Magik Markers

Elisa Ambrogio: “Steely Dan is the Platypus of Musical Evolution”

Jeremy D. Larson

By Jeremy D. Larson

on 11.19.14 in Features
‘Every woman’s life is affected by political decisions that are made involving their bodies. Even the idea of songwriting and first-person narrative is something that there is a gender difference in.’

“Every time I go on tour, I get horrible rickets. That’s all that happens to me on tour: 80 percent vapors, 20 percent rickets.” Elisa Ambrogio is kidding of course, but it’s gallows humor: She’s on the mend from a bug she picked up the end of a two-week tour with Magik Markers, the no-wave noise rock trio she’s led for over 12 years. After 50 releases with the band, across numerous LPs, CD-Rs, cassettes, splits and a subscription-series-only album called Gucci Rapidshare Download, The Immoralist finally marks Ambrogio’s debut solo album.

Over the years, Magik Markers have slowed their chaos down to write something resembling songs. Ambrogio emphasizes the word “songs” to underscore the distinct nature of her solo work. The “songs” came from a new place of vulnerability and fear. It’s also a place where there’s practiced thought and harmony, two things that carry their own political weight in Ambrogio’s personal sphere.

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Ambrogio spoke mostly in eloquent anecdotes. She’s and thoughtful, equal parts storyteller and stand-up comedian. Her ideas on semiotics and performance theory, and how love exists in the personal and political space, contrast with a strong argument for the best Fleetwood Mac biography, Ezra Pound’s casual racism and how Steely Dan was an evolutionary mistake.

It’s only been about a year since you put out the last Magik Markers record [Surrender to the Fantasy]. Where did the songs on your solo record come from? Was there a certain time period during which they were written?

Yeah, I moved back to the East Coast. I had lived on the West Coast for three or four years. Probably three of the songs were written while I was living on the West Coast, and they kind of mutated and changed as I was working on stuff.

Jason Quever [Papercuts] plays drums on some of the tracks. Probably every time you hear drums where you’re like, “Oh that’s not a monkey chained to a floor tom,” that’s Jason. The monkey chained to a floor tom is probably me. But he’s an amazing musician, so my friend Donovan Quinn [Skygreen Leopards] pushed me into working with Jason. For some reason, everybody was like, “Oh those two will be like chalk and cheese. Jason loves the Beatles, Ambrogia’s gonna make him listen to free jazz. It’s gonna suck.” But in fact he was a perfect person to work with. He was so open to whatever idea I could tell he hated.

What were some of those ideas?

My first memory is of an idea that I actually did not allow to happen which involved a fun rhythm tambourine. I’m not a tambourine fan. I know it’s been used to success by the Velvet Underground, but so were a lot of things that, if I were to employ them, would not be cool. So I just said “no” to any tambourine on any tracks. Jason tried to be like, “No we are gonna — just — this tambourine is gonna get fucked up. You are going to lose your mind on this tambourine.” But it was not the case. It was not happening.

That said, I wanted this sound that was sort of the stretched out, choir-y sound…I had this idea of a harmonic drone, like a four-part harmony drone. It’s people singing, but there would be change in the drone, and it would move through melodies. Jason said, “Let’s set up my tape machine and let’s sing onto the tape and flip it and turn it backwards and have that physical stretched-out sound of slowed-down human vocals on an analog tape.” I never would’ve thought to do that. I just was like, “Maybe we can do it in ProTools or something.”

So he did it, and it sounded so idiosyncratic and weird because of the [analog] tape. And he had just done one as a test so I could hear it. But we kept going back to it. I was like, “Let’s start the ‘Superstitious’ with [your] isolated drone-y vocal thing.” So he’s actually the first sound on the record. I don’t know if I’m going to be in trouble for saying that, because he was not stoked on that idea. But it was both his awesome idea and him being pissed because he didn’t want to do it.

I hear similarities between your solo song “Kylie” and the Magik Markers track from Surrender to the Fantasy, “American Sphinx Face.” Stylistically, they both have that kind of psych, stream-of-consciousness style, putting focus on the words.

Both of those songs started as improvised vocals. Some of the improvised vocals come from written stuff, some of it was just stream of conscious, just saying what was coming into my head. And some of it was written down, but neither one had a vocal melody.

“Kylie” was inspired by this really beautiful girl I went to middle school with. You know, when you’re like an asexual, weird little nerd person, and there’s someone who probably is going through some crazy bummer sexual hell, cause they have breasts and lips and they look like a woman? I was like — “Eh, I’m a greasy little weird, flat-chested, cat-smelling nerdo, and you’re a blonde goddess woman,” but that comes with its own shitty set of things. She had all this bad stuff happen to her, and people said all this bad stuff about her — just the curse of being that beautiful that young. She kind of went crazy and had a weird psychological break and went to a mental hospital.

‘I think I try to work on songs because it feels super terrifying. It’s not a comfortable place, but I feel drawn to it.’

