MAUREEN TUCKER INTERVIEW
by Jason Gross (May 1998)'How sick to death are you about getting asked about the Velvet Underground?' Maureen 'Moe' Tucker laughs and answers 'Oh, I don't mind.' I'm going to take a leap of faith and assume you know about the band that singer/drummer/guitarist Maureen 'Moe' Tucker was in and leave it at that. That's how most people know about her, knowing little or nothing of what she's done afterwards. Her solo career has been full of fun(ny), heartfelt music, ably assisted by her old bandmates along with Sonic Youth, Half Japanese and other fans/supporters. Coming back to make music after years of taking time to be a wife and mother, these remain the great subjects of her work. Moe is just like her songs- very human and sweet, a pleasure to hear. Her latest release is a fitting tribute to some of her favorite music, Grl-Group with more to come as she whips her new band into shape.
PSF: After the Velvets broke up, why did you decide to stay away from music for a while?
It wasn't the Velvets anymore. When I was playing with the Velvets, I was playing with a group of friends. In my mind, I wasn't trying to be a musician so it never occurred to me to look for someone else to play with. So I just went out and got a job. I just had no interest in playing with anyone else. It was just a little adventure for me.
PSF: Eventually, when the band became legendary, did that become kind of a burden to you?
Not for me. I think it did for Lou as a songwriter. It kind of pissed me off that we were so GOOD and nobody listened! (laughs) It wasn't, in my mind, a career. If it was, and I wanted to be a musician, then I would have had a very different outlook.
PSF: What led you to do a record again in '81?
This guy in Boston called me. Somehow he'd gotten a hold of a tape of Jonathan Richman and I doing "I'm Sticking With You" (from '74). We'd known Jonathan since he was 14. He used to come to Velvets shows so we knew him forever. So we just recorded the song and never released it- it was just done for fun. This guy had the tapes and wanted to release it on his own little label. He called and asked if I'd like to record something for the other side. I said 'what the hell would I record?' Then I said 'let me think about it.' We'd just gotten a 4-track recorder so I thought maybe I could fool around with it and do something that was listenable. I was working on "Around and Around" and I thought 'maybe this isn't too bad' so I thought I'd release it myself. I just kept recording until I had enough for an album.
PSF: So what do you think of that first record you did (Playin' Possom)?
I love it- I think it's a fun record (laughs). It was TOTALLY unprofessional of course but you could really see what a good time I had doing that. It's really for fans only- I'm sure everyone else would cringe in horror!
PSF: Did that record help you turn a corner and decide to go into music again?
No, actually it didn't. At that time, my kids were very young and I was doing that (recording) again purely for fun. It never occurred to me to 'get back in music.' I went back to changing diapers. I didn't really do anything until '88.
PSF: By the '80's, the Velvets were pretty well-known as legends and it's kind of surprising that you didn't think to make something of that.
But I didn't know that then. The way I found out that anybody even had a memory of it was when I was working on Playin' Possom. I decided to read some music magazines just for fun and see what's going on. After a month or two, I realized that every issue of whatever you picked up mentioned us five or six times as an influence or 'you must have this record.' That was a BIG shock to me. In those days, it was 'Lou and John' all the time. I still don't consider myself a musician really. Also, I had my kids so I couldn't even think about touring or taking time to record. It wasn't something I thought about at all.
PSF: How did you decide to record again in '88 then?
Kostek (from the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society) and Phil Milstein were on this American tour and they wanted to interview people who had seen the Velvets (or who liked the Velvets) in order to get material for their magazine. They came to my house in Phoenix to interview me. They brought a tape with them to get my opinion about the groups they had on the tape. One of the songs was by Half Japanese and I was just floored immediately. There was just so much fun and energy and these guys were obviously not what you'd call 'professional musicians.' But damn, listen to this! So I got their address and I started writing to Jad to tell him how much I liked this. He started sending me tapes of them rehearsing, which was wonderful. He'd be like 'OK, let's do 'She Loves You,' one, two, three, four' and then you'd hear saxophones blatting. So I didn't know Jad (Fair) until 1980 and then I only knew him through the mail.
