Incendiary get serious with EMA

I wanted to put out this certain like grotesqueness that I feel is missing from a feminine representation in music or film.

 

Let’s get one thing straight. I really like Erika Anderson. I know that that’s not “allowed”, in that an interviewer must remain detached to some extent; as the finished piece "needs” to cast an objective eye on its subject. But somehow with Erika, I just can’t be bothered with all that stuff. She’s sound, honest and intelligent in a manner that few would allow themselves to be when dealing with the sort of attention she gets. With that in mind, I can’t see the point in dressing this interview up much, if at all. So you get the transcript, no varnish, and no adumbrations. I don’t see an argument in doing otherwise.

The scene is a bar in North Amsterdam, where the young, pretty and monied beau monde of this city like to see themselves. The “edgy” Noord Amsterdam reputation now bottled and sold alongside your free trade salad. Erika’s late, she’s had a whole heap of trouble with customs and delays and flights and when we sit down, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent the afternoon carousing.

IN: The last time we talked...

EMA: Woah this is totally different handwriting than I’d expect you to have!

IN: What me, really?

EMA: Yeah it makes sense actually... it’s very neat. Yeah, very neat.

IN: Years ago was I trained... and I’m an artist so.... always a case of trying to write in a copperplate style.

EMA: You have good line skills, Fine lines. I mean look at your nice long strokes down there.

IN: You like that?

EMA: Yeah it’s good! I mean it’s noticeable, that style.

IN: What’s your’s like then?

EMA: Ach I don’t have a purse on me! I mean it’s loopy and... ach you don’t have a pen either, that’s ok... erm, it’s just like big and some of the letters are like lowercase and some uppercase... I think it looks kinda nice too but it’s a little like more... I mean if you have a pen but... it’s okay (laughs)

IN:  I mean.... the last time we talked... (laughs) when was that two years ago?

EMA: Three years ago or something, almost three years ago; which is crazy.

IN: I remember you telling me that erm, you wanted to make an American folk record; and that it went to shit.

EMA: Yeah that’s true!

IN: And you know what, I thought about that because I was re-reading the interview to see what we had talked about, and then I was listening to the new record and I thought, actually you have sort of made an American folk record...

EMA: Oh cool! Alright!

IN: You’ve probably made the Battle Hymn of the Republic in about 5 or 6 different ways haven’t you?

EMA: Yeah, erm probably... I mean there are a lot of references; there are a lot of referential things to different genres. There’s kind of the like American Northwest meta grunge thing, there’s like some on like Dead Celebrity... you know like a real American voice. Maybe growing up in the Midwest thing a little bit. And yeah; this one’s maybe also West Coast.  So that would be like California, Oregon, Washington, like Vancouver... ish.

IN: Why is that? Why do you think there’s a reflection in the record of that?

EMA: Well...

IN: I think of West Coast things like Camper Van Beethoven. Which is very different!

EMA: Well ok I am thinking... because I live in Oakland... it comes from more like ah these weird noise shows I would go to in LA and San Francisco, so that’s why there’s some harsh noise on there. And then there’s this – you now I just moved out to Portland so I kinda like got this Seattle Olympia like grunge character to it; like K Records, the DIY heritage. Exploring a little bit, you know, like on When She Comes. And even like Smoulder, it’s got this Moog line which is kind of like West Coast hip-hop which kind of has this Snoop/Dre reference (starts giggling) So yeah I dunno I think it’s a little more West Coast; I think it’s pop a little more.

IN: It’s funny, when you said Snoop and Dre I thought that’s good cos it’s got a sort of abstract quality about the record.

EMA: Yeah. You know I put the piano in the beginning (of Smoulder) which is like hip-hop you know...

IN: It’s a very Sturm und Drang kind of record

 EMA: A what?

IN:  Sturm und Drang! Stormy, thunderous, and it’s a very slow burning. You never get a climax in this record.

EMA: (voice rising) you don’t think so??

IN: It takes for hours.

EMA: (laughing)

IN: It’s very seductive and you’re thinking yeah you can get it on, and then you start to wonder... when’s the release? 

EMA: Really (giggles) oh I sort of find that interesting! You know I think it’s probably a little less immediately accessible than the last record, even though I thought the last record was a total noise record. But people have said that this one takes more than a second to get a handle on... Ahm... What else would we say...

IN: I like this idea of patience and melancholy.

EMA: But wait you said, what Stur..

