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Erika M. Anderson—or EMA, as she styles herself these days—grew up in South Dakota, fairly isolated from the urban culture many of us take for granted. After relocating to California around 10 years ago, she immersed herself in the avant-garde and noise scenes as a member of various projects including Amps For Christ. In 2006, Anderson formed Gowns with Ezra Buchla and Corey Fogel of The Mae Shi. The group toured the country and released sure-to-be-influential records. That act’s music was tailor-made for those who find punk rock too conventional and straight-ahead noise lacking direct emotional resonance, producing moments like “White Like Heaven,” from the trio’s 2007 LP, Red State, that stand as haunting reminders of the band’s emotional power and creative brilliance.
After the 2010 demise of Gowns, Anderson didn’t waste any time getting back to making music. Her debut solo effort, Little Sketches On Tape, came out on Night People in 2010. But it was her 2011 LP, Past Life Martyred Saints, released under the moniker EMA, that’s garnered Anderson the attention of a much wider audience than she had for any of her previous work. Before her March 10 show at Lincoln Hall, we spoke to Anderson about transforming the bully dynamic and transmuting tour exhaustion.
The A.V. Club: Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like it documents, in some ways, some existential turmoil you’d been experiencing, and you have said here and there that you were about to quit playing music. Why did that become an option in your mind?
Erika Anderson: I mean, I think it was not really exactly knowing what I wanted—liking to do music and art and stuff, but not necessarily feeling like I could “go for it” in this way. I felt really uncomfortable with that. Then it was this weird thing where I was living in these shitty neighborhoods in L.A. and California, and feeling very in the middle of things. Because I couldn’t say, “Hey, I really want to do this,” one of the things I think I really liked about the noise scene and the avant-garde scene is that it fit in with my kind of rubric of “trying to be successful is a sin”—this sort of Midwest, keep-your-head-down kind of thing. But it was kind of conflicting.
I was doing things like substitute teaching in these crazy schools, and I was living in this terrible neighborhood, and I was feeling like a failure. That’s, like, this whole weird, generational American thing, I think. People are obsessed with the idea of being a failure or not. For whatever reason, even if I could intellectualize that as being symptomatic of the modern condition, I still couldn’t really shake it emotionally.
AVC: That’s something you’ve mentioned in interviews before. How have you overcome those feelings in the past, and how do you do so now?
EMA: I still have days where I’m pretty hard on myself. It’s so much easier for me to have compassion for other people than it is for me to have compassion for myself. It’s easier for me to step outside and say, “No, it’s cool, man, don’t worry about it.” It’s hard because you want to do right. For me it’s me wanting to do right by my parents. There wasn’t a lot of art for art’s sake. You had to figure out how to get a decent job and do all these things. It’s just a strange thing, because it’s hard not to place yourself in this rubric of win versus fail. It’s also about worrying about complete failure and judging yourself. It’s kind of narcissistic and ridiculous. It’s part of what is going on in the social make-up. I don’t know if the rules have changed for what’s available for us to achieve in this generation versus past ones, or what’s expected of us, or what. It’s just hard to be satisfied, which is stupid.
When I was young and I would see people that were successful, sometimes it would diminish their success if they were older. Or you compare yourself to them, or whatever. Now I see people who are super successful at a very young age, and it’s really annoying, you know? That’s somehow obnoxious. I’m coming out as 30, because I would be really annoyed if I was reading that story and it was like, “I almost quit music,” and everyone thinks I’m 22. What do you mean you almost quit music? What can you quit at 22?
AVC: Does anyone give you a hard time for the lyrics to “California”?
EMA: I don’t get any. The first time we performed it, it was at the very end of Gowns, because it was kind of an overlap. I was worried about doing it at shows, at, like, The Smell in front of members of No Age or something. “You people are so pro L.A... .” Am I going to piss people off doing it at The Smell? I haven’t gotten really any negative feedback. People probably keep it to themselves if they don’t like it.
AVC: What kind of music did you start playing when you were living in South Dakota?
