With Regurgitator bringing their performance of the classic 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, to Perth, bassist/vocalist, Ben Ely, well remembers his first introduction to the album that launched a thousand bands.
“I first heard it in Grade 11,” he recalls down the ‘line from Brisbane, “I wagged school and went over to a friend’s house for lunch. He was a pretty interesting kind of guy; he was a swampy, as they used to call them in Brisbane at the time. He was kind of a goth-gourmet, he used to wear pointy shoes and dyed-black hair and mascara and stuff.
“So we went over to his house and he was just playing records and he said, ‘I want to play you this really freaky song’ and he played me Heroin, which was the first song I heard off the record. I’d only been exposed to heavy metal in the suburbs, like, Iron Maiden. The alternative was kind of like, Metallica, and there was a lot of ‘80s pop stuff at the time.
“So hearing that was a real curveball for me, it was such a bizarre song. It was like this weird, outsider music, and it fascinated me that you could make music in a different way like that. Then I heard some of the prettier songs. Over the years, it’s always been such an incredible record in the way that it’s listenable, but it’s also quite unlistenable (laughs).”
With its Andy Warhol-created cover image of a banana every bit as iconic as the music contained therein, The Velvet Underground & Nico was summarily ignored by the music press of the time, but over the years has become one of the most influential rock albums in history.
“I think if that album didn’t exist there wouldn’t be a hell of a lot of music,” Ely says of impact especially on musicians. “Guys like Jonathan Richman… there’s a lot of people who heard that record and went, ‘oh yeah, okay!’. It’s just like the whole grunge/Nirvana/punk thing, it kind of made it okay for people who wanted to express themselves musically to be able to do so.
“It’s an interesting thing. I went and saw (Husker Du drummer) Grant Hart play before he passed away and there was a Q+A at the gig and someone asked, ‘how much do you practice?’ and he said, ‘I don’t like to practice because practice gets in the way of my personality coming out in my music’. I think the Velvet Underground is kind of a landmark for the first kind of record of someone’s personality coming out in their music.
“If you learn how to play your instrument and you’re technically proficient at it then that technique comes out in your sound. But if you don’t have a great technical ability with your instrument a lot of your personality comes out and I feel that that’s what they were doing with that record. It’s this great kind of character. Brian Eno will say ‘I’m not a musician, I just like to arrange notes around’, for them to suit him. I think it’s that kind of idea: putting your personality into a sound rather than making it flashy.”
As followed on in the band members’ careers – especially that of Reed’s – there’s a beautiful arrogance about the album. Its ability to romance and then offend the listener makes it a strange, yet welcome bedfellow.
“It’s a really interesting album in that way,” Ely considers. “I mean, you’ve got those beautiful moments Sunday Morning, I’ll Be Your Mirror and even Femme Fatale, and then there’s that crazy Black Angel’s Death Song or European Son throwing all this noise at the wall. It’s like, ‘we’ll set up this beautiful picture and then we’ll just burn it’ (laughs).”
Regurgitator have performed The Velvet Underground & Nico at the Sydney Festival, National Gallery of Victoria, Hobart’s MONA FOMA, the Brisbane Festival and Adelaide’s OZASIA Festival. The trio are accompanied by electronic artist Seja (formerly of Sekiden) and Mindy Weng Mang, who plays on Guzheng, a Chinese violin.
“It’s quite incredible what Mindy brings to it,” Ely notes. “She’s a very accomplished Chinese classical musician who brings this great musicality to this interpretation. So the songs are very recognisable, but it does have this very different element in there. It has this otherworldly vibe to it, which is nice.”
The music is accompanied by visuals from artist, Ken Weston, whom Regurgitator first met when they performed at MONA FOMA. It was a collaboration that had to continue.
“We were having a hard time looking forward because the visuals were so psychedelic and really far-out, Ely laughs. “It was such a trip playing to his visuals because they were so epic, so we’ve invited him to come along with us since that time.
“What he does is pretty spectacular. It just kind of goes along with the whole Warhol vibe where instead of having like an oil lamp projector there’s these far-out video images that go with the music.”
While they are enjoying their immersion in one of the all-time great rock albums, Regurgitator have a new album, Headroxx, landing in August. When it was almost complete they decided to head back in the studio and make it weirder, which sounds like something the Velvet Underground would very much endorse.
Which begs the question: has Ely ever had an encounter with a member of The Velvet Underground?
“I saw Lou Reed play a few times, but I never met him. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to meet him, though,” he says of the notoriously prickly late singer/guitarist.
“He was on this festival that we were on years ago and I saw him in the band room but… I didn’t want to go there (laughs). I just wanted to appreciate him from afar with his semi-godlike kinda vibe.”
Regurgitator performs The Velvet Underground & Nico album on June 30 (plus all-star tributes to David Bowie and Iggy Pop) and July 1 (with New Talk and Peter Bibby’s Dog Act) at Maxine’s Claremont City, Gate One Theatre, Claremont Showgrounds. Bookings via showtickets.com.au.