IN: Sturm und drang, yeah but it’s almost, if you could visualize the record it would be a case of seeing thunder rolling over the hills.... slowly coming towards you.

EMA: Yeah BUT how do you start with something less direct than Satellites where it’s just like part voice and deep bass? How is there a less ambiguous way to start?  Let’s get to the point right away?

IN: Do you really think it’s that direct, Erika?

EMA: Oh, I don’t know... I just like listen to pop music and it just sounds like noise... it is true then  I try to listen to stuff, and sometimes like pop or alternative music or whatever it is; and I can’t believe how saccharine it is. I’m not going to talk shit about pop... (Laughs)

Hey! Do you want some peanuts?

IN: We should take this peanut opportunity to slag off British customs control

EMA: Yeah I know... but yeah...

....Where are you from again?

IN: An industrial town north of Manchester.

EMA: (with mock accentuation) Oh, MANCHESTER

IN: A very referenced, sometimes over-referenced town.

EMA: Last time I was in Manchester there was a boy outside one of the record shops. And he seemed really cool and we were talking about music then he said “I’ve never left Manchester.” And he said, what was Brighton like and I said “you should just go and get on a train.” And he’s like no it’s too expensive.

I understand I think he was just too poor to go, but it was an interesting moment.

IN: Probably money thing, but yeah... “Manchester”, if we talk about the alternative arts and music... used to be a forward thinking town and very interested in the future. I used to feel it was practical and imaginative. Because I think the universities and the scenes and the people interested in them overlapped positively; and it was – in some ways – sort of escapist and imaginative, too. Escapist in that it tried to create a positive counterpoint for the industrial decline to reinvent the city maybe.  And that went commercial and now it’s referential and I can see why it’s really annoying. There’s a swing against all of that now.

EMA: They’ve turned a lot of these musical landmarks into like Condos and stuff, right?

IN: Yeah... No-one would ever think that that would happen at the time. People moved on.

EMA: They called it Detroit of Europe, right?

IN: I mean I’m not going to make generalizations about that place! I’ll get shot down. But speaking personally, Manchester for me was like a link to other countries; going there from the sticks, you felt it had international links, it was noticeable in the record shops and stores like Afflecks Palace, or this Arcade under the railway arches near Victoria station, forgot the name... you’d see these things that were both continental and American, as in.... things felt trans-continental. Existential maybe. Literary. And there was a lot of Victorian stuff in that existential feel. Drawing on the Victorian past which was also weirdly forward thinking... Maybe that’s me looking back to hard. Or thinking of my very un-continental home town! But it certainly felt a place full of possibilities. Still it’s changing again with a lot of new things like ILL and 2 KOI KARP and things from Leonard Scully records, GNOD of course and things like Terminal Cheesecake. Much more of a feminine thing too. Not just blokes with guitars. 

EMA: Write it down for me!

IN: Anyway back to YOU!

(Both laugh)

IN: I do find your records have a widescreen but weirdly patient feel, and it’s really noticeable when you play the two back to back.

EMA: I’ve not done that yet.

IN: It’s great because they conjure up images of these big plateaus where things are happening in the hills but you get the tremor down on the pains...Very physical records, very emotive with space. Last time we talked you also mentioned the Midwest and you’ve done that today, here... and it still seems this feel is hanging around in your records.

EMA: I think it’s West coast as I said... West coast noise; harsh noise drone, then there’s Northwest Olympia, K Records, Seattle... And maybe a couple of things that aren’t erm... you know 100 Years, which is kinda different but yeah it’s pretty West Coast. Obscure I think, too. Redolent of these weird old venues which aren’t there anymore. You know I spent years going to noise shows. You know I think I never went to a normal show at all, for years; I mean it was like 15 people in a dank room...all the time! (Laughs) Noise.... just like, electronics, no rhythm, no melody...

IN: Why did you go?

EMA: I don’t know! I just kinda started and then... and then... It’s kinda like a mystery the first 10 or 20 you go to you just pretend you know what’s going on! And then after a while you tend to hear things more... and with stuff like that when it’s good, it’s REALLY fucking good and when it’s bad... I don’t even need to tell you why. When it’s good it’s palette cleansing, mind refreshing. It’s so amazing! (Laughs)

IN: But you use a lot of guitar...

