Drumming With the Velvet Underground
Part 2: Maureen Tucker
by Adam Budofsky
In Part 2 of our interview with the drummers of the Velvet Underground, originally posted in 2005 and reposted this week on the sad occasion of VU leader Lou Reed’s passing, we talk with Maureen Tucker, the player most often associated with the group.
Moe, as she’s fondly called, played on all of the band’s studio albums except for 1970’s Loaded, which she missed because she was having her first child at the time. (See the Billy Yule interview in Part 1 of this feature for more on this period of the band’s history.) Though Loaded is a classic album in its own right, because of Tucker’s absence it doesn’t truly represent the Velvets sound, an unadorned, deceptively primitive approach that was as informed by twentieth-century European avant-garde music as it was by American R&B and pop.
Moe’s unique approach to Lou Reed’s songs was a mix of African trance rhythms and Ringo-like arrangement genius. Her playing style was hugely responsible for the Velvets’ singular personality, as important as Reed’s deadpan vocals, Sterling Morrison’s architectural electric guitar, or John Cale’s otherworldly viola.
Though the Velvet Underground struggled with underwhelming record sales in its day, by the ’80s, every serious text on the history of rock ’n’ roll would put the band at the very top of the pile in terms of its impact on modern music. In other words, this is one very influential musician we’re talking about here.
After laying low and raising a family for most of the ’70s and ’80s, Tucker returned to regular recording and touring, fronting her own band on guitar and vocals. Moving away from her native Long Island has taken none of the New York out of Moe’s voice, sense of humor, or love of a good story. And though she is a proud grandmother, Moe is so plain-spoken and humorously candid, you get the feeling even the surliest thirteen-year-old could easily hang with her. Maureen spoke with MD Online from her home in Georgia.
Where did your style of playing with the bass drum on its side originate?
When we started with Andy [Warhol, the famous pop artist who took the Velvets under his wing], we would rehearse at the Factory [Warhol’s studio], and I just started doing it there. Around then we began doing a lot of long, twenty-minute jams, and I just thought doing what I was doing fit well. At first I literally just put the bass drum on the floor at rehearsals, and at shows we’d put two chairs together, which didn’t work so great. But pretty quickly a friend of ours made a stand that would hold it up so I could stand up and play it.
Today it’s hard to imagine Velvet Underground songs played any differently.
Yeah, I’ve thought of that over the years, and I can’t imagine that at all.
Was there any discussion at the time, like, “You’re not going to be able to keep a ride cymbal beat going”?
No, it was my invention, my idea. I thought, and I guess they agreed—or maybe they just weren’t listening, because, you know, no one listens to the drummer—it just worked better for the kind of stuff we were doing.
Did you realize how unique it was at the time?
No, I probably realized that for the first time ten, fifteen years ago. When I started playing again with my own band, I guess I started listening to music again more, and I noticed it. Imagine “Venus in Furs,” for instance, with Ginger Baker. Wouldn’t work!
Tell us about your sticking technique.
I used to use a mallet in my right hand and a stick in my left. Obviously the mallet sounded better on the bass drum. On some songs, like “Heroin,” I used two mallets.
In a way, playing standing up seems like a more natural way to play.
I don’t know who invented the foot pedal. I guess it allows you to play a crash at every moment; I don’t know who started that either. I guess a cymbal company!
If you listen to old music, the kind I like, you don’t hear a cymbal from one end of the day to the next. My son plays in a band, and I advised him to take all the cymbals away from his drummer.
You know, I never thought about it before, but maybe things got out of hand when it became about groups as opposed to studio musicians. Band members started thinking, We’re stars—look at all these chicks! You know, trying to draw attention to themselves. Hey, I like this theory. [laughs] But seriously, it became all about seven drums and all these cymbals, and two bass drums, which in my opinion is not only unnecessary, but horrifying.
What’s your setup like now?
I haven’t played that much drums lately. In the ’90s I did play with a band called Magnet, and then on the Velvets’ reunion tour in ’93. With the Velvets, I thought, I can have two toms with two different lower tones. But trying to get them to hang where I could reach them was a problem. My arms are kind of short. So it was quite a pain in the neck.
Tell us more about the reunion tour.
It was great that we went to Europe, because we had never played there, and they’re the ones who make our royalty checks. It was really nice to play for them. And it was great to get together with the guys, which I hadn’t done in twenty-five years.
But we played some shows with U2 in stadiums, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I would never want to reach that level of popularity. Because once you’re that big, you can’t go back. And stadiums suck to play in. Really, it wasn’t fun at all. No connection with the audience, and you know everybody is looking at the TV screens. And the incredible amounts of money involved; it’s so business-y.
How did you get into drums in the first place?
I always liked [African music pioneer] Olatunji. I used to listen to him a lot. I really liked rock too, what was going on at the time. When the Stones’ first album came out, I didn’t want to just listen, I wanted to play along. And since I didn’t know how to play guitar or anything, I bought a snare drum, and I would sit in my room and just play along to their album until it was white. It made it more fun than just listening.
