Interview: Michelle Heighway on her film about cult musician Damo Suzuki

Damo Suzuki from the film 'Energy'. Picture: Michelle Heighway
Damo Suzuki from the film 'Energy'. Picture: Michelle Heighway
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Damo Suzuki is a singer who can be relied upon to provoke strong reactions wherever he goes.

The former lead vocalist with massively influential German band Can, who recently toured Britain, has been followed on his travels by Leeds-based filmmaker Michelle Heighway, who is recording a documentary on the 68-year-old performer. It’s called Energy.

“It was interesting to see how people react to Damo after the show,” she says. “It was more intense at Salford – people were kissing his head.”

What has come across at all the dates – that included Headrow House in Leeds and The Crescent in York – Heighway says is the fondness fans have for Suzuki’s unconventional style of performing. At each show he will play with a different pick-up band of local musicians which Suzuki calls his Network (the Salford gig featured former members of The Fall) and everything is improvised. “People have a massive respect for him and it’s really interesting to watch and see how people react,” says Heighway, who was inspired to make a film about the singer when friends of hers from the Huddersfield band Window Right accompanied him. “They played with him five or six times and when the drummer from the band, who was a very good friend of mine, passed away from cancer Damo put out this beautiful, poignant blog about Neil [Atkinson] that really touched me. They had a few more gigs and I managed to get the Window Right to play so I can connect with how the members of The Fall feel with having a really close friend being taken away from them.”

Heighway, whose last documentary film was about Huddersfield eccentric Jake Mangel-Wurzel, was drawn to the fact that Suzuki, who made the classic 70s albums Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi with Can, was “very much an individual”.

“I’m always interested in the psychological level, people that aren’t afraid to deviate from the norm. There’s a cool Frank Zappa quote that I love, ‘Progress is not possible without deviating from the norm’, so that’s why I make my documentaries independently and just go with it. Even if they take a long time I think that time builds a really beautiful narrative and I’ve really got one definitely with Damo’s story.”

Filmmaker Michelle Heighway.

Filmmaker Michelle Heighway.

The success of a new biography of Can and anticipation for Suzuki’s own autobiography have also provided Heighway with new content for her film.

Central to its story is Suzuki’s own recovery from colon cancer. “My friend had recently passed away so I felt as a filmmaker and as a human being that was still going through the mourning process I realised that I needed to make the documentary and follow that journey just to self-heal as well,” Heighway says. “It’s been an amazing journey of resilience. It was really inspirational how Damo responded to everything that he had to go through and it’s just been wonderful that it’s all worked out well for him in the recovery process.”

Heighway traces Suzuki’s life all the way back to his birthplace Japan and his teenage years spent living in a commune and busking in Sweden and Germany, where he met Can members Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. “I like to get into everything and really cover the whole portrait,” she says. “As I visited Damo throughout his operations and the progress he would tell me about his life from his family, his mother, moving to Ireland, being found on the street – all the things that I guess people know but I’m wanting to show parts of Damo Suzuki that nobody else has ever seen, like a really beautiful portrait of a human being going through life. It’s an inspirational story, he’s very creative, very visual, a really inspiring character.

“He’s shown me his cartoons. He collects comics as well, he’s into animé, and the sketches that he did as a youngster and his thoughts upon society and food have really provoked animation, so we want to do animation within the documentary to help tell the story and build that narrative.”

There’s a cool Frank Zappa quote that I love, ‘Progress is not possible without deviating from the norm’, so that’s why I make my documentaries independently and just go with it.

Michelle Heighway

Since 1983 Suzuki has been on a never-ending tour. “He loves it, it’s his favourite thing,” Heighway says. “To do just live every day as it comes and be doing what he wants all of the time, it’s a really big gift that he’s able to do that. I’m inspired by that way of thinking as well. I guess I’m sometimes too much of a perfectionist. People can sometimes do too much in post-production with regards to music or in film. With Damo, he’s happy and at peace with whatever happens on stage. Sometimes they’re recorded and then released, so there’s so many different vinyls, different styles of product that have been released through the Damo Suzuki Network. He sells them at his tours after each show. There’s so much beautiful music, one of my favourites is with the Elysian Quartet, that’s really spiritual with the strings.

“It’s always different for every gig and he doesn’t compare any show, he just goes and does them and it’s really interesting.”

To date Heighway reckons she has “30-plus” hours of film footage, which she needs to edit and release. To help with costs, she has launched a crowdfunding campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/energy-a-documentary-about-damo-suzuki#/. With two weeks left to go, Heighway is halfway towards her £20,000 target.

She would like to premiere it at a film festival. “And then it would be great to release it on DVD, maybe online, I’m not sure. It would be even more amazing to get a broadcast, but at the moment I’m just thinking I need to finish the film,” she says.