After a few years of a creative life outside the spotlight and touring world, Melissa Auf der Maur has hit the reset button.
The current Hudson, New York/former Montreal resident started playing bass in her early 20s, forming Tinker with then-fellow Concordia University student Steve Durand in 1993, before joining Hole in 1994. She eventually joined Smashing Pumpkins in 2000 for its (initial) final album/tour, before embarking on a solo career which produced two phenomenal fantasy rock masterpieces, 2004’s Auf der Maur and 2010’s Out of Our Minds (which also included multi-media components including a film and comic book).
It was during the tour in support of OOOM when she played her final major show to date, at the 2011 edition of Heavy T.O. alongside a collection of male metal acts.
“I was not only the only woman on the bill, but, you know, eight months pregnant playing between Slayer, Mastadon and Rob Zombie,” Auf der Maur says over the phone from her home in Hudson, New York. “I’m so happy my last big show was that, that’s heaven to me. Mastodon’s one of my favourite bands on the planet, and being able to be eight months pregnant and say ‘I’ve had an incredible run’, and with the arrival of daughter, I can stay home for a while.”
The creative juices didn’t stop flowing, though. In between embracing motherhood and producing films with her husband, filmmaker Tony Stone, she found time to curate events at a solar powered reclaimed 1880s factory they’ve dubbed Basilica Hudson.
“As a Canadian living in the States for over 20 years, I finally found a region I can engage with the way I felt growing up in Montreal, the way I didn’t feel in my chapters in New York City and Los Angeles,” she says. “The factory is beautiful and is certainly a central part of the project and the muse, it’s definitely the whole region that surrounds this incredible building that has shifted my life.”
That building has spawned a lot of creation, and has seen such diverse voices as Angel Olsen, Explosions in the Sky and Amber Tamblyn fill its space with unique sonic events. It’s also the birthplace of the 24 hour (and 12 hour) Drone, which involves a community of artists collaborating with special guests to create a completely original experience for both the listener and musician. The first such Satellite Drone to take place outside of Hudson will be Experiments in Sounds of Winter at Winnipeg’s New Music Festival, beginning at 12 midnight February 3 and wrapping up at noon on February 4 at the Duncan Sportsplex.
“It’s really exciting to go (to Winnipeg) in the heart of the winter to bring my first version of this that’s not in the home or backyard, it’s symbolic and really exciting and the beginning of this interesting chapter of Basilica, Basilica now being the thing that will bring me back out into the world. It’s like I went into the womb for a while and the very thing that I went in for will be the thing that gets me back out.”
Marking her first visit to Winnipeg since a tour with Matthew Good and Limblifter in 2004, it gives Auf der Maur a chance to collaborate with friends old and new, including Sotirios Kotoulas, who sits on the board of both the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Basilica.
“(Sotirios has) been my dear friend since we met at a Hole show 24 years ago,” she says. “He snuck his way backstage as a teenager saying ‘I’m from Canada, I’m here to see the bass player.’ He was all bright eyed and totally correct. I’m always ready to meet a Canadian, and we’ve been friends ever since. It was him that brought the Drone to them, this incredible festival that Winnipeg has. It’s incredible to see such a beacon of experimentation.”
When we mention a similar event from the 2014 edition of the New Music Festival, involving guitarist/occasional Winnipeg resident Lee Ranaldo, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, composer Phil Kline, and a lot of guitar feedback, Auf der Maur is quick to connect a few dots.
“The one Lollapalooza I did in 1995, it was Hole and Sonic Youth co-headlining, and Lee and I have always kinda been like minded and kindred spirits on that festival, and I think through the Winnipeg festival we’re gonna reconnect,” she says. “He’s been doing it longer than I have, that incredible thing where you can’t explain and you share it live and it’s falling apart at the edges and it’s vulnerable and visceral. He’s a real tried and true expert at that.”
We mention that the Ranaldo show was like a “creative reset” for us – a reminder that creating and experiencing art can mean anything and everything.
“The Drone has been a reset for me,” she assures. “It was the first idea I had when I looked at the (Basilica) building. I have no idea what sounds are gonna come out of my amp, and that’s part of the reset, putting ourselves out there, the vulnerability and the excitement that comes with trying something new.”
Auf der Maur is involved in the building and curation of the Drone, and will be participating in an hour or so of it herself, alongside such Winnipeg musicians as Keri Latimer (theremin) and Curran Faris (guitar).
