issue 20 :: July 2011

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INTERVIEW: Azalia Snail

Since her debut 1990 album Snailbait, Azalia Snail has released a dozen beautifully trippy albums of dreamlike songs based on her singing and overdubbed guitar playing. She visited Austin a handful of times in the early/mid 1990s, chaotically retelling of her songs with local guest musicians. I sat down with her before her April 2011 performance at the Spider House Ballroom (formerly the U.S. Art Authority). I assume the reader has read the 1992 N D interview with Rob Forman and the 2002 interview with I. Khider in Perfect Sound Forever.

The interview begins with her asking me a question.
When was the first time I met you?
It was probably at Emo's, 1993, 1994. I remember I was excited because you gave me a sticker and I put it on my guitar case.
Right on. Do you still have it? Was it one of my Shepard Fairey stickers? “The Smoke Gets In Your Mind?”
I think there was a mushroom on it? I don't know what happened to that case.

A mushroom? I think Funky Mushroom made those. Eh; those aren't the good ones. The best stickers I ever had were designed by Shepard Fairey [designer of the iconic Obama HOPE poster]. My neighbor in New York was the Beastie Boys' roadie, and I saw their stickers and I asked “Who makes those stickers? They're great. I want that guy to make me stickers.” And lo and behold, that guy who made the best stickers was Shepard Fairey. And he actually lives not far from me now in LA and he does art openings.

Your last record, Avec Amour, came out in 2006,
and that was the last time you were in Austin. What
have you been doing since then?
I thought about not doing music any longer for a while because... I felt I needed some fresh inspiration. And I started writing more songs about a year and a half ago, and that is now what is Celestial Respect, which I'm really happy with. Paul Ricketts, a British guy who did a magazine called Unhinged, said to me “You have to wait for the reservoir to be filled again.” I guess my reservoir was empty for a while. However, what I was doing was directing music videos, and I have about 25 to 30 videos I've directed on YouTube, not just of myself, but of other bands. And those take a long time to edit, but I am getting better, quicker.
Are you filming digital?
Yes, I film with my little mini-DV camera, and I just edit on iMovie. You don't need FinalCut Pro when you're just doing music videos, you don't need anything too fancy. And then I did get inspired and started to write new material, especially because Andrew Maitai in New Zealand offered to put out a record for me, a double best of CD, but at that time he would have put out an album of new stuff, but I've always wanted to do a best of, so he put out Petal Metal. I thought it was going to be a single CD, so I sent him 28 songs and told him to pick out the best 14, and he said he liked them all... And then I talked to Douglas [Wolk], of Dark Beloved Cloud, and said “Here's what I'm going to put on Petal Metal, is there anything else you think I should put on there?” He said “You should put something from Fiery Skies,” a little EP-single he did on Dark Beloved Cloud that I hand-glittered. Then when I was going to tour New Zealand a second time, Andrew was willing to put out an album there and I didn't have to ask anybody, I didn't have to worry, so I started compiling a new album. And now I'm inspired again, and I'm writing more songs. And sometimes you just think “Well, why bother? There are a million, trillion musicians out there and some of them are pretty good and some of them are doing music kind of similar to what I'm doing now,” there's a lot of psychedelic music out there now. I just wanted to feel vital. I don't want to feel like I'm not doing something that's worthwhile to me or to whoever would listen to it.
Rehashing the same old stuff...
And this keyboard is great because it makes me want to do something a little bit different, rather than the guitar stuff I did.
The change from the guitar to the Omichord seems radical.

My cousin gave me that Omnichord when I moved to LA 11 years ago, and he used to use it to accompany himself on spoken word performances, he would just use one note or one chord. And this was just at the point where I thought “It would be cool to try something different” after 10 albums of guitar stuff, although Soft Bloom was almost all Casio [keyboard]. What I love about it is you can make all these weird chords without knowing how to make all these weird finger positions. That was the beauty of it, and then I just fell completely in love with it and bought another one that has even more chords and more rhythms. It was a happy accident, really.

