Auf Der Maur, Off The Grid
Melissa Auf der Maur talks Basilica SoundScape, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, & more
Back in the ’90s, Melissa Auf der Maur rose to prominence as the bassist of Hole. But even then, the mechanisms and visibility of being in a major rock band weren’t for her. She signed the contract in search of experience, got it, then walked away. After a brief stint with the Smashing Pumpkins following her departure from Hole, Auf der Maur began to cede the rockstar life altogether. Eventually, she wound up in the small town of Hudson, NY, where she would choose the (comparatively) quieter life of an artist outside the industry, a mother, and a businesswoman in charge of the arts and events space known as Basilica Hudson.
Basilica Hudson was an old, abandoned factory right near the river. Auf der Maur and her husband, the filmmaker Tony Stone, took it over and resurrected it. Since, it’s been at the center of Auf der Maur’s many projects. It began as a dream to throw a 24 hour concert — which blossomed into Basilica’s yearly 24-Hour Drone event — and mutated into a place that had room for the small and idiosyncratic festival Basilica SoundScape, flea markets, avant-garde art events, one-off concerts, and even weddings. So ahead of Basilica SoundScape’s eighth iteration this weekend, we caught up with Auf der Maur about her past life, her life in Hudson, and what she’s thinking about for the future.
STEREOGUM: I feel like this is a slightly pernicious stereotype, but Hudson’s obviously got a lot of appeal to those of us in New York trying to get out of the city from time to time. The thing I’ve always liked about Basilica specifically is that it’s like an escape within an escape, this weird little removal from the world outside.
MELISSA AUF DER MAUR: That’s what we hoped we could create when we first moved there 10 years ago. At that point it really was a little more off the beaten path. I feel like the big city exoduses of the world — corporate America, believe it or not, wasn’t even as bad as it is now, even though, you know, it was pretty terrible. The gutting of the big cities is tragic, being a city person myself. Tony [Stone], my husband and [Basilica’s] co-founder, grew up in lower Manhattan, and I grew up in Montreal. I love cities! Cities in the ’90s felt like heaven on earth to me. Ten years ago, [Hudson] seemed a little, like, on the fringe.
Our goal with SoundScape was always: How can we be the tempting gateway to escape and an opportunity to immerse yourself into what I consider an older way of life. The old smaller cities, smaller towns, rural existence, surrounded by nature and history and connected with a more timeless human experience. Of course with Basilica being in an 1880’s factory, you know that’s enhanced, where you feel like you are kind of time traveling. So that’s always been a big part of SoundScape and any of our events that we do. Especially our 24-Hour Drone event, because you just totally leave time. But it’s always been part of the goal, which is creating a succinct gateway to invite people to leave their lives, make a pilgrimage, and escape. Because that’s essentially what music and art are built to do, to help you live another experience and experience new versions of yourself even.
STEREOGUM: The idea to start Basilica arrived during a bit of a hallucinogenic trip on your porch, right?
AUF DER MAUR: Yeah, that was me and Bob Van Heur, the co-founder of Le Guess Who?. I was like “I’ve moved to a small city in America, come spend New Year’s with us!” I had known him from Europe but also from Montreal, and I was explaining it like this exotic thing, like “I’ve moved back to the US and you should come experience it, this city is like the old America, it’s like David Lynch, it’s insane!” So he came to visit and, yes, we were having a psychedelic gateway on my winter porch on New Year’s Eve and he looked at the Basilica from my porch and said “What is that?” We were like, “Isn’t it incredible? We stare at it every day.”
That’s when it turned into our dream, which is why Le Guess Who? and Basilica put on the 24-Hour Drone together every year. But this is prior to us owning the building or even having set foot in the building. We just knew that an eccentric guy owned it and we were sort of scheming, like “Right now it’s nothing but an industrial wasteland and the ghost of the American past and a neglected edge of a neglected city, that’s where we could have a 24-hour music festival! No one would stop us!” That was the seed of the idea. So our 24-Hour Drone fest is the original inspiration for the building.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know how plugged in you were with the surrounding towns at this point, but did you get any sort of befuddled reactions when you started telling people you were reclaiming this factory as this avant-garde art space right off the train?
