Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Moe Tucker interview, 1997, part one

Velvet Underground drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker talks about the band's origin, Andy Warhol, their 1993 reunion and her current tour.
by Daniel Coston

Even if you have never listened to them, you are undoubtedly aware of the influence that New York's legendary Velvet Underground has had on popular music. Formed in 1965 by Lou Reed (vocals/guitar/songwriter), John Cale (bass/keyboards/viola) and the late guitarist Sterling Morrison, the band released four superlative albums that have influenced every punk, alternative and garage band since then.
Yet despite their considerable talents, the band might not have had such an impact if not for the minimalist, yet rhythmic drumming of Maureen "Moe" Tucker. Working as a computer key-puncher in 1965, Tucker was hired by the Velvets for what was originally just one show, yet soon found herself and the band as the centerpiece of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia stage show, surrounded by drag queens, S&M dancers and assorted "beautiful freaks."
Along with being a female drummer in an all-male band (a rarity then, and now), Tucker also went against the percussion norm by focusing more on the rhythm of the drumming, unlike the many Keith Moon-inspired "go crazy" drummers of the day. Tucker, who also wielded mallets instead of drumsticks, would often play with only a snare drum and bass drum turned sideways, and preferred to stand when drumming rather than using a stool.
After the Velvets disbanded in 1970, Tucker spent several years working odd jobs (including a stint at Wal-Mart) and raising five children before returning to music in recent years. Along with releasing five solo albums, Tucker regularly tours America and Europe, and is planning a show in Charlotte in the near future.
Tucker is also about as cool a rock 'n' roll legend as you're ever going to meet, with a warm demeanor to go along with a caustic New York wit. The following is just a sampling of Daniel Coston's extended phone interview with Tucker last December from her home in Georgia, in which we discussed the Velvets' beginnings, their music and history, and what brought the band's 1993 reunion to a sudden end.

art by Skeet

moeTangents: You're originally from New York City, right?
Moe Tucker: I'm from Long Island.
Tangents: When did you first start playing the drums?
Tucker: When I was about 18. I had played clarinet in the high school band. I was definitely older than that, now that I think of it. Probably 19.
Tangents: Your first drum set was one that your mother bought for you, right?
Tucker: Yeah, in the local shopper, you know, the little advertising paper that every town has. Fifty bucks. That was a fortune in those days.
Tangents: What kind of drum kit did you have? Did you have a snare, two floor toms ...
Tucker: No. I had a bass drum, I don't remember if I had a floor tom. I know I did later, but I sorta think I didn't because the set that my mother had gotten me wasn't even a set. It was the leftovers of somebody else's. I already had a snare drum, so I think there wasn't a snare drum with that.
But when I started playing with the Velvets, it was a bass drum turned sideways, a snare and a cymbal that was unbelievable. That was it.
Tangents: Was that by design when you started playing with the Velvets?
Tucker: Well, that's what I had available, so that's what I played with when I just banging away in my room. That's all I had when I started playing with the Velvets, so it had to be good enough.
Tangents: Yeah, that set-up is very distinctive, and it's very legendary now. But I always thought your playing was very rhythmic, yet pared down, especially when compared to what some other drummers were doing at the time.
Tucker: Yeah, I've always hated that kind of shit. I wouldn't do that if I knew how to.
Tangents: Lou [Reed] always said that cymbals eat up guitars, right? That was part of his philosophy, too.
Tucker: I never knew his technical reason for not caring for cymbals, but I just always hated cymbals, mainly because, like you just mentioned, of what other people were doing at the time. My God, every two measures, there'd be a cymbal crashing. I've always just hated that, so naturally, I didn't want to do that myself.
Tangents: How long had you been playing drums when you met the Velvets?
Tucker: Here's how I started. I wanted to play something, so I figured, well, I'll play drums because I could learn that faster. I had bought a snare drum. That's all I had, a snare drum. I was banging away on this snare drum, and Sterling [Morrison's] wife's sister came over one day, and she had this little cymbal that you stick on the stand of a snare. The cymbal was about as big as a dinner plate, but it was something else to hit. So I played that in my room for a while.
I hadn't been fooling around for more than a year when I started with the Velvets, maybe not even that long.
Tangents: You originally came to the Velvets through your brother. Didn't he room with Sterling at college?
Tucker: No, my brother went to Syracuse [University] and became friends with Lou, and they were good friends in college. Sterling and my brother had been good friends all through high school, and Sterling went to visit my brother up there and wound up staying for awhile. He met Lou, and they started playing together.
Tangents: How did you become their drummer?
