Thursday, July 14, 2011
Axe To Grind: Erika Anderson and Her Stratocaster Go Solo
Six months after writing this piece and searching endlessly to give it a good home I realized today, that duh, to despair is foolish, it's proper place was here the entire time, where I had editorial control. Whew! That's one long sentence! Enjoy.
Axe to Grind: Erika Anderson and her Stratocaster go solo
With a bowl cut of bleached blond hair, piercing green eyes and standing six feet tall, the word demure doesn’t come to mind when describing South Dakota native Erika Anderson, lead singer of the now defunct drone trio, Gowns. Her blog, cameouttanowhere.com, cites her as a direct descendent of Erik Blood-Axe, “the ruthless Viking warrior.” If you are familiar with Anderson’s technique: guitar destroyer, this makes perfect sense.
Gowns quietly gathered acclaim from the beginning, Pitchfork described them as “one of the most jaw-dropping live bands on the American DIY underground circuit.” And if that weren’t enough, “If you never saw them live, commence to kicking yourself.” The band consisted of Anderson, former Mai Shi member, Ezra Buchla and Corey Fogel, a regular in the Los Angeles, Machine Project gallery folk scene. In 2007 they released their only album, Red State, a searing critique of post 9/11 America, the cover featuring a rendering of a Manowar jellyfish. The album attracted the attention of the blogosphere but even as they garnered cult status they remained a mysterious outfit, eventually breaking up onstage last February in what could be described as too band blowup perfect to be real. “That final show was crazy,” says, Anderson, who after the breakup finally hunkered down in her Oakland apartment where she had been making music and commuting to Los Angeles from on a regular basis since the mid 2000’s. “I haven’t thought about it too much since it happened but I just remember it sounding awful. We had just played two really great shows. It was my birthday and I think I just said something like, ‘It’s my birthday, sorry,’ and walked off. We all have really strong personalities and those guys are so talented and just focused and good at what they do, but everything we did was real, it was up front. That was the thing with us; we could never phone it in. In a way we needed the fear of God to make it come alive. It makes sense that that’s how it happened. I had some fears about stepping out and taking it pro, but like with Red State, it was important to me that I say something. So when I got a phone call from this woman a week after we broke up saying, “I saw you play three years ago, you blew me away, have you ever thought of going solo? I kind of went, ‘actually…’”
With the May 10th release of her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints under the moniker EMA, Anderson is eager to tackle issues she couldn’t address as a member of a democracy. “A lot of this album is about homesteading, about my Norwegian ancestors coming to America and just going crazy in the middle of the prairie, how my grandpa was in world war two and my mother worked all the time so we could get by and about me moving to California and trying to make my way. I think about that, has my mother worked this hard so I can be a musician?”
Anderson resists using condescending language when discussing the Midwest and takes personal offense to people like Sarah Palin who have turned ‘folksy’ speak into a sign of authenticity. “It’s such a cop out and is so insulting to the people who live there. It completely undermines their complexity as people.”
If Anderson’s lyrics in Gowns reflected a political, and societal response to coping in America, then her new work speaks to music making itself and the power it holds over those who not just create it, but consume it as well. “I got really into the idea of production. The song Butterfly Knife is the first thing I ever mixed on my own and that’s why it sounds crazy. Eventually I had someone come in and explain the things I could and couldn’t do when mixing a song and now I know. Being in charge of your music is powerful. It’s not enough for girls to pick up instruments, they need to pick up Power Tools and not be afraid.”
Waiting for Anderson inevitably will come the endless questions about holding a guitar beneath her breasts. “I don’t mind being asked about my gender, it’s the way I’m asked about it that bothers me. It’s always brought up like, ‘oh, look how good she can play. Or, ‘isn’t that special she’s a girl who plays guitar.’ I want to talk about it, but I wish people would talk about it in a real honest way. I’m terrified to say what I’m about to, but ladies, why aren’t you killing it? I don’t know if girls don’t feel comfortable onstage because there are so few things to emulate? Boys think, ‘I want to be like him and jump around.’ Girls I think realize that as soon as you get onstage people are looking at you, and think, ‘oh, be sexy’ because that’s what you see everywhere, women being sexy, even Blondie, is, I don’t know, ‘hot.’ They don’t seem confident even when they’re good and girls have to be the ones to change it. So I don’t mind talking about it because the way I play isn’t that difficult, tons of girls are better than me. The hard part is the entitlement. Women don’t want to be rude and take up space and I deserve to take up the whole stage. Let’s talk about that. I’ll talk about it forever.”
Anderson who went on tour opening for Throbbing Gristle last summer remembers the guy who booked her for the tour, “I’ve never told anyone this but he was like, ‘I thought you were just going to have a little electronic set and use your voice.’ I think a lot of times my rebelliousness gets me into trouble, because I went out there and was like, I’m going to play a twenty-five minute rock in roll destruction song for these industrial heads. And the guy who booked me was really taken aback. I played louder, longer and took up the stage, I was like, I’m going to rip it up man. Afterwards though people were blown away, they loved it!”
Watching Anderson tear apart a guitar leads one to wonder the last if ever time they saw a woman play the way she dives into her work. “I’m always worried that I’m going to be discredited and I don’t even want to deal with it. I think part of that is because of where I grew up. In high school my band was called Man Hater, I cringed at the name, but we were the only band with a girl in it. I always put it up front, made it so big and said the worst thing possible before they could. I mean, man hater, what can you call someone after that? It was like, you’re not going to fuck with me. Like with Gowns, the boys had less to prove, I not only had more to prove, I have something else to prove. Maybe that’s why I push myself so hard.”