Drone And Dusted: Tony Conrad Interviewed

Republished with the sad news of his passing, Albert Freeman talks to the godfather of drone music about his collaboration with Faust and playing Outside The Dream Syndicate for perhaps the last time

Although Tony Conrad is now firmly ensconced as a legend in minimalism and avant garde performance, playing shows at leading festivals and high profile gigs around the world, it is very nearly a story that did not happen. For many years his early recordings in the Theatre Of Eternal Music with his also legendary cohorts – La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, John Cale, Terry Riley, Marian Zazeela – were merely a rumour. These batches of unreleased reels were lost somewhere in the 1960s slums of New York, and Conrad himself became a lost figure, his whereabouts mainly unknown within the music world even though his artistic activities continued. This was the pre-Internet era and the sparsely issued records that deal with this legacy had never spread far nor sold in numbers large enough to make it into many hands. The few remaining copies were the prized possessions of collectors interested in a period of music that remains obscure despite its most famous proponents – Steve Reich and Philip Glass – having attained nearly-mainstream notoriety.

It is surprising, given that Faust are central to krautrock, that Conrad’s one great recorded contribution to the legacy was lost at all, but such fates are not uncommon for under-appreciated albums from highly-rated groups. But all of this began to change in the mid-90s, because of a spirited uncovering and reissue campaign by the recently-defunct, Milwaukee-based Table Of The Elements label. They followed threads from Conrad and John Cale, and began to explore the trove of recordings from the era. It was a rare case where a fortuitous discovery of lost music coincided with building movements in the underground based around drone music, krautrock and new directions in experimental electronics and performance. This catapulted the founding fathers back into the spotlight and as a result Conrad, Faust and Rhys Chatham have been active with renewed vigour ever since, playing to appreciative audiences who understand their music in this new context where it is indeed most important.

There comes a time to move on, however, and now, 50 years after his initial experiments with minimalism and 40 years after his encounter with Faust at Wümme, surrounded by the late developments of the legacy he helped found, Conrad is looking more towards the future than into the past. Minimalism is more influential than ever, a commonly-mentioned thread in the work of contemporary electronic musicians like Donato Dozzy and many others who have made the drone the centre of their work, and, indeed, as Conrad’s more contemporary interpolations of noise and minimalism suggest, his work has remained prescient. Industrial hums and earth-shaking drone have become the foundation of a large subset of dance music, now being eagerly pushed by the resurgent Berlin Atonal festival and many of the more forward-leaning listeners in the area as genre walls in electronic music have fallen down.

What better place then for Tony Conrad to make a well-timed (final?) re-visitation of one of his most influential pieces, Outside The Dream Syndicate, originally released in 1973 on Caroline The correlation, from a contemporary perspective, seems uncannily clear.

Why don’t we start with the background story of the project? There’s some information floating around, but I’m sure you have more to say.

Tony Conrad: I had been working with some other musicians including John Cale and La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Angus Maclise, sometimes Terry Riley, and we had worked out a way to play drone music. We were probably the first band in the world to do that and certainly the first band in New York to do so. We were very excited about it. We figured out special notes to play. I think the kind of ideas we had about what to do with drone music were much more evolved than almost any musicians who have been working in this area since. That sounds like a pretty rash claim, but at the time I contacted Faust in 1972 I thought it was true. I had been playing with these other people a decade earlier, from 1963-1965.

Yes, I’m familiar with the archival music from this period released on Table Of The Elements. There’s a small gap here between this early work and the recordings with Faust.

TC: When I became a filmmaker, I moved away from that stuff, except when I went to Europe to work with La Monte Young in 1972. I had also made contact with a filmmaker in Hamburg who introduced me to Uwe Nettelbeck. He was a producer of vinyl and records who had made some records with Faust and other adventurous, way, way out European groups, and I had been sent a few albums to check out. I thought the music was cool, so I agreed to go into the studio. I have to tell you, though, that the real reason I had in mind was to go into a recording studio and do my thing on the violin while I still had the chops. I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this forever… I had better get it down on tape!’ At the time I couldn’t afford a studio any more than a Mercedes. I was poor as could be. When they offered a studio, I was really excited, and I didn’t really care about the idea of releasing a vinyl at that time because I thought secretly that they’d never do it because my music is too far out.

So next it was to their famous studio in Wümme right?

TC: Yes. We went off into the coutryside where there was a farm house that had the studio in an outbuilding and Faust living in the house, sometimes with girlfriends. They were supplied with groceries only by Uwe Nettelbeck driving back and forth to town in his car. When I went out to the studio, I had to cross about 50 yards of grass and hope that a fierce dog didn’t bite me, so I’d spend a lot of time in the studio. We recorded my violin playing the way that I wanted, with a drum and a single note on guitar, and then I did an overdub track. Faust wasn’t so happy with this thing because they really wanted to rock out, so we did another track with synthesizer and everything, and that filled up the whole tape that was in the budget. I made copies of it and went back to teach in Ohio, where I had students at Antioch College who went around the world doing work-study. A year later, one of them was in London at Virgin Records and overheard a bunch of executives saying, ‘We don’t know how to reach Tony Conrad, so how can we release this album?’ She told them I was in Ohio teaching film, and when they released it, it was the first issue on Caroline. It got slammed with a couple of small reviews in the press that said it was totally uncommercial, and that was the end of it. It showed up in a few cut out bins here and there. I loved it; I thought it was beautiful. I liked both the parts, the one I had inaugurated and the one we did together.