Tucker: Well, I had known Sterling since I was 11, and the Velvets had gotten a job to play in New Jersey at a high school. Their drummer, Angus [MacLise], thought that it wasn't good to play music for money, which was $50 or $75 they wanted to pay, so he wouldn't play. He quit.
So they were desperate. They really needed somebody, because they had this show a week later. Sterling remembered that I was in my room banging on something ... probably couldn't tell what from what he'd seen ... and he said, "Tucker's sister plays drums." Lou came out to see if I could actually do something with my hand and my foot at the same time, and I could.
It was supposed to be that one show, but we (or they, I suppose) got a job to play in the Cafe Bizarre in the village right away, like, to start next week. You weren't allowed to play drums in this place, because it was a coffeehouse. They'd get in trouble from the neighbors, so they said, "Well, just come and play tambourine." So that's what I did for that gig, from which we got fired pretty quick. And it just went from there.
Tangents: What were your first impressions of the band?
Tucker: I don't remember my impressions. I had met Lou once or twice, but I wouldn't say that I knew him at that point. I had just met him a couple of times. But John was ... kind of wacky. [laughs] What else can I say? But I was really impressed with him, and the music.
My brother had been telling me about this guy Lou. "Boy, you should really hear the stuff he writes." He really thought very highly of Lou's songwriting ability, and his music, too. So I knew that something was going on. Sterling, of course, had been playing with them for a bit before I did. When I'd see him, he'd tell me they me that they were playing stuff that was interesting. So I was prepared to hear something unusual, but not as unusual as what I heard.
Tangents: Were you surprised by some of the subject matter in their songs?
Tucker: I sorta never heard the subject matter for a long time. In those days, they didn't have monitors, and I didn't know what half the songs were about. I didn't know what the lyrics were to half the songs. Honestly, that's the truth. I couldn't hear. Once Lou started with feedback and everything, I couldn't hear shit. So I didn't know what the hell the songs were about for awhile.
Tangents: Were you surprised when you found out what the lyrics were?
Tucker: No, not surprised, just, you know, "Oh." Obviously, I knew "Heroin" was about heroin, but I didn't know the words, I couldn't repeat the words. If someone had said, "I'll give you a million bucks to write down the lyrics," I couldn't do it.
Tangents: I've always been interested in Lou's fascination with those subjects, especially at that time in his career ...
Tucker: Well, I don't think it was a fascination, I think it was life. That's what he saw around him. I think most people write about what they know, whether it's songs or books or whatever.
Tangents: He just knew about that from living in New York, in the different scenes ...?
Tucker: Yeah. At that point, the differences between our two experiences, it never would have occurred to me to write a song about heroin because I never knew anybody that used it -- never saw anybody that used it. I'm sitting in Levitown being an asshole, you know?
Tangents: How long had the band been playing together before Andy Warhol saw you?
M: It was the very next job after that. Someone who knew Andy and Lou and John brought Andy to see us because Andy was looking for a band. He had this idea for that multimedia thing, and he wanted a band that was a little different. He didn't want people who were just playing rock 'n' roll. He had been looking for a while. That person brought him to see us.
Tangents: Did you live at Warhol's studio?
Tucker: No.
Tangents: What was your impression of playing around this carnival?
Tucker: [laughs] Yeah, it was quite a carnival. Well, I wasn't scared or anything. Otherwise, I would've run.
In those days, I used to really wish that I could've been in the audience to see that because it really must've been incredible. If someone saw it nowadays, "Oh, it's just another rock 'n' roll show." But in those days it really been must've been something to see.
Tangents: I think you mentioned in the box set that there's no complete film of an entire performance [of the EPI].
Tucker: Oh, it's incredible, considering the number of pictures and movies that were taken by them at the time. Someone always had a tape recorder or a movie camera or a camera. It's surprising that [Warhol] didn't say, "Boy, we should get this down." It's very surprising, actually, when you think about it. I really, really wish we had [shot] one thing with a camera, not doing anything fancy, just sitting there so you could see the whole show.
We were his art project, in a way. He would get invited to have a showing, to participate in an art show, and we'd be his Exploding Plastic Inevitable -- his exhibit. Very often, [audiences] were expecting paintings, especially in the beginning, before word got around. We'd get invited as this unit, but I'm certain that at first, we were kind of a surprise. People would show up and find 13 freaks. Well, 12 freaks and me. [laughs]
Tangents: What was Warhol's relationship like band with the band? Was it pretty close, or was it more professional?
Tucker: No, he was very close. I think he was pretty close to Lou and John. He respected their talents greatly.
Tangents: About how long had you been working with Warhol when Nico began singing with the band?
Tucker: God, I'm so bad with that stuff. Maybe within three months, but not more than six, I'm sure.
