Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Interview with Lou Reed

In 1975, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music, a notorious, 65-minute noise opus comprised almost entirely of guitar feedback: fans spat, critics withered, and most who trudged through each of the album's four sides presumed Reed was either staging an elaborate joke or weaseling out of his record contract with RCA. Over the next three decades, Metal Machine Music fell out print, was re-anointed by burgeoning noise fiends, and, ultimately, remastered for a digital reissue. In 2002, Ulrick Krieger transcribed the album and arranged for it to be performed-- with Reed on guitar-- by Zeitkratzer, an 11-member classical ensemble. The concert was held at the MaerzMusik Haus Der Berliner Festspiele on March 17, 2002 and just released on CD (with an accompanying DVD) by San Francisco's Asphodel Records. Pitchfork talked to Reed about the performance, Tai Chi, and whether or not Metal Machine Music is anything more than an epic prank.

Lou Reed: Hello, hi. How are you, Amanda?

Pitchfork: I'm great.

Reed: How do you say your last name?

Pitchfork: Petrusich.

Reed: Wow. A name name. That's a real name. You should be a movie star. What nationality is it?

Pitchfork: It's Croatian.

Reed: It's a great, great name. Are you married? What's your husband's name?

Pitchfork: Stetka. Which is a Czech name.

Reed: What's it like when you say them both?

Pitchfork: Petrusich-Stetka.

Reed: That's pretty good, don't you think?

Pitchfork: It's not bad.

Reed: What if you got knighted? That would be pretty good.

Pitchfork: [laughs] I watched the DVD of the performance last night. The DVD is my favorite part-- watching these extremely focused musicians hunched over, attacking their instruments, it's so physical. Was that something you thought about-- the physicality of the work-- when you were first approached about a live performance?

Reed: Absolutely. If Metal Machine is anything, it's energy and physicality, and you should be able to physically feel it, and it takes a lot of energy to perform it. So when Ulrick Krieger, who's the guy who transcribed it for Zeitkratzer-- he's an independent musician, he plays with a lot of different bands-- he called and said, "I want to do this, I've always loved the piece and I want to transcribe it." I said it can't be transcribed. It defies transcription. And he said, "Well, you know, I've always loved this thing, I know I can do this, and I know we can play this. Let me transcribe a little bit of it and we'll record five or ten minutes of it and you listen to it and decide whether it's OK or not."

So he did and it was amazing. I just couldn't believe it, that he could do this. But he did.

Pitchfork: The idea of Metal Machine Music as a performance piece also makes sense, in a way, because I get the impression that the record was recorded live-- obviously there aren't any overdubs, any loops. How did Krieger's transcription change your own understanding of the work, if at all?

Reed: It was amazing to hear the pieces that he latched onto, as pit stops, or [as places] to take off from. There are a lot of things he could be listening to, and he picked this one or that one, and I found it fascinating-- what he was doing, his way of listening. It's an interesting question. There's a lot of ways [to listen], if you're gonna listen to it [at all]. But if you can't listen to it like that, like the way you just said, then it's just a mishmash of noise.

But if you go in, and you scope it, and put your attention here, there, wherever you think the fun is, then it has shape. And that's what he did. He took off from the same starting point I did, but [from there] it depends on how you focus it, because you could parlay it in a lot of different ways. It was obvious that he could really hear it, that he could notate this for real. He was really paying attention to the harmonics. I just didn't even realize that guys into the electronics had gotten that far. I really didn't know. Within the past couple of years, I've been meeting a lot of younger musicians, and they collect a lot of analog pedals, a lot of electro-harmonic stuff. And I'm like, "Why are you doing this? How come you don't have the new versions?" And they say, "Well, the sound is really great on these old analog pedals." But they don't play guitars, they don't play keyboards, they play machines. And they all know. So they say "Oh, on Metal Machine, there's this, this, and this.'' It's pretty astonishing to me.

Pitchfork: Well, accurately or inaccurately, Metal Machine Music is often credited as inspiring, in part, much of the contemporary avant-garde music scene-- noise, in particular. I know you've performed with Sonic Youth, who have obviously taken cues from Metal Machine Music, but do you listen to any younger, maybe more experimental, post-Sonic Youth noise bands? There's a whole, burgeoning movement of people who I think are really clearly inspired by this record.

