- 24 Sep 21
To coincide with Todd Haynes’ new documentary on The Velvet Underground, the New York underground heroes are the subject of a star-studded tribute album, I’ll Be Your Mirror. Super-fans Carlos O’Connell of Fontaines D.C. and guitarist Matt Sweeney – who plays on the album in collaboration with Iggy Pop – discuss the band’s incredible legacy.
There’s a galacticos-like assemblage of alt-rock talent on I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico, a tribute album compiled to coincide with cult director Todd Haynes’ new documentary on the NYC underground pioneers. Executive produced by the late Hal Wilner, the record features contributions from Michael Stipe, St Vincent & Thomas Bartlett, and Thurston Moore & Bobby Gillespie, to name just a few.
Hot Press recently caught up with two more participants, Carlos O’Connell of Fontaines D.C., and US indie maverick Matt Sweeney, who along with Iggy Pop covers ‘European Son’. Your correspondent’s experience of becoming a Velvets fan was perhaps a bit unusual: in the early ’90s, renowned commercial director Tony Kaye – later to have a bruising time in Hollywood making the Oscar-nominated American History X – made a surrealistic, Dali-inspired ad for Dunlop tyres soundtracked by ‘Venus In Furs’.
Having been struck by the clip as a young teen, a few years later, I was sitting in Temple Bar’s Bad Ass Café when the song came on the radio – I remembered it from the ad and shortly thereafter bought a cassette copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico. Thus was born my obsession with a band who, to this day, continue to define a particular kind of punk cool.
“That’s fucking great you heard about them that way,” enthuses Sweeney, Zooming from New York. “Tony Kaye was a sick director! Your story is more pure than mine. I was born in 1969, so by the time I was 12 or 13, it was the early ’80s. I was skateboarding and I got into alternative music via MTV. All of a sudden, I wasn’t listening to classic rock anymore, and I started hearing about The Velvet Underground a lot, I suppose through reading fanzines.
“In the early ’80s, if you didn’t want to listen to the same stuff as everyone else, R.E.M. were an option. I think they did a Velvet Underground cover at one point, and people were always talking about them. But I didn’t have the pure experience of hearing something off the first record. In fact, at the time, because it was the ’80s, you couldn’t get the first album. It wasn’t in print, and anyone who had it wasn’t going to fucking lend it to you!
“But when I was in high school, there were two records that came out, and they were all outtakes and alternate versions. It was fucking amazing stuff and it was enough to get me turned on.”
For his part, Carlos – joining us from London – discovered Lou Reed and co. through their inclusion on a film soundtrack.
“I first heard The Velvet Underground quite young actually,” he explains. “At the time my favourite band was Nirvana, I was obsessed as a young teenager. I was really into Kurt Cobain, and I watched this movie, Last Days, which was a reinterpretation of the last days of his life. It’s a very bleak movie, quiet and slow. Towards the end it, there’s a scene where he’s playing ‘Venus In Furs’ on a record player. I remember hearing that and going, ‘What the fuck?’
“I was already a fan of Lou Reed to be honest, but I didn’t know that he had a band before. Then I heard ‘Venus In Furs’ and I went, ‘That sounds like Lou Reed.’ It was amazing, like nothing I’d ever heard. But from the credits, I figured out it was this band called The Velvet Underground, and then I went out and bought the CD of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“Obviously, that had ‘Venus In Furs’ on it and I became obsessed with them. During that period, I was more into the alternative and weird sounds, and as I got a bit older, I grew to appreciate their incredible pop sensibilities.”
The enduring influence of the Velvets’ debut is genuinely astounding. The album is now 54 years old – to put that in context, if the band were citing a similarly aged cultural artefact at the time of its 1967 release, they would have been talking about something from 1913, prior to the Russian Revolution. This is music with phenomenal staying power.
“All of their stuff has that,” enthuses Sweeney, “and it always will. The reason to do a tribute is to get young people to listen to The Velvet Underground, to improve their fuckin’ lives! I’m dead serious. That’s what it did for me, I definitely wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for The Velvet Underground.
“The Todd Haynes documentary is astonishing. He did such a great job of showing the individuals and how they worked together, and how special every fuckin’ person was in that band. And how much they respected each other, and what a great time and place, and moment, this was.”
In addition to the music and the attitude, Lou Reed’s lyrics also broke new ground in rock, exploring urban life with the grit and depth of authors like Hubert Selby Jr and William Burroughs.
“For sure,” nods Carlos. “To be honest, I just think they’re the perfect band. I wouldn’t even say that Lou Reed’s lyricism is the most influential thing. As one band, they influenced so much of the music that was to come afterwards. You think of all the indie music like The Libertines and The Strokes – Julian Casablancas was completely influenced by The Velvet Underground, it gave him that style of writing.
