Jaki Liebezeit, the percussionist for German band Can who became an icon in avant-garde circles for a machine-like style that rejected standard drumsets, died Sunday. He was 78.
His bandmates in Can, which he co-founded in Cologne in 1968, said Liebezeit died suddenly from pneumonia.
He died “asleep peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones. We will miss him hugely,” Can said on its Facebook page.
Can was one of the pioneering bands in Krautrock, the broadly defined genre of artists from West Germany who took rock in a more psychedelic and experimental direction by bringing in jazz improvisation and early electronics.
Liebezeit had his start in free jazz, moving after his early studies to Barcelona where he notably played with visiting trumpeting great Chet Baker.
But Liebezeit grew disenchanted with the jazz circuit. He sought to learn percussion from around the world and, with Can, developed a tight, metronome-like method that to listeners became increasingly indistinguishable from machines.
In fact, Liebezeit — unlike so many purists — was fully comfortable exploring the possibilities of drum machines.
He eventually scrapped the drumkit entirely. He preferred the power of striking all drums with his arms rather than kicking with his feet and only sparingly used cymbals, while embracing electronics and percussion instruments that are less common in rock such as gongs.
Liebezeit would explain that the standardization of drumsets, contrary to popular imagination, was a recent phenomenon and was meant for jazz rather than rock or other forms.
By the 1990s he said he “tried to get rid of all American influences, because I discovered the whole world.”
“I’d discovered it a long time before, but American music is so dominant — I don’t want to say imperialistic, but it makes it so that you cannot think in another way,” he told the British cultural magazine The Quietus in 2015.
Can was nonetheless influenced by US avant-garde music including rockers The Velvet Underground and minimalist composer Steve Reich.
In addition to work with Can, which periodically reunited after the 1970s, Liebezeit played with artists ranging from synthpop chart-toppers Depeche Mode to ambient producer Brian Eno.