Anderson's Midwest rock roots evident on new album


September 7, 2001



To those outside Chicago, Laurie Anderson may be virtually synonymous with ''New York.'' But the spiky-haired songwriter and storyteller grew up here, and her best work always has an undercurrent of good, old-fashioned Midwestern rock 'n' roll.

Anderson's new album ''Life On A String'' boasts a lush but spartan instrumental approach, and it is full of simple but beautiful melodies. It's her most inviting effort since 1984's ''Mister Heartbreak,'' and she was just as personable during a phone interview before the start of her current tour.

Q. After the ambient swirl of ''Bright Red,'' your last album with Brian Eno, the new disc reminds me of the older, more upbeat sound of the Peter Gabriel-produced ''Mr. Heartbreak.''

A. Oh, that's interesting. Because when I wrote about it--[the record company] said, ''Write a few notes"--I said, ''Oh, this is very dark.'' And they were like, ''What do you mean, 'dark'?'' I guess this is why I'm not reviewing. If I had to say it again, I guess I'd say ''introspective.'' It's funny--it's the first record I can remember doing that you have to be in a certain mood to listen to. It doesn't jump into grooves; it kind of stays not in this melancholic state.

The way it started, it was going to come out when the Moby Dick theater piece came out. And three months before the theater thing opened, the record wasn't done, and the theater thing wasn't done. I was like, ''Oh, I've already sold tickets, so I'd better finish the theater thing!'' And then a year later, after we toured, I was like, ''Oh God, I can't do this anymore.'' I've tried to translate theater things into records before, but this one just didn't do it. We worked awhile on it and things weren't really going well, and sometimes when things aren't going well, you kind of pretend they are, hoping that it will crack. But it didn't, so I said, ''I'm going to write some new stuff and maybe it will blend with the other things.''

That was last summer, and I was pretty lonely, because Lou (Reed, her significant other) was out of town, and I was with my dog, Lolabelle, and we were just walking around. It was kind of this almost ecstatic kind of loneliness. It was this beautiful summer day, and we walked down to the battery, and the sky was this kind of frighteningly beautiful violet, and the harbor lights were twinkling, and I was like, ''How can anybody be so lucky? It's so great to be here!'' It was that kind of thing, mixed with some other types of writing that I'd been doing. I wrote an orchestra piece, and I was also writing this Encyclopedia Britannica entry. It was kind of a mixture of observational, journalistic things.

And strings! I hadn't played violin on a record since my first record (1982's ''Big Science"), and it really only happened this time because this guy Ned Steinberger who designs basses and guitars sent me a prototype violin and said, ''Check this out.'' I was like a busy bee working at my computer, and I thought, ''Oh, I don't have time for that.'' It was sitting in a corner in its case, and I kept glancing at it, and finally I picked it up and went, ''Wait a second!'' The greatest thing is I can walk around the studio and play it and hold it in my arms--unlike the computers.

Q. Samplers are all well and good, but you can only rock out with something that has strings. My theory is that you're a Midwestern rocker at heart: There's a little Cheap Trick in you, and that's a good thing, I think.

A. I think it is, too!

Q. Was it odd to find your work collected in a box set, last year's ''Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology"?

A. Totally, and I had nothing to do with that except I listened to their selections. They're not what I would have selected, but I probably wouldn't have been a good one, because I just didn't remember any of those. But then I decided on this tour, because Lou suggested it: ''Why don't you play some of your old songs and see how they work with the new ones?'' And I was like, ''I've never thought of that!'' So I'm going to play some stuff that I haven't played for 20 years. And it is so odd how much they have to do with this thing, while I'm playing nothing from the one I did with Brian.

Q. When I listen to ''Big Science'' now, it sends me hurtling in a cold sweat back to Reagan's presidency, and the nuclear clock ticking. There are lines on the new disc-- ''Freedom is a scary thing'' in particular--that evoke the same desperate vibe.

A. Those bad boys are back; it's true! But one thing in finding ways to do songs from the '80s is that everything sounds so perfect now, and all the keyboards are digital, and I just have really had to mess those things up a lot. Back then, we had this Farfisa [organ] that just had the most wonderful gnarly sound, and I've tried to twist the pristine stuff into that, and I'm getting there. But I don't want to just take black-and-white movies and colorize them.

Q. You have some interesting collaborators on this disc. Did you just ring up Van Dyke Parks and ask him to arrange some strings for you?

A. [Producer] Hal [Willner] did that. He would suggest people. With Van Dyke, I sent him a fairly gloomy kind of demo, and back comes this merry bluebird Hollywood score. At first I was, like, horrified, and then I just thought, ''Wait a second, this is fun. I really like this!'' But what made it really difficult for me was that the language was really stumbling; it was conversational. It just reminded me again that this is my version of jazz--speaking that has all of these starts and stops and then goes faster and slower. It's not metered stuff. Van Dyke went to enormous trouble to keep that in it and not make it metered.

I thought I didn't understand jazz, because I was in this festival in Berlin, and I was playing one song and it was a real quiet moment and somebody yelled out, ''Play jazz!'' I totally froze. I thought, ''He's right! It's a jazz festival; I should be playing jazz. But I don't know any jazz!'' But when I was working with Van Dyke's thing, I thought, ''It is this kind of improvisational thing that flows over a beat,'' which is what I often try to do. That's where a lot of the kind of quirky energy comes from--it's more like improvising.

Speaking of quirky energy and improvising, the Japanese psychedelic-rock band Acid Mothers Temple will make its Chicago debut at 9 p.m. Sunday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. It's unclear how many of the 30-member collective are accompanying band leader/guru Kawabata Makoto, or exactly what the group will perform (the band and its associates have put out dozens of independent releases). But one thing is certain: A bona fide freak-out is guaranteed. Call (773) 227-4433 for more information.