ROCKRGRL - March/April, 1997

Chicks with Cellos
by Beth Winegarner

  Much ado has been made over Rasputina -- the all-female, all-cello rock trio from New York -- since the band made its recording debut last August with "Thanks For the Ether." Founded by Melora Creager, the group is rounded out by the Canadian-born Julia Kent and Polish emigre Agniezska Rybska. Rasputina takes its name from a feminization of the famous philosopher; ROCKRGRL recently spoke with Creager, taking note of her own philosophies on songwriting, Rasputina's penchant for wearing corsets and bloomers onstage, Thomas Edison's inventions and her band's newfound notoriety.

I'd like to start by asking you a little about what you were like growing up, and what kinds of things you were into.

I think I was kind of a a nerd and misfit in a fantasy world. I really wanted to fit in. I grew up in Kansas and it's very homogenous there. I actually stopped playing the cello in high school just because it seemed like a lot of social pressure at the time, or that it was a big black mark and I couldn't be cool.

I was eighteen when I moved to New York. I went to Parsons School of Design for four years, and I studied photography, and I've always liked it in New York very much. I've been here for quite a while.

Can you talk a little bit about writing the songs?

I write them pretty much by myself. I work with a four-track, and it can go either way as to singing first or a cello idea first. Then I write it out on staff paper, and we learn it like it's a real piece of music. I think we do little arranging things together, like maybe somebody wants to make up a solo at this part, and we'll do that.

Do you feel like you pick subjects for your lyrics that have some personal translation for what's going on in your own life?

Yeah, but it's probably all pretty subconsious. Like probably Julia could interpret the lyrics and how they apply to me better than I could. You know, like if you tell somebody a dream you had and you have no idea what it means, but when you say it out loud it's obvious that you wanted to have sex with your father, or something terrible. (laughs)

What are Julia and Agniezska like to work with? How do the three of you deal with each other?

It's a very satisfying kind of relationship. A band is kind of like a family, it's kind of political, too, so it's a fulfilling situation. Agniezska just moved here from Poland not very long ago, so her English is getting really good really fast. We have some language limitations, but music is a whole other language, and it's the same in Poland. So we speak that way. Julia and I have played together so long, we're like old married people.

Since you do a lot of the compositions, I want to ask what kind of sounds you're attracted to. Not necessarily just cello sounds, but either out in the world or in other music you like.

I like when music can make you feel emotion, because that seems kind of mysterious. How can a combination of sounds make a number of people feel a certain feeling? I like to hear that and I like to try to do that. The sound of the cello is so wonderful that I actually do like to hear the cello, and listen to other people play.

Is there a particular type of cello that you and the others prefer to use?

We've spent a lot of years trying to have the ultimate setup, to really grow with our sound or even figure out how we should be doing this. I don't like the sound of most electric cellos. I like a realistic sound, a real acoustic cello. And I just like to recreate a natural cello sound as loud as we can with the equipment that's available.

What kind of equipment are you using?

We all use Fishbun pickups, which are really simple but give the most full kind of sound, and we have to use pre-amps to make the signal bigger, as we've learned over the years. And just add a little reverb and it sounds like a big loud natural sound. Distortion is very fun to play. Agniezska calls it "destruction," so we all do.

Was it hard for you to reproduce your sound on record?

The record was interesting to do, because even though we've played live and we've played together for a long time, we really haven't recorded very much. And the producers and engineers didn't really knew the formula as to how it's supposed to be, because all those people haven't done it before. I think the record ended up sounding more acoustic and natural and less noisy and processed than when we play live.

Can you talk a little bit about the Edison Talking Machine, which you used on "Mr. E. Leon Rauis?"

We tried different things, like a sample loop of scratch off a record, but there's nothing like the real thing for a real sound even if people don't know what they're hearing. They can still tell. There's a Thomas Edison museum, and his old factory, in New Jersey, so that equipment is accessible around here, and a guy just happened to be in the studio. For the price of a detailed lesson in how it worked, cause he really wanted us to understand his beautiful machine -- we basically put things we'd already recorded through that, so it comes back out the bell and we put a microphone in front of it. So it's like a fifth generation recording, but it just has a warm, old feeling.

You guys make a conscious effort to look a certain way. Do you get tired of people focusing on that?

I don't like that the underwear aspect is played up. I would never want anyone to think we're slutty or sex panderers, you know? We feel like we're wearing pretty costumes. That's something that is out of my control. I read that over and over. I don't like it, but what can I do? We never look like we're anyone's victim. We look strong, and we are strong with our music, but if people play that up, it actually victimizes us.

Did you expect that people would be so surprised at the idea of a cello rock band?

To me it doesn't seem like an odd thing to do, or it shouldn't be so unusual to have an unusual idea. It shouldn't be like that, that this little thing is so weird.

Did you expect that the band would take off like it did?

It's a very high and low thing. Sometimes after a good show, we think, "this is really working, it seems like a really good thing to do." And it seems like no matter what level you're at, the problems are very similar. How bad of a problem is it that it bothers me that 10 newspapers said I wear underwear? (laughs) Usually it seems like people make a point to say, "This is gimmicky, but they definitely can play, so it's okay." And of course I wish the word gimmick was never applied to my name in the first place.

Do you have any advice to kids growing up, who are dealing with so-called "dorky" instruments, to get them to keep with it?

Anything, if you do your best with your heart in it, can only turn out good. Making music is such a wonderful experience, and I feel bad that I did fall for the peer pressure and did quit playing cello. People shouldn't do that.