Gender is strange. I hang out with boys a lot, and it’s still when I meet them on their level and they can’t figure it out whether they wanna fight me or fuck me. I take myself out of the equation.
It’s hot and all the interviews are running late. We decide to take the easy option and order a beer. EMA is in demand; a full interview schedule has her running around, taking phone interviews between interviews proper, whilst preparing for a showcase gig. She claims its all good fun, and decides a white wine spritzer wouldn’t go amiss. Once our slot is called up we sit with EMA (real name Erika M. Anderson, once of fine band, Gowns) in the café garden and chew the cud in a fairly lively manner. Anderson is open, engaging and friendly: there’s something pretty brazen about her, which is softened by a winning combination of high gambolling spirits and a quick wit.
IN: I really liked Gowns… I always thought you were great.
E: Thank you!
IN: But before I talk about your old band, I’d like to talk about your latest record. One thing that really struck me, regardless of what I think about the lyrics or the music on Past Life Martyred Saints, was that it came across as a real statement of intent.
E: What do you mean?
IN: that you really wanted to say something with this record. It sounds very driven.
E: Well I think I wanted to say something with Gowns too… (pauses) well.. yeah …for sure. I think it’s a two-fold thing where, on one hand I wanted to write songs to help myself process personal things. On the other hand I am really excited about having a dialogue about music and making records that almost have an internal conversation about what is possible in music; production, all sorts of stuff. So I guess if that’s what you mean then yeah. Maybe if I make some things that are political it’s by accident
IN: I just thought there was a certain attitude that was very marked ion this new record: a bit different than Gowns as that seemed to be more a reactive vibe
E: Do you think so? Like what sort of things reacting against?
IN: In the way the songs were set up. This new record is more… pre-determined?
E: A little less defensive? Is that what you mean?
IN: The new record’s songs are like essays, grand plans in which you set out your statement and conclusion. Gowns was more a case of you both watching each other before you committed to something.
E: Maybe. Yeah I think I could definitely agree with the first thing you say, the songs are like essays I guess. Which is interesting, because something that people will get or they won’t. It’s also a very personal record but it’s certainly not only just, “here’s my thoughts about whatever”…
I tried to make a concept record before this; using actual American folk music… taking traditional songs and deconstructing them and trying to place them in a context of being made on a computer, and being manipulated using feedback, what is the place of folk music in a time where everything is being made on a laptop… but actually it didn’t work out and it wasn’t really satisfying. But it’s still something that intrigues me a lot. I was hanging out with a lot of experimental noise, experimental scene people, and a lot of that scene is very clinical, stuff like “here’s how this circuit works” or like what if you take this sound experiment. So I was influenced by that too.
So, those sorts of things were interesting to me, but I wanted to make a record that people could understand. Nothing too pretentious or alienating to people. I’m excited about the ideas on this record and I know that somewhere you know about these ideas too even if you don’t think that you do… If I was to start a conversation right now about the sonic signifier of distortion and how its changed or the evolution of the rock song, since the forties then people would go “ach no”...
IN: Yeah but a lot of people do that nowadays, it’s an extension of grad school… Your record is an old fashioned record in this respect, a bit like buying Sonic Youth records back in the 1980s, you realised they were intelligent and did things in a very intellectual way but at the same time they’d rock out. They’d play with abstract ideas but they’d goof about too, because they had the confidence to be goofy. They’d say things like, “we wanna make a song about getting pissed and we can”. Even though they’d tune their guitars in the most ridiculous way possible. There was ambition.
A bit like your record: it’s grandiose, ambitious. You use all these visual metaphors… ships, the sea its classic Jim Morrison
E: Oh yeah, yeah totally! (Laughs)
IN: People don’t have enough… brassiness to do that now.
E: You were gonna say balls weren’t you? (giggles)
IN: I admit I was close to saying that, yes. Or balls if you wish…
E: Gimme an example on where it doesn’t! I don’t want you to name names, but what’s an example?
IN: Well, these theoretical bands, all this Chillwave stuff, all these records that are supposed to be funky but it’s a parade of ideas, and it’s akin to a colouring in book at school. It’s just an exercise. So what? Your record isn’t like that. Your record is bound to fail in some ways, its imperfect, and you don’t seem to be particularly bothered by that?
E: Yeah I mean… its… the record is born out of a place of failure, I feel like I had failed with Gowns, failed with establishing meaningful relationships out in California, failed with trying to do the conceptual thing and just… I think I had nothing to lose. I was ready to move back home with my parents. I already hit a bottom. So, actually with this record the thing that felt more….controversial… was injecting emotion into ideas, not the other way around. I had been in a place where male art school grad students and stuff, they’re used to dealing with ideas but afraid to… they look down upon lyrics with ideas: even poetry is looked down upon, emotion is looked down upon. Revealing yourself.
IN: Is that a generational thing?
E: Its interesting because... I’m, definitely interested in kind of what effect exhibitionism and narcissism is having on this generation. Because on one level it’s accepted to reveal everything about themselves, but then it is hard to find something that is “open”. I think it’s a contradiction that will play out in many very weird ways.
IN: A Grande Masque… I do think your record goes against the grain in this respect and I think you’re right. I think there are too many bands that are academic and I think there are too many bands… too many people just being in a band. Being ain a band used to be an exception and now it’s a rule.
