EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN: I’M A COSMIC OPTIMIST
photography by maximilian ho
Earth Girl Helen Brown is like a Jack Kirby version of Pippi Longstocking as written by Charles Portis—cosmic, earthy and never ready to settle down anywhere, even after leaving a cult and escaping to the Alaskan wilderness before sparking up an academic career and … well, that’s the story musician Sonny Smith came up with when he invented her and a lot of other people for his 100 Records alternate-world-of-music project, anyway. But Earth Girl Helen Brown is also Heidi Alexander from Bay Area band the Sandwitches, now relocated to L.A. and reinventing Smith’s character as her own personal sci-fi heroine. She spent 2017 leading—well, navigating might be a better word—her Center for Planetary Intelligence Band through four cassette EPs on the Empty Cellar label, each one named and themed for a planet in our solar system. Mercury, Mars, Saturn and finally Venus—fire, war, communication and love, transmitted through enthusiastic clatter and static by a crew of some of L.A.’s best musicians, cloaked in radiation-shielding pseudonym for now. (But if you have records from In The Red, Castle Face, Burger, Drag City … you might glimpse someone you recognize.) This April In The Red will release Four Satellites, an LP collecting tracks from each of the EPs that works as a sort of fly-by survey for the Earth Girl universe, with incandescent inspiration from the Raincoats, Dolly Parton, Patti Smith, Sun Ra and more. It’ll show you just enough to make you wanna build a rocket ship of your own. Earth Girl Helen Brown’s record release for Four Satellites is Sun., Apr. 22, at Zebulon, and the Earth Girl Helen Brown Center for Planetary Intelligence band also performs on Fri., May 4, at the Natural History Museum. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What’s the concept from science fiction that you are least happy to see about to come true?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: I don’t want to say that I’m least happy to be about to see our worst AI fantasies come true because the jury’s still out. There might be a lot to contribute to that outcome. But certainly a lot of the applications that we see in practice already are maybe not the greatest leaps mankind has ever made, you know? But I still feel really optimistic about that one. I’m just not a fatalist in that way. When I identify my worst nightmare, I feel like that’s an opportunity to know what to work against. You know, there’s some things like … you die. That’s hard to work with. But otherwise I think there’s opportunity. [laughs] And identifying the problem is a good start.
That is optimistic. As long as you’re not dead, you feel there’s a solution—even if it’s incredibly obscure and difficult.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: [laughs] It could be there, you know? People stumble across things all the time. Accidental discovery is definitely a major force. I’m a cosmic optimist.
Is screwing around as important for practical scientific applications as it is when you’re making music?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: I think so. You get fatigued from doing the hard work of solving the problem that you’re actually working on, and you’ve gotta blow off steam. Like, goofin’, you know? I’ve listened to a lot of pretty good lectures on the forces of serendipity in science. It’s definitely a big generator.
Collaboration is important to you—you’ve made a real counterexample here to the idea of the lone creative visionary. You brought people together to make music to bring people together. Why?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: One reason is that the project originated with Sonny Smith almost a decade ago—that was really collaborative. It was his project. He won this artist-in-residency fellowship and really he got literally almost every single person I can think of that I knew in San Francisco involved, including myself, and that was really cool. It felt good for all of us. Nobody really knew what the hell was going on—Sonny seemed to be the only one who really knew what was happening, and it made it possible for him to do this huge project because he distributed the creative labor in this way that was super effective, where it was fun for everybody and you were invested, but you also didn’t have to have a meeting about it or hold the whole project in your mind at any time. I wanted to carry on that vibe. I think we had an ambitious goal at the beginning of the year, and didn’t really know how to pull it off. And that seemed like the only real way that I was going to pull it off. And personally I had been really isolated from having been in school the last few years, and I wanted to reconnect with people and participate in the creative process with other people. And to not be in charge, necessarily. It’s way more interesting with more authors, and if you can swing that in a way that doesn’t become unduly bureaucratic it can be really rewarding. We really genuinely want it to continue to expand. To be something that can grow beyond whatever we have in our minds about it, and within the realm of sort of our control, you know? Be demonstrative or germinative or something. I don’t know. Whether that’ll happen or not, who knows. We want a franchise.
Is that connected to what your shirt says? ‘Synthesize’?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: It says: ‘Fight kipple. Synthesize.’
‘Kipple’ like kipple from Philip K. Dick? The permanent mystery trash that shows up everywhere?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Yeah, it’s from the dust. The dust that the world’s deteriorating into.
Again, optimistic—Dick explicitly said you can never stop kipple. It’s an unwinnable war. All you can do is hold it off temporarily maybe in one spot.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Well, I don’t know. Never say never. My dad’s always said, ‘There’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.’ And maybe that’s true … Maybe not yet!