Was the Velvets your first professional gig?
I had played a year or two before the Velvets in a little cover band with people I worked with. We rehearsed and rehearsed, and played one show, in Long Island. That night the drummer in the house band was shot by a ricocheting bullet! But anyway, the singer had a real ego and the whole thing became sort of a drag and we didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
The members of the Velvets had unique musical backgrounds and abilities. What was it like being in the middle of that?
I think what you just said is what made it so different. I couldn’t play a perfect roll for a million dollars. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to know how. John was on the other side of the scale—stunningly classically trained, experienced. And Lou loved doo-wop—I did too—and had taught himself music. And there was Sterling, who started out on trumpet and later played guitar.
I think our technical background was what made our sound. For instance, if I was able to play rolls, I would have, and that would have made a big difference. If Lou had gone to music school, he would have learned, “Oh, you can’t play a D; this song is in F#—which, by the way, I’ve heard from five different session musicians over the years, who all went to music schools. I don’t always know what note it is, but I do know when it’s something I want to hear.
Something I also realized much later is that we all really watched each other on stage. And it was fun, because we communicated—“Oh, he wants to go double time,” or “He wants to emphasize this, so I won’t emphasize it.” And we did a lot of improvisation. It was fun playing like that, not knowing what was going to happen.
You weren’t completely welcomed with open arms for doing that sort of stuff, were you?
Oh, no. [laughs] When we first started with Andy, many times the reason we played was because he had been invited to this event or the other. We were his “exhibit,” the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. And usually these people were there to see Andy’s art. And they weren’t hippies; they were rich people and socialites. No, they didn’t appreciate us much at all.
Let’s talk about a couple specific songs. On your website, you describe “I’m Waiting for the Man” and how everybody played so heavily on all four beats.
I love that song. It’s like a train—there’s no stopping it. When we were rehearsing for the ’93 tour, we weren’t three or four bars into it and everybody stopped, like, “What the hell’s the matter”? I knew what the problem was, but I didn’t say anything at first. But eventually I was like, “Lou, you have to play all downstrokes.” He had forgotten that. Just the difference between playing down-up-down-up and playing down-down-down-down was incredible.
Tell us about playing “Heroin.” You musically represented the lyrics so well, speeding up and slowing down, symbolizing the rush.
I loved playing that. When I first joined, they already had that song but were actually playing it like a folk song. Angus MacLise was their percussionist at that time, and he played bongos and stuff, which fit in with that style. I honestly don’t remember what caused the shift. Maybe me pounding on the drums the way I did. But I felt that what I played worked with the lyrics and the ominous mood.
Can you describe a typical gig early on? The liner notes on the first album give this impression of total sensory overload. That seems so different from today, with the age of in-ear monitor systems and digital sound.
Which sucks, in my opinion. In those days, when you’d go to a club, they might have three microphones for the whole band. For years there was never a mic for the drums, and no monitors. I used to stand to Lou’s right on stage. And once he blasted off, I couldn’t hear anybody else. It was like a wall went up. So I would just watch his mouth to see where he was in the song, because I couldn’t hear the vocal at all. And in my opinion, that made for much more interesting and realistic shows in those days—not just us, but everybody. I don’t know, I hate all this technology. I think it’s been really bad for music, at least for rock.
For example, in a situation where there’s a mic on everything, now you’re depending on the soundman to interpret how you want it to sound. So if your soundman likes a booming bass drum, that’s what you wind up with. And I’m very particular about how I want my band to sound, because it represents me. I don’t like a loud bass drum, so I don’t want the people in the audience to think I do.
How do you retain the benefits of a basic approach to music today?
Well, I’ve never been able to afford a studio where you have to put on a surgical mask to play. And playing in small clubs like my band does, they’re not loaded with equipment, though of course they have sound systems. But I’ve had times where I’ve said, “Just take the mic off the snare. It’s too loud.” In my opinion, everybody plays way too loud today.
On the Velvets tour it would have been a dream come true—and this still pisses me off that we didn’t do this—but my idea was that we go on stage with the same amps we had back then, or as close as possible. But of course we had to be high-tech. I really think the fans would have loved it, though.
Are there any new artists you enjoy?
Not much. [laughs] When I listen to music, I listen to old stuff. Bo Diddley, of course. Little Richard, girl groups, all that stuff from the late ’50s through the mid-’60s—the Beatles, the Stones’ first three albums. I also love the Violent Femmes. I think their drummer, Victor DeLorenzo, is wonderful. I like Jonathan Richman very much. Half Japanese. One new band I really like is the Raveonettes—no pretensions, really interesting.
What do you think your personal influence has been?
I think it’s on kids who are more into music—the ones who are more likely to listen to older stuff, like, “I like this person…what did he listen to”? I get fan mail from twelve-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, saying, “I love the Velvets, I really like your playing,” things like that. And on tour there are many young people who say things like, “I started playing drums because of you.” To me that’s a great reward.