Reed: You know, I hear a lot of that kind of stuff. I wouldn't presume to say, "Oh, they've been listening to Metal Machine." But on the other hand, sometimes I hear something and it's-- that kind of feedback, that kind of aggression, that kind of ripping guitar-- and I say well, that sounds familiar! I know who did that-- who does do that. I mean, I still do that. I liked it then and I love it now. I'm still involved in that kind of thing. And I really, really like it. I get a kick out of it. It requires a certain kind of energy that young people have.

Pitchfork: It requires a certain energy from the audience, too.

Reed: Well, the thing is coming at you. But, you know, it's friendly.

Pitchfork: On 2003's The Raven, you included a white noise track called "Fire Music", and...

Reed: Aren't you smart! Yes, I did. It's a direct descendent.

Pitchfork: ...And then this year, you released Hudson River Wind Meditations, which many have described as both antithetical to and an extension of Metal Machine Music. Are you finding yourself less and less interested in traditional verse-chorus-verse songwriting?

Reed: Funny you should ask that. "Fire Music" came after 9/11, and I was [living] just a couple of blocks from [Ground Zero]. And I was talking to some gearheads, some tech guys-- I wanted to know if you could do certain things that I was able to do on Metal Machine because it was analog. In digital, they said, "You can do this, you can do that, but you can't do that, it will lose punch. You could technically do that, but it wouldn't sound too great." I thought that was kind of fascinating. So I wanted to do this little piece with a Metal Machine approach. It's only two or three minute long. That's "Fire Music".

"Fire Music" just kills me. We mastered it...if you ever get to hear it on a big system, cause it's only two or three minutes long, but that thing, about two-thirds of the way through, rises up and advances out of the speakers, and I swear to you, it is amazing. I was up at [producer] Bob Ludwig's where he listening on these huge, God knows what...and that thing just rises up like this huge sonic wave, it's amazing. If there wasn't a wall to catch you, you'd still be heading south! It's just so astonishing. I started doing this other kind of music, and I was running these programs through guitar pedals. And it wasn't meant for guitar pedals. I found out lots of people do that.

But that's what I was doing, and that led into what became Hudson River Wind Meditations. That happened because I started getting this sound, and I've tried to get the sound back, but I can't get it back-- it's the one on the record, but I can't reproduce it. I was using some stuff by Line 6, and I don't know, coupled with a virus. I'm not sure what exactly did it, but I've never been able to get it back, because I didn't write it down and it wasn't MIDIed. But I had this thing and I really loved it and it was really good for meditation, it was really good for doing certain physical workouts, like Tai Chi. I took it to my class and the class liked it so we kept it there and used it. I would practice my routine to it. And I also did meditation to it. And then some people said, "Can we borrow that thing?" and I thought OK, I will move out of the rock thing because I don't want rock people thinking that there are rock'n'roll songs here, like they did with Metal Machine Music. It's for someone who wants it and knows what it is.

But you know, "Fire Music", I hadn't gone back to Metal Machine in a long time, but on The Raven, there are all these little electronic pieces in between the songs, and that built up to "Fire Music". I've got another one that I've got that I haven't released. It's the other side of the meditation music, it's called Purity. It's really amazing.

Pitchfork: Is it similar to the Hudson River songs?

Reed: It's the aggressive side of it.

Pitchfork: And you're releasing it?

Reed: I do want to release it. It really comes at you. I like music that comes at you.

Pitchfork: Me too.

Reed: What can you do?

Pitchfork: It's a critical cliché, but plenty have said, retrospectively, that Metal Machine Music was released ahead of its time-- it was reissued in 2000, and then performed in 2002, and now released as a live record in 2007. Do you think 2007 is its time?

Reed: I did [the live record] because I really loved it and I got a chance to work with these great musicians again, and we all had a great time doing it. I know that young kids out there find this music on their own. And they take it in the spirit in which it's done. I don't expect a lot of people to go for it, but I think there are some people who will get a lot of pleasure out of it.

Pitchfork: There's always been considerable chatter about whether or not Metal Machine Music was intended as a joke, or a stab at the record industry-- do you think the continuing conjecture about your intentions for the record is, now, as much a part of the art as the music?