“That defined a whole era of music. I feel in the ’90s in America, they kind of rebelled against that, and tried to make everything super-big and whatever. But I hear a bit of The Velvet Underground in The Stone Roses’ guitars, you know? They influenced so, so much, because they did so many different genres on all the albums. They went from the super-alternative and weird stuff, to proper rock and roll, to pop. It was almost like the start of lo-fi as well.
“The Velvet Underground are probably the most important band in modern music. In Fontaines DC, we all shared that love and admiration for them – we knew if we were going to learn from anyone, we had to learn from them.”
Lou Reed and the Velvets also offered a very seductive vision of a bohemian New York – was that a point of attraction for Matt?
“Yes and no,” he considers. “I don’t know how to put it, it’s like this New York of the mind that they created. That world we think of when we think of that first record, that’s the New York of ’66, and by 1968, nobody was going to see the Velvets anymore. Dude, Lou Reed moved home to his parents’ house when The Velvet Underground ended! So a few albums in, they were probably looking back at The Velvet Underground & Nico and thinking, ‘Well, that’s a time that’s already fuckin’ gone.’
“So you think, was it the times, or was it this group of people? But the short answer is yes – the music is cinematic, and it makes you feel a certain way, and it makes you want to go somewhere and do stuff, it really does. Lou Reed continued that with Transformer, that’s another record where you go, ‘Where is that? I wanna live inside this fuckin’ thing!’ That really speaks to the power of the art. I don’t know if it was a true reflection of what was going on at the time, as much as it’s fucking phenomenal art that draws you in and changes your worldview.”
On I’ll Be Your Mirror, Fontaines D.C. cover ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’, the noise-rock textures of which introduce an exciting new dimension to their sound.
“Yeah, it was cool actually,” says Carlos, “and we got to do it in Abbey Road, which was fun. It was around the time we were writing as well, so we got really creative. We’d never done a cover that we had to take so seriously – we wanted to make something different to what they did, but still pay tribute to the song and put a bit of ourselves into it.
“It’s definitely one of the weirdest songs I’ve ever played, the chords and structure don’t make any sense at all. But I suppose that’s because it was a jam. Lou Reed must have been playing guitar, because he’s playing the chords he wants with his vocals. For me to play guitar and Grian to sing, we had to spend ages trying to make sense out of the madness.
“The noise element was something Deego wanted to bring in, because it was very much like ‘Living In America’ from our second album, it had that kind of approach. I ended up playing a Spanish guitar, but actually playing a very trad rhythm – I was doing all these triplets. Usually it’s quite fast, but when you slow it down and have this really sick sound, playing it creates this drone that’s almost shamanic.”
Given the Joycean quality of Reed’s words, it’s also nice to hear them sung in Grian Chatten’s Dublin accent.
“Yeah, his delivery sounds really good,” says Carlos. “It seemed like he was reciting more than singing, it’s very imposing. We got to do it with Dan Carey again, who’s our favourite producer. I hope it doesn’t end there – I really hope the movie does well.”
I ask Matt about how aware Iggy would have been of the Velvets in the late ’60s, but he reminds me of a salient point.
“He dated Nico!” he notes. “She came out and visited him in his weird house in Ann Arbour when he was a kid. He was in awe of them, and John Cale produced his band’s first record. Iggy’s the first post-Velvets guy, I think. I don’t know if there were other records made that were as Velvets-influenced as the first Stooges record. Even though it doesn’t sound like them, it’s clearly taking cues.”
Sweeney’s association with Iggy came about when he joined the singer’s touring band for Post Pop Depression, the album overseen by Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Stating that “my two favourite things are Iggy & The Stooges and The Velvet Underground”, I’ll Be Your Mirror is something of a dream project for the guitarist.
“It was really incredibly lucky timing,” says Matt, “where it happened that Iggy was going to be in New York for 10 days. It’s crazy, we did it in March 2020, the day before lockdown. It was really cool, because there actually isn’t a contemporary of the Velvets who’s as strong and vital as Iggy is. He was completely psyched about doing ‘European Son’.
“Because I did my reading up on the track, and it was like, ‘Okay, he was in a fight with his poetry professor, Delmore Schwartz, and wrote a song about it, or something like that.’ But when Iggy turned up in the studio he was like, ‘Dude, I know what the fucking song is about!’ It was cool doing it, because he loves the Velvets, and also because they were nasty – and that’s a nasty song. “Particularly in the Warhol era, they were not nice. That was another vibe Iggy and I were going for – it was like, ‘We are not trying to make fans with this record.’”
Sweeney is in no doubt about the power of the Velvets’ legacy.
“They created this New York of the mind that I think will always be there,” he concludes. “I just desperately want cool kids to have the experience of hearing The Velvet Underground for themselves, and to be inspired by it.”
•I’ll Be Your Mirror is out today. Todd Haynes’ documentary premieres on October 15.