Graduating college as a photographer, Melissa Auf der Maur had never really considered a career in music. That is, until she asked then-hero, now former band mate Billy Corgan, if her band Tinker could support The Smashing Pumpkins at their Montreal gig. The same tenacious and charismatic spirit would later lead her to be part of both The Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, playing her first show for Courtney and Co. at Reading 1994, in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s tragic death. Ten years on, 2004 saw her release debut solo effort Auf der Maur to critical acclaim. Six years later, and follow up record Out Of Our Minds showcases an altogether different side of this Canadian queen. the girls are caught up with Auf der Maur in Paris at her Le Trabendo show to discuss being your own manager, disliking bass players and mosaics of Japanese food.
CA: Having played with Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins, how was the transition to becoming a solo artist? Was it something you’d always considered?
MadM: No, it was more of a natural evolution. It was not so much that I wanted to make my own albums or become a solo artist, but more that I am an artist; prior to playing music, I was studying photography. My entire life has been making art and expressing myself, so it was more a matter of whatever tools I found, I would end up using those. Once music became such a big part of my life, that kind of took over.
My time in Hole and Pumpkins defined me as a woman, as a musician, as a person. After all, they were some of my most formative years: 22-28. It was at that time I began to realise music had become a very big part of who I was and I needed to follow it: I was being invited to have a life in music and it would be disrespectful to not make my own albums, having been given all these incredible opportunities. I’d only been playing bass a year when I joined Hole – I’d played eight shows. I needed those years of training to get confidence as a bass player first and then as a songwriter. My first album was entirely composed of all the songs I wrote whilst I was in Hole. I was learning as I went really.
CA: You had a photography exhibition in Brooklyn in 2001, called ‘Channels’. What made you decide to take a step back from music?
MadM: I was planning on being a photographer and then all this strange, incredible stuff happened very early on within music. I had always been planning, and I still plan on having, a life in photography whether it’s a book or exhibits down the line. I’ve just never had the opportunity to be in full-time photography since music took over. That exhibition was a moment where I took a couple of years off in between the Pumpkins and what became the makings of my solo record, when I thought I wasn’t going to go back to music. I wasn’t sure. So, I basically started working on my photography again, put together that first exhibit and started to look into digitalizing my decade’s-worth of negatives. Now, I have over twenty years of film that I am yet to completely digitize as it would be an entire year’s project and I would need an intern to carry it out… If anyone wants to move into my house and do it with me?
CA: Your second album Out of Our Minds was released alongside a graphic novel and conceptual film – a markedly different format to your first record. What was the thought process behind this album?
MadM: I decided to reach out into a more conceptual, visual art form around the album: that was from the get-go, before I had even written a song. I promised myself that it would have more of a visual, conceptual universe to be able to satisfy the part of me I had left behind. So, then I was on the hunt to find the theme that I would explore in film. I wrote the songs and the songs were the tools to find the story, the magical kernel. When I wrote the title track, ‘Out Of Our Minds’, it was clear to me it was the centre; the leading sound. That song dictated the rest of the record and completely dictated the film. The film and the comic book, which are both part of the release too, are basically an exploration of that one song. Some people ask me if the film is related to the entire record? No, it is the extension of one song but that one song is the heart of the record and the rest of the songs orbit around that one.
CA: When you launched this record, there was reportedly a lot of trouble with your then label, Capitol Records, and you took the bold and very admirable decision to self-produce, self-fund and self-release the record. That must have been an incredible learning curve for you as an artist?
MadM: Yes, basically I had to initiate, figure out and ultimately not give up. Most of the delays between the first album and Out Of Our Minds was just stupid record company bullshit, but within that, I made the most of it as an artist. We made the film and then I became my own production company, my own label. I used all these delays to my own advantage; to create and develop. Even within that, I am still very patient with myself. I recognise that I am still developing and the fact that I didn’t just put out a record straight after the first was OK, as I had to learn. And I did learn. Basically, I had no label and once I had no label, it became a very extreme exploration of independence. I left the managers, the lawyers, the agents – I left everybody. Consciously. Saying to myself, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do this’ because I can’t rely on people doing it for me. And that obviously illustrates the future of music and why music is in such a great place. Only the strong will survive and you have to work harder. What’s great is that the more independent you are, the more able you are to be creative and experiment because you have no-one to answer to.
CA: Funding this solo project allowed you to protect your creative idea and vision, and freely experiment with music. Is this autonomy important to you?
