The two surviving VU-ers on the band's third album...
I reviewed The Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition for new issue of Uncut. It’s a comprehensive, six-disc set compiling the band’s third album in an assortment of mixes, plus 1969 demos and a live recording from The Matrix in San Francisco. Of course, it marks the first album the band recorded after John Cale had left, with Doug Yule assuming bass and (some) vocal duties. I was fortunate enough to speak to both Yule and Moe Tucker for a Q&A to accompany my review. As usual, I ended up with far too much material, so I thought I’d share the full transcripts of both interviews below…
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You were in the fortunate position of seeing The Velvet Underground play before you joined the band. What were they like live?
The first time I saw them was in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard University. John was sick and all I saw was Lou, Sterling and Maureen and they were playing in a dark room. It was full of college age people. I remember Lou was wearing black leather. They were a presence right away. They had good volume, substantial volume. It set up a whole bunch of ideas about how to present music onstage to the point I went home from that night and I started writing notes and ideas down based on their theatrical presentation of music.
Do you remember what you wrote down?
Only as impressions, I just remember a sequence of events. The images I counted up after seeing them live kind of made me think of live theatre. There would be a black stage and suddenly there would be white ceramic vase in the middle of it and then the vase falls all over in place. That’s kind of the opening feature of the first songs. At the time I had just finished doing a year as theatre major, so theatre was kind of my thing.
After you joined the band, you went into the studio only a few weeks later to start work on The Velvet Underground. What do you remember of that period?
My memory works in a funny way. I have a picture of the band in a small studio room with a tiny control room attached to it. It was probably much roomier than that. I have little pictures with which some of them are connected and some of them are isolated and none of them are sequential. From the time I started playing with Lou, Maureen and Sterling until we end up in the studio it was kind of like walking down the street with people walking a lot faster than you. Your focus is to try and keep up, to try and stay with them and not fall behind. The first time we played together, the first weekend, was about trying to remember everything I need, like “What chords in this song? What do I play in this song? What key is this song in? What do I sing in this song?” constantly over and over again. By the time I got into the studio it had evaporated or was taken care of in the first few weeks.
You were the new boy, but those guys were in the process of redefining how they worked together after Cale had left…. Was it a case of you all learning together..?
In a lot of ways, yeah. John and Lou pushed against each other a lot. It was like a constant ongoing tug of war. Then when Lou found himself as the main guy, the main songwriter, everything was much more cooperative. He seemed to be having a good time and seriously enjoying himself. I can imagine with Sterling and Maureen it would be a totally different kind of thing.
What do you remember from the sessions for The Velvet Underground album?
You know, it’s my favourite album out of all the recordings we have done. We recorded the tracks with all four people and then overdubbed vocals and harmonies. It’s really the closest to the band sounding like playing live. We were staying at the same bungalow at Chateau Marmont. The band were like a little family during his period. We’d go to the studio together, we’d go to the Chateau together, we’d go out and eat together. It was kind of like we were a little band of gypsies. Normally we all lived in New York and went home over the weekends to live our own lives. I wouldn’t see them again until it’s time to go out on the road again. But for this period of time, we lived and worked as a group. We were very close and warm as a band.
How would it work to go from demo to finished song?
No song is ever finished whilst bands are stilling playing it. The contest for me is between this album and Loaded. Loaded was done in New York and we were all living separately. Like I said this one was done as a group. Loaded was focused and commercial and the manager [Steve Sesnick] wanted to have more FM play. He convinced me to think more commercially and so we started out softly, like you can hear on The Matrix tapes. We then wound up with Loaded being recorded with very FM oriented stuff like “Who Loves The Sun”, “Head Held High” and “Sweet Jane”.
They are brilliant songs though…
Yeah, but “Sweet Jane” started out as a soft ballad very much like the kind of song Lou liked to write, and then it became a power song. The manager wasn’t really pushing anything for us to write any hits. It’s pretty much the band who wanted to change a solo. We’d add a little touch. It wasn’t a major shift done in the production, it would be the way we’d play them live, and we were all playing them all except for “Murder Mysteries” on the Grey album, right? We only tried play that one time.
