Interview: Melissa Auf der Maur
Melissa Auf der Maur is no stranger to success — as the bassist for Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, Melissa managed to be a serious part of a very meaningful period in the history of rock music. Since then, she’s released a solo album, Auf der Maur, and made her mark as a multimedia artist and professional photographer. Her latest project, Out of Our Minds, is an ambitious piece of multimedia art — an album, a film, and a comic book — that she says is something that’s been in her mind since before she started playing music professionally. She released the project sans major label, helping Auf der Maur realize that maybe the best way to create exactly what you envision is to do it on your own. The final stop on her tour to support Out of Our Minds will be in New York City at the Highline Ballroom on March 3rd. In the interview she discusses her tour, her project, the industry, and her amazing fans.
Can you tell me about your current tour that’s ending on March 3rd in New York City?
I’m not doing an extensive US tour or anything. I’m pretty much a “Canada and European artist” — I fly comfortably under the radar in the US. Out Of Our Minds was all shot in Vermont, outside of Brattleboro. The filmmaker — my collaborator — had an old cabin they got, a private off the grid [location] where we could crash cars and make trees bleed.
Is it a multimedia show?
There is some projection stuff, and depending on how the venue is set up, I have the film playing before the show. It’s more that it’s a world that can be explored in separate doses: at home on a screen, in a rock club with a crowd, on paper with the comic. It’s the idea of taking one story line and crossing over into all these different forms. It’s basically something that’s really fun to do.
Different collaborations are coming out of it and that’s my absolute favorite part of art. It was a great way to satisfy all my urges to share a story and work with new people and new artists. It’s just kinda the way I grew up, that world. I went to a performing arts school, and I thought if you have a story, you could use a variety of tools to tell it. I was studying photography and art and playing in a band, and DJ-ing and all of those things were equally important and intertwined for me. Then music became this intense, full time, decade-long ride for me. Merging all of them together is what I feel most comfortable [with]. It was confusing to people when I explained how that came together; some people get it. Some people maybe never see the film and never know there’s a comic and I find that exciting, that there are these undiscovered parts.
You’ve stated that you don’t necessarily have the support of the organized music industry on this one. How has that been?
I guess when I was playing in other people’s bands there was a certain limitation. And when I signed with Capitol, because the opportunity came up, I just went with it. I never assumed I’d sign with a major label. Yes, there is a bit of a gross feeling when you merge your heart with a corporate structure. I did have a pretty good experience with them, and liked many of the people there. It was the ultimate opportunity to be released from them, though, and I decided there was no going back. I’d have to reinvent the way I run my affairs.
In that began the strangest learning curve, that I’d always planned on learning, way back when I was an art student in Montreal. That feeling of building something from A to Z alone, and having no one to answer to; quite literally in this. I haven’t even had a manager; I went to the extreme on this end, with no one to answer to. It’s definitely the best thing that would have ever happened to me. If I’d had to explain it along the way, I’d have been caught up with that. I don’t need to be understood, but they definitely weren’t going to support me in that.
Since then, I haven’t really looked for that support. I was offered a deal for this project from Sony, [but] it wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t feel right to get caught in another corporate deal. I didn’t try to get accepted since I left that structure. It’s not like my music is that alternative or avant garde — I don’t know if it’s the music that doesn’t compute with mainstream America, or if there’s no channel. This release has had zero visibility in the US. There are parts of the sound that show I’ve become a better songwriter and musician, so it is something that more people could hold on to.
There’s a lot of fan support for this album — how do you think that’s happened?
It’s really kind of embarrassing how it makes me wanna blush and cry; how supportive the people I see coming out for me on my blog or at a show. They’re not afraid to say what they feel… That is how all the building blocks in my [music career] have happened — from me saying, “Oh my god, you’re my favorite fucking band in the world.” It’s that weird thing where you get what you give, or you give what you get. That’s how I’ve lived my life as a musician. Smashing Pumpkins fans know that I joined that band because I wrote a fan letter; that is enough for a fan to tell me that my album means a lot to them. I think it’s amazing how there is an understanding. No one is trying to be cool, or trying to hide what they feel in this. A lot of people might otherwise be very shy.
Music brought me out of my shy, blushing, redhead self, and that’s what got me out of my shell and that’s what I’m seeing at the shows. They’re probably shy romantics who just want to share with strangers. And the support has been ridiculous and on an intimate level. I’d rather have an incredibly focused, high quality group of people than a half-engaged group. It’s the difference between a one night stand and a long term love, [a] life-long relationship. Sustaining it is hard, though. I don’t have a home studio, I don’t have a label giving me a budget; I’ve decided to go it alone from here on out, and I have a solid group of people who waited five years for this one. I didn’t intend for them to wait five years, but they did. Now it’s just a matter of how I survive and maintain that fluidity from here.
Going into this project, did you know exactly what you wanted it to look like as a completed piece of art?
