Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer

By Jono Podmore

An exploration of the life and legacy of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.

Extract from biography by Jono Podmore:

I first got the job of writing Jaki’s biography in 2003. I was living in Cologne at the time and the maternal engine of Spoon Records, Hildegard Schmidt (wife of Can founder Irmin) had decided a biography of each member of Can should appear on the Can DVD we were preparing for release. She knew Jaki and I got on well since we had worked together under her watchful eye in Irmin’s studio in their home in Provence.

Punctual as ever, Jaki made it up to my 5th floor flat in Bonnerstraße. What followed was an exercise on what not to include. Applying the reductionist and ego-free approach that he practiced in all other spheres of his life, like teenagers deciding who we wouldn’t invite to the party, we had side-splitting fun scratching names like Depeche Mode, Chet Baker, Michael Rother, Eurythmics and Brian Eno out of his biography. Überflüssig – superfluous – was my new German word that week.

As far as he was prepared to divulge, his life began at the age of 30 in 1968 when he joined Can…

Extract from discussion with Drums off Chaos:

Jaki Liebezeit, best known as the master timekeeper of Cologne’s legendary esoteric-rock unit Can, pursued over a decades-long career an enduring fascination with the core truths of time as expressed via rhythm. Not just a musician who wished to perfect a technique or expand his range of drumming styles, Liebezeit took his fascination deeper, to realms in which the very whys and wherefores of rhythm’s true place in any musical mode were of paramount substance –– as was by extension its metaphorical relationship to the human being’s role in larger, collective society.

From his revered Can recordings and live performances, along with the numerous other drum-centric musical projects that followed right up to his death in January 2017, Liebezeit had become famously known as the drummer whose sense of time was so accurate that he was far better than any mere drum machine. This is a reputation he sometimes laughed about, though one could see a twinkle in his eye that suggested that just maybe he suspected it was true. Jaki knew that deep down he and potentially all of us can be flesh-blood-bone analogues of programmed drum machines, a piece of equipment that, after all, simply executes the rhythmic patterns it has been programmed to play.

Why not, thought Jaki, apply the schematics of what a drum machine does to a codified set of rules for human musicians so that they too could play with more accuracy than a programmed rhythm box? His own playing –– astonishingly spare and to the fleshy ear note-perfectly precise –– had benefited enormously from applying a strictly held-to set of do’s and don’ts for the proper order and exact placement of drum notes in any given musical scenario. In addition, and perhaps more profoundly, Liebezeit came to a realization that such a codification of rhythmic method would at core build upon a foundation of harmonic hierarchy –– i.e., drum notes, he found out, are not just beats, they’re like friendly cousins in the overall harmonic texture of a musical composition.

Liebezeit, who never considered himself a teacher-type as such, found himself the centre of a group of fellow drummers that gravitated towards him and his system: Drums Off Chaos. A few years ago one of the group, Gero Sprafke, transcribed the system in detail. Roughly analogous to Morse code, Liebezeit’s system is referred to as E-T, the E and the T coming from the Morse code to represent the dot and the dash respectively.

Extract from the theory, collated by Drums Off Chaos:

The primary characters are ‘dot’ and ‘dash’. These form the smallest possible units of the rhythmic system.

First rule of play:
  = A hit with one hand - relative time value of 1.
  = Two hits with one hand - relative time value of 2.

These two units contain in themselves fundamental dynamic information, which will be explained later step by step.

The entire rhythmic system is inseparable from movement and the effect of inertia on the arms, hands and sticks as well the rebound from the drum head.

In order to be able to understand the dynamic profile within the rhythms, an exact analysis and awareness of the basic physical processes and movements is vital.

Following the rules of the game without a working understanding of the physical context would be contrary to the spirit of the originator.

”...do what the stick wants.” (Jaki Liebezeit)

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