In May of 2010 I got to interview Melissa Auf der Maur, bass player with both the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, about her solo career, her former bands, vikings, volcanoes, wizards, witches and women in rock.
Here’s my interview in full.
The plan was to meet Auf Der Maur in Oslo, as she was going to do a concert at the club Mono. But then the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, and she was stuck in a hotel room in Helsinki. The good news? She had some time to spare. You can also check out the Norwegian version of the interview, which was published at Dn.no.
ØH: I guess you see the irony of being caught in Finland by a volcano, when you play music inspired by the vikings?
MAdM: It’s incredible. And I don’t know how involved you are in the rock culture, but do you know Type O Negative?
MAdM: Peter Steele of Type O Negative is part Icelandic, and entirely a warrior/viking and mythological creature. He died at the time of the eruption. And I saw a picture of the smoke cloud, and it was the shape of a skeleton. I played a Type O Negative tribute on my show in Helsinki: an ode to the underworld, where Peter Steele probably is swimming in lava right now.
I just really have a soft spot for mythologicals freaks, men who don’t really belong in this time, but thank the pagan gods and the universe, they find a home in the rock mythology. I fixate on a lot of those men, who in other times would be celebrated as a different kind of king. But in these modern days they are just working class guys in a rock band.
ØH: There is a quote from your new album about vikings: «They represent to me people whose actual lives have kind of been replaced with kind half-fictional story telling.» You could have been talking about the biggest rock stars as well?
MAdM:The more I think about my attraction to mythology, whether the viking/norse mythology, which is one of my favorites, or Egyptian mythology, the more I think that those phenomenal stories are built on real people, just with some added «flying to underworld» elements.
These were also incredibly advanced societies, with navigation and building techniques that to this day are still beyond us. I think that I’m fascinated by ancient worlds that both have the ability for storytelling as well as advanced scientific and technical innovations. And here I am in the ultimate future, this science fiction reality we live in, but with some connection to these past times. In Egyptian times there could be aliens or other forces guiding them , but now we have replaced those with computers.
Ten years ago I might have thought about computers as a «man/machine» bad thing, but what has happened to me personally and artistically the last five years has almost been a spiritual revolution, like a creative and spiritual release has happened. Now I have this whole new understanding of this, the internet is almost like an organic organism that is nurturing growth. I can see the net as an organic, feminine and magical light. This is the best times for the arts, with endless technology and limited budgets.
ØH: The new album represents some kind of return to your roots in the visual arts, with the comic, the web page and the videos?
MAdM: It’s two things: It’s a return to the visual conceptual art route, which I always though I would be with. But then I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to join Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, so I took a detour, cause I recognized it would be an amazing opportunity to learn from travelling and from working with extreme people in extreme situations. But I really did abandon my projects, when I left the university at 22 to travel around the world
But the album is also a return to the independent art scene, where there’s no financiers or corporate structures I have to consider. That’s incredible!
ØH: Who was your most imporant visual inspiration?
MAdM: Andy Warhol and his whole movement was my first wave of inspiration as a 15 year old: Velvet Underground, The Factory, and all that. I recorded my first album living in the Chelsea hotel, fulfilling my childhood dream of being part of a scene like that.
ØH: You actually felt liberated by the collapse of the record industry?
MAdM: Yes, I felt as a captive for the ten years I was with Hole and the Pumpkins. It was not spiritual work, leaving my university and art world to get in bed with a corporation. I come from Montreal, which is a phenomenally independent city, artistically and culturally speaking. It is also old fashioned and completely protected, isolated from any of the corporate homogenisations that are happening in the rest of North America.
It’s much because of the French-American culture, which has protected its identity since the 1600’s. These people have really worked their asses off to not let corporate America into their cultural system. It’s a very honourable and a unique situation, there’s nowhere else like that in North America. Growing up there, I was never exposed to anything other than a local community with independent artists, and that’s why so many great filmmakers and amazing things come out there.
It’s kind of like Utopia, without The Man to rebel against. I came from that spirit, but I took a detour in exchange for checking out the other side. And the other side had lots of demons, like the real hedonism of fighting for your life against the evils. During this time I fell in love with the USA. That country is doomed in many ways, but I find myself more loyal and protective against it then ever before.
ØH: Talking about being in a band: Some bands are democracies more or less, but I guess your earlier two bands wasn’t like that?
MAdM: No, I was definitely the UN, I was the Canadian Swiss center of neutrality in Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins. I was the outsider coming in. I would say, «I will stay disconnected, but I will party with you».
ØH: You know that America doesn’t really listen to the UN?
MAdM: Exactly, that’s why I always come to Europe. I was the outsider in these bands, my role was replacing the original bass players, helping out in a tragic situation, coming in like the Red Cross to get the job done, see it through, and then leave.
ØH: Has it been hard to know what to do with your new freedom?
MAdM: No, it has been great the whole way. As an artist I had to make up for a lot of lost time. I devoted six years, from I was 22 years old to 29, to other people’s projects and learning how to work with other people. I wrote my first album during that time, but hadn’t any time to commit to anything.
There have been some bumps in the road because of the downfall of the music industry and the new technology, and not having a label. But I used the challenges to develop as an artist, I learned how to be a better writer and performer, and got back into the visual arts. Now, I still never have enough time to do what I want to do.
ØH: Where does your interest in the vikings come from?
MAdM: It’s one of the more interesting ancient cultures we know. First of all, they did discover North America prior to anyone else. Second of all, they looked cool as shit, with their long hair and leather, worshipping Mother Earth and women. I mean, it was pretty intriguing. I definitely see a correspondence with men who choose to live the life in a rock band. I always use the imagery of the travelling viking and the sword as a inspiration and guide to the travelling musician and their guitar.