[painting of Azalia by Alex Schaefer]
And this is like an accordion where there is an A minor button...
Yeah, like an electric auto-harp. But it is tricky because the buttons are really close together, it takes a lot of concentration. There are like 36 little, tiny buttons all in a little tiny area, so you have to be really on it, you could not be a big drinker and play that thing. It makes a lot of sound; it really suits my sound so much. When I played guitar, I would have to have a lot of pedals in order to create the burst of sound I had in my head. I am prone to do my newest material. I have people call out for [older songs], I know some people don't like... but I'm still underground enough that no one really cares. I'm not trying to do Greatest Hits because there are no greatest hits. There are some older songs I can play on that and it's really fun. I play “Highway Devices” and I love it, it's so much better on the Omnichord.
Are you going to do that tonight?
Do you want me to? We don't have a lot of time; I'm such a nice guy, I promised the guitar player on tour with me that he could do a set, so I'm probably only going to play 5 or 6 songs. I will come back in October if enough people want me to. I definitely want to play Austin again; it is one of my favorite towns. It would be nice if somebody gave me a show where I could... this place is awesome, but, you know, you have to make money in order to tour, and nowadays it is harder than ever for the obvious reasons.
Where have you been so far?
We just did Murphy's in Memphis with half of the Grifters, they have a new band called Dragoon. Then we spent three days in New Orleans. I didn't play, Kevin [Litrow] played, I had my mother's birthday. So it has been just this and then Phoenix, just a mini-tour, if you can even call it a tour. I would [tour] a lot more if it were the '90s. I don't want to sound like an old, bitter person, but it was easier in the '90s; gas prices were a third of what they are now, rental cars were half of what they are now.
Does your mother appreciate your music?
Yeah, she's a musician, too, an actress and musician. My mother never liked anything that had to do with Rock or Progressive music, she's a Broadway/Show Tunes kind of girl. And I don't really like that stuff. We're both pretty dogmatic about what we like. She never liked me playing rock and roll, but it is what I love. But she's happy at this point that I'm doing what I love to do, but that took a while for her to understand. My father especially did not want me to be a musician. He wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor where you make big bucks. Luckily my little sister is a criminologist, she's the only one of the three sisters who has a real job. Although, I'm doing OK now. I'm working in the film business now.
With the videos?
No, I'm doing costume design. I worked on the last two Scorsese films, just doing re-shoots. But it was fun. I did a little film with Justin Timberlake; he was very cool. I did a commercial with Michael Phelps. I dressed the Jared guy and I made him look really good. I had him tuck in his shirt and wear a belt.
Are you designing the clothes?
No, I pick them out, but the job description is still costume designer.
I read that you are writing fiction.
I used to write a lot of stories and poetry. I'm mostly writing scripts now. Like everybody in Hollywood, I'm trying to make some movies.
I hope to see something. So much that comes out of Hollywood is crap.
I watch Netflix once in a while on my computer, but I don't even own a television. You know what was the best thing that happened to television? When they went digital, because I said “I'm not going to watch it any more. I don't need it.” I decided I didn't want cable, and then it was the best thing that happened to me; I'm getting a lot more done. It makes me want to create more. I don't need to watch somebody else's creations, I can make my own stuff. Making these videos and being able to post them immediately on YouTube... It reminds me of my little musical career when I was creating my 4-track stuff and sending it to WMFU and a gentleman named William Berger, he had a lo-fi radio show on Fridays, would immediately play my stuff. So basically I would create it on Monday or Tuesday, send it to Bill, and it would be on the radio. It was probably one of the best times of my life, so exciting. There wasn't a lot of choice back then: radio, TV or go to the movies, there were no computers to watch all those millions of things. And then because he was playing me on the radio, it made me want to be creative; somebody likes my stuff. All these listeners would hear it, and then I would be able to play live shows and that led to little labels wanting to put out my stuff and then touring which leads me to where we are right now. When you think when you're a little kid what I want to do is to play music and travel, so to do both together is the best thing in the world to me. There is nothing better. And I talk about this when I go on road trips with new people—Kevin and I only met somewhat recently—Kevin Litrow from 60 Watt Kid—I said to him “I don't understand why some bands don't like to tour, how would you ever get into that position, if you are a person who likes to travel and you love music, and you like people,” and let's face it, I don't like everybody, but the people I meet on the road are usually pretty cool, because they're also into underground music, “what's not to like?” I could never understand; I've read a myriad of interviews with musicians complaining about being on tour. I think they lose the whole fun of touring. They're staying in these fancy hotels, they have to check out at a certain time, and get on the tour bus, they don't see anything, they don't hang with too many people. I don't know, I just can't understand why anybody would not just absolutely love touring.