MadM: I always remember while I was in the Pumpkins and Hole thinking ‘wow’, what brave, crazy people Billy and Courtney were to be giving over their hearts to these scary companies. I remember thinking then, I will never be strong enough to do that. Recording the first album with Capitol was actually a very decent experience. Both EMI and Capitol were actually very good to me and I’m lucky I had them there for that first one. What’s interesting though, is as soon as things started to crumble, my survival extincts kicked in and I thought ‘this is fucking crazy’. I realised it’s just a matter of being responsible. I’d be irresponsible with my heart if I put it all into this thing and the just handed it over to someone else. I’ve spent the last couple of years learning all the horrendous shit I never wanted to learn; how to be my own secretary and manager, and that is enough to make me want to quit sometimes. I cry on my birthday and think ‘I wish I could be a person that could quit’ but I can’t and I have to keep going.
CA: Some incredible musicians contributed to your debut album: Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Eric Erlandson (Hole), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins)… Are there any more collaborations in the pipeline?
MadM: What’s great is that on both my records, the collaborations were all people from my past. Both records are a collection of heroes, people I aspire to work with, or friends I had met along the way. I cannot believe how lucky I am to have worked with all of those people, especially the guest of honour on this album, Danzig. So now, what’s exciting for me is seeking out contemporaries, peers for future projects. I have already explored my roots and now, in the past year, I’ve been looking for new artists who inspire me. That’s definitely going to be a big part of my next record.
CA: So which current bands are you into?
MadM: I am so fucking excited about this. In the last two years, I have found so many! For a weird moment there, during the late 90’s – early 2000, it seemed like this black dead zone in music. I didn’t know how to find music anymore because everything is so digital and there’s way too much of it! Too much alternative music is just jammed down your throats so, for a weird ten years, I felt like I couldn’t find anything. Yet, in the last two years, I have just fallen in love with so many bands.
Let’s see: Mew from Denmark, Late Of The Pier from Nottingham. Also, Fever Ray (a mind blowing inspiration), Mastodon, the new heroes of progressive and conceptual metal, and this black metal meets progressive jazz band from Norway called Shining. There’s just so much incredible and original new music happening. I am finally not short of current inspiration, especially after I was so gifted with inspiration in my youth in the 90’s – that gave me so many years of fuel but now I have a new generation of inspiration!
CA: Who is your favourite bass player?
MadM: Ah, what’s so crazy is that I don’t even really like bass players! The ones I have the most respect for are the singer/bass players as I know that’s a hard thing to do. So, Phil Lynam from Thin Lizzy – I have so much respect for him, Peter Steele from Type O Negative, Lemmy from Motorhead and Geddy Lee from Rush – although that’s a little too progressive for me but any bass player that dares to sing is my favourite.
CA: Favourite fellow flame-haired musician?
MadM: Josh fucking Hommy. He’s the best. Him and Billy Corgan’s guitars are the reason I even picked up the bass. Kyuss was the band that changed my life so Josh is definitely the coolest red head.
CA: What would your death row dinner be?
MadM: Definitely Asian. I like clean, separated little dishes. There would definitely be some seaweed, some good grains of sort, some tofu, some very fresh wildfish, some lotus roots, some spinach, all my favourites; sesame seeds, plum things and chi sou leaves. All my favourite Asian elements and all placed perfectly in separate dishes. Yes, a mosaic of Japanese food, please.
CA: You’ve achieved so much thus far: what would you say has been your proudest moment?
MadM: Well, I think this project is my proudest because, like I said, there were so many obstacles and it represents more of who I am and, against all odds, I decided to do it. This was when I was tested to see how devoted I actually am to music because I definitely could have dropped it many, many times over the years. I’m just so grateful that music became so clearly the center-piece of my life and I need to respect it and stay on it. Although it seemed totally ridiculous at times to be doing it, I am very proud that I didn’t give up.
Aren’t we all? Tonight’s show at Le Trabendo in Paris is a true testament to Melissa Auf Der Maur and her devoted fans, who have loyally awaited her six year return. From the dizzy heights of working with some of the biggest rock icons in the world, Auf Der Maur has truly become one in her own right. Drenched in a leather cape of tassles in the same rusty red as her flamed tresses, this lady is truly is on fire. Coolest red head in music? No contest.
Download the single, ‘Out Of Our Minds’ now.
Photograph by Samuel Dietz – for more visit lost-pixel.net.