Exit Interview: Melissa Auf der Maur
How do you escape being a world-famous touring musician? Proud Montreal native and ultra-badass bassist Melissa Auf der Maur (MAdM) seems to have found the answer.
In the 1990s, Auf der Maur played bass in some of the biggest rock bands of the era including Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, before setting off on a successful solo career of her own. Auf der Maur toured the world almost constantly beginning in her early 20s, at a time when most people were just taking their first real job, either tearing up the stage as a musician, or promoting one of her other artistic works, be it her photography, a fantasy movie, or a comic book. She couldn’t be stopped.
Until she did.
After playing her last solo show in 2011, while eight months pregnant, Auf der Maur abruptly turned a corner on her globe-trotting, big city life, and settled down in the small town of Hudson, New York. Embracing motherhood, and a more stationary existence, Auf der Maur co-founded the music venue/artistic playground Basilica Hudson with her husband, filmmaker Tony Stone, in a 19th century industrial space.
We spoke with Auf der Maur about leaving the touring life, motherhood, and how Basilica Hudson is her new band.
What led you to decide to leave the recording and touring life behind?
It wasn’t a decision [to stop recording], it was just life.
2010 marked the last release of my second solo record, which also marked the last epic European touring I did. For me, the most satisfying part of touring is overseas and international touring. I like North America just fine, but the real fun stuff is when you’re interacting with cultures that are not your own. So for me, European tours are the biggest joy in life. Playing rock music to audiences around the globe, there’s nothing better. I do love being in studios and collaborating with my favorite musicians, but nothing beats the visceral reality of touring around the world.
So 2010 was my last extensive European tour. I went to Europe five times in one year, but on the last [trip] I did 17 countries in 42 days or something. So that was a gift, being to see the world and play music in that way.
My last show [on that tour] was in December of 2010 in Istanbul. I got home the day before Christmas, celebrated Christmas with my family, and the next day started taking iron supplements because I’m like, ‘Oh man, I’m tired and I want to get pregnant!’ I was pregnant within the month. I had never been pregnant before and thought I might be working on it for a year or two. But it happened right away. I had not totally finished the cycle of that album, so I was pregnant and I continued playing shows into 2011. At six months pregnant I was playing in Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
My last show as a pregnant person was at a Toronto metal festival. I was eight months pregnant and the only woman on the bill, let alone the only pregnant person on the bill. It was Rob Zombie, Mastodon… just like a ridiculous, huge, amazing metal festival. And I was eight months pregnant. So that was the last show I played before I became a mother.
During your last solo show, did you have a sense at the time that it was going to be your last show?
Because of the little girl in my belly… I referred to her at the show, I was like, ‘I’m the only woman on the the bill, but there’s two women on stage.’ Because of the power of this woman coming into the world, and being the woman on this male-dominated metal stage, there was something, so exciting about creating another person who might one day be on this stage (well, I don’t know if she will, she can do whatever she wants to do). That would be the moment where I realized that I’m stepping away so that someone else can come in. That’s what motherhood is, for quite a while. All women take a while to get back to themselves.
That show was so unbelievably cool. I played with some of my favorite bands. It was just so symbolic of everything. Sixteen years earlier from that show, I joined Hole, and we were the only women on that stage. That’s the kind of, big picture stuff. My life in music has been very much about the power of music, and the power of communing, and education through people and travel. But the other [focus] has been about the role of women in the world, and the role of women in art, and the role in the history of music. That’s been a recurring theme.
Since then, I simultaneously started this epic new project while pregnant. My partner in life and in love, Tony Stone, [he and I] through some bizarre cosmic accident acquired this massive 1880s factory in Hudson, New York. So while we were pregnant, we were chosen by a madman in the universe to take over the incredibly challenging, yet raw potential of this industrial factory turned art center. So we established Basilica Hudson right in that time, specializing in destination events of music, art, and avant-garde culture for the last five years. And that is why I have not made music.
Because by the time I had River, our daughter, between motherhood and our art factory mothering, it hasn’t made any time for music. But it has been totally worth it. [It’s] been an invaluable and difficult but exciting learning curve, because we now have learned how to embody the presentation of art and music and work.
In terms of music, I consider myself a music lover before even a musician. I only started making music because I was so in love with music. My music fandom has brought me everywhere I’ve gone. I’m devoted to music as a higher way of sharing with humans. Because that’s my background and why I got into music to begin with, to be able to create that experience, specifically through Basilica Soundscape, which is our annual music and art weekend. I have found myself on the other side. Which is, [I’m] the person creating the experience of sharing music.
It’s fucking incredible. It’s more work, it’s fucking hard. But it is such a beautiful feeling to be able to offer that to others, and to future generations. My daughter is growing up in a space where music comes through the doors regularly, and people who care about art and music come through all the time, and she gets exposed to it. So in some ways it was a practical thing. I want to be able to be rooted somewhere for my daughter, in the early years. Or possibly forever. It’s hard to say.
I’ve been traveling my whole adult life, and I wanted to learn how to embrace being in a home. The home I’m raising my daughter in is the first place I’ve lived in for more than a year since my mother’s house that I left when I was 17. I’ve never had a home before now.
So making this home and making a home for art and music is my chapter in building a foundation. It doesn’t mean I stopped making music. In fact I transferred the same love and commitment to another shape and form of it. But I will absolutely return to music after this incredible new experience of being on the other side and being a mother.
What’s the biggest difference between living a touring life and your new, more stationary life?
You mean my one block life? (laughs) In my house that overlooks the Basilica?
