Bluefat Archive February 2003

The Tell-Tale Tone

Talking with Lou Reed about sound, spirit and Poe

Skinny but muscular, Lou Reed's looking good these days, and I'm telling you, close-up, that crosshatched, open-minded face reeks experience. The notorious former leader of the, you know, seminal late-'60s avant-garage pop band the Velvet Underground has undergone a radical series of changes throughout his solo career following the Velvets' breakup, from snarly glitter rocker to noise nihilist to bespectacled strummer to bar-band guitar basher and back and forth again and again. His most recent enterprise is the Hal Willner-produced double CD The Raven on Reprise Records, a star-studded (Ornette Coleman, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer, others) work inspired by and quoting from the works of Edgar Allan Poe incorporating spoken word, rock & roll and balladry, and all manner of just plain beautiful and often pretty ferocious electronic interludes. Substance-wise it's deep and endlessly rewarding, like a real cornucopia for Lou Reed fans. And boy, does it sound good. I shot the breeze with the poet, the towering figure, the really influential Big One on the patio at Warner Bros. in Burbank, sipping Starbucks and smokin' cigs.

JOHN PAYNE: Lou, what's the story behind The Raven?

LOU REED: I had done a play in Germany with [theater director] Robert Wilson called Time Rocker and 行 I hope you know who Bob Wilson is...

Well, yes, I know who Bob Wilson is.

Okay, so then they gave him the opportunity for an open-ended project, and he got in touch with me and said, "We should do a play that revolves around Edgar Allan Poe, and you should write it." So I did. And we toured around Europe. We went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for 11 days, and then back to Europe.

And then I couldn't get it out of my mind, so I rewrote it as a record experience.

How long did that take?

In the end, because of the rewriting and then going back, then getting other ideas and going back and turning something around or that way didn't work and going the other way with it 行 in the end, it took a while.

What was your thinking about the musical settings? You could plan things in advance, but things must've changed a bit when you were in the studio with your band.

You know, these days, mostly everybody's recording things separately, like with Pro Tools and not with a live band. We're a live band, with real players, so we went over the basic arrangements before we ever went in. It's too expensive to be in the studio and figure things out.

Once we went in, things adjusted themselves. I mean, all of the guys have a great sound, so we weren't wasting time trying to get a good sound out of someone who may or may not have a good sound. We knew what kind of mikes we needed, we knew what kind of a board, we knew what kind of a room. There's no losing any time over that.

But then ideas present themselves. "Oh hey, did you hear that thing over there? What's doing that? A-ha. Can we get more of that?" Or, "Hey, we don't have the time, we don't have the money, but keep going, quickly!" And then, "Wouldn't it work better if it started three seconds later?" Or, "Wouldn't it work better if it started three seconds earlier?" Or, "Shouldn't it drop out over there?" Or, "What happens if you put Program 900 in 2, just let it run over that word over there and then get it out? That's cool there." Stuff like that. You know. Without beating it to death.

How'd you get Ornette Coleman to play on your record? And what did he bring to the process?

That happened in the studio. I was playing bass and Mike Rathke was playing guitar, and we got lucky, 'cause we thought it needed one more thing: Ornette. It's very hard to get Ornette. I hope your readers know who Ornette Coleman is.

I think a sufficient number of them do.

We have seven versions with Ornette. He did one and I was practically in tears, it meant so much to me; it was so beautiful what he did. I said, "Well, you know, you could stop there." "No no no," he said, "now we'll do another one, and this one's gonna be with that guitar player, then I'll do another one and it'll be the bass player, then I'll do another one, it'll be just with the drummer, then I'll do one with the vocalist. The last one I do will be with everybody." And that's exactly what he did. He has very long thoughts, so it's not like you can take a piece out of take six and put it with take four, 'cause unless you really pay attention to what he's doing, you could really fuck it up. So we chose which one was appropriate. All of them were there, you know. But like Willner would say, some of them would clear the room.

But when Ornette played with you guys, was he playing along with someone, or atop a recorded track?

I will never tell; that's one of the secrets of magic. But he is really something. "Da da, da-da-da-da da da, da da-da-da..." No one else thinks the way he does, thinks of the notes that he picks and starts where he starts from. And then there's one little lick he does where, no matter how many times I've played along with it, if I listen to him I'll turn the beat around. I don't know how he does that. It's like, oh my God. Just beyond thrilling. You know, I hope people know this.

They're starting to get the picture, most likely.

