Tastes Like Chicken - April 2004
Rasputina's Melora Creager
By Night Watchman
Cellos, antique corsets, victorian bloomers, and a penchant for dark, humorous history are all the calling cards of one of the more original bands to ever come out of the music industry: Rasputina. On the eve of releasing Frustration Plantation, Rasputina's founder, Melora Creager, allowed Night Watchman access to the history of how this influential band came to be, and spills the beans on why we're all suckers for string instruments.
I was reading other interviews with you, and you were talking about how Rasputina started. I found out that the idea for the band came to you fully formed in your head.Yeah. Just from my experiences in more conventional rock bands.
Even the idea of wearing Victorian bloomers - the entire look and feel of the band was fully envisioned?Yeah. I wrote it out like a manifesto. These are my intentions, and this is what it's all about.
How long did it take to get the band to that point, to be what you had imagined?It took a long time musically because I wasn't technically able to do what I was trying to do. I was a really painfully shy singer for years when we started. It took a long time. Also, with the equipment, there was nobody to tell us how to do it, so we had to figure it out over time.
Just because there were no bands out there trying to do what you were doing?Yeah. And it didn’t seem like a far-out idea, like, "This has never been done, and I shall do it!" It was more like these are things that I like; an aesthetic I personally like with this instrument I know how to play. But I didn't realize at the time that it was unusual.
You didn't know you were venturing into new territory.I had no idea. (laughs)
If you would have known from the beginning how difficult it was going to be to try something this new, do you think you still would have attempted it?I think whatever naivete was there was good. I wasn't daunted, and I had no feelings that it wouldn’t work.
So you had been playing cello since you were young, but it wasn't until college that you started playing in bands. Were you the token cello player in a rock band? Was it that kind of a setup?Yeah. People have such a strong emotional response to the sound of the cello that they want it in their band, but it rarely, if ever, makes it over the volume level of the guitar, so it’s more of a decorative thing. That was frustrating for me.
Yeah. I interviewed Zoë [Keating] last month--Yeah. I read your interview.
She's great! She was talking about how people just freak out when they hear a cello.Yeah. They're suckers for strings.
It's true. I mean, it works on me. (laughs) When did you start incorporating distortion and other effects to the sound of the cello?Fairly early on we were working with distortion pedals, and then when we made Thanks For The Ether for Columbia, that was very much the producer's and the label's. I didn't know anything about recording. To some people it seems that we got louder as we went, but that's just our recordings matching our live playing.
How much does working with these different producers affect the Rasputina sound? Because it seems like each album does have its own sound.Well, the producer has to be contributing something a lot of times. It has seemed like the recordings aren't much different from my demos. But those guys definitely get their mark on there. Starting out, I just didn't know anything about recording, and mixing was always really boring to me. But I learned enough over those years to make Cabin Fever by myself. And from doing that, I had really strong opinions in working with Joseph Bishara this time.
How do you think that Frustration Plantation is different from the other albums?I was definitely working more open-mindedly with other people, like Zoë and Jonathon (TeBeest). Joe did a great thing at the very beginning; he got me to verbally express the themes I was trying to capture, which is something nobody had gotten me to do before. It’s not easy for me to verbalize those things. But once he got me to do that, then Zoë and I got really into researching this specific period, and to be more specific.
Do you feel like this album was much more collaborative?It's definitely way more collaborative, but I'm never really that collaborative. (laughs) People are contributing and putting out ideas for parts, and we had a really great time working together. But it's not really mixed up songwriting too much.
Do you feel that because you had this vision of the band and came up with this manifesto, that you like to be in control of everything? Are you a control freak?Yeah. (laughs) I gotta say yes to that one!
Going along with the total vision that you have for the band, I know that you do all the artwork for the band's website, and you design the CDs. And I noticed on the website that you even have jewelry and little handmade souvenirs that you sew or put together.We could call those "crafts", I guess. (laughs)
So you've always been interested in art and expressing yourself like that?Yeah. It's all the same feeling to me. Making something is making something; it gets me the same good feeling.
