Melissa Auf der Maur
By Mark Guarino
To spend $80,000 of your life’s savings to make an album without a manager, a label or a guarantee it’ll ever see the light of day, there would have to be a very good reason. And Melissa Auf der Maur had one.
“The music industry is disgusting,” she said recently, by phone from the Montreal airport. “There is no way that money and making music go well together. It’s hell. It’s torture. It doesn’t work.”
Auf der Maur speaks like she’s had her share of hard knocks but she admits she’s been “lucky” and has an “easy life.” Which is remarkable considering her last two employers have been rock’s towering divas: Courtney Love and Billy Corgan.
It was Corgan who recommended her to Love after her band opened a 1993 show for the Smashing Pumpkins in Montreal. Love’s band Hole needed a bass player after the overdose death of Kristen Pfaff and Auf der Maur fit the bill. She was entering troubled ground: it was just two months after Kurt Cobain’s death. The job lasted five years. “When I joined Hole I felt like I was joining some science fiction alien planet,” she said. “Like what the (expletive)? How did it go from this small club thing to this?”
After Hole dissolved another bass player (D’Arcy Wretzky) left another band (the Pumpkins) and Auf der Maur got the call. Although it was kept a secret, her tenure with the Pumpkins was meant to last only for one year, to help put the band to rest on its farewell tour. The result was a year of shows with Auf der Maur’s eyes glued to a binder of song charts onstage. “Billy used to tease me but … I had too much to learn!” she said. “I was in work overload the moment I literally joined. I was also under the omnipresent pressure I was playing with the best musicians I’ll ever play with.”
Both experiences helped her see the world and school her to the usual trappings of rock stardom: big studio budgets, excessive lifestyles and the neverending circle of lawyers and executives needed to weed through the daily life of being a musician on a major label.
When the Pumpkins ended, Auf der Maur took two years off and moved from L.A. back to Montreal, her hometown. “I cleansed myself,” she said. She also decided to make her own album with zero ties to the industry.
The reason was to “only answer to myself and my own imagination and return to that innocent place I was in when I was in a band in Montreal,” she said. The process became “this utopia … where it was just me experimenting with music. I wanted to make a record to nurture that spirit.”
Auf Der Maur, 32, was born in Montreal to writers. Her father Nick, a columnist for the Montreal Gazette, was the “Canadian version of Mike Royko” and interviewed everyone from Jack Kerouac to Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. When he died in 1998, 3,000 people showed up at the funeral. (Auf der Maur wrote a postscript to “A Montreal Life” (Vehicule Press), a recently-published collection of his columns.)
Her mother was a rock journalist. Their daughter would have probably ended up in newspapers as well had she not been enrolled in an experimental art school where she discovered photography, painting and music. “Although they tried to stuff books down my throat, I completely rebelled,” she said.
Although she played music since she was six, Auf der Maur picked up the bass when she was 19 because of what she saw around her in the burgeoning alternative era in 1991: Kim Deal in the Breeders, Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth, Wretzky in the Pumpkins and Pfaff in Hole. “There were a lot of cool women bass players there,” she said.
As she grew older, her decision made much more sense. “It is the most feminine instrument, the most sensual and the most emotional — from the role it plays within the band to the role it plays within the sound of the music to just the frequency of which is communicates,” she said. “It communicates on the sub frequencies and I’m a pro subconscious person.”
The songs that became “Auf der Maur” (Capitol) were written as far back as 1993. She waited until 2002 to record the album, enlisting the help of former bandmates James Iha (the Pumpkins), Eric Erlandson (Hole) and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. The album teeters between large scale gothic drama (“Lightning is My Girl”), soft/loud psychedelic journeys (“I’ll Be Anything You Want,” “I Need I Want I Will”) and songs that are softer, more vulnerable (“Head Unbound”). Which makes sense considering she told co-producer Chris Goss that she wanted to balance the Smiths with legendary sludge rockers Kyuss.
Being well schooled in metal mythology (she also recorded a Black Sabbath tribute record under the band name Hand of Doom), Auf der Maur says the duality is due to her inner Viking. And inner 12-year-old.
“I don’t deny the part of me that has been drawn to the more masculine energy in rock music. I close my eyes and see Vikings and warriors galloping across the land. At the same time it would be unhealthy of me to see only that because the truth is, I also have a … vulnerable, tiny little girl inside me who is also trying to co-exist with that Viking,” she said. “So sonically, I never felt comfortable with a song if it didn’t have … the most beautiful three-part harmony and the heavy, most distorted guitar sound.”
Once Capitol signed on, the record she turned in was given a big budget mixing job. “There might have been a little bit of them wanting to overshine it, but it didn’t bother me as long as they weren’t touching the core of it,” she said. Other than the mixing job, she said Capitol’s willingness to accept the record with minor changes demonstrates that major labels are beginning to remember “that accidents are the cool things and rock music is about being original and not contrived.” “It also doesn’t hurt that the financial structure of the music industry is falling apart and they’re going to have no choice except to start taking more risks,” she said.
In Europe, Auf der Maur played her first 40 shows as a headliner (“It’s something I’m going to have to grow into. I’m a veteran bass player, that’s for sure. When I’m not singing, I’m at home”). Her current stint opening for the Offspring (tour stops at the Aragon Sunday) will be followed by more dates with The Cure’s Curiosa tour (stopping in Chicago Aug. 12).
She admits there is an irony to being back on the major label star machine but stresses the alternative rock era of the early ‘90s helped give her a perspective most bands today aren’t lucky to have. “(Hole and the Pumpkins) did remain pretty connected (with the fans) because they did come from that place,” she said. “Things have changed so much now. Like every alternative rocker thinks they should be on a major label and on their private jet. Like what the (expletive) did this come from? The perspective has changed so much. At least the bands that came from ‘90-’91 had a foot in reality. Because it’s always a threat. Power and money confuse people.”