AUF DER MAUR: Honestly, no one even noticed it was happening. I mean I feel like what’s amazing is that by the time we even had traction — because you know we have like a hidden strange business too, which is a wedding business.
STEREOGUM: Like people having weddings at Basilica?
AUF DER MAUR: Yeah, we have two sides of the coin, one is the avant-garde and then it’s supported in the background by this private event space. By the time these weddings started happening, that’s when people started noticing us. We were really welcomed. The other biggest event we did in our second year was the NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) art fair, and that was the first time that 3,000 people came to Hudson in one day. We were contacted by Amtrak, and they were like “What are you doing? What happened?”
Hudson in its heyday — 300 years ago, it was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. It has the capacity for, I think, something like 15 or 20 thousand people. Now there’s only 6,000 people who live in Hudson, New York. I’ve gotten more involved because of the impact we’ve made in Hudson, because it’s important to be an advocate for the creative economies. They’re changing what has been an area of New York state that has been in steady decline for over 50 years. Decades and decades of less and less jobs, less and less opportunity, more and more abandoned factories.
We are a very big venue in a very small town in a pretty sleepy region. So, now that we’re in our eighth year, we have kind of navigated through all the potential … I mean, resistance didn’t happen because everyone minded their own business a little bit. I would say the first wave of challenge was more practical. I mean, this was basically an old barn off the grid. We couldn’t have done this without Tony digging the trenches for the sewer, bringing the electric in. We had to connect it to everything. So he has had an amazing relationship with the local, municipal nuts and bolts. And they’ve all been so happy that this old factory, that some of them even remember their grandmothers working in, was back on the grid and back in action. Most of the locals have been really supportive.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about the nuts and bolts of running a tiny festival. How far ahead do you start booking? Is SoundScape on your mind throughout the year?
AUF DER MAUR: Well yeah, it’s a ton of Google Docs, which make me cringe every time I have to sign in, but it seems to work. And it’s Brandon Stosuy and I, now having done this together for six years, just all year round, we’re dreaming. We see a band, or we talk to a person, or we go to a festival and we have an idea for SoundScape and we start building our wishlist, and we build it continuously throughout the year, really. I think that what we’d really like to go deeper into is one-offs that don’t happen again other than at SoundScape.
The curatorial element is … you stand in that space and you’ve seen it for years, every person that walks in is inspired to do something. Really the goal is what acts or what projects will enhance the beauty and power of the space. And what acts and projects will be enhanced by the beauty and power of the space. That’s the fundamental point of reference.
Actually a lot of the nuts and bolts ends up being the schedule, because you know, we are a festival where we do not want you to miss one thing. We will absolutely never have something cross over, so how do we get the bodies moving into the different rooms, take a break outside, go back in, look up into the rafters, hear some spoken word, then get some insane hardcore in the small room while the big room sets up. It’s about the flow through the whole building. That’s a big part of it. The last three months has been entirely that, how do we make a really interesting flow and get people to like, never look at their phone and never miss anything.
STEREOGUM: Obviously with SoundScape there’s a lot of diversity packed into two days. I’ve seen Angel Olsen there play alongside metal bands, Protomartyr play after poetry readings. But there’s also this way in which it leans towards avant-garde or, for lack of a better term, darker acts. Heavy music, experimental or noisy music. Is that just the result of the collective taste? Or is there also a specific curatorial, identity-driven aim you have there?
AUF DER MAUR: I think it’s the space. Obviously it is industrial, so there’s always going to be industrial kinds of stuff. But no, it’s definitely a collective taste situation. Tony’s a very, very serious dark metal, death metal guy — so he and Brandon way nerded out on that. There was always kind of respect for the metal. It’s definitely our collective taste but I do think what works is that it works really well with the space.
You know, Angel Olsen or even others who have broken that mold, she’s timeless. Like that old-fashioned [sound], that works with the space too. I’ve always said that like, extreme show-off-y metal, or super-slick pop, that doesn’t work so much in our space. Sonically, but also just visually. It’s following our gut, but also the aesthetic of the building and the kind of people who would get it, people who would gravitate towards decrepit, old industrial structures their whole lives. I have, my whole life. The alleyways and the rust of Montreal. Urban decay has always been a big inspiration of mine.
