Neo Chamber Grunge Comes to Your House: The Rasputina Interview
Three Chicks, three cellos. It’s an easy way to describe Rasputina, the band Melora Creager, 32, formed over six years ago after placing an ad in the Village Voice. Creager had played in different rock bands, but had a vision of forming a band centered around three cellists, adding hard rock elements such as a drummer or guitar to complement the classical sound of the cellos. “In a normal band, a cello tends to be an accessory because it looks cool. From the reaction I got doing that, I thought it would be really powerful to have [the cellos] be the whole band.” Rasputina’s studio recordings translate well to the stage, where you’ll hear influences ranging from Black Sabbath to the Andrew Sisters with jokes and stories from Creager thrown in between each song. “We’ve all played since we were little girls.” She says of herself and her bandmates,” Julia Kent and Agnieszka Rybska. “I think that people who study like that when they’re kids, if their parents are willing to invest in something like a cello, then you study pretty hard.” Rasputina take their craft seriously, yet an offbeat sense of humor is evident on songs that invoke the name of Space Ghost or mock the “How to make three months salary last a lifetime” credo of the DeBeers diamond commercials. How We Quit the Forest, their sophomore effort for the Columbia label, was co-produced by former Nine Inch Nails’ drummer, Chris Vrenna.
I think it’s really cool that you helped produce the record along with Chris Vrenna. How did he come to be involved with production duties and what was your role in the studio as a co-producer?
Chris had heard from different sources that we needed a drummer and we [that] were looking at producers. He felt that, since he was hearing this so often, from all different people, that he was meant to work with us…that it seemed right. I started writing on a mini-disc four-track, which is kind of a rinky-dink format, but there’s editing functions where I worked out a system of sampling, combining found sounds and stuff like that. Chris is at the forefront of that kind of work, really. Production-wise, he really had a clear over-view that he wanted to preserve what we were about with live playing [and] to not get far from that on this record. A lot of things were just translating different ideas — rhythmic ideas — straight from the demos. With production, I feel like I may not know how to control the board, but it’s all my ideas and it’s in my head [laughs]. I had the same sort of credit on the last record, even though I feel like, as far as recording knowledge, I’ve grown so much in the past couple of years that I was more active on this one.
I understand you, personally, went on tour with Nirvana at one point. How did that happen and what was it like?
That was something I couldn’t pass up. We had a mutual friend, (NY photographer) Michael Lavine. Kurt loved the cello [and] my friend, Michael described what I do and the whole aesthetic, which were things that Kurt was into. [Nirvana] hired me and I went to Europe with them. It was just being thrust into a very strange situation. Just to be in the midst of that [was an eye-opener]. You know, from playing CB’s gallery with your little cello group [laughs] to these European stadiums. My cello playing actually got a lot better in that time because there’s so much waiting, that I just played and played. There was kind of a tense vibe on the whole thing, so I just… played and played [laughs] to pass the time. Often, people think celebrities are always assholes and fame hurts people and makes them change. It seems like with [Kurt], here’s a really sweet soul…and what happened? Maybe that’s what happens with a sweet soul who’s not going to change or be an asshole…they can’t… go on.
It sounds like it was a very unique and special experience for you to have. Another experience I’d like to ask you about is your tour as the support band with Marilyn Manson. I understand their audiences were hostile towards you.
Well, we kind of look at ourselves as underdogs and enjoy a challenge, but we don’t try to put ourselves in a hard situation. We had some concerns as to `Why is [Manson] asking for us? Surely it must be because he likes our clothes or something.’ It turned out that he has a very creative spirit and admired that we do what we do and that we use whatever we can around us, costumes or whatever, so that was nice. He has a great faith and affection for his own audience. It’s kind of a fatherly kind of thing. [The tour] started out really rough — things thrown and cellos damaged and we were really shaken. But a big, rough audience like that is kind of one mass, it’s not like a bunch of [individuals]. [Laughs] It’s like animals, and they could sense really quickly if we were afraid or unsure of ourselves. As quickly as we got over that and were confident that `We belong here’ and we’re doing a show, the audience would respond in kind.