I know that you went to art school. Were you planning on doing art when the music thing came along?Yeah. I was a photography major, but I never really thought I would do that for a living. They had classes like "How to insure your studio." It was an uptight thing I just couldn't imagine myself doing. And then I just fell into music by accident.
That is the best thing about art school - just meeting people and getting turned on to new ideas.Yeah. It's really fertile. The bands I played with when I started in the '80s just seemed so easy. They were just goofy people that sent tapes into this company, and they got to tour and make records. It seemed so easy, so I thought I'd do it. But it's not as easy as I thought. (laughs)
So you were never looking at it from the outside. It was never like those people were musicians, and you didn't understand how you could do that? It just all made sense to you?Yeah. I got some nice glimpses of the business side early on, and it just seemed like the luckiest club, because it was The Pixies hanging out with Throwing Muses, and that was their job. Who wouldn't want to do that?
It seems like there are a lot of people struggling to get into the music business, and for other people it just seems so natural. They just know what they want to do.Yeah. And there are a lot of terrible, unfair aspects when you get into it.
That’s very true. I know you started out on a major label, and now you're on a more independent label. Do you feel like you have a lot more control over what you can do?Yeah. And it’s also because time has passed. I was on a big label, and I didn't really know how things worked, so it was all handled by other people. But, as time has passed, I understand how everything works now, and can do it myself. So it's great to be on a small label.
Are you able to fully support yourself just doing Rasputina?Yeah.
That’s awesome!I work really hard, too.
And I’m sure that your workload has increased even more since you had your daughter?Uh-huh.
I was afraid when you took a break to have her that I'd never hear from you again. I got turned on to the band when I didn't go to see Manson, because he had been touring for five years straight, and I had seen him so many times. Of course, the one time I didn’t go to see him was when you opened.Ugh!
My friends came back from the show and said, "This band opened up with these girls playing cello." And I just thought that sounded so interesting, so I bought the CD the next day.Cool.
And then you took that break because you were pregnant, and another one of the girls was pregnant, as well.Yeah. And Julia, who had played with me for so long, quit at the same time, and our contract was up at Columbia, so everything happened all at once.
Yeah, that was scary. I wondered if I was ever going to hear from Rasputina again.(laughs)
Was there ever a point where it felt like maybe it wouldn’t continue?It worked out well because I didn't have the band distracting me when I had to take care of this new baby, which is hard. Also, having a child put all that career stuff that will drive you crazy into perspective. You know, I just felt really fortunate to get to do this, and I'm so thankful for any time that I grab to get to do it. So that was really good, because the jealousies and the careerism kind of stuff is really unhealthy, so I was glad to have that forced away.
So the break was really a good thing?Yeah. And after a series of events happens like that, you can't imagine it having gone any other way. Julia and I played together for ten years, and to have that come to an end was hard, but it was all good.
Do you keep in touch with any of the old members?Agnieszka and I keep in touch, Kris Cowperthwaite and I keep in touch - there are so many. (laughs)
I know that you like to do things in little chunks; three months of touring, and then a few months off. Is that schedule hard for other people? Is that one of the reasons you have gone through so many members?I think people are really into it and excited when they first start. And I think everyone always thinks the band is about to take off; like they will be the one there when we make a million dollars. But this has never gone like that. It's not a fun life in a lot of people’s opinion; touring is really, really hard work. It takes a certain mindset, and with Zoë and Jonathon now, they’re totally into it. It might also be because we’re all older; we’re not dealing with 21-year-olds, and we’re not 21 ourselves.
With the past members, did it seem like Rasputina was such a new thing that they didn't know what it was going to be like?Yeah. I’ve gotten quite a few members that just graduated from college, and it's an exploratory experience for them.
I know that you grew up in Kansas and then moved to New York. Were you from a small town?It was pretty small.