I could also imagine if you're drawing in more money, you have a lawyer and a publicist, you have a manager and you're in a position where you can't decide anything for yourself...
Yes, that could be right.
Where it becomes a circus...
And everybody is depending on you to make their 10%... That's a good point, if it's not under your control, then it can get very confining. And I've thought about that too, why it is good never to be on a major label and have people tell you “you can't do this, you can't do that.” It's really nice not to have anybody tell me what I can do. I'm kind of a freedom monger, I like to do things on my own terms.
The new record, Celestial Respect, was there a theme to the record?
There is a general feeling. I feel that we should all be very respectful of the entire beauty of the Earth and I get so tired of people not caring about the tings that are so important. One of the things I do is drive an electric scooter in Los Angeles. I have a car, a gas car, I don't have an electric car yet, but I wish I did, but for all my little trips, to the post office, to the library, to the market, I do them all on my little electric scooter. It is really important for me to encourage people to have respect for this Earth and everything that is around us. In the movie business which I do love, but the other part of it is there is a lot of waste. They print so many scripts, they print so many new pages, you get this version and this version, so much paper waste. So much food waste. When you are on a big film with catering, you would not believe how much food goes into the garbage. There were a lot of reasons why I started thinking “this isn't cool, how can we keep on living like this?” The whole water bottle issue kills me. Like most people now, I hope, I have this reusable container, BPA-free, and you fill it with water and you don't have to keep buying bottles. I know sometimes you do just have to, but when these bottles are just thrown into the Earth, it just breaks my heart.
I was just making fun of someone who bought a bottle of water that was bottled in California.
Was it a certain kind of water, a better kind, because some waters are better than others.
If it's clean, I can't tell the difference.
I should talk about this, because whoever reads this interview I'd love to talk about how important water is. Water is actually so important; they've always told you from when you're a kid that you are 70% water and drink a lot of water. But you have to drink a lot of alkaline water. When you're born you are very alkaline and as you get older you get more and more acidic and that's what causes aging and wrinkles and diseases. It's really important to drink alkaline water, you can even get a pH measuring device and test the water yourself. But if you can get to a source, you can read about it on the Internet, in California we have a lady in Santa Monica who has a naturally processed water that takes out the bad elements and changes it to make it more alkaline and I can't tell you how much it has changed my life. I've gotten my boyfriend into it, and a couple of my best friends, we all know how important this water is. I know it sounds so silly, but it is so simple if you think about it: we're born alkaline and become more acidic as we get older. A lot of the foods we eat are acidic: to counteract that destructive quality, we need to drink high alkaline water. I bought water at Whole Foods today, because I can't get my California water, this 9.5 Water, which was unfortunately in a plastic bottle. I admit, when I'm on the road...
Does this have anything to do with well water, or natural [spring] water?
Not really, it's the way it's processed. Some water is naturally more alkaline and in order to make sure you're drinking alkaline water it has to go through this natural process. There is also something called Kangen water, which they do with electricity, but that's not as good, and those machines are very expensive. If you look up alkaline water, you can read many articles. There are some naysayers because there are some companies that don't want people to be healthy because they are making a lot of money, like Pfizer. I haven't been sick in so long. If I get a little bit of a cold, that's it. Alkaline water helps keep you healthy, and it helps keeping you look young. I won't say how old I am, but nobody thinks I'm as old as I am.
And not drinking soda...
I try not to drink soda, I don't drink liquor. I'm not much of a party animal anymore...
I'm trying to quit soda.
Soda is a hard one to quit. I really loved it, too, but once you start drinking the good water, it makes you feel so good, you don't need that crappy soda stuff. You know what I've really gotten into? Iced tea. Good, herbal iced tea. I love pomegranate, white tea. Do you have Fresh & Easy here in town? No? You can make your own, but we have a really nice store that makes it. Iced tea was something that I never liked, and I had to force myself to drink it, now I love it. I love green iced tea, white iced tea... put a little honey in it. It's wonderful. You won't miss soda. It took me a while to stop drinking soda. There are ways to be healthier and not suffer.
You'll meet some interesting people tonight. A friend of mine, Chase Frank, a musician, she moved here from Long Beach. Chase is cool, she's very talented. She has I think three albums out.
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