Amy X Neuburg (2004)
By Beppe Colli
May 17, 2004
I've argued in my review of Residue, Amy X Neuburg's new solo record is a
rare work, one that manages to be at the same time innovative and (relatively)
accessible, extremely personal and yet very communicative, in a way traditional
but perfectly aware (in ways that are never gratuitous or showy) of modern
technologies. A result that's even more prodigious when taking into consideration
the fact that Residue is an album that greatly differs from the bittersweet,
ironic climates that were the prevailing note of her previous works, released
under the collective name of Amy X Neuburg & Men. The only thing she needs
now is an audience.
could sound like a bitter note (and in a way it is). But if we read the "list
of ingredients", the music of Residue is not really that far from certain
pages by "middle-period" Beatles - and let's keep in mind that Strawberry
Fields Forever didn't really sound accessible to all those who owned a radio.
What's changed is - obviously - the context. But I'd really like that at least
those who lament the disappearance of the "golden age" would behave
accordingly: with more curiosity, and less ennui.
only problem when talking with musicians like Amy X Neuburg is the amount
of topics one can discuss: she's an extraordinary singer, a keyboard player,
a percussionist, a composer, an artist of unconventional imagination... where
do I begin? I decided to start this interview (conducted by e-mail during
the first week of May) by referring to our previous conversation.
During our previous interview,
in December 1999, you told me: "Then I hope to concentrate on an uncharacteristically
serious and personal solo record". What were the musical reasons for
this change, given the fact that the work you had done with the Amy X Neuburg
& Men line-up had paid high artistic dividends?
The solo record I had in mind
in 1999 is actually a completely different one from the one I recently released.
I had a collection of songs composed, but had not recorded them, and still
But Residue did turn out to
be serious and personal, and that is the direction I seem to be going in now,
so it is no longer uncharacteristic. The fact is that the sound of Amy X Neuburg
& Men was not conducive to "serious and personal" music. We
were a bouncy, clever and rather manic band concerned with complexity, "macho"
energy, and virtuosity. I also did not have a lot to say about personal issues
during the heyday of Amy X Neuburg & Men, so my songs were more outward
and less introspective.
A couple of years ago I
read of a solo work of yours called Songs About Life & Death & Love
& Insects, defined as "a theatrical multimedia 'one-woman techno-circus'".
Was it a precursor to Residue?
Many of the songs performed
in that show are on Residue. It was basically a theatrical setting (lights,
projections, choreography, and MIDI stations set up all over the stage) of
many of the solo works I had created at that time.
In our previous conversation
I had asked you a question about how the "I" of the song is usually
perceived as representing the singer's own voice, while in your case things
were different/more complex. After listening to your new CD, I wonder whether
the way you see this topic has in any way changed.
All of the songs on Residue
are in my own voice (as opposed to being from the point of view of someone
else), but that is more a reflection of what sort of songs were popping into
my head than of any change in philosophy. In earlier songs I had more to say
about the world, and sometimes expressed those thoughts using an "I"
that might be a stereotype of a person (one I disagree with) to make an ironic
point. My new music really is about me, though sometimes an exaggerated or
distorted Me, and still with plenty of irony.
You've always played percussions
- and drum pads. You studied electronic music at the Mills College Center
For Contemporary Music - and you also studied percussion there, with William
Winant. I'd like to ask your opinion of the way looped rhythms are (mostly)
used today in the music we hear on TV/on the radio/in clubs.
Most of today's "electronic
music" consists of automated beats rather than rhythms created in real
time. Looping technology allows me to create rhythms in live performance,
then add layers over the top. For live performance this is my preference;
I like the fact that every sound I make can be directly connected to an action.
This allows the audience to be in on the creation process; it's more intimate.
I have no problem with automated
beats, though, if the purpose is to provide an audio experience. A lot of
electronica is imaginatively produced and very danceable - great in clubs
and on CD or as accompaniment to a visual medium. I've done plenty of groove-oriented
studio work myself. But in live performance it's a different story. Some laptop
musicians create great music, but for the most part I don't find it particularly
interesting to watch a live performer sitting at a laptop doing who-knows-what,
and hearing what amounts to "canned" music.
One element that I've always
found intriguing is your use of electronic instruments. I've recently seen
pictures of you, playing solo, where you're holding sticks - and no laptop
in sight. Which is quite surprising, laptops being the instruments "du
by Rob Thomas
That is partly due to habit,
partly due to trepidation, partly because I have not yet found software that
does precisely what I want.
I began composing for my particular
collection of instruments perhaps 8 years ago (though at that time solo music
was not my focus). So those became my instruments, much like if you played
and composed for piano you might find it difficult to switch over to guitar.
My music is created with the unique capabilities of these instruments in mind,
and a lot of work goes into programming them to do exactly what I want; having
to re-create my songs for another instrument (without altering them) would
be daunting if not impossible.
