She plays the Echo on Feb. 27 with Six Organs of Admittance and Residual Echoes. This interview by Rin Kelly." /> L.A. Record

ELISA AMBROGIO: THE POETIC TRUTH

February 20th, 2015 | Interviews


illustration by emma maatman

She’s all giddy genius and fall-down-funny profundities, posing on her album cover beneath a giant 2D Starship Enterprise in a DIY Waka Flocka Flame mask because what the fuck yes, that’s totally how it is—and add some literature to it, too, because that’s just Elisa Ambrogio’s brain. Here’s Raymond Carver and Charles Baudelaire in the lyrics; here’s a title, The Immoralist, taken from André Gide’s infamous novelistic exercise in philosophizing freedom and freaking out the squares. Gide and Ambrogio, singer/guitarist and (often impromptu, always amazing) lyricist for noisy beauty-seeking superbrains Magik Markers, share a philosophical preoccupation with what it means to be agents of our own creation, creatures who can close our eyes and invent whatever universe we want. It’s evident in how Ambrogio talks about her new solo record—the decision to see what it feels like to make choices alone—and in the way she narrates her characters’ lives. “No dust can choke a man who builds a lake,” she sings on “Arkansas,” her voice delicate and dreamy, layered and floating, gone fully Wilson Phillips at last and fuck y’all who think it can’t sound like Tiffany and floor you; “Are you so weak to deny your wants and needs?” she asks on “Clarinet Queen,” echoing Gide’s ubermensch-aspirant narrator. The result is queer and gorgeous, pop and profound, the work of someone who’s a philosopher-artist-goofball at all times, whether she’s questioning the reality of free will in “Comers” or just riffing on questions of gender, chemtrails, Mike Love, and pubes. She plays the Echo on Feb. 27 with Six Organs of Admittance and Residual Echoes. This interview by Rin Kelly.

You’re really into the kind of production that’s being used in hip-hop right now. 

The other night I had to dispute a cable bill for a long time and I opened a bottle of wine thinking that I would be talking to the cable person for half an hour, would have a glass of wine and then settle down and go to bed. Instead I ended up talking to the cable guy for like four hours and it sucked—and by that time the wine had been sitting there: ‘No, not until I’m done with this conversation will I have a glass of wine.’ So then when I was done, I had a glass of wine and just went hard and drank like half the bottle really fast. And when I woke up the next morning, all that was open on my computer was ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ the weird YouTube video about where ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was stolen from, and then the chords of ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ I went really deep with that. And the other thing that was open was the Juicy J song, ‘My weed is medical. And I ain’t had nothing to eat but some edibles.’ ‘Geeked Up Off Them Bars.’

I’m not a Juicy J expert.

It’s hard to be an expert on those guys! That’s the thing about Gucci Mane too. They release these mix tapes—it’s way crazier than the Magik Markers CD-R output. It’s insane. They release mixtapes every two months. Juicy J has a thing called Ratchet Studios. He’ll put up videos of himself in shitty Motel 6s on the road—he’s probably doing better now; this was like 2009 and 2010. That’s when the Ratchet Studio films are from. But he’s in a Comfort Inn and he’s got like a digital 24-track and a mic, and they’re just recording constantly. I think that’s great. That song ‘Geeked Up Off Them Bars,’ the way that it’s composed and the way that it’s layered … I feel like there’s these two time periods in music that achieved this weird separation of sound and this weird, visceral, unstoppably compelling quality. Just the quality of the sound alone separate from the sound—separate from anything. Just the quality of the sound. It’s incredibly moving in some way. I feel like it’s mid- to late-60s production and current hip-hop. Those are the places. It kind of frustrates me when people who are in a certain genre don’t listen to new music. I can’t stand that shit. Sometimes I think it’s racist. And sometimes I think it’s just stupid. It seems crazy to me that you can still be looking only to the Beatles for your ideas. There’s such interesting stuff that has happened in the world besides the Beatles. Even though you love the Beatles, everyone I know. 