Tangents: Was Nico welcomed into the band?
Tucker: Well, she was never meant to be in the band. She was sort of a guest singer. And the songs she did, no one could have done them better. The three songs that she did would have been very different with somebody else singing them.
Tangents: When you described John as wacky, did you mean that he was more into avant-garde music?
Tucker: Oh yeah, definitely. Absolutely. But not just in that way. It's very hard to explain. Maybe it's impossible to explain. He was just so dark and ... maybe mysterious is the word. In his own world, you know?
He's so much different now than he was then. My God.
Tangents: How so?
Tucker: As I said, it's really just so hard to explain. Anybody who was around then knows exactly what you mean, but it's difficult to explain. Because first of all, you start to make John sound like a lunatic, which he's not. He's a lunatic in his own way. Or you begin to sound like he was a nasty son of a bitch or something, which he wasn't.
It's just very difficult to explain. The transformation in him is just incredible ... and I'm very happy to see him normalize. Maybe. [laughs] You know [he's] so happy with his family, and it's nice to see him normal, I don't know how else to put it.
Tangents: He has always come across as an [unique] individual.
Tucker: Yeah. And in those days, he was a young individual. Maybe that was part of his mystique.
Tangents: You were all in your early 20s at this time, weren't you?
Tucker: Yeah, I was just 20. They're each a year or two older than me, but yeah, we were very young.
Tangents: Were you surprised by the way some people seemed to be frightened by the music? I know that when you first went to Los Angeles ...
Tucker: Oh, those assholes. We always hated Los Angeles, so the feeling is mutual. [laughs] We also just hated that hippie crap and really detested it. We didn't get together as a unit and say, "Let's just hate the hippies." Our own personalities were just not the types to go for ... I don't know how else to describe it ... we just always hated that "flower power" crap.
My idea, in fact, when we were talking about doing an American tour after the European one [in '93] was that we should play everywhere except California. Play right on the border and not set foot in California.
Tangents: That first trip was the time when you played for [promoter] Bill Graham ...
Tucker: Oh, God, yeah. He was just a son of a bitch. He just detested us. You know how big he was in all that music that we hated. I think maybe he booked us thinking he'd show us. We'd crash and burn, and he'd show how cool California is and [how] New York sucks.
He hated us before we even got there. Oh, and he was just a bastard. I don't remember this; I didn't hear it ... but as we were getting onto the stage, apparently he said (and I won't say the word 'cause it's one I never use), "I hope you MFers bomb." [laughs] This is a promoter saying this.
Tangents: That's encouragement.
Tucker: Yeah, from the sidelines. "Hey, thanks, Bill." [laughs] But that was very odd. He kicked Sterling out of the Fillmore West. Sterling came riding up in a taxi for soundcheck and came up the front stairs. Bill Graham was putzing around in there for whatever reason and came across Sterling and just started screaming at him, "Get out! Get out!" I'm sure if he knew he was in the band (even though he hated the band), he might not have done that. But he didn't say, "Oh, we're not open yet. You'll have to leave." He was just screaming at him. So Sterling said, "OK."
Tangents: I would've loved to have been there when the rest of the band put their guitars against their amps at full feedback ...
Tucker: Yeah, and they all walked off, and there I was. This wasn't planned. If it was planned, they didn't let me in on it. [laughs] Yeah, that irritated [Graham and others]. They didn't like that too much.
Tangents: I think it was great.
Tucker: Yeah, it was fun. [laughs]
Tangents: Was it right after that, that you recorded the first album [The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967]?
Tucker: No, we already had recorded it. MGM had bought it, and they had given us a little [studio] time out [in California]. Six hours or something like that, to fool with it. So it was already recorded.
Tangents: Didn't you record the whole album in New York in one day?
Tucker: Yeah, one day. Eight hours. But when they said they'd give us a little more time, we did over a couple of songs.
Tangents: You worked with Tom Wilson out there, right?
Tucker: I don't know. You mean the engineer?
Tangents: I think he was listed as the producer.
Tucker: That, I don't know. If you say so, I'll take your word for it.
Tangents: He was the same guy that was listed as the producer of White Light, White Heat.
Tucker: Well, then I guess he was. I wasn't much interested in who was doing what in those days.
Tangents: You just wanted to play.
Tucker: Yeah, I didn't know anything about the mechanics of it. Just turn up the microphone, please. [laughs]
Tangents: Do you remember how many takes that you did for those songs?
Tucker: Very few. I'll swear that it was one for this and two for that, but we didn't have time to do lots of takes.
Tangents: That was also pretty much your live set at the time, wasn't it?