I knew that I wanted to merge the parts — sort of like how I used to build a photo project. The most concrete thing that I knew was that I wanted to return to that visual side of myself that I had left in Montreal. I knew that I wanted to write music, and, while writing it, hunt for a story, let it reveal itself, and then write the other components.
I was reading lots of books, watching lots of films, feeding myself with lots of inspiration. I spent four months by myself at my grandparent’s house by the freezing cold ocean in New England, just trying to figure out what was this thing that I wanted to create. When I recorded my first album, I had never performed anything live as the lead singer other than my Black Sabbath cover band, Hand of Doom. I felt an obligation to get a deeper part of me out to the people, or else I was acting irresponsibly. I wanted to take my time, I wanted to offer more, and obviously, as we can tell — based on the fact that haven’t stayed in one given position for too long — I want to maximize this life. It’s way too fucking short. I’m never, ever, ever gonna get to do all the stuff I want to do.
We’re talking about a project that’s taken five years. When you put that much heart and soul into something, do you go into sharing it with certain expectations?
I don’t have any expectations, and I definitely don’t make anything for the reason to get something back, obviously. I make it and hope that they can run with it in their own place and way. The music is pretty abstract, so they can have their own meaning.
As I was making all of these things, I liked the fact that I was creating all these different versions — with so people in a dream world, we won’t have the same experience twice. I got excited about the fact that in one month, I went from the WorldCon Sci-Fi fest, to a museum, to a rock club. That was a dream; that I could bring it to three different audiences in three different formats, and it was giving everyone an opportunity to experience it in a different way than anyone else.
On a more esoteric level, the only response I want is for someone to open their symbolic heart, ears, mind, emotions. It’s not so that I can get something back, it’s so that they can get something — whether they like it or not. I’m pretty neutral as far as I don’t need anyone to feel anything in particular. Because I’m not in every blog, I think I’m already being received by the right people. I don’t even think I’m being presented to people who might think, What is this spooky witch shit or artsy shit?
I heard you say in an interview that you “drained every possible capability that I have” — do you feel like this record will be your legacy as an artist?
This will be the 13th year after my father died; in my own life, I have seen one person’s life and what their body of work says after they’re gone. I probably do think about it to a certain extent. I think about so many different “layers” so much of the time, as a musician, as a writer, as a Canadian, as a redhead.
All these angles that I’m hoping I represent, I’m trying to bring all of that equally into the light in the hopes that it resonates with someone. Maybe there is a bass player, or a dreamer, or a shy redhead, and that’s how we come together. My mission in life, based on my dream at 19, was this understanding that music would be one of the main channels to connect with humans and make a feeling of purpose. I think that all we can hope for is to connect with other people while we’re living this very temporary human experience. Love one another and help one another get through this existential crisis. At the end of this day, this artwork, and all of my relationships, all of this is important.
I feel a strong responsibility to be very true. I’m sure I lie to myself as everybody does, but I feel I’ve got to, as best I can, rip away all those layers, especially those that keep you from living your lift to the fullest, and in that lies the purpose of what I want to share with other people. I just want to make sure I do the best I can — and I don’t mean winning and being strong, I mean as an emotional heart filled being, and not wasting a minute.
You asked yourself some terrific questions on your own website and there are two that I’d like you to try to answer; Have you ever felt you’ve faltered in your emotional honesty and artistic integrity on those with the work you’ve done?
No I haven’t faltered; I never do anything for money, to a point of [it being a] major problem. I don’t think I’m self destructive. Honestly, money can not sway me, and that’s a problem for how I’m gonna live as an artist. I have very, very high standards in terms of my personal honesty and truth. I’m going to have to keep doing what I’m doing and blindly jump off a cliff and hope it keeps saving me here and there. Anything that could have been close to a compromise, I was very aware that the challenge of that compromise, [and that] has made me a better person and an artist. I was raised by parents, both having incredibly high standards, who led by example, who did everything they believed in.
How does a woman in the arts age gracefully and remain relevant to the public?
There is a reason that has been on my mind so much. On my first month off, going on to Christmas vacation, I spent most of January relaxing and being home. I read the Patti Smith book Just Kids. For anyone who has ever been 20 looking for the art inside of them, it’s such a universally beautiful book written with such humility and grace. Just this slice of time in her life with Robert Mapplethorpe; just seeing what a great praise she’s getting for this book, seeing her on Jon Stewart. It is amazing and terrifying that there aren’t more women with grey hair talking about their current and relevant artwork. It’s terrifying. She’s an incredible woman to be celebrating right now.
Women are still a minority in the voices of telling the story of being human, whether it’s in writing, or art, or politics, or banking. The reason I’ve asked that question is that I’ve always been at a loss for most role models; most who have influenced me are men, and I’ve always been looking for women. And now I approach my late 30s; there weren’t many in my 20s — where are they going to be in my 40s and 50s? I think that in future generations, by the time a 20-year-old is my age, I think there will be far more strong women being represented. We’re at a transition time, we’re at the beginning of [seeing more] women as really strong role models.