I first became an Elizabeth Elmore fan when I saw her perform solo at the year 2000 edition of South By Southwest. Shortly before that performance, her critically acclaimed band Sarge parted company. I always enjoyed their records, but the intensity and unabashed geekiness in Elmore’s performance totally captivated me. Now as she tries to rebuild her career as a solo artist while taking on law school, Ms. Elmore and I sat down for a phone chat in which she revealed herself to be more than just the Queen of Spaz-Rock, as we talked about her career, her studies, her vegetarianism, the music girl ghetto, and rediscovering the joys of Matlock.
How are things going? Are you in finals or preparing for finals?
I’m in•I took one Tuesday and I have one this Tuesday. It’s rough; I’m a little over-committed right now. I have finals and I work in the legal clinic so I have real cases that I work on. Then I have a show this Friday with Evan Dando, so I’ve had practices the last two nights, and I’ve got to practice with a friend of mine who’s playing at this show tonight. We have a show in Columbia freakin• Missouri on Saturday, which is like a seven-hour drive. I’ve got all that stuff, then I’m working at a law firm this summer, and I’m getting ready to go over to Europe, and I just found out I’m losing my apartment. I thought I’d have a three day period before I went to Europe, and I just found out I have to move during that time. I’m just running from one thing to another, constantly.
Are you just a glutton for punishment?
I have no idea. I must be a moron. Of course, I have this bad habit where I’ll go on tour over spring break and then I’ll come back and I can’t get back into study mode, so I go on these benders during second semester finals, which is just a terrible thing to do. Before I went to law school, I used to stay out — in Chicago, we have two o’clock bars and four o’clock bars, [and] before law school, I went out to four o’clock bars all the time. Once I went to law school, I pretty much stopped, but for some reason, I hit finals at the end of the year, and I start going out every night.
What are you planning to do when you finish law school?
I love law school. The people I go to school with are amazing. I absolutely love law school, it just gets really overwhelming. One of the things that’s weird is that I never really feel very good about it because I feel the work that I turn in is always really half-assed. Even though my grades are pretty good, I never feel very good about it because I’m not proud of the work I’m doing. The reason I went to law school — I wanted to go to law school since I was about seven, I knew I wanted to go for civil rights since I was about fourteen, I knew I wanted to be in child welfare since I was seventeen — so I want to work in child welfare and foster care system. I feel now like that stuff will always be there for me, and I’m trying not to rush to get there. I feel like that part of my life is going to be available to me for longer than the other side of my life is.
Why child welfare and civil rights? What attracts you to that?
I’m working for a big law firm this summer. I hate to say it, but law school is expensive, and they pay you a lot. But I like the firm I’m going to, I like the people that work at the firm I’m going to. Child welfare. Well, there’s lots of stuff. There are reasons that reach farther back. Part of why I want to go to it is that since I was eighteen, my parents became foster parents and now are adoptive parents. My mom is a Deputy Director of Children and Family Services in Illinois. So my family is a foster family and we’re really closely tied to it.
In this past year since Sarge broke up, do you feel like you’ve had to start your music career over again?
It’s been like fourteen or fifteen months since it happened, but I still feel like my head is spinning. It was my first band, so there’s the practical side where I really do have to start over, and this completely different side• I’m not somebody who played in four or five different bands and been through the process a few times. The first people who ever played with me, I got really lucky and ended up in a band that toured. So I’m starting over and starting over more or less by myself. It’s a lot different, because you had that team spirit, all for one, one for all type thing when you’re in a band. Also, your direction and focus gets whittled down a little bit, because you have four people with different thoughts of what they want to do where they want to go, so it so it’s self selecting, the direction that you take by the few things everyone can agree on. It’s definitely strange. It’s strange starting at twenty-five as opposed to nineteen. At nineteen, what the hell, I didn’t have anything better to do. There’s a lot more I have to sacrifice right now. There are people who are truly songwriters and then there are people who whatever the best work that they do is a product of where they are in their life and what their experiences in a short, condensed period of time have been. I get worried that what Sarge had going for it was a product of me being at that crazy age where everything is exciting and interesting and new.
Is it harder to go out as yourself, where any criticism is aimed straight at you, instead of being part of a band?
