Sisters In Arms: The Blow And EMA Talk Touring In Tough Times
Erika M. Anderson is resting her head on the table for a minute. It’s been a long tour. A long year. And you can’t blame her for being a little tired. Her tour mates in the Blow are talking with a sort of knowing earnestness about the time they wrote a song for Lindsay Lohan as a knowingly earnest conceptual stunt. But then the conversation rolls back around to Anderson, and she’s ready with a thought that, like always, is wickedly funny and bullshit-free.
I’m with EMA and the Blow (aka producer/programmer Melissa Dyne and producer/programmer/singer Khaela Maricich) at the New York venue Brooklyn Bazaar on an unbearably cold November night. They’re all a little worried the weather might keep people from coming out, but sure that it’ll be a good show anyways.
Both of them have released some of the year’s best albums. EMA’s Exile In The Outer Ring is a scared, industrial-rock exploration of the devastation Late Capitalism has wrought on America’s exurban centers, like a noise-rock update of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. The Blow’s Brand New Abyss is playful (there’s a Whitney Houston cover that feels sincere and an Eagles cover that feels subversive) set of digital love songs that explore the terrors of intimacy and the sensation of always feeling alone in an ever-connected world.
Though both admit that the turnout has been on the low side, the shows themselves have been great, filled with enthusiastic local openers (“our lineup of openers was intentionally not a lot of straight white dudes jamming, just trying to be like, no, this is what the United States is: trans, queer, people of color, women. A lot of eclectic sounds,” says Maricich), the Blow’s charming between-song power-point presentations and Anderson’s Axl Rose-inspired onstage exorcisms. It’s hard out there for independent artists that aren’t riding the latest trend, but watching them, both artists felt like something we badly need right now. Before the show, they sat down for a group interview about fighting the good fight.
STEREOGUM: So how’s the tour been going? It’s obviously been a dark year for people, and you all fly the flag for feminism, weirdness, empathy, all these things that we’re in dire supply of. Are people happy to see you come to town?
KHAELA MARICICH: Our experience is the people who have been there have been really present. The people are looking right in our eyes, and in the past we’ve had shows where people try to take my shirt off or yell out things during the show, and maybe it’s just the times or the vibe of the whole show altogether, but I feel like people are really there for whatever happens and open.
ERIKA M. ANDERSON: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of things going on. I think the music industry is so strange right now. I feel like people go out to shows less in general. So it’s less people, to be perfectly frank.
MARICICH: All the promoters are saying that, too.
ANDERSON: Yeah, I don’t think it’s just us. Across the board, less people are going out to shows, but the people who are there… you know, I have some down times, but then when you realize that you go around the world and whoever shows up to a show, you’re pretty sure, “these are the people in Manchester, England whose lives I’ve changed.” That’s really how it feels. So it’s not like 400 of them, but if you’ve had that depth of impact on somebody from all around the world, you have to try and tell yourself that when you’re in the middle of a 14-hour drive through Texas.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any idea why less people are coming out? Do you think you’re competing with, say, Netflix and Twitter and people wanting to stay home and not see a show anymore?
ANDERSON: Yeah, of course.
MARICICH: I heard a theory the other night that the way that music is being packaged in festivals is kind of like the mall-ification of music. It gets branded, and then all of the attention goes to that.
MELISSA DYNE: I think it happened in the visual art world, too. There’s a lot of art fairs, and people go to the art fair, and they can see six galleries or ten galleries instead of one opening. I kind of feel like that’s the time, that’s how people are digesting.
STEREOGUM: It does seem like the current consumption mode of music that’s being pushed is very passive. People liking a lot of things a little bit, rather than being super into any one thing is the mode I’ve seen being pushed.
MARICICH: Yeah, like go to a buffet and taste a little bit of everything.
STEREOGUM: (Pointing to Anderson and Maricich) How long have you two known each other?
ANDERSON: I saw you play a very long time ago, which you probably wouldn’t remember, but I…
MARICICH: At Claremont?
