Sex and Guts - July 2003
An Evening In the Parlor with the Ladies Cello Society
By Mark Reynolds
Three ladies (well, at one point there were three). Victorian undergarments — meaning, of course, less skin is exposed than when Britney Spears skulks hungover and bleeding into church, and to smashing effect at that. And they all play cellos. Just cellos. Every now and then there's the pounding of (frequently programmed) drums, and once and awhile a bit of dulcimer, but these ladies play cellos. Nice gimmick, yes?
Sure — it’ll grab your attention — certainly did mine on the waybackwhen. But this is no chamber dilettantism, nonono: it's rock, and Rasputina finds firm footing among the ranks of many fine bands that, upon first look, appear to be a clever gimmick and, upon subsequent observation, show themselves to be a damn fine band that transcends the gimmickry and proves fully worthy of your early inquiries. These cellos are not limited to your garden variety prettiness — although there's that in spades. They're distorted, flanged, mangled and tortured. They scream, they sigh, raise hackles and burst eardrums. Rasputina has a very clever gimmick, but get way past that and see that they're responsible for some of the most beautiful, humorous, proverbial-balls-out rock music you're likely to encounter.
So "they," actually, has frequently been bandmother and guiding spirit Melora Creager, with others coming and going, some amicably, some less so (the Rasputina website, www.rasputina.com, features an historical overview that's worth investigating). I phoned the ever-so-gracious Ms. Creager at her Brooklyn studio, where the latest incarnation of the band is recording Rasputina's fourth full-length album, the successor to last year's haunting and masterful Cabin Fever!
Now I read that with Cabin Fever!, you intended those to be the demos, and they ended up being the finished product.Yeah, like I never thought I could mix an album. I just kept going, kept going further with it. Like, "I'll try a mix." "Ah, I'll try mixing the whole thing."
That was mainly you, then, on Cabin Fever!?I was pretty much by myself.
What's the current lineup?I'm playing with Zoe Keating, who's from San Francisco, and Jonathon TeBeest is our drummer. They're very involved on this record.
Still no third cellist, then?No.
How did you meet Zoe Keating?Kris Coperthwaite was the cellist before her, and she bowed out just a few days before a six-week tour. And with the magic of the Internet I had heard about Zoe, and within seconds after I heard that Kris couldn't do it, Zoe had agreed to do it.
You seem to have had some, uh, misfortune with some of your past lineups....[laughs] Yeah, yeah.
Do you like having the lineup rotate, though? Does it give you more freedom?No — it’s nerve-wracking, really. People just drop in and drop out with very little warning, and it's just terribly nerve-wracking. But working that music is not always what people think it's going to be. I think that’s mostly what the problem has been.
So it’s the tedium in between the fun that’s killing them?Yeah. There’s not that much money, and that's always a big surprise and disappointment to people, and there are long periods with nothing going on, and people have to live and go on with their life sometimes.
I thought Cabin Fever! was absolutely beautiful. The difference in sound — I love your first two albums, also, but the sound just completely changed.The other albums I made were on a big company with expensive producers and I think things just get watered down. It's hard for me to express my ideas to those people.
How did you end up on Instinct?I had the record done, and they e-mailed my website. I'd never heard of them, but I like them.
They've got a good roster.Yeah.
They've been friendly, then?Yeah, they've been great. Especially coming from Sony, where we were very unimportant, it's nice to feel like, you know, important big stars. [laughs] But we're important to Instinct, so....
Do you feel like Sony maybe opened some doors for you that helped make you self-sustaining?Yeah, I think that quite a few bands had that same experience, because at the time we got signed the major labels were signing lots of weird stuff, and funneling money into these sort of odd projects, and so a band like us could put out some records, and get a following, and have it sort of set up to where we could take over.
So how has the landscape changed for smaller acts now that five companies own every music label?I think all the companies are struggling and running out of money, and the executives of the big companies are getting fired and the little companies are struggling, so it's sort of a bad time for the record companies, but for individual people you can do so much by yourself that you couldn't before. Not only business, but recording, so it's good for individual bands.
You started playing cello when you were nine, right?Yeah.
What drew you to the cello?It used to be, when they had music in the schools so thoroughly that in fourth grade you took an instrument. It appealed to me that it was so big — that made it really cool to me somehow. And my father had played it when he was young, and he was begging one of us kids to play it. I did it to appease my father.