What are your thoughts on the different mixes for the third album? The Valatan mix and the Closet mix?
Mixes are like opinions, it’s just a viewpoint. It’s each person’s viewpoint on what is important to them. Certain people will bring up levels on certain things because they love the part, or it interests them or something like that. I was married to a woman who couldn’t play anything without cranking the bass up, it drove me crazy.
You talked earlier about The Matrix, what were your memories playing The Matrix?
The Matrix was kind of like the same situation as the third album. We were living in a motel, and played there for a week. We’d usually take a cab or sometimes we’d walk. We would travel together, live together, eat together and that’s the extent of our family that didn’t exist outside of tour.
It’s an astonishing document of the band. Would you say that it’s the peak of The Velvet Underground live?
It’s one of the peaks. It was memorable for various reasons. The period around the third album I think of as a long extended period of time because we did the west coast for six to eight weeks and we were like family during that whole time. It’s not the peak, but it was one of the high points in terms of the group’s mentality.
What would I expect to see at one of The Matrix shows?
It depends on what night you went. Some nights it was really crowded and some nights you’d get 15 – 20 people because it was an off night. It was laid back and very casual like a separate club where the act is unknown. Lou was talkative and it seems to be around the time where he started to pretend I was his brother.
Isn’t there a story of David Bowie mistaking you for Lou?
We played at the Electric Circus in New York, and somebody came up to us afterwards and said: “Someone here wants to meet you guys.” And I said: “Okay” So he came back and he was enthusiastic and we talked a little bit. He had an English accent, and since the invasion of The Beatles I have been enamoured of things out of England. I was thrilled to talk to someone with an English accent. We had a conversation and then he took off. About 15 – 20 years later he told that story to NPR that he thought it was Lou and he had no idea who he was talking to and I neither did I. You look back and think “Wow, did that really happen?” It’s just conversation.
What do you do these days, Doug?
I play music still, I play violin and guitar. I make violins and have a shop and I talk a bit more on the phone.
Can you tell us about your music?
I have two albums. I have a string band with 3 people, a guitar/banjo player and a mandolin player and I play fiddle. We’re called RedDog, the website is www.reddogseattle.com. We have two CDs and I keep threatening to put out this song that I wrote in 2000 and put out some a bit hear and there. My sister [Dorothy] is a book artist, she has a book in the Victoria and Albert Artist museum. She did this pop-up book called Memories Of Science. She won two or three prizes for it. She wrote this long poem out of the book and she wanted me to do music for it. Me and my son recorded it with the string band.
What does your brother Billy do these days?
He lives in Marysville, California, and he collects Mini Coopers. He has an estate wagon that he reconditioned. He’s got a bass drum at the back with a Beatles logo at the back.
I assume there is going to be an anniversary edition of Loaded to come after this. Is there anything else in the archive that hasn’t been made commercially available?
I don’t know, I really don’t know. My senses say there’s some stuff that I haven’t heard I know that was done, but I don’t know if anyone has it. There was stuff done at Record Plant.
Dating from when?
I don’t remember. I can remember the people involved. I remember it’s one of the times I ran into Jimi Hendrix as he was recording there too.
Really? How was that?
We first ran across him at the Whiskey in’69 on the tour of California. He was with Mitch Mitchell. During our set he was jumping up and down, banging his glass on the table, and really getting into it. He came up to us after, and we were talking a little bit. We were sitting there with our mouths open thinking “Did that really just happen?” with total disbelief. The next time we were in Record Plant, he came out from the studio, walking down the hall with a cup of coffee, and he goes, “I remember you guys from California.” And we had conversation. He went back into the studio, get high and jam, jam all night and he’ll record a track. He’ll go back and listen to the tape, take stuff out and then record the next stuff.
The process of John leaving and Doug joining was very fast. Was there a sense of the band trying to redefine how they worked together?
