Smug - 1998

Rasputina- Interview with the Vampiress
By Adam McGovern

  The monster-matineee cellists who defined "classic rock" like it was never intended are back for a second movement. Is there life after opening for Marilyn Manson...even for those already dead?

  I was prepared for anything in an encounter with Melora Creager except its normalcy. High noon had seemed an odd time to meet the frontwoman of Rasputina, the unlikely chamber punk cellists whose onstage look is that of three succubi downsized from Disney's Haunted Mansion. But the only thing supernatural about Melora Creager is her patience. I stumble in late to find her huddling in someone's baseball jacket against the overcomfort of Sony's refrigerated high-rise. Such ambiguous joys of the modern world are what play out in Rasputina's concerts - where Victorian garb and archaic effect satirize how far things haven't come - and on their new album, How We Quit The Forest (Columbia), which finds the band's notorious neoclassical augmented by some startling machine sonics.

  "For people who might think they understand us and identify with us from the last record, this may not be what they wanted or expected," Creager allows. But no one should have too much trouble recognizing this Rasputina. The minor-chord churnings of the debut disc, Thanks For The Ether (Columbia, 1996), found the missing link between Bach and Black Sabbath, and Forest is a not-illogical next mutation.

  Stark strings remain the album's centerpiece; they just get possessed by the occasional guitar-impersonating foot pedal, nerve jangling percussive loop and eerily abstracted crowd clamor sampled from the self-described "Ladies' Cello Society"'s live ordeal with Marilyn Manson. Similarly, Creager's forlorn vibrato remains in the forefront, channeling the odd Dracula-and-the-Chipmunks filter or Andrews Sisters swinging swoop. "To make something good, you have to remain true to what interests you," explains Creager, "and I wanted to...rock a little bit."

  Rasputina? Rock? That they do, and not just as a surface survival skill picked up to placate restive teenage Manson fans. The Ladies' hearts are in it, especially with the unforgettable high-metal riffs of "Trenchmouth," and "Things I'm Gonna Do," two gallows-hilarious send-ups of Generation X-Files' paranoi pop. Regardless of Creager's seeming ordinariness, these tracks rekindle a question once prompted by Ether's apparent first-person accounts of the undead's ultimate after-hours socializing: how close to her songs' paranormal subject matter has Creager come? She assures me that her imagination needs nothing so direct, citing inspiration from "a lot of the empty roadsides that I've seen in touring. If there's one little element that can make a story, like an abandoned car or a certain kinda tree at the roadside on a late night, it might not seem very special, [but] you have to look and...make it up yourself."

  For Creager, this perspective of being on the outside looking even further out seems to have started out early and cast as long a shadow as some of those in her songs. When asked what kind of kid grows up to be a Rasputina, she replies, "I tink it's somebody that enjoys the life of the mind...who's alone wherever they are and no matter how many people they're with [laughs]!"

  The lesson has been applied fruitfully in adulthood,as the band revolutionizes rock off in a corner of the music world few had imagined even exsisted. Their success, like that of anyone who's the first to see something clearly, stems from the inability to see what's so strange about it: "Starting in ignorance, I didn't know the limitations of anything - of the music business or the instrument - and through that ignorance and plowing ahead and doing our best we've been able to not have those limitations be our own," Creager reasons.

  But some obstacles facing the band have been surmounted more through will than innocence. In an age when Time magazine holds premature burials for Gloria Steinem. Rasputina is smuggling some of the most sharp-witted deflations of male presumption into the mass market, both by exhuming Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" (this album's wry rediscovery from the prehistory of feminism), and lampooning all-too-familiar Victorian sex roles. Are they up to more than musical revolution? "I just like to pretend everything's normal," smiles Creager serenely. "Slip it by, pretend it's normal, nobody'll notice, and it'll all work out!"

  The band maintains the same poker face about social satires tat take the pathologies of morbid sensationalism and stubborn sterotypes and heighten them to such extremes they're finally visible rather than taken for granted. Most notable from the caricature category is "Diamond Mind," a materialistic rant set to the background music from DeBeers' diamond ads - a stock misogynist portrayal, but in fact the ideal consumer envisioned by such a campaign. In playing with fire like this, does the band ever worry whether they're throwing water or gasoline on it?"

  "I'd like to work, again, with the assumption that people do get it," Creager replies. "I don't think I'm some mad genius; if I thought about it other people can understand it. As long as you can make fun of every bit of yourself you can make fun of whatever you want."

  If there's any community Creager's become alienated from, it's one where lyrics aren't an issue: the session-music world hasn't been calling as much. "I really enjoy that kind of work," she elaborates. "It keeps up your chops and asks different things of you, so I miss that. It seems like I've gotten less of it as people know this band and its persona."

  At this point I realise that perhaps all is not as commonplace as I'd initially convinced myself. Most people know that Creager once accompanied Nirvana as a tour cellist. But how many suspect that - well after Rasputina's creation - she did background music for soaps? (One Life To Live, ironically enough.) My old anxieties are returning, so I change the subject to something happy.

  Like "May Fly," Forest's soft-spoken but spirited drum 'n' cello reflection on life's fleeting rewards. Amidst many a burlesquing of Western phobias of mortality, we have this quiet manifesto of acceptance. I wonder aloud what got into her.

  "[laughs] Yeah, that is heartfelt - and it's kind of exsistential and serious with very light, almost dated dance music as the [setting]. When I was in high school, I heard, 'Oh, the mayfly, it lives only one day, there's no purpose to its life.' And that was the first time I ever thought, 'What is the purpose to our life?! [laughs] Do we have one?' And I think [our life] is the same thing; it's just longer and it probably feels the same to the mayfly as to us, and...that's ok with me!"

  The imagination and energy of How We Quit The Forest confirm that Rasputina's 24 hours are far from up. How do they plan to use the rest of it? "Growth is always important, and you can grow within your vocabulary," Creager muses, in reference to any assumption that the band's uniqueness is a gimmick. "To make a change implies that the thing in the past was fake...but if something is limiting I hope I'm not using it anyway."

  Perfectly normal. What was I worried about? I pay my respects, move to the exit...and find myself wrestling with a doorkob locked from the outside. A simple mistake of the lost Sony employee who barged in earlier - or something more sinister? "I-I'll call Neil," I say, referring to the band's publicist. As I dial out, I remark to Creager, "This won't help the vampire image any!"