EMA on How Her Cyberpunk Influenced New Record is Not a Sci-Fi Concept Album | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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EMA on How Her Cyberpunk Influenced New Record is Not a Sci-Fi Concept Album

Cold Warfare

Feb 26, 2014 EMA Bookmark and Share

Though she has already maneuvered through the media crush for one highly acclaimed album2011’s Past Life Martyred SaintsErika M. Anderson (aka EMA) has yet to learn the art of the carefully evasive interview. Instead, Anderson answers questions like someone who doesn’t like to follow a script, laughing and stumbling over her words, admitting her fears and reservations with the same sort of unexpected directness that defines her startlingly unguarded songwriting. As a result, when she talks about her sophomore release, The Future’s Void, she still seems to be in the process of figuring out what it is herself. Having already passed through two acclaimed but obscure bandsGowns and Amps for ChristAnderson went solo and ended up an overnight indie it-girl, something that left her disoriented and more than a little disenchanted. Now able to understand the feeling of having people watch her every move, she channeled her discomfort into the Cold War imagery and surveillance state paranoia that turn up on the album, ending up with something that draws inspiration from both punk rock and cyberpunk literature. As candid as ever, Anderson talks about her thematic inspirations, her first-take-best-take approach to recording, and why The Future’s Void shouldn’t be referred to as a sci-fi concept album. [Note: There’s a separate article on EMA in our current print issue. These are portions of the interview with Erika M. Anderson not included in the print article. Pick up our current print issue to read more about EMA’s new album.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So, The Future’s Void: I guess my first question is-does the title mean “the future is void” or is it possessive, like “the future’s void”?

Erika M. Anderson: It can be either, which is why I like it, I think. There’s actually a lot of stuff on the record that can be interpreted in multiple ways. I don’t want to say “puns.” [Laughs] But there are a lot of multiple interpretations of things and some purposely obfuscated rock lyrics that people can hear any way that they like.

I talked to you a year and a half ago, when you were just starting to write this album, and you said you thought it was going to end up as a fairly political album. Do you think it did?

Man, that’s a good question. One of the songs I thought was going to be on there that was going to be this political punk song didn’t end up on there, just because we couldn’t get it right musically. Hopefully that will end up as a 7” or something. It’s kind of disappointing. I just couldn’t get it to fit. So I don’t know. I think it’s kind of a punk album. I don’t know if it’s overtly political. The song that came out, “Satellites,” was written before the NSA thing or the Snowden thing, and it was more thinking about the former Soviet countries, which is another wordplay thing. People think of satellites, like the kind that go up and relay information from space, and if you say “Soviet satellites,” that’s another name for the countries that were under Soviet influence. So there’s some double meaning going on there, as well.

Do you think that’s an idea that runs through the albumsurveillance and things like that?

Maybe not so much like actual surveillance but…I read a lot of trashy sci-fi in the van, and some of these ideas were [about] building these AIs of ourselves, even if we don’t think of it that way. I didn’t really set out to make a topical record. It just kind of happened that way, but I think they are themes that everyone is dealing with. I don’t think it’s that…okay, reel me back in. [Laughs]

So it’s not a dystopian concept album?

I don’t think it should be thought of as a concept album. Maybe it looks like one or it sounds like one, with the title and everything. But I think it’s just my love of sci-fi coming out, which is pretty nerdy. Like, “There’s puns and sci-fi on it!” I bet people are real excited.

Are there central characters that repeat throughout the album?

Um…no. Not really. There’s the idea of the Neuromancer character, which is like an AI, I guess. One of the things that was weird about going from obscurity to some amount of success is this new thing of having lots of pictures of yourself everywhere, having lots of words written about you, and it kind of weirded me out a little bit. And it made me feel like there was a separate person who was like this online version of me that was frozen in time or evolved beyond my control, in a way. And so I thought of it like all the EMA stuff calcified into this brick inside of my brain. That’s probably just stress, in a lot of ways. Have you read the Neuromancer books, the William Gibson books?

I haven’t.

They’re pretty good. They’re pretty sweet. But I pictured it as being this white cube, like inside of my head. I realized that’s what the Neuromancer, the Wintermute character, looks like. Oh my GodI’m totally a nerd! [Laughs] But it was like an AI, this artificial intelligence. It’s hard for me to access that now, because I don’t feel that way, but I remember that was the kind of vision and form that my stress took. [Laughs] So I made a kind of angry punk record.

So would you say you’re reacting to this projection that other people made of you?

Uh…I don’t know. Because I made part of it myself. I don’t think it’s like other people made something or I made something. It’s like, “Whoa, there’s this weird thing that happens now with the ability to recall tons of data on somebody and store tons of data.” All this stuff. And it’s just kind of a new thing, and it’s strange, and what is it? I guess a lot of people, like the last time [I put out an album] even, people would ask, “You just got a good review. You’re getting all this good press. How does it feel?” And that was a very strange question to answer. I guess it’s a very stock journalistic question, like, “You just won the lotteryhow does it feel?” But I guess I maybe tried to answer that question [with this album], and the answer is complex. It doesn’t feel one way.