It’s just turning into your parents. One time at a show people were being jerks, you were getting booed, and you started telling them that they had turned into their parents. I think it was a Dinosaur Jr. show. 

Oh my God, they fucking hated us! People lost their minds with hatred. It was the most palpable hate in the room. There were guys who’d been practicing jazz chords in their room for the past decade that just wanted to stick an ice pick into us being on the stage that J Mascis would later walk onto. They were so angry. 

The thing a lot of people—mostly rockist white people—tend to be missing is that hip-hop is probably the weirdest music that is being made right now. 

It’s the weirdest! There was a Nicki Minaj song that was super popular like a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago: ‘Bees in the Trap.’ That song is so fucking weird. And it’s not melodic; it’s not lyrical. But it was a top-40 pop hit, a number-one hit. It would have been a Throbbing Gristle song in 1974 or whatever … Something that in 1975 or 1981 it would have sounded like art maniacs; it would have been completely bizarre. It’s a weird racist thing, in my opinion—a little bit. There’s also a cultural trope of white liberals who might be into avant-garde music being like, ‘I don’t like how they objectify women! Lyrically, they’re just singing about the cars and the drugs.’ But it’s just racism. I have a lot of friends I went to college with—we’re going deep white boy right now—who are particularly big Bob Dylan fans. We don’t have to talk about Bob Dylan in any serious way, and I don’t want to go any deeper with it than that his chords are very simplistic folk and blues-based, his voice is not particularly sonorous or filled with a beautiful vocal quality. And these dudes would be just like, ‘Dylan, maaan, fuckin Dylan.’ I enjoy hip-hop music and would try to play them stuff, and more than one dude says to me, ‘I know where you’re coming from, but for me this just isn’t music. I can sort of appreciate it as spoken word.’ All that is is really deep racism that people aren’t even aware they possess. And when it comes to lyrics, there’s that Chris Rock thing: Women will be listening to a song that says, ‘Move, bitch, get out the way,’ and you’ll be like, ‘How can you listen to that! It’s so sexist!’ And they say, ‘He ain’t talking about me!’ There’s certain genres that have certain tropes. A current type of protest song, not a protest song of the 40s or of the 60s, but a political type of protest song right now that is indicative of what’s really happening in America is the song that is spoken from a point of numbness. You have somebody who is medically anesthetizing themselves and then expressing how they are changing their brain chemistry to be as completely numb as they can be. And not explaining why; not explaining the circumstance and saying, ‘I come from the streets, it’s hard,’ or ‘I’m poor. Things suck.’ It’s just ‘Right now, here are the ways in which I am numbing myself. Here are the Coleridgean thoughts I am having on this numbness.’ It’s a really pervasive, cross-genre, cross-country thing. In 2011, Frank Ocean had that hit, ‘Novacane’—one of the smartest pop songs that’s ever been written. It’s a story about going to a show, going to Coachella and meeting a woman who says she is going to dental school, but she’s putting herself through dental school by doing porn in the valley. She gives him weed to smoke—and then he’s like, ‘My face feels numb. What’s in this?’ She’s put Novocain in the weed. He equates that, getting stoned and the Novocain that’s numbing his body to auto-tune and pitch-correction and having no emotion in music—it just being this robotic sort of numbed sound that is the only sound on the radio. This automated, inhuman, regenerated, regurgitated music. He talks about his body being numb physically and how that relates to sex or pleasure and the distance of filming. There’s so much in that song. It’s such a heavy song. And it’s just a pop song! But I can’t name one friend who’s like, ‘You know who’s good? Frank Ocean.’

It’s almost like sci-fi heaviness has moved into R&B and hip-hop—not that it wasn’t necessarily already there, but it’s heavy there, this weird machine intelligence, transhuman weirdness. 