Tucker: Yep.
Tangents: I heard that you've always been disappointed with the recording of "Heroin" because you stopped drumming before the end of the song -- because the sound was too loud.
Tucker: Yeah. Well, I quit drumming thinking everyone else would stop. I couldn't hear what was going on, so I stopped, assuming the rest of the band would stop and say, "What's the matter?" Maybe this is a good definition of John being wacky. No one even noticed, so I just said, "Oh, well" and started again, and to this day, it just really breaks my heart that we don't have a real "Heroin" recorded. It really does. It just infuriates me that we used that.
Tangents: Really? That song's considered a classic now.
Tucker: Well, if done right, it really would've knocked you on your ass. The music part is fine, just all of a sudden, there's no drums. I just stopped literally, assuming (Wouldn't it be natural to assume that if you stopped playing, they'd figure out you were having a problem?) they'd stop too. So little attention is paid to drummers. Then after a minute or so, I figured, "Well, I guess they're not gonna stop. I'd better join in."
Tangents: I think the fact that you came back at the end of the song works ...
Tucker: Nah. No, it really is a source of great, great sadness to me, and I loved that song. If it had been almost any other song, I would say, "Oh, well," but I just love that song. I know what it would've sounded like if those bastards had stopped. [laughs]
Tangents: Were you aware when you were making it that this was a really good record?
Tucker: I thought it was. I thought it was astounding. I loved it, but I just really loved our music. It just never occurred to me that it would become what it has become, of course. It's nice to see people come around and like it as much as I do.
Tangents: Are there any songs in particular that are your favorites on that album?
Tucker: You'd have to remind me what's on there. "Waiting for My Man," I love. That's one that's just a happiness to me. I love that take. I think it's stunning.
Tangents: "Sunday Morning," "Venus in Furs."
Tucker: I was never nuts about "Venus in Furs." Is "All Tomorrow's Parties" on there?
Tangents: Yeah.
Tucker: Yeah, I loved that. I've always loved that song.
Tangents: "Femme Fatale," "I'll Be Your Mirror."
Tucker: "I'll Be Your Mirror" I like a lot.
Tangents: "There She Goes Again."
Tucker: Yeah, that's a good one.
Tangents: "The Black Angel's Death Song."
Tucker: Yeah, that's interesting. [laughs]
Tangents: Wasn't that the song that got you kicked out of Cafe Bizarre?
Tucker: Yes, it was. 'Cause they said, 'If you play another song like that, you're fired." So we instantly played it again because we didn't want to be working on Christmas ... in this stupid little place.
Tangents: And "European Son," which is a 10-minute freestyle.
Tucker: Yeah, I always enjoyed that, just for nostalgic reasons. It's kind of a screech-fest, but it's interesting. I just love how the screeching chair and the breaking glass worked out perfectly timing-wise.
Tangents: Yeah, I always thought that was a great idea.
Tucker: That was Cale.
Tangents: It's miked really well. Was that edited in?
Tucker: Yeah, that was edited in.
Tangents: Would you say that after that, the band kind of grew out of Warhol?
Tucker: Well, we had never intended this to be a career, us and Andy. Not at all. It was just something fun to do, and a way to get some shows. We were immediately able to get shows, which was good, of course. But we never intended it, as I said, to be a long-term thing. It was a mutual separation. He was more interested in painting art than music, so it had run it's course pretty much.
Tangents: It seems that by the time you got to the second record, White Light/White Heat, [1968] the sound was edgier and noisier.
Tucker: Probably, it had something to do with better equipment. You wouldn't believe what we played on for the first months of being a band. I told you what the drums were like. We had absolutely horrible, horrible equipment, which is one reason I think it sounded so good. I'm a firm believer in not using equipment that's too, quote, "good," because I think it ruins everything.
So I would attribute some of that to better equipment -- studio equipment and our equipment. I'm sure that we were in a better studio and/or had a better engineer, so that's part of it, I would think.
Tangents: What's your feeling about the second record?
Tucker: I love the first one. I like the second one a lot. There are a number of songs on there that I really like a lot too. You'd have to remind me what's on there. I don't even remember.
Tangents: There was the title track, "The Gift," which I've always liked.
Tucker: Yeah, I like that. It's just kind of goofy, but I don't think Lou would appreciate me saying that. [laughs]
Tangents: "Lady Godiva's Operation."
Tucker: Uuuhh, that's OK.
Tangents: "Here She Comes Now."
Tucker: Yeah, that's a good one. I like that.
Tangents: "I Heard Her Call My Name."
