The Sentimentalist - Issue #14, 2001

The Sentimentalist Interview w/Rasputina
By Christopher David and Madeline Virbasius-Walsh

  This is the female cello trio that seems to have done it all - they are notorious for performing live in their Victorian dainties, on shows such as Regis and Kathy Lee and Conan O'Brian no less (!), they have toured with Marilyn Manson, made it on a major label, wrote songs on a variety of charmingly odd topics (from transylvanian concubines to Howard Hughes) and lectured on the art of alternative cello effects. What is left for Rasputina? Plenty! Aside from their new EP "The Lost and Found" and their upcoming full-lenth, tentatively titled "Cabin Fever", these lovely cellists have got a lot going on. Over salads and watery beer, we recently had a delightful dinner conversation with Rasputina founder/singer/songwriter Melora about the band's enviable past.

Have you been working on your new full-length?

Yes, we've been working on it all summer. I got a new computer and Pro Tools. It's been such a different experience than what I've done before. My whole music career pre-existed with a major label and so it was done one certain way. The new way is a lot better.

Are you using other instruments besides the cello on the new songs?

M: We're using piano, dulcimer, and I guess what you would call programming. I'm compiling lots of my own samples and making some songs out of the samples.

So this is a lot different than what you were doing before.

It's kind of what I always wanted done, what I always thought the band could be...making natural sounds make patterns.

How many tracks to you have ready so far?

I've got 14 done and there are some smaller, weirder things that are more last minute...

With your own studio, it's definately more convenient and impromptu. When you went into the studio before did you have things written ahead of time or would you write some of the songs in there?

Not much writing in the studio because there's not that kind of vibe- it's a bit more uptight. But actually, the last record was very close to my demos. We were able to translate the demos pretty straight forwardly...nobody has ever changed my ideas or taken things away. I know what I need and I can do it, but when I started working in Pro Tools, it was such a big mystery. I would think, those guys make a lot of money to do this kind of stuff in the studio...but it's really not so mysterious or hard. People make such a big deal about analog - I have a friend who is so anti-computer. People get stuck into that microscopic works, saying that's not music!

But with the new methods of recording, if you make a mistake and don't notice it until after, you can't deny it's a lot easier to fix in the analog world. What actually made you start recording your stuff yourself instead of going into a studio again?

A lot of times, I'm kind of spurred on to action by negative things, so I was thinking "I'll show them!" I figure that if it takes something negative and misinformed to do something positive, then that's okay. Everybody does things by themselves anyway - that's the norm now. I thought I was weird when I'd sit down and start working at the computer for five hours or more, but I found out that everbody's that way. My daughter will sometimes come up to me and ask, "Mommy, what are you clicking OF?" She tries to hang out and be perfectly cool.

When you first got signed to Columbia did you think it was going to make things a lot easier for the band?

I was really naive...and probably like most people, I thought that being on a label would mean we were home free and on the way to success. I learned pretty quickly that it was not that way at all...

How did you hook up with Columbia way back when?

It was because of one eccentric guy who worked there for about a minute. The guy who produced our first record was also an A&R guy.

Did you all start playing cello when you were very young?

I was nine and I think K. and Nana were abou tthe same age. I studied a lot and was classically trained, doing competitions...but then when I was a teenager, orchestra was really "uncool", and I bought into that. And so I didn't start playing again until I moved to New York in the '80s to go to art school. People were getting bands together and thought the cello sounded really exotic.

So you actually had given it up for quite a while.

I actually gave it up for probably the period from fourteen to nineteen, and so I was really bad whne I started playing again. [laughs] Now, when I look at the music that I had played as a kid, and seeing my childlike handwriting on it, I am like "Woah!"

What were some of your favourite composers when you were little?

Well, Bach is fantastic...his cello suites are so loved by all cellists. But I am not that classically-minded - I know what I love, but I don't have that huge body of knowledge that many of the girls that I play with have.

How young were you when you started writing your own music?

I started writing music when I was really, really small on the piano. The first song I wrote was about Lizzie Borden. It had a part where I would just hit the piano and that was her chopping. I was just the same then as I am now. [laughs]

Were you in any bands when you were younger?

I had also been in a band called Ultra Vivid Scene that was on 4AD in the '80s - that was my first exposure to the music scene really - I would think, is this a job, is this a club? It seemed so easy to do that and it was so much fun - I thought it was the best. But later on, I found out it's not as easy as I once thought [laughs].

Are you putting out the new cd yourselves?