Portrait by Bettina Herzner

So what happened next? There’s quite a large gap for you in the 70s-80s between the album’s initial release and the rerelease. What was happening here? You mentioned your film professorship but there must be more.

TC: Yes, there was a gap in my music releases in the later ‘70s and ‘80s, but I wasn’t inactive during that period. One thing I did was to record a huge project on the piano called Music And The Mind Of The Word. My idea was to create an unpractised encounter with the piano, the principle musical instrument of the West, and use that encounter as a framework to allow psychological and linguistic elements to achieve presence through the action of the fingers on the keyboard. It was very uncritical what I did: I recorded practising, brief exercises, my attempts to play tunes or music that that would be familiar to the listener, my attempts to recover musical memories, anything I could do, including my explorations of minimal piano playing. All and all, this amounted to hundreds of hours of recordings, which I’m now preparing for free release online in collaboration with Cory Archangel, a great and important young artist.

I remember the reissue of Outside The Dream Syndicate surfacing much later, when I had started collecting records in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

TC: I think both Faust and I totally forgot about this record. It was the mid-1990s when some really smart people in the music scene began to get hip to the fact that there had been some minimal performance going on early, and they knew about people like Rhys Chatham and Charlemagne Palestine, but when they found my record, they got the idea to get in touch with me and see if they could re-release the album as a CD. Jeff Hunt, the mastermind of Table Of The Elements, did a masterful job of redesigning the album and putting it together for release. He also decided to have a festival in connection with that, and of course he asked me to get in touch with Faust, so they were invited to come play the festival. They were outrageous! The things they needed for their performance included a helicopter, a locomotive that would go by at the time of the performance, a cement mixer, two masons to build a wall, 50 old TV sets, and a lot of other things… You can’t imagine how much stuff they put together. It was all run outdoors on generators, and when they went to perform of course they blew out all the generators right away with the cement mixer and the other heavy-duty equipment that they wanted, and it was a complete catastrophe. I loved it! I love things that try to happen and don’t quite happen correctly. Meanwhile, I did a very circumspect performance as a soloist, and Hunt was amazed I could still play. So I did a couple of gigs on tour with this ensemble, and from there on I started doing more performance, mostly solo, but the idea did come up at some point that we should reconfigure and do a re-make of the Outside The Dream Syndicate album. We managed to arrange to do it in New York, and it was fabulous, and then we did it London next. The part that Jean-Hervé Peron was playing was playing is just one note… It was going well, and suddenly the music stopped and Jean-Hervé came running up to me with tissues wrapped around his thumb, which was bleeding and had a flap of flesh hanging off of it because he had been so enthusiastically playing the bass. I gather the performance was very enthusiastically received, and now we’ve done this a couple of times and had especially strange things happen on every occasion.

So now you’re doing it for Berlin Atonal again.

TC: Yes. I’m excited to bring it to Berlin, one of my very favourite cities, because this will probably be the very last time. After all, it has been over 40 years since we cooked this up, and there comes a time to retire the act. Now that everyone has become aware of what you can do with a sustained drone note, there is much interest in re-visiting these early moments to get a chance of what it all felt like at the time. I feel the same way, and I’m really excited to have a chance to renew my relationship with Faust.

Do you feel the sound of the project has remained consistent over time? Individually yours and the band’s sound have become a bit harsher and more noise based. I saw you recently in New York with Keiji Haino and really liked it, but it was much different than your minimalist work.

TC: In regards to Haino, I thought that was a fantastic show! We go back and forth in a way that’s extremely wonderful and exciting to me. It was so inventive and the sound was so contemporary. The audience and performers were very in tune. When I started to go back to minimal music, I did it with the idea in mind myself that not everything had been done or said. I made a number of recordings that have been released – Early Minimalism, for instance – that drew on earlier performance strategies and expanded them in ways that I had been interested in doing. As I began to have more and more opportunities to perform, I wanted to involve more recent music thinking in what I was doing. That meant bringing in new techniques, new kinds of sounds, and new relationships to the audience. Some of those ideas and strategies were really consistent with noise music, but I also have to say noise music has become a term that almost includes everything now. We’ve more or less lost an ability to make fine discriminations so that some of the things I have tried to do in my own performance are things that haven’t really been examined critically. In particular, the recent work I’ve done with Jennifer Walshe, most of which has never been released and has not really been heard by many people, goes way beyond noise or drone but includes a lot of elements of both, along with a lot of very much changed relationships to performance and relationships to the audience. There are a lot of new things to bring to a performance context.

That said, in the context of the Berlin performance with Faust, I think we are looking at nostalgic recreation of something that had the most excellent qualities at the time and can still reach people very effectively. My intention for this performance is not to open myself to contemporary ideas, as much as to make the piece come to life once again.

Tony Conrad and Faust play Outside The Dream Syndicate live at Berlin Atonal festival on Saturday 22 August

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