So the idea of surveillance takes on a different connotation in that respect. If a lot of people are paying attention to you, that’s a different kind of surveillance.

Yeah, I suppose. I’m trying to figure it out. This is just my second interview that I’ve done [for this album], so I’m still trying to figure it out completely, and I’m almost a little wary of putting it into too topical of a place. Because it’s not a concept record. It goes through a lot of different genres. It’s punky and it has a lot of these noise elements. I’d been hanging out in the California noise scene, like Il Corral and different spots in the Bay Area and things like that, so there’s a lot of stuff there…. Have you heard the actual songs yet or just the single?

I’ve just heard “Satellites.”

Okay. There are a couple of songs on there that feel really like, “Okay. You’re writing about right now.” But there’s also some kind of more grungey ones that are like K-Records, riotgrrrl-inspired, and there’s analog synth stuff on there. There’s definitely more of that than there is the guitar stuff that was on the last record, but I can see why if all you have is the title and the single, and I’m telling you about Neuromancer, it would seem like it would be…I mean, it’s varied. There are lots of genres that are played with and represented, and it’s going to be kind of like the last one, where you could take any of the songs and make a record around it, and you have a collection that’s varied. The next single is a meta-grunge thing, and there’s going to be a ballad. So there are probably some overarching themes, but stylistically it’s varied.

How long ago did this record start taking shape?

Probably when I got off the road, and I was on the road for quite a while. I probably just got off a year ago in June, so I guess I’ve been off for a year-and-a-half or so. So I probably wrote them over the course of a year, and then you spend the time mixing and all of that stuff, and we do everything in-house, so most of it was recorded in my basement in Portland, so it’s still like that. It was mixed. We had someone come in to help mix it, but it still hopefully has that DIY vibe to it. There are a lot of first-take best-take things that I still really go for on it, and then some slightly more high-definition [tracks], without, hopefully, bleeding over into slickness.

Was it easy to keep those fears out of the process? Were you able to push that away and not feel like you had someone looking over your shoulder the whole time?

Not at first. There’s a complete freedom in obscurity, and that’s something that I believe in fully. And I think it’s important for me. Part of being an artist is checking in and being like, “Am I being true to myself?” That’s probably true in other vocations, as well, but it seems to be a big one [for an artist]“Are you making art that you think is real and true?” So it’s different. What was I saying? Freedom in obscurity! That’s something that is still important to me, important enough that I was like, “I’m not going to go on the Internet for six months.” It’s more important to me to try and come at something that feels real and true and that feels like it came from a place of freedom than it is to try to upkeep my Twitter and Facebook.

So you didn’t go on the Internet for six months?

No. Don’t say that. I just crept back on there for a second. I mean, people have been trying to make artwork about the Internet for so long, and it’s so difficult and problematic. I’m afraid to even throw my hat into the ring there.

Well, there’s certainly a lot of fertile ground to plow through, just because modern life is different in a real way than it was pre-Internet.

Yeah. It’s interesting that you’d say “ground,” like “fertile ground,” because the feeling that one gets from the Internet is, to me, a feeling of vast space. Just hugeness. And that’s probably another thing that’s going on in “Satellites.” It’s like, “What does the Internet feel like?” It feels like being in a claustrophobically small spaceship out in the middle of a vast void of nothingness and who knows what else.

Yeah, there was a quote on the press release with “Satellites” that says, “We fought the wars with information. Outer space is very cold.” Is that the kind of thing you meant with that?

A bit. I wrote something a little more. That’s another thing that’s tricky to talk about. I kind of wanted to talk a little bit more about that [in that press release]. Another tricky thing is wanting to talk about anything that has to do with the Soviet experience or your ideas of the Cold War. I mean, the label is in Berlin, so they’re like, “Really, American? What would you like to say about what you think the Cold War was about?” And I was like, “Fuck…. You’re right.” So I kind of backed off from that, but maybe I should have stuck to my guns a little more. I had a longer statement, but I retracted it down to four short phrases. I think it would have been good to make it clear that I wasn’t specifically talking about the NSA and how they spy on us.

Were you reading about the Cold War when you were writing these songs?

I had read a couple of things that had gotten my interests piqued. Like some stuff by Herta Müller. I think she won the Nobel Prize. Or was it the Pulitzer? I read her book of poetry. And I read this book about the Roma people, who are like the Gypsies [Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey]. It was by Isabel Fonseca, so I was reading about that and I watched these documentaries and movies about the Cold War. What is it, Good Bye Lenin? Just kind of working back to it, because it’s something that you grow up hearing about, but I still don’t feel like I totally understand what happened. Right now, we’re like, “Oh, capitalism won,” but now we’re seeing that crumble and fuck over the world in its own way. I guess speaking about history and stuff like that, unless you totally know what’s up, it seems like a slightly dangerous proposition. But I have an interest in understanding it and what the ideals were and what the reality of living under these places where everyone really was under surveillance and under the Stasi of East Germany and the different sorts of police that were in the former Yugoslavia and Romania. You never knew about iteven among your friends and family members and neighborswho was working for the secret police. What would that be like?