Then there’s Janelle Monae—she’s got the sci-fi concept that was a 70s white-people move. Like a Bowie thing. She’s fuckin so cool. This is controversial. I again have not met one person in my life who gives a shit about this person without thinking they’re crappy. Kitty Pryde, I think she’s just Kitty now—she had that song ‘OK Cupid.’ She was like, ‘I’m on Tumblr! I live in Florida!’ but now she’s more like a grown person. She used to be a real curiosity; I think she worked at the mall and was putting out these songs from her iPhone, but it’s really weird—it’s still really weird. It’s kind of like stream of consciousness, and I think she’s a really smart feminist lyric writer, but she’s also kind of sweet. It’s like no-wave or something, but iPhone No Wave. And she gets so much shit because there’s no more sexist world than hip-hop. She just gets a ton of shit. And she’s really honest—I actually really admire her as an artist. People get mad when they listen to her, and she takes it and she just keeps working and creating. People are brutal to her! They’re not nice. There’s lots of people doing amazing stuff right now. I don’t know if you know that lady EMA—she’s amazing. She’s a really thoughtful, intelligent, melodically gifted musician who’s playing with things that wouldn’t been tools at anyone’s disposal until the year 2013 or something. Right now I feel there’s more good music than there was ten years ago. 

I do too!

I’m glad it’s not just a weird perception. 

Weird shit is being heard by teenagers, and they don’t even realize it’s weird. And it’s not hard to seek it out like it would have been a generation earlier, when tons of kids just listened to what was on MTV.

I’m not trying to make anything just gender based, but I feel like there are more women who are fronting their own projects and making their own work that it’s just a different voice. It’s a different perspective. It’s way more common to see girls at shows playing guitars.

Have you watched your reception getting any better as far as dudes trying to tune your stuff for you, stepping in to set your stuff up like a woman can’t possibly understand such things? I hear that kind of thing from female friends. Are there fewer reviews now where they can’t see past the fact that you’re female?

I feel like being in a band taught me I was a woman. I maybe thought I was a kind of unusual little dude before that. ‘I’m a little dude without a dick!’ I make out with dudes and I’m like this genderless, amorphous thing. Gender really wasn’t how I thought of my brain. Being in a band, having people look at me and be like, ‘You are a woman!’ made it much more clear that I was, in fact, perceived as female. It was other people’s perception that brought me into my status as a woman in a weird way. But when we first started, both Leah [Quimby] and I were so sort of ambivalent of performing at all. We would think, ‘Why the fuck are people here? Why did they come to this fucking show? What do they want from us? They can do what we’re doing—why are they looking at us?’ It was really baffling. I will never forget one of the first live reviews I ever read—also one of my first experiences with the anonymity of internet commenting. I didn’t realize that it was really a hospitable spot for viciousness. Someone said, ‘The drummer set up all their gear for them while the girls just sat around curling their pubes.’

Because girls are all born with stick-straight pubes. 

It’s part of our feminine inheritance. 

That’s just broadcasting that you’ve never been with a girl.

I didn’t even think about that! My first instinct was ‘They did not set up my shit for me!’ But then I was like, ‘Curling my pubes? What? With a heated instrument? Or was it around my fingers? Was it spit curls?’ It was just weird, and then it went into trying to decimate the live show and say how bad it was. 

Men just love pubes and hairy women—it’s the one place where there’s no social pressure on us to change ourselves, so I could see why you’d really want to be accentuating it.

That’s why you curl before the show, Rin! That’s why you curl before the show. I don’t have time for amplifiers. I’ve got pubes! 

I have so many friends who’ve had guys come up and grab their stuff, put it together wrong, and then sit back like, ‘There you go, little lady. Glad I could help you guys.’