About two years after that, he came out to Phoenix to visit his grandmother so we met. Shortly after that, I moved to Georgia and the Kostek people are in Florida so we were much closer. Jad was going to go down there to visit them and they asked if I wanted to record something with Jad because I was nearby and could do something like that. So, I came down for a weekend and we recorded that EP (MoeJadKateBarry). Still, it was just for fun. I wasn't thinking of a career.
PSF: You didn't sing on that EP though?
I sang background on one song. I'm not really much of a singer and with Jad there, why take away from his time?
PSF: How did it feel to redo Velvets songs on your own?
The Velvet songs I do because I really like them. "Pale Blue Eyes" I think is one of the most beautiful melodies. Also, a big factor when I decide if I want to cover something is if I can actually sing it and not murder it. (laughs) My version of "Waiting For My Man," I think is really interesting and fun. I try to make them a little different than the originals. I don't sit around and think 'how can I make it different?' I always thought of "Pale Blue Eyes" kind of the way that I did it. I thought that I'd like someone to do it that way someday so I got the chance to do it. I do those Velvet songs because I like them. I have people ask 'why do you cover Velvet songs?' and I say 'wait a minute- you mean Velvets aren't allowed to cover Velvet songs?' That doesn't seem right.
PSF: You're a real big Bo Diddley fan, right?
Oh, I love Bo. I always have. I saw him live for the first time in '63 when he was with Jerome and all those guys. In person, it was just stunning. One of my things was that I vowed to record "Bo Diddley" every time I went to the studio. Then Kostek reared his ugly head and said 'when you record for a label, part of the contract is that you won't record those songs for X years.' So, I couldn't really record that again for the next one and that really pissed me off. I really wanted to do that one on EVERY record. And if I ever got it right, I'd stop. (laughs) It's so much fun to play because it's one chord. The whole thing is the rhythm and to me, that's thrilling. And I love his voice too. The rhythms are really the big attraction.
PSF: I hear you're also a fan of Babatunde Olatunji.
That's right, he's an African drummer. You remember Murray the K? He was the biggest DJ in New York. He used to open and close his show with this African music and it was always the same song. Every time I'd catch it, I'd say 'oh man, this is great!' But he never said who it was. It was really frustrating. One night he mentioned it for some reason- 'that was Olatunji "Drums of Passion."' So I ran out and got it the next day. I LOVE that stuff.
It's funny because in '62, I was in the high school library when an announcement came over. 'Anyone who would like to sell candy to help pay for an African drummer named Olatunji to come to assembly to play, please go to office.' So I RAN to the office for that! So, in our silly little Levittown (Long Island) school, we got Olatunji and his full troop with ten or twelve musicians and ten or twelve dancers. It was just stunning. I've loved him for a long time. I asked the teacher for the next class after the assembly if I could get a pass so I could find him and get his autograph. She did let me go and I got an autographed picture which I still have on my bulletin board here.
PSF: After you're first solo records, you haven't been playing drums much. Any reason for that?
Well, mostly because when we record, it's much easier to sing as we're recording. I HATE singing and playing drums. It's much more time efficient to have your drummer. Also, I really love Sluggo's (John Sluggett, Half Japanese) drumming. I can't play like he does. I'm not giving it up- I played drums on the Magnet record. When I do shows, I prefer to be playing guitar. I started trying to play guitar WAY before I started to play drums.
PSF: With your second solo record, Life In Exile After Abdication, you had a really impressive group of musicians to work with. How did that come about?
All the people who have played on my records, and I've always really appreciated that, do it on a volunteer basis. I've never asked anyone because I can't pay anyone and I'm embarrassed. (laughs) Lou (Reed) volunteered to play on that- I'm sure he realized that it would get a little more attention if he was on there. He stopped by one night and I knew which songs I wanted to do so we'd be ready for him. When we were going to record that, I didn't have a band at the time and we didn't have a bass player. Kate Nesser knew Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and asked if she would want to play with us so she came and played.
I thought it was great. I was really impressed that they would bother... They had their own career and were a hell of a lot more rich and famous and busy than me. So I thought it was really nice of them to help me. The only problem was that Life In Exile had been recorded a while before a tour and was supposed to come out just before that but it didn't. You know how recording is- you record something and then ten months later, it comes out. So it came out about four weeks into the tour.