Reed: The myth-- depends on how you look at it, but the myth is sort of better than the truth. The myth is that I made it to get out of a recording contract. OK, but the truth is that I wouldn't do that, because I wouldn't want you to buy a record that I didn't really like, that I was just trying to do a legal thing with. I wouldn't do something like that. The truth is that I really, really, really loved it. I was in a position where I could have it come out. I just didn't want it to come out and have the audience think it was more rock songs. It was only on the market for three weeks anyway. Then they took it away.

Pitchfork: Right, I read that it was the most returned record at that time...

Reed: It still may be the all-time champ.

Pitchfork: Do you think the critical and commercial response would have been different if it had been released on a classical label or an avant-garde label?

Reed: I haven't a clue. I tried to have it released on the classical label at RCA. And on it, it says "An Electronic Composition". That means no words.

Pitchfork: Plus it's got that cover...

Reed: That's a rock'n'roll cover, that's for sure.

Pitchfork: As a songwriter in 1975, what kinds of contextual or personal cues made you want to experiment with things like drone, volume, and sustained sound?

Reed: In the Velvet Underground, my guitar solos were always feedback solos, so it wasn't that big of a leap to say I want to do something that's nothing but guitar feedback, that doesn't have a steady beat and doesn't have a key. All we have to do is just have fun on the guitar, you don't have to worry about key and tempo. We just had tons of feedback and melody and licks flying around all over the place. I had two huge amps, and I would take two guitars and tune them a certain way and lean them against the amps so they would start feeding back. And once they started feeding back, both of them, their sounds would collide and that would produce a third sound, and then that would start feeding and causing another one and another one, and I would play along with all of them.

Pitchfork: Earlier this summer, you toured with your 1973 album Berlin. How have these opportunities to revisit old work-- to place it in a new context, to reexamine and recreate-- affected you?

Reed: I think it's amazing to have the opportunity to do things like that.

Pitchfork: To bring those records to new generations of people?

Reed: Well, a new generation, or maybe two new generations. I'm not sure how many years a generation is. I don't know if it's 10 or 20 years, I'm not sure. But if Berlin was 1973 and Metal Machine was '75 and now it's 2007, that's more than 30 years, so maybe it's a generation and a half. I think it's a real honor to be able to take these things out there and let people hear them.

Pitchfork: Both of those records were skewered, critically, on their release.

Reed: They didn't have much of a chance. Out they came and away they went.

Pitchfork: Were you anxious about Metal Machine Music's initial release? You must have had some sense that it was going to be shocking to people who bought and loved "Walk on the Wild Side" or "Sweet Jane".

Reed: I honestly thought "Boy, people who like guitar feedback are gonna go crazy for this." Count me among them. If you like loud guitars, here we are.

Pitchfork: Has it been interesting to see bands appropriate the idea of feedback as art, or feedback as its own instrument? I imagine it has to be gratifying to see that happen.

Reed: Feedback is a complete style of playing. People get better and better and better at it. Controlled feedback is really...I've devoted a lot of time to trying to do that. To have what I call the good harmonics, and avoid-- through electronics and the way the thing is built and the distance from the amp-- the bad harmonics. And also not go deaf while I was doing it. Because it used to be done by volume, and I thought, "I'll go deaf doing it this way." So I met a guy named Pete Cornish. The idea was: how can I have a loud sound soft, so I don't go deaf? How can I do that kind of feedback? How can I get that kind of physicality going and not knock my own ears out while I'm at it? Because if the amp is offstage, then I don't have the distance to play around with the note. I have to be reasonably near the amp to be able to work with the feedback.

Pitchfork: You're currently collaborating with the Killers, and you've mentioned being a fan of Okkervil River-- are there any other new bands that you find particularly compelling?

Reed: I can't remember the names. There are lots of them. I would have to go into my iPod and look them up. But Okkervil River, sure. I like Amy Winehouse-- I hope everything's OK with her, but what a great song.

Pitchfork: And the stuff with the Killers...

Reed: That band is genuinely great. The thing we did, I think it's called "Tranquilize".

Pitchfork: I know you have to go right now. Thanks so much for talking.

Reed: It's been a real pleasure talking to you, Amanda. Thank you.




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