How did Manson respond to that?
He could really relate to our fear, because after the first show we were really shaken. The cellos are valuable and fragile in themselves. We can’t do a tour if the cellos are going to be demolished by flying objects. You know, he came backstage and was like “Oh, you guys were really sawing away, that was cool.” We were all in shock, [but] he was like “Oh, I got hit in the head with a glass bottle in Germany.” It was just the vibe or an attitude you had to have. It’s also pretty geographic. The first show was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Maybe a little redneck, I don’t know [laughs]. Different places would have a different vibe with the audience.
How We Quit the Forest seems to deal a bit with themes of mythology or fairy tales. Are you girls into that sort of thing?
I don’t know so much about mythology, but with the fairy tales, I’ve always been into that…play acting with my sister when I was little, that kind of thing. Julia is a huge fan of Angela Carter, do you know her stories? They’re kind of modern, twisted fairy tales, but she also does some studies on fairy tales: the history of them, how they’re disseminated and who wrote them…it’s all really interesting, political messages snuck into stories about animals, that kind of thing.
And the title of the album is an allegory for society in some way?
In a way. Something that interests me, and that is actually, I think, kind of a modern phenomenon or feeling is that it seems people are in a constant state of quitting. You would think that to quit would be to do something, quit, and then it’s done. But people seem to feel a need to be in a state of quitting. You know, “I’m quitting smoking and I’m breaking up with this person and I’m changing all these things in my diet.” Just to be in a present state of quitting. So `The Forest’ is a community, society or something…to be involved with a group of people always in a state of…quitting [sighs].
Something I noticed, influences if you will, seem rather folk-retro such as Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. Are those artists whose music you enjoy?
Those are people I admire without ever actually owning any of their records. So, they couldn’t be a direct influence but maybe [they are.] It’s important for me to be song-based and to consider my song-craft.
“Sign of the Zodiac” really sounds like a Joni Mitchell song. I almost thought it was a cover at first. Are you into Astrology, what it means?
I’m pretty conflicted about a lot of things like that. I like to poo poo and poke fun at it but I do actually practice a lot of that stuff, you know: herbs and breathing [techniques] and things like that. So, that to me is like that constant state of quitting.
Like `I don’t want to say I believe in it, but just in case it’s true’…?
I love the sound of the whole album and how the cellos complement the material. How did you first get into using effects pedals with the cello?
The first record [it] was much more acoustic and natural than how we’ve ever played live. Just plugging in [the cello], without any effects creates a sound that’s different. The feeling and the sound, with distortion, is very exciting. We toured so much last year that we were developing sounds and bowing styles, just from playing so much. Just like with guitars or anything, you can put that same pedal on a cello. I guess they were invented for guitars but you can put a dulcimer through it or a flute or anything.
I’d like to ask you about some of the songs now. The song about Rose Kennedy, what inspired you to write about her?
I was dealing with, not so much about her but just the pain of aging… watching someone age, and how that person might feel himself. Losing their mental power, Alzheimer’s…
I think the lyrics are really sensitive. I didn’t know if you had that `Kennedy-Camelot’ viewpoint.
[laughs] I did have a thing with an old friend, kind of like a Jackie-thing, for Rose. We would cut out pictures of her…because I think there’s something sinister with her, that I didn’t deal with in the a song at all. You know, she had her daughter lobotomized and she just won’t die and all that. I think I started with the image of somebody being rolled in the sand in a wheelchair. It’s just so…you’re not going to get anywhere. You know, you’re at your grand vacation home, but you’re in a wheelchair…in the sand.
How about the “Olde Headboard”? Is that a break-up song?
Yeah, it is. I think something a lot of people do that I do, and have done, is that you’re with somebody new and you just make up who they are. All these wonderful things that might not have any bearing on reality. It’s kind of like building a person. Actually that song is a pretty personal, relationship song, which I haven’t done much of in the past.