And the sound, you know, the money we spent went for the sound. There are people who listen on MP3s and this and that. It destroys the sound; it might as well not have even been recorded. I mean, The Raven is not compressed. If you play it next to another record, it might not seem as loud, but the music will move forward. We're trying to tell you something.

Yeah, one track in particular, "Fire Music," you can feel your face getting crispy.

I found this sort of feeling as an audio experience, it's like a huge tidal wave of sound, and it makes you go, like, Damn! Wow.

And if it's gonna go on an MP3, it's like chopping its dick off. People say, "I don't care about that." Well sure, fine, okay, at your own risk, read Ulysses as a comic book. Each to their own.

I'm not trying to tell anybody what to do or anything, but it's like, "Hey, you might think maybe we know something about this stuff, having done it so long." Or you might think, "Hey, everybody's a schmuck."

That ocean-liner-sized guitar sound on the album 行 where does that come from?

It took years to get that. But why bother to have these special amps and special guitars if so many of the listeners out there are gonna squash it and compress it to death? And why bother with a true band, why bother with the guitars, why bother with the words and this and that if all you really want is big, heavy bass and a loud drum?

All right, fine, but Jesus Christ, you know, the different tones of the guitar 行 squash it all down and they all sound the same. People haven't heard good sound, and they don't know what it is in the first place, or they don't have equipment that would let them know in the first place. Even over a half-decent set of headphones you get to the point. But if you just want to download it and castrate it, fine. And if you say, "Well, I don't give a shit about your record," well, okay, you're right, you know, it's certainly not meant for you.

This record is meant for people who like sound. I mean, why would we spend 行 you know, we could have recorded it in a really shitty place. I mean, it cost a fortune to go up to Portland, Maine, to master this that way. We don't have to bother to do that, we do it 'cause we love it. We want you to hear it, too, and let you love it. But if you chop it off, and you think you're smart, okay, knock yourself out.

I first began noticing your new guitar sound on that cut on your track "What's Good" from the Until the End of the World soundtrack, where you played that huge-ass epic Eastern-sounding motif. Is that kind of sound recorded under some kind of special circumstances or...

Been working on the same thing for years.

I know 行 it's a secret.

It's not a big secret. It's the kind of pickups, with the kind of wood and the kind of speakers and the kind of amp and blah blah blah. If you want a real genesis of it, I would be going back to old Fender black face, old Fender tweed. You blow those up 行 you do overdrive with them, add power to the distortion, keep marching on. It's all subjective taste, but the more you know about guitars, the more you know about sound. I want to have that great old tone, but I want to be able to do all this other stuff with it.

But how do you...?

People glaze over if you start talking about it, no one wants to know about that. But musicians are all about tone. Ornette is all about tone. I mean, how could you just reduce everything to the same tone? It's like so dismissive and contemptuous. You think, "It's too expensive to listen to good things," and then you spend 10 bucks on a fuckin' movie. Be a sport. Spring for two more and get a CD.

When you get a certain tone, do you write in a different way?

Absolutely. Once you can hear that...

The tone is gonna lead you...

Oh! For sure, absolutely. In the song on The Raven called "Change," there's a great cello part that we put over the guitar, and you know, some people might actually think it's a guitar, but it's not. It's a cello 行 da da da da 行 and the fun thing is that it's a very long melody against a very fast thing going on. The melody is way longer than the thing it's over, so even though you think it's in little sections 行 one section two sections three sections four sections 行 the part of the cello line in this one section is placed on top of the other thing. So I find it interesting keeping track of the same two things. Not to get too heavy about it, but you know, it's like, whoa.

So how do you keep track of all this complicated stuff when you're recording?

By feel. By not thinking about it.

Not counting it out?

Oh no no no no no, no no no no no! No no, I couldn't, I'd go crazy trying to do that. It's all on feel; then the more technically astute people tell the other guys, okay, it's a four-three-two and there's a seven-six here and this is this; I'm not doing that. I just hear it and feel it, and then we can go from there. They don't like me to count things out because the counts are too weird; I know what I mean, but no one else does.

And if you're playing with Ornette, you've gotta keep real good track of your own tone, don't you, because he's the harmolodic man, he's got his own way of organizing tonality.

Yeah, but he was like, "I'm here to play on your track."

Do you go way back with him?

I used to follow him around the Village. I couldn't afford to go into some of the clubs; I would listen to him like through the grating, that original band with Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. Then I got to work with Don. What a player, wow! God.

Don Cherry was a genuinely spiritual man. One time I said to him, "I love your music," and he said, "It's not my music."