I don't know yet, I've just been really positive, thinking this is really good and it's all going to work out. But I'm not a business woman or aggressive so I'm just hoping it will all take care of itself.

I guess you've got all your past experience under your belt so that should help.

Yes, I've definately learned a lot over the years.

Will you miss having the major label at least to take care of certain things, or do you think you'll enjoy going for it on your own?

Well, tour support, for instance, is like a miracle. For all the things Columbia might not have done as far as marketing us and whatnot, tour support is still the best. You're travelling, and playing - it's invaluable. Since I had a baby (she's two now), there are a lot of things that were easy before that might now be impossible.

Would you bring your little girl along if you did another major tour?

It all comes down to money. Of course if your tour support includes a nanny, that's great, but for three of us women in a van with a aby, that wouldn't be the best...

How did you narrow down your choices for Rasputina's recent EP of covers?

From being pregnant and having the baby, it had really made me crazy not to be doing any music. I wanted to write. It was kind of like an excersize to get back into it, without all the pressure of "oh, I have to write a new record". I used to do a lot of visual art and would make studies of a painting, which would be more about getting really informative about a certain work. This is what I was thinking with the EP - using what I already had...

Were you a big Led Zepplin fan when you were younger, like I was?

ed Zepplin, I got more into recently. I go really into their rhythms...but Pink Floyd meant a lot to me while growing up. I grew up in Kansas and it's really lunar out there. The band reminds me of the '70s and the early '80s, driving around the prairie listening to them...

It's amazing how with the Led Zepplin cover, "Rock and Roll", you get every little inflection in Robert Plant's voice and make it your's wonderful!

What I really love about Robert Plant's voice is the way he sings.

Was your daughter inspiration for your rendition of "The Three Little Pigs?"

She's actually on there - she makes a weird "aahhh" sound on the song. A lot of these things I was always into, which is just lucky for her. I have lots of nursery rhyme books and fairy tale stuff. A lot of the original Mother Goose nursery rhymes are so sadistic. You read the words and say "Really? Oh!" I was just reading some to my daughter the other day and had to make a big decision. Should I go over this with her or avoid it - do I need to explain this to her now?

It's amazing how violent some of those pieces are. S: When your new CD comes out, are you going to stick with the somewhat Victorian style of dress or are you going to try a different period? I think I had read somewhere that you may go for an "Elizabethan-futuriste" look?

If you look at different periods in history, a lot of the styles meld. Victorian people were really into the mediaeval period, and so on. I don't think any style has to stay seperate or as any one "thing."

Tell us about your "lies" contest on the internet.

I asked people on the mailing list to send us their best lies. I had so many responses immediately - people were so ready to lie!

Were any of the responses similar?

A lot of the kids are into pirates and a lot of the lies were about finding a limb... It was really neat for the people who won to have their ideas made into a song. That's something you really can't do on a major label. Everything has to go through someone else because of all the legal questions as to who wrote the song.

If it could all work out as you wanted, what would you like to happen with your next cd?

I would like to have it come out fairly soon, and I'd like to do a tour of some sort. That [touring] is just such an immediate response. There are kids everywhere who really want to see us again. We'd like to play again for those kids in St. Louis or wherever...We've also never been released in Europe, which is so crazy. People always say, we'd go over well in Europe, so that's another thing...

Do you get together with the girls to practice on a regular basis?

Well, we're more like crammers. K. lives in Baltimore - she comes up really often and stayed with me most of the summer. And Nana was in France all summer. We keep meaning to do more together...

You must have a really loyal fan base from your previous releases and all that touring you did.

We do, actually. It's kind of a phenomena in a way. It's not huge numbers of people who like us, but the people who do are really into us. When we play an out of town show, it may not be a big "fat" show, but those people are sure to show up. Every person there seems to want to talk to us afterwards. Ever since I've been doing the website myself, I've become more aware of all these people and have been more in touch with them. It's totally different than when we were with Columbia and really had no idea. It was almost like, "who are we doing this for, the label guy?"

It must be so much more satisfying now.

Yeah, definitely.

I know this is always a hard question to answer, but what do you prefer, recording in the studio or playing live?

Studio work is what I imagine making a movie is like. You never get to play long enough! It's only like little spurts-- you start to get the feeling, but it's not that satisfying (even though I do love to work on the computer on editing for hours and hours)... When I'm out of practice, I get a little more nervous when we're playing live. We recently played a party [locally] and I felt like crying on almost every song. I was really feeling emotional there!