“Diamond Mind” is a parody of the great DeBeers diamond commercials: it’s just hilarious. It reminds me of Barbara Striesand, the way you sing with that Brooklyn accent or whatever.
`The thing that lasts forever’ or whatever they say [laughs]. The music [on those commercials] itself is really great and we started playing it because it’s semi-classical. We wanted to do it like a cover, but DeBeers owns the rights to that music and they said `No’ so we did it as an homage.
Oh, they’re no fun. It’s a great song, the whole concept of a woman bitching to a guy to get her a diamond is so hilarious. Like that ever works. Like guys love pressure.
My accountant said `Is that me? Are you making fun of me?’ [laughs] Some men like that, you know (speaks in quivering voice) “Oh, mean girls!”
What’s the story behind “The Herb Girls of Berkenau”?
I was reading a book that consisted of a holocaust survivor’s account [of] Auschwitz. I think Berkenau was the women’s half of Auschwitz. [The author] was working in the field or something and saw, rising over the hill, a perfect line of perfectly clean, shaven-headed women with aprons, picking herbs, with the most lifeless, soul-less, zombie-like eyes. They were Mengele victims. [It’s the experience of] somebody in that situation who sees something that she thought was extreme, and the woman, in her writing [thought] this was shocking and disgusting. [She was] seeing someone way worse off than she was, and she was shocked at it. Also [you have] the contrast of perfectly pressed aprons, picking herbs on a beautiful day, but these people have lost everything. It was a chance for me to write a song dealing with that without making fun of it. In fact, I tried to make it a heart-felt, serious song, without being goofy at all. I’m interested in extremes of mind and how people respond when they suffer like that.
Who’s idea was it to cover “You Don’t Own Me”?
I’m a huge Leslie Gore fan. I love her songs, sung in a teenage kind of voice. And those 50’s chords, there’ so much you can do with them. A lot of great David Bowie [music] has these 50’s chord progressions. The lyrics are really so repetitive and the contrasting, [the] changing pronouns are really hard to remember: I, you, me… [laughs].
Didn’t you change some of the lyrics?
Yeah, I changed them. It says `I’m young and I love to be young,’ and I just couldn’t say that. So I said `I’m wrong and I love to be wrong’ [laughs]. But I tend to be drawn to [cover songs] that are already from a female’s perspective. Sometimes, in covers people change the gender and [the song] then has a whole new meaning. I like it when it’s already from a woman, about women. [It’s cool to find] something that’s kind of strong, and from a woman’s perspective, and it’s old song…like that Melanie song from our last record, “Brand New Key.”
Do you have more than one cello?
I have two. I have one that I’ve had since I was a little kid, which is not as good, but I respect it, since I’ve had it so long. I have one that I got in Arizona about two years ago that’s wonderful.
Do you give names to your cellos?
No…but cellos have a lot of personality. I brought a freight elevator down on my cello one time and broke the top. It was like a medical emergency…like it was my child who had just cut his hand off. I went (cries out) `Ahhh!’ When a cello breaks, you think it will never be the same or you can’t really fix it properly. [Then] I had my old cello in a very elaborate beaded dress. I put the dress on it…it was a beaded dress and it’s big — too big for me to wear — and I realized `This would fit the cello!’ It seemed so obscene and taboo, and I could only put it on a little at a time [laughs]. It made me feel real icky, but I gradually got it done. And the cello fell over at some point — this was a couple of weeks ago — and the tension from having the dress on the cello when it fell over…the same cello broke again. But I’m in denial about that [laughs].
Do people make the dresses that you wear especially for you or do you find them somewhere?
They’re mostly from flea markets [and] we’re given a lot of things by people who think, `Oh, this is a Rasputina dress!’ The corsets…we don’t have so many corsets but we’re always on the lookout. I bought a new corset recently and the guy in the store was really into helping me tie it up [laughs].
How We Quit the Forest was released August 4th. Rasputina will embark on a brief tour of major cities in the fall.