I really definitely in the beginning of Markers would approach the live experience with my game face on. As soon as we walked in I would think, ‘I know everyone’s gonna just be really shitty to me after we play.’ I would just game face, set up—so maybe from being not super friendly, people did not fuck with me in that way. But that stopped probably after I felt less defensive after my own ability to do stuff. That’s insane to think, ‘I won’t be nice to people because then I’ll know that they were nice to me before I played but weren’t nice to me after I played.’ That’s crazy! That’s crazy-person thinking. As I got older I thought, ‘That’s indicative of my own trust issues.’ I haven’t experienced a ton of it. Sound guys are always … I’ve been on tour with people who are consummate, virtuoso-level musicians who have been playing shows for the past 15 years and sound guys are condescending dicks to them … There was one thing that bummed me out. This was actually my friend and our record label—this was probably the most sexist, openly angering thing. And this was my friend and Ecstatic Peace label contact who did this! Early in our Magik Markering, Magik Markers were interviewed by Thurston Moore, and I talked about the first time I had ever picked up a guitar. I said that 70s guitar playing and soloing is all up and down the neck and then punk is really fast. I was like, ‘It’s like the difference between a guy jerking off and a girl jerking off.’ Punk compared to arena rock. It was a really momentary thought that I had for one second, literally the first time I ever picked up a guitar—never thought it again. It’s completely a false equivalency! It’s not correct. Thought it for a second; mentioned it for one second in one second in one interview. Then, the person at my label smash cut from me saying that to me hitting my guitar with a beer bottle at this pretty insane show, and it ruined the actual aggressiveness of what was happening musically—and it ruined the sort of sweetness of what I was meaning to convey in the interview. It just made it disgusting and sexual in a way that was not intended. And in a way that diminished both sides of what I was trying to communicate. But, of course, it was kind of salacious, so it was probably good for Magik Markers. Every fucking dumb tour in Europe was like, ‘Le masturbatoire guitar le Ambrogio bah bah bah!’ It was fucking bullshit! Everywhere we went it was like, ‘Oh you are masturbating your guitar.’ No! No I’m absolutely not. That was never what I was doing. Part of that bummed me out, because I did not see myself as primarily a gendered individual—as that being my number one qualifier. When I was playing shows, I was thinking of myself as a person who was responding to the show and to what was happening musically. When you’re doing anything right, you’re not constantly ego based. That should disappear if you’re doing the right things. You shouldn’t be conscious of yourself at all. That’s what was happening in that moment, and the show itself was a really roiling, emotional, heavy show. It was super exciting and fun to play—and then to be interpreted that way when it was something really aggressive and violent and not sexual and not for someone’s titillation in that way at fucking all—that’s probably the most sexist thing that’s ever happened to me. And he’s my friend.

I always think about race and gender as a translator. You have to be translated rather than taken as you are—gender is a translator through which other people see you, and you’re just like, ‘I’m screaming what I think at you and you’re seeing it through this filter!’ ‘Female’ used to be way down the list of what I thought defined me. I was angry and alien and weird! But I’ve been translated so many times that I have no choice. Fuck that, I want to be heard as a voice and not a female voice. 

It’s still surreal to me because I feel if you’re mostly in your own head it’s always a weird, new reminder when you’re interacting in a body that you’re being perceived in that body. I’m a lady now, I get it. 

You’ve been compared a lot to girl groups on this record, with the production choices you made—layered vocal tracks. 

Yeah, I love it. These aren’t girl groups, but this production style … my first few records that were my mom and dad’s and grandparents in the basement of our house were the greatest hits of The Turtles, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Tom Jones’ Delilah. Literally I was five or six—I definitely was still making Barbie beds in shoeboxes, I was a little guy—and on my plastic turntable I would listen to these scratched jams. I thought the Turtles and the Beatles were the same band though, for sure, well into like … my teens. I love harmonies. I love vocal harmonies with a female singer. There was this band called the Poni-Tails—when I was in the fourth grade I had a crush on a boy named Kevin Carroll, who was in sixth grade, and the Poni-Tails had a song called ‘Born Too Late.’ Born too late for you to notice me. As a nine-year-old, I really identified with that song. I loved Tiffany. I was probably a little bit littler when Tiffany came out, but she was right up there for me. Wilson Phillips—those were my little-kid jams. Not to make this whole thing nothing but gender— ‘Nuthin But Gender, Yo!’
They do it to us. I blame the Man for this entire interview that I subjected you to. It’s his fault.