Would you say these themes turn up quite a lot on this album? Or is it isolated to a few different tracks?

Which themes?

Well, the themes of being under surveillance and the paranoia and the claustrophobia that comes from of being constantly watched?

Well, I think if I had to have some themes for the record, in general, I think they are [about] trying to rebel against digital commodification of things. There are a couple personal songs about me, my personal experience of having your video and having your picture taken without your consent. But then you put that into a larger theme and it becomes eerie, if you think about it in the context of the Steubenville rape cases and teenagers beating the shit out of each other and putting it on YouTube. There’s a grunge song about being blonde, which is kind of funny. There’s a song about clicking on the link of a dead celebrity, which is also common, like, “Oh, so and so died,” and you click on it. The record is a little defensive. It’s a little noisy and defensive. But most of the songs are in that pop song length, and there are a couple more verse-chorus-verse things than there were on the last record, though not really. Just a little bit more. But it’s noisy. And I think part of that is a defense against putting out your very real emotions into the world. You do that and you don’t want to make those things into advertisements. You don’t want to make sounds that sound like they’ve been used to sell things.

Did these songs go through a lot of different versions?

I like using first-take-best-take vocals if I can, something that’s really true to how things are coming out, because I find that when I try to go back and get myself back in the headspace or back in the zone, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel right. That could be why I don’t like to go into studios. I like to just go down there, lay it out. Even if it’s not pitch-perfect or the lyrics aren’t completely perfect, I still think it’s the perfect take because it came out of the moment of its inspiration. So there is a lot of jam that will end up on the record in some sort of form, but then I’ll play around with timbres and instruments and “Should we put in this synth part? How do we process it?”

Was any of this record after all the NSA stuff came out?

No. It was all written before that.

It’s interesting, because it seems like you were picking up on something that was about ready to break out.

Yeah, I don’t know. Sci-fi…you know? Who knows what will come true and what won’t? It was pretty much all written before that. It’s so hard to talk about some of these themes, because we don’t have any language yet except for things that sound really dorky, like cyborgs or something. Nowe’re not going to use that word. It’s difficult to make a record about any sort of sci-fi novel or movie without getting into the trappings of the genre. What I think this record tries to do is deal with some of these themes that at one point seemed futuristic but now seem common. But it also tries to sidestep a lot of the tropes that come along with that. It doesn’t try and sound really future-y or anything, for the most part. It’s not like funky psychedelic space Parliament. Or like techno. It tries to do that in a way that avoids the aesthetic stereotypes of that genre.

It sounds like from what you’re describing that it’s pretty existential, like what it means to exist in a digital era when you don’t own yourself to a certain degree. You have all these competing selves.

Yes…. But I think that the music is still very visceral, like first-take-best-take. There is shit that is out of tune, and sometimes I say words I didn’t mean to say but I’m just jamming out on stuff. If it’s dealing with these kinds of existential or disembodied themes, I want the music to be very present. There are a lot of vocal techniques that are kind of animal-ish, like really raspy stuff, and some really pretty stuff. I feel like keeping it slightly improvisatory keeps it in the body. It doesn’t let it go off completely into this disembodied realm. And it’s not overly manicured. Like when you think, “Oh, I’m going to represent the future,” you think of some SKYY Vodka ad, and this [album] works to keep this punk rock, bad skin, talking-while-the-recording-is-happening kind of vibe to it.

So it’s not all glistening surfaces.

No. Definitely not. And maybe that’s what it’s trying to do is take these things away from this existential theory land that it has been in forever. I’m just riffing now. I sometimes like these interviews, because I get to think about it. But the whole idea of the futureup until a point, all of these ideas were the future, so they were this manicured. Now I guess I’m trying to take these things that did seem like existential or future crises and put them into a real time, a real human place.

Overall, what do you want your listener to take from it? Do you care if they interpret these ideas the way you want them to or do just hope they enjoy it, whether they think about it much?

I would like people to connect with it, even if it’s about alienating things…. That’s maybe why I’m afraid of couching it in these sci-fi existentialist terms, because I actually do think about that. When I think about who my listeners are, I think of the letters and emails I get from people in smaller towns in Ohio or Virginia, places like where I grew up in South Dakota, and I want to make something that deals with these themes that are slightly new or have been on the fringes but now are becoming more mainstream. Hopefully they can also relate to it and also get some of the jokes. I feel like I always try to make some things funny on the records, and I don’t know if people get it. I feel like the people who get it really get it, and everyone else is like “It’s a dystopian nightmare! Blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like, “C’mon! When the claps came in, wasn’t that kind of funny?”



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