EMA: It’s funny, the first band I was in... I didn’t really have words for what it was. It was instinctual, and it was a performance-art punk band, and the aesthetic wasn’t that much different from what I do now. The first thing was, I would say, “Okay, you guys deconstruct the French national anthem.” I wouldn’t have used the word “deconstruct.” I probably would have said, “You play this weird thing, and I’m gonna say a bunch of weird shit over it, and then we’re going to go into the song.” It had elements of spoken-word performance, kind of antagonistic, some drone and noisy elements. I don’t know where I got that, because I didn’t have a vocabulary for it and it wasn’t necessarily stuff I was listening to. It was, “This is what I want to do; this feels right.” I look back and I think it’s kind of funny.
The other thing I would do is record songs on to four-track and turn down all the bass and turn up all the treble and run it through a weird old amp with some tube reverb. At that time I wasn’t interested in fidelity and how you make things sound a certain way. Everything I do I think is instinctual. I just learn more words for it.
AVC: As a guitarist, and as a songwriter, is there anything you do to keep yourself from getting stuck in a creative rut?
EMA: To be honest, I should kind of work harder. This is the first time that I’ve been expected to do things. I don’t really practice that often. I think a lot, and I think about these things I want to do, and I expose myself to different sorts of stimuli to give me ideas for things. I think about things in visual terms sometimes, and stuff like that. I kind of wish I was a better guitar player. I don’t know if I’m naturally a musician or more like a person who is a music nerd/thinker, weird hobo theorist or something. A lot of it has to do with how you pull it off.
AVC: You’re donating the proceeds of “Take One Take Two” to the Jamie Isaacs Foundation For Anti-Bullying. Why do you feel this is an issue that remains important, and how did it have an impact on you personally growing up?
EMA: I was a substitute teacher for years, and that makes me feel more strongly about the current situation than things in my past. You read stuff, and cyberbullying is taking things to another, crazy other level. I have a soft spot for kids, and I really like kids. I found this old footage, and what I like about it is it’s not showing victims so much as weird, awkward, Midwest, total middle-of-nowhere dorks having fun and being happy. I wanted to show that, because I didn’t want to write a sad story or have a sad thing about bullying or being a victim. I wanted to focus on people having fun and feeling good. If I had anything more to say about it, I would like to switch the course of the dialogue from the victims to really calling out people’s behavior. Looking at little kids and asking, “Do you consider yourself a jerk? Because you’re acting like a jerk. Do you consider yourself the sort of person that makes fun of others and tortures them? Because that’s what you’re doing.”
AVC: What kinds of writing did you start out doing, and how has your writing evolved with your own personal evolution?
EMA: I was always the type that had messy diaries that I would be scribbling in. To this day I have a little book around with me that I just scribble weird stuff in. I was just writing shitty poetry writing, and I think now that I would like to start writing things that are, like, sweetly tragic moral incidents that I like to write about. I don’t know how to explain it. They’re kind of sentimental, but kind of punk rock. But that’s what I always wanted to be when I was growing up. I was never like, “Oh I want to be a musician!” That wasn’t ever it. It was, “I want to be a writer.”
I read a lot. When I was really young, in grade school, I would read book after book after book. I’m kind of interested in going back to some of those, the Newberry Honor ones, Bridge To Terabithia or The Great Gilly Hopkins, and checking those out.
AVC: On your website you mentioned how you can only be on the road for so long before you become like Henry Rollins in Get In The Van. How do you know you’ve reached that point, and is there anything you do to deal with those feelings while still on tour?
EMA: It’s strange. There comes a point where I get exhausted and I can’t really sleep enough. It starts coming out in the shows, because I don’t know where else to get it out. And those are the shows where I just want it to be super noisy and I want to destroy a lot of things. I don’t know if I should fight it or really go with it. People come and they want a calm, warm, friendly Erika who plays all the songs correctly. Kind of a nice, good rock show. I have this urge to get up there, break things, have it be this kind of crazy, emotional, fuck-it moment.
I can’t tell if I need to fight that or if I should just embrace it at some point. That’s the thing that’s different about right now, with having a record that people know and having people come to shows that want expect to see something. With Gowns it was kind of nice, because most of the time not many people had heard it. Maybe they’d heard a record, maybe they hadn’t. But I really feel like we could get there and be like, “Okay, we’re going to play three epic noise jam songs and do whatever we’re feeling at the moment.” It’s a little different now.