I never get to talk about this shit, so I like it! My mom, my dad, my grandparents, everybody was just like, ‘You’re a little dude!’ I remember my dad in the car, I had a cassette of Tiffany and I played it, and he explained to me how it was mindless pop bullshit. And then he played me Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. I was probably seven. And the vamping organ of Hot Rats, it’s still a lyricless, weird, kind of terrifying record, but I learned really early even though I wasn’t told, ‘Oh, you’re a girl, you can’t do this.’ Nothing like that—it was always ‘You’re smart; you can do whatever you want.’ I wasn’t seen as female or held to those standards in my family at all, but what it sort of meant is that I maybe posited male standards as superior to female standards. It’s like when Marge and Homer are hanging out and Homer doesn’t realize that their friend is gay. Marge is trying to explain it and says, ‘Homer, he prefers the company of men,’ and Homer says, ‘Who doesn’t?!’ That was sort of my attitude: who doesn’t?! Then I got into straight-edge hardcore in a big way, and that’s almost exclusively male. I mean, there was riot grrl stuff—I was a little late, but I could have been into that stuff. But I was like, ‘I don’t get it. Why would they tell girls to stand up front? I’ll just go up front if I want to go up front. This is not tight enough and fast enough.’

I was like that too. ‘I’m completely obnoxious! I don’t need to be told this!’ It took me a while to see what other women were talking about or needing. 

I thought, ‘Don’t condescend to me—I’ll do what I want!’ Also, I responded to tightness and fastness. I wanted it to be really tight musically and really fast. It was probably the exact same feelings as the audience at that Dinosaur Jr concert you were talking about. ‘Stop playing that!’ But in adolescence, or even from that first moment when Hot Rats was posited as superior to Tiffany, I was maybe internalizing the dude standards. Let it begin. So maybe this record was kind of a revisiting of things I have dismissed in certain ways. And that’s two-pronged, because there also was a mental decision I had made early on in studio recording I was like, ‘I will not double track my vocals. I will not do that.’ Because women are always—or often, not always—encouraged to do that, and you hear more double, triple-tracked female vocals. Men are allowed to just have their reedy, winnow voices, and women have to be physically denser. Their voices have to be given artificial authority because it’s interpreted by an engineer or producer, or even the woman herself, as not containing inherent authority as a storytelling or melodic device on its own. That’s not to say every woman—if you’re born with an incredibly beautiful voice, that carries its own weight. I just mean for somebody who is an average Joe type singer, a singer-songwriter type singer that’s sort of story based and word based, who might not have those soaring melismas in their jams.

A thin voice is its own instrument. 

Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the list goes on and on. There’s so many dudes. Lou Reed is another guy who has a really cool voice but not an inherent singer’s voice. I thought, ‘These are the singer-songwriters I’m listening to—this is who I want it to sound like.’ And I realized that I was making a decision based not only on possibly internalizing dude standards but also kind of forcibly limiting myself because I was thinking there was symbolic importance to an unenhanced, single female vocal track. Even tuning my guitar was a giant decision for me. Pete [Nolan, Magik Markers] and I used to just tune to each other. We would tune to this organ that he had. When I first used a tuning pedal, that felt like another level of almost like … compromise. With this I thought, ‘I don’t want to think about anything but serving the narrative sound experience of what the song is.’ Whatever sounds good—and it being a fun thing, being in a studio, not thinking of anything but the story and the song and the place and time. I feel like in saying that that it’s really obvious—no shit, dude!—but sometimes it’s been a collaborative effort of what the whole band thought something should be like, where with this it was dictator-style, only me. Jason [Quever], the person I recorded with, he played so much on the record and is a beautiful, super-sensitive musician, very intuitive but also disciplined crazy-virtuoso kind of dude with a great ear for things. So him playing on the record was incredibly great and beautiful and collaborative. So when I say, ‘I was just there, alone, making this thing’ I don’t mean that it was just me no one else there, just me being awesome. Jason was integral—I bet a lot of the aspects of the record that are beautiful are due to his gentle ear coming in. I feel like I’m better at some different things, but he’s such a beautiful musician that it was easy to make certain things that I’d maybe have trouble with on my own. 

