Interview: Melissa Auf der Maur

This interview was originally published in Issue #15, December 2010.

I can quote Melissa Auf der Maur’s career off the top of my head. That’s because the Montreal native is one of the few artists whose work I have listened to since the dawn of my interest in music. I’ve saved up pocket money to buy her releases; I’ve worn her t-shirts; I’ve watched videos she’s appeared in on repeat and I’ve made up daft ‘what if’ scenarios about her with my friends. You walk into a room to find Billy Corgan, Grant Nicholas and Melissa Auf der Maur having an argument. Who do you shove, hug and scream at? For the record, we always hugged Melissa.

With all of the above in mind, you’d think writing an introduction to my interview with her would be the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s not, it’s the hardest. How can I put something and someone so significant into a measly few paragraphs? I could write page after page on how much this interview means to me, how much it should mean to you, how amazing the artist in question is... None of it would do Melissa justice enough. This is going to have to do:

Melissa was raised by freelance parents to believe in the liberality of the arts; in young adulthood she studied photography at Montreal’s F.A.C.E., and by the time she was 20 she was a regular pen pal of Billy Corgan. She first played in Montreal band Tinker, but in 1994 was recruited as Hole’s bassist following the death of founding member Kristen Pfaff. Courtney Love et al eventually called it a day in 1999 following their third studio album Celebrity Skin... and Melissa joined The Smashing Pumpkins on their yearlong farewell tour, in place of original bassist D’arcy Wrestky.

As if performing in two of the biggest acts of the 1990’s wasn’t enough, in 2002 she released her solo debut Auf der Maur to great critical success. While both Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins have gone on to reform without her, Melissa continues to release music under her own name, and in April of this year, following a five year pregnancy, she gave birth to the most colossal project of her career...

Out Of Our Minds incorporates three variations of art into one concept, and is the result of some life and career changing decisions. I, Tiffany Daniels, was fortunate enough to talk to the star preceding her November 2010 gig at Bristol’s Fleece. These are the results:

Is this the first time you’ve played Bristol?

I think so! I mean unless I played here when I was a child with Hole, I don’t remember having played here. I’ve certainly never played here [as a solo artist].

How long have you been away from Europe?

This is my first extensive tour in a very, very long time – for five years - but I’ve been to Europe five times this year since the release of [Out Of Our Minds] in the spring. [I was going to play] one show in London, but it was interrupted by the volcano [...] and got cancelled. I showed my film at the ICA [...] and I did a bunch of European festivals, but this is the first extensive, and the only extensive Out Of Our Minds tour of the year. Seventeen countries in seven weeks...

Which country are you looking forward to the most?

Chezc Republic and Poland are both places I haven’t been. Also the tour was going to end in Paris, but now we’ve added a date in Istanbul in Turkey, so I’m very excited about that.

Where are you playing in Poland?

Warsaw and Wroclaw...

They have a Leonard Cohen festival in Krakow, it’s quite big apparently.

Oh yeah, really? Leonard’s a family friend who’s also from Montreal. I grew up around the corner from him!

Why did it take you so long to record Out Of Our Minds?

Well not really, the recording wasn’t what took the time. It was all of the other elements that go around making a record. From deciding that this record would have more multiple dimensions to it [with] the fantasy film and comic book; then once I decided to go all out and make a world and not just an album [...] I also decided because I had self-financed, self-funded and self-produced everything [...] I should become my own label and manager. So during the process of all of this I also left all of my managers, agents, record labels, started over and that took a couple of years in itself.

What made you decide to do that?

Well, for many, many reasons, but ultimately for the same reason that I decided to make a fantasy film and work with a visual-conceptual part to the album. I wanted to get back to my routes as an artist.

When I began in art school in Montreal I was an independent artist playing in a band; I then was high jacked very surprisingly and amazingly by music for a decade, and I worked in that old system of big corporations, and very specific scheduling and marketing. When I got off my year tour for my first album that was actually a completion of my ten year cycle through Hole, the Pumpkins and my first album. That was exactly ten years. I came out and I knew I needed a change; I just needed to get back to where I came from, which is visual, conceptual and musical all together.