DYNE: Like before my time
MARICICH: Before you were born!
ANDERSON: And I had them on my radio show, about woman producers and stuff, so that’s when we kind of had a connection actually.
STEREOGUM: Can you talk a bit more about that? I know even your email says “womanproducer.com.” There’s this stereotype you see a lot, some guy twiddling behind the boards and a woman up front and the guy behind the board making it very clear, “I write all the songs.” Like that fucking douchebag in Crystal Castles. It seems like you’re all actively trying to subvert that.
MARICICH: For sure. We wanna get to exist, you know? Not have some guy be in charge. That’s why we were excited to tour with you, because you seem like a colorful agent of doing your thing. And we’ve been trying to create more community for ourselves, because I came from a very strong music community in Olympia. There was so much visceral, physical support around all the time. And I feel like as we’ve all gotten more enmeshed with the internet, it’s more and more remote. And in New York, most of our friends are doing other things than music. A lot of the tour, for me, was wanting to be in it with someone else, not just on our fucking own out there, like “come see my band!” Some sense that we’re trying to make the world a little more hospitable. The same with bringing all the openers, just feeling like every town we would have some local connection with what’s happening, and also somebody who was energized and psyched, and every night it’s been like that.
STEREOGUM: I think the first time I heard your song “Dark Cold Magic,” I cried a little bit. Tell me how it came about.
MARICICH: Well, we cried making it.
DYNE: We had this game that we would play, like, either we’d try to crack each other up or make each other cry. So we’d start playing things, or Khaela would write a lyric or a melody and I’d come up with something and we’d just work on each other.
MARICICH: And that was actually the first song on the record. It was a melody I had been writing in Santa Fe on the keyboard. And after our last record came out, we were really exhausted and just took some time out West and bought a bunch of white wine and got an Airbnb in Los Angeles, and then got another one in Santa Fe. In LA, I wrote the lyrics and we just set up our gear and got some synthesizers given to us by a friend. They weren’t like flashy or fancy, they were just like ones you could sell on eBay.
DYNE: Like old analog ones, and we would just sit there and figure them out, and in that project we wrote “Dark Cold Magic.” We just kinda shut the door and did it.
MARICICH: Our last record was a lot of sampling and it wasn’t like a present experience of writing together, but this one was all about being together and making feelings and initiating the sound, present in time. As opposed to like some bleeps and then you come back and sing over them.
STEREOGUM: You were saying you were doing some things just to crack each other up. Is that where the idea of opening the album off with an Eagles’ song (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”) came from? You make it sound good, but it seemed very subversive. Because when you think a band of dopey, old white men, the Eagles come up to mind pretty quickly.
MARICICH: How funny is that? People seem really kind of rattled by that song. Like, “why did you do that, I don’t like it.”
STEREOGUM: Did you hear from them at all? They don’t like people when people mess with their songs.
MARICICH: Oh really?
STEREOGUM: Yeah ‘cause they cease-and-desisted Frank Ocean, they cease-and-desisted Will Sheff from Okkervil River.
MARICICH: We got the publishing, but we did change the melody, so they might come after us. (Laughs)
STEREOGUM: So Erika, one thing that really struck me about your album is there’s not a lot of people in music in general, especially in what we call “indie rock” who really sing about the lower class and economic equality.
ANDERSON: I hate being indie rock.
DYNE: We’re indie.
ANDERSON: I know, but I do feel unclear about indie rock. This is an aside, but I feel like everything EMA does has an element of electronic music. Nothing is trying to be a rock band played straight, recorded straight. Everything is manipulated, every single sound I pick apart and I decide how it sounds. Like the drums aren’t supposed to sound like real drums, ever. So I feel like, I don’t know, I know there’s a guitar and there’s singing…
MARICICH: And you rock!
ANDERSON: (Mocking voice) And I fucking rock.
STEREOGUM: And you were on Matador for a minute.
ANDERSON: Yeah, that totally didn’t help.
