Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

From Man Hater to Past Life Martyred Saints: EMA Talks Music and Breaks Rules

Written by John Melillo
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EMA—Erika M. Anderson—just released her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, in June 2011. On the record, she mixes gentle, pathos-filled folk, ingratiating halos of feedback, electro-aggression (especially on the single “Milkman”), and even hip-hop. In other words, this South Dakotan—now Californian—perfectly embodies this mixed-up, jumbled-up, data-filled, genre-exploding world of ours.

Photos Courtesy of EMA

EMAErika M. Anderson—just released her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, in June 2011.
On the record, she mixes gentle, pathos-filled folk, ingratiating halos of feedback, electro-aggression (especially on the single “Milkman”), and even hip-hop. In other words, this South Dakotan—now Californian—perfectly embodies this mixed-up, jumbled-up, data-filled, genre-exploding world of ours. But, whether through surrealist drug haze, achingly believable lament, or pissed off complaint (cf. “California” as a mix of all three), her lyrics—and the voice that sings them—ultimately value the intuitive and concretely human possibilities within this world of nonplaces and non-people. A performer for many years before creating Past Life Martyred Saints (most notably with her former band Gowns), EMA’s talkative zeal and intelligence belies her self-proclaimed bossiness and toughness. I had the pleasure of speaking with Erika over the phone in July, just before her latest nationwide tour (which brought her to New York and the Pitchfork Music Festival), and we spoke about selling music, growing up in a boyish hardcore scene, breaking the rules, making noise, and the joys in going too far.

John: The album has been very successful. Congrats on your success. Nowadays success is measured more in terms of people having artistic success. Critical acclaim is more important than monetary acclaim. Although, of course, money would be nice. I wondered, what do you think about the music industry as it is today—blogs, etc.? It's a very different world than ever before.

EMA: I think something that's happened in the last ten years or so is that we've moved from a monetary-based model to an attention based model. There was at one point in time this idea that you could join a successful band and make lots of money. And we're moving away from that kind of thing and towards something that's about attention, which can be good and bad, you know; the same technology that is kind of dismantling things also made it possible for someone like me—who didn't really have resources or connections—to be able to make my own record and pursue a vision and go for it.

John: It also seems like playing live has become more important. Now you're in a model where it's like you're in infinite tour mode.

EMA: Oh my god, which is hard! It’s a hard thing, touring. We haven't made a ton of money or anything with it yet. I'm just hoping at some point it can be sustainable.

John: Do you like touring?

EMA: Have you ever been on tour? Touring can make people pretty insane. It's pretty. .  . there's no perfect job. I'm not gonna sit and bitch about one thing or another, but it can be pretty rough, and it can take years off your life! That's terrible to say. I could develop healthier habits, but it's HARD, you know. Like, “Okay, this time I'm gonna really try to eat healthy. I'm not gonna drink whiskey every night. I’m gonna try to get sleep.” That lasts for three days. And then you're like, “Fuuccck, Taco Bell's not gonna be sooo bad [ha-ha].”

John: Ah, the easy way . . . [ha-ha]. How long have you been playing music? When was your first band?

EMA: The first time I ever played a show was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was funny. It was like this weird, slightly riot grrrl based, avant-punk thing that really had no other analog in that scene at all. It's really funny because I don't know where I got these ideas, and I look back at things I was doing at that time, and they are so similar to what I'm doing now, and it's bizarre! I don't know where I would get these ideas, but I would be like, “Okay why don't you guys play this.” I didn't even have the vocabulary for, "Okay just drone," or the vocabulary for improv. I was just like, “You just kind of play this type of thing, and I'm gonna read this weird-ass poetry over it, and then we'll break into a punk song!” It was almost identical to my aesthetic today.

John: Was it just you and other women? How old were you?

EMA: I was like sixteen. Okay this kind of takes a second to explain. So there were basically no girls that fronted any bands in my hometown. There was this scene. It was mostly hardcore emo boys, which are fine. They are cute or whatever. But there were no girls who even really played. There was like one girl who drummed in a couple bands. But basically that was it. So my friend Eric, who was kind of queer and a little weird, said, “I want to start this fake riot grrrl band,” and I was like “Okay!” We kind of knew what riot grrrl was, but it had been filtered through [media]. We weren't part of a major scene or anything. We had Bikini Kill CDs and stuff. But we kind of wanted to make this slow sort of bizarre music. So we wound up in this band called Man Hater [ha-ha]. I never want to tell people this story, because it's such a weird thing to explain. Now it took me forever to explain why that seemed like a good idea there.

