Damo Suzuki: ‘I just don’t like to have any kind of a goal’

“I’m just being myself and I don’t take everything so seriously,” smiles Damo Suzuki, over Zoom from Cologne, as we discuss Energy, the documentary about his remarkable life made by Leeds-based filmmaker Michelle Heighway.

Damo Suzuki. Picture: Michelle Heighway
Damo Suzuki. Picture: Michelle Heighway

Seven years on from being diagnosed with colon cancer, he remains quietly determined to continue a musical odyssey begun more than 50 years ago when he was spotted busking in Munich by Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit of the German experimental rock group Can.

Invited to join their band, he sang on three albums – Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days – now regarded as classics, before departing in 1973, seemingly leaving music for good.

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However in the late 90s he made a surprise comeback, and since 2003 he has been touring the world, improvising gigs with musicians picked up in each town or city en route, who he calls “sound carriers”.

Despite ongoing treatment for cancer since 2014, Suzuki has continued performing, with spontaneity being key to everything he does.

“For me, it’s no problem or no big thing I’m waiting for, just something happens in the next moment,” the 71-year-old says of life on the road. “It’s much better than having any plan or anxiety. I have a schedule for two hours or something like that, except for this time I just try to live as naturally as possible.”

Heighway, whose previous film Mr Somebody? chronicled the life of Huddersfield eccentric Jake Mangle-Wurzle, says she thought she had reached the end of filming when she did a crowdfunding campaign in 2018, but the story took a new twist. “As Damo recovered, he went on all of these tours and did so many shows, and it just felt natural for me to be around him and continue to film, and that’s where we gave birth to further information within the documentary,” she says.

“Damo released his book, I Am Damo Suzuki, (co-authored by Paul Woods), and we covered that in Rough Trade Records in Nottingham, and Mojo interviewed Damo, so we got some beautiful information there as well. It’s part-recovery, part-roadtrip with some archive in there. Organically it’s worked really beautifully and I’m really happy with it.”

Damo Suzuki with partner Elke Morsbach, left, and filmmaker Michelle Heighwway.

Suzuki says the idea for the sound carriers’ never-ending tour came from “quite a tragic accident, and quite political too” – the US-led invasion of Iraq. “Many people don’t like to have any bombing so I thought maybe I can make something,” he says. “Violence comes without any kind of communication. Music is communication, without communication you cannot make music.

“With communication I thought maybe I can make step by step something good.”

Suzuki’s partner Elke Morsbach recalls they first met in 1985, but she had first heard one of his songs with Can much earlier, in her mid-teens. “In the moment I met him I forgot it,” she says. “He was real and he was nice.

“I lived with a painter who studied with Beuys and Richter and at that time in Cologne the scene was together, music and painters and everyone who makes art.”

In the film, Morsbach talks with understandable concern for Suzuki’s health. Yet it seems she never tried to dissuade him from touring. “I recognised this was such an important time,” she says today. “I knew that I have to be very strong on the line because otherwise Damo will die. For both of us it was a challenge and an examination, so I had to be strong. There was nobody outside for me. I didn’t call my mother because then she would go to church and put candles or something like that. I knew that all these bad influences will decide if you live or die. In hospital I did everything, I cooked for him, I put all the medicine they gave for him away because it was all poison. I knew we had to stay together to survive.”

Suzuki has said he never intended to be a musician or dreamed of being in a band when he embarked on his travels to Europe, from Japan, back in 1968. “I wanted to travel, that’s all,” he says now. “I just don’t like to have any kind of a goal. I just go my way and if by accident something is coming then I take it. I’m that kind of person. Still I’m not thinking I’m a musician. I’m making music but I’m not a musician. I really don’t like to have any category or any kind of a thing which make people think I’m a special person. Finally until the end of my life I keep my opinion and my philosophy, so I have to live like this. Music is just something which happened beside.”

Heighway is fundraising for music licensing rights, sound mixing and distribution of her film. For details visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/energy-a-documentary-about-damo-suzuki--3#/