Basically the industry was rapidly changing, technology was expanding, I realised that there were all these extra tools that I could now use – any artist could use to be more independent and less dependent on third parties. It was obvious that I should do it, but it was also part of creative purifying – purifying the entire landscape and starting from ground up. In fact I always felt quite odd in that structure.

You mentioned Leonard Cohen; Montreal is the home of independent, free minded artists. Both of my parents were freelancers, I never had a corporation near me [growing up], and for all of those years being involved with organisations so heavily attached to massive corporations, I never felt right. Where I come from, I never dreamed of being on a line with huge, mega-global corporations! It was never my plan.

That, and then also on a philosophical and spiritual note I felt that if I’m putting all of my blood, tears, heart into my work, who more to trust than myself to be the messenger to bring it to people? If you put all of yourself into something and then you hand it over to an organisation that is possibly very corrupt, you’ve not taken responsibility for it and it almost feels corrupt in itself. I felt like [I’d gone through] a decade of me not really knowing what was happening – I never knew how a royalty cheque got to my bank account, I didn’t know anything. I was living in creative la-la land, in a fantasy, and I realised, “Well, probably to survive and for fundamental, simple, growing up reasons I should figure out how to do this myself, and then I can rely on myself to get it done and I’m responsible to make sure it gets to people in the right form!

[The record] has totally changed all of this; it’s been more work than I could have ever imagined, but it has completely and thoroughly changed the way that I feel when I get onto the stage and play music. It’s completely different [...] Now that I have the film and a larger role to be able to invite listeners and viewers into a richer, bigger world than just an album. That has made me more fulfilled and more essentially confident with the work that I’m putting out.

On the other side, being a completely independent, free willed person who’s taken responsibility... Most of the people who have come tonight and the people who came last night in London have found [my music through] my blog, and my sharing and inviting them, not [through] a third party. I know for a fact that I work a lot harder than the few other parties I have, and that just feels so satisfying, so incredible to know that it went directly from me to them. All of that was why it took me so long! [Laughs]

Did you produce it yourself, then?

I had two co-producers for two different chapters of the record, because I did make it over the course of a couple of years. I worked with Chris Goss for a portion of the record, and he’s the producer I worked with for my first record [Auf der Maur], and the other [producer] was Jordan Zadorozny who was a guitar player in my first band [Tinker] that I had in Montreal before I ever joined Hole. So he’s a long time collaborator, he has a little studio in a small town in Canada. I originally went there to record the demos for the record and they actually ended up being used. So I had two collaborators on the production element and then lots of musicians that collaborated.

Considering how many musicians collaborated with you for the record, do you think of yourself a solo artist?

I think rock music is never solo – you know Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, or Cat Power, they’re solo [artists]. I’m definitely a lone wolf in my project, but I thrive on collaboration. I’m always going to collaborate with someone, whether it’s a guitar player, an engineer or a mixer. I guess it is a solo project. I don’t know! [...] I know that when I stopped working in a band and decided to go solo, it meant for me the freedom to collaborate with anyone. It’s the freedom to be in seventeen different bands and not just one. More than anything else solo means freedom.

You were saying that the album’s in two chapters. Did you do that conceptually?

Actually there are a few reasons there are two chapters: geographically, because I know people in the North East, near Montreal and New York, and around Canada, and then some in California. Then also, the record was split because the first half was made while I was still with Capitol Records, and then in the middle of making the record everyone at Capitol was fired within one day. That basically broke the record in the middle because a year legal debate between their lawyers and my lawyers [followed] about who would own what I had made up [until] then. That was a weird natural chapter break.

I took a break and that’s when I made the fantasy film, so it worked out perfectly. I took a year off, and thank God I had just met the director, Tony Stone, that I wanted to work with, so we just dove into the film for a year. By the time I came out of that I was completely refreshed on a creative level, and it became really easy for me to finish the record.

