Feeling Strangely Bovine: An interview with
In the dimly lit cocktail lounge of New York’s ancient Gramercy Park Hotel, I encounter Atticus Ross (28) and Claudia Sarne (26) of the gothic cabaret-cum-lounge band, 12 Rounds. A couple in and out of the studio, they’re creepy and they’re kooky; mysterious and spooky; they’re altogether, well, actually they’re quite a charming pair. However, the dark and enchanting music of 12 Rounds is creepy, in the same way that clowns freak-out grown adults and Tim Burton comedies scare children. It’s that whole humor/horror dichotomy.
Claudia Sarne sings like the spawn of Eartha Kitt and Cruella DeVille, yet, when I transcribe the tape of our interview weeks after the fact, I am, er, cruelly reminded what a mistake it was not to put a napkin under my recorder (interviewer’s trick for cutting out background noise in loud bars). Sarne’s speaking voice is so soft, most of what she says is completely lost between her mouth and my tape recorder. Fortunately, Atticus Ross was sitting closer to me, and has a louder voice. My Big Hero, their debut for Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records, was released on June 30.
Round one begins!
You seem to be poking a bit of fun at goth music in general. What’s your opinion of these goths who take themselves so seriously?
Claudia Sarne: There are a lot of people who are inherently bleak and mope about, but these goths who take themselves so seriously either end up on Prozac or dead. I was a goth. I think everybody goes through [something like that] at one time in their life.
Atticus Ross: The thing is… there are albums I like which are continuously dark, but I don’t align myself with someone who feels that there is no hope. Sometimes with Goth, I think that people miss the humor in it. I don’t think you can listen to Marilyn Manson and not find it amusing.
I think that goth should be divided into “Goth” and “Nouveau-Goth.” I think that someone like PJ Harvey is “Nouveau-Goth” and that’s much more interesting. She embraces a much wider spectrum. With our record, it’s almost like [on] some of the darker tracks we’ve tried to, not exactly “lighten”… but, we’ve tried to throw something in there which is…
CS: Taking it less seriously. I mean, things that touch me tend to be very dark. I don’t know why that is. I don’t want to go into the deep psychology of it.
AR: There’s a song on the record called “Bovine,” and Claude’s singing “Put me in the juicer and come drink me” at one point, and then you hear a juicer. Now, we had a juicer and we tried to record it, but it didn’t sound right. Then we decided to get the Tape Op to juice his hand and we’d record that (laughs). In the end, what we did was we got the guy who owned the studio to bring his chainsaw in and chainsaw up some wood, and that sounded good. So it was quite a funny hour.
What inspired that song?
CS: It’s written about very despairing things, but I think there’s an element of humor, just the fact that it’s called “Bovine”… like being a big cow that just can’t get it together. It was about something in particular, but I’m not very good at being specific about what I sing and write about. I like to leave things open to people’s imagination. Like when you read a book and then you see the film (based on the book). When you see the film, that’s it. But when you read the book you can use your imagination quite a bit.
AR: It’s one of my favorite songs, actually, because I think the amount of ideas in that three minutes is about the same as what most people have in a whole hour. I love the break, where it goes to the acoustic guitar and we have the diva singing in the background. That’s sort of a surreal moment. There’s always a juxtaposition [in out work]. The happy songs are not happy, and the dark songs aren’t necessarily dark. Something like “My Big Hero” is quite a positive song.
CS: I just like the title [of that song]. The album is about a character… about Atticus and I coming together and producing a character which is [represented by] the songs. “My Big Hero” wasn’t meant to be the title track but it fit in with the record. I think it worked.
AR: I think calling it “My Big Hero” is also quite amusing. I like the way the three words fit together. I don’t think the record sounds like anyone else’s. I think the record has a lounge or cabaret type of essence to it, which is what makes it so different from any other dark music. It’s really not a downer at all. We tried to avoid that. I also think it’s like, I mean I don’t want to go down this road too much, but you know how Tim Burton has that very certain feel to his stuff?
I was going to bring that up.
AR: Which is almost loungey in a weird way. You know, how he creates these environments. I mean, it’s Lounge, but the funny thing is, you know, how Lounge has become this terrible cliche now.
It’s become a trendy buzzword.
CS: What I would classify as lounge singers now would be Nick Cave, that whole genre, which I’m much happier to be lumped in with. I’m really glad that that’s the overall feel of the record and it isn’t being compared so much to what other people are doing or to have influences in black and white: you know “this sounds like” so and so.
I was just thinking about all of these acts or artists who chose to work alone or in pairs. Why do you guys work as a duo rather than within the confines of a band?
CS: It’s less people to have to tell to fuck off (laughs). The thing is, what I do and what Atticus does, if we were left to our own devices, both of us would produce that same thing. Mine would have been something that was maybe thirteen minutes long, and Atticus’ would have been something different. I mean, there’s arguments, but we influence each other in a really good way. We did work in a band and we’ve done the sort of songs that are two minutes, 25 seconds and like that. At the end of the day we sort of rejected technology on the first album. We really went for the “live” guitar and such. Then on this one, Atticus has become a bit of the programmer and arranger, and it worked better. We both did what we do best.
AR: There is a sort of “live band” involved with the record. What normally happens is that we start to write and then, as is needed, we drop in people that are our band. We’ll have a guitarist who’ll work with us a lot, and then there’s a cello player and a live drummer, who are the band that we tour with. They all play their part in the making of the record. So, even though it’s a sort of duo-core, there are other musicians involved. It’s more like a writing duo, as it were.