A lot of people have said they’re hearing self-discovery and introspection in the record. I wonder if people are hearing that because of the softness. Almost like it’s an aural clue for them to look for self-discovery and introspection that might already be there in your other work too. 

That’s one of those things like what we first started talking about, about if it’s possible to be a reliable narrator when you’re subjectively telling your own story from a skewed, myopic point of view. I have no idea! It’s so first-person and self-revealing that at this point I’m like, ‘That’s fuckin embarrassing!’ You know as a writer that when you’re looking at a piece of fiction that it’s an amalgam of things. It’s a truth you’re telling—you’re revealing things about how you operate in the world. I love when people can hear things you didn’t know you were intentionally revealing. That’s awesome. It’s cool when somebody listens to your record deeply enough to register something like that. But I don’t really know. I guess if you’re working on your shit over time … everything really good, every piece of art that’s really good, the thing that you respond to in it, the thing that you love about it, the thing that hooks people together with the works that they love is that communication. Communication from beyond the grave—somebody’s talking to you and they say something true that reveals something inside of you and teaches you something and shows you something. I guess if any person is hammering away at their work in their life, writing books or writing songs or composing pieces or fucking working on a laser light show at the planetarium that they’re really stoked on and deeply invested in, they’re trying to get at some kind of level of communication. You’re going to chip away and chip away and keep writing and keep producing and keep creating more and more chances that you’ll say something that is honest and that is true and that is a genuine attempt to communicate something. And hopefully a successful attempt to communicate it. I guess it’d make sense to say that it feels like self-discovery, but probably anyone who’s working at something that didn’t completely suck ass hopefully is going to be doing that on some level. My favorite concert of 2014 was the only American show that Sleaford Mods has ever played—in New York City. Jason Williamson, the singer of Sleaford Mods, has been making music for maybe 20 years, and only in the last three or four years has his communication level reached a point that he was communicating what he intended with an audience. And it’s really incredible! And Bill Callahan, he from the beginning has been able to communicate in a really effective way, but at this point he’s reaching new heights. Smog was a band that for me was first encountered as songs on mixapes by jilted wieners. I didn’t like Smog. ‘That’s that guilty-making song that that dude put on that tape because we didn’t do it.’ Only in the past six years or something have I started listening to solo Bill Callahan. His arrangements, his words—he’s fucking getting more masterful every year. I feel like anyone who’s working at their own head and their own self-deception and their own delusions—to try to get at something that’s actual—hopefully they improve over time at communicating. That’s the job, right? If you’re not communicating clearly then you’re not doing your job.
I’ve been working with my old novel and am seeing all the things I was doing to get around communicating that still looked like communication. 

Can you see yourself fakin’ it? 

I was totally faking it! I could see this 22-year-old desperately trying to sound like Nabokov. 

Yeah! And the more direct you are and the more honest you are and the more courageous you are—to not be a fucking pussy about it—the more valid. And I’m not making a judgment on it. The more able to be an agent of your own imagination. Even without dishonesty, do you find with your old stuff that you can see that you’re reveling in how much you love vocabulary? I feel like when you love words or you love guitar solos, you can go hard in a way that is kind of joyful to you, kind of ‘Hooray!’ But it’s selfish. It’s not servicing your work.

I can see myself using the vocabulary of others. I’m myself now, and back then I was myself with a whole lot of help. 