John: You were pushing against the boyishness of the scene in a way?

EMA: It's almost as if, [if] you were gonna embrace any of this you might as well take the name that people were going to call you anyway. You know what I mean? It's like Pansy Division or something. It’s like, “Okay people are going to call us fags, so let's be fucking as gay as possible!” And that's kind of how I felt about it in that town.

John: That seems pretty punk rock to me!

EMA: It's funny because I'm a bit embarrassed about it now. So I got in a band. And no one could really play, and I'm kind of bossy, so I kind of took the band over.

John: I read somewhere else where you called yourself a “control freak.” Do you like being in charge?

EMA: I'm a control freak as far as recording goes. I'm not supernuts on telling people how or what to play. In a live setting I’m not so much a "control freak" but . . . I don't know! But if there’s a group of people I’m in I tend to go to the leadership position, you know. Maybe it's just because I’m tall [ha-ha].

John: Where did you/do you see yourself fitting in community-wise—with that band and then your former band Gowns and now with EMA? You were talking about being in a hardcore, emo scene in Sioux Falls. How did you feel playing music that's not at all your typical punk rock or hardcore but within a scene that's predominantly that straight-ahead kind of music? And now, where do you fit in relationship to noise, folk, even poetry . . .

EMA: It's true . . . well, I feel like I've had the same voice since I was fourteen in punk bands or whatever, but I also can be kind of reactionary. That first band was about taking whatever was there and saying, “Let's do something different. Let's change it up.” So, that's a good question . . . I can't isolate myself, but I will do that sometimes, but that's just kind of how my personality works. This is the thing. The situation I grew up with in Sioux Falls made me really tough. Fucking tough. There were all these boys who ran the scene. For me to be taken as a peer and to be taken as an equal, I had to be tough and extreme in everything. So that first band was like, I'm not gonna bother trying to make a hardcore band—because that's not what I'm gonna be good at. And I don't really care anyway. I wanted to make something completely different. Even now I go back and visit these boys, and I love them, but I still feel like I gotta be extra fuckin' . . .  just . . . tough to even hang, you know?

John: Tough in a way that's not "I'm more badass than you are," but tough in a completely different kind of way?

EMA: Or you know like, “I’m gonna come up with such an original idea. I don't give a fuck. You can't touch it!” Because it's not even about trying to play in their field; it’s about redefining it completely.

John: And so, now? How do you feel now that you have more success, and you're obviously playing around in more and more different places and situations? How do you feel about this same question of your difference in relation to all these scenes?

EMA: So, on the first tour that Ezra and I did together as Gowns (just a two-piece, then), we had been asked to go on this tour with some total homemade-synthesizer-building noise peeps that are friends of his, and I didn't really understand that scene so much. But the first show we played out of town was a show in Oakland, and it was set up by people in the noise community there—which I hadn’t had any contact with. That can be an intimidating scene. Everyone was dressed to the nines when we got there. And everyone was expecting Ezra to play a complete noise set either using his dad's synthesizers or some kind of max patch or electronics. What they got instead is some insane girl singing fucked up folky lyrics and drug-rant songs, you know, and Ezra singing as well. We were almost booed at the show. We were hissed at. People were mad! We made the whole room angry. I could feel it. It was a big room. It was a lecture hall or something. And it just made the whole room . . . MAD. And I didn't really understand at the time why that was, and I can only now kind of look back and see why people were almost mad. On the one hand I felt totally embraced by all these people who were like, you know, like open-minded and into it. They were like, wow this is great, this is cool. On the other hand, there were others . . . something I symbolized was threatening to them.

John: Did you like pissing off the room?

EMA: At the time I felt really scared! It also made me realize what kind of power I could have as a performer, because it just could have been another boring show without any reactions happening. It made me realize that I could be a real conduit for energy in the room. Whatever I had as a performer I could definitely take things and amplify them. At the time I felt really crazy. I was like, “Oh my god, I don't even know these people and everyone seems so cool and well-dressed, and I don't even understand this scene.” It was kind of like a costume noise scene that was going on, and I was like, "What the fuck?" and it also made me feel like, "Wow, okay, I really should figure out how to be a mirror for positive energy and not a mirror for defensiveness.”

John: That reminds of something Kim Gordon said a long time ago: People pay to see people believe in themselves. It’s awesome to see you be brave on stage in relation to those preconceptions. You're both inside and outside in that situation, and that can be really powerful.