It’s pretty intense. I live in a small city of 6,000 people. I’ve only ever lived in major cities, I’ve lived in Montreal, New York, and LA, and then found myself in Hudson, New York. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. I don’t think it would have worked if I had just said, ‘I’m just gonna settle down in New York City.’ I needed to try something so radically different, and essentially be seduced. I fell in love with small town America. I’m a Canadian who’s been living in this country for 20 years, but I never even felt connected to the country. I hold a passport, but because I’m a very patriotic Montrealer, I didn’t feel connected.
I moved to Hudson and we got ourselves involved in a small community where you can see things change. You can make things happen. You can change the direction of something. You can walk into city hall and give a complaint. You can know your elected officials. You can start a center for art that affects the direction of the place you live. That’s pretty much what got me rooted.
I’m very committed to how motivating and inspiring the cause and effect of yourself on the place in which you live. LA and New York don’t have that anymore. You can’t really revolutionize a neighborhood. In the ’90s I lived in Silverlake and I really did feel like we were on the verge of something, but you can’t really penetrate.
I don’t think I would have imagined in 2010 that I wouldn’t have made any other music by 2015. So this has not been the plan. I was not planning on quitting music. I’m into taking chapter breaks. After I left Hole and Smashing Pumpkins I took a couple years off to really contemplate what I wanted to do with music and where I wanted to make music live in my live. I decided to make solo records, but even with those solo records I took my time and I took [another] couple of years off. In one case I made a fantasy film, and brought it to museums, and [promoted it] in different ways than the traditional rock touring thing.
In the past couple years there’s been a possibility for a Hole reunion. I guess I could have gone on a big international world tour. Last year was the 20-year anniversary of Live Through This, and there were some conversations about it, but it just didn’t feel right.
What do you miss most about touring and being out there?
Seeing the world. Getting outside of your stagnant perspective. Even if you just roll through Berlin for a day you learn something. About world history and the current state of a place that artists are moving to from North America. You learn so much just by being there. You gotta work harder just to learn stuff when you are in one place. Right now, luckily between Basilica and becoming a mother, I’m learning profound new things. That’s why I was willing to sacrifice traveling and touring. I knew I’d have to learn another thing. I don’t know how to be in one place. I don’t know to inspire myself and motivate myself while staying, like, one block.
I miss the education of travel. That is the most priceless education. When I started the big worldwide touring in my early 20s, with Hole, I was reluctant. Because I was planning on continuing in the academic art world. I wanted to go do my masters in photography. I was frustrated at one point because I wanted to continue an education. But I realized quickly that I got a whole other type of degree by traveling.
And now, both in your role as a mother and as the caretaker of the Basilica, you are fostering the future of music still.
Yeah! Which I’m so into. We have this really avant-garde festival [at the Basilica] in the spring called the 24-Hour Drone: Experiments in Music and Sound. It was a 24-hour sound experience. Honestly it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever been a part of. I actually played a 4 a.m. set that evening, but it was experimental noise with these other noise artists.
One of the most fascinating moments was this electronic noise artist from New York called Prurient. So Prurient was playing, and we’re fans of his, it totally worked for our space, and worked for the theme of the festival we were doing. I watched his set and it was bringing the space alive in all of the ways that I dream of making this place a temple of sound. I was watching it from the side, and feeling so satisfied in what we’d created and the experiences people were having. Then he walked off stage, all sweaty and moving all of his gear, and he shook my hand and said, ‘I just wanted to thank you. Not only for tonight, but for everything you’ve done for music. We’re real.’
It was the most beautiful, touching moment. It was also unexpected. It’s not like he’s in some band like Hole, he’s a weird experimental noise artist. He was grateful for Basilica, but then he made a point to recognize the other stuff I had done prior to it. That is what makes me have faith that I’m in the right place. I want him to have an incredible night. I want to expose people to that power. To that sound. And then to have them pat ME on the back? This is why I’m not going to crawl under a rock.
So what’s next for you? And the Basilica?
Our daughter turns four this year and she’s at this exciting place where you can be like, ‘You wanna go play with these people?’ So you have a bit more independence. If I had just been a mother, I would have been making music. But the Basilica has taken the shape of my love of music.
The Basilica has to set sail a bit more on its own because I am quite a hands-on director. I dream of being able to pull away. We are transitioning into a non-profit. We were an artist-owned-and-operated thing, and we did not realize what it takes to run a public events center. It was basically a passion project that’s gone really well with insane amounts of cost and labor attached to it. I’m working on getting Basilica stable so I can go back to some music.
This magical woman named Summer Dawn has moved to Hudson to help take over the [Basilica]. So I’m starting to get real sisterly support. Similar to starting a band. This is a fucking passion project, no one’s in this for money, we’re all in this to make the world a better place, and make music come alive for people. I’m very fortunate that we’ve stuck it out long enough that I’m now being supported by people who believe in it as much as we do.
The cool thing is, I’m in no rush. I’m not in misery. Of course I miss music. Of course I miss the experience of making music with people. But I’m very aware of the decisions I’ve made that’ve pulled me away from music for a while. Now I have a different form of relationship with my music. It’s cool, but it’s definitely a transition.
Even if making music means putting out a weird experimental noise song on the internet, so be it. That’ll be music to me! Maybe it’s just that I won’t be doing that thing where I go through a two year cycle of finding a label. That doesn’t even exist anymore, so lucky for me the whole world I knew doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve been liberated and I’m just making music to make music. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll tour again one day.
The Basilica sounds like your new band.
Exactly! Most of what I’m doing is trying to have a great life with other people. I really like people and I really want to share shit with them.
Basilica Soundscape is going down this September 11-12, 2015. Get tickets here.
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