That’s a really good point—that you’re nothing but weird mushy influences until you start producing your own work. The way you don’t see typos until the thing is published. A lot of times when I talk to people who like, ‘I’m working on this thing, I got this thing,’ I say, ‘Just put it out!’ It doesn’t matter if it’s ready. Just put it out! The only way to progress is to finish. It’s like a video game, it’s like leveling out—you can’t get to the next level unless you finish this level. The only way to finish this level is to produce work and put it in the world and deal with its presence. You cannot go forward! I’m sure you know so many people who are so fucking creative, you’re so fucking talented, you’re a gifted person, and they won’t put their work in the world—but they’re sad about it. ‘Oh I wish I was doing that. I wish I was out there doing that thing.’ And it’s not jealousy in a mean way. I have some bros like that, and it’s definitely a weird ambiguity. I share it: why do you have to put the work into the world? Why isn’t the work its own reward? Why does it have to be produced? But to me, for me, I can’t get any better unless I produce work in the world. I can’t just keep it in the box and get anything real done. But there’s definitely landfills with CD-Rs rotting away that I feel ashamed of. 

You put out so much stuff! You just keep putting stuff out. That’s really inspiring. 

I don’t want to take credit for that inspiration, because Pete Nolan is so smart and really is a hard-working, productive person. Pete Nolan does not look back. Just like Dylan. Just like that Belle and Sebastian song: Pete Nolan does not look back. He looks forward—he puts out work, he doesn’t dwell, and he moves forward. He’s not looking to make it just right. That’s something Pete taught me over time. I was like, ‘Whaaat? No! This sucks!’ And he said, ‘All right, well let’s do the next one better, I dunno.’ It just wasn’t a thing to dwell on. It’s taught me a lot. He’s a brave dude. And it taught me to just be like, ‘Fuck it!’ 

Having someone like that impacts the art itself and the process so much. 

Authority is the first thing you have to learn if you’re going to make something. Authority: the author. You first have to take authority as someone who is a creator. I feel like our entire world is built to generate a passive observer in every way. If your phone won’t turn on, that’s it—your phone won’t turn on. You better go to an authority who knows about what to do about that. It’s not primarily important in America to raise authorities. It’s really good to raise a passive consumer of goods, and that is where we’re at. Making anything, and I mean right down to the Etsy pressed-flower notecard store, you’re taking authority that you weren’t inherently given. Again, this is subjective—I’m this working-class little dude; I never knew people who made their living off of art. It seemed insane to me. It’s only a hobby for people. You get a job, it’s nine-to-five, it’s miserable, but you get to go to the beach two weeks in the summer. That’s what I understood life’s structure to be. I never knew anyone who just did art. So maybe I’m coloring that authority concept with the fact that authority wasn’t just inherent for me in my household growing up, being the expert. My father is so smart and so talented, loves music, loves writing, loves reading. He works as an insurance-claims adjustor, and you know he’s good at his job, but my whole life growing up he said, ‘Never, never do this. Whatever you do, don’t do this.’ Fortunately, I definitely listened to him. He loved taking pictures—he had a nice 35mm beautiful Canon film camera, and when I was born he wanted to take pictures of the birth, because he was a hippie. He didn’t trust himself to load his own camera. He took it to JC Penney and had the photo technician at JC Penney load the film into the Canon camera. Of course, this was probably a mouth-breathing, adenoidal, acne-ridden teen who didn’t know anything compared to my dad, who had been taking these beautiful pictures with his own camera for years. He loaded the camera wrong, and he’s still like, ‘I can’t believe it! All of the film was exposed! We didn’t get any pictures!’ I’m thrilled that there are no images of me exiting our mom’s vagina, but that story for me is a weird metaphor about authority and about trusting someone who is an expert. We all have that authority if we don’t rob ourselves of it or if the world doesn’t rob us of it. If somebody lights that authority in you, you’re really lucky. Not everybody gets the lucky break. At every step where I could have just felt fuck this, somebody somewhere that I trusted was like, ‘No! No: don’t fuck this.’ And also you have to be open I guess to hearing that person saying that. It’s been nothing but luck, just hashtag ‘blessed’ I guess.