“For me it’s the patch working of all these artists,” she says. “It’s so important for me to be collaborating with Matthew Patton, one of the curators of the festival, he’s been my gateway to finding the local artists. I couldn’t have done it without the local musicians guiding me, because that’s how we do it (in Hudson). It’s not about bringing in outsiders, but there are portions of visiting artists and the exciting part is connecting a visiting artist with a local artist. Another element is performers who wouldn’t otherwise be performing in a professional alternative music festival setting.”
Since getting off the road, Auf der Maur has used the Basilica to discover new artists, since she so rarely road trips out of Hudson (pop. 6,713) to check out new bands.
“Living in New York or Montreal I discovered music through live shows,” she says. “I do not listen to the radio unless it’s the oldies or NPR, I don’t listen to things on the Internet. I used to discover by going into record stores and touring, and playing on the same stage as someone. I’m struggling with finding new music.”
That struggle has plagued all of us who knew a time before everything was available online, and Auf der Maur experienced firsthand when the shift happened in the music industry.
“The era of the computer arriving was during the recording of my last record with Hole, Celebrity Skin, and discovering ProTools, and no one was using ProTools, that was in ’97, ’98, ’99. Then by the time I was making my first solo record the Internet was just happening.”
The Internet, which has made it difficult for anyone to simply release music that isn’t accompanied by a complete viral marketing rollout for your thousands of followers, has always been a few steps ahead of the record companies, along with the visually inclined Auf der Maur, whose second solo album was more than just an album.
“I was explaining to (Capital Records) that I was making a fantasy film and a comic book, and they’re scratching their heads saying they just want me to make a record. No, I come from a visual arts background, I went to art school, I want to make a whole world to go with it. They didn’t understand what I was talking about, and within a few years that’s what they wanted from everybody. I’m not saying I was ahead of the game, I’m just more of an old fashioned creative. I went to music school, I did photography. It’s what they call renaissance people. In the old days you learned how to do a lot of things. You could learn how to build a house and paint a picture and play the mandolin. So I just think of it as a timeless way of creating, whereas for a while there in the ‘90s it was so pathetically pigeonholed, it was music only! You can’t be a photographer and a musician, and I’m like, yes I can!
“I feel compassion for the musicians who are just like a singer/songwriter, they don’t want to make a fantasy film to go with their record, or become a mega tweet master. What if someone’s shy? They don’t feel like talking out loud every day. It’s hard enough doing interviews for some people. It’s exciting because we have all these tools, but it’s harder and harder for musicians to find their leg into the world and harder and harder for music lovers to find music.”
There is an over saturation of music, with new artists struggling just as much as established ones to find just a little bit of coverage on blogs, spins on campus radio or even an audience at live shows. But there will always be an incredibly personal communal experience of enjoying music, and Auf der Maur wants to take that one step further with Basilica and the Drone.
“Someone my age, where music came to me in the ’80s, you’d find your crazy record store and then the live show, the experience was so direct,” she says. “The innocence that was part of discovering music is gone. You can see the person backstage before you can even see them play. That’s fuckin’ crazy! That’s not the way the world used to be.
“Drone is a response to my desire to create a sacred experience so that you can’t see it on YouTube and you can’t understand it on any kind of social media, you actually have to be there for 12 hours, and you have to be in the room with the people, and that’s the most powerful part of an endurance music event like this. I wanted to see how many people were dying for that sacred experience. You can’t take out your phones and capture it because you can’t capture a shared meditative experience on any sort of digital device. You can’t even capture it if you recorded it on analog tape. You’ve gotta be there for real and watch one artist fold their set into the next. Part of it is watching the trance you can get in, the shared trance. I’m impressed with the courage of the New Music Festival for allowing this to be a midnight to noon, really doing an extreme endurance of the late night/early morning, because that’s when you push the boundaries.
“Whether you do yoga or mountain climbing, once you hit that deep, deep sunrise hour and watch the day begin again and share that with a group of people in a hockey arena, it’s pretty cool. It’s not your average experience, and you certainly can’t have it at home, alone, on your computer.”
Melissa Auf der Maur brings 12-Hour Drone: Experiments In Sounds of Winter to the Winnipeg New Music Festival on February 3 at midnight until February 4 at noon at the Duncan Sportsplex. Visit wnmf.ca for tickets and visit Melissa Auf der Maur’s Basilica Hudson online for more information.