Carla Bozulich on Experimental Music: "There's No Future For Us in the United States"
Carla Bozulich's eclectic and storied career has taken her around the world. She finds collaborative performances and inspiration inevitably waiting in each city, so she hasn't lived in one place for longer than about a month in eight years. Her work includes film scores, Middle-Eastern-infused Willie Nelson covers, low-brow noise, and high-brow experimentation, coupled with literary lyrics. In the early '90s, she joined confrontational queer electro band Ethyl Meatplow and later in the decade found relative success alongside current Wilco guitarist Nels Cline in the country-tinged alternative group Geraldine Fibbers. Through solo albums and as Evangelista (with core members Tara Barnes and Dominic Cramp,) Bozulich's profile in the experimental community has risen steadily in Europe (Evangelista appeared on the cover of Wire magazine in 2008,) while the audience in her native country is committed, but smaller.
As we reported on its performance in Oakland last month, Evangelista is an intense and genre-bending ensemble wound around Bozulich's vehement vocal delivery and consummate stage presence. Before a show this Saturday, Aug. 17, at the Hemlock Tavern -- which Bozulich says is her last performance in the United States for the foreseeable future -- we discussed international audiences, enraging metal heads, and leaning on Canadians who give a shit.
Can you explain the difference between how Evangelista is received in Europe than America?
Well, at the Night Light [show last month], first let me say that the audience was completely awesome. By the end of the night it dwindled down to people who were really plugged in to the music. I wanted to feel this collaboration of energy and intensity with people who gave a fuck about our kind of music. At the end of the night we made $430. I spent at least $600 just getting the show together and getting people there. Playing these shows is my love letter to United States. There's no future for us in the United States. I just want to be with people who give a shit right now, because I'm splitting. I knew I would lose money and I likely will at the Hemlock. Our first gig in Italy we'll make $12,000. You just have to sustain yourself, which is impossible for me to do in the U.S. I haven't had a home for eight years, and even without that overhead I still can't sustain myself here. I refuse to get a job ... so now I go where it works. I just don't play the music that's flying in the U.S. right now, and it breaks my heart.
When did you realize there was more of an audience in Europe?
I just blew my whole life up eight years ago. I owned a house at the time, but I moved out of it. I decided to rent out my room and stay on the road for a year. I got offered a really long European tour that was six weeks long with four days off. We were all over Europe and I was like, "Fuck it, let's just let the room go." The first Evangelista album was what I was touring on, which was really well received in Europe, but not here.
One of your earliest bands, Ethyl Meatplow, was completely left-field for American audiences during its time, similarly to how Evangelista is now.
I've never stopped to think about it, but Ethyl Meatplow was off the fucking hook. It was the craziest shit that there can be. I was the least crazy and I was fucking nuts. It was fun to see who was personally insulted by what we were doing to music. We formed when heavy metal ruled L.A. Everyone grew their hair out and wore bandanas around their head with cowboy boots and tattoos. It was really gross. Ethyl Meatplow formed to weed out the people who felt enraged or violated by the concept of queer hardcore dance music. We formed intentionally with no guitars. That was the primary rule, not that [band founder] John Napier wasn't wicked on guitar -- he was amazing, but he wouldn't touch one in the band in order to put these cock-rocking people into a tail spin.
Did that force you to push what your voice was capable of?
I had a strong voice, but I was very shy and just learning that it was okay to be alive. We were trying to encourage people around us to come out of their shell and do whatever they want. And they would! We played the Warfield and ... the audience just swarmed the stage. The shit that they did made the people who own the Warfield call the vice cops. They came on stage and said, "Get the fuck out of here right now or you're going to jail." People figured out that Ethyl Meatplow was a situation to do whatever they wanted.
Transgressing limitations like that reminds me of your more recent lyrics.
We're born with so much shit slapped all over us. If people can survive their childhood, we come out some distant facsimile of what we would've been without all of these things projected on us, like the normal ways you should act or function. I'm very protective of everything I have, and I'm pretty sure I scratched away all of that shit to find it.
Every Evangelista album so far has been a departure from the last. What are you compelled to do next?
Right now I'm trying to make a pop record as a solo album.
What does "pop album" mean to you?
[Laughs] Well, a pop album is at least 50 percent songs that have verses and choruses -- and words and drums. Bass. Maybe guitar. I don't know! Anyway, so I made the songs and I think there's a solid three songs on there that I can stand up and say are pop songs. I've never done it, except for on Red Headed Stranger, but that was [Willie Nelson's] written material. But, it was 2003 and the Iraq war had broken out, so I thought that since country music is this redneck, racist motherfucking bullshit ... I would integrate a lot of Middle Eastern music, which screwed up the pop thing.
Can you tell me about your writing process?
When I was very dark and having a hard time just existing, I was just scrawling things down and getting them out. Evangelista was an unplanned explosion of stuff. I was at the Hotel2Tango [recording studio in Montreal] and [Efrim] Menuck from Godspeed! [You Black Emperor] was engineering. A lot of people held me together for that. I was crumbling and they made me keep going. That was the most intense thing I've ever recorded. I was so devastated by life at the time and everybody was like, "Come on, you can do it!" They couldn't trust me with a real mic. Efrim had me hold it in my hand -- which of course you never do when recording -- and I wasn't even able to properly stand up. I was down on the ground just hollering these lyrics, punching someone when the samples should start and holding my hand up when the string-players from Godspeed! and Silver Mt. Zion should come in.
Efrim at one point said, "You're almost done, but I think you should try and find the light for this record." I hit this point in my life when all of my friends were dying from AIDS and drugs or disappearing. I could feel everything draining out of me. He said, "You need to bring this album on home. Make a couple of tracks that express the way you can pull through it. I'll see you tomorrow." That night I wrote "Evangelista #2" and Prince of the World." It was my work but I can't take credit for the actual impetus of it. Without them corralling all of my millions of parts of a person into one room and encouraging me, I couldn't have done it.