Before that, she was like “I kind of run track” or something, but she came back and she was fucking bad. Like, you’d never seen a kid be that bad before on purpose. She just put on all this makeup during class — and the mean teacher everyone was afraid of? She was afraid of Kylie, because she’d kind of gone off the edges of child radar. She wasn’t controllable anymore. I remember her putting this really sticky lip gloss on and just staring down the Earth Science teacher, Mrs. McCloud, and I was just like, “Whoa.” I didn’t even know how to process it.

It’s like a Mötley Crüe music video.

Yeah. Or it’s like, who sang that song, “Win big, mama’s fallen angel…”

I think that was Poison.

Yeah, Poison. She kind of goes off the deep end and into porn, or something. I don’t know what she really did, she’s probably fine. She probably works in the suburbs and it was a rough year and I’d moved and I never saw her again. It’s more that ["Fallen Angel"] style, at least some element of the tragic.

I’m also interested in the story of “Comers” and what this phrase means to you. I was drawn to the lyrics “When a horse becomes a symbol, truth is a myth, free will don’t exist.” That really grabbed me.

It’s sort of a joke to me? A little? One that’s maybe only funny to me and no one else will get it. It’s funny that it’s so common in rock ‘n’ roll that there are “horses” in songs. It’s like horses in paintings. At least someone who paints a picture of a horse at least had to look at a picture of a horse. Whereas a lot of people put horses in song, and they’ve never ridden a horse, never seen a horse, never had anything to do with horses, it’s just a symbol.

There’s this essay by Ernest Fenollosa ["The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry"] that Ezra Pound read, and it talks about the Chinese character, and the Chinese character having this greater field and depth of meaning because Fenollosa thinks of it as an ideograph – basically, a pictorial representation of its definition. Romanized characters don’t have that quality. They don’t have a visual closeness to what they describe, or what they are trying to represent. So Ezra Pound went mental on that idea, [he] was like, “Oh, I’m gonna learn Mandarin and character systems” and went hard with these racist and incorrect assumptions about the Chinese language.

And then later, being apparently unaware of the 80 years of history following, I read what Ezra Pound had to say and said to myself, “I’m going to minor in Chinese in college.” And there’s a word “ma.” And it’s the basic first thing when you learn Chinese, and there’s five tones in the Chinese language. With “ma,” one means mother, one means horse, one means something like an indefinite article, and the other one is, I don’t know, danger?

I’ll try and fact check it.

Yeah, just fact-check my five meanings of the tonal qualities of “ma” [laughs]. But if you read this essay by Fenollosa and learned a couple of the characters that he talks about — like “sun” or “horse” — you’d think, “Oh yeah, they’re all ideographs, and therefore closest to the real object. That’s the word that’s closest to the real thing.”

And so [the line] is about that idea of the word and the poetic artifice being so torn from the reality of the flesh. A horse for you is freedom, but it’s a broken animal. We’ve domesticated them.

‘Women are often encouraged to double-, triple-track and have these thicker vocals for the ear to pick up sort of a different kind of authority in a song. To layer my voice more than once was something that I would not do, because I thought would have different ramifications in terms of how narrative voice is perceived.’

What does the phrase “the personal is political” mean to you as a songwriter. There seem to be personal songs on this record that communicate on a different level than your work than Magik Markers. Like, people might be saying that it sounds like “The most personal album of Elisa’s career.” Do you still maintain that it is a political album, and in what way do you feel it is political?

Well, this is interesting, because Ben [Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance] has this thing he always says: Sometimes you need to paint orange for someone to see red. It’s weird, because the first Magik Markers record ever, I Trust My Guitar, has a song about being in this dude’s Honda Civic, and I thought maybe I was a lesbian because I couldn’t have an orgasm. He would always be like, “Did you come? I’m going to come.” And I say that on the record. At this point, telling that story feels so personal to me. So the first Magik Markers record was super personal — there wasn’t even a filter between stuff that was sung and stuff that [actually] happened.

Who is your idol as a solo artist? Whose album do you listen to and say “Yes, here’s something new I learned about them.” I ask because I’ve been thinking about Fleetwood Mac and their respective solo projects lately.

Oh, that’s a good one. Jeez, there’s so many different — you could even start with Peter Green and say that his work without Fleetwood Mac was pretty killer. Have you ever read any biographies about those guys?

I know the basic — cocaine, love triangles — but I’ve never read a biography. Have you?

I have. There’s a really great one that I have to recommend, if you’re ever in the mood for a completely bizarre prism through which to look at Fleetwood Mac, and it’s written with such a degree of self-deceit that it borders on a purposefully unreliable narrator in a way that’s really amazing. It’s called Storms: My Life with Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, and it’s by Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend from basically the end of recording Tusk up until maybe Tango in the Night. Her name is Carol Ann Harris. Every chapter title is a Stevie Nicks-penned song, and she expresses great hatred and resentment for all of the qualities of Stevie Nicks she can glean from her peripheral role in the band. It’s almost like a woman acting out, like female competitiveness or jealousy with another woman through Lindsey.

