Rock Kansas - October 12th, 2003
Talking With Rasputina
By J.J. Duncan
Rasputina has become sort of an underground phenomenon.
Since it was created in 1991 by cellist and singer Melora Creager, Rasputina has seen its fan base grow in size and devotion, but not many people know about where Creager comes from.
At 36, Creager said now she has spent just as many years in New York as she did in her hometown of Emporia, Kan., where her parents encouraged a musical education. In New York, starting in 1984, Creager attended Parsons School of Design for art before quitting after four years and pursuing music. I met up with Creager Sunday, Oct. 12 backstage in the Metro of Chicago, sitting down with her, her band, and her sister, who now lives in Chicago.
When exactly did you become involved in music?I had a really musical family. We were all encouraged - practically required - to take music lessons. I started the piano when I was five, the cello when I was nine and my sister played the violin. Everybody played an instrument, and we would play together like an ensemble.
Would you say that it was an environment that fostered music?To say "I'm bored," was like saying a curse word. We were told to do something creative, and that was ingrained in me.
When did you start to see the cello as something that could be used beyond classical music?I had pretty rigid training when I was a kid. I studied hard and practiced hard. It wasn't until I was in art school that I got involved in bands, and people in these bands heard that I played cello. So I brought my cello to New York and started playing in bands.
Did you have any formal training in music beyond high school?No, and I had even quit music in about 8th grade, so all through high school, I just focused on the visual arts.
And how much do you focus on the visual arts now? I know that you still design, but do you paint or draw?No, things for me tend to go in big cycles. Like, it's a songwriting time. It's design an album cover time, and I get more into drawing and all aspects of the visual stuff. Everything's really cyclical. I just do one thing at a time.
So is the visual art you work on now more utilitarian?It's just design for the band, but if I think of an excuse to draw, I will.
How did you get back into music?A lot of times art schools and bands in the music scene are pretty closely affiliated, and the late '80s were an exciting time in New York. Some friends asked me to play, and I wasn't technically that good at the cello when I picked it back up again for them, but then, bands like that don't really require you to be.
I did some performance art type of stuff. People would just get me to do things. Like I hung out with like a gang of drag queens that started Wigstock, and they would come up with crazy ideas, like oh, play a Bach cello suite in pasties and a stripper outfit, and I was like "okay." I would do whatever they thought up. Like we did Christmas songs in a classical arrangement with operatic voice before something like that had been done. That was a neat project. The '70s weren't popular in the '80s.
That was around the time Keith Herring got popular and Andy Warhold died then?Yeah.
Did that pop art culture have any effect on what you were doing at the time?All that stuff was really important to me as a teenager.
Is that why you went to New York?Yeah, and I couldn't wait to get out of Kansas. I couldn't stand it when I was there. It was a really exciting time because those things were so possible. Andy Warhol was still alive. He was just down the street from the dorm. And everyone thought they could get something going in that way.
And right when I finished college and I was playing in bands, I was on a band on the 4 A.D. label in England, and that was an exciting time for that kind of music. The Pixies and Throwing Muses were our peers.
What band was that you were in?It was a band on 4 A.D. called Ultra Vivid Scene, and we opened for the Pixies and Throwing Muses and all that. That was my first glimpse of professional rock musicians, and it just seemed really possible to do that. And it seemed really easy. These people had just sent tapes to this company and it seemed really easy.
At that time were you writing music for the band?No, I was singing back-up vocals, playing keyboards and cello. That was very much a one-guy thing. It wasn't really a band.
In Kansas, do you still have people that come see you?We play there so seldom. We did an in-store at Kief's last summer, and I had gone to music camp at KU when I was in Junior High, and people from the camp came and were like "We're from the camp," and that was cool. I don't know a lot of people in Kansas anymore. My family came.
And you don't go back very often, but how do you think growing up in Kansas affected you once you were around a vivid art scene and people who might not have been accustomed to people from Kansas?I think I went into it a lot more sophisticated than kids who grew up around the city or on the East Coast just because I cared about this stuff so passionately. When I was feeling all alone and bereft of influence in Kansas, I just really searched it out, so I knew a lot. Plus, I think kids who grow up in the country do a lot more drugs, have a lot more sex, or at least they did then. The city kids were more sheltered. Just having been alone with my style and opinions made them stronger.
I wanted to ask about your study habits. So many of your songs refer to historical events, and I didn't know if it was a hobby to read history, or when you go to write an album you decide to break out the history books?I feel embarrassed writing about my personal life and my personal feelings, but I can express them through these historical situations. And I do like assignments and a finite framework because if you're just inspired by everything, it's where to start, and you can't get anything done. But if you have a three-minute pop song form... And also it's just being excited. Reading about history makes me excited, and I just tend not to read fiction. And I'm not that influenced by other music, it's more like movies and books and stuff.
There's not much for you to draw from in the way of inspiration in popular music.No, no there's not.
It's pretty hard to categorize two girls rockin' out on cello with a drummer. Has that been more of a help or a hindrance in gaining recognition, and getting people to listen to the music?I believe that it's a help in the long run, because if you are true to what you believe in, and do it as thoroughly as you can, I believe it's got to work out either now or in the afterlife. And if you pander to anyone, it's not going to work out for you in any kind of long run.
Over the years we've opened up for very flavor-of-the-month bands that were so hot, and it can get you down and make you jealous. But now it's like 'well where'd they go? I don't know.'