Did that give you a desire to go somewhere else and do something bigger?I think feeling like a misfit in a little town like that made me turn inward. I just had my fantasy world, and the stuff that I made. I think that set up my work habits. And, yeah, I always wanted to get out of there. I couldn't wait to move.
Do you think it's healthier to grow up in a small town?I think it's hard for people that grow up in New York because there is nowhere they can move to; everything seems unsatisfactory compared to New York. I think kids that grow up in New York are more sheltered, because there are more concerns about safety. Whereas, where I grew up, we were driving when we're 12, getting real wasted... I don’t know. There’s bad in both.
I grew up in a small town, and it seemed like I had to fight to get any kind of culture or to learn anything outside of the most sanitized, mainstream, Top 40 crap.Yeah. I would search really hard for things. Back then, things were a lot harder to find without the Internet. Even MTV was not readily available. So, I'd be writing to ads in the back of Rolling Stone, and I had buttons of all the New Wave bands, but I had never heard their music. (laugh)
I can totally relate to that. (laugh) Going into the look of Rasputina, with the antique photographs and the Victorian outfits, did you fantasize about being born in a different time when you were growing up? Was that a way to escape?Yeah. (laughs) I remember asking my mother Little House On The Prairie type stuff, like, "Wouldn't I have made the best settler?" (laughs) And my mom would say, "No. You would not." (laugh)
A lot of your songs seem to be focused on history, and a lot on the darker side of history. Were you interested in reading historical books growing up?I think that comes from a lot of reading, and those are the things that have always gotten my imagination going and made me excited. I don't read a lot of novels for whatever reason, but with history you have to read between the lines and imagine the people and what they were going through. That, to me, is inspirational. I think my parents are a generation older than they should be for me, because they would be grandparents' age, and I think their parents are another "skipped generation". My grandmother is totally from the Victorian era, so it’s a little mixed up. What I'm saying is I was raised by old people! (laugh) They had their Victorian fantasies that got pressed onto me.
Was that easier? Sometimes it seems like parents have a hard time relating to their kids, because they are from that last generation. But you can relate to your grandparents because there is more space between generations. Was that the case with your parents then because they were older?I think you can't not be like your parents. I would have never wanted to be like my parents, but I think they had a lot of inescapable influence on me that came out in this public band that I'm in. (laughs) I know it comes from them. Likw, if you look at how their house is decorated; stuff like that.
When you visit, do you just want to take things of theirs?Yeah. But I have to wait 'til the proper time. (laugh)
Your daughter, Hollis, has appeared on the last couple albums. Do you think she'll one day become a member of Rasputina?Hollis has really interesting ideas about music, and she tells her kindergarten teacher she wants to be a rock star, but she has her own interesting ideas about what a rock star is. And most music fans don't understand the business side, but this little four-year-old totally understands how it's a business. It will be interesting to see how it develops in her. (laughs)
Are her friends impressed that she gets to appear on your albums?Yeah. Jonathon and I went and played for her class, and that was very fun. The kids really loved it a lot, and I announced to the class that Hollis has a song on our new CD. It's called "November 17dee". When most adults see that title they ask me it means. "That’s so weird! What’s 17dee?" It bothers them. But when I said it to the kids, they were like, "Oh. November 17dee!" There was all this wonderful murmuring amongst themselves. It made a lot of sense to them. (laugh)
That could be a great new gig. You and Hollis will go on the road and perform at kindergarten classes all over the country.If things go wrong, there is always that.
The Raffi route.Yeah, yeah. (laugh)
Did you try to steer Hollis away from that terrible music that’s geared towards kids?I made a CD for her around Christmas time, I made it off of iTunes, and I was thinking about what a four-year-old would want to hear. It turned out to be mostly old hits, because I think hits are hits for a reason. Stuff like "Walk Like An Egyptian" and "Jed Clampett’s Theme". But I put one Raffi song on there, "Baby Beluga". I think that’s a good song, but that seemed like a good CD for a kid to me. Mixed stuff from all eras. Something like "Cherry Bomb" by Joan Jett. She loves that song because it says "mom" and "dad" in it. (laugh)
I think you're right about hits - usually, they are hits for a reason.Just the catchiness and the beat is what makes a hit, and makes a four-year-old like it.
