Twenty-eight years ago, Christa Päffgen suffered a heart attack while riding her bicycle through the stifling heat of an Ibiza summer. A cab driver found the musician, actress, and Velvet Underground vocalist — better known as Nico — lying by the side of the road and drove her to the hospital. Though official reports vary on the details, what’s certain is that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 18, 1988, at the age of 49. In the documentary Nico Icon, her son, Ari, offers a more poetic interpretation of her death: “It’s the sun that killed her.”
Those dazzling, murderous rays of light suffuse Killer Road, a musical tribute to Nico out September 2 on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records. The collaboration between Patti Smith, her daughter Jesse Paris Smith, and the genre-defying sound artists Soundwalk Collective aims to evoke Nico’s final hours, layering Patti’s readings of the singer’s lyrics and poetry over a soundscape that combines music with field recordings from Ibiza. “I thought of July as very specific, at the peak of the heat and the sound of the crickets,” says Stephan Crasneanscki, Soundwalk’s founder and the project’s mastermind. Born in Ukraine and now based in New York, he spent summers on the island as a child and remembers its temperatures inducing “[a] kind of trance.”
Though Crasneanscki had long felt connected to his Ibiza neighbor and spent years collecting sounds for a Nico tribute, the project lay dormant until he found himself seated next to Patti on a plane from Paris to New York. Crasneanscki related a vision for the piece that revolved around the sound of crickets, which Nico likely heard as she waited for help. (Their chirping, along with recordings of waves lapping against the shore, sets Killer Road‘s island scene.) Patti surprised him with the story of how she’d rescued Nico’s harmonium from a Paris pawnshop decades earlier. “We didn’t stop talking for the entire flight,” he says. “We were, both of us, amazed.”
After Patti agreed to record Nico’s words, she realized Killer Road was just the sort of project her daughter, a composer and instrumentalist, would love. Jesse spent hours in the studio with Crasneanscki and the other Soundwalk members, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi, adding an acoustic element to the electronic sounds and field recordings. After years of scoring films, and through her more recent study of psychoacoustics, she’d amassed quite a collection of unusual instruments; she brought them all to the sessions. “Tons and tons of stuff. [I didn’t know] what would get used,” she recalls. For “My Only Child” she layered crystal singing bowls to create serene swells to accompany sounds of children playing. “It felt very pure and tender,” she says.
Killer Road debuted as a live show in New York in 2014 and evolved over one-night performances in three other cities. When the collaborators began putting an album version together, they realized they couldn’t do justice to the piece without including some live recordings among the studio tracks. These songs — the second half of the double album — are Killer Road‘s most thrilling moments. A droning harmonium threatens to overtake “Fearfully in Danger,” spreading over the surface of the song like a lens flare; repeating “my loneliness” on “The Sphinx,” Patti seems to be channeling Nico more than quoting her.
As Soundwalk’s members searched for a label to work with, they were drawn to Sacred Bones’ history of embracing unusual releases, which range from the Eraserhead soundtrack to a compilation of rare Eighties deathrock tracks. Label founder Caleb Braaten counts Smith and Nico among his heroes and was struck by the way Killer Road “paints such a beautiful and stark picture with music.”
The release transforms what was once an ephemeral experience into something permanent. “My hope is that people actually sit down and listen to it,” says Braaten. “It’s slow, and it grows, and it demands your attention.” And it seems appropriate that listeners would devote hours to absorbing an album that’s so concerned with the passage of time, from the minutes Nico spent lying on the ground to the generations of artists Crasneanscki envisions living on Ibiza before and after him. “I see landscape as a silent witness of some kind,” he says, “witnessing our own destiny and tragedy.”