It’s weird. I definitely saw the whole punk rock thing through rose-colored glasses. I was such a fan of the fact that there were all these kids out there• we were all over the country, driving horrible vans, at the same time meeting up at these huge fests where eight hundred or a thousand kids would show up, and I really loved it. But I realized, especially in the last couple of years, that kids can be really brutal. There’s a record label called Polyvinyl, and they have a Web board. And some of the kids on that board just started saying pretty much atrocious things about me. Besides the fact that they were eighteen and stupid, and who cares. It was a strange feeling to realize that there were people across the country who I don’t even know that actually care enough to hate me. A lot of people, I guess, develop thick skin about that stuff. I don’t care if somebody says “your band sucks,” I’m like, “yeah, whatever,” because I probably have friends that think my band sucks, too. But the really personal, weird attacks, and playing solo, I feel like is just begging for more of that. Then they can definitely blame it all on me. There are people who I know are definitely true songwriters, and there are people who are collaborators, and I’m not really either. I definitely come up with songs, there are plenty of songs I’ve written and come with the songs pretty much done, but there are other songs that have definitely benefited from other people in the band having different ideas and the song gets pushed and pulled in different directions and just ended up better or more interesting or more nuanced and not so plain and boring. I miss that, and that comes from playing with these people for two or three years. I think some of my songs suffer from the fact that I’m just playing with whoever I can convince to play with me at a given time. It’s not that they’re not great people, it’s just that there’s a benefit when you get on that same wavelength, which is harder to do in a few months. On the last tour, we had two weeks. Basically, two and half weeks of practice before we left.
Do you feel that women musicians are marginalizing themselves through “women’s music” shows and festivals?
This is an issue that I have been really struggling with for the past six months. I have always said that Sarge would not play those shows. I thought it was devaluing to the guys in the band, and I just felt embarrassed and idiotic to play shows were it was the fact that I was a girl is what got us on them. Every once in a while, a college would book us on a show and name a couple of bands I hadn’t heard of that we were playing with, and we would get there and it would be like, “Women in Rock!” For me, it always felt marginalizing in a lot of ways. A bit of it was certain bravado; like, “no, I don’t need anyone doing me any favors, I can play with the boys and hold my own.” The whole Ladyfest thing I sort of struggled with, because I got asked to play a couple of them and I didn’t want to. One of the issues kind of in a procedural, formality way that drives me fucking crazy is [in] a lot of them, the rule is the band has to be mostly women or female-fronted. I’m like, “wait a second, now we’re telling girls that they’re only real musicians if they’re up in front with the mic, shaking their ass playing a tambourine, but if they’re a bad ass drummer, that’s not enough to get on Ladyfest?” That, to me, seems as a side issue, a really weird, fucked up way to approach that. I think it’s really weird to put a bunch of people on a show together just because they’re girls. I can maybe understand ten years ago, people saying there is sexism in music. There’s sexism in music now, in the alt and punk rock scene, but it’s very subtle and very nuanced and it’s not that women can’t get shows anymore. Women can get shows a lot easier, because if you can fucking half way play, people are like, “ooh, you’re a girl, let’s give you a show.” It’s not like that’s the issue anymore. In those ways that ten years ago, these kinds of things were cool because it was creating shows for women. Now it’s become this girl ghetto and has become the last bastion of marginalization — and people feel good about it, they can tell themselves that they are doing girls a favor when they put them on these shows. Because I started having colleges that I’ve worked with, that Sarge played over the years, that I know people at, I’m [telling them], “I want to find a show to do this year,” trying to find a show that works, and dates don’t match, nothing comes through, and they’re like, “oh, we’re going to put you on this ‘women in rock’ show.” Now it becomes a place to stick all the girl bands they don’t know what to do with.
I hate the term “girl band.” I can’t believe I just used it. I support all the good things that stuff can do for thirteen and fourteen year old girls. I definitely support that, I just think it’s gotten to the point where it’s misguided, and at times, not as well thought through as it should be.