I also wanted to ask about the evolution of the surreal little intros that you do to the songs when you perform. How did that come about?I've always done it. When we first started, just the time between songs when people would adjust their stuff, just felt like an eternity to me. So I had to fill it with some talking. They attempt to be just introductions for the next song, but they morph into other things.
And do you still write them out before each show?Yeah. Within the tour there will be an idea that I'll want to develop, so I'll change it a little each night, trying to make it perfect for me. A lot of times it sounds like the same thing every night, but it’s not. (laughs)
You’re just working through your material?Yeah. I'll throw in little things about the place where we are.
Are there any pre-show rituals that you do?Getting dressed with the costumes is kind of a group ritual situation.
Is that a good thing to help you get ready to go onstage?I think it's nice because it's very sisterly. We have to help each other tie up the stuff, and we get opinions on this or that. So it’s good as a group.
You have this fascination with history, and you've created almost a mythological world of your own through your songs and the look of Rasputina. Can you see any of that crossing over into a book, or taking some other form?I would love to do something like that. I get lots of requests for things, but time is so limited. I would certainly hope so. Something pretty realistic is that we would like to do a more theatrical show. That’s very conceivable.
So what would it take to facilitate that? More time or more money from the record company?Yeah. Anytime we get a concrete offer, like, "Make a book, and we'll give you this money." Then it happens. (laughs) Even if it's tiny. "We'll give you this money to play two minutes of music for my animation." It’s like, "Okay."
If time and money weren't an issue, the practicality of taking something big on the road, what would the ultimate Rasputina show be?Well, we have talked about and wished for some kind of choreography for so long because we’re so stationary; the slightest synchronized movement would be really amazing. Like, even if we just raised our arms up and put them back down. (laugh) You know? And costumes, costumes, costumes! I don't know. (laugh)
What about platforms that would raise you up and down?Somebody had a great idea for individual snowglobes. That would be nice. (laugh)
That would be great. (laughs)But, yes, that’s pretty "Spinal Tap".
I know you said you would never do this, but will you tell me about Percy Bass' secret life?No. (laughs)
I had to ask. So, you’re getting ready to go on tour now?Yeah.
And you're just going out for a couple of months?We're breaking it down even further. We're going to do three weeks on the right half of the U.S., come home for a few weeks, and then go back out for the left half.
Do you find it a lot easier to do that, rather then being on the road for extended periods?We've never done it this broken down before. I always say, "I won't go out for longer than three weeks, because of my daughter." But it always turns into four or five weeks, and then we race around and do the whole country in that amount of time. That is very tiring though, so this should be good.
The new album, Frustration Plantation, is out March 16th. What kinds of goodies are going to be on the bonus disc?Some remixes of album songs that I did, and it's got lots of different things that didn't make it on the different records, like Cabin Fever outtakes and sketches from the new record. I think it's stuff that would be pretty interesting to fans. I've got a knock at my door.
Uh-oh.It’s the UPS man. (to UPS man) Hi. Thanks.
Is it anything good?Yes. It's my poster mailing tubes. Gotta have those. (laughs)
Will there be any cool new swag at the merchandise table?Yes. I've got a new perfume that we'll be bringing. It’s called Melora's Rancid Brain Oil. (laugh)
Nice. Did you concoct it yourself?Yeah. (laughs) There’s no big brains behind this operation. (laugh)
I'm surprised no one had taken that name yet.I get emails from people wanting to know how many ounces it is, and what the scent overtones are. And I’m like, "I'm not a fucking perfumer over here!" (laugh)
Well, I will wrap this up by asking you the question we always ask everyone, which, if you read Zoë's interview...I can't remember. (laughs)
Good. I like it when it takes people by surprise. Okay, in your professional opinion, do you think dogs have lips?Yes! They’re black and pimply. Everyone knows that.