Lou Reed. All photos by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy of Reprise Records.
Lou Reed’s presence much like his art is visceral. Sitting in his office having just depressed “record” on my tape deck, the air-conditioning’s low hum seeming deafening, the dim light blinding, my quenched palette desert-like. He offers me a glass of water and we begin the interview. There is something intimidating about interviewing Lou Reed. With a stunning new live album, a probing documentary directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and a life that’s been vigorously lived, conversation topics are not scarce. Reed makes you work. There is no pretension or purposeful intimidation, my senses just seem canine in his presence.
Disregard for originality and societal inclusion makes Lou Reed truly original and his imagination uninhibited. Nothing is as simple as it seems, least of all Lou Reed himself. To deem his music autobiographical is inadequate. His music and person are synonymous. Autobiographical elements surface through tone and emotion; facts are capricious. In reflecting on his music, he speaks of lyrics signifying different things to him at different times—the impossibility and fluidity of things remembered. Reed’s memory is universal and fantastical.
Tim Nye Timothy Greenfield-Sanders made a great documentary.
Lou Reed Did you like it?
TN I loved it. It’s always hard—when you’re going over a whole career—to know which elements to pull together. What did you think of it?
LR I thought he did an amazing job. So much of what’s in there I never saw before.
LR I don’t know where he got it.
TN Did you see it as a collaboration or was it his vision?
LR No, it was really Timothy’s vision.
TN And was it initiated by him or was it something that you’d been thinking about doing?
LR I suppose some might initiate it about themselves, but not me.
TN Too egotistical?
TN You’re just back from a tour?
LR A press junket I guess they’d call it. I’m not sure what time my body thinks it is.
TN With the documentary coming out and the new live record, are you feeling introspective? Are you looking back in any way?
LR Other people are looking at me retrospectively. I’m not. I’m trying to look forward.
TN I guess in that kind of universe it seems like everything’s been done. It’s hard not to make self-referential statements in terms of your work, and it’s certainly hard to add something to the history of music or the history of cultural production. How do you see yourself in that light?
LR Well, that’s the interesting thing about writing, isn’t it? And imagination, acting, making things up, creating things. If anyone can refer back to something of my own from before, certainly I can. I wouldn’t like to repeat myself. I don’t know why that’s true.
TN Do you find yourself consciously thinking, Is this something new? Am I adding something to my language? Or do you just create and not worry about that kind of thing?
LR I’m pretty satisfied if I just get an idea. I had one this morning that I’m sad I didn’t write down. My songs are all simple songs. There’s no big secret.
TN When you come up with an idea for a song does it start with the lyrics, or does it come more from the musical composition?
LR Oh it could be either way. I could hear a lick in my head and if it stays there long enough I put it down. Or if I hear a song in my head being sung …
TN By you? (laughter)
LR I hope it’s by me. If it’s not I’d like to know who it is, it’s time we met. It’s like tuning in a radio. You’re just walking around humming this thing.
TN And it feels like it already exists and you’re just trying to pull it out of there?
LR Yeah. Of course only the beginning exists, then it has to be written. You write, you ought to know what that’s like.
TN I actually see myself more as a catalyst, as a producer, and curator. I don’t envy writers by any stretch of the imagination. It’s very easy to come up with an idea, but actually to take an idea from its kernel and transform it into something mature and meaningful has got to be where the real work goes in.
LR That’s where the work and the fun is. Hopefully they cross.
TN You said something in your documentary about, Can you be a rock n’ roller for the rest of your life? No. But can you be a musician or an artist for the rest of your life? Of course.
LR I didn’t say you couldn’t be a rocker your whole life. Because of the way the question was being framed, I moved it over to musician. Just not to get hung up on definitions of types. Pretty fair thing to do, huh?
TN Absolutely. Do you see yourself as a musician or more of an artist? Let me just add to the question by saying, a lot of the things that I think about as a curator are different kinds of media—whether it’s music or painting or sculpture is not relevant to me—it’s simply using the right brush to express an idea.
LR Where do you curate?
TN I run Thread Waxing Space. I started that place a couple of years ago.
LR I’ve been there. That’s your place?
LR No shit. (laughter)
TN Laurie Anderson’s played there. She did an amazing piece there.
LR They don’t tell me that, they just say BOMB magazine.