STEREOGUM: And you’ve been compared to PJ Harvey.
ANDERSON: I just feel like I spend as much time thinking about my sounds and stitching things together as Oneohtrix Point Never, you know? I guess it’s ‘cause I’m singing, and ‘cause there’s guitar, and — what’s the third one — a female, that I’m gonna be like, “it’s indie rock.”
DYNE: Somebody I read called you alternative folk or something?
STEREOGUM: Well that’s just silly.
ANDERSON: I’d almost rather be that than indie rock. Indie rock’s name is stained to me a little.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, well, at this point it means, like, brunch music, but it used to mean something back in the day, dammit.
ANDERSON: It used to be something legit! What’d you say? It means what?
STEREOGUM: Nice music you play over brunch.
ANDERSON: Oh, brunch!
DYNE: I’d never put EMA on over brunch.
STEREOGUM: One would hope not.
ANDERSON: Or in your coffee shop. It’s much more noise-based. Anyway, go on with your question!
STEREOGUM: I would say even electronic music doesn’t really…
ANDERSON: You can call me indie rock, that’s fine. It just makes me… I’m not very good at indie rock, that’s the thing. If I try and judge myself by indie rock standards then I’m failing. I’m a fucking failure compared to Parquet Courts, I don’t even know all these bands. But if I look at myself compared to like the peers that I started making music with, which is 16 Bitch Pile-Up, Sixes, Rainbow Blanket, all that stuff then it’s like, okay I’m doing alright. So that’s what I gotta do to make myself feel better in these dark times.
STEREOGUM: Don’t compare yourself to people. You’re great how you are.
ANDERSON: It’s hard though man, capitalism puts numbers on things.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. So on your new album, you talked a lot about inequality and coming from a place that feels like it’s been passed over. What has the response been? Are a lot of people understanding what you’re singing about, or do some people not get where you’re coming from or wondering why you’re singing about these things?
ANDERSON: I think people do really resonate with songs like “Down And Out” and stuff like that. Just based on tweets and things. It’s one of those songs that I actually don’t really play live because it is kind of just pretty straight-forward rock song and I’d rather play weird shit. I only play like one of the singles when I play live. I don’t know, but I did get into a Twitter thing today. I was like, “yo remember when we thought we didn’t have to pay journalists, just kind of like we don’t have to pay musicians now? We thought we didn’t have to pay journalists, so what could possibly go wrong?” You know? It’s like, now we’re living in a world where you can’t tell what’s real, so what’s gonna happen when all the artists, you feel like you don’t have to pay them? Stuff like, if you only have the titans left, there’s very little sympathy for artists that aren’t making money. No one really gives a shit, and everyone secretly thinks, “well if you love it, you should just play for free,” which is something they also throw at careers dominated by women. “If you love kids, you should just teach for free!” They’ll throw it at health care workers, teachers, nurses, all that stuff. And same with artists, no one really has sympathy for you, which I get, so you have to tell them why it’s gonna be bad for them. If you only let the titans speak… if only Beyoncé speaks, she’s never gonna really come out with any heartfelt criticism of the economic system.
MARICICH: She’s always gonna push herself to the top in every possible juncture.
ANDERSON: I mean, she’s a great, fantastic artist that’s done so much, but she…
MARICICH: But it’s all about her, all the time.
ANDERSON: And she was shilling for Pepsi. It’s like, come on, you’re not actually gonna have people who are trying to talk about things that are the economic issues, which are things I feel like are really, really major issues in America that a lot of other issues get thrown out to cover it up. That was a long answer.
STEREOGUM: I was wondering, do you tour the red states at all? Does your music go over there at all? Do you feel like you have a lot of fans who can directly relate to what you are singing about?
ANDERSON: I don’t know for sure. I mean I feel like our show in Durham was really amazing, and that was really great.
DYNE: Pretty liberal spot.
