Propaganda - 1997
By Bill Snyder
While their peers were picking up dolls and jump ropes to play with, three young girls from very seperate parts of the world were picking up cellos. The whys and wherefores remain lost with time. This cosmic thread, however, would tie them together through the years until they would meet in person in Brooklyn to form the mythical Ladies' Cello Society. Melora was from Kansas, Julia was from Canada and Agnieszka hailed from Poland. The precursor to the band Rasputina was thus born. Perhaps this group should, indeed, be a fairy tale - one of damsels, knights and ogres...an amalgam of many strange legends and myths...part Rapunzel, part Rasputin. Childlike in their form and appearance, yet almost frighteningly dark and adult in their meaning, Rasputina, like a fairy tale, often holds more human truth than the New York Times, but nobody's going to spell it out for you. You have to search the music and put ot together for yourself.
Whatever truths lie buried in the tale of Rasputina, I was bound to find them out as I met the band at the warehouse apartment/rehearsal space of Melora Creager, the band's founder and songwriter.
As I exited the subway in Melora's Brooklyn neighborhood, I was immediately struck by the lack of human inhabitants amongst the warehouses, truck and ill-repaired roads. As I made my way toward the designated building, a quick thought passed through my head - "only two creatures could survive in this part of New York, artists and rodents."
Finally reaching the building, I made my way through the narrow, dusty halls of the converted warehouse until I reached Melora's second floor apartment. A quick knock revealed nobody home. Luckily, I was able to find a chair next to the door where I sat patiently. About ten minutes later, I heard a door slam. A woman's voice asked, "what's that white powder...rat poison?" A man's answered, "probably." To which the woman replied, "I had a mouse die in the middle of the floor." My suspicions about the neighborhood inhabitants were confirmed. Moments later, the bodies that went with the voices emerged. It was Melora and drummer Steve Moses. After quick introductions, Melora led the way into her apartment. I have to admit, that entering the apartment, I was a bit uneasy. From the first time I heard Rasputina's debut album, THANKS FOR THE ETHER, it had haunted me. I couldn't quite figure out why. Perhaps it was the minor keys that are so rare in popular music, or maybe it was the sadness of three cellos. Melora would later explain, "it's kind of a manipulative album, because it easily sounds like regret. A complicated emotion to express is not hard to express on the cello."
Rasputina's music is filled with haunting images of blood, bones and young girls withering away as they desperately strive to achieve womanhood. The lyrics tell tales ranging from ice skating to girlish obsession to the death on hundreds of women in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (a sweatshop fire in New York shortly after the turn of the century). Dressed in Victorian corsets, the band presents these songs with a childlike innocence that seems incapable of acknowledging the horrors they describe. Even speaking with Melora in her home, there is a certain innocence in the way she describes te process of writing the song, "My Little Shirtwaist fire," In her high childlike voice, she goes on about the event. "The beautiful girls locked in their rooms sewing and sewing. Somebody told me recently that when the fire started, some people jumped out the windows, and there was nothing down at the bottom. All these people thought there was a net or something, so they were diving out the windows. I think they finally made a human chain, but a lot of people died." She explained that she tried as hard as she could to imagine what it would have been like to have been in that fire. Listening to the song, I had to wonder if somehow she had been there.
More than anything, perhaps it was Rasputina's ability to speak of extreme horror with complete innocence that was haunting me. Whatever it was, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what to expect from the home I was about to enter or the band I was about to meet. So, with a bit of trepidation, I followed them through the door. Melora's apartment is an apparent contradiction not unlike the innocence and horror of her songwriting. Most of its contents appear to be older than Melora herself. Old warehouse floors and walls covered in peeling gray paint, racks of vintage clothing, stacks of books, including Sybil, The Family and titles by Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein and Neitzsche. Shelves are filled with jars of pennies and old coke bottles. Old photo montages, dried flowers, a deer head, Christmas lights and pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, etc. cover the walls. I make my way through the apartment to take a seat in the living area as cellists Julia Kent and Agnieszka Rybska join us. Melora breaks out bagels, muffins and an expresso machine. The story of Rasputina was about to unfold. Melora explains that the concept for this group began with her desire to escape the typical guitar-rock band arrangement. She took out an ad in the Village Voice looking for like-minded cellists, and received a response from Julia. This duo began playing with a variety of third cellists and drummers. After recording an EP and catching the attention of Columbia Records, Melora and Julia were soon joined by Agnieszka (just off the plane from Poland) and Steve (who Julia met in the subway).
"Rasputina is comprised the way it is because cellos don't mix well with guitars," says Melora. "I've played in more typical rock bands, and you could never hear the cello. It's quite enjoyable writing music specifically for this instrument."
The conversation then turns to Rasputina's lyrical content. Melora explains that she's more inspired by books and movies than she is by other music. As one might conclude by a quick look around her home, Melora seems to be fascinated by the more grotesque figures of history, and particularly by what she describes as "the border between absurd things and terrifying things." Surprisingly, she also seems oddly unaffected by the more terrifying images of her music.
"I'm not squeamish," she says. "I think I've been desensitized by TV and the movies. I'm pretty immune, and that comes out sort of subconsciously in my writing."
Melora in inspried by much simpler things as well. For instance, the song "Mr. E. Leon Rauis" from the CD was inspired by an old turn-of-the-century photograph of a well-dressed man she possesses. "Nobody ever gets to see this picture," she muses. "But here it is. Ahhh...he's so cute. It also has inscriptions on the back, which was the source for the song's chorus. I think he knows we're talking about him every time we play the song."
Much of Rasputina's lyrics have this mythical, magical quality. Even the title of the CD itself, THANKS FOR THE ETHER, has this ethereal source of inspiration. "The Victorians believed that the gases in the Earth's atmosphere, which they called Ether, were the source of things like creativity & inspiration," concludes Melora. "So, we'd like to thank the ether."
And, we'd like to thank you, Melora, for your hospitality. Wacth for the new Rasputina EP, TRANSYLVANIAN REGURGIATATIONS. It's re-mixed by Marilyn Manson himself.