I think it’s the Tusk tour where he’s really Armani’d out, and he’s got bronzer and eyeliner on and is wearing these really tailored suits and is super intense, physically — that was her. She was doing costume design. And she says stuff like, “Now all eyes will be on someone else, Stevie.” It’s really crazy. It’s good because I think she doesn’t know how honest she’s accidentally being.

She also paints him as this weird Amadeus-level genius. He’s waking up in the middle of the night and she’s like, “Are you okay?” and he’s like, “I can’t sleep! The melodies! They won’t stop.” There’s a lot of excellence in this book. If any biography ever comes out about Magik Markers, it’ll basically be that, and then a pulpy tribute to Secretariat at the end.

As a performer, what makes you feel like you’re including the audience more: linear songs that carry more of a melody, or the noisy songs that people can physically participate in? And which makes you feel more vulnerable?

The first part’s really hard, the second part’s really easy. I think I try to work on songs because it feels super terrifying. It’s not a comfortable place, but I feel drawn to it. When I perform, though, I’m not sure. It depends on the audience. For me, if I were to go with the sheer factor of terror, it’s always songwriting.

To go back to what you were saying about personal and political — you’re always, just by walking around and existing and the choices you make, your life is a personal expression of what your political beliefs are. It came from Gloria Steinem and women’s rights in a public sphere, how every woman’s life is affected by political decisions that are made involving their bodies. Even the idea of songwriting and first-person narrative is something that I think there is a gender difference in — like lead electric guitar, first-person songwriting.

I never recorded a layered female vocal until this record, because I felt that male songwriters, their voices, were able to stand alone on recordings and really resonate alone. Women are often encouraged to double-, triple-track and have these thicker vocals for the ear to pick up sort of a different kind of authority in a song. Because of engineers and producers through time, our ears are conditioned to this thing. It was always a choice to never layer my vocals until this year. The only time I would do it is when I would harmonize with someone else’s voice. To layer my voice more than once was something that I would not do, because I thought would have different ramifications in terms of how narrative voice is perceived.

‘If I were from another planet and someone presented music to me as defined and explicated by the documentary on that Steely Dan record, I would be pretty sure I hated music.’

If you listen to Jackson Brown, Townes Van Zandt, Van Morrison, these voices — and of course many of the people I’m talking about have phenomenal, beautiful voices like Van Morrison — but Neil Young and Bob Dylan aren’t people who came out of the gate with a strong, beautiful, choral, harmonious voice, and yet they were just single-tracking vocals. What does that mean to the ear? How does that change how something is received or heard? But I realized that by being really adamant about this aesthetic choice, I was limiting what I was wanting to hear based on this intellectual decision that I had made, and I was sort of discounting these female-led vocal groups that totally flipped my wig when I was little. So I was like “Eh. Well, fuck it.” Now I do the exact opposite. There’s going to be so many of my vocals on this record you’re going to lose your fucking mind.

Speaking of layered vocals, what do you think of Steely Dan?

Oh, this is a really interesting question, because I have a deep-seated antipathy for Steely Dan. Sometimes something becomes part of the zeitgeist — and not a real zeitgeist, just like a lame micro-zeitgeist based around record-collecting wieners — and so I had five friends, whose musical tastes I respect, talking to me at different times about different things, and they each name-dropped Pretzel Logic and I was like, “What the fuck is going on, this is weird.” And I gave it a listen and I was like, “Ah. Alright. That’s not for me. That’s just those guys’ thing.” But — remember those VH1 album companion documentaries, where they had Rumors, and that was fantastic, and they had Black Sabbath and…

Are you working toward the Aja doc?

[Dryly] Right. And after you watch that, for me, if I were from another planet and someone presented music to me as defined and explicated by the documentary on that Steely Dan record, I would be pretty sure I hated music. It just was the worst. I mean, I guess as a performance piece if you were like, “Oh these are performance artists named Steely Dan, they’re like Christo, check them out,” then it would be interesting as a project. But as musical expression, I was like “Why don’t they go into investment banking or actuarial business?” They’re the worst. Don’t do music anymore. It’s bad, bad what you do. But obviously most of the world doesn’t feel this way. Steely Dan is like the platypus of [musical] evolution. Mistakes were made, this was not where it was supposed to ever go. But it went in other directions, too, so it doesn’t matter! The platypus is fine, he’s out there, they’re cute, they have their moments. Just like Steely Dan.

You’ve done more than 50 albums with Magik Markers. Metallica is just about to go and record their 10th album. Having lapped them five times, what advice would you give to them as they go into the studio?

Did you see Some Kind of Monster? I feel so bad for so many people in that movie. You know what my advice would be? Maybe be cool to Jason Newsted. Like, send him a card. Have him come record. He did a really good job, and you were all dicks. And they continued to be like, “You’re garbage and Cliff Burton is the best” into that movie! It was insane. Their whole career was built on Jason not being the worst. You can’t have a weak link and continue touring like they were touring. That guy did a good job. They should say, “Hey Jason Newsted, I don’t know why you became the whipping boy of Metallica. Maybe you were kind of a douche to hang out with. Sorry. You’ll never be Cliff, but you did fine. You did an alright job.” That’s my piece of advice.