TN The reason I work with BOMB is because they’re not interested in breaking an artist down, forcing them to analyze every line of every song that they’ve ever come up with. It’s a much broader …
LR Lines mean different things at different times. Sometimes I think the listener knows better. If I went and defined it, there are listeners out there who would be very disturbed. “It means so and so, what are you talking about? You mean it didn’t mean … ?” I think people ought to be left alone to have fun with records.
TN John Cale said something interesting in that documentary that I assume to be true, that your work is not autobiographical, but “more about characterization and portraiture.” Everybody always says that your work is so autobiographical, but it doesn’t always strike me that way. Do you see your stuff as autobiographical?
LR Not at all. There are little pieces that launch it off, and then there is an awful lot of imagination. Things from here, things from there. But autobiographical? No. One hundred percent, absolutely impossible. Not even close.
TN It seems like that would be a very boring way to write, to translate your life into a literal depiction of it.
LR Doesn’t sound like much fun.
TN Do you still love touring? Does that still get you excited?
LR I like playing in front of an audience with a band. I’d like to have my own bar where I could hire myself, have a steady gig.
TN The music you create is obviously partly for yourself. How do you and your music relate to the need for an audience versus doing it because you need to do it?
LR I pretty much write for me. After that, it’s fun to play with a band in front of people. There are performers who have answered this question for centuries, What does the audience have to do with it? There was a perfect night in London that we got on Live. That’s an example of LIVE. Real live. No hook ups. It’s really one night, not multiple nights. It was a really great night.
TN Did you record a series of concerts and then pick the best or did you say, This is the one?
LR I had been listening to that tape [the tape that became Live from London] for a while and thought it was amazing. I had been playing it for people too. I thought, this tape should see the light of day. It is quite unusual.
TN Are you working on another studio album now?
LR Yeah, writing.
TN How do you find creating music in a studio versus creating it live?
LR Well the stuff done live has been written already, though there are tapes I have with songs being made up on the spot that are fun. Sometimes I do that with the guys in the studio, I just want to have somebody in there with me to play, to keep the fingers going, keep the calluses there. It goes back to writing again. Writing pretty well takes place alone.
TN But do you consider them finished songs when you take them to the band or the studio, or do you need that 20 percent for serendipity to happen?
LR Both. I always work a song out with the guys—there’s the basic structure, and then somebody might do something that’s really cool. Someone always does. They’re great musicians, they can make a mediocre thing sound really good so I have to be careful.
TN How much comes from what you hear out there? Do you get out and see a lot of stuff?
LR I have been listening to the sacred music of Corsica. I don’t know if that is the kind of answer anybody really wants.
TN I don’t know if anybody has a pre-conceived desire for an answer.
LR It’s incredibly beautiful music. When I was in Paris—because it’s hard to get the records here—they had a whole bunch of polyphonic, a cappella … a lot of it. It was very, very beautiful. And then occasionally I stop into The Knitting Factory or different clubs, Grove Street.
TN Are there any young artists you’ve heard recently that perked your interest?
LR Oh I’m sure there are. I can’t remember their names particularly. I listen to the radio a lot.
TN Do you consider yourself a big filmgoer?
LR Not as much as I’d like to recently. I’m really behind on movies. I love the movies.
TN How does that affect your music writing?
LR I don’t know that it affects it at all. It might affect the lyrics. Like a hard-boiled song.
TN Hard Boiled as in the John Woo film?
TN Get that completely campy violence going in your songs.
LR I’ve done things pre-John Woo. I had a song called “Gun” that was pretty realistic.
TN In what sense?
LR Capturing the state of mind of someone who’s like that. Why they like the gun. Of course it’s all imagination. I’d be afraid to have a gun. I’d accidentally shoot myself, blow a toe off.
TN So you never felt a sonic interpretation of something visual? It’s much more on a metaphoric level?
LR Whew. (laughter) You really jump into the pond with that. Do I ever feel like … a sonic interpretation of the visual? Well, the music is a sonic interpretation of the lyric sometimes. I noticed a long time ago that sometimes in music that’s out there, the lyrics are saying one thing, and the music another. I think early on we were trying to have the music go the same way the lyric went.
TN What do you think of this techno-music phase that we’re going through now with bands like the Chemical Brothers? They’re very synthetic and electronic. Obviously your work is almost antithetical to that. It’s about humanness and really hearing each individual instrument.
