Interview: Regurgitator’s Ben Ely Talks Covering The Entire “Velvet Underground & Nico”

Regurgitator are easily one of Australia’s favourite bands, and have been for years. Although the music scene has shifted significantly since their late ’90s heyday, their ability to incorporate elements of so many styles, from hip-hop (Fat Cop) to the rock (Kong Foo Sing) to the synth-laced Polyester Girl, has maintained their position as one of the country’s favourites, and they’ve been busy touring and recording new material, with a lot more on the cards for 2017. Even when it comes to covering one of the most critically-acclaimed rock albums of all time, The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, they not only do the record justice, but do so with a perfect amount of their own sound in and around staying true to the original sound. What started as a once off for the Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria last year turned into a festival run of tribute shows, including special performances at both Sydney Festival and Hobart’s Mona Foma this month.

We had a chat with Regurgitator’s Ben Ely about the album, how it all came about, and the future of Regurgitator.

How was 2016 for Regurgitator?

It was really good for us. We just finished a tour, and we have been writing songs for a new record. But we haven’t actually had a chance to go in and record them. We have just been writing and preparing stuff. Hopefully, we might do two different records. That’s the plan.


And until those are ready, you’re performing the Velvet Underground & Nico cover shows?

Yeah we are. These show came about because our manager, Paul, for years has booked live music for the National Gallery of Victoria and the GOMA Art Gallery in Brisbane. He’s been booking them for about nine years, and we have never actually played a gallery. We’d been teasing him the last couple of years saying, ‘come on when are you going to give us a gig?’ Then, he was booking music for the NGV and the Andy Warhol and Weiwei joint show and he just said to me in conversation, ‘If you guys were to do a gig at NGV for this show, what would you do?’ My missus is a contemporary dancer and I have composed a lot of music for contemporary dance. She just toured China with a friend of hers, Mindy Meng Wang, who is a guzheng player. She’s really lovely and very talented and the music she makes is really beautiful. So I was thinking of Mindy and the Chinese element as well as the Andy Warhol element and thought it would be really nice to cover the first Velvet Underground album, but with a Chinese kind of instrumental slant on it. And that’s where the idea came up. Then [Paul] presented the idea to the NGV and they really liked the idea, so we did the show. It was a lot of work, but the show sold out, it was really fun, and we thought it would be really nice to do it again.

Did you and the others ever mess around or cover the tracks before this project came along?

We have all been very big fans of that record and the band. Oh, it’s funny, I am standing in a record shop and I am looking at the record right now on vinyl. That’s quite hilarious! We’ve always been big fans of it and we’ve gone through phases where we’ve listened to their music for inspiration for our own songs. Songs like Strange Human Being, or Art, actually Superstraight off Eduardo and Rodriguez has a very Velvet Underground-inspired vibe to it.

I think they’re one of those bands that, when you’re in high school, you hear and it stands out as being a very, very different record to a lot of the music that’s around. Even in the eighties when we were teenagers I remember the place I was sitting in my friend’s living room listening to that record for the very first time. He was like, ‘have you heard this?’, showed me the album cover, put it on and it really struck me as being an extremely different record. There really are so many great songs on it as well. All of us feel quite inspired by that, I guess as alternative leaning artists we find that record very inspiring.

What in particular about the sound influenced Regurgitator?

We love the fact that the record has really nice pop sensibility but it does sound quite abrasive and different to top 40 pop music, and at the time it wasn’t really considered very popular. I mean, no one bought the record, but a lot of people love the record. So I think it is an interesting way of presenting pop music and it’s kind of very distorted and dissonant type of way. Which is probably what we find attractive. We have always loved the idea of making pretty pop music but with nasty lyrics content and lots of swear words, you know to make pop music in a different way.


When you’re doing these Velvet Underground sets, do you try and put your own spin on the tracks?

Some of them we have. Towards the end of the album, the songs get a little bit more kind of distorted and art school, some of those songs we took liberties with. But the songs at the beginning of the album we tried a little harder to keep them closer to the originals.


Which songs on there did you just love learning or playing?

All of them pretty much. I really enjoyed singing Sunday Morning, but Venus and Furs was probably my favourite, just with the dark S&M subject matter. It’s just the kind of simple beauty of the drums and the bass line and lyrical content being quite dark, but the music is quite pretty, I really enjoyed that. I was enjoyable playing someone else’s music that you really appreciate. It’s quite an honour and a pleasure really.

It’s funny you said Venus in Furs, it’s my editor’s favourite track. [Ed. note: yup – read my feature on the album for more 😉 ]

It’s such a great song. We just tried to relax and play it really slow. It’s got this beautiful trancey kind of nature about it. It was fun. That was probably my favourite part of the show.

You mentioned before you have a guzheng player, Mindy Meng Wang. What kind of sound does that instrument add?

Oh definitely, it’s a classic instrument which is almost like a violin. It’s quite quiet so we did have to allow ourselves to be quieter. Dynamically we had to go up and down, and if Mindy was going to do a big solo we would break down the sound so you could hear her play quite clearly over it. I think it does add this more of an eerie element to it. It’s such a beautiful instrument that has such a classic Asian sound. She plays really well, she’s world renowned. She’s played on a Gorillaz album and Damon Albarn’s stuff and she’s pretty awesome. She definitely brings a different beautiful element to it for sure.

Are you likely to start mixing in some Velvet Underground into your regular live sets?

*Laughs* I don’t know. That’s what the funny thing is, it’s so different to our kind of music. It’s almost like being an actor playing a role of someone else. When we do Regurgitator it feels like us and when we do Velvet Underground we enjoy the playacting type moment. Which I really love, it’s cool.

So, you’ve been focusing on a lot of music outside Regurgitator.

Yeah, I’ve been working on other things like composing for film, contemporary dance shows, circus, and I’ve just done a hip-hop show. I’ve been busy doing other kinds of music as well. I have little breaks, but then I will kind of experiment with art or something. It’s always good to do something, I get a bit bored otherwise.

Given that you do a bit of art as well and the Velvet Underground were so connected to Andy Warhol, do you take inspiration from him in art as well?

I do love his art work. I really love it, and that whole New York scene is pretty inspiring also. I love artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring and those other New York visual artists. I like making art, because when I make art I get a chance to listen to a lot of music.

I remember as a kid being obsessed with your music videos. Particularly Polyester Girl – I would always tape RAGE in hope of catching it. When I was younger, I thought the song was about Pamela Anderson. I’ve always wanted to know if it was about any one person?

Really? That’s bizarre. I think that’s the thing about music and art in general is that it is open for everyone’s individual interpretation whatever that may be and I think it is always cool to hear a different perspective on a song or a play or anything. It’s up to every individual’s interpretation and I think it’s nice just to hear different versions of how people take it – it’s cool.

After the Velvet Underground shows, will we see Regurgitator doing Regurgitator shows?

Yeah, we will try and put out another record and do some shows. We are even hoping to put out a kids punk rock record too. Like a naughty kids record. We have already written that, we just have to record it. We have a bit of work ahead of us.


You can catch Regurgitator performing Velvet Underground & Nico at Sydn`ey Festival on January 17 and at MOFO on January 22.

Image: Examiner