EMA: Well, not as much on this record. I tried to sit down and write with a guitar for this record... and it sounded false to me. Like erm... I couldn’t go back and try to repeat what I had done cos it just didn’t feel exciting or honest. With this record one of the things I wanted to do, I needed to like really expand my palette and expand fast.  So I because much more comfortable with Midi and maybe with Analog Modular... and when I was working with my drummer who was using these pads, I became au fait with Battery and Tremor and all these different programmes to maybe expand my... vocabulary.

So I feel like, moving forward there are certain things I wanna do – like write for a string quartet or something. But I feel like, yeah now I got this. Like I don’t need to ask people. I learned a ton; which is important for me.

IN: It’s funny that you talk about the electronic, synthesized side of this record. Because I also picked up on particular moments where things felt very symphonic. And you want to make a point in particular songs where you want things to kick off. And maybe you couldn’t have just done that with guitar.

EMA: I’ve always been making... I didn’t even realise this, I think someone told me this.  That I had been making non-electronic based, electronic music for a while. You know I did stuff in Gowns too that was electronic in character, but I never saw it as electronic music. These weird sounds... but it wasn’t based round a beat and not laid down on a grid, it was a lot of percussive sounds but me just following my voice. And once I figured that out I thought wow that’s cool, I thought maybe that’s something that isn’t so explored.

...And you know I wanted to make electronic music but something that kinda sidesteps all the kinda stereotypes or the tropes that go along with it, you know, when I’m talking about technology... I don’t wanna use things that make sounds that sound like a Theremin or a spaceship going off... I just wanted to make records that sounded...  well you know the whole thing is I wanted to take a new direction, and still kinda feel like music. Like when I look at the history of painting or something; I feel that people still try to break ground with paint, which is crazy which is two dimensional

IN: There’s not that much you can really do with it physically, and I speak as a Sunday painter....

EMA: Yeah but if you look at people who knock out all these manifestos, they keep saying we’re gonna do it like this or we’re gonna do it like that! And if you look at the history of Dutch or Flemish painting you get people who look to depict normal people and it was a huge thing. And when you look back you think, duh... that’s obvious but it’s crazy. So when I think about music I think that there have to still be things that you can make or discover that are new.

IN: I’m sure that comes down more than anything down to the artists personality, and that’s why you are interesting because you have a very strong personality... And your personality drives your music. And if you take your personality away – or anyone’s – it’s just art by numbers. And we’ve talked about this before.... you know, ‘why makes stuff that sounds like everyone else, blah blah blah...’

EMA: Yeah.

IN: But with you, you seem to put yourself on the line and try to find a sound that tries to find out what you are about; you string yourself out, effectively.

EMA: You know that’s so funny because.... you’re probably right and I’ve probably never.... realised that. (Turns away) Yeah. Okay. You got me. I always thought it was, “I’m interested in sound, and I wanna explore sound...”

IN: But you have to be interested in yourself to some extent to make good music. You HAVE to be to make such powerful music. It’s about your soul, to some extent! Otherwise what’s the fucking point?

EMA: But wait, are you gonna put this in the interview?

IN: Of course I’m gonna fucking put this in the interview!

EMA: But are you going to put it in that you... that I... (Laughs)

IN: I’m going to put that you admitted to me that...

EMA: No, you’re not gonna say that I admit it! You have to say that it was a moment that I saw... But no it’s cool!  Think it’s good!  Because when you’re with other people...  you know it’s funny about interviews... people don’t realise how enlightening it can be for an artist to like get this stuff... And like for YOU just telling me that is just shifting my perspective on... and if you just write “oh she just didn’t know.... and admitted this... And I was right all along”, YOU miss that! (Laughs)

IN: No, no, you’re right; admit is the wrong word, of course and it’s just something that... comes into your mind.

EMA: I’m making I’m just like oh making a point that somehow you are gonna have to insert this bit carefully... for your sake...

IN: I’ll make it a very entertaining read... (Laughs nervously, trying, in true British style to joke my way out of something personal)

EMA: A very WHAT? No.... Maybe you’re right I mean this is so... important.

IN: In mean this is an essential element of art; self-awareness, I think... I mean right back to people blowing pigment through their hand on cave walls...

EMA: So me even talking about... like CARING about fucking... modular synths.

IN: Yeah but that is also a part of your creative personality.