LR When I was young I used to buy records and copy licks off them. Now a kid might get a sampler and in some ways it seems to be somewhat the same thing, someone likes a sample and uses it as a piece of music and plays it. There’s room for everything.
TN Does that interest you?
LR Someday it might. I would never say, Absolutely no. I try to picture that kind of techno beat going on underneath some of the songs, and I think, Would that be interesting or would it just be trendy? I try hard not to be part of any trend. Just do my kind of stuff, straightforward songs and hope that it stays in style.
TN So you have no interest in doing a dance remix of “Walk on the Wild Side?” (laughter)
LR People would have to go through me first to try to do that.
TN It’s funny that you mention it being analogous to somebody grabbing a lick from somewhere, because I think there is something very conceptual about the whole idea of dubbing and the issues that gets into.
LR That kind of mixing … people say that I should see it as a kind of homage. I can understand that, there are licks that I love. But still, if it’s my lick and you take it in it’s entirety and base your song around that lick, I don’t know about that. But the music’s out there. People can pretty much do what they want.
TN Have you seen that Puff Daddy video? It basically uses Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” as the whole rhythm of the song.
LR I haven’t seen that one.
TN It’s really unnerving because it’s exactly what you just said. It takes something in its entirety and doesn’t do anything to really add to it. Yet it’s something about Puff Daddy’s style and context that makes it different, more interesting.
LR David must have liked it or else it wouldn’t be sitting there.
TN I just think it’s about context.
LR It might be more than just context. You can use certain pieces in a lot of ways. It’s like driving a car. A good lick is a good lick, and there’s not that many of them. Everybody would like to write a good lick.
TN In terms of technology, it’s clear that you’ve put a lot of time and effort into the way that your studio records are mastered—ironic that you’re putting a live record out there the way it is …
LR Mastering is really the great adventure. Amazing. It’s amazing what the technology today can do. It’s incredible what’s available to people now, it’s moving so quickly. So much of it is computer oriented. Pretty soon everybody will be going out and getting hard disks. These are young people who have been brought up on computers. They just whiz through it. I am not computer literate by any stretch of the imagination. I just use it as a typewriter.
TN What has the producer’s role over your career been in terms of the music making process? Do you see the producer as another member of the band or … ?
LR I think a good producer is in there to help make it happen—make it so you can achieve whatever you want out of the song. The producer is another instrument, they contribute ideas.
TN So there is a collaboration?
LR Sure. They’re not just baby-sitting. There’s a lot of stuff out there. There are so many machines. Which one suits you? I’ve got my own way of production that’s taken years to … Do you want to hear about this?
TN Yeah. I love this stuff.
LR People glaze over if I start going off in this direction. There’re a couple of articles I remember reading in Mix or Record, one of those magazines we’re always scouring, saying, Hmmm that looks like a new … But it all starts with the mic. It’s good to keep that one in mind. What mic for what? Think of the mic where? You can lose so much time in the studio doing that. If only you could have that a bit more specific before you ever went in there. But then, of course, you’d be in a different room and it would start all over again. Where do you put it in this room? What’s going on with the sound because the engine is in one room and this thing is in the other and that can cause some real difficulties because … Keep going?
TN Oh yeah, absolutely.
LR Absolutely? I’ve devoted a lot of time just for the basic recording. What monitors are you listening to? It makes such a difference.
TN So you’re truly obsessive in terms of perceptual difference between any external force on your music.
LR We all want to be talking about the same thing. I say, That’s too bright. But it might not be true. It might be that those are really bright monitors. You know the argument about that. You’ll get more of that bright in than you really want later on because these things are dull so we’ll make it brighter or vice versa. All these people who listen to Yamahas and S-10s—which I can’t bear, just cannot listen to those things—and guys get great results out of them. I had to find something I could listen to where it was pleasurable. It’s never been pleasurable listening to those Yamahas. Maybe the engineers like it. It’s so subjective, matter of choice, in a sense. But you put it all together, what are you listening to? It can get worse than that. What cable is connecting all of that? We’ve tried different cables and that changes the sound too. And in the end does it really matter by the time it’s pressed into a CD? Can you really hear those differences when it all gets done? In mastering, if you follow it to the end, Yeah you can. Is it as good as vinyl? Well, there you go, that’s the all time question. There’s that incredible clarity—those club guys are playing vinyl.