EMA: Yeah, and it's given me a lot of empathy, too. You just realize that you have preconceived ideas of rules, and you don't even know that they’re there until someone comes up and breaks them. It's happening to me all the time. I had this thing where I had this rule that I couldn't use a loop station during a set. And then I see people doing it, and doing it quite well, and I'm like, maybe that wasn't a good rule to use. You're always going to see someone do something that will break that preconceived rule. That's also what I always try to think about for myself. That can really spur you to do new things. Like, “Oh man I really like this hip-hop song. I want to cover that. Oh, but I can't, but why can't I? Let's talk about it. There are reasons. Can I steal something from it? Can I do this or do that? What's the reason? What's holding me back?”

John: Speaking of a hip-hop song, I read you were trying to do a cover of “Monster.” Was that a joke?

EMA: Well I said I was going to. I said I wanted to, but everyone was like, “No you can't do that.” But I KNOW IT! I know the WHOLE SONG! It would be great! Some rules are real. But I don't want to give up the stage to them. I want to figure out what they are. As far as rules in my own music, after Gowns I wanted to marry the idea of folk and noise. I wanted to use songs that were based on American traditional music and deconstruct them, and so that's where "Kind Heart" came from. Let's take this song that’s pretty representative of the history of rock ’n’ roll and make it seventeen minutes long and put feedback over the whole thing. Let's think about what folk music is now that everybody makes music on the computer. Let's think about technology. Let's think about genre, structure, electronics, the guitar’s role in all this . . . So I made this record. I definitely felt like it wasn't going to be received by the experimental noise scene because there's too much singing and harmonies and melodies. It's pretty. And then on the other side, I doubt any folk people are gonna put out a song that's seventeen minutes long . . . I just felt like there were rules within these scenes and genres didn't have to apply to me.

John: In listening to the record, I felt like in some ways the noise is somehow more “noisy” because there's a sung melody that contrasts with it. I noticed in looking at the reviews that everyone's talking about “noise” in the record. What is noise to you? It's a weird word to use as a genre in the first place, right?

EMA: Yeah, I know! That's the thing! When I talk about "oh noise" or whatever I use it as almost a slang term. As just like this community that I used to play with . . . The fact that I would be the person to ever define noise would be probably—some people would find that OUTRAGEOUS.

John: But I think you have just as much right as anyone deeply within that scene. I’m curious to hear your opinion or definition or whatever you want to say about it.

EMA: I think it's a term that could be applied to an experimental music community that's trying to do things outside of your typical song structures and rhythmic structures. So that could be a community of people doing analog or electronic or all sorts of things with sound. But I wonder if it’s even a relevant distinction anymore. Some people say, "Noise is this or noise is that." Is it something that has its own definition or is it something that's defined by what it is not? For me, I just don't even see a need to define it. It wasn't like I wanted to make a record that was "half noise and half this," but it's actually just in my sonic vocabulary. I just like these sounds. I think it’s a past tense word a little bit. I don't think it needs to be there anymore. I don't know if it's just past tense for me because I've taken a lot from it, and now I'm moving on from what I feel are constraints of the genre, or if it's culturally also a past tense word.

John: On the exact opposite side of things, in songs like “Anteroom” and “Coda” and even in “Breakfast,” I’m interested in how complicated the vocal textures are. What vocalists or vocal harmonists sort of inspired you in that sort of world of sound? Because they are eerie, in a way.

EMA: The first thing I did when I got my first four track was sit and double my voice with weird harmonies. That's another thing that’s just instinctual. It sounds cool. I would hesitate to make any generalizations about a feminine aesthetic or anything, but I DO think that when they are recording women love to double their voice to make harmonies. Sometimes noise dudes can be like, "We don't have a show. These are the parameters of the experiment. All there is is sound.”

That's not true for everything of course, but there is that experimental thing. What was getting me in trouble were the vocals. To me, setting up the parameters of the machine and listening to those parameters . . . I don’t want to say that is masculine and voice is feminine but . . . 

John: It is true though that you definitely see more men behind the laptop and electronics and working in these hyper-experimental veins . . .

EMA: That’s true, but it also becomes about what my max patch does and how I'm going to granulate this frequency, take it, reverse it, do it backwards . . .  It's a process. It's a formula. It's a formula that reads A to B. You put this input in, and you see all the things that happen to it, and it's kind of like they all sound the same anyways, so I don't know!

John: But in a way, in thinking about your voice and its texture, you’re mixing these paradigms. The first thing you did was create vocal harmonies. Typically we associate the voice with meaning, and that's what people seem to push against in the noise scene. “Oh I don't want to be associated with meaning and emotion. I just want the mathematical formula.”