PSF: So you did shows after that?
Yeah, we did. I was still working at Wal Mart. I could only do something when I had vacation, which was once a year. We had done only a couple of shows to see what we thought. I did those before going to Europe to do my own music. I hate to keep saying this because it sounds like bullshit but it's true. I was saying 'well, this sounds like fun, I'll go do that for vacation.' So I did the shows with Jad and his band. It was never an idea of 'lemme get back to music!' We got a great reception and I was horrified later, hearing a tape and my singing was HORRIBLE! I knew I wasn't much of a singer but whenever you hear yourself on tape... I was horrified but I got over it. (laughs)
So, Jad was touring Europe after we had made the record. He mentioned this to his agent and he said 'do you think she'd be interested in touring?' Jad gave him my number and he called. I said I might be (interested) but I was divorced and supporting my kids myself. I couldn't just go off on some lunatic adventure and come home with 50 dollars. I asked him to poke around to see how much money I could make. I didn't know if I could get 12 dollars or 2000. He called clubs and called me back and said 'after expenses, you could tour for a month and come back with 10,000 dollars.' That was more than I was earning by working at Wal Mart full-time for a year. I thought about it- I didn't just say yes because maybe it'd be a total bust and then I'd have no job when I got home. The more I thought and the more I talked to people, I decided to give it a try. Luckily, I toured in Europe first and not the States- I probably would have said 'forget it.'
PSF: Europeans have a tendency to appreciate new music from the States quicker than we do.
It's incredible. It really is a difference. It's amazing. I guess it's always been that way because musicians have always gone to Paris. I don't know why it is. It's just a tremendous difference.
PSF: What about your next solo record, I Spent A Week There The Other Night? Could you talk about that a little?
That was a lot of fun. I had been friends with the (Violent) Femmes for a few years at that point and they volunteered to play on a record when I needed them. That worked out really well, I thought. We had a good time and everyone worked together really easily.
Sterling (Morrison) was not in my band at that point. When I was first going to record Life In Exile (I didn't know EXACTLY when I'd be recording, but I knew I would be), I had been talking on the phone to Sterling so I said 'I'm going to record- you want to join in?' thinking that he'd enjoy that. I had a guitar player so I didn't really need Sterl but I thought it'd be fun. He was just thunder-struck- 'you're gonna record?! What are you gonna record?!' (laughs) I got so PISSED at him. I just thought 'oh, you schmuck, the hell with you- I'll never ask you again!' all because of the way he reacted. And I didn't- I never asked him to participate in any of my doing's. Then when I was going to do that first tour in Europe, I told him about it. He said 'what are you going to play? Who's gonna sing?' He was really flabbergasted that I was going to try this. He wouldn't have had the nerve to do that and didn't see how I could.
I didn't ask him to come. When I was ready to do Spent A Week and gotten some decent reviews and toured and sort of led the charge, he knew it was safe. The next time we spoke, I told him that I was going to record and I knew he wanted me to ask him. But I didn't! I said to myself 'I'm gonna make him ask me!' So we had a few phone calls and he said 'so, you still want me to play?' So I said 'sure, if you're interested. But you can't say you're going to do it and not show up because I'm depending on you.' When we were recording Spent A Week, Sterl was there. He came up to me, being nonchalant as usual, saying 'am I still invited to tour with you?' I said 'what do you mean? I thought you didn't think it was a good idea.' (laughs) I told him I'd love to have him.
For that first tour with him, I didn't even tell the agent he was coming. There was still the possibility that he would chicken out and we'd have advertisements saying 'Sterling' and he wouldn't be there. He loved the tour and I'm so glad he did it. Out of all of us (in the Velvets), he's had the least recognition partly because he was hiding in Texas. Until he came with me, he never had the chance to have people say to him what they'd been saying to me- 'wow, you changed my life!' It sure is nice to hear- it's mind-boggling. Playing with me, he did get that opportunity and I'm really, really glad. I know he loved it and enjoyed playing. It was very gratifying for him to hear things like that. We had a great time. I've known him since I was ten so it was really like we were brother and sister, rather than friends. I knew I'd love having him along but I just didn't want to give him the satisfaction of asking him. (laughs)
PSF: You both did a Velvets reunion tour with Lou and John about a year after that, though that didn't last long.
