Lou Reed died on 27 October, 2013. Ulrich Krieger remembers his time working with Reed on Metal Machine Trio.
It was October 2008 and Lou, Sarth Calhoun and I sat on the stage of Redcat, part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex in Los Angeles, and discussed sound. Lou loved to talk about sound; he was obsessed with it and a perfectionist. We only had two days of rehearsal; both shows sold out within 24 hours and had extra late shows added. It was the beginning of a new project, which later became known as Metal Machine Trio (MM3). For these first shows we didn’t even have a name, they had been announced in LA as ‘Unclassified: Lou Reed and Ulrich Krieger’.
Lou decided to bring Sarth along at the last minute; he met him at tai chi practice, played with him at home and wanted his electronic sounds for this concert. Earlier in New York Lou had already told me that he was getting tired of writing songs, being more interested in doing instrumental and electronic music. He had shown me his electronic set-up and played me some electronic demos he had worked on.
Now here we were: three musicians who had never played together as a group, not even knowing in which stylistic direction this would go. The only thing we knew for certain was that we wouldn’t play songs or any compositions. These concerts would be freely improvised, and Lou wouldn’t sing. How would the audience and Lou’s fans react? Would they wait for their favourite Reed songs although the programme had been announced as a “venture into deep acoustic space, drawing on new music, free jazz, avant-rock, noise and ambient”? Even later we still printed “No Songs” on the flyer advertising the following shows in New York, just to make sure.
These doubts were unnecessary; the concerts were a great success. Our intense walls of noise got standing ovations. We were so pleased with the outcome that we decided to release the shows on CD and continued to work as MM3. The next shows were in April 2009 in New York, with John Zorn sitting in for the second show for some fierce saxophone battles.
Strangely, the somewhat clumsy Unclassified sticker from LA describes well what MM3 was about: making music without stylistic boundaries. Our shows would sometimes be dark ambient, other times full frontal noise assaults, and another time freely played rock music with melodies and feedbacks — or all the above and more.
Unclassified also describes a side of the musician Lou Reed that is normally not discussed in the press. His music ranged wide, from “Perfect Day” through collaborations with Ornette Coleman and John Zorn to Metal Machine Music (MMM). He always was looking for new modes of expression, always ready to push boundaries. He never looked back, never settled for repetition of what had worked in the past. Finally having a group this flexible, this free was very satisfying for him.
Leading to MM3 were long discussions Lou and I had about MMM. MM3 never performed the piece itself, although we recreated it with four guitars and amps as an opening onstage sound installation during our tours, sometimes leaving it to play as long as 60 minutes before we came onstage to start the set.
As a teenager MMM had summarised for me all the things I loved: modern orchestral music, free jazz, industrial music, heavy rock and feedback. I heard it as a guitar orchestra version of ‘Xenakis-and-likes’ and fantasised about setting it for orchestra. It took me more than 20 years to make this dream a reality: I’ve now done performances of MMM with five different ensembles in various countries, continuously revising and refining my transcription and arrangement each time.
Later I came to understand that Lou took the rejection of it by fans and press alike very personal. This piece was a serious piece of love – love of sound and the guitar. Even more so, MM3 came as a late artistic confirmation. He had been right all along. MMM had come home. Completely unexpected by him, a younger generation of musicians and listeners now got it. At 2009’s Lollapalooza MM3 played a ten minute noise interlude between well known Reed songs to the frantic cheers of a large audience.
On subsequent tours with his newly revised rock group, including Sarth and me, he would play MM3 recordings before and after shows. These concerts now included more noisy and free elements, embedded within a rock context. Every show was different, and each night any of the songs we played might be done differently. One night a song lasted four minutes, the next night the same song became a 20 minute improvisation, depending on Lou’s artistic inspiration in the moment and the group chemistry. When he had an idea, he would try to communicate it to his group onstage, even if it had never been rehearsed before. There was no safety net on stage for the group or him. He pushed his musicians out of their comfort zone, but he also expected them to challenge him. He loved this exchange of energy onstage, making each concert unique.
Unclassified also applies to Lou Reed the person. The press paints the picture of him as the grumpy, aggressive rock icon, always in a bad mood. But this is what frustrated, rejected journalists write about a rock musician, who didn’t give them the feedback they wanted, who was unwilling to accommodate them and play their little games. As MM3 we did all interviews together. He hated stupid interviewers and empty questions. But he always fully engaged with knowledgeable questions about his music and politics.
The grumpy side was surely one aspect of his character – at the same time it protected him from fan and tabloid vampirism. To his friends he could be a gentle, sensitive and very generous person. He could be funny and a good friend to hang out with, whether discussing a wide range of topics or just watching a movie in a hotel room.
Lou really cared about the things he did. There was no time for half assed things in his life, no place for ‘it’s kind of OK’, no place for stupidity. He took making music very seriously. For him this meant to go into the details of how each instrument and the group should sound, how things are being done, and he expected the same from the musicians he worked with. He was always looking for personalities to work with – not just musicians who can play their instruments. Music was something very personal to him and he needed a personal relationship with the musicians he played with. This also goes for the tech crew. He always mentioned them after each show, sometimes announcing every one of them by name, acknowledging their contribution to the show. Group and crew were like a family, at least for the duration of a tour, and there were fights as well as laughter.
I will miss him as a great and inspiring musical collaborator, someone to butt heads with and a caring friend.