Melissa Auf Der Maur, Musician, Photographer
3.28.15 Hudson, NY
"I was asked why I was photographing so much, because there were not a lot of photographers that were shooting a roll of film a day in the 90’s in a band. And then I would print them on the road. I couldn’t even wait until I got off the road. I would get the photo and would have the memory right there a week later. Obsessively gathering data, essentially."
Interview & Photos:
Interview edited by Anna Godbersen
UD: Is it necessary to change the direction of your life once in a while?
MADM: Definitely. I work in ten-year chapters, like the big end of a decade turning. But for me for me they’re always on a “two”, which means something — now that I have a daughter, I see what happens at two years old — it’s the beginning of knowing there is a world outside of you and your house and your family. Now I am forty-two, I can see the chapters in decades; my earliest memory of a new chapter was twelve. Then at twenty-two my life changed again and at thirty-two my life changed when I fell in love. I have always been a proponent of taking things slowly but making a big plan. Make a big plan but be ready to change when it’s time — in my case that happens to be ten years. But of course, day-to-day, there are the most important things in life: art, love, family.
UD: You don’t seem to be afraid of commitment, commitment on a wide spectrum. Establishing Basilica is a huge commitment, not only to the business, but the community as a whole…
MADM: I like structure even though I am, like, late for our meeting or my house is a mess, which is why we are not meeting there. So I don’t need structure on a minute scale but I believe in being engaged. You have to be engaged into your life plan, and that requires commitment. You can’t just leave tomorrow if you’ve decided—
UD: Well, you can engage momentarily.
MADM: That is true. To my mind, changes are the most exciting thing you can do. Love, for example. I was always the person in my twenties who was like, “Break up, don’t stay with someone just to try to make it work. Life is too short, you are so young, go crazy!” But my own inner dialogue is less whimsical.
UD: What happened at twelve, the beginning of that chapter?
MADM: I discovered photography. I was going to become a photographer. I found a photographer friend of my mother’s who taught me how to use a dark room, and then I became the photographer for my high school. So photography started at twelve, and at twenty-two I had a photography degree.
UD: And at twenty-two, was that when music started?
MADM: I went to music school at six years old. I’ve been living my entire life with music as this meditative moment where you don’t use words, you don’t use ideas, you just use sound and this non-tangible, mythical, magical structure. So, I had already started my band Tinker, but music didn’t seem like a good plan for life. You can’t make music your life. You can be in love with it. You can do it as a love affair. But you can’t plan on music paying your phone bill. So, at twenty-two, I was starting to research graduate programs for photography so I could work as a music photographer, take pictures of things I loved. That was a very reasonable, pragmatic plan I had started at twelve. And then, accidentally, I joined Hole.
MADM: Oh yeah, very much so. That was definitely the biggest change of my life, the moment where I took a right instead of a left and crossed through the looking glass into some David Lynch dream. Everything changed from that moment, because when you step into the public eye, let alone in the wake of a tragic suicide [Kurt Cobain], a horrendous overdose [bassist Kristen Pfaff], … the only survival mechanism for that level of pain is music, fantasy, travel, and transience. Nothing stable, nothing to lose, because everything is gone, and you just go.
UD: But why was it an accident?
MADM: It's a long story involving a smashed beer bottle and a show at a tiny rock club that introduced me to the Smashing Pumpkins on their first tour, they became my favorite band, which later lead to my band to opening for them. How that happened is, I wrote a letter to the fan P.O. Box, and I got invited because I was not afraid to say I was the, “Remember me, I'm the biggest fan of your band, my tiny unknown band would like to open for you.” And it worked somehow.
And so then, when Hole was looking for a bass player, Billy Corgan recommended “This girl in Montreal,” saying, “She’s really good.” So, it had been ten years toward this plan of becoming a professional photographer, and then Courtney Love called me, and she asked, and I said, “No, thank you.” And she said, “Why are you playing so hard to get?” And I said, “Because I actually have a photo degree, and I have my own band, and it really doesn’t fit with what I am looking to do.”
UD: What changed your mind?
MADM: I accepted Courtney's invitation to at least fly out west and meet them, and then it all changed. It really wasn’t professional or like, “Let’s make a big radical change, go see the world.” It was actually a sense of an emotional lesson being handed to me, this sense it would define me as a human. When Courtney and the others picked me up at the airport in Seattle and I saw their faces, I saw women that were in my destiny, that I must have seen in my dreams when I was twelve. They had just gone through so much pain and they were looking to me as one of the band-aids of the future, to fix the problem so they could go on tour with the record. They had worked very hard on Live Through This, and they were determined to survive. That was the hardest change I had ever made, and a lot of why I am talking to you in a tiny town in upstate New York running Basilica, a basically selfless art community center.
UD: How so?