That was the year I embraced the freedom I was speaking about. I thought, “Well actually if I don’t need a label now, why do I need a manager?” I started from scratch while making the crazy fantasy film. It really helped the ending of the record.

I haven’t actually seen the film, but by the looks of it there’s quite a focus on destruction and Vikings!

[Laughs] I wouldn’t say destruction, but mythology and the Viking part yes, and time travel is a theme. The trees bleeding are obviously a surrealist metaphor for something, I mean it’s not violence or destruction, but...

Basically it’s three parallel worlds in the same woods, via time travel, and the female character that I play gets into a collision that brings her into these other worlds in the same woods. I guess there is a little collision between past and present, and two sides, because the entire project is based on the two sides of the mind and the heart. The title track of the record and the lyrics of the chorus, “Travel out of our minds, into our hearts standing by, our hearts have been standing by for so long,” is the mission statement of the whole project. The film is in an invitation to assess the two sides, while is essentially the masculine and feminine, the physical and spiritual. Naturally when you have two sides, they will collide. I guess the collision between the axe and the tree, the Vikings and the witch, or the two cars show the collision and friction of two sides.

Do you use that theme across all three projects?

Yeah, so the comic is just a mirror of the film with a couple of little twists.

Did you know you were going to make so many artistic variations of Out Of Our Minds when you began writing the songs?

Yeah, when I started writing the songs I started hunting for what would be the title track and the themes. Through song writing I was digging and looking for the story, and then when I wrote “Out Of Our Minds” the song, that’s when all of the themes started to come out.

When you went solo, did you see it as necessary, or a development?

Definitely! It’s still a working development; this is only my second record. Every show I’m playing, even on this tour, is pushing me further into this exploration of being a solo artist and being a performer and song-writer and singer.

It was necessary in the sense that I think life is too short to think twice, and I felt maxed out being a bass player in a supportive role to another person’s vision. I absolutely loved doing and love to do it; it was phenomenal training on every level, but I recognised that I had gotten to the best place I could be within that [role]. I could have continued, I was getting offers all the time to play bass in other people’s bands, but it wasn’t going to push me enough to expand as a person. All of the things I’ve experienced trying to carve my way as an artist independently have totally changed me as a person. If I’d just stayed a bass player I think I would have limited my personal growth...

...So you wouldn’t be a bass player in a band again?

No, there’s no reason to at this point. Like I said, in my solo project I can be in seventeen bands at once. But I will say that being a bass player in someone else’s band is actually like a vacation, so it would an interesting little holiday! [Laughs] But I have no real interest – life is too short so it would sort of be a waste of time if I just decided to take a vacation and kick back to play other people’s songs.

However, in the past year especially with all of the massive responsibilities of taking on [...] this project, I have thought that it would be interesting to make a record with other people, maybe four from different projects. I hadn’t even thought of it until sometime this year, a journalist asked me whether I was ever going to be in a super group. That never would have occurred to me conceptually [...] but then I thought about it and I’m like, “Wow, but wait. If there were four of us that were just sick of making our own music, and we wanted to just go into the studio...” That would be amazing! It would be so interesting to just be given four weeks, a studio and four people, and make a record that’s not mine or theirs. That would be very interesting. Anything that allows me to collaborate with people.

Who would you have in mind?

I don’t know, there’s such a long list! Especially in this last year I’ve found so many new bands: Mastodon, Late of the Pier, Fever Ray... There are so many great new records of the past few years that I’m very excited [about], because I think I’m discovering new potential collaborators. It’s great to find a new wave of inspiration.

What do you have planned for 2011?

We get done on this tour just before Christmas, and I’ll dive into the winter, which is in fact the way that I started Out Of Our Minds. In January, February, March I was just sleeping, eating, reading and writing! I need to regain strength, information and inspiration. Mainly I want to just stay really open to future ways of making music projects based around other mediums and collaborations. I think that Out Of Our Minds has established and created a foundation where I’ve collaborated with film, illustrators, web, multi-media music... This time all of those came from a song, but maybe next time it will be a film or story turning into an album, I don’t know, but I’m very excited to see how I can expand.


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