The most sadness I had about it falling apart was that it was so nice to have everybody together, being friends again. To see that get blown away, that made me very sad 'cause we had such a good time on that tour. We had not been together, the four of us in one place, in YEARS. I was real happy about that. It was really disappointing to have the fighting start again.
But we didn't do that tour thinking that we were going to restart the Velvets. That wasn't the idea at all. For me, it was just 'oh boy, is this going to be fun!' Especially in Europe, those are the people who have supported us for all these years and we hadn't played there ever. It was great to go there and play for these people who had been paying my rent. I thought it was going to be great because I knew that they'd be thrilled to death. So, that was my thing. That's what I wanted to do- I can't speak for the others though. It was like a 'thank you' also.
PSF: Do you think having the reunion lessened the myth behind the Velvets?
Probably not- just the opposite I think.
PSF: Around this time, you recorded Dogs Under Stress.
We were recording that while all the planning was going on to start rehearsing for the Velvets tour. We were recording in Savannah with Sterl. We'd keep getting these calls in the studio. 'Moe, what time can you take the train?' All sorts of interruptions about schedules and all this nonsense. I finally just got pissed off and said 'wait a minute- do you think you'd be bothering Lou with all this stuff!' It really got ridiculous.
But I really enjoyed recording that one in particular. We were using a new studio and I just loved the engineer, Phil (Hadaway), and he's the one I've tried to get from then on. He got the sound down without batting an eye and boy, is that a plus! He's great. Also, because he plays instruments and jumps up and says 'ooh, let's try this.' He's willing to try anything. There are engineers who you tell 'can you do this?' and they'll tell you that you can't, because they're too lazy to get up and try it. But this guy is willing to try ANYTHING. That's my idea too- try anything. If someone has an idea to add a sound or an instrument, try it. You don't say no to anything 'til you've tried it.
PSF: In a lot of your songs, family life seems to come up.
That's what I mostly know about. It's actually a hindrance. I'd give my right arm to write a song about a car or something. It's really debilitating. So far, I wouldn't really be comfortable with writing a song about something I don't know or have experience with. That is a drawback obviously. When I started writing songs, I was so embroiled in Wal Mart and trying to pay the bills on this ridiculous salary and being stuck here and all this, so it all came out in my songs.
It's funny. I've never tried to write a song until those on Life In Exile. When I was writing those songs, I thought 'is this stupid?' I was really worried about that. So I sent Lou a little tape of a few songs with me playing them in my kitchen. He was a big help in my career because he was SO enthusiastic and encouraging. He was great- he just loves the idea of me doing stuff on my own. With the songwriting, to have Lou call and say 'hey, good song....' and I know that he would have said 'eh, not bad' if he didn't think they were OK. He wouldn't have said 'Moe, this stuff sucks!' I realized that he thought they were reasonable songs so I thought 'OK, I won't be embarrassed to sing these.' He's been a REAL big help in that way and been SO encouraging. He's really been good.
PSF: Instead of doing another solo record, you worked with Magnet after that, right?
Yeah. Mark Goodman had been writing to me for a couple of years and sending me tapes. He often mentioned that he'd love to have me play on an album and I just never had the time to do it. Mostly because when he was first writing, I was working so I couldn't go off and do what I wanted. I liked his songs and when I wasn't working anymore, he set up some recording around my schedule. We recorded that in Brooklyn. I like it a lot. Those are really good songs. We didn't rehearse or anything, just 1-2-3-4. I had said to him that it came out well and I liked the songs so much that I'd do a couple of tours with him if he wanted me to. Maybe he'd get a little more attention and some press that he wouldn't (have). So I did two short tour with him for two weeks and recorded a couple of new songs for their new album. But I'm not going to record with him anymore. It just takes too much time. I realized that I was not paying attention to my own stuff. Two years had gone by since I played.
PSF: What were you doing after that?