I also find that using drums,
pedals and big mixer faders is both easier physically and more theatrical
than staring into a busy computer screen and moving a mouse around. It's difficult
to tour with so much gear, though, so I may soon have to face the fact that
a laptop will help me lighten my load. I won't give up on using drums as my
main controller - my use of drums is the whole basis for my stage show and
for my compositions - but as new software develops I may soon be able to use
a laptop to substitute for a few of my synths and processors.
For those of us who haven't
had the chance to catch you live, would you mind talking about the way you
build and "overdub" your loops?
I use the DrumKat to control
nearly everything. I hit pads to start recording a loop, overdub, erase, play
the loop backwards, etc. I also hit them to trigger drum and synth sounds,
or I can press them with my hands for sustained sounds. I can also use the
pads to change settings on my MIDI mixer - add an effect, for instance, or
change a level or switch to a different mixer patch. I occasionally adjust
the mixer manually, and I use foot pedals to cycle through the various song
I often start a tune by recording
a loop of my voice doing something rhythmic, then overdub layers of harmonies
to create a thick chorus, then sing the melodic line over the top. I may switch
to another loop in mid-song, build that one up in a similar way, then switch
back to the first, taking many detours in the process. This keeps the song
structure interesting and unpredictable, and gives the piece a "composed"
shape unlike that of most pop songs, and unlike that of most looping music
(which tends to stick to one loop the whole time in a sort of new-age-y hypnotic
When performing live you
use a DrumKat drum controller. Do you think that the availability/affordability
of laptops has contributed to a halting of the development of "alternative
That's an interesting question.
Alternative controllers can add a theatrical visual element to a live performance,
so I don't know that a laptop and an alternative controller serve the same
I'd like to ask you a more
general question about the relationship between "experimental art",
media and society. When in 1959 Ornette Coleman played at the Five Spot in
New York, it was considered a "cultural event", widely reported
and discussed by newspapers and magazines, besides the cognoscenti. At the
end of the 70s, avant-garde musical activities in places like The Kitchen
were still widely reported. I know you've recently played at the Roulette.
What is the situation today?
There doesn't seem to be much
in the way of staggering innovation - art that is so different it attracts
attention as a new art form. Rather, these days one art form seems to gradually
morph into another, the way hip-hop evolved from rap (rap being the last great
innovation, in my opinion), or incorporate another, as in the huge world beat
crossover into pop and electronica. Roulette is a treasure as a nurturing
ground for experimental musicians, but even in the New York experimental scene,
that "downtown" sound has, to my ears, gotten a little stale. This
is not to say there isn't fabulous music happening - just nothing that creates
a cultural stir the same way the avant-garde did in the '60s... unless you
consider all the sensationalism in the commercial entertainment world - reality
shows, the American Idol phenomenon, Janet Jackson going topless, television
in general. Those are the "cultural" forces shaping society in America.
Last time you talked about
favorite producers/musicians. Are there any other names you'd like to add
to that list? And: what did you think of the Björk collaboration with
Zeena Parkins and Matmos? (By the way, are you familiar with their work? I
think they are from Oakland.)
I only know Matmos from their
work with Björk, and I think Vespertine is stunning.
Have I mentioned Hedningarna?
Several years ago I fell in love with the new sounds coming out of Scandinavia,
combining traditional folk songs with heavy electronic production and energetic
delivery. Hoven Droven is another example. Many of these artists can be found
on the NorthSide label.
One of my favorite production
jobs in recent years was Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile - very heavy-handed,
thick, and dark - the most beautiful "noise" I've ever heard. I
have also recently become a fan of commercial hip-hop music. In my opinion
it's some of the best popular music around - pristine and imaginative production,
remarkable talent, controversial and often amusing lyrics, cultural relevance,
and a very sexy energy.
Among other things you've
done, I've read of you composing music for an animated series called Piki
& Poko. I'd be curious to know more about this.
You can go to www.pikiandpoko.com to see reruns of the
cartoons. I wrote the theme song and most of the incidental music. It's a
fun, irreverent series about two astrology-obsessed girls in the magical world
of Starland, with lesbian undertones and absurd characters. I had a great
deal of fun composing for it - one of my most memorable (and lucrative!) artistic
Future projects? Still
I have a 2-week tour in New
Zealand coming up. My next big project will be a large-scale theatrical work
(and CD) of songs inspired by New York, for voice and electronics plus three
cellists. This may take a couple of years to produce. Meanwhile I am collaborating
with a lyricist in New York on a musical theater piece, and I am to perform
the leading role in a new opera - probably next year. It has long been my
fantasy to tour Europe, but I honestly don't know how to go about doing it.
If anyone out there can help, I would be most grateful.
© Beppe Colli 2004
CloudsandClocks.net | May 17, 2004