STEREOGUM: I think that’s part of why I like going to Hudson, and why I like going to Basilica. I grew up in a place sort of like what you were talking about. One of those towns where there’s been cycles of renewal and decay over the years. It was an old railroad town, so I grew up driving around collapsing factories and all that.
AUF DER MAUR: You feel connected to the past, you feel like there is hope in the future, you feel like you can have your own special hidden world there. It’s kind of off the beaten track. Yeah, it’s a very particular soul that gravitates towards that and I’d say that the majority of our audience and the majority of the people we book are that. They gravitate towards each other, whereas like the 24-Hour Drone really does have a different crowd. Put it this way, some of my friends who came to SoundScape came to Drone, like “Whoa you’ve got 70-year-old wizards here, you’ve got Sikhs in turbans.” It’s different for 24-Hour Drone. That kind of expands into this deeper spiritual, conceptual territory.
STEREOGUM: You’ve lived the music industry from very different sides over the last 25 or 30 years. You’ve talked about how even when you joined Hole, you were kind of this art kid who didn’t really know about the whole rock endeavor and sort of did it for experience. Which I find really fascinating and can relate to, like “I’m just going to do this thing for a couple of years to learn.”
AUF DER MAUR: To learn, and to see the world and learn how the real world works, which is everything I didn’t want to know, but actually came in really handy. Like to be able to see the way that big systems and teams and kind of global economics and major labels and agents and all that work. I wouldn’t have learned all of that had I not taken that five-year contract with Hole. You know, I didn’t really want to. I liked art school, I liked decrepit cities.
But there was this weird fork in the road, where this odd one percent of musicians get that opportunity to travel, and especially in that dying gasp of the big money in the industry. I’ve always considered myself very lucky that my life is very much a product of having these seminal teen youth moments in the ’80s and then got to like, live out my dreams in the ’90s and then enter the 21st century.
I do feel the last 10 years is kind of destiny of returning to my roots, which is basically just a smaller city and a smaller scale and working with people you know and love and trust without a lot of big systems around you. It’s where I come from and it’s where my parents came from. They were both freelancers, in different fields. I’m living a very similar life now as I was raised with, riding just a little bit in the system and in the world, but mostly off the grid with your own clan.
But thank goodness that I got to experience the globe that way. It gave me remarkable life experience and professional experience and I am shocked by how it’s playing out now. Some of the local municipal people know me as a really proactive, involved businessperson. One of the guys recently said to Tony, “I heard your wife was involved in the rock and roll business.” And Tony said “Yeah, yeah.” And he said “Oh, she was the Smashing Pumpkins’ manager?” And I’m like “Oh my god, everybody thinks I was a manager of these bands.” Which is hilarious, because I was the least connected to reality of everyone, I didn’t even know what managers did. I was just riding some fantasy wave of music.
I really saw my commitment to Hudson, to Basilica, and to motherhood all in the same. It was just time to get real, and time to make your life what you can make it be, and maximize time and experience, and maximize your dreams, make them come true, make them happen.
STEREOGUM: It’s cool to hear you talk about it, because you kind of had your time in that world and oftentimes when people leave, I think it can be against their will, maybe. But for you it’s always sounded like, “Well, I did that for a little while, and now I’m going to explore a new chapter.” A conscious recalibration.
AUF DER MAUR: It’s life. I’ve never been career-focused. I was even annoyed in the ’90s when people were like, “Wait, are you a photographer or musician?” I’m both. I do all of it. I’m going to do many chapters in my life. I remember in the ’90s, it was quite weird. That’s why Lee Ranaldo and I have always gotten along. He’s also a photographer. People know he’s a musician. But it was as if, in the old world, it was black and white. You choose a career path, you choose a practice.