I played drums with a group called Vegetarian Meat about two years ago. This was after Magnet. Again, two young guys had written to me and sent me a bunch of tapes and they asked me to produce. We did this in New York again. Unfortunately, I just found out that the person who owns the record company left. It was a small label. This was a record that I thought had some damn good songs on it, like Half Japanese or Jonathan Richman. A good singer too, not technically but he really transmits the feeling. So I've been waiting and waiting to get my copy but it's gone with the wind. It's a shame because it's a really good album. That's the usual small label crap.
PSF: You're latest record is Grl Grup. You were paying homage to those '60's bands then?
That's something I've had on my mind on for a long time. I don't have money to go fool around in a studio though so I didn't think it was something that I could do. However... Sterling was living in Texas for the last 20 years of his life and he had a friend named John Craig there. I finally got to meet him. Unfortunately, it was at Sterl's memorial service but we just hit it off right away. I felt like I knew him already because I had heard his name so often and because of our mutual feelings about Sterl. I went to California with Magnet and John came to our show. He said 'I'd like to give you the money to make another record.' I said 'alright, this is a God send!' But I didn't know if he really meant it but sure enough, when I got home he called.
I'm also fortunate enough to have a studio in Atlanta that I can use for free, which is... wonderful. Clay Harper who is the one who did the childrens' album (Not Dogs,...Too Simple)- he owns a studio and some pizza parlors. He's a local legend there and he asked me to sing a couple of songs on the childrens' album. 'I'll pay you and you can have a free day in the studio.' I thought that was really nice of him. I was even going to pay for more days but he said that he wouldn't ask me for any money for this. That's a very big reason why we were able to do this.
When John first offered to help me, I said that I had a few things that I wanted to do. I had the girl group idea and he loved those songs too. I thought that we'd try that first because it would be the cheapest and quickest. That's the first one we attacked. It came out great, Sluggo did a great job. It's a just-for-fun project, it's not meant to be a serious record. I've always loved those songs so it was really fun to get to try to sing them.
PSF: You're planning to tour now?
Right,Sluggo's coming of course. Matt (Kohut), the stand-up bass player who was in Magnet too. We have a new guitarist named Greg that we're trying out, he played with Magnet for one tour.
PSF: What about after that?
I got a call from the Chicago Underground Film Festival to play in August. This'll help me get off my ass to plan another tour. I'm sure we'll record again but I got into an incredible slump when Sterl died. I kind of let it keep going and let time go by without doing anything. Finally, Lou actually gave me a boot in the ass. He said 'Sterl wouldn't want you to do this. Get out there and play' That was one reason that I worked with Magnet- that did help a lot, just doing something. Where I live, I'm in the middle of nowhere so if I'm not touring or working with someone in New York, here I sit. It's easy to just say 'it's too hard to get a tour together.'
Kropotkins is another group I've been working with. We recorded in November. It's not my band. It's one of David Soldier's side projects. I think it's great, it's really interesting. I play bass drum. There's a fiddle player, a banjo, a guitar and a singer, switching instruments. It's not country, it's not rock, it's really different. We've done a couple of shows just for fun. We had no idea what people would think of this so we said 'let's do a show and see what happens.' We got a great reception. We recorded and album and now we're waiting for David to get enough money and time to mix it. That I'm really excited about.
PSF: Other than the other people in the Velvets, did you feel that any other bands or performers have been your peers or fellow travelers?
We didn't feel a kinship with anybody! (laughs) We didn't meet anybody. We just didn't hang around with other musicians. Also, we didn't do a lot of touring. We weren't on the road that often. I don't think it would have changed the situation. It's not as if we were going about all the time. We just hung around New York and when we played, we didn't have much to do with the other bands.
PSF: What do you think of a lot of the bands out there today that are influenced by the work you did with the Velvets?
I think it's fabulous. It's wonderful to hear someone say that they were influenced by us. But I have to be honest... I find it hard to hear someone say 'you gotta hear this, they sound so much like the Velvets!' I don't hear it. I know there's an influence because they say that there is one but honestly, I don't hear it. It's great and it's an honor but I can't make a judgment.
Also see Maureen's web site and our Doug Yule interview
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