Ted Riederer wears his philosophy, literally, on his arm. A single long tattoo is inked in black there: “Silence, exile and cunning.” The words, from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, describe the young protagonist’s intended weapons in making art and self-expression his mode of living.
Using his own weapons, Riederer also is living his art — exuberantly and joyously. There’s a lot to like about this 42-year-old guitarist and painter from Brooklyn, who arrived in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago to set up Never Records.
The project is a kind of sound and art installation piece, in which Riederer spends every day cutting old-fashioned vinyl records for singers and bands. Located in a converted (in four days) art/recording studio at 841 Carondelet Street, Never Records issues one freshly pressed, 12-inch clear vinyl record every three hours, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. It will continue to do so until Nov. 4, and the public is invited to eavesdrop.
“I’ve been a visual artist and a musician my entire life, but I had those things compartmentalized,” explained Riederer recently, seated on a folding chair in front of a trunk-sized eight-channel semi-portable recording set-up in the then-still-evolving Never Records studio. “I decided to remove the wall between them, and Never Records came out of that.”
The first version, in Liverpool, England, had no rules. Riederer simply put out the word that anyone who wanted to could come in and record a song and leave with it on an old-fashioned vinyl record.
“It was crazy — people were kicking in the door,” he says. “I lost 15 pounds.”
Now, four cities later (following London and Derry, Ireland), New Orleans is getting a little, but not a lot, more organized version of the experiment.
Never Records offers a small stage, bad acoustics and walls lined with posters, poems and an eclectic array of artworks. Each singer or band performs a single song, which Riederer records digitally on the spot, then transfers to a blank made of clear vinyl. (The blanks are made by German brothers who will only sell in person; “It’s like the soup Nazi thing, they won’t just sell to anybody.” But that’s another story.)
There are only two records made: one for the artist, and one that Riederer archives.
Riederer long ago filled up his 100 available local recording slots, on a first-come, first-served basis — although he’ll make room for top local talent, and there’s a rumor that sometimes-singer Mayor Mitch Landrieu may show up at some point.
But inclusiveness is an important aspect of a project that emphasizes performance over professionalism.
“In London, this guy who worked in human resources somewhere came into my shop and said he’d always dreamed of cutting a record,” Riederer says. “He sang this song he’d written, ‘You’re a Human Resource,’ and when I gave him the record, he had tears in his eyes. If I weeded out people like that, it wouldn’t be this project.
“I’m working with the person to make something they can use in the future, something they can be proud of. That sharing between us, that collaboration, is the performance, and our three-hour session is basically performance art.”
New Orleans, believes Riederer, is the perfect environment for this kind of thing. And not necessarily because of its music.
“I not only come to a city, but the city comes to me and shows its most creative side. Really cool things happen. And New Orleans is the best place for things to just happen.”
He first came to town years ago for a gig at the Maple Leaf with the band Thumper. This visit was sparked when Prospect One director Dan Cameron met him in New York and then introduced him to local gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara, who spent the next two years trying to make Never Records happen here. Other New Orleanians have embraced the project, with Skipper Bond offering his marketing expertise and Nick Mayor and Jessica Bride stepping up to help underwrite expenses.
Despite the ephemeral nature of installation art, Riederer sees a longevity to what he is doing.
“Believe it or not, vinyl is the only recording medium that will stand the test of time,” he explains. “I have a 1917 Victrola, and I listen to records a hundred years old in my garden, without electricity. I see vinyl less as an archaic mechanism and more like insects captured in amber.”
He also finds art in the process of cutting a record — and the vinyl itself.
“Music today is mastered for clubs and car stereos. We jack up the low end, and listen to low-res files. I personally love a record because it focuses the moment of listening. It slows things down, and makes you live in the moment.
”And if you look at a vinyl record under a microscope, you can see the waves. It’s like the music’s heartbeats and fingerprints. It’s the most beautiful process.”
Though master field recorder Alan Lomax is a personal idol, Riederer doesn’t cast himself in the same mold. He’s neither clinician nor particularly concerned with the search for authenticity in the American vernacular. Nor is he (God forbid) trying to create the next American Idol.
“I’m the antithesis of that,” he says. “This is not a recording studio. When I hear the word monetize, I think weaponize.”
In one respect, however, he identifies with Lomax.
“In (his book) Mister Jelly Roll, he describes the period right before jazz coalesced into a music form as a time of ‘cultural ecstasy.’ It referred to the fertile ground that allowed jazz to develop. I want to foment the cultural ecstasy of the moment.”
He smiles. “Maybe one day people will say, this guy did something cool.”
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.