Rodolphe Burger’s Velvet Underground
New album, This is a Velvet Underground song that I’d like to sing.
Ten years ago, Rodolphe Burger borrowed the expression "This is a Velvet Underground song that I’d like to sing" from the singer Nico for a track on Meteor Show Extended. Now the alchemist of French rock is reactivating his Dernière Bande label with a new album that pays a faithful tribute to the cult group from Warhol’s Factory.
RFI Musique: You did several cover versions of Velvet Underground numbers back in your Kat Onoma era. This is a Velvet Underground song that I’d like to sing is clearly a tribute.
Rodolphe Burger: This record is unlike anything I’ve ever done. The covers we did with Kat Onoma weren’t tributes, although rock singers often bring out covers to show they’re a fan. They were really free creations, almost cubist. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise the original, a bit like jazz players doing a standard. We were really influenced by Velvet, and we played them a lot on stage, but we’d never have recorded them like this. We were determined to steer clear of copying their rhythmic approach, which was deliberately cold and repetitive, even though they were fascinated by black music; it’s like the musical negation of something. With Kat Onoma, we took up a more groovy, swinging style, with a bolder sensuality.
How did the idea of doing this album come about?
It all started with a live project that we did at the Théâtre National de Sète. Its director, Yvon Tronchant, offered me a kind of carte blanche for a year. Several artistic creations came out of the residency: one about the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich in parallel with Le Cantique des Cantiques, and another one, Le concert dessiné, where I play with my trio, Erik Truffaz and some draughtsmen. Afterwards, he asked me to do some covers of Velvet. I hesitated, it’s been done so many times, and in a way it’s too close.
What spurred you to make up your mind?
There’d been a kind of precedent. I’d done a live performance at the Akropolis in Prague, which is the theatre where the dissidents used to meet up during the events. Velvet Underground was a kind of rallying cry because their lyrics were forbidden. Vaclav Havel had brought back the banana album from New York in 1968. When he got elected he actually showed Lou Reed the lyrics that had been circulating under the table. We played there in front of a band called Velvet Revival, who perform the whole repertoire in exactly the same way. For Sète, I was given the possibility of choosing my team. I got hold of Black Sifichi and Joan Guillon from EZ3kiel, who were with me in Prague, my musicians (Julien Perraudeau and Alberto Malo), and Geoffrey Burton, guitarist for Bashung and Arno. We were missing Nico and Maureen Tucker, and Sarah Yu Zeebroek came along. The concert went so well we thought we’d do a CD.
You chose tracks from all the albums, but most of them come from The Velvet Underground & Nico...
Yes, that’s because it’s their masterpiece. Some of Velvet’s numbers are variations of a simple theme with the same harmonic seesaws. In Lou Reed’s tracks, there are basically three to four chords, or two chords and a riff, but an extraordinary riff that you can play for half an hour. It’s rudimentary and primitive, like blues or folk music, but sophisticated in other places. Sophisticated because all of a sudden a dissonant violin comes in, and a really offbeat way of playing the drums. That’s what’s interesting: this blend of raw art and miscasting! The drummer doesn’t know how to play, John Cale plays the violin really well but he gets put on the bass, it’s almost clumsy at times. They’re clearly not musical geniuses but at the same time it’s imbued with this kind of incredible depth that’s fascinating.
What have you kept from the Factory?
I wanted to present all of Velvet’s facets and these really striking contrasts. You go from a ballad or a really pop song to Sister Ray, with its repetitive riff and ultra-trash lyrics. There’s this noisy side to it that manages to be incredibly delicate, sometimes even naïve, and it works. We were surprised at how much pleasure we got from playing the tracks, it was irresistible. It’s really a tribute to the tracks’ unclassifiable quality, but free from any imagery. When we played live, we emptied the stage and put a sofa at the back: we created a visible backstage, which is the Factory side, but that’s all. One day at the end of the concert, a woman who’d known the Factory told me how sinister and hard it all was, not just the drugs they all took, but this really cold and nasty attitude. We don’t feel like we have to pick up on that, we don’t transform ourselves, we play an almost cosy version. We’re don’t have one of those “it’s cool to be cold” attitudes.
The tribute ends with Das Lied vom einsamen Mädchen, which is a song by Nico, not Velvet ...
It’s a backlash! I enjoyed making a little tribute to Nico, I’ve heard and seen her perform live many times. She’s this fascinating character brought in by Warhol. But if you take away Nico… well then, it’s not Velvet. I came across this live version in Japan, with all the clichés of German romanticism, in both the music and the lyrics. I was also interested in it because I’m working with Olivier Cadiot on a project all about Germany, Psychopharmaca, that we’re going to be playing in Avignon in July, before the album comes out this autumn. I was really immersed in Germany, from Schubert to Kraftwerk. And then, I had this fantasy of singing in German…
Rodolphe Burger This is a Velvet Underground song that I’d like to sing (Dernière Bande) 2012
Playing live in Paris and New York in autumn 2012.
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper