Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Whitney Phaneuf talks with Carla Bozulich, who reflects on a career spent challenging audiences’ expectations and — more importantly — her own.
The first line of Carla Bozulich’s new album, Boy, is both a declaration and invitation: “There ain’t no grave that can hold me down/ My Cadillac is waiting round the corner baby/ I got a place for you by my side.” With an urgent drumbeat and her distinct, husky voice purring like the engine of that Cadillac, you’ll want to go with her.
“Ain’t No Grave” — surely a nod to Johnny Cash — also feels like Bozulich winking at her past. When Bozulich got clean at age 22, she reinvented herself through music. And today — after five bands, about a dozen albums, and what she estimates to be a third of her life spent touring — she’s still pushing into new territory. This time it’s her take on pop music.
Never fenced in by genre, Bozulich has been an art punk (Ethyl Meatplow), an avant-garde country crooner (The Geraldine Fibbers), a noisy improviser with one of the world’s greatest guitar players (Scarnella), a storyteller capable of reimagining a classic Willie Nelson album (“Red Headed Stranger”), and the leader of a misfit trio that creates intense, uncomfortably dark music (Evangelista). The only constant is her unflinchingly honest point of view.
You’ve talked about how you went into Ethyl Meatplow not thinking you were a musician, but for other reasons. How did you come to find this voice that you have?
I was extremely shy, had pretty low self-esteem, and had had a lot of really negative experiences with sex. And so once I got jumped into Ethyl Meatplow — because it wasn’t really me that discovered my voice, it was my friend John Napier, who is no longer with us — for me, it very quickly became a way to take on a persona that was the opposite of all those things that I just said.
I was into flipping this whole thing with myself. The first time I did it I was 16, and I got off drugs — well, I tried to stay off drugs — and that was a really major flip. And then when I got back on drugs was a huge flip. I went from being the sweetest, most humble person to this volatile, wicked monster. And then when I got off drugs again, I found myself to be what was left after all of that.
I was trying to solve something inside myself because I didn’t want to be alive. I really wanted to change. I wanted to be more the essence of myself and a lot less of the indoctrination of my past, which I think is healthy for anybody, but in my case, it was a matter of just being hammered into the ground by a lot of major sexual abuse and very bad parenting, bad doctoring, a lot of stuff like that. And I just made a decision that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with what was left.
Did you consider yourself a writer before joining the band? I ask because your lyrics are so good.
At the risk of sounding redundant with the whole things weren’t going great kind of idea, I never thought I was going to be anything. Anything.
It seems like what happened to you in your early years is something you’ve never completely been able to get away from. Or even wanted to.
If you’re feeling depressed or trying to stop drinking or getting high or feeling like you’ve been shit on by the whole world, there’s nothing quite like pulling your car over when you see a filthy, lice-ridden, passed-out maniac lying in the street and dragging his ass out of the street with your mini-skirt blowing up in the air and him just getting piss all over you and just dragging him onto the sidewalk, only to have that person be like, “What the fuck are you doing, you stupid bitch?” There’s nothing like it. I say if you’re totally fucked up and feeling sorry for yourself and you think you really got the short end of the stick, there’s really nothing like going out and helping somebody that is way more fucked than you’ll ever be. And for absolutely no thanks. No one knows. No one cares.
So here you are, you’re 22, and John [Napier] brings you in, and there was a pretty distinct concept going on with the band. How did you fit into that?
Ethyl Meatplow was precious for me because not only was I in a position where everyone around me was encouraging me to exaggerate the other side of that person shaking in the corner, but we were all clean, so it was amazing. We were totally wild — we were absolutely out-of-control wild — and we did it all clean. And not just us, our whole road crew, everybody was clean. Also a lot of our fans. There was a huge, huge number of clean and sober complete weirdos as hardcore as you could get that were so much fucking fun, but at the same time, it went hand-in-hand with a lot of people getting sick from AIDS and a lot of those people dying.
Tell me how the music was rebelling against convention, too.
John was just one of the most unique, strangest, smart kind of people that I’ve ever met. He started Ethyl Meatplow, it was his baby, and he was adamant that there would be no guitars in the group because he wanted to agitate people. At that time, metal was really a big deal — bad hair metal — and a lot of punks had just moved straight on to metal, and it was just god awful. Grunge was cool, we loved it, but again, we thought people were taking themselves too seriously, and there was a lot of cock rock. Cock rock, cock rock, cock rock. And John decided there will never be a guitar in this group, and meanwhile, John was one of the best guitarists I’ve ever known in my life. [Laughs]
What was going on instrument wise?
It was live drums, pre-programmed sequencers, live sampling, queuing samples from cassette tapes, and keyboards. Mostly my thing was to trigger loops, and sometimes I’d manipulate the loops. John and I had a really weird way of harmonizing, which to this day, is my favorite combo.
You guys were known for your crazy live shows.
We played at a lot of gay sex clubs, like leather clubs, and then we would also play grunge shows, like we played with Mudhoney, we played with Helmet, we played with the Cows — anybody that could deal.
When we would go outside the bigger cities, that was when it got amazing and fun. The Midwest was the best. They were just so happy. It was a hard time for being a gay kid. It was kinda like, “Do you want to dance to A Flock of Seagulls or The Smiths?” There were a lot of kids who were punk and were gay thinking, “Where’s our dance music, where’s our good time, where’s our scene?” If we would play in Wichita, people would come from 200 miles away to go to the gig.
People would write letters and say, “I met my first boyfriend at your gig,” or it’d be like — I don’t know if you can print this — “I gave my first blow job at your gig.” I felt like I couldn’t wait to get to these places, like I couldn’t wait to get to Salt Lake City. I would know that it would be raging because these kids are hammered and hammered and hammered and hammered to be straight, and — not just the gay kids — the straight kids, too, were expected to be so correct and so good.
Did you start writing songs pretty immediately?
I was not that far off of drugs, so I might of still been in the phase where I was hallucinating and just trying to eat. Which at the beginning, I was trying to pound food so I could get weight on. And I think at the beginning, John was just like, “Do this,” and I’d be like, “Okay.” And then I got to where I was writing stuff and I wrote “Queenie”, which ended up being a popular song for us. I didn’t really know how to write songs. I think I’m pretty good at it now. Hopefully that will be encouraging to people. I still improve as I go.
How did The Geraldine Fibbers start?
I was already writing country songs on tour with Ethyl Meatplow. I would see something like Route 666 and think, “Come on, you gotta write a song.” Then I asked this guy Rob Zabrecky who was in Possum Dixon — that was another pretty unique band from the era — to play with me at an ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] benefit. I played a lot of ACT UP benefits. That was in ’92 or ’93. Mostly I was doing covers and a couple songs I had written in the van.
The labels were sniffing around Ethyl Meatplow pretty hard, and we were resistant. The Fibbers were already going, and Ethyl Meatplow broke up, and the labels just shot to us. We were surrounded by a bidding war. It was such a hard-core bidding war that it’s almost embarrassing to tell you what we ended up with.
What was the appeal of signing with a major label?
The thing for me was I just wanted to be with my band. I wanted to tour with my band. I passed up several opportunities to do things where I could have made a lot of money, ’cause I was this chick, I was 22, and I had this voice that I have, and when people are trying to put stuff together — like Guy Oseary [Maverick Records] who signed Alanis Morissette — it doesn’t matter if you can write music or anything. All you have to do is look good and wail. Or whisper. Or whatever the style is. I never even considered it. Never for a second. I went in for a few meetings to see what it was about and see if I could include my band, and when they said no, I was out of there.
When Geraldine Fibbers signed the Virgin deal, did you ever think it might not be so bad to get famous, or did you not care?
Honestly, we talked about it many times, cruising around in limousines and getting flown all over the place and meeting Donnie Einer in his penthouse office at Sony and him playing us unreleased Dylan tracks from the ’60s. We knew we were not going to get famous. We had no problem with doing everything they want you to do, which is tour your ass off and make a great record and do some press. That’s all they expect for all that money, a free van, and a salary. The thing was, we couldn’t understand why they were signing us ’cause we knew there was no way with our music that we could get a hit or get famous. It was funny.
And the contract you signed said they couldn’t change the music.
We had full control over everything. You have to understand that we were just lucky. We were in the right place at the right time. We were in LA during the period where labels just wanted to be the first to get to the next cool band that was going to be the next Nirvana. That’s all they cared about. They didn’t care if they were losing money. They signed everybody. And we were, at that moment, it could have been a flash in the pan, but we were the most popular band in LA for that very moment. Our set was 75% covers. They signed us on a cassette with maybe seven songs, and I think at least four of them were covers. There were Dolly Parton and George Jones covers, but I have to say, in their defense, “Lilybelle” was on the cassette.
Ah, “Lilybelle” was on the cassette. I didn’t know that.
Yeah, so that’s probably still our best song.
What inspired “Lilybelle”?
The song is about girls. It’s about girls getting through things alone, and we just don’t know how the fuck we’re going to get through it. It’s not about having a best friend and holding hands running down the street. It’s not about “I Will Survive”. It’s about girls that at some point — maybe many of us — end up sitting in a room by ourselves and just trying to figure out how to get the fuck through it. Even now at my age, it makes me connect to what it is to feel that way and to fight your way out of, even if you don’t have a best friend to hold hands with. Hopefully you do.
So what happened when the first album came out?
I think it was ’95, and the labels were already collapsing under the weight of that foolishness that I described, which included signing The Geraldine Fibbers. [Laughs] We had a two firm deal with five options. That means they couldn’t drop us after one record. If they wanted to drop us after the first record, they had to give us all the money for the second record, which was like $400,000. The five-record option would be for if we became famous, and we would have to stay with them for five records. If we didn’t have two firm, they would have dropped us after the first record [Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home], because I think we sold 20,000 or something, which is nothing for them.
Were you disappointed with how the first album sold?
Oh god, 20,000 is massive. For us, it was huge. We thought it would be fewer than that. And for them a success would have been at least 500,000. We were on salary, so was our crew, we recorded in really good studios, we had Steve Fisk as a producer, which we really wanted, and he did a great job. We didn’t need anything, so we were cool. But by the time the second album came along, they just kind of relegated us to the people who were not the main players at Virgin. When it came time to exercise the five options or let us go, they let us go. And then they asked me if I wanted to stay on the label and fire my band, and I said no.
Had you been thinking about going solo?
Nels Cline and I were already improvising at the end of every show, and we did it for two or three tours. We got really into that as a duo and started a project called Scarnella. We made an album for Steve Shelley’s label, Smells Like. That was the thing I did to wash myself clean of any sort of backlash of being in another five-year band and touring so much.
Then, when I started feeling like I wanted to make a band again, I didn’t want the pressure of writing the music, and I was really into the album Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson. I had been singing those songs for years. I think “Hands on the Wheel” is on that cassette I mentioned. I started singing it before Ethyl Meatplow broke up. And of course “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. The first “Red Headed Stranger” show was me with Alan [Sparhawk] from Low at The Smell. Like around [the year] 2000.
I’m going to ask you a question probably a lot of people have asked you. How did you get permission and end up with Willie on the album?
I recorded it without permission. We had a friend who sometimes worked at Willie’s label, and he really loved the cassette, and he decided he was going to get it to Willie, to see what he thought of it, if nothing else. And Willie loved it. He was like, “This is far out. What are these people about? Look what they did with this, and yet it’s still so traditional.” He said, “You know, I’d like to be on that.” And we were all shocked.
You’ve had so many key collaborators in your career from Nels Cline [who went on to join Wilco] to Willie Nelson.
I’ve always been really open to learning from other people, especially along the lines of just playing. That’s the thing that I recommend to anyone who talks to me. There was this thread on Facebook — apparently Wolf Eyes proclaimed that noise was dead because I guess they moved on to a rock thing or whatever. And it was a huge uproar among the noise community, and I commented: “Fuck it. Just play.” Who cares what it’s called, just fucking play.
It goes back to playing what you want versus what you think you should be doing.
I do that a lot with my music. I try to follow my nose as they say, rather than start out knowing what’s going to happen. I find that to be the most rewarding. I can’t always swear that it’s going to be good for other people to listen to. I can’t really think like that. That’s what I want out of music and art. I want to feel that thing pumping through me. That’s how I feel when I’m making something, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. It could fail, or it could work out great. Part of the excitement is taking that risk.
How does that idea relate to the way Evangelista started? I know you didn’t know what it was going to be. Or who it was going to be with. It wasn’t a band.
Nels and I were breaking up, I guess, or he was moving out, and I just lost it. I lost it behind grief. It was Nels and people who have passed on and all kinds of stuff. I got really pretty off. One night I was invited to do a solo performance in this little room, and I brought my sampler and my keyboard, and I proceeded to lay on the floor and trigger these samples and just kind of sing and scream the words that would eventually become “Evangelista I”. And then I went on tour. In Montreal, we performed with my friend Jessica Moss, who was in The Geraldine Fibbers briefly and was then in Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Thierry Amar, who plays in Godspeed You! Black Emperor, also sat in. And we did these songs that were starting to form for me. After Jessica came up to me and said, “You know, Efrim [Menuck, of Godspeed You! Black Emperor] really loved the set, and he wants to record this as an album.” And I said, “Well, I’m not even sure this is an album.” She said, “He thinks it’s an album.”
That was essentially a solo album, but you ended up keeping the name for your next band.
The name Evangelista was conceptual. The concept in my mind was to reject the fear of showing who you are at your worst and, at the same time, explore the very murky caverns and tunnels that are revealed when we do that. I think that I inadvertently illustrated a pretty latent example of what it can be like when you show yourself to other people without shame.
It’s funny to me now when I read what people say about that album, ’cause they’ll be like, “How did she pretend to feel that many emotions? It must be hard to act like things matter that much.” I fucking wish I was pretending.
After three albums with a band [Evangelista], how did you know Boy would be a solo record?
I went to Europe, which is where I normally spend most of my time, and that was when I decided I was going to write a solo record. I started working on it with John [Eichenseer], and we were traveling pretty fast [on tour], and it was written all over the place. And we wrote with our drummer, Andrea Belfi, in Berlin.
I know you were thinking of Boy as more of a pop vehicle for you.
A lot of music I listen to you wouldn’t really call songs. But these are songs — they each have a verse, chorus, and bridge.
It’s a very accessible album. Even though people consider you a fringe experimentalist.
Well, yeah, compared to Lorde. That’s what our world has come to — people think Lorde is an underground project. We got to get it going people. Dig a little deeper.
There’s always room for pop music. There’s not always room for underground music. There’s crossover, but she is not anywhere near the middle point. I have nothing against it. I listen to a lot of Top 40 music, and that’s where she belongs.
Hopefully this album is an entry point to people discovering your other work — not that you need to be discovered.
I wouldn’t mind being discovered. There are things I want to do, and I can’t afford to do them. I wouldn’t mind getting a little more popular. That’d be awesome. I want to tour the United States, and I can’t do that right now.
Whitney Phaneuf is a former editor at the East Bay Express and The Deli Magazine. You can find her writing at HitFix.com, San Francisco Magazine, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and SF Weekly. Follow her on Twitter here.