EMA: It is but it’s like maybe people don’t care. What the fuck I’m doing... and I need to steam in like just not giving a fucking shit! (Laughs)

IN: No, no, of course not, because... regardless, you can’t regulate what other people think. It’s impossible. How can that be the case? You can only wrestle with yourself. You know... and that’s the thing. And in that respect of course you can talk about what you want. But I mean... we talked about something very similar before when we both bitched about people on the scene making records that just sounded like equations. We said you can make stuff that just has no soul just x-y-z....

EMA: Yeah but... The thing is also I think that exploring extreme clichés is amazing as well.

IN: Of course.

EMA: So I’m not gonna attack that... if you make every single cliché perfect that is also kind of amazing; it becomes satire.

IN: Of course, it’s like the first Ramones record too, something that sounds so clichéd but is able through its inner strength to open doors people didn’t realise. 

EMA: Talking of satire I think that So Blonde, there’s something satirical about that song. You know I never thought about that word just now but like, there’s an element of satire on this record as well, in certain places.

IN: And that’s good because you are one of the few people who could be totally, ruthlessly straight and get away with satire. You have this big musical armoury.

EMA: Wow, erm what?

IN: Well, when I think of your records and you, I think there’s this girl with all this big sonic weaponry. And it gets you thinking that you understand that you get the breadth and depth of your subject matter. It’s not something that a critic can pick holes in.

EMA: Music is a playground; you have to have fun though...

IN: the other thing I was gonna ask you was erm... I thought, it’s a very sensual, sexy record...

EMA: OK, cool...

IN: And it’s also a very melancholy record – so with the sexiness and the melancholy it is the ultimate bedroom record.

(Both laugh)

EMA: That’s funny because also I have the feeling, that there’s a slight bit of anger and this record is, erm... having to deal with like... I wanted to put out this certain like grotesqueness that I feel is missing from a feminine representation in music or film or whatever. I wanted to get to the depth of my voice in this spot and make it gnarly, I don’t know what a good word besides gnarly is, I mean that’s super west Coast but ahm... I feel like you know part of me being angry is like... being accidentally complicit in like... this sexualisation of my image and feeling like I didn’t... it kinda like slipped outta my control. I’m not saying anyone else did anything, I’m just saying I’m looking back and it makes me angry and that’s where the anger comes from there. So I didn’t see it as being a sexual record. I kind of saw it as being a kind of fuck you.

IN: Which of course is a very bedroom thing...

 (Both laugh)

EMA: Haha! I mean yeah!  I guess that’s good because I was thinking, it is right to cut of this part of myself because I don’t like the way it’s being used or whatever...

IN: Well hold on, I mean why do you worry about that? I don’t this at all...

EMA: Because I’m worried!

IN: OK, but I don’t see.... All I see is this incredible rock record made by someone who’s very smart!

Woah...

For the record someone starts staring at us from the gloaming through the window. It’s a very ghostly moment. Unnerved we try to carry on, but we don’t really know how. Erika starts looking at my questions.

EMA: You have detailed notes, and you’re writing is very neat!

IN: Well I had a couple and then started to work out what I wanted to say and...

EMA: Wait so you wrote this till after you’ve been drinking! Right. Wait; how many beers have you had?

IN: Erm.. A few.

EMA: You’re not as drunk as you seem.

IN: I don’t feel drunk. I like a pint. I can look after myself. Sometimes I can fall into an utter mess.

EMA: So you’re like this all the time?

IN: I’ve aged with age. Like an oak casket. That leaks.

...Anyway you’re not allowed to ask me about this (laughs), and anyway I don’t know – going back to what we were talking about – why you worry about your images because you are fucking GOOD, and that’s what matters ultimately. I thought to myself these are really interesting records with a spirit I’ve not heard, or rarely for years – and you can hear this powerful creative personality kicking off, and as I said before you’re utilising sound to push what you want to say.

So what’s the problem? (Laughs)

EMA: No, I’m like absorbing this information cos I’ve not been getting enough sleep over this and it’s like, when someone tells you something obvious, you’re just looking to back it up with your own ideas...

IN: So why fall down on this man-woman crap?

EMA: I DON’T KNOW because it’s so... wwaaargh but I know what you mean.. because I can’t...

(Long silence)

It’s very hard to explain to someone who hasn’t and it how reductive and weird it is. So..

....

.... you know I don’t even do all of it. Also I always get asked about it. Maybe I should do an alternative stylistically. It’s always gonna be the strongest thing. I always get, ‘hey how’s it going, are you a feminist?’ And stuff like that. And it’s true. And getting truth told to me right now, erm, it’s like; you know the best thing is to fucking get on at my own pace. You know keep all my clothes on, blah blah.