ANDERSON: It is. It’s hard, there was a point in time where I was like, “man, I wanna do the outer ring tour where I just wanna go play suburbs.” But it’s really hard to do that economically as well. I don’t have a grant from the Outer Ring foundation. That’s another thing that’s the whole concept of what the Outer Ring means to me. These city centers are getting so no one can live there anymore, and these art spaces and things are getting shut down, especially in America. All the stuff happening in Oakland after the Ghost Ship fire where there aren’t even spaces anymore where you can go and play that are DIY spaces. So where do you go in Columbia, South Carolina to even do the thing? When I was doing more noise, DIY touring, I used to know the people. I don’t know, maybe they’re still there. Get at me!
STEREOGUM: The worry sometimes is for left-of-center music, whatever you want to call it, noise or whatever… the criticism often is it’s just music for people who live in major urban areas who went to college. And those are the only people that the music speaks to. But I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.
MARICICH: But there’s kids on the internet finding things and they’re like living in South Dakota or whatever.
ANDERSON: I mean, I don’t think the people that are saying that have ever looked up the demographic for, like, Tool or something. That’s kind of a weird band. I’d rather be marketed to those fans than, I don’t know….indie rock for the most part. Can you help me with that?
STEREOGUM: I’ll see what I can do.
ANDERSON: Tag Tool in this.
STEREOGUM: I have never interviewed Tool, so I have no connection there.
ANDERSON: Okay, but you could put it in the hashtags right?
STEREOGUM: I have often thought that you would go over like gangbusters if you opened for Nine Inch Nails.
ANDERSON: Yeah, people love Nine Inch Nails.
STEREOGUM: You seem like something Trent would be into if you were on his radar. (Pauses for a second.) I feel like this has been a really downer interview about how tough it is to tour in this current economic and cultural climate, and I’m sorry about that.
MARICICH: The whole world is hard right now. I feel like you don’t have to nice it up.
DYNE: Everybody feels shitty and chaotic.
MARICICH: I’m not down, I’m just lucid about the situation. I think a lot about a hundred years ago, around the first World War and how much society changed say from 1908 to 1928, and those are really dark times, but they also were times when things changed extremely for a lot of people. Like a woman’s life from say, 1910 to like 1925, there were freedoms she never could’ve imagined. Like wearing pants and not wearing a corset, and talking to men outside of the company of her parents and chaperone. So I just feel like we’re in the middle of something that is not as dark as the first World War, but that darkness is like a massive change, and none of us are totally clear about where it’s going. I’m just trying to pay attention and stay lucid, and I don’t know, address it with people.
DYNE: Culture is changing, and I honestly think the only way to know what to do next is to be out there and doing what we’re doing and listening to people, how are they responding. All of the tropes that people have built over the last few years, like “this is how to market this and this is how you get people to do this,” it’s not working anymore for anybody. So somebody’s gotta rewrite this, and how are you gonna know how unless you try and start listening? And those few people who come out and care, they’re really giving us feedback and energy. And it’s like, “okay that’s how it works.” It’s like you’re growing a new plant and you don’t know what it looks like yet. That’s what makes me positive. It’s shit, but something’s there. It’s not dead.
ANDERSON: I think that we are speaking about something that is happening to everybody and we’ve been around enough, to just be honest with you, and just be like, “yeah, touring right now is a little bit rough.” And it isn’t just us, but we’re the ones who are gonna tell you. We’re not gonna be like, “yeah it fuckin rules, dude!” We’re gonna be like, “the world is changing, things you took for granted like being able to go out and see bands that you liked, those bands maybe aren’t gonna be able to come around to any of your towns except those coastal spots unless things change.” I’m looking at it like, will I do this or I might not, you know? But I’m putting on better shows than I ever have, is the other thing. But it’s like, don’t expect anyone who made their name past the ’90s to come around again. You can see the Pixies again and the Breeders again, we’re fucking stoked about that. L7, even. But if you haven’t made your money from 2010 on you might not ever see those bands again unless you see them for the first time around.