Look at the 21st century, everyone is everything. Everyone is a digital expert and an art designer and whatever. That’s what we used to call a renaissance person. In my mind, it was always going to be everything. I was never going to choose one over the other. I’m excited that the evolutions have happened, and honestly they have all been by stroke of luck and fate. A beer bottle crashing at Billy Corgan is what got me into that world. This weird guy with a factory asking me and Tony to take it over is how this chapter happened. An angel from the sky entering my uterus at the right time. All of it has been appointed by outside direction, and I just go with it. I never try to control and steer my life. In fact, I often try to let go and see where it’s going.
STEREOGUM: I know you don’t look back and dwell on things to a certain degree, but this year’s Basilica happens to almost overlap with Celebrity Skin’s 20th anniversary. And you are going to have a tribute to Courtney Love at Basilica in October.
AUF DER MAUR: I know, it’s so exciting. It’s exciting for me to finally, 10 years into this chapter, connect the two worlds. It took a while. I’ve never been one for reunions and I’ve never jumped at that opportunity when Hole have brought it up or there have been invitations to do so. But I had a revelation, really simple. It’s the 20th anniversary of when I left Hole, when we put out our last record. Next year is the 25th anniversary of Live Through This. We have, until now, not done reunions.
Honestly, the event that we’re honoring Courtney with, Pioneering People, we did it once with John Waters, once with Rufus Wainwright. Earlier this year I realized it’s gotta be a woman. So it occurred to me, well, Courtney’s a pioneer. And Courtney deserves a creative bouquet of honoring. She’s one of the most misunderstood, wild card, strange individuals, and Hole’s legacy is important to me, as far as it being looked at with the respect it deserves and the impact it made. The impact is very real. The #MeToo moments, Courtney was always saying this stuff. They just wrote her off as a crazy bitch. That’s not OK. In the ’90s, there was much less of an understanding of how complicated people are complicated for a reason and they deserve a lot more compassion. I watched her be burned at the stake. How many people get accused of murdering their husband when they’re left with their daughter? It’s just unacceptable. I’ve always defended her in terms of any of that negative stuff.
Meanwhile, I reconnected with the group when Patty Schemel put out her documentary. It’s so amazing. That whole story is really incredible. Patty in her own right is a massive pioneer and survivor. When the documentary came out, [I remembered] the power of the live performances of Hole around Live Through This. They were so rocky and painful and intense for Courtney and Frances [Bean Cobain], and for Hole having lost Kristen [Pfaff]. It was such an incredibly visceral and beautiful and tragic time. Seeing that footage a few years ago just really … there’s no one as punk and fearless as Courtney as I know. The power of her live onstage is a massive force to be reckoned with. It cannot be erased with confused or sexist or fearful or judgmental or harsh critics. This woman gave her all to those three albums and to her role in weird-ass pop culture. It’s very heavy, very real.
I’m really excited to honor it, and it’s really exciting for me to have a platform like Basilica to do what we do: very creative, not just a concert, not just a conversation. It’s going to be unique and eclectic, and it’s essentially a gift for Courtney and anyone who likes Courtney or maybe those who forgot what some of her highlights were and how powerful her words were and how powerful her impact has been. It’s very in line with Basilica, in the way we’re going to represent it but in reflecting a sometimes controversial, of course, person. A lot of trailblazers are. To have her there, and to rally around that legacy, for me, is very healing and full-circle and it feels like I’m finally connecting all the dots and I can move on to the next 10 years.
STEREOGUM: You’ve often said you felt there was some unfinished business there.
AUF DER MAUR: For sure. I actually feel pissed off, and it’s no one’s fault — except for kind of, maybe, mismanagement or hard-to-manage artists. Hole’s legacy lives in the gutters of YouTube. It had been like 10 years since I’d played with Hole when YouTube was created. I was, for the first time, able to look at some of the powerful live things. I realized, “Wow, nobody knows this.” There’s no Best Of. I like the idea of helping remember things and put memories together. I also have a photographic archive of 35,000 negatives from that time, too, and I’ve been slowly scanning them. I’m a little too busy for my own art project.
