mooney left Can in 1970 to return to the U.S. and was replaced by Damo Suzuki. The band broke up in 1979 but reformed in 1986 and Mooney briefly rejoined the ranks for the album Rite Time. In 2017, Mooney, Schmidt, Liebezeit,  Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore and the London Symphony Orchestra performed at the Barbican Centre as part of The Can Project, which celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary.

Mooney says the new act will likely perform a few Can pieces at Sled Island. He has also written a poem, Brother Sky, which can be found on his website. It is dedicated to Suzuki, who died in 2023, and Mooney hopes to set it to music. Czukay and Liebezeit both died in 2017 and Karoli died in 2001.

Mooney may not want to live in the past, but he says he recognizes the influence Can has had musically on later generations.

“I think the band I have now is a progression from there,” he says. “They all knew about Can. They have their own lives. I just look forward to making some more music and see if there are any ideas that come out of this new grouping.”

“We’ll soon find out,” he adds with a laugh.

 Malcolm Mooney and the Eleventh Planet will play Central United Church on June 20 at 7 p.m. as part of Sled Island. 

Article content