'People thought we were on drugs – and we were!' … Tony Conrad, the great avant-garde adventurer

He inspired the Velvet Underground, thought Andy Warhol was a copycat, and met his wife while playing the mummy in erotic underground movie Normal Love. Tony Conrad talks sex, drugs and celluloid fry-ups in a power plant in Berlin

Seated in the control room of a decommissioned power station in the heart of Berlin, Tony Conrad is giving me a warning about drugs. “You’re skating close to the edge with nutmeg,” says the 75-year-old waving a finger, “because one-third of the lethal dose is the optimum high.”

This trilby-clad sage has spent a lifetime antagonising the art world – and dabbling in rather more than just spices. His route in came after a degree at Harvard in 1962: he found maths lacking next to the adventures promised by John Cage, Henry Flynt and La Monte Young, experimental musicians whose orbit he was drawn into after he moved to New York. “It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,” he says, of the Austrian composer who had ripped up the rulebook. “Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.”

And so he got to work. “An idea I found very interesting was to destroy the whole concept of western composition. Get rid of the composer and let’s make the sound accessible in whatever form to whoever wants to listen.” Cage was the catalyst. “He had said, ‘I just make my notes by random processes. If you don’t like it, then work at it!’ I thought, ‘OK, some of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had have been when I haven’t liked what I heard or saw, and I worked at it. And then when I changed my mind about something, it was an epiphany.” He rocks back in his seat as if struck by this all over again. “Whoa! An internal explosion of insight and emotion and goodwill to the world.”

We’re in the Kraftwerk Berlin power station, as this space is known, for a performance at the Atonal festival of Outside the Dream Syndicate, an album Conrad recorded in 1972 with the German band Faust. He’s on barnstorming form on stage, bobbing up and down as he picks up pretty much where he left off with Young, John Cale and others back in the 1960s. Together they formed the Theatre of Eternal Music, which would play notes that drifted for hours in gorgeous harmonies outside the rules of the traditional chromatic scale.

Listen to an excerpt from Outside the Dream Syndicate

“We made the first drone music,” he says, before checking himself. “No! I would say the first non-bagpipe western drone music. But because people hadn’t heard this sort of thing, it was sceptically regarded. Some people thought we were crazy, some people thought we were high on drugs.” So were you? “Yeah! Of course we were high on drugs! But honestly, drug experiences are very private, and cultural experiences are very social. I think the social is better. Go take some drugs, but not too much.”

New York’s nightlife was quite an eye-opener for this innocent boy from New Hampshire. He met his wife – the actor and “queen of the underground” Beverly Grant – in an erotic scene for the underground movie Normal Love. Conrad played a mummy. “There was a whole infrastructure of sexuality,” he says. “I was exposed to practices and people I had never heard of. I was raised in a very traditional, quiet way, so I didn’t know anything about, for example, gay sex. Never really had any idea about that. People who were driven outside of the social order, because of their sexual identity, were driven in the direction of doing amazing, creative things.”

John Cale left the Theatre of Eternal Music to form the Velvet Underground, their name drawn from the title of a book in Conrad’s apartment: Michael Leigh’s study of sexual deviance. The band then carried the drone into pop, causing shock waves we’re still feeling today. “You don’t know who I am,” says Conrad, “but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did. I don’t mind being anonymous though. I hate celebrity. When you walk down the street and people want to know this and that, it’s horrible.”

Conrad in the early days.
‘I don’t mind being anonymous’ … Conrad in the early days Photograph: PR Image

He next turned his destructive impulse to another medium: film. Andy Warhol was experimenting with ultra-long movies and Empire, an eight-hour slow-motion epic featuring New York’s most famous building, recently boasted a score by Conrad, Cale and a string orchestra at a screening in New York. Conrad is a little sniffy about pop art’s poster boy. “I felt maybe he was a copycat at first. We did these experiments with sound, then he carried it over into image. I felt a lot of people were being sucked into making Andy’s work, but that wasn’t my idea of what to do.”

Conrad felt he could take film further still and soon he was zapping strands of celluloid with a Tesla coil, tying them in knots or pickling them. For one piece, he cooked celluloid in a pan and “projected” the film by hurling the contents at a wall. It still wasn’t far enough.

Listen to Tony Conrad explain his inspiration for Yellow Movie to Moma

“I thought it would be disruptive to make a film that would last a lifetime,” says Conrad. These became known as Yellow Movies: the border of a cinema screen was marked out on canvas, while the “screen” part was filled in with cheap paint;, which yellows and darkens over the decades, thus creating a kind of anti-action movie. Is it still “playing” somewhere? “Well, that’s a secret,” says Conrad. “In any case, this was treated as a kind of joke in 1973 but after 30 years, people took it seriously. I suddenly became an artist.” Not that he cared. Conrad is rather contemptuous of the art world. “I don’t make work as a product to be consumed by purchasers and deployed as ceremonial objects.”

Conrad continued with music, keen for his 60s experiments to be documented. Introduced via the producer Uwe Nettelbeck, he ended up at Faust’s farmhouse in rural Germany, where they recorded Outside the Dream Syndicate for three days. Conrad gave the band a rule: one note, one beat, one hour. “We were used to extraordinary music but had never come across anything like this,” says bassist Jean-Hervé Péron. “It was more of a trip inside. I went through all kinds of mental states: boredom, anger, ecstasy, doubt about myself and what I was doing.”

Tony Conrad performs at the Black Cat in New York.
Tony Conrad performs at the Black Cat in New York. Photograph: Larry Morris/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Conrad’s own favourite work is one that can hardly be defined at all. The project – made in 1995 in Buffalo, upstate New York, where he now teaches as a professor of media – was focused on a digital bulletin board for underprivileged schoolchildren. “On to the channel comes, for example, the honour roll, with a child’s name. That might be the only time that child’s name is on television, ever. And it’s not there because they killed somebody or got busted for drugs, or were a good sports performer, but because they were smart in school.”

Conrad was now far from the avant-garde lofts of Manhattan, but down on street level among everyday people. “It wasn’t art, it wasn’t social service, it wasn’t teaching – it was nothing! My whole life project, my whole art, had gone down into some kind of black hole. When I have this feeling that I’m working in some territory I can’t clearly identify, I feel enormously encouraged. Because it means I’ve found my way to something important that’s not been recognised.”

We’ve talked for an hour and Conrad is tired. “I’m a broken-down old guy,” he says. But the next day, he’s back on stage with Faust, dressed in a brilliant white suit and capering around, still playing that eternal note.

• Tony Conrad and Faust perform Outside the Dream Syndicate at the Big Ears festival, Knoxville, Tennessee, on 1 April.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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