Avant-garde music video reunites alumni and faculty

Avant-garde music video reunites alumni and faculty
From left: Lee Ranaldo, Ken Jacobs and Fred Riedel.

It was October 28, 2013. Lou Reed, the iconic frontman for New York City art rock band the Velvet Underground, had died the day before, and there was an air of mourning over the city. Director Fred Riedel ’79 was walking the streets of lower Manhattan, listening to music by his friend Lee Ranaldo ’78 and contemplating the loss of his musical hero Reed, when he had what he calls a “crazy vision.”

Dancers. Projections. Andy Warhol. Black and white films.

With “Blackt Out,” the closing song on Lee Ranaldo and the Dust’s latest album, Last Night on Earth, blaring out of his headphones, Riedel dreamed up an entire music video for his friend’s band based on avant-garde films that Warhol took of the Velvet Underground in the 1960s.

“Basically, the whole video, almost as you see it, took shape in my head by accident,” Riedel says.

Riedel immediately texted Ranaldo, fellow New Yorker and former guitarist for popular alternative rock band Sonic Youth, and pitched him the video for “Blackt Out.” Ranaldo had written “Blackt Out” by candlelight during a week without power after Super Storm Sandy in 2013. Ranaldo, a Warhol/Velvet Underground fan who had actually been on friendly terms with Reed over the past decade, gave his thumbs up, and the project was a go.

Shot at Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon West studio in Hoboken, N.J., as well as at live gigs in New York City and Los Angeles, “Blackt Out” is a 13-minute-long trip to the 1960s underground, featuring psychedelic lighting, spaced-out dancers and visual nods to Warhol’s classic films. The video launched May 18 on Nowness.com, a Webby-winning, luxury fashion website.

Despite their longtime friendship, “Blackt Out” marks the first real collaboration for Riedel and Ranaldo. The two met at Binghamton University in the late 1970s, bonding over edgy music such as Devo, the Stooges and MC5, and playing in competing bands — Riedel in the Psychic Russian Spies and Ranaldo in the Fluks. That same fondness for offbeat art unites these friends today.

“There’s a big common ground of interests, especially over experimental, avant-garde types of things — movies, art, music,” Riedel says. “We share that we’re not interested in the most-obvious or most-commonplace aspects of those media.”

When the two classmates and fellow musicians weren’t vying for the attention of Binghamton’s music fans, they explored their creative sides academically as art students. Ranaldo says being at Binghamton as Harpur College was “coming off a ‘golden age’ of freak-dom,” was a formative experience.

“I didn’t come to [Binghamton University] as an art major, but it is where I discovered my calling,” he says. “The atmosphere there shaped my entire worldview, from the instructors to my fellow students.”

One of those instructors is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Cinema Ken Jacobs, who makes a cameo in “Blackt Out” as the projectionist. Like Reed and the Velvet Underground, Jacobs had a big impression on Riedel and Ranaldo, which made him the perfect choice for the role.

“We wanted to make a connection to people who were huge influences on us, people we respect and revere and learned a lot from,” Riedel says.

As two men with unique artistic sensibilities, Riedel and Ranaldo did butt heads a few times during production, but it was all in good fun.

“We actually had some fun fights over the punch-holes and the exposure of the black and white scene in the studio,” Riedel says. “They were great arguments.”

All punch-holes aside, Ranaldo is happy with the video and thought it was fun to collaborate with a good friend, something he’s grown accustomed to over his career.

“From my end, it was quite satisfying, as we both pretty much know each other’s (often shared) tastes and sensibilities at this point,” Ranaldo says. “In general I’ve spent my life collaborating with good friends!”


Watch the video of “Blackt Out.”