Damo Suzuki, Singer Who Ignited the Experimental Band Can, Dies at 74

Damo Suzuki, a Japanese vocalist best known for his role with the revered and influential German experimental rock group Can during its most crucial period, died on Feb. 9 at his home in Cologne, Germany. He was 74.

His death was announced by Can’s label, Spoon Records. No cause was given, but Mr. Suzuki had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014. Initially given a 10 percent chance of recovery, he endured more than 40 surgeries in the ensuing decade.

Mr. Suzuki was a free spirit who left Japan as a teenager for a nomadic life in Europe. His music ignored genre boundaries, and his singing often sounded like shamanic incantations in an invented language.

“If you’re a creative person,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Japan Times, “it’s important to break rules. If you’re in the middle of the system, you can’t create much. But if you’re on the outside, you can just avoid it, start from zero and make your own stuff with no influence at all.”

With Can, his enigmatic, sometimes indecipherable utterances wove through free-flowing grooves. His vocals could be as lilting as a lullaby — the Can guitarist Michael Karoli once called him a “loud whisperer” — or as startling as a shriek. In performance, while his bandmates concentrated on their instruments, Mr. Suzuki shimmied around the stage like a psychedelic imp, often barefoot and shirtless, his face hidden by an undulating mane of long black hair.

Can was a “rhythmic collision of disparate elements,” Paul Woods, who co-wrote Mr. Suzuki’s 2019 memoir, “I Am Damo Suzuki,” said by email. “That combination of four musicians who seemed to be playing in their own universe and a vocalist who sang in a Japanese/English mélange shouldn’t have cohered — but it did, perfectly.”

Indeed, Can was not only a primary inspiration for alternative bands like Public Image Ltd and Radiohead; it was also sampled by hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West. In 1985, Mark E. Smith of the Manchester post-punk band the Fall recorded a tribute, “I Am Damo Suzuki,” which later provided the title for Mr. Suzuki’s autobiography.

Kenji Suzuki was born on Jan. 16, 1950, in Oiso, a coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour’s drive southwest of Tokyo. His father, Daiji, an architect, died of cancer when Damo was 5. After his death. Mr. Suzuki’s mother, Kimie, ran a small grocery. Mr. Suzuki was one of five children, including a sister who died when he was an infant.

The family moved to nearby Atsugi when he was 8, and he spent his adolescence there. An indifferent student, more interested in listening to the Kinks than his schoolwork, he dropped out of high school at 17 and plotted his departure from Japan. He sent a letter to a Swedish newspaper saying he was looking for a family to support him and teach him the culture. After receiving 21 enthusiastic responses, he set sail on a Russian ocean liner a day after his 18th birthday.

Disembarking in Siberia, he made his way to the tiny Swedish town of Grasmark. After a short stint there, he spent the next two years busking across Europe, squatting in communes and painting. He picked up the nickname Damo (after a manga character) while in Ireland.

In May 1970 he was playing guitar in a Munich production of “Hair” (with a cast that included Donna Summer) when he had a chance encounter with Can’s bassist and drummer, Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. Can was about to begin a sold-out four-night residency at a local club, and the band’s vocalist, the American visual artist Malcolm Mooney, had recently left. Mr. Czukay saw Mr. Suzuki screaming on the street in an impromptu performance and invited him to sing with the band that evening. After learning there would be no rehearsal, Mr. Suzuki agreed.

The concert ended up “a kind of frightening mess, so that actually after 20 minutes the disco was emptied,” the Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt said in a 2021 interview. Nevertheless, Mr. Suzuki joined the band.

His recording debut was on the 1970 Can album “Soundtracks,” a compilation of songs composed for films. He was also on the three landmark Can albums that followed: “Tago Mago” (1971), “Ege Bamyasi” (1972) and “Future Days” (1973). He left the band, in October 1973, moved to Düsseldorf and retreated from the music world.

Over the next decade he held various jobs, including hotel reception clerk. But in the early 1980s, after his first battle with cancer, he returned to music.

He formed his final project, Damo Suzuki’s Network, in 1997. Initially with a steady lineup, by late 2003 it had morphed into something else: what he called the “Never-Ending Tour,” using different local musicians he had never played with, whom he called “sound carriers,” at every stop. By his count, he performed with more than 7,000 sound carriers from more than 40 countries. These makeshift ensembles avoided existing material, and instead of holding rehearsals, Mr. Suzuki would often cook a large meal for the players before the show to get to know them.

Mr. Suzuki termed his method “instant composing.” “I play a lot of spontaneous music, but his approach to it was really particular to him,” said Joshua Abrams, the founder of the avant-garde instrumental ensemble Natural Information Society, who played bass at a 2007 Chicago performance. “He had an amazing way of leading without leading. He didn’t have to say ‘Do this’ — he generated so much energy with his presence and his vocals that anyone who was sensitive could tap into it.”

Mr. Suzuki is survived by his partner, Elke Morsbach; a brother, Hirofumi; a sister, Hiroko; three sons: Mirko and Martin Suzuki, from his 1972 marriage to Gitta Suzuki-Mouret, which ended in divorce in 1987, and Marco Heibach, from his relationship with Astrid Heibach; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Suzuki’s health struggles were chronicled by the filmmaker Michelle Heighway, who followed him for five years for the documentary “Energy,” which will be released on DVD next month. “Damo taught me the power of ‘now,’” Ms. Heighway said.

Jim Siegel, a New York-based drummer who toured Europe with Mr. Suzuki in 2003, learned a similar lesson.

“These days, so many people are really keen to exploit whatever triumphs they had in the distant past, and he really didn’t look back,” Mr. Siegel said. “I think his art was a real reflection of his way of thinking about life, that it’s in the moment and the beauty is there to create something magical.”

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