There was actually a show I had with Nick Zinner at a very interesting photography museum in Cleveland, Ohio, called Transformer Station. He and I had similar work, it was from my archives of life on the road in the ’90s. I’m really excited to make a package of it. I have really fond memories. I’m working with a very old friend of mine and hers, called Joe Mama-Nitzberg, who was one of Courtney’s oldest friends as a teenager. They came up together in the San Francisco punk rock scene. He now lives in Hudson and he’s a very big friend and supporter of Basilica. And we’re going to direct a very strange soiree. I’m really happy to be able to do that for the legacy of Courtney and Hole.
STEREOGUM: Another anniversary this year was Smashing Pumpkins’ 30th. You were there at almost the beginning and, sort of, one of the endings.
AUF DER MAUR: I didn’t realize it was their 30th, I just all the sudden saw they were playing Madison Square Garden. I was like, “Oh, whoa, how did that happen? And James is part of it!?” Especially because I don’t read news online. I read local newspapers. I didn’t know it was happening until recently. I mean, yeah, full-circle in terms of that band. That’s a band that changed my life. It was in 1991. So their 30 years, what’re they saying is their 30 years?
STEREOGUM: They’re going back to a gig in 1988.
AUF DER MAUR: Right. So I met them in ’91, and then my band in Montreal opened up for them on the Siamese Dream tour in 1994. That band and Billy Corgan are single-handedly some of the most influential turning points in my life as a musician. Their legacy isn’t in the gutters of YouTube. He hasn’t stopped. He just keeps going in these strange, new versions. I am not in touch with them. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just … maybe he doesn’t use the internet, either, I don’t know. I’m happy they’re playing the hits for the diehard fans. They were playing in Montreal, but I was on an island of 200 people in the Baltic Sea playing a silent film festival score. [Laughs] It was the same week, otherwise I would’ve gone to the show in Montreal. I would’ve liked to have seen it.
STEREOGUM: So you have similarly warm feelings towards the past there as you do Hole.
AUF DER MAUR: Truly that band, that album Gish, changed my life. Seeing them live, and then when I met Billy Corgan and he really believed in me and had my band open up for him and recommended me to Hole. He’s a major mentor in my life. And that will never go away, even if we never speak again. The things that I love, I don’t necessarily have to have in my day-to-day life. I can just love it and remember it. And sometimes it’s better that way, like ex-boyfriends. [Laughs] I love my ex-boyfriends but I don’t necessarily hang out with them and their wives. So yes, very very fond memories, and I do wish I could’ve gone to the Montreal show and heard “I Am One” all these years later. That would’ve been incredible.
STEREOGUM: The other thing I’ve been to Basilica Hudson for were these National shows in July of 2017. I’ve seen that band dozens of times, and that time was really sort of mind-blowing for me, the way they used the space, the circular stage —
AUF DER MAUR: That’s what we do for Drone. They were inspired by our space and how we present things there. I worked with them to create that new experience. Their PEOPLE festival they do in Berlin, we’re talking about doing that at Basilica next year as well. Aaron Dessner lives in the area, I see him at the grocery store all the time. He’s just a very, very good-hearted person, totally supports the arts, understands the role of Basilica. That was not only amazing for them to film and release their record, but it was a partial fundraiser for our organization. They are incredibly generous and wonderful to work with. It was amazing to have people from all over the world at that show and discovering Hudson. Yeah, they’re sweethearts. I look forward to working with them again.
STEREOGUM: That’s really cool to hear you might do PEOPLE there. I know it’s probably just not possible to do it that frequently, but the original thing I was going to ask was whether you wanted to have more one-off shows like that. The temptation or ambition to do more.
AUF DER MAUR: Always. It was actually at that National show, so many people came up like, “This is the best music venue” Like, I know, I just need to borrow $500,000 somewhere to make it year-round. Our music series, I won’t get into this, but in the next two years — 2020 is Basilica’s 10-year anniversary, and we’re embarking on a very big capital campaign to winterize and all-year-round parts of the facilities. We’re planning a longterm goal so we can be a music venue, because of course that’s what I’d like to do. But you have to build business plans for that. We’re building towards it, absolutely. There should be a Basilica music series monthly all year round. That is our goal, yes.
Basilica SoundScape 2018 runs from 9/14 to 9/16 at Basilica Hudson. Get tickets here.