Scrawl - 1996

Intro by Kira Yustak, Interview by Sam LaHoz

  When we think of vintage, we consider the earlier part of this century. When we use the word antique it generally means about a hundred years ago. When we think of the classical, well that's going quite a ways back. Etched into a wax cylinder and played through an Edison machine, the voice of Melora Creager is part Grimm's Fairytales and the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe mixed with a blood thirsty vampire searching for a drink. She along with cellists Agnieszka Rybska, and Julia Kent are members of the "Ladies Cello Society" and have each played cello since a very young age when interests in classical music was sort of uncool for adolescent girls. Straining against their corseted waists and Victorian undergarments to play their large wooden instruments and echoing the hourglass shape of the cellos in such fetishized restraint, these ladies become a symbolic gesture of feminity with a masochistic bent. But who says that they're uptight? Frontwoman Melora has jammed with the Screaming Trees and toured with Nirvana, and has such varied tastes in music from Bach to Cab Calloway, and David Bowie. It would probably take a lot for her to blush.

  These three damsels do a little time travel on their eclectic "Thanks For The Ether," using quotes from the late paranoid-schizophrenic billionaire Howard Hughes which were selected from his employee memors, performing a cover of Melanie's "Brand New Key," and dedicating a song to "Mr. E. Leon Rauis" the subject of an aged photograph whose writing on the back of his picture forms the chorus of the song. Claiming that "waist strangulation is a delicious feeling" these post-feminist musicians let down their hair for an interview with Scrawl.

You are from New York....

Yes we live here, and we are originally from Poland, Canada and Kansas. We met in New York and we met through "Musicians Wanted" ads in the Village Voice. Which is kind of a funny place for cellists to meet but you also can meet some interesting cellists that way.

Did you play in other bands?

Yeah. When I was in college, five years ago, something like that. I'd played in lots of different bands. I did some performance art kind of stuff back then which was kind of a drag queen world, you know, that sort of asthetic. And it was from playing in other bands that I know, I could just...If the cello was the meat of the group that would be a wonderful thing. Cause usually in rock bands it's used as a decoration of sorts. People really responded to the cello. So many people say "that's my favorite instrument" they always have a personal feeling about it. So from that response it seemed like a good idea.

Do you electrify your cello?

Yeah, we use pick-ups, amplifiers and effects and pretty typical guitar set-up probably. And actually experimented with actual electric cellos...but it has sort of a synthetic sound which is not as nice.

You have other musicians playing percussion?

Yeah. We have a drummer who is a different drummer from who we used on the record. The record is more...a little more natural sounding than we do live. You know, if you're in the studio everyone working on the project they haven't done something like that before so everyone has to figure it out together. I think people get like a precious feeling, like, just to hear us play acoustic, it's like "oh" you don't want and mess with the sound. But, you know, I like the live thing better.

So live is more acoustic?

Live is more electric with effects. More exciting, for me, at least.

You do two cover songs on the album. What made you pick these songs?

"Why Don't You Do Right," I had some cassettes, some compilations of Black women's blues from the 20's and 30's where the woman has a strong role - it has song after song, by all different people. It's that kinda take on it. So I know that song from there. But there's just so many versions of that song, by lots of different people. But I like the meloncholy sounding with kind of attitude lyrics is good. The Melanie cover ("Brand New Key") is similar and it's like, you know, goofy, happy music, with kind of aggressive paranoid lyrics. I like those kinds of contrasts.

"The Donner Party" what's that song about? Actually it's more of a spoken word.

A lot of my inspiration just comes from reading, I like to read a lot of history. Just imagining these historical figures were actual human beings really gets my imagination going. And I read a book about the Donner Party. Which was a horrible situation.

Who were they?

I think it was in the 1860's and there were some people moving from the Midwest to California, the golden land. But they were not seasoned outdoorsmen. It was men, women and children, didn't know what they were doing. Then they went on a bad trail, got stuck in the worst winter in a hundred years or something. They resorted to cannibalism. And really, from what I've read when that happens, once people cross that barrier, they don't care, and tend to do a lot of bad stuff...they've just lost those taboos. Then I read about the Pilgrims, and they just seem so...what's on the record is heartfelt for me...with the Pilgrims, they made a big trip. Really didn't know what they were doing, had a lot of problems from weather and poor planning, starving to death. I feel that with the Donner Party there was media, newspapers that reported what had happened. But with the Pilgrims it was long enough ago that there was no media. So what if the Pilgrims were cannibals? Like, oh my god!