IN: But I don’t really care that you’re a girl! Your records, they’re good records, that’s all that matters to me. They can be sexy, or a male record but I don’t care; the sensual thing is not linked to gender... these records are very, very open records that kick in big almost universal ideas about being pissed off, and potential... so does it really matter.. I mean I really feel bad about how you feel, if you feel like this about your music’s perception then that’s....

EMA: I mean I don’t think it’s musically I think it’s more visually.

IN: Is that why you put that thing in front of your face on the cover? I mean what is that fucking thing?

EMA: It’s a diver’s mask I was like I can’t... look I will say one thing. I think the smiling white blond woman is the most exploited image in the world. I mean I’ve said that before. I mean like looking... I dunno. I dunno what to say. But I think visually I think it was more of a problem than sonically. I mean sonically I have no problem in backing up all my stuff and doing whatever the fuck I wanna do.  But I’m not.. I’m used to being behind a microphone and I’m used to being able to do almost anything there. I mean I can fuck with the plug ins, I can fuck with the synths, I can do all this stuff.

...But being in front of a camera I feel less free I feel this.... I mean it’s more of a challenge to me to break out of clichés with that.

....

Long silence. Erika turns away.

IN: Fair enough.

EMA: Yeah.. that’s it and that’s why it drives me a little bit nuts because it’s more challenging because when you hear music you choose to find out more. You know ultimately you can choose the music, but things like advertisements bombard you constantly and it burns itself on your brain... I dunno, it affects me more. That’s kind of it. I don’t feel timid making music. But I do feel... I do feel timid when I listen to the photographers. When it’s music it’s easy, I feel ready, you know.. but... When I see photos or something I will feel sad.

IN: I’ll do the photos and pretend to be you. Guy in his mid-forties with his teeth falling out.

EMA: (Laughing) Yeah! Maybe I should just take myself out of the equation all together, create an alter ego. Just a thought.

IN: Would a female artist dare to do something like The Residents did, you know...

The eyeballs....

You could do that.

EMA: Is that like the feminine test? There was a band from Chicago... I can’t remember... argh I can’t access the name, but I’m sure someone did.  I think a lot about Cindy Sherman and the way she made these early photos, and everyone LOVED those pics, her in these sexy B-movie roles. And then her reaction to that is to make the most gnarly fucked up things... like diseased genitalia. Like that was her reaction, you know she’s like ‘I’m gonna make fucked up things with dolls and puss and ooze and blood’... and then she was able to come back, but only when her sexiness...  had been removed from her body. So she was like ‘cool.... now I’m not like a sex object anymore I’m just a woman again. And that sort of thing really resonates with me...

....

...You know, I know this is turning out to be a totally different discussion than a music discussion. 

IN: But in a way it IS part of the music discussion because you’re worried about this stuff and it’s obviously, somewhere, part of the equation with your music. I mean here’s you who’s made two amazing records and you’re sitting here talking to me about looks...

EMA: No! I know but I mean...

IN: Come on you’re a pal! I consider you an ally and a pal and someone who’s really talented!

EMA: Argh, all I know is that some of the anger, like I couldn’t keep that anger out and I just... wanna be grotesque...

IN: You don’t have to be grotesque! Not as a reaction!

EMA: Argh! I know but argh what are you doing? Argh I got a lot of good stuff to think about! This is totally like a pub conversation now and....

(Both laugh)

IN: Your music makes me feel that it’s worthy of me pushing you and asking things like this and us getting awkward with each other, and having a laugh, because these records you have made are great! And because you’re fucking smart and great company and I’m not wanting to be patronising you know? You are basically half opening doors that you want people to walk through. Yeah?

EMA: Yeah!

IN: So you ask and invite them into your records. So in some respects, given all we’ve talked about today, I wonder whether are you the gatekeeper or are you the victim of your own music?  People tell me they dream about your music and they try to work stuff out through your music. A seductive side to your music, so you must have some control and yet you get freaked about some aspects of it.

EMA: OK I gotta think there are so many questions Richard! Argh!

IN: Anyway. Stop worrying!

EMA: I know you’ve got a point but I had to go through this part, this self-doubt and anger; I had to do it because it was overwhelming me because I had to be cathartic, because I spent so much on tour not confronting it. Oh fuck it man. I’ll work it out somehow.

IN: Mate let’s call it a day.

EMA: Sounds good.