E: Yeah! It’s definitely interesting it’s becoming more & more… I wrote an article for Vice with Stanley Peters and we talked about now is the time when it’s almost acceptable to be in a band, especially as there’s no chance of success. Haha! It’s like being a cowboy – it’s cool to be a cowboy even though the cows are gone; things like that (laughs). It’s a dangerous thing for me to make any generalisations about the state of music, of course, but…
IN: Who doesn’t?
E: Yeah. To me I like injecting a lot of ideas into things. That’s fun for me, to say things I find shocking, and things that I have doubts over saying. So it’s great, but there again, it’s also a chance to talk about other things than answering questions on “tell me about California, tell me about your relationship”.
IN: Creation is trying to make something is completely separate in some ways. You take what you have and you make something completely different. Like what Kingsley Amis said about his novels. “it’s fucking fiction, stupid”. Otherwise you can wallow in a kind of ersatz creative process, saying or doing things that won’t go anywhere or won’t lead to something different. Lots of bands do this. It’s very easy to be a failure nowadays and lots of bands are happy with that. And there’s no fun, you are more daring with creating.
E: Like what?
IN: Well take your cover for one thing, this androgyny thing, it’s very different, very old fashioned, Bowie, Patti Smith. It’s fun. It’s also very Scandinavian, Beserkers…
E: I think you’re right because I always get asked “what kind of music is this you’re making” and I always say well, how do you describe Elvis Costello? Who cares? It is an old fashioned record in that sense. It doesn’t really try to pass any test. As to androgyny: I hate feeling too sexy. I’m six feet tall, blonde, but I want to feel relate-able. I just throw on a tee-shirt and jeans. Gender is strange. I hang out with boys a lot, and it’s still when I meet them on their level and they can’t figure it out whether they wanna fight me or fuck me. I take myself out of the equation.
IN: Loki the shapeshifting god? Everything is fractionalised, or an equation; and you have to be answerable to everyone. There’s a lot of self-reliance on your record. You sound like you’re toughing it out at times…
E: There’s a lot of stuff on the record that is very self-reliant... a lot about homesteading like my great, great grandparents coming over from Scandinavia to the middle of nowhere in the Prairie, a shit life. And when I went to California I was wondering if why did I leave here (the Mid-west)? And then I think about what they did; it’s a generational pattern I suppose, and you need to go to the next hard place to try and better your situation. And my parents always ask why I left, and some of the record asks why I left I suppose. Am I saying is that rude to say “the place you chose isn’t good enough for me?” (Laughs). There’s also a guilt element in the record; survivors guilt maybe, feeling responsible to do something. Trying to make peace with both sides.
IN: Did it myself, mate. There are other things and sometimes you have to do them. Anyway, we talked earlier about essays. Sometimes your songs have an element of an essay, a grand conclusion, like Red Star or the Grey Ship. Why is that
E: I dunno, well why not? I dunno why I write the way I do I dunno why there’s no verse chorus verse thing it’s just not natural for me to write like that You’ve always gotta rock out a little bit you know? I’m a child of car radio rock. There’s gotta be some anthemic… something! I can’t tell! I just write one long piece, I don’t know how to do it like “what’s a bridge”?
IN: That’s fun!
E: Well it’s interesting to me now because coming back to pop music felt much less restrictive than what was going on in the experimental scene for me. A good example of this is when I wrote Kind Heart when I broke up, I thought, “I wanna make a symphonic statement” and take the squarest thing possible which is 1-4-5 blues progression and turn it into a 25 minute drone piece, which is what it was when we did it live. We were gonna do this for Throbbing Gristle. And it was this tight crazy piece we were gonna do. And they went “oh, what is this, live drums?” and I was so shocked I could not believe it: Throbbing Gristle that tried to be one of the most subversive band of all time, like had these rules that they were following? It just blew my mind. And I was caught between feeling ashamed that these heroes would reject something like drums, and then later I was like, “fuck these people, where are these rules?” It’s just crazy. I was in an experimental scene where even Gowns would get rejected: because of my presence, why is this synthesizer genius like, playing with her? Some people liked it but some people I think were frightened by it. And after spending a lot of time in that, coming back to a harmony or coming back to an anthemic end… you know enjoying a crescendo, let’s enjoy music. And that felt rebellious, it felt good.
IN: I think a lot of experimental / new classical music is just boring and up its own arse.
E: It’s just reading from a book. You say this is how… you study all these composers from the 60s and 70s and you copy that but the whole point is fuck rules, but it should be to me at least, let’s discuss rules, not blindly follow them People do not make a good piece because they invent a new circuit or re-do a Cornelius Cardew piece, what’s that about?
IN: Chance is frowned upon in music. Lady luck is frowned upon, winging it is frowned upon. Have a shag or something... Everyone knows everything now and I’m thinking you’re only 23 you DON’T know everything.
At this point I’m politely told to shut it as we’re running later than late. Later on we watch a breezy and confident set in front of press types ion the Paradiso basement and somehow find ourselves reading about the American military’s “Wermacht Penis Envy” in some journal or another. The article seems strangely appropriate- in its sheer oddball nature – as a comment on a long and enervating day. Wonder what EMA would say to that.