Rock Kansas - November 6th, 2003
A Girl And Her Cello
By J.J. Duncan
The story of a Kansas native who went to New York for art school, and ended up creating the innovative goth-rock cello outfit Rasputina.
Sunday night at Wrigley Field and the Cubs just beat the Marlins to take the lead in the race for the National League penant. Never mind that the game was in Florida, the neighborhood is packed with fans. That's probably why the kids in black stand out as they shuffle into the Metro across the street.
Inside, the crowd is waiting for a woman in bone pale make-up and raggedy Victorian lingerie to come onstage with her cello. Melora Creager is the mastermind behind New York-based Rasputina, a goth rock three-piece, made up of two cellists and a drummer, that is just as much fun to look at as it is to listen to. But during the 45-minute set, before introducing "Orphanage," Creager alludes to her Midwestern upbringing in a harsh Kansas orphanage.
Well, the best lies always have a bit of truth.
Creager, 36, spent the first half of her life in Emporia. And though she doesn't deny feeling stifled in the Kansas town, it wasn't as bad as the "hateful place" she describes in the song.
"I had a really musical family," Creager said backstage after the show. "We were all encouraged -- practically required -- to take music lessons. I started the piano when I was 5, the cello when I was 9, and my sister played the violin. "Everybody played an instrument, and we would play together like an ensemble."
Creager packed her bags after graduating from Emporia High School in 1984 and headed to New York, where the bright colors and possibilities of the thriving pop-art culture called to her. Not having played cello since 8th grade, Creager went to study art at Parsons School of Design in the middle of Greenwich Village.
Eventually, Creager said people became curious about her cello playing in the past.
"I had pretty rigid training when I was a kid," she said. "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 brough my cello to New York and started playing in bands."
Creager didn't have any further formal training in cello, but after a few years of Parsons, she left without graduating and pursued music more actively.
Soon she found herself opening for high-profile bands such as the Pixies and Throwing Muses when she was accompanying New York/London musician Kurt Ralske in Ultra Vivid Scene on 4AD Records. The whole process seemed rather simple, Creager said.
"That was my first glimpse of professional rock musicians, and it just seemed really possible to do that," she said. "It seemed really easy. These people had just sent tapes to this company, and it seemed really easy."
The first incarnation of Rasputina formed in 1991 when the cumbersome group played an instrumental version of "Transylvanian Concubine," again and again for a dance performance, Creager said. While the idea came to her fully formed, Creager said the whole thing started rough.
"I had an idea that since people responded so much to me playing cello that if I had all girls playing cello that it would be a really strong thing," she said. "I wasn't technically able to do what I had in mind to do. The songs were unformed, and 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 of years to get it gelled."
Creager continued to pursue her vision until it became fully formed, though the band's line up has been constantly changing since it began. At present, fellow cellist Zoe Keating and drummer Jonathon Tebeest accompany Creager onstage.
Having so many members come and go has been tough for the band, but Creager, obviously a band dictator, said she is happy with who she's playing with now. "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," she said. "Usually in the past, the change has come from the fact that there have just been a lot of passive-aggressive people in this group. I'm the boss at the end of the day, and some people have a problem with that."
Along the way, Creager got that amplification thing figured out too. She said now she uses amps made for stand-up bass players with guitar effects such as her Danelectro distortion box and Boss Bluesman.
Rasputina got something of a break when Marilyn Manson took them on tour as an opening act in 1996, introducing the band to new listeners all across the country. Creager said the tour brought in new fans and built the character of the band by making them toughen up.
"The audiences were really rough, and that didn't mean they didn't like us necessarily," she said. "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. We shifted our attitude as we went. They could smell fear on you, and if we weren't afraid then they didn't give us a hard time."
The cello has come to be what the band is known for, and though it makes Rasputina rather hard to market within a genre, Creager said she believes it will work out in the long run. Now, the band plays its often historically-themed songs to attentive audiences. Creager said writing about historical events isn't something she goes into an album planning to do. It just happens because she's comfortable with it.
"I feel embarrassed writing about my personal life and my personal feelings, but I can express them through these historical situations," she said. "And I do like assignments and a finite framework, because if you're inspired by everything, it's where to start and you can't get anything done."
Along with mastering Rasputina's sound was the task of mastering the band's image. Rasputina's shows have become visually memorable with the band's distinctive look. Creager adopted a Victorian feel, involving plenty of corsets and pale make-up, early on. It's something that Creager said has always been as important as the music.
"We're so stationary when we play, and anybody I've seen who plays the cello standing up, or moving around looks like a hack," she said. "It's cheesy, what I've seen. And I wanted to make a really strong visual statement since we're stationary."
Unfortunately, that means dealing with people's expectations that the band lives up to that image, as Creager found out.
"We dress in street clothes when we're on the street, and I've read some harsh critiques of my street clothes online," she said. "And that's how rules get made, like no underage fans allowed to come to the soundcheck because they'll turn around and write bad things about my shoes. So one girl ruined it for everybody."
That might sound like going a little far, but while bringing in new fans, Rasputina has developed a core of fans who show an almost fanatical devotion to the group. And sometimes things can get creepy.
Creager, who tries to visit with fans after every show, said she doesn't know how to deal well with some of those fans, so she just tries to be friendly since she doesn't know what they want her to be. And she has her ideas about why different people seem to claim the band as their own, based on the emotional response people have to cello.
"They feel like it's their favoite instrument, and they are the only one," Creager said. "And people who play the cello feel like 'this is my instrument, and nobody elses'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."
So how does being from Kansas affect Creager's perspective on things now? She says it made her more sophisticated than some of her East Coast classmates when she first headed to New York.
"I cared about this stuff so passionately," she said. "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 and 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."
Creager said she knows other kids are growing up in environments where they feel stifled, and she identifies with that. But she doesn't regret her upbringing. "It's definitely something I felt when I was there," she said. "But I really value having grown up in Kansas. I really felt like a misfit there, but it gave me a lot more personal strength."