Ann Arbor Paper - April 2004
Rasputina mon amour
By MacKenzie Wilson
Ann Arbor, MI
Melora Creager refuses to acknowledge the cello as merely a classical instrument. Having played it since the age of 9, the cello is Creager’s lifeblood, much like the guitar is for any skilled player. She has fronted the New York City-based chamber-rock trio Rasputina for 12 years, and not once has she compromised her vision.
Rasputina’s fourth album, Frustration Plantation, showcases how riveting Creager and co.'s sound truly is and how fiercely authoritative Creager is over her craft.
"I think it would be so bad to compromise your goal and I just won’t do it," Creager says. "I think when you keep your integrity, everything might take longer, but it has to benefit you and everyone else in the end. You're not going to be a flash in the pan. You're not going to earn bad karma points. We do the best we can do, which is sadly uncommon. That in itself should really be the norm."
Such standards have brought Rasputina critical acclaim and a rabidly loyal following. The group has collaborated with better-known artists such as Belle & Sebastian, Marilyn Manson and the Goo Goo Dolls, and Creager backed Nirvana on tour, but nobody out there sounds like Rasputina. And nobody looks quite like them on stage, either.
Frustration Plantation is dressed in Rasputina's ambient goth edges and haunting 19th-century images. As Creager's cello dances with drummer Jonathan TeBeest and cellist Zoë Keating's confident rock display, Rasputina's equilibrium of both intellect and humor is divinely twisted to produce something daring and tantalizing. At the same time, a sense of humor is very important to Creager.
"I don't think you’re limited to one emotion in your music," says Creager. "It can be serious with a lot of thought, but humor can be intelligent. The cello is classic, but it can also rock out. It's a serious instrument, but it can also have a sense of humor. Through the band, I'm just expressing my ideas, what I think is interesting. It's my way of saying to people 'Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is pretty?'"
In the late 1980s, Creager left her humble abode in Kansas to attended the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Not exactly sure of what she wanted to do, she figured a cello-based band couldn't be that risky.
"Starting this band around the cello, it’s a very art-school idea," she says. "The concept of a classical instrument in a rock club — I'm a shy person, but you can't be shy if you want to get up there and perform. I've never been limited by the cello. The same goes with our look — the look and the clothes and the historical ideas — there is always more out there to learn and try."
Not only did she create an experimental rock group, but Creager has made a sly pass at feminizing history. She borrowed the name 'Rasputin' from Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, the monk responsible for overthrowing the Russian imperial system and dethroning the House of Romanov, which led to the assassination of the Imperial family in the late 1800s.
"The name is about contrast and the idea that Rasputin was this manipulative, evil guy who was trying to be a peasant," she says. "But he was also trying to be in with kings. There were lots of sexual vibes about him when he was trying to become a priest. A historical figure like that couldn’t have been a woman in the 1890s. No woman could have that kind of power and that’s why we put an 'a' at the end of Rasputin. We feminized it in order to make an absurd contrast."
While 19th century fashion and popular culture are ultimately the root of Rasputina, Frustration Plantation is an electronic textbook exploring the South and 1800s slave life. The members of Rasputina found themselves in St. Francisville, Louisiana when touring in support of the band's third album, 2002's Cabin Fever!, when the details of Frustration Plantation started to come together.
"When I initially started writing the record, I was having a lot of personal trouble," Creager explains. "The first germs of the songs came out of my personal frustration, but then I always link up to some kind of historical theme. We took tours of five plantations. As for the experience, it was the same as reading a book. What you want to see isn't there and no one is talking about the slavery. It’s really skewed to the white rich man's point of view, so you have to use your imagination."
Rasputina was decked in their classic Victorian/goth-like garments and no one batted an eyelash upon the group's arrival. Although not witnessing anything astonishing other than absorbing history in the flesh, Creager did find one particular thing out of the ordinary.
"Everybody knows that people a long time ago were smaller, but the people and the scale of these rooms were for people under five feet tall,” Creager laughs. “Doorknobs were really low. I think something must have been in the food."
Rasputina plays the Blind Pig Wednesday, April 21 wsg Murder By Death. $10 adv./$12 day of. 18+. Doors 9:30 p.m.