Arts

In the Orbit of Malcolm Mooney

Heart of a Turtle, 2019, Malcolm Mooney

Krautrock Legend’s Music and Art Sound the Same Chord

Malcolm Mooney became a music legend as the original vocalist of the band Can. Now he is an esteemed painting instructor at AUArts, career painter/sculptor, and lyricist. And he celebrates his 80th birthday on March 2.

And who is Can, you might be asking? Just ask the person in your life who knows the most about 20th-century music. 

For me, this happened back in 2021 when I shared that a mutual friend of ours was showing art in a coffee shop on Centre Street, curated by “some kraut rocker you should know…” My musically aware companion responded by saying, “What? You don’t mean Can?”

“That’s the one, Can!” I replied.

When I told this story to Malcolm Mooney, he responded by scowling and saying, “Don’t you mean THEKRAUTROCKER?” briefly taking on his stage persona before laughing it off.

Glutton for punishment that I am, I began telling this same story to Colton Sobey, drummer in the bands Abrupt Decay, Stench of Death, Satanic Tea Co, Mortar, and Upir. Obviously aware of Mooney, he cut me off after “some kraut rocker,” to correct me. “Don’t you mean THE Krautrocker?” 

How hadn’t I heard of this counterculture hero.

Our music history lesson continues, and the following association gives us a sense for Mooney’s contemporaries. Gerald Jenkins is a UK photographer who produces tribute portfolios to and capture images of music history icons. His subjects include The Who, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Brian Eno, Devo, Malcolm Mooney, and Damo Suzuki. His portrait of Mooney & Suzuki can be seen above.

Neither Mooney nor our music-aware companions would allow us to proceed any further without mention of Damo Suzuki. Suzuki was the vocalist to join Can following Mooney’s departure. Damo Suzuki passed away recently on February 9, 2023. In conversation, Mooney displays a deep respect for Suzuki; they were friends. More images of the two together can be viewed on Mooney’s website, along with a Suzuki inspired poem written in the days that followed his friend’s passing. The final words, “Rest in Power”.

Mooney tells me he once learned of a group unaffiliated with either of them called The Mooney Suzuki. When he contacted the band manager to ask for an explanation, he was instead offered free tickets, which he declined. The Mooney Suzuki played Lollapalooza and members went on play with and manage The Strokes.

And what brought a founding vocalist of the krautrock genre to Calgary more than a decade ago? I am told the answer is love.

Malcolm Mooney returns to the stage for Sled Island 2024 leading a new project, the Eleventh Planet for a now-hometown performance.

According to Sled, the band’s “impressive lineup features Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley (drums), Ava Mendoza of Unnatural Ways (guitar), Daniel Morano (percussion), Devin Brahja Waldman (sax), Peter Conheim (bass/electronics), and Alexis Marcelo (piano/keyboard), with the crucial voice of Malcolm Mooney front and centre.“

Though it’s just the latest sonic adventure for Mooney, it looks to be both a monument to a staggering career and a glimpse at a vibrant future. Mooney is excited about the local talent joining the Eleventh Planet project.

“What’s your end game?” Mooney asks me in sly interrogation during our conversation. “Is it for you to get a story for your portfolio?” Before I can respond, he adds, “because I’m fine with that…” before breaking into a good-natured smile. “I’ve never asked someone about their endgame before,” Mooney adds with a grin. 

On consideration, my answer is that I hope to inspire public engagement with art and music, but I’ve always been a dreamer.

Our conversations skip about without missing a beat, ranging from a humorous recollection of the first time he was served steak tartare, through to philosophies about friendship and mortality.

It’s hard to cover everything with Mooney. His artistry is multidisciplined. He was a painter before he was a musician. In 1968, at the time of Can’s inception, Mooney says he mistakenly believed he was being invited to a visual art studio rather than a recording studio. He muses that there were some communication challenges for
a black man from New York living in Germany.

“As a visual artist, I combine elements of abstraction, drawing, and collage to produce works imbued with references to music, and steeped in everyday life,” he states. “There is a physical rendering of sound; visual music steeped in improvisation that is integral to my creative practice.”

Malcolm Mooney with Damo Suzuki. Photo: Gerald Jenkins

It is not hard to find symmetry between the way Mooney leads on stage musically, and the way he fosters a community and shares his knowledge of traditional abstract painting practices.

He paints on canvas, linen, and “whatever I can get my hands on,” he says. There are found- material, collage, and sculptural elements to his work. 

Mooney has painted with oil paints for most of his life, but challenges with solvents and ventilation have led him to use a safer product called Medium W, which can mix with oil paints, but uses water rather than turpentines. He has been doing more acrylic paintings and pours.

While Mooney’s music finds much acclaim, his visual art practice has been less acknowledged, yet no less worthy of celebration. 

“I’m a working man, not a celebrity,” says Mooney. 

Mooney remembers a time he and friend Peter Read, former department head, installation and collection services, at the Guggenheim Museum, discussed the possibility of a Mooney retrospective at the prestigious New York museum. They were, however, aware that living artists who are presented in exhibitions at the Guggenheim have been known to pass on prior to the opening events, so they wisely chose to avoid the pursuit. 

Luckily for those of us who plan to attend the Sled Island show.

Sled Island runs June 19 to 24. For more information, visit sledisland.com