MADM: I am trying to get back to where I came from before that big turn, because I came from a world of arts for the arts. Still, today, the music and art scene in Montreal is very small, and especially in English Montreal, it is not much bigger than Hudson. This Hudson is what Montreal felt like to me as a teenager. Both my parents were freelancers. No stability, no regular paycheck: People who do what they want to do, and create worlds. Of course, joining a band is not quite like doing a nine-to-five job, but it was plugging into a huge system. It was never a system I dreamed of being in, but it was an opportunity — profound, emotional, life-defining. And then musically, especially with the Pumpkins, working with that level of musicianship and perfectionism. I would never change that decade, but at thirty-two I was done.
UD: Did you do photography on the road?
MADM: Yeah. In fact, I was asked why I was photographing so much, because there were not a lot of photographers that were shooting a roll of film a day in the 90’s in a band. And then I would print them on the road. I couldn’t even wait until I got off the road. I would get the photo and would have the memory right there a week later. Obsessively gathering data, essentially. But I also just like the process; I like engaging with the moment, looking at a corner that touches me.
UD: Was part of your motivation a fear of losing yourself in this intense experience?
MADM: Maybe I was collecting like a memory bank. That, if I were to die and I didn’t ever talk to you or talk to anybody, these photos would tell this story of what it is to be a woman going into the 21st century playing in a male-dominated rock-and-roll music field. I am obsessed with biographies. I don’t read fiction, I read biographies and autobiographies, I want to know the story from the beginning to the end. Can someone tell me where they were born? How they ended up, at a hundred, sitting on a mountaintop? So somewhere in there I am just collecting information for a story that might not even be for me to tell.
UD: So maybe this is not about forgetting?
MADM: Or it’s material. Recording. It’s not the fear of forgetting, because A: I don’t suffer from fear. I mean, being raised by a single mother and traveling the world with people on their deathbed and with profound soul torture doesn’t scare me. There are people who are afraid of infinity, who don’t find comfort in the fact that we are nothing but a tiny speck of dirt. But it doesn’t scare me. I like it. But, anyway, B: I have 30,000 to 50,000 negatives and about twenty-five diaries, and I never throw anything out. Somewhere in that stuff I am going to remember.
UD: You said you decided to join Hole for the emotional lesson. What do you think that was?
MADM: Well, I had a terribly shy and enclosed personality until about twenty-two. I spent the first twenty-two years observing, not really saying much. I watch, and I watch, and I watch, and then one day I had to get on stage to play music. For me the public performance happened before I could speak. A few years of public performance, and the interviews where I had to talk alongside Courtney, the biggest, loudest talker of all. Music brought me out of my shell, which I am very grateful for. That’s the human lesson of Hole that sticks with me every day. Even just from the three people I was in the band with, the three individuals who are major marks on my life. Not to mention, a big lesson in humanity and compassion for extreme people in extreme situations.
With the Pumpkins it was about the music. The level of musicianship was in the same realm as a classically-trained person. You do not make mistakes, you do not get sick, and you have to learn a new piece every single day.
UD: Hole sounds completely different.
MADM: The complete opposite. And I didn’t realize how radically opposite it was until I was on the other side, in a band with all men. [Laughs] As well as in a band with Billy, versus Courtney. He was a machine. You can’t pay for that kind of education. When you are under pressure, and you have to perform in front of twenty thousand people, and play a three-hour show, and do it every single day for a year straight. Musicians are just working class heroes. They are people who just go and slug away and sleep in horrible, uncomfortable beds, and keep telling the story over, and over, and over to be able to, like, not die. Or to be able to, maybe, pay their phone bill.
UD: Two powerful experiences, both radical and very fortunate.
MADM: Very radical, very lucky because I think in my own work I blend the two. I don’t even mean sound-wise, because I never think about what my solo record sounds like compared to the Pumpkins or Hole. But I think you are touching on something which I haven’t really thought about, more about how I combine for myself, in the way I write music and the way I make my records, some of the structure with some of the emotional looseness of Hole.
UD: Do you miss the limelight?
MADM: No. I wouldn’t be here in Hudson, New York if I did. I would be in L.A. or New York.
UD: Do you perform anymore?
MADM: The only time I touched my bass this year was when we had our annual event called Freak Flag Day. They shoot the Flag Day fireworks, which is an incredibly impressive fireworks display, from the parking lot of Basilica. So every year I have an industrial goth, new wave, dance party to go with the fireworks. And this year I invited a bunch of friends to play during the fireworks— like a performance piece— because the fireworks are louder than any instrument in the room. I was asked to join them. And I was like, “No, I don’t perform,” and I don’t really at the Basilica, but it was an experimental noise concept, so I did it.
UD: Do you have a vision of yourself in 30 years?
MADM: A lot more of the same. With probably more attention to the recording tendency of photography, or diaries as a way of reflecting on where I’ve arrived. Whereas, right now, I am very much in process. I am in process, but I think there is a time I’ve been waiting to get to, where my day-to-day life will shift, allow for more reflection.
UD: To archive…
MADM: Yeah. Reading and writing and quiet time with tea. I need more of that.
UD: For some reason, I don’t see you doing that. I have a feeling you are going to be onto a new project.
MADM: Definitely work. I like to work. I don’t vacation. I work. So I think the work will be very focused, not like going back to school, but just working at something related to the recording, and reflecting.
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