From the Vaults: An interview with Lou Reed
To commemorate the passing of one of the key figures of twentieth century music, we present our interview with Lou Reed from 2000, around the release of Ecstasy and only a year prior to 9/11, published here in English for the first time.
Mr. Reed, New York has changed since you performed live with The Velvet Underground some thirty years ago.
Did it really change that much?
Don’t you think so? I heard that Mayor Giuliani reigns the city with a zero tolerance policy. Woody Allen has left Manhattan already.
In all honesty, I couldn’t care less about Woody Allen. Giuliani on the other hand… he’s the devil! He’s the incarnation of evil. He’s a right-wing wretch.
If you were as young today as you were in 1968, would you feel equally at home and inspired in today’s New York? I mean, thirteen years after Andy Warhol’s death?
Absolutely. The city is still vivid, and full of artists, musicians, and actors. They inspire each other, you know? The only thing that has changed are the spots and places. The caravan of the subculture is constantly on the move. You call that gentrification nowadays. And if you’re lucky, Giuliani isn’t there—yet.
And what happens if he is?
At the moment, we are facing an economic boom that knows no comparison. There is too much money in circulation. Everything is getting more and more expensive, especially the rents. I have the impression that it started a couple of years ago—and now they try to cover every single square foot with buildings. I mean, look at the Times Square. It resembles Disneyland now. All those young stock brokers and investment bankers earn too much money. They are the reason that there is no more affordable space to rent.
High rents are a poison for every city’s art and music scene…
I personally wait for the day the stock market crashes again. We need another Black Thursday. When the stock exchange rates start to fall into fathomlessness, you better have reserved a seat in the first row. I would like to be an eyeball witness of that event.
Getting older, looking back: how do you see your first steps with Andy Warhol today?
I still suffer from the bad sound our early recordings used to have. Everything was drowned in the noise and in order to correct that I researched and spent insane amounts of money to have our music remastered in the best possible way technically. I couldn’t stand the background noise and the hissing any more. Without my initiative, we’d still listen to the same unlistenable shit. So, if you listen carefully to my new records, you will notice that they sound clear and clean. That’s how I like my music to sound. Clear, clean, and powerful. That’s my agenda. Everybody can record a lo-fi record nowadays, but what’s the point in doing so? I know how much it takes to record a very good-sounding album—and I am willing to dedicate the time and to invest the money needed to achieve exactly that sound.
Would you go that far that sound is more important than the song?
No, I’m not a perfectionist. I’m not interested in virtuosity either. But if I hear a song such as “Call My Name”, I hear only what I don’t get to hear. It’s like suffering from phantom pain. I hear the lost frequencies, the irrecoverable musical shades and overtones. I don’t give a fuck about what you or somebody else thinks about those early recordings or if you happen to like the muffled sound of The Velvet Underground’s albums. I only hear the mistakes, the missed opportunities, and the flaws. Man, if money could recover what got lost, I’d fundraise it immediately.
So, what do you tell your recording engineer when you go to a studio to record a new album?
He should document and record everything. He should take equal care to record both the low humming of the guitar amplifier and the feedback that occurs if you softly touch the strings of an electric guitar. He should basically record every single dirty sound that comes out of my guitar and my amp—but he better make sure that the recording is crystal clear and absent of any white noise.
Apart from you there’s only a few other musicians around who are known to have ruined their careers willingly by releasing extremely uncommercial albums. You did so with releasing Metal Machine Music. I mean, I think the album is great, but…
Wait, wait, stop! I didn’t ruin my career with Metal Machine Music! I just had a different approach to music at that time and that’s why I did the album. If I start to become interested in something, I get obsessed. I never tried to be voluntarily uncommercial. Honestly, I was convinced that Metal Machine Music would get its audience as it was the only album I could identify with at that time. As far as I remember, I have always only done what I wanted. I still love Metal Machine Music. I also love Berlin—that’s another album many people still seem to misunderstand. I’ll tell you something, I recorded these albums exactly the way I did because I’d heard them in my head. And I mean I heard every single damn detail. I just had to record it.
I just wanted to say that it wasn’t always easy for your fans to follow you.
Metal Machine Music would have had—if they’d only listened to me—and should have had a warning sticker: “Attention! No Songs! No Singing!” But my record company didn’t have the guts to print the sticker. Instead, you’d find that one little sentence, “Electronic Composition,” in the small print. If someone had bought the record back then thinking and hoping it was a typical Lou Reed rock’n’roll album, he’d probably have been disappointed. But instead of marketing the record faithfully, only three weeks after its release my record company deleted it from the back catalogue. I mean, don’t forget that Metal Machine Music clearly marks the exact birth date of industrial music. I probably don’t have any reason to complain as nowadays everybody with a brain seems to appreciate the record for what it is.
