Paying homage to an icon is always a tricky prospect. Tribute albums and outright covers are always weighed in the immense shadow of the original work—and no matter how hard you try, it's hard to measure up. So Soundwalk Collective—the international sound-art troupe of Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli, and Kamran Sadeghi—decided to do something a little more abstract working on their new album Killer Road, which is themed around the tragic death of Nico. The trio—whose work to date has largely consisted of site-specific, nature-inspired installations—avoid the usual tributes and instead dive into the unknown, using field recordings, spoken word, rare percussion instruments, and Nico's own harmonium to craft a soft but menacing sonic palette that's as mystifying as singer-songwriter herself.
The concept was birthed in Ibiza, where Nico was living when she died. Crasneanscki had taken great interest in her legacy and had begun taking photos inspired by her hauntingly intense nature. But early on in the process of making the pieces on Killer Road, the trio also were able to enlist an icon of their own for help. A random twist of fate sat Crasneanscki next to proto-punk hero Patti Smith on an airplane, where he explained the project. Smith was a longtime fan of the legendary Velvet Underground collaborator's work and was intrigued by the idea, and three days later she was recording in a studio with Soundwalk Collective. Smith's daughter, the multi-instrumentalist and artist Jesse Paris was also enlisted for some musical contributions, as well as reading some of Nico's poems along with her mother.
A version of the piece originally debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2013, but after a couple of years and several live performances, they've finally emerged with a recorded version (due September 2 on Sacred Bones/Bella Union) that's as foreboding and heavy as its concept would suggest. In advance of the album's release, THUMP caught up with Merlie, Sadeghi, and Jesse Paris Smith to talk about the strange weight of the record. Read those conversations below (edited and condensed from two separate phone calls) alongside a stream of Killer Road's "I Will Be Seven," a dark reimagining of one of the final songs Nico wrote and recorded before her death in 1988.
THUMP: How did the concept for this album come about? When did you decide that you wanted to do something about Nico?
Simone Merli: Stephan had been spending time in Ibiza some years ago, and he really wanted to do a piece about Nico. We started doing some field recordings on the island. We thought that using the sound of the crickets as a harmonic, musical backdrop was a reference to the cycle of life and death.
Kamran Sadeghi: At first, the project was a video and sound installation for the Venice Biennale. After, Patti came to the studio in New York where we first started the recording the project, then we decided to do a live show. It all happened very naturally.
A lot of people only know Ibiza for its rave culture. It's interesting to think of Ibiza as the setting for field recordings about an artist who isn't associated with that culture at all.
Merli: I think the island has changed a bit. It's always had a clubbing culture, but it's attracted a lot of creative types and people who are searching for something. Now that it's a bit more commercialized, [the clubbing culture] is all you hear about, but there's another half of the Island that's very much based on nature, solitude and something strangely spiritual and beautiful.
Did you feel that spiritual connection with Nico more so in Ibiza than you feel like you would have elsewhere since it was so central to her later years?
Sadeghi: I think so, also because you're able to. You have space, silence, and all sorts of elements that allow for you to be open to receiving something you wouldn't get in an urban environment. There are many layers in Ibiza, there's this beautiful, uplifting, bright energy here but there's also a sort of haunting, dark energy also which is very synonymous with Nico. Who knows how it was in her daily life, but she definitely carried being a bit more of a dark soul in her public persona. She seemed very intense.
What's your relationship to Nico's music like?
Sadeghi: We do like her music, but we're more inspired by the words in her lyrics. That's what was prompting a lot of our work in the studio. Her lyrics were definitely our point of departure for working on the album. They're very powerful.
Jesse Paris Smith: I didn't really have so much of a relationship with her before this project. I knew a couple of songs, I knew "These Days" of course and had performed it with my mom before. My mom knew her a little bit in the 70s.
It's really interesting that it's less about her music and more about her identity and sentiment as a person and as an artist.
Sadeghi: The point isn't really to reference her musically, but more as a very deep poetic person and the pictures that she painted with her words. Most of our albums and performances are based on narrative stories. We also do a lot of field recording; it makes up about 80 percent of our work. It's really important to have a narrative to use those properly. It's also important not to get stuck in a genre, we do a lot of types of music. It's electronic, but we aren't deep house or techno. We don't operate this way, we try to go quite deep and intimate on each project.
Jesse, what did you bring to the project? What was the most rewarding part of the process for you?
Paris Smith: For me, the more exciting thing was the performance. I played a lot of instruments. That was really fun to do on stage. You can't differentiate them on the recordings. A lot of the things I did were more visual. The sound is great, but part of the performance were the instruments looking interesting.
What instruments did you play?
Paris Smith: I had about 15 glass bowls, modular synths, some little metallophones, a waterphone which you fill with water and play with a cello bow, an ocean drum, koshi chimes, and I can't remember what else. It was fun because Stephan was mostly in charge of the field recordings, so it was nice to have the nature sounds of Ibiza like shores, the water, people talking, footsteps, and bicycles that I could play along with
How has working on this project influenced your relationship with Nico's work?
Paris Smith: Reading the poems over and over again and performing them was kind of a way to get to know her personally. Talking to my mom about stories and learning how much my dad liked her albums made me want to listen more. Now, when I listen to her music I feel much differently about it.