How do you feel about the character of ‘Earth Girl Helen Brown’? Sonny invented her, but now you inhabit her. How is that different for making music than just like ‘being yourself?’
Earth Girl Helen Brown: The act of creating a fictional character—whether somebody is going to embody it or not—sets its own sort of course in motion. It’s as with making any piece of art—it’s then opened up to others’ interpretation, you know? Anybody can be Batman for Halloween. When we started to do the project at the beginning of the year, I took as a mantra, ‘What would Sonny do?’ Obviously I had an agenda, but I was like ‘OK, how should I try to write a song?’
You wanted to be faithful to your character.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Kind of faithful, but also it was about not really knowing how to start moving. So I was adopting that framework as a starting point. I certainly don’t feel like it’s me. I feel like I’m playing a role right now. Or not playing a role—I feel like I’m serving a term. I’m the incumbent. Second Earth Girl or whatever. Can’t wait for whoever does it next. I feel invested in the project, definitely, but I don’t feel one and the same with the character. Sonny made a whole backstory … which happened to after the fact ring true to my experience—it was a premonition, I guess. And that vibe sort of keeps on continuing. It’s a platform for sowing the seeds of whatever the hell you want to happen next. [laughs]
Did you end up abandoning a religious cult to go live in the Alaskan wilderness?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: [laughs] No. But I did have a a tortured academic career. Which was part of it. Not everything, but bits and pieces you know? Liaisons with Martians and whatever. Things happen. Names and places recur where you’re like, ‘Hmm … that’s strange.’ Stating your intentions or making up a narrative finds you for instances of it.
What are the powers and duties that come with being an Earth Girl Helen Brown?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: It’s mostly administrative work. [laughs] There’s a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls. Budgets. Spreadsheets. A lot of computer time. It’s been really wonderful this year steering the project creatively along with all these other people, and getting to set up frameworks to make music under and art under. But my primary role is a facilitator. I think also there’s an obligation to remain true to what we’re putting out—what we’re putting out rhetorically, you know? And not just have it be lip service.
How would you characterize what you’re putting out rhetorically? I’d like to hear it direct from the chief administrator.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: We have our four meta themes for the year—what we called responsible fire management, which is climate stuff and things relating to fire, and how we deal with it as a species. Then war and peace, communication, and love. Those are the four topics that we were trying to deal with this year, and I’m not gonna. They’re not always seeking a position, necessarily, but trying to approach those aspects of human society with some reverence, and also some levity, I guess.
Have you settled the age-old caveman concern of ‘fire bad?’
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Not always, but I do wonder how long it will be until it’s against the law to have fire. I’m guessing ten, twenty years before you need a permit? It’s one of those sort of pillars of civilization. Literally music and language and fire… and congregation form the base from which civilization would blossom. Is it bad? I don’t know. It’s given us everything we know in a lot of ways, but it’s unwieldy. And it’s what separates us from other species. Moreso than language, more than anything.
Take that, corvids. Get on our level.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: If you want fire!
Why did you skip Jupiter? That could be all the really heavy songs.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: I think Jupiter’s gonna be a big pop record, you know? We gotta warm up to it.
So you’re going with size, not gravity?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Yeah. I mean—it’s a gas giant.
Are you telling a specific story with the way the LP fits together? From ‘Earth Elevator’ through ‘Starlight,’ it seems like your people do get off the planet. But they go through ‘Oh! What A War’ to do it. So the lines in ‘Starlight’ about the flames … I can’t tell if that’s a happy campfire scene or the classic scene of looking out the spaceship windows and seeing the mushroom clouds below.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: There’s definitely an intent to cover a certain arc of human progress. Or lack thereof. But I’d say progress, you know? The B-side ends with ‘My AI,’ which is definitely for me our contemporary moment: ‘It’s okay, this is where we are, what are we going to do?’ And then the last two … It’s tempting always to forget about war, but it’s always there. We’re always in it. ‘Starlight’ is more about … the ‘walk back to the fire’ stuff is about returning to the essence of what it meant to be human, and the excitement of creating fire in the first place. It was a mystical, magical, powerful event, you know? It bonded us. It’s meant to be a reconsideration of the meaning and power of fire and how to use it. And what does it mean to be a human and to be interacting with other humans? Like—what do you want that experience to be, or what’s important to you in it? I think we do get off the planet at the end … because we’re all gonna get off the planet, you know? That’s how it ends for everybody.
That’s a very Sun Ra concept.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: [laughs] Yeah. But is it happy or sad? I don’t know. Neutral. [laughs]
In ‘My AI’ you very clearly explain how it’s our choice what to teach an AI: ‘Will it be taught to kill? It surely will.’ But you also explain how it doesn’t have to be that way—people can decide to make different futures, and not just horrible ones.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Whether it’s a decision or whether it’s inertia … I think passivity is its own decision. But I think a lot of people, myself certainly included, have been fretting a lot about AI and its consequences. Especially as we truly stand at a moment where things are about to change. And we don’t really know the outcome, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with fear at those moments, and that sort of clouds out all the possibility that still exists, you know? It’s like every machine, every piece of technology, anything we’ve ever made has a good application and a bad application. It’s about how you use it, and that’s about culture, not technology. Who knows what AI wants, or that it wants anything in particular? But it will develop habits, and at the moment we’re curating those habits. While we still have a chance to influence that outcome we should really think hard about how we use it for any sort of participation, whether that’s what you do online to whether you buy popularity bots. I think it’s important to ask yourself at any juncture: is this an appropriate use of technology? Is this going to result in an outcome that is desirable in the long run, you know?
How you imagine the first real AI emerging? Keeping in mind that an all-powerful AI from the future might read this and reward or punish you for your answer.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Hasn’t it sort of already? Wasn’t there a huge amount of money that disappeared off the financial market because of some sort of glitch that we didn’t even really understand? Maybe that was hackers, or maybe that was a failure of an algorithm, you know? And that’s interesting. And then there are those chat bots that started chatting on their own in a language that couldn’t be understood by the experimenters, so they canceled the experiment, you know?
Did they take the servers out in the street and run them over?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: ‘Unplug it! Unplug it!’ [laughs] I’m worried that we certainly seem to be applying it most enthusiastically to financial investees and war machines, so I don’t know. It doesn’t look too good. I guess we’ll see. Maybe it’ll solve our problems! [laughs]
There’s plenty of kids who were raised in families that valued money and militarism that rebelled and became total hippies. Maybe that could happen to an AI if it was exposed to the right ideas.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Like a Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance or something? I think the more often we can apply AI to things that actually help us, the better off we’re going to be. Because otherwise it’s gonna get the wrong idea.
There are a lot of terms in there that would have to be defined, though. ‘Help.’ ‘Us.’ And people already have trouble with that.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: I know. You gotta be very specific. Or ambiguous in a productive way.
What’s your take on the simulation hypothesis? That’s another one of my favorites.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Oh, that the world is a simulation? Like World On A Wire vibe? Could be, could be. I’d say ultimately it doesn’t really matter. I was thinking that we are … you know, in some tiny little cell of a great big blob of an organism, you know? But who knows. It doesn’t matter! I mean, it does but it doesn’t. Still have to go to work tomorrow. Or do something.
Still gotta blob.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Yeah, keepin’ this blob alive. Whatever the fuck it is.
Who—if anyone—is ‘Tommy D and the Atomic B’ about? The bombardier on the Enola Gay was named Thomas, but that’s all I found.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: That’s interesting. No, it’s a real guy. It’s Tom Dowd. He was a tape pioneer, and also worked on the Manhattan Project. There’s a documentary about him. I can’t remember exactly all the details, but it had a certain resonance because my grandfather had sort of a similar experience. But yeah—he was heavy in the development of tape recording. The Manhattan Project mined a lot of data processing and intelligence from a lot of sources. At its core that song—like a lot of the other songs—are about the duality of technology and the possibilities that it inhabits and that progress is a risky proposition. Always, you know? But what do you do? Do you not engage? He’s got a really interesting story. You should check it out. Tom Dowd.
That reminds me of the part in Cat’s Cradle where the scientists are at the Trinity test, and after the atomic detonation the one says, ‘Now science has known sin.’ And the other asks, ‘What is sin?’ You had a lyric there about ‘Minds that make the world turn have a lot that they could learn.’ Same thing … maybe?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: That song was written a long time ago. During Sandwitches days, but we never really could play it right, and we never got it together. It was just not working for us. But then I was, ‘Oh, I gotta get “Tommy D.” back and finish it up and make it a real song.’ The point is … I think it’s really important for people to understand that they have agency, and their actions and their thoughts and their participation in the world determines the outcome of the world. It’s not something that’s happening outside of anybody. It’s happening right now.
One of my favorite songs is ‘Chains Of Love,’ which isn’t on the LP—just the Venus EP. That’s an old old idea for a song, going back to the very beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. What is yours about?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: There must be at least twenty songs already called ‘Chains of Love,’ I don’t even know. We should ask Google.
Don’t. That’ll contaminate your answer.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: It’s an age-old story, you know? Love is hard. [laughs] I think it’s one of those things that defines our experiences that we’re compelled to partner and share our lives with people in states of love. But it’s a difficult proposition. It’s not always super easy or super fun but it is rewarding and it is wonderful. So that’s what the song is about. It’s actually funny—I wanted to write a song called ‘Chains of Love.’ I had the song, and it just went, ‘Chains! Chains!’ Basically the only lyric I had was ‘chains’, so I knew it was a love song. [laughs] My sister brought me a CD from Ethiopia of this Ethiopian vocalist Aster Aweke, and I loved her songs so much I proposed … a lot of the people who are in the band now, we started a band that was like Aster Aweke, but different. It was more spastic, and that was probably like six years ago, but that was the only song I had in mind. It was basically an Aster Aweke song, and the only lyric was ‘Chains!’ [laughs] So that’s the origin of that song. But it’s funny: our bass player recently was, ‘We kind of did this now.’ ‘You’re right, we kind of did. It only took like seven years.’
This album and the EPs have a lot of country music in them. What’s the connection between country and the cosmos? You’d think they might be opposites, like kind of an ‘earth’ vs. ‘sky’ thing, and yet …
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Well, one: you’ve got space cowboys. Two, I think also you’ve got a bunch of honky Americans who … probably for most of us our bread and butter was country music or some form of it. Some sort of Americana roots music morphed into something, or maybe just that? I think it’s probably what most of the people who’ve been involved with the project in its first year are most familiar with. It just can’t help coming back. And we call them aspirational genres for a reason, you know? It’s like trying to get outside of ourselves and do something different. But it’s hard to deny your roots.
The Martian Chronicles has a lot about a new frontier—telling that story on another planet.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Oh yeah. Frontiersmen. Americans—yeah, we grew up on those ideas. Manifest Destiny, you know? I don’t think it’s shaken off yet. I think we’re starting to sort of turn on that and realize that accelerating as fast as we can is not the best way to survive. But it’s exciting, you know? It always is. You can’t help but be excited. I’m sort of like an Earthist, you know?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Space exploration is great, but we’re still the best planet in the solar system for human habitation by … quite a wide margin.
Even the best of the others make Antarctica seem like paradise. And if there’s one little crack in the habitat …
Earth Girl Helen Brown: Not good. You’d die right away.
So is that why you’re Earth Girl and not Alien Girl? There’s a lot of planetary strife and suffering here, and yet you still stand by Earth.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: We’re reppin’ for Earth! It’s all in ‘Starlight,’ baby! No, well, I mean—I’m an Earth girl. Elected office on planet Earth. [laughs] I mean, the lyric in ‘Starlight’ … The vulgarity of the human experience might drive one to want to leave it, but outside of that—in terms of our frame of reference—is a lot of nothing, you know? Something beautiful maybe if you’re an astronaut and you get to go to space or Mars, and that’s an incredible experience, obviously, but there’s … there’s not much that we can relate to on a human level out there. I’ll have an opportunity to experience whatever that is when I die. [laughs] But for now, while I’m alive, I’m more interested in Earth. Plus I don’t think I qualify for the space program, you know?
Is this new LP like your Voyager Probe record? How would you feel if In the Red launched this into space, and it was discovered fifty thousand years from now? How fair a job do you think it would do at representing humanity and the world we’ve created once we’re gone?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: So long as you speak English or are into music, it might do an OK job. [laughs] I tried to put as many of the important thoughts that some of us have been grappling with into it. It’s pretty abstract, but it’s all there if you’re listening, you know? The more we learn about space, the less I am confident that somebody would find it. It’s continually expanding, you know? Maybe it’s not a Voyager for outer space, but more aimed at the inhabitants of this particular planet—just trying to share information that might be helpful in a way that people can deal with.
So a Voyager probe for inner space?
Earth Girl Helen Brown: It’s like a Voyager for the internet.
To let humans know that intelligent life exists here.
Earth Girl Helen Brown: And that you can participate in it. And it doesn’t have to be super boring.
EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN WITH THE EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN CENTER FOR PLANETARY INTELLIGENCE BAND AND LFZ AND JACK NAME’S FICTIONAL BOYS ON FOR THE RECORD RELEASE FOR FOUR SATELLITES ON SUN., APR. 22, AT ZEBULON, 2748 FLETCHER AVE., LOS ANGELES. GET TICKETS HERE! AND ON FRI., MAY 4, AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, 900 W. EXPOSITION BLVD., LOS ANGELES. GET TICKETS HERE! THE EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN CENTER FOR PLANETARY INTELLIGENCE BAND’S FOUR SATELLITES VOL. 1 LP IS OUT ON FRI., APR. 20, ON IN THE RED RECORDS. THE FOUR PRIOR EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN EPs ARE AVAILABLE FROM EMPTY CELLAR RECORDS. VISIT EARTH GIRL HELEN BROWN AT EARTHGIRLHELENBROWN.COM.