Well, the first thing he said to me was, "Ah, c'mon Lou, we're all born from the pussy." What he meant by that is, he didn't want to be paid through the union. He was just a hustler.

Don was very funny. Spiritual nature does not mean you don't have humor. That would be a very deadly spiritual nature. Even the Dalai Lama makes jokes.

I was excited to hear you doing several electronic pieces on this new album; "Fire Music" is especially good.

That was done after September 11, so that's very much a reflection of that. I had been working on that piece, and in the interim the thing went down, and then one day I went and did it.

    It's complicated how that was done. There's no guitar. I wanted to get a certain Metal Machine Music guitar sound, and I waited a long time for the technology to get to the point where you could do that. I've been talking with computer guys for a long time, talking about a certain thing I wanted to have happen, and they said to me, "Listen, that's impossible, what you're talking about." And then I found a way of doing it. The minute I could hear it I could play it, 'cause I heard the tone 行 bingo, I was home free.

I could play it if I could hear it; if I can't hear it I can't play it. But put it this way: I couldn't do it again. That was of the moment, like a lot of things I do, which is a drag in some ways. "Fire Music," for example, two and a half minutes or whatever it was 行 that was it. I shot my load. I couldn't do it again, because I don't know how I did it.

When you do things like that, do you run it by someone else, like Hal or somebody?

I say, "Hal, is this okay, what do you think?" I mean, if Willner said he hated it, that would really stop me. Hal's a real jewel. He does all the things I hate, plus he's got the ear and heart and soul of a musician. And he's a music scholar. He's got good ideas about how to throw disparate things together and make them resonate. You would think that those are disparate, then lo and behold. Willner's always saying, "Now this may sound crazy," and then I know a really good idea's coming. You know, you want somebody with ideas. I mean, I want somebody with ideas.

I notice that on The Raven you're doing a lot of things with your voice, really pushing it in ways I've never heard before. Is that something you've been working on?

For a long time. Ever since I sang with Jimmy Scott. Jimmy taught me a whole bunch of things. I've been putting them into effect.

The Raven's impact, your choice of Willem Dafoe as a narrator in parts was particularly inspired.

His voice is so beautiful to listen to. Forget about the words that he's saying, just listen to that voice. It's like a great chocolate bar.

His tone is very persuasive. On headphones it goes right down your spine.

See, that's what I thought. God, listen to Willem, Jesus. Then pay attention to what he's saying. "I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows..."

Elizabeth Ashley does some readings on The Raven, and she's wicked, too. I didn't know she could do things like that.

She's amazing. By the end of "Fall of the House of Usher," God, that's brilliant. Wow. And it moves forward. You gotta hear it on big speakers, check that out. You can hear it on headphones, too, but it's all in your head and not your solar plexus.

What is it in Poe's work that you identify with?

It's what the world identifies with. It's compulsive, obsessive, anxious 行 paranoia. This essay he wrote, "The Imp of the Perverse" 行 now, I took that title and wrote a little play called "Imp of the Perverse" in the album. I was just writing in the style of Poe, 'cause Bob Wilson had said to me, "Can you write a little Freudian take on Poe?" And that's what it was. For better or for worse. Anyway, what was the question?

What pulls you toward Poe's work?

The theme: Why am I so attracted to that which I know is bad for me?

Yeah, perverseness. Like in "The Black Cat," deliberately hurting the one you love most. Here's a guy who's done some bad thing, whatever he did. He's running down the street, he feels the urge bubbling up on him to kill someone. I mean, he couldn't get away with it; he's home free, but...

When I did the Halloween show a couple years back at a church in New York, I did "The Tell-Tale Heart," and it's when I did it out loud that I finally understood the story; I had really missed the whole point. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," at the end, he hears this pounding heart 行 well, it's probably his own. And the cop is sitting there and the guy whose heart is pounding says, "Fucking liar, what do you mean you don't hear anything? Don't you hear that? Do you think I'm stupid? Do you think I'm fucking stupid? You're mocking me? You're mocking me? I know you fucking hear that, you cunt-sucking son of a bitch, you think I'm stupid, you could just lie to me?"

And that's why: "You're mocking me." I said, Oh, there you go.

Everybody feels that rage. It's not just confessing a crime. Most people are upset if they're in a rage, or they do something during that rage. The guilt from that rage everybody knows from inside. Everybody's gotten angry out of their minds. I'd like to see the person who stands up and says, "I haven't."

That's what this is about. Dealing with that: What is that impulse? We're animals. And everybody deals with it the best they can.