issue 20 :: September 2011

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INTERVIEW: Azalia Snail

Originally published in N D 16 (1992)
by Rob Forman and Julie Proshek

Azalia Snail is one of those truly wonderful, original, and idiosyncratic musicians. She combines swirling, trebly, acid tinged pop songs with layered backwards vocals and cheap effects. Using mainly guitars and her voice the overall effect is like sucking on a crystally piece of rock candy. Essentially using only a 4-track to record her music, there remains a total lack of pretension that harkens back to some of the stranger ESP discs. With her pal St. Pagey (Danny, an equally charming and unpretentious musician himself), she should continue to produce excellent and vibrant sounds. Azalia Snail was interviewed in the summer of '91 by Rob Forman and Julie Proshek.
N D: Could you talk about how you became involved with music, from your childhood to present?
Azalia Snail: I took piano lessons when I was five, but I didn't like it—any discipline—but music was always the most important thing to me all growing up. I had rock files in high school; I was researching every band that ever existed, they are just little pieces of paper. I would list every member of the band and what instrument they played and on the back all the albums and what date. That was my project, and I bought every single rock encyclopedia—Lillian Roxon's rock encyclopedia which is the first of its kind I believe, which came out in '67, '68. Actually my mom just threw out two boxes of these really rare rock books by accident, I'll probably never forgive her. But I collected everything, posters, singles.
N D: When did you start playing guitar?
AS: I took lessons when I was young, but my hands were really tiny and I couldn't make any of the chords, it was really frustrating. I still force them into making the chords. So I was obsessed with music and always wanted to do it, it was just trying to find the right people. I played some with Thalia Zedek (Live Skull), but it took me a long time before I started doing Azalia Snail; late '87. I bought this 4-track and didn't know how to use it so everything was coming out really bizarre, which I liked. The whole "Inside Her Minds" soundtrack was done when I barely knew how to use it.
St. Pagey: I'm not sure if I've gotten started yet.
N D: How did the two of you get together?
AS: That was sort of a fluke, I was doing this tour last November ['90] and I was hoping that Andy Nelson, the guy who plays the zither, could come but he couldn't get out of his job. Then I wanted this film maker from Chicago to go, Jim Sikora, but he's kind of a scary guy, real big, and I didn't want to have to do all the music myself; play with prerecorded tapes which can be a disaster and is kind of silly anyway. I ran into St. Pagey outside the Pyramid, who I barely knew, but heard was a musician and a genius, and I asked this genius to come on tour with me. What was your reply?
StP: Wow, that sounds like fun. But I wasn't sure I was going till the day we left...
AS: We started on the tour, picked up Jim in Chicago, but by the end I wanted to get rid of Jim and hang out with Danny. We found out we had a lot in common musically. We both liked Big Star and the Dwight Twilley band. I mean, how many people like Dwight Twilley?
N D: Why did Jim come along anyway?
AS: I had asked him, and to show his films. I started out doing films with Big Yank, we did "Inside Her Mind's" together. I was always into film, and when I did a show in Chicago Jim was showing some films at [Club] Lower Links; I asked him to show his films on top of me at a performance. They ended up being porno films, which is not what I had in mind.
N D: What was shown on that tour?
AS: The first half were mine. I bought a super-8 on tour, and started dabbling. The other films were Jim's. He had this $1500 projector which was really great. He's a real perfectionist too. He did come through professionally, it was just on a personal level. But only now people ask about the films, whereas before there was so little feedback. I mean, CMJ or somebody reviewed our show at Wetlands and they didn't even mention the visual aspect. But people on this tour really seemed to notice the absence of the films.
N D: How did you hook up with Albertine Records? Did they hear the tape?
AS: No, no, it was another fluke. It was the easiest thing I've ever done. We were opening for the Reverb Motherfuckers at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick and Roger and Frank, who were just starting a label, came to see them, but made a tape of our set, which wasn't very good. But they got my number and they weren't very clear about who they were. They acted like they were from a studio not a label. When they called and left a message, I guess part of it was erased because there was no number, I just ignored it. Two months go by, and then this guy comes up to Andy at Maxwell's and says, "Hey, I saw your show, does Azalia have a label yet?" and Andy says, "She's supposed to have something out on Shimmy Disc, but there's no contract", like you ever sign a contract with them. It was tentative, Kramer wanted to, but he thought it was too weird even for Shimmy Disc. Really, he thought it was too "out there." So Andy tells me these guys want to do it, so a year and a half later it comes out.
N D: How long ago was it recorded?

AS: That long ago. Some of it's really old, the 4-track stuff I did in '88. "Baby Brother" with John Hall (King Missile) was done then. The second record "Burnt Sienna" is supposed to be on Albertine too.