There’s also a real “music for films” kind of quality to the record. A lot of visuals come into the mind while you listen to it, almost like you can imagine what the video for a song might look like.
AR: Everyone has said to us, whom we’ve spoken to, that [the music] implies images, but then all my favorite music does. One of the good things about it is we get all the great video directors trying to do the video for like a quarter of their normal budget.
Have you made a video yet?
AR: No, we’re just about to do the first one [for] “Come on in Out of the Rain.” The way they want to play it is to do a video single and sort of focus on MTV. “Come on in Out of the Rain” is not a radio-based song, but I think it has a good feel about it. The idea is to put a chord on to the masses with the first video. We’ve got the treatments and it’s down to two directors. I think it should be good.
How did you come to be signed to the Nothing label?
AR: We were just pursued by them. We were in a situation where we had a choice of various labels. The thing about Nothing is, realistically, they have Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, us, and Two (Rob Halford’s project), and a couple others. That’s a really small roster. Our other choices were great labels, but you look at their rosters, and there’s hundreds of bands. Sometimes I think that record companies work under the presumption that if you throw a lot of shit at the walls, some of it will stick. Whereas Nothing’s main point is that you don’t hardly have any shit, but what you do have you work really hard. That’s a really good situation to be involved with. I also think that Trent is very focused and that’s a big difference from having someone who’s a business guy, do you know what I mean? I do think Nothing are the right label for us in a lot of ways.
CS: Every thing that we do, we have to have a 90% say in it, and it’s hard to have that [with a larger company].
AR: There’s only a few good companies in England as well. In America, everyone thinks that England is full of ground-breaking music. The reality is that there is ground-breaking music there, but it’s very underground. The majority of music is governed by the most dire pop music you could possibly imagine.
CS: We’ve got techno [music] on Tampax adverts…
AR: The other thing is, we’ve spent a lot of time in America. I’ve got a son who lives here. It’s not really that we’re a “British band moving to America” kind of situation. It’s as much our home as England is, really.
CS: We were offered the chance to come over here, and Atticus has spent a lot of time in L.A. and I was born in L.A. It’s been a big dream to ship out and play over here.
It sounds like you’re in a good situation.
AR: The other thing that you’ve got to remember is that [Claudia] is the first female artist on Nothing. It is a big step for them as well, a big thing as far as they’re concerned. You know, Trent, Marilyn Manson… All their bands are very male. [Signing us] is like statement as well.
Since the album has such a mix of both organic instrumentation and electronics, do you think that will present you with any challenges when you go to do a live show?
CS: It can be done organically. We’ve just been putting together the whole live thing and we have a full band. There’s a live drummer playing and everything is pretty much live.
AR: There’s no tapes involved, so we’re quite proud of that. We spent four weeks building this system that we’re going to use when we’re live. It involves the drummer playing his drum kit and triggering off pads (electronic effects) — a lot of the stuff that’s on the album. Me and the sound guy built this system to allow the band to function as an entirely spontaneous unit, yet with all the electronic stuff. It was like building Frankenstein’s monster. I don’t think anyone else had done it yet. Most people use backing tapes. We don’t do that. It’s gonna sound like the record, but a lot bigger. I’m hoping people will walk away from the live show and go ‘Wow, I’m really glad I saw that!’ I think touring is about “giving it to the people,” especially when you’re a small band like we will be. There’s something about going out and giving to the people who will hopefully be the fans when our album is out.
The other thing is that a lot of bands rely on the visuals, because they’re so fucking boring. For us, there’s so much more than the record. I think that we’ll be touring nonstop, because we are a live band, much more so than other bands who might work in similar veins. For me, I don’t think I can really love a band, fully, until I’ve seen them live.
I think one of the sad things in music at the moment [is] it’s very hard to love a record as much — when it’s ‘your thing’ — once it becomes popular and sells to the masses. I mean, I always hope when I find a band I can really love [that they will stay underground], because there’s something that feels sort of territorial about them, like it’s ‘my thing.’ But then when they go overground, I always lose a little bit of [my interest].
That happened with Nine Inch Nails, I think.
AR: See, in England, he’s not big at all. Nobody knows who he is.
I wondered if you two have any particular musical influences?
AR: I don’t think we have any specific influences, [but] you can’t help but be influenced. That’s the weird thing. I’ve got friends who make music, but I don’t think that they’re music fans. You get people in the studio and they don’t seem to like being there. I think you just can’t be of that mentality. Whereas for me, and for Claude, I spend a lot of time buying records and looking for records, ’cause I am a genuine music fan. So, although we don’t have specific influences, I think we’ve listened to a really wide range of music. You know, there’s an independent (music) store in London, called Rough Trade and I’ve got a friend who works there who’ll just, as the music comes in, he picks out stuff which he thinks [I’ll like]. It’s just the sort of teenage obsession that’s left over, and I can’t ever see it going away.
The one thing we really try to avoid is doing something that’s trendy at that moment. I think that’s the kiss of death. Hopefully [our music is] not music that will necessarily date. I didn’t mean that in the sense that they’re classic songs — although I think that some of them are. I mean, all music dates, of course, but it’s not dependent on what is trendy. For instance, there’s a lot of records I’ve bought that, after one or two listens, I think you’ve got the whole picture. Whereas our record, I think, you can listen to more and more, and discover something new each time.