TN I love sound effects, that crackling noise that reminds you that you’re not listening to something machine made.
LR They’re so close to being able to duplicate it. But the theory that that’s based on is what makes me nervous.
TN Did you see the movie The Fly?
LR The re-make?
TN Yeah, the Cronenberg. The character’s big experiment was about trying to take organic mass and transport it from one pod to the next. But he kept fucking up because he wasn’t getting the actual essence of … the organic matter.
LR He compounded his fuck-up.
TN Exactly. The artist Robert Irwin’s talked a lot about perception and whether he painted a painting with one line and moved it the most minute fraction of an inch, could you detect the difference and out of that affect the whole perceptual plane? That’s why I think it’s interesting to hear you talk about your maniacal attention to detail. (pause) In Songs for Drella [a tribute to Andy Warhol, a multi-media collaboration between John Cale, Jerry Serlin and Reed] I felt a really collaborative, multi-media experience. Obviously the subject matter was important too. What makes for a successful collaboration? Was that, in your mind, a successful collaboration?
LR Well, it wasn’t my idea of an unsuccessful one.
TN I thought it was brilliant. I was just wondering what your whole experience …
LR Somebody brings in something inspiring, and John [Cale] is such a great player. It was just this endless cascade of music to latch on to.
TN How did the visual elements work into it?
LR We sat and talked to Jerry Serlin about the songs. Going back to it, I’m not sure what we said to Jerry. (laughter) I don’t know what the hell we said to Jerry—Why did this song have this title? What was this song about? Here’s the lyric sheet.
TN He brought the visual component and you and John brought the lyrics and music together?
LR We liked his stuff. There are a number of things we’d seen …
TN Is collaboration something that intrigues you in terms of working, not just with other musicians, but with filmmakers, artists, videographers …
LR Oh yeah, it’s great to do a song for a Wim Wender’s movie, or a song for a David Lynch movie. To watch what they do with it, it’s thrilling.
TN What songs have you written for movies and what was that experience like? Were you actually looking at a scene?
LR There was one I wrote, “Why Can’t I Be Good,” for Wim. I think that was in Until the End of the World. He went over the scene with me. I asked him questions and then I wrote a lyric from his edit. Usually when I’m writing for a movie and working with a director on that level, I like to give them the lyrics first and ask them, Is this okay? Is this what you need?
TN That’s interesting. It would seem that the music would be setting the mood of a particular scene more than the lyrics.
LR In some situations they just want background music, they don’t want it to have anything to do with the movie. In other situations they want it to be about a very specific thing. When I wrote for this Costa-Gavras movie, he went over things word by word and said, It would be better if you don’t use that word, blah blah.
TN And that didn’t cause any tension?
LR No, he was talking about like three words. But they were really good reasons for every change. It was his film, not my film.
TN Do you have any interest in getting involved in filmmaking?
LR No. I like taking photographs. I haven’t moved on up. I’m still enjoying playing with different lenses.
TN Is that something you take pretty seriously or is it more of a hobby?
LR I’ve been in two group shows. I was taking the pictures for myself, and then there was an opportunity to have them shown. It would be fun to see them bigger.
TN What kind of images do you make?
LR Cityscapes, I guess you could call it. Buildings.
TN No people?
LR Pigeons. In Africa it was people.
TN Where in Africa were you?
LR Tanzania. Who doesn’t take pictures in Africa? I’ll take a picture of anything. It’s like Christmas when you get it developed.
TN Do you see yourself as having any visual or literary counterparts?
LR That’s not for me to say.
TN That’s fair enough. Who are some of the filmmakers today or yesterday that you most identify with or that give you the most inspiration?
LR I don’t know if I identify with any of them particularly but there are so many great filmmakers out there. There’re the obvious ones, Scorsese and David Lynch. And some of Andy’s movies are very inspiring just in concept.
TN The whole Factory scene seems like it was very inspiring. People were constantly throwing ideas out, everybody was there together and yet doing their own thing, there was this great dialogue that seems absent today.
LR Oh, I wouldn’t know. Warhol was the great catalyst. It all revolved around him. It all happened very much because of him. He was like a swirl, and these things would come into being: Lo and behold multi-media. There it was. No one really thought about it, it was just fun. But they didn’t always have lights going on, or films and all of this.