At times, it’s used as a crutch, where we don’t have to be this good, we can be settle for just being this good•
Oh my gosh! Seriously, it’s a vicious cycle where• there’s a whole socialization thing where girls start later but then they’re not very good and they get lots of attention early on for not being very good, and then there’s really no incentive to be any good, and then there’s the whole idea of female role models for girls in music, and I don’t really think for playing guitar• I’m not looking for someone to show me the way to have babies• I’m not sure what about playing guitar that I need a female role model for. There are women who I think are great and I very much admire. Tara Jane O’Neill is so good. But it’s because they’re good guitar players, not because they are women. So, then we are telling girls or girls think that they need female role models, so then we have mostly sub-par female role models they are looking up to. What they are looking at as what they want to get to is not that high in the first place. Not to say Sarge didn’t benefit from that, we definitely benefited from the girl thing. I was always more irritated by it as soon as I started to figure it out. I wanted to be a good guitar player. I’m not a good guitar player•
Oh my gosh, I learned the most bad ass cock rock guitar lick last night. My guitar player taught it to me, and it’s so cool, and I’m doing [it] at our show Friday, and it totally works on the last song on our set that we play. He was laughing so hard, because he was like, “I could never play that. Any guy who got on stage after like 1986 and played that, they would look like such an asshole, but for some reason, it looks so cool when you do it, and it’s totally because you’re a girl.” See, I•ll accept the girl thing when it allows me to do cheesy Eighties guitar licks.
I don’t know why that didn’t affect us, because we certainly got pats on the back very early on when I don’t think we probably deserved them that much. I think it makes guys start to resent girls, because if we have girls getting up there playing when they don’t really know what the fuck they’re doing, it’s not challenging to men to see girls up on stage when they can be like, “oh, you’re great, you did a really good job, your guitar player’s getting a lot better.” We’re not challenging the patriarchy by getting up there and still allowing them to still be our mentors. That’s not challenging anything. That’s staying exactly at the place at what girls are supposed to do. Which is having men teach us how to be better and how to do things. Also, when you do have success, it allows people, sometimes fairly, to say, “well, it’s because they’re girls.” I know that happened with Sarge. I cannot tell you how many men I considered peers say things like, “Did you ever think about the fact [that] Sarge ended up in Rolling Stone and Spin and stuff because you guys are girls?” On one side, it was insulting, because it was intended as a dig, but on the flip side, I was like, “No! How fucking stupid do you think I am? It never occurred to me that any of that had to do with the fact that we’re girls and can get attention easier and blah, blah, blah.” I’m not oblivious.
What prompted you to become vegetarian?
I’ve been trying to ever since I was like thirteen. I’d last anywhere from two days to a week and a half, and then I’d fail, usually for Chinese food. My parents would laugh at me and never take me seriously. A lot of people I knew were vegetarians, and I knew all the health reasons, all the environmental reasons, all the gross yucky things they do to animals reasons, and none of that stuff works unless you get to the point where you are repulsed by animals. Before, I could never get grossed out by meat, but I worked in this really nice restaurant, and I was going through training to be a volunteer at a battered women’s shelter at the same time, and I’d been told when you go through this really intensive three day training that you get really oversensitized to everything. They warned us that our boyfriends would start hating us because we would be yelling at them for any little thing they did, which I definitely did. So I’m going through that and working at this restaurant where they serve all these really nice things. They were serving rabbit at that time, and they served calamari. Every fucking time I went into the kitchen, there would either be someone pulling the tentacles off squid or there would be rabbits on their skeletal frames, but skinned, and by the end of the day, I’d be like, “dude• that’s gross, yuck!” So I stopped. But I eat lots of fake meat, because it staves off any cravings I have. If I start to waver, I look at the road kill on the highway and convince myself that is what people are eating. That makes it seem grosser again.
What•s your favorite TV show about lawyers?
I was a huge Practice devotee for a long time. I love Judging Amy. I’m so busy I don’t get to watch• I’m usually gone in the evenings. When I had times that were free, I watched The Practice, Judging Amy, Family Law, Law & Order• that’s another thing: last night, I got home at like two thirty. I could have gone to bed like a normal person, [but] I stayed up smoking, reading newspapers, drinking until five in the morning, by myself, which is just pathetic, and I watched Matlock, and I had forgotten how good Matlock was. I love the law shows, though. I watch them by myself, because I’m sure any of my friends would hate me because I’m standing up screaming “Objection! Hearsay!” I get so irritated when they don’t make the proper objections. Or when people are doing things that you’d never get away with in court. So I stand up and scream a lot at the TV. It’s interactive. It’s like my football game. Judging Amy is really nice. It’s a good show. I like it. But it’s not so law intensive. I hate Ally McBeal. The first year, I thought it was mildly amusing. At first, she was supposed to be something that a woman could identify with, being neurotic and insecure. And now, she just seems like an annoying twit, where you want to kick her and say, “that’s a great way to make us look.”
For more information: http://www.prairienet.org/sarge/