I've always thought cello had the most human vocal quality....Yeah, yeah — I guess scientifically it does, too. It has the same frequencies.
It seems much more expressive, too.Yeah, people have a really personal response to it, and similarly they do with Rasputina: "That's my special instrument which I love and want to keep to myself."
There are some instruments that I don't use politically, like violins and guitars. People always think there are violins and guitars on the records anyway, even though it's all cello. So we really don't want to use them, because the cello can cover it.
We would like to get a stand-up bass player doing with the bass what we do with the cello, but we haven't found him yet.
Has being a mother curtailed your work hours? Are you still touring?I toured a lot in the last year, and my daughter's dad helped me out a lot with that. She's going to be starting school, and so I think I'm going to have to make some changes in my touring lifestyle. Touring is something that's very very important to me, though.
What role do you think that live presentation plays in a band's music, or at least your music?Well, with the group as it is now, the live is outshining the record, so that’s why I want to work closely with these guys on the record. There’s only so much you can do by yourself. Like, the last record I did it so much by myself because I didn't have any money, and I didn't have anybody ... because the band was kind of at a standstill, definitely live-wise. But our last year or so has been so great that I definitely want to capture that in the recording.
So who is E. Leon Rauis? [Subject of a song by the same name on Rasputina’s first album, Thanks for the Ether] I'm sure I'm butchering the pronunciation....Nobody really knows how to pronounce it because it was written on the back of an old photograph that I found somewhere. He's just a very handsome man, and the inscription on the back [of the photograph] was kind of cryptic, and, no telling! I used the words he had written on the back of the picture for the chorus of the song.
Is it safe to assume that you're not a fan of PJ Harvey, Bjork, Vincent Gallo, or Matthew Barney [all of whom are delightfully skewered on the Cabin Fever! track titled, not surprisingly, "PJ + Vincent & Matthew + Bjork"]?I think it's a love-hate relationship with each of those people. [laughs] I'm interested in them, and they have a lot of good work, but I'm jealous of their creative success, as well. Typical romantic love!
[laughs] Have you heard from any of those camps about that song?Uh, no.
I thought the Bjork impersonation was frighteningly good.That was really fun to do. But I do pass Vincent Gallo on the street here in New York really often, and I love to just brush up right next to him, because he doesn’t know what I did!
He’s an interesting character, to say the least....I hear a lot of really bad stories about that dude.
Interviews with him are just insufferable.Uh huh!
I thought Buffalo '66 was great, but any time I read anything he says, it just turns me off even more.He probably needs to get on some medication.
[laughs] What’s your writing process like?The last two records I've done in the same way. I don't write music except when it's time to write an album, like I'm not a prolific person who writes songs all the time, but I keep a lot of notes, about everything that happens around me, about little phrases that I see that I like, or things out of books. Then I've got all these notes, and then I copy them onto notecards, or envelopes or something, and I lay them all out on a table and songs just come out of that, like it's obvious that this line goes with this line.
Do the lyrics come with the music?It changes from song to song. Sometimes I'll listen to music that I've done and try to embody that spirit in words and sometimes the words are written out like a poem and then I'll do music that goes with it.
So most of the time when you're writing, you're writing for the album?That's just when I do it. When it's time to make an album then I start writing songs, but they're still individual songs without a big ... cohesiveness to them.
So you're working on a new album right now?In the thick of it.
How far along are you?We're just starting, but we've only got a few weeks altogether.
Are you working with a producer?Yeah. His name is Joe Bishara. He's from LA. He did a remix for us in the past. He worked a lot with Jane's Addiction, and he’s kind of an industrial guy.
Do you have a name for the new album?It's called Frustration Plantation. We’re doing kind of an industrial antebellum thing. Like, we're trying to sound all New Orleans in the 1820s.
Sort of an Einstürzende field holler?[laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Do you know when it should be out?We're gonna have it finished by the end of this summer and I think Instinct looking to put it out in the new year. Probably February.
So are you recording this in a home studio?I have a studio in Brooklyn — it’s not at my house anymore.
Do you think you'll tour behind that?I'm sure we will. I’m sure we'll play around it.