The Bassist of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins Talks Following Her Artistic Survival Instinct
On a frigid night in January I squeezed through the packed crowd at Joe’s Pub to find my seat in front of the stage at Women of Letters, an Australian salon that has recently launched a New York wing of their production.
The evening’s lineup of lady geniuses from across the spectrum and included the legendary Melissa Auf der Maur, musician, filmmaker and former bass player of Smashing Pumpkins and Hole.
Women of Letters celebrates strong female role models and the lost art of letter writing, and all proceeds are donated to charity. Readers write letters to a specific theme, a different theme for each performance. The theme on this particular evening was Letter to My Stumbling Block.
Melissa Auf der Maur gracefully approached the microphone, and, shuffling her papers, mused that she wrote her piece on the train from Hudson to New York, and printed it upstairs at the club. Auf der Maur tells us of her childhood living with a Jane Goodall type who studied chimpanzees, and her mother whom she deems “a pioneer of her generation” and part of “the wave of real-deal feminism.”
Melissa found some time the following day to tell us about how she got involved with the powerhouse women in the Women of Letters orbit, and how her feminism—and her stumbling block—play out in her personal and artistic lives.
She Shreds: Jumping off from last night, which I totally loved: I was really impressed with your somewhat spur-of-the-moment piece that you shared. Do you write regularly?
Melissa Auf der Maur: I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 8, so, definitely a regular personal writing person. Although, the last 3 years of my life, between motherhood and [being an] art factory den mother… [there’s] no time for personal writing. Occasionally I’ll write a letter to my future daughter, [for] when she’s grown up, giving her some insights on what’s happening in her development and her baby years. I’ve been a pretty avid documenter of inner workings and feelings, and remembering. You know, just obsessively wanting to document the key points in life, what makes a person who they are. But regular personal writing is in my instincts, yes.
SS: How did you get involved with Women of Letters?
MAdM: My friend, a powerhouse woman [named] Amanda Palmer, invited me to participate in LA two years ago. She suggested to the Australian ladies [co-curators Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire] that I be brought on as a last minute guest. It was at a good rock club there called The Echo in Echo Park, which I’ve been to many times. I loved the format of total raw intimacy and women speaking personal things within a rock club context. It really made an impact and I was really impressed and refreshed by it. So then they asked me to participate at Joe’s Pub, which is a totally great venue for this kind of thing, and I was looking for a good reason to get on the train and reconnect with the New York City dialogue. It was a really great way to step back into a really fascinating dialogue with these amazing women of such different minds. I’m always so impressed by how Women of Letters gets such a diverse group of women together. It’s really cool.
You had mentioned in your piece, that your “stumbling block” (the theme of the night) may be that you push yourself to do too much. I was just wondering if you could elaborate on that thought, knowing that you’re directing this experimental music venue, you’re also a Mom and you’re an artist and a musician.
For someone who has very high expectations about my time on this planet, I want to do a lot and I want to be able to fulfill my artistic dreams, my community and human love dreams, my everything dreams. This is the point in life, where, in my first few years as a mother and especially going into my forties, I need to learn how to do less, to be able to do all those things well. The sacrifice really needs to be embraced–when you put your heart and body and all of you into a child, you will have to carve out room and change the way you do life. And that’s the painful transition I’m in. It’s honorable and I’m totally into it, it’s just that it doesn’t come naturally.
I’ve been a free-flowing independent person free of really any obligations my entire adult life until I became a mother. And it’s actually something I’m excited to do, it’s just not easy to do. It’s not like intellectually someone could have told me three years ago when River was born, “you’re going to have to learn to change your entire day-to-day existence.” I’d be like, yeah, of course, I know, I have a human in my life now, but, it’s deep internal emotional creative workings that have to be changed too, and that’s lifetimes of work, probably. I’m learning it by being burnt out.
Whereas there are women out there that use the opportunity of motherhood to stop doing other things, I didn’t stop, per se, I was able to stop playing music but placed [that energy] in a community music and arts venue. I didn’t even realize what I was doing, which was, well, if I can’t go on tour with a newborn, I need to be able to bring arts and culture to me. If I can’t go around the world, I’m gonna have to bring the world to my small town, and that’s what I started to do, based on just an artistic survival instinct. But within that I didn’t realize that I just had placed all of this intensive work on something that looked like motherhood. A selflessness. I haven’t made any time for me as an artist, I have made time for something that will better the community and the world, and for my daughter to have a better world to live in. And that’s also a full-time job and I had no fuckin’ idea that it would be really hard to do.