Tucker: I loved that. However, the solo is ruined because of Lou's turning himself up so loud you can't hear anything else. It really pisses me off. It still does because I think that solo is maybe the best guitar solo ever recorded. It's just incredible. But if you could hear the rhythm, it's twice as incredible.
That's one reason I've always hated drum rolls and crashing and bashing. My feeling is that while you're fooling around being a hot shot on the drums, the rhythm's shot. Not the full rhythm, of course, but the forceful rhythm stopped while you're fooling around on the drums, and that's what happened on that solo. It's just noise to the average listener, and that's a shame because it's not just noise. It's a bitch. I loved that solo. I get chills when I hear that. That's another source of eternal pissed-off ...
Tangents: Did that happen occasionally -- where someone would say, "I can be louder than you?"
Tucker: No, that was in the mix.
Tangents: Oh, OK. And of course, the last song was "Sister Ray."
Tucker. Oh, yeah, I loved that. I always loved playing that, too. It was real fun to play.
Tangents: That's the one that's legendary because your producer supposedly left the room during that one.
Tucker: Well, as I said, my memory is not good with these things. But I wouldn't be surprised because that was not the kindest thing anyone ever encountered in the studio in those days.
Tangents: How would the band put songs together? Because it seems like you always had a tremendous amount of songs that Lou was writing, or that the band was jamming...
Tucker: Well, that's funny because we never sat and practiced. We practiced at soundcheck. Literally. I'm sure that they sometimes would get together and fool around, but mostly, Lou would say, "I've got a new song," and at soundcheck we'd try it out. If everybody felt comfortable enough to try it that night, we would [record it]. If not, we'd practice it again at the next soundcheck. We weren't into that rehearsing stuff. [laughs]
Tangents: A few months after White Light, John left after a lot of creative tension with Lou ...
Tucker: Yeah, Lou kicked him out.
Tangents: Was there any specific reason why, or had it just built up over time?
Tucker: I'm sure there was, but I honestly don't remember. [Lou 's] announcement was that we could choose between him or John because he couldn't work with him anymore. I don't know if he said, "Because he bothers me" or something. They just always butted heads.
Tangents: Was it about the direction of the band?
Tucker: That had a lot to do with it. The reason I know that is because I've heard John say it so many times in the past couple years. I never would have offered that on my own if someone asked me, but that's what John always cites.
I just don't really know. I'd always assumed that they both wrote songs, and really none of John's songs were getting treated or worked on. He didn't complain about that. If he did, it was not loudly and was not like, "Play my songs!" Maybe the way he complained was by butting heads. That's just a pure guess, but that's the best I can do.
Tangents: After that, you picked up Doug Yule, who was from Boston. What was he like? Not too much was known about him.
Tucker: He was very sweet, very nice guy. We knew him a little bit because he had played in a band in Boston, and Sterling had become fiends with him ... more than the rest of us. I think our manager at the time had recommended him. He was a very good guitar player and a very nice kid, and certainly not going to cause any tension. [laughs]
Tangents: You mentioned your manager at the time, Steve Sesnick. Do you think he was another part of the riff between Lou and John?
Tucker: Probably, probably. Maybe his interference was with, as you said, the direction of the band. Maybe his input into Lou was changing that. I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth or pretend that I know exactly what I'm talking about. I'm just guessing, too. But probably, I would say, he had a lot to do with it. Not purposely.
Tangents: Yeah, because he definitely felt that the Velvets could be a lot bigger.
Tucker: You know, I loved Steve and really had a lot of fun with him, but one thing that was a problem (and this may not have been a problem in any other band) was that he saw us as the next Beatles, and that just wasn't to be. We didn't want that. We were playing this music 'cause we liked it.
Certainly, if someone had said, "Oh, you wanna play such-and-such for 100 Gs?" we wouldn't have said, "Oh, no." Nothing like that. But we were playing music because we liked music. If it didn't make us rich, that didn't matter. What mattered was playing the music the way we wanted to. Sesnick's grand schemes and dreams for us, which were of course, completely well-intentioned, had a lot to do with ... I don't know. Maybe Lou was starting to think, "Oh, we've been doing this [for so long], and we're not getting any success," you know?
Tangents: At the time, you were not doing a massive amount of touring, but instead were playing where you knew you would be well-received.
Tucker: We played places that were close enough to just play and go home. That was not the criteria, of course, but I don't know how much of that kind of touring anyone did in those days like what do now. Two-year world tours. Oh Jesus, that's lunacy. But we didn't like touring very much, so we would always play where we could just get out of there and get the hell home.

1 comment:

  1. I can hear Moe speaking when I read the interview. Good questions about the technique, good answers about John Cale and songs. Generous Moe and rare interview. Thanks. L'idéonaute.