EMA: Or, it’s just like, “I should be concentrating on the sound. Only.”

John: No interpretation or anything. Interestingly, by singing and voicing you already bring in meaning or interpretation.

EMA: You bring in a human element. You bring in an element that is not completely controlled, some chaos. You’re sticking your finger in the petri dish or something. I mean there's plenty of noise that's really as well performative. More of a performance art type of thing. Very aesthetically pleasing as far as visual stuff goes. I don't want to generalize too much.

John: But also, this reflects on lyrics. Your lyrics—and I don't want to make huge generalizations—seem to have a confessional tone. So, on one hand, there is this toughness that you portray in the music and in your persona. But there’s also all this raw intimacy. What do you make of that divide between toughness and lyrical confession?

EMA: Well, the other thing that’s happening in the lyrics that is harder to figure out if you don't necessarily know me, there's almost this level of, you know, going one step too far. There’s almost some humor in being so outlandish and so outrageous. If you don't realize it's there you maybe would read the record as being kind of insanely melodramatic and insanely personal, which on one level it is. But, for example, in something like “Butterfly Knife,” it’s not supposed to be read as a straightforward diary entry confession. It's about teen Goth murderers; it's about a lot of things. In the way that it’s delivered, it should tip you off as kind of . . . funny, you know. But I don't know if funny is the right word. Half the reason some of the best stand-up comics are funny is because they are saying really true, really fucked-up stuff.

John: You take on a persona?

EMA: It's me, but I'm taking it a step overboard. Turning “Marked” into a 60s girl group song to reference the real pathetic-ness of some of those lyrics from the 60s.

John: Like "He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss."

EMA: Yeah, you know, all these Phil Spector-produced things. Horrible murderer Phil Spector. In the song, I’m taking it one step too far, which in some way maybe makes it seem more revealing. That actually is another way to kind of put it out there with swagger. I'm still figuring it out for myself. A lot of people are asking about the lyrics, and I'm still trying to figure out what my intentions are. It’s like the rules-thing again. I'll write the lyrics and then I'll be like, I can't say that. Especially when I first did “Butterfly Knife” long ago I thought I couldn’t say these things, and then I asked myself why I couldn’t. I feel like even lyrically I'm trying to push up against the boundary of what's okay to say, what's not okay to say, what's awkward. But also, too, in comparison to a lot of lyrics they are not actually worded that extremely. If you listen to Rihanna and Eminem with “Love the Way You Lie,” there's something about the way they are delivered or something that it does really hit a nerve. Those are extreme emotions, but there's a delivery that we're used to that takes away the shock value from these really extreme things that are in pop songs all the time!

John: More palatable with a beautiful melody and production?

EMA: Or else people just don't believe it. It’s “just a song.” That’s what’s noise to me, now; it's
music that I can't even hear because it sounds so bland. I love listening to everything on the radio, but at times I'll listen to stuff, and I'll be like, “I can't hear this. I can't penetrate this.” And that’s my new definition of noise: something so fucking boring that I can't even hear it. But for some reason, my songs are in this murky territory—which I think is cool—where people are like, "She's not fucking lying."

John: What do you think about belief? How do you hope people will believe in you?

EMA: I don't know. That's something I ask myself when I hear something new. Not just for me. When I am perceiving something for the first time, the question I ask myself is: do I believe in this? And that's how I tell if I like something or if I just think it's valid. For me, as far as being honest and everything, a lot of the stuff that I have been doing so far has been intrinsically motivated. If I’m not making something that A). I love and B). is important to me, then I don't have much of a motivation for doing it.

John: If you're not believing in it yourself, then why do it at all.

EMA: Yeah.

John: Are there any particular bands, performers, people who you’ve been struck by recently in this way?

EMA: To be honest, I listen to everything, and I just soak up like a sponge whatever is around me. And to me it's not like what I'm listening to, it's how I'm listening. So I've been listening to mixes. I'm listening to drum sounds, and I'm like, "What's this drum sound about?" I'll just listen to the radio—a hard rock station, country station, hip-hop station—and I’ll ask myself what is this actually sounding like. That's interesting to me.

John: I love the idea of listening strategically, where you're listening to one particular thing. Because that's the space you're in. You're listening for sounds and what people are doing with sounds.

EMA: Which is funny because I was just talking about the human element. To me, I don't care what people listen to. I'm more interested in HOW they listen and opening people's ears. I want to make them realize they understand a lot about music even if they don't think they do.

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