Not that I am aware of. We knew Doug before he joined us. He was in Boston and we played there a lot, as you know, and we met him and I think we even stayed at his apartment one time. So we knew him a bit, and his abilities.
What do you think Doug brought to the band?
He brought sweetness, he could sew.
Sewing isn’t one of those things that I immediately associate with The Velvet Underground…
[Laughs] He’s one of those people who I admire, who can do all sorts of different things. He’s a good cook, he can sew, he’s a good singer, he’s a good musician. A great musician, actually. I guess he brought a little bit of calm after the storm.
What was it like living together at Chateau Marmont?
It was fun, it was like a little bungalow thing. I was up at four in the morning – still up, not up after sleeping – and I had the radio on, and it was announced that Lars Onsager, the father of our road guy, had just won the Nobel Prize. Isn’t that funny? That’s where we were, in that little cabin.
What do you remember about the sessions for that album?
Not a hell of a lot, to be honest. It was a long time ago. Heck, I don’t even remember what the hell’s on the album. Name a song and I’ll tell you if I remember something.
“Pale Blue Eyes”.
Yeah, I do remember recording that, actually. I love that song, I really love that song.
You sang “After Hours” on the album.
Yeah, I remember that. Yeah, okay. I was a nervous wreck. Took about eight takes, ‘cause I kept forgetting, or laughing, or whatever the hell I was doing, I don’t know! But it took seven or eight takes. Finally I had the sense to make everybody leave, leave the studio. I was really nervous, I’d never sung anything, obviously with the band, or anywhere else. I wanted to do a good job, so I was nervous.
Were they daytime sessions or night-time sessions? Do you have any recollection of that?
I would say day, and probably one into the night. It certainly wasn’t at 9 o’clock in the morning, but maybe it went into the night sometimes, or all the time, I don’t remember. But I do remember going into that other studio, that one in California, in the daytime… Yeah, probably afternoon, late afternoon, something like that.
With John out of the picture, what was Lou like during the period of this album?
I’m sure he was up; it’s always exciting to be in the studio.
The 1969 sessions you recorded for MGM are also included in this box set. What were relations like with MGM at the time?
Not great. We always wondered if maybe they just didn’t know what to do with us, ‘cause they barely distributed our records, and we were tired of that. So I think they honed in on The Mothers of Invention, and put all their efforts behind them, I don’t know, but they didn’t put much behind us.
Why didn’t the material come out at the time? Was it for contractual reactions, or…?
I would think it had to be something like that. When we were doing it, my recollection is that we were pretty much doing it to be done with the contract, that we owed them an album. But we didn’t go in and say, “Oh, screw it! Let’s just do this and be done, who cares.” We gave it our best, but we didn’t expect it to be coming out, as I recall. Not with MGM, anyway.
The other additional content in this set is the Matrix live recordings. What was it like playing live in The Velvet Underground?
Oh, it was fun! I always had fun. I really, really, really liked it. There’s very few songs where I can say, “Ah, I got sick of that one”, very few. I always enjoyed it, I was not particularly worried or anxious about the future. We were all, basically, having fun. And doing our best, and enjoying it, and being happy with our product – I hate that word! John maybe from when he was eight years old, and Lou by the time he was twelve, they knew that’s what they wanted to be: musicians. Sterling and I never had that in our mind, as a career, or even an attempt at a career. So to me, I was totally happy playing live, recording now and then; that was always very exciting to me, to be recording. So whatever I was feeling or thinking and Sterling too maybe, was a lot different than probably what Lou and John were worried about, or concerned or whatever. As I said, that was their career, they wanted music as a career. Sterling and I, we never though of that.
Out of all the studio albums, where do you rank this third album?
Hm. Good question. I mean I like it. But I love the first album, I love the sound of it, I like – a lot – White Light. Well, maybe they’re all fairly even.
What were your favourite songs to play live?
“Sister Ray”, “Heroin”, “I’m Waiting For The Man”, “Run Run”, “Pale Blue Eyes”.
The Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is available now from UMe
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