What kind of appreciation are you talking of?
I know a lot of DJs who understand the music on Metal Machine Music as ambient industrial music—and they play it regularly in their sets. Brian Eno notably wrote in his book A Year with Swollen Appendices that Metal Machine Music was the only record that had impressed him when he recorded his first album of ambient music. Same mindset, different result. I remember I was happy when I read that. It was very nice of him. And here’s a fun fact for you: a couple of years later, a museum in Stuttgart used Metal Machine Music for a huge installation, but the only copy of the album they could get hold of was this atrocious sounding French CD that doesn’t sound at all as it should. Don’t buy it if you get it.
Do you pity the poor Stuttgart art audiences… ?
I actually did. It was the moment when I decided to let the original masters be restored and polished. The final result actually sounds great. I didn’t expect anything else.
And when will the record be re-released?
You touch on a sore point here. Once a year I beg my record company to re-release the record. Last time I visited my A&R in his New York office I played the freshly remastered tapes to him. I told him that I had invested my own fucking money into getting these tracks polished and that I had commissioned Bob Ludwig, the world’s best recording engineer, to take care of the process. But they couldn’t have cared less. These record company people are a bunch of hypocrites. They are complete ignorants.
You don’t feel you were taken seriously?
Exactly. And that’s a very bad feeling. I mean, the only thing they had to do was to pay for the pressing. I had paid all the rest. “Here, you can have it, take it!” No studio costs, no money needed for the recordings. Nada. Zero. But they didn’t want to release it. I really felt bad for quite a while.
Why don’t you just record a new album with electronic compositions? Today, the world seems ready to appreciate such a radical piece of new music from you.
But I don’t want to repeat myself. By the way, I belong to those people who constantly have been victims of libel and slander. Every fucking journalist in the world thinks he can write me off. Whenever I changed direction or recorded albums such as Metal Machine Music or Berlin, these muckrakers would assume that I did it just to fulfill a contract. It’s an uncomely experience to get hit with when you’re weak and vulnerable. I mean, there have been record stores in the U.S. that have boycotted my albums. It felt like book burnings. These babbitts hate everything erratic or incalculable. May they burn in hell.
On your new album Ecstasy there’s a song called “Like a Possum”. It’s eighteen minutes long and, if you ask me, the guitar feedback sounds like a distant echo from Metal Machine Music.
I’m glad to hear that. I love this song. I spent years of my life waiting for a technology that is so advanced that you can record and thus hear the sounds of an electric guitar the way it really sounds. You need the best studio technicians and the best gear to get such a result. But it’s worth the pain. Every night, when the recording sessions were over and everybody would leave the studio, I’d grab the tapes with the guitars we’d recorded and listened to them at home. For hours at night, I’d listen to these guitars in all their eternal beauty. Of course I listened to them loud. And I mean really loud! As loud as it can get. And I found peace. Man, I wish we’d have had these possibilities back when we recorded Loaded.
Wow, you sound really enthusiastic!
This song is the best I’ve done in some years. I think of it like a punch in the face from Muhammad Ali. Bang! Like a volcanic eruption. Like the glowing beauty of a hot lava stream.
In the song you sing the line, “I am the only one left standing.” Do you feel like the last survivor of a world gone by?
Every one of us, and I am sure you too, have seen close friends die. Through AIDS, through drugs, cancer, or an accident. The older you get, the more friends will fall. That’s the price you pay. I am 57 years old now and will soon celebrate my 58th birthday.
Do you sometimes ask yourself how you’ve managed to survive the life you’re living for so long?
Sure. I’ve put my dick in every hole available. But in a way, I haven’t lived a different life compared to many others. I mean, most of us have experiences with drugs, many of us smoke and drink too much. I am no different except for the fact that I have always been in the limelight.
Do you regret that?
The limelight? No! The only thing that sometimes annoys me is the fact that I have to promote my work personally. Album after album, year after year. Maybe, for my next record I should record one interview that you could access only via a phone number: for questions about the new album press one. For questions about The Velvet Underground and Nico press two. For questions about my private life and other gossip press three and hang the fuck up. ~
This interview was originally published in German in Die Woche in 2000.
Published October 28, 2013. Words by Max Dax.