DYNE: It’s an exhausting time to live. I just feel like when the election happened last year, it was like the sky got ripped off, literally abyss. You just looked out and you saw abyss. And because of that, the people around me seemed much closer actually. Like my bodega guys would be like, “how are you?” So those connections seemed realer, but it just feels terrifying all the time. And I’ve noticed people just seem more scared and freaked out all the time. Like at the Korean spa when we go, people are on their phone all the time now, like in the sauna on their phone, they’re just trying to hide which is a legitimate response to things being scary and tumultuous. But, it’s really nice to go out and be around people.
ANDERSON: Can I say one thing? I think something that binds us is after having this success, having weirdly went through a stage of kind of self-exile for a couple years…or do you not wanna talk about that?
MARICICH: Well, what I did really was go into a cave with Melissa and get grounded, you know? I was like, “that’s what it feels like to get objectified in a certain way,” then I went and found a cozy place to tap in and make new stuff.
ANDERSON: I think what I see binding us beyond a love of analog synthesizers is, how do you get beyond this thing where you’re an indie rock babe for a second. What do you do after that when you want to stop being objectified but you still want to make art? And how do you be a woman in that situation? Beyond capitalism, beyond all that. Of course, it’s all tied in…but that’s one thing I see us both trying to figure out.
MARICICH: I feel like I was more trying to figure that out in the past.
ANDERSON: Right and now we’re like, “and this is it!” Maybe this is the answer.
MARICICH: I think if you have people paying attention to what you’re doing, it becomes difficult to remember why you’re doing it. If you get attention, then certain things happen where the attention industry will want to do the thing with you, because the whole industry is around working with the material that artists make. So I just went away, Melissa and I started working together, and I just took about five years to remember what I wanted to do and why. And it took a while. I just think you have to know what you’re doing and why, and it’s really fucking hard to remember. And when people are in your face and taking pictures of you, you know? For me, it took me a really fucking long time.
ANDERSON: It took me a really fucking long time, too. When I hear you tell that story, that’s the thing that resonates with me that I’m really like, “wow, OK cool,” like I’m not the only one that came through this with some weird damage.
DYNE: The funny thing is if you would follow all that advice that everybody’s giving you to push you into that role of the woman lead singer or whatever, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’ll work. It’s that thing!
ANDERSON: That’s the thing that everyone tells me, and I’m sure they tell you, “why don’t you just write a few poppier songs? You can’t make it this noisy.”
MARICICH: That sucks!
ANDERSON: People tell me that. Even people I work with, not gonna name names, are just like, “why don’t you just make a country record or an easy listening record?” And I’m like, you don’t understand, I’m not gonna be able to sell that! If it doesn’t…
MARICICH: They mean, “why don’t you do that so you can make money or why don’t you do that so I can like you more?”
ANDERSON: Either one, whatever.
DYNE: The most lucrative thing would be to make Target commercials, so why don’t you do that?
ANDERSON: There’s no guarantee that it’ll work, no matter what high heels I put on, there’s still no guarantee…you’d rather be fucking singing “33 Nihilistic and Female” every night, than…
MARICICH: Those songs are poppy, too!
STEREOGUM: Were you working on a label that was trying to make you do a pop album or a country album?
ANDERSON: Some of this stuff comes from friends of mine saying, “you know, you have to make some poppier stuff some time” or “all you have to do is do this.”
MARICICH: If we’re not making money, that’s not our fault.
DYNE: It’s the world’s fault!
MARICICH: And I really want to embody the entitlement, like a 27-year-old white dude in the art world. “Like, it’s not my fuckin’ fault. That system of judgment doesn’t apply to me because I’m making solid work I really believe in. There’s something wrong with the world, not me. And not you.”
MARICICH: We always go back to the Velvet Underground. People hated them.
DYNE: I have this book of every review that was ever written about the Velvet Underground, called All Yesterday’s Parties and it’s hilarious. People are like, “this is the worst band I’ve ever seen,” people just hate them.
ANDERSON: I mean, it’s fine. I’ve realized I can always make music and no one can take that away from me.