N D: Will it be more "produced"?
AS: Mostly 8-track, real simple, but more experimental. Like I was saying to you yesterday, I'd like to do an album of all really weird stuff, like "Inside Her Minds" and some instrumentals where I go off the deep end. I don't know, maybe another label would put that out. I'd like to keep on expanding and bringing more people on tour with me. Andy Nelson, who plays incredible kalimba, Mike Burns to play percussion, and Danny of course.
N D: But scheduling a tour with more people can be difficult.
AS: Definitely, and I don't like to practice, we never practice. I don't believe in it, getting bored of your own music. I like to hear my music and practicing takes away a lot. I mean, even playing the same songs on tour gets old. That's why it's fun to do "Driftless" live, because we sort of improvise and it's different every night, and people seem to like it, but if we do too much of that people can't handle it.
N D: If you like to play it though...
AS: I don't know - it's just in a club environment people expect verse/chorus and improvising is too much sometimes. We played the Kitchen not long ago and it went great, but they expect weirder stuff there. But it's hard to reproduce the instrumental pieces live anyway because I do so much layering on 4 and 8-track.
N D: Aren't a lot of the songs re-recorded for the record?
AS: Well, they wanted me to and I was essentially trying to recreate 4-track material in a studio. Most of it worked out, but certain tracks sounded better on 4-track. "So Much More to Go" is much better on "Inside Her Mind's" than the new version. They wanted cleaner versions, but am I supposed to do "Hiss & Crackle" in a studio? The whole point of the song is a tribute to vinyl, and the character it develops with extensive use. LP's are wonderful, I don't get the CD thing, the sound is too good, to the point of nothing.
N D: You quote Henry Miller don't you?
AS: Yes, I love Henry Miller. I was always reading. I didn't even take lunch in school, but went to the library instead. We had Rimbaud in the library. Whatever Patti Smith and Lou Reed told me to read I would try to find it - and once I got a hold of Henry Miller - he goes on for pages and pages about his favorite authors. He turned me on to Blaise Cendrars who I also quote from for a couple of songs. "Nothing Is Everywhere."
N D: So have you played much with King Missile?
AS: Oh yeah, a lot of shows. There was one infamous show at Hampshire college with King Missile, us, Sebadoh, and The Supreme Dicks. What a bill.
N D: Sebadoh 's pretty cool.
AS: I adore them, they're great.
StP: Actually Sebadoh is interesting in my history because their first show was played opening up for a band I was in in Massachusetts called The Loneliest Christmas Tree. Of course Lou was mainly in Dinosaur, and it was just a side fun thing.
N D: When was this?
StP: '85, yeah.
Everyone: Wow! '85.
N D: Have you collaborated much?
AS: Not really. My first band before Azalia Snail was S!T!0!I!N!K!
N D: S!T!O!N!K!?
AS: Yeah, it was the four guys from Fly Ashtray, me, and this girl named Ginger. We did one show at CBGB's, which one friend said was better than the Butthole Surfers; really wild night. But we all had nicknames in the band, that's how I came up with Azalia Snail. We were in this funeral parlor attic that James lived in and I was pretty drunk. James aka pHoaming Edison. Then I was in this band called Open Wide, getting my chops, the band I always wanted in High School, sort of a Mott the Hoople thing.
N D: What bands did you dig growing up?
AS: Mott the Hoople were numero uno, I loved them to death. The Troggs, T-Rex, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, The Kinks, Brian Eno. Those were the biggies that influenced me. Patti Smith of course. I don't really sound like them now, but they influenced Open Wide. We did a lot of songs about sex, but how long can you do that? Can has had a bigger influence on me as the group is now. What I like about them is how they can take one riff and just expand it and draw you in, plus the first time I heard them I was on Ecstasy and it's one of those things you never forget. But I'm not sure how I got to the sound I have now except jamming with Fly Ashtray and just not playing well, trying to find what sounds good to me.
N D: To me there is a parallel between you and the early Danielle Dax solo material, self done four-track songs, but with a trippy feel.
AS: I just listened to her new record, it's the first time I've heard her music, and thought it was awful, really disco, what's wrong with her?
N D: I agree, a bad place to start. You should hear the older stuff though, it's pretty amazing.
AS: And it's really good? Wow.
N D: Aren't you a Nick Drake fan, St. Pagey?
StP: Oh yeah, well I was slightly attracted to Azalia's music when I first heard it because it reminded me some of the stranger stuff Tim Buckley was doing in the middle 70's.
AS: I thought you hadn't even heard my music?
StP: No, I had heard it one time.
AS: You did? when?
StP: Uhhh...
N D: Do you do any other music besides with Azalia?
StP: Well, this other band I've been in for about eight years is making a record, The Supreme Dicks. We hope to have it out by 2000. We're one of these bands that no one knows, but were a legend anyway, at least in this one region of western Massachusetts. We've had about fifteen members over the years, one of them is Jim Spring who has done videos for Dinosaur, Bongwater, Pussy Galore, Flaming Lips, and Foetus. Another member is John Shear who was in the Loneliest Christmas Tree as well. Bus Stop is supposed to reissue the TLCT single that never came out officially. But the Supreme Dicks have sort of a credo, we're a celibate-Reichian-vegeterian band.
AS: Yeah, but you're not really celibate.
StP: Well we'll break it occasionally, to wean others off sex.
AS: Right, because you're so bad at it (laughter all about).
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