Did touring with Manson change anything?I think it got us a lot of audience members, a lot of fans for the band. Also, different kinds of touring experiences are character-building. It was really hard, and it was good to get through it.
I had read that at the beginning of the tour, people were throwing things at you.Yeah, they were really rough, and that didn't mean they didn't like us necessarily. They would just throw stuff all the time. They were bad kids. But with the cello, you can't be having paperback books and coins thrown at it. But we shifted our attitude as we went. Like they could smell fear on you, and if we weren't afraid, then they didn't give us a hard time.
The drums are so hard live.It's really from playing with Jonathon because in all our earlier records, the drums were done last by somebody that wasn't part of the band, and didn't play with us. I was never happy with the touring drummers and what they played.
On the last album, I did all the drums, and programmed them myself. But with Jonathon playing with us, our live playing has really, is flourished the word? It's thriving from his presence. We just completed a record that hasn't come out, and both these guys, Zoe and Jonathan were really involved in that.
When can people expect that album to come out?It's supposed to come out in February, and I think that's not far from the truth.
Are the amps you use for cello just normal guitar amps? I really don't know anything about amplifying a cello.They are made for stand-up bass, and we've devised our own system for the other components that we think are best.
Can you use normal guitar pedals on them?Yeah, that's what we use.
What effects do you like to use?I use a Danelectro distortion and a Boss Bluesman. The Bluesman is a stronger rough sound without being screaming distortion.
Is it hard on the cello to tour with it?I don't have a really fancy instrument. I like to think I do a lot with a little. I've never had a really fancy instrument, so I don't mind bangin' it around. This cello I have is really living. It's goin' all over and playing everywhere.
How long have you had it?Not that long. Since '96 or so.
When did the idea for Rasputina come around? Had it been brewing a long time before it became a real thing?It came to me really fully formed. I had an idea that people responded so much to me playing cello that if I had all girls playing cello that it would be a really strong thing. I wasn't technically able to do what I had in mind to do. The songs were really like meander-y, and unformed.
I started off with seven cellos, and not knowing much about amplification and trying to lead seven people. I didn't know what I was doing, so it took a couple years to get it gelled.
You say that the idea came to you fully formed. Was there something that caused that? Was there a moment when you got the idea, and you're like, 'That's what I want to do.'?I remember writing a manifesto of my intentions, and I don't remember the moment, but it's like an art school project. You have to come up with those kinds of ideas all the time.
When did the first incarnation of Rasputina play live?It was part of a dance performance in probably 1991. It was "Transylvanian Concubine" instrumental over and over and over.
Really? I didn't realize it was that old.Yeah, it's really old.
Is it difficult playing with a rotating cast?It's definitely not easy, and it's not what I'd choose, but I feel like it's been through all the change and turmoil and I've come to be playing with people who I just love, and who contribute a lot. Usually in the past, the change has come from... there have just been a lot of passive aggressive people in this group, and I'm the boss at the end of the day and people have a problem with that.
Being that you're a band dictator, is that usually an issue, or do you find people who are OK with that?People who are not strong players, or don't have that much to contribute have a problem with it. It's that passive aggressive thing. But people who are strong players and know who they are, are not afraid to say their ideas, and people who aren't afraid to contribute, then get to contribute. If you're not insecure, you don't need to be insecure.
Was the image just as important as the music in the beginning?Yeah, because, we're so stationary when we play, and anybody I've seen who plays the cello standing up, or moving around, it looks like a hack. It's cheesy, what I've seen. And I wanted to make a really strong visual statement since we're stationary.
And you're an art student.Yeah, I care about it, and I'm not embarrassed to care.
It may not be that everyone has heard about you, but your fans seem to really cling to the music. Do you know why people seem to identify with your music so much?I think part of the whole reason I started it, is that people have an emotional response to the cello. They feel like it's their favorite instrument, and they are the only one. And people who play the cello, feel like 'this is my instrument, and nobody else's.' So people feel that way about a band made up of cellos. And I think my lyrics are interpretable, but they don't mean concrete things to me, so people make their own meanings.
I talk to a lot of people who identify with some song, like how did I know about her relationship with her Dad, and people have those kinds of feelings.
Does it ever get creepy?Yeah.
Do you ever have problems with fans trying to stalk you or anything like that?Yeah, we have some problems, and you don't have to be that big to have those problems, because it only takes one or two people to have creepiness going on, and I don't have any good way of dealing with it.
What do you normally tell people who come up to you after a show, and tell you about that sort of thing?We usually go out and talk to people, and somehow it's become expected of us, and we feel like it's part of our job. So at smaller shows, we do go out and sign autographs and stuff. And I mostly listen, because people are excited, or they've prepared something to say. They're excited. ...I don't really like those situations because I don't know what they want me to be, and I can only be friendly, and they're usually drunk.
Is there pressure for you to live up to the image you've created?Yeah, 'cause we dress in street clothes when we're on the street, and I read some harsh critiques of my street clothes online.
Really? And you wonder why people care?Oh yeah. And that's how rules get made, like no under-age fans allowed to come to the sound check, because they'll turn around and write bad things about my shoes. So one girl ruined it for everybody.
You should understand too, being from Kansas, that there are a lot of kids who feel like 'I'm trapped here. I'm stifled, and I just want to get out and go somewhere else.' Is that something that you identify with?It's definitely something that I felt when I was there, but I really value having grown up there. I really felt like a misfit there, but it gave me a lot of personal strength.