Now your focus is on Basilica, and that seems like such a natural progression. You went from having your hands in all of these different creative endeavors to now, hosting a space for other people to have their hands in all of these things.
One thing that’s more general to the 21st century, which is obviously a very unique and fast-changing time of technology and industries. Someone sent me a link recently—a person who knows me very well in the past few years of this professional transformation—an article that was called, “The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.” I’m like, “ooh, this is just what’s happening to everybody. It’s one thing when you’re in a band and you have to learn how to self-promote, it’s another thing when you have to be able to write grants, promote everything from a rock show to like, a teen theatre workshop, to a food festival, to… I mean, what the hell? It’s a new industry for me, I tell you that.
How did you and Tony [Stone] get involved with Brandon Stosuy and Brian Deran to establish Basilica Soundscape?
When we first got the space, a mutual friend of ours who works in the art world in New York City—Brian Duran—was visiting us. We showed him the space and said, “Isn’t this great for a music festival?” He was like, “yes” and introduced us to Brian [DeGraw, keyboardist of Gang Gang Dance, who he managed at the time]. Our first instinct was talking to a band that we know would fit with the space, so Brian DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance has participated in almost every event we’ve ever had there as either a visual artist or DJ. Brian DeGraw and Brian Duran started at the beginning with us.
After our first year, Brian Duran met Brandon (Stosuy) and started seeing some of the events that Brandon was curating in the city at [MoMA] PS1 and various rock clubs in Brooklyn and he found a fit. I call Brandon—he’s the Senior Editor at Pitchfork—I call him the Art and Art-Noise-Metal Editor there. Everything cool at Pitchfork comes from Brandon. So Brian really started to understand the kind of music that we love and the kind of conceptual-art-noise stuff we wanted to have at Basilica [and] introduced us to Brandon, and Brandon is just like, literally, a saint from planet Pitchfork. He’s got insane amounts of talent.
Everyone’s in it For. The. Love. Of. Fucking. Music. And. That. Is. It. It’s a nonprofit on every level, everyone just wants to build a dream of something that’s just for music and art, and that’s what so beautiful [about] Soundscape, down to the technical road crew, to the artists, to the organizers, to the concert-goers. Everybody is there just to believe that art and music can be purely experienced and shared without corporate sponsorship, without a dollar sign. It’s as affordable and as exciting as it can be, in our minds.
How has Soundscape changed over the years and what are you looking forward to for this year’s festival?
Well this is the month where we’re really beginning to reach out to some key acts or bands to curate around, so I have nothing to announce of this moment. But last year was our most accomplished one, it was sold out. It was totally everything we dreamed it could be, so I just hope we can achieve that again. New York City people fuckin’ camped. 200 people camping in the campground near Basilica, this is like our dream that the people who come, come to emerge themselves in the full experience. You take the train, you walk up, you pitch your tent in the nearby campground, and you’re there for a full weekend of nature and industrial church experience.
Totally. Let’s switch gears for a moment. What musical artists are you most excited about right now?
Well, last night right after Women of Letters I ran to Mercury Lounge to see Savages, I definitely like their new songs. It’s just a band I’m excited about as far as women making landscape-y, soundscape-y music; I really like the rhythm section in that band. I then had a chance to meet and hang out with Sleater-Kinney in the same night, and they have a new record out that I’m really interested in hearing.
There’s a really sweet band compiled of 2 sisters in England called 2:54. They supported me on my last tour of the UK, on Out of Our Minds, and I really connect with them. They’re one of the few bands that I would bend over backwards to produce or write with, or collaborate with in any way, they’re really special and they have a new record coming out this winter I think. Again, women who are playing with either complex rhythms and melodies or landscape-sounding music, I’m really excited about a new wave of women who really hone into the sound of music.
What would you tell yourself when you were just starting out, if you could?
Just follow what you feel. That is it.
That’s perfect. What can we expect from you in the future?
More me and Basilica, my love affair with this big old factory, creating experiences for people to see and hear. I have a little art project up my sleeve, that I hope to dig into this year involving my ancient 35mm photography archives. Let’s hope I can make time for it! Then, one day, find the timeframe to play distorted bass with amazing drummers.