It’s obviously not as violent, but it is the same exploration of wanting to discover new things and share. But it’s really down to the visuals and the stories of the particular characters. As a child I found the story about Thor on par with Lord of the Rings, but at the same time it had roots in true history.
Also, coming to parts of Scandinavia I felt a recognition and connection with the people. Whether it’s because I’m northern, with roots in Canada and the Alps of Switzerland, there is obviously a connection to the landscape, to the temperature and even to the hair color. I think every one of us have access to travel through time, whether it is in our dreams, bloodstream or memory, and I certainly have travelled there before, it’s eerily familiar.
ØH: As a woman in the rock world, do you feel as a lone woman amongst Vikings?
MAdM: No, I guess I’m a viking too. There were obviously a lot of women in viking times, tough women who could take care of business. I don’t think your gender dictates the power you have access to. I love rock music, especially the psychedelic or mythological style of rock, and one of the reasons are the wizardly elements to men like Robert Plant and Ozzy Osbourne. There’s a mystical element to people in rock bands.
I do believe it’s a non-gender thing, it’s wizards and witches. Every man has a witch in himself, and every woman has a wizard or a viking. It’s all about mixed gender. I see people like Sabbath and Zeppelin as men that are tapping into their feminine mystical side, and I am someone who tap into my masculine viking/wizard side. It’s equal ground, it just depends whether you believe in magic or not.
ØH: Talking about masculine and femine, you are the one making concept albums about vikings, while your old friend Rufus Wainwright is into poetry and Shakespeare. Also, Courtney Love seems more extroverted and masculine than Billy Corgan?
MAdM: Yeah, you’re right. She’s more masculine, and he’s more feminine. It’s true and funny. That’s what I mean about tapping into your female and masculine side.
ØH: I have been reading about Janis Joplin, who was called the first female sex symbol in rock. Her dilemma was how to compete with men without losing a sense of herself. She felt she had to outdrink and outcuss the men.
MAdM: At that time in the 60’s, my mother was of that generation, she was a warrior in terms of independent women. They paved the way for women like me. I don’t see it as women and men, I see it as humans, because of women like Janis and my mother. I come from a progressive mother, who was one of the first female rock dj’s. She interviewed people like Sabbath and Robbie Robertson, and worked in the music world of her generation, and raised me on her record collection.
She loved Janis Joplin, and as a kid I saw them all as equals, they were my mothers’ friends and community. Janis, and my mother, paved the way for women to break into more male-dominated areas. Especially in the 60’s, women had barely been able to vote at that time, and still had to fight to not become housewives.
But I am not a competitive person. I’m not a big believer in games, I don’t watch sports, I don’t play games. I’m in love with the strange marriage of two sides, I don’t believe in conflict and competition, I believe in marriage and union. I think men and women have both sides in us, in some ways.
But once a year I go see a psychic, or someone who can see my past lives. For my birthday two weeks ago I was invited to see a witch or wicca in New York. She didn’t know anything about me, but she said “I see Janis in you”. She saw in my astrological charts something about a fiery woman in a man’s world. And I’ve never though about that, since I do feel that Janis was a lot tougher than me. But at that time you had to be so tough to be able to be in the boys’ club.
ØH: You didn’t have the same challenges?
MAdM: Of course not. Again, I’m very privileged, coming from such an open minded environment, from an incredible family and city. But women are still having to fight the fight no matter what we do. We’re still underrepresented, and don’t have the same authority in art, science, politics or music.
ØH: Who were your own female heroes in rock?
MAdM: It’s interesting, as a bass player I was inspired by the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins and the sound of Kyuss. In some ways Billy Corgan inspired me more than D’Arcy the bass player, but at the same time I saw all these women playing bass: Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, Babes In Toyland, Kim Deal in the Pixies and Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth. So, sure there was a lot of women who sounded similar and inspired me subconsciously, but it really was more about the sonic soundscapes of the bands that propelled me into music, and not individual bass players.
But I just had the feeling that bass was the right instrument for me, and I feel more at home with bass now than before. I’ve written a couple of essays for bass festivals, when I won the 1999 Gibson bass player of the year, I wrote a speech in the taxi on the way. Then it came to me that the bass is the mother of all instruments.
The role of the bass player is usually quite nurturing, ’cause musically we have to listen to everybody: the drummer, the singer, the guitarist, the lyrics, everything equally, to figure out where we should fit in. Everybody else is on their own level, but the bass player is the glue that brings the other family members together.
ØH: Still, it must be important to see other women playing on stage?
MAdM: Absolutely, and especially in the early 90’s I was seeing a lot of bands with female member. The last couple of years there have been a lot of female singer/songwriters and a lot of pop people, but there’s not a lot of girls living on the road, like a viking, like I am.
ØH: Is it fewer women in rock today than in the 90’s?
MAdM:For a while, but I feel that 2010 is a changing point. Just the last six months I’ve been meeting a lot of women. A new generation that is 24-25 years old, they’re doing the DIY thing. I think this is a new beginning. We really have entered the 21st century full on now, and women are on the verge, at least on a superficial level, as being seen as equals.
ØH: My final question is a stupid one: Are you the only one who has worked with both Ryan and Bryan Adams?
MAdM: Haha, yeah, but they are both friends of Lindsay Lohan as well. It definitely might be true, ’cause the only other woman who have been connected with them is Lindsay Lohan. I think she might have dated them, I don’t know. I would say that I like both of them equally, they are fantastic guys.