History always changes, all it takes is for someone to dig out some diary from some old chest...and suddenly it's like "oops!, so and so wasn't a hero."

A lot of what they know about the Donner Party is because people kept journals as it went on. Terrible...

You are touring with Bob Mould.


And how did you hook up with him and how did that work for you?

I think Bob Mould actually has a cello and has this personal love of cello. So, he just kept track of us for a while and had seen some shows and stuff. And it's very fun because we all love his music, so it's nice to hear it every night. And, he draws these large audiences who have no idea who we are. It's a challenge to win them over. And it's kind of, uh, a little bit unsettling for everybody, you know, cause these people don't have any idea what we're doing.

So what kind of responses are you getting so far?

People are really attentive and quiet. and I think that anytime that you can get a large group of people to shut up and pay attention, it's a big victory.

Also the type of music that you're doing....

You have to pay attention to a degree that's unusual for rock music. Maybe it's like, uh, the level that you have to pay attention when you read? Maybe it's like that.

So you have a great advantage as a new band. One thing I keep thinking is: Tori Amos. Taking a Classical instrument into a rock format, and rock lyrics. Do you see that as being your potential audience?

I think so. I think it's very interesting that with Tori Amos, I don't think she got much airplay early on. But a lot of people liked her because maybe there's an emotional element. I think people have a certain hunger for things that just sound good, or something that sounds pretty.

And then the lyrics have subversive connotations...

Yes, yes [laughs]. I think that if a woman is using her voice just, uh, to the best of her ability and trying to use her full range, then, you know. Then use it musically as opposed to yelling. Women singing in popular music, we only know so much about it, cause there's only so many people. So, like yelling, ok, we've heard that with Courtney Love...whatever. Fewer people try to sing to the best of their ability. Maybe because it's more embarrasing.

When you are headlining shows, what type of audience do you get?

We get a really nice mix. We get a lot of gay men and women. A lot of school teacher types of people. We get a lot of much older people who like the record. You know, like 60 year olds. And you know, like, goth kids.

Do people ever say "the cello and the costumes, that's just a gimmick."

Yeah. [laughs]

Do you get that a lot?

Yeah, press wise, but not from people that see us, because I think the music speaks to people and it's fun to see us. But, uh, press wise we do, and we can only laugh. It's such a great instrument - how could it be a gimmick, we've played it for a long time.

It definitely has never been done before...

As far as the corsets, we've also done that for so long, that we don't even think about it. It's kind of like, putting on your waitress uniform to go to work. 'Cause we think of it as a performance and it's kind of like assuming a character.

And as women, every day you have to put on a costume, even business men in suits don't have to go through as much as women do, to go to work.

Yeah, defintely.

How soon after you put the band together did you sign with Columbia?

It was actually four, maybe five years and I think when we started it was a better concept than it was sounding. Cause technically it's pretty hard to do so it took us a while to be sounding as good as, you know, the five years worth. So it took a while. We signed to Columbia about a year ago.

I had someone say "I don't know what I think of that CD, what do you think of it?" I responded by saying "what are you waiting for enough people to say they like it too?" For a lot of people when they hear something different, they can't commit to it until the general public approves of it.

It's strange, Agnieszka is from Poland, and she sent the record to her music teacher in Poland, and I have no idea what life is like there. But her teacher's reaction was that she gave it to someone else and said "I don't know what I think of this..."

When something first comes out so many people wait to see what the majority is saying before they can turn in their opinion and start liking it.

Yeah, there's also the backlash of "too many people like it, so I don't like it". There's no way to win.

Where did you go to college? What did you study?

I went to Parsons and studied photography. I worked as a jewelry designer for a long time. Then for a while I did this. So I had a very tactual sense, I like to make things with my hands.

Did you also study jewelry design at Parsons?

No, I just fell into that when I worked in the factory part and while I was in school and I worked my way up to designer. It was really fun work.

Why didn't you go into photography?

I love doing that and studying it but...I could never go into it as a business. A lot of people at Parsons had a lot of money, or come from a lot of money. And they were able to jut buy all the equipment and set up a studio. Whereas with music, you can start off with nothing and do it from your heart.