You’ve mentioned Mike Love and ‘Kokomo’ as having aggression like is in raging, raw Cookie Monster music. Is ‘Kokomo’ simmering with a rage people don’t realize they’re hearing, separate from the rage people feel when they hear it?

Oh fuck yeah! Because Brian Wilson, who produced every fucking hit, was off on a beach with Dr. Landy in Hawaii, and without his knowledge, Mike Love got the rest of the Beach Boys together and did this sneaky fucking underhanded thing and was like, ‘Suck a dick—what just got into the top 10 without you, Wilson?’ It was definitely a tale of vengeance on the Cocktail soundtrack. 

Could you tell that there was a hostility to it when you were young? For some reason I was creeped out by ‘Kokomo.’ It had this weird hostility, like when you hear grownups talking about the adult world and you feel this alienness about their world that you don’t want to be part of. 

That’s amazing! Now listening to it there is a militaristic kind of repetition of locations: Aruba. Bahama. It’s very didactic and grumpy sounding. 

This is what people like! You will like this! If one location isn’t good enough for you, here’s ten! Here’s Aruba and Jamaica!

You know they met with some kind of focus group, actuarial social-aggregator type guy who was like, ‘We’re noticing an uptick in the adult-contemporary demographic. Flights are getting less expensive. There’s a lot of travel to the Caribbean and the West Indies. I don’t know if you want to work with that.’
It’s like an insistent sex song for androids. 

Dude! Not to say that insistent sex songs for androids are on the tip of my tongue at all times, but that Nikki Minaj Sir Mix-a-Lot song, ‘Anaconda,’ that is a robot sex song. A robot was like, ‘Beep! Make sex song! Popular!’

What’s the most furious, hostile pop song that people tend to mistake for a nice, soft blanket?

I don’t think necessarily the songs themselves are hostile so much that the people who create those beautiful songs are often just roiling rage cauldrons. But that’s inside baseball, nobody cares—there’s like ten people who read rock biographies … but I love self-mythology, when people have been mythologized by others and then they’re written about with this crazy mythology. I love when it’s really kind of tunnel-vision, myopic, not-true. It kind of turns into a weird Paul Bunyan thing: ‘Van Morrison went into the studio. And improvised. All of Astral Weeks. No one knew what he was doing. It was crazy.’ It’s not true, but that’s the myth around that record. It’s beautiful, I love that stuff. 

The best mythologizer is Ray Manzarek. He believed that he was sitting next to Dionysius throughout the 60s.
Him writing about Jim Morrison is amazing. The other self-mythologizer who just goes beyond to the point where it’s thrilling—the David Lee Roth Crazy from the Heat biography is the ne plus ultra of self-mythology being conveyed through narrative. All of the pictures of himself are taken by his driver-slash-bodyguard. There’s never friends or a lover taking the photograph; they’re all credited to this dude he’s paying. And he is the person who discovered punk and civil rights, which is cool. I love David Lee Roth, and I’m not saying it in a way of diminishing him. What’s it like to live inside of his mind for one day? I think it would feel so good.
The record is named after André Gide’s novel The Immoralist. Are there any truly reliable narrators? Can you truthfully narrate your own life from the subjective position of being inside your own head?

Probably not! 

I saw somebody describe that book as an ‘ironic monologue.’ Not just an unreliable narrator but one almost at an ironic distance from himself and lying to himself.

It’s a really weird story because he almost seems compelled to tell it—he doesn’t put himself in a good light. It’s still a shocking book in ways that would have been differently shocking when it came out, but he has that sort of dry sense of humor, and he’s helplessly aware of his own compulsions. I feel like it does show the repercussions of someone choosing to live outside of a moral, about the fact that’s it’s not called The Amoralist. It’s someone who’s internalized social values and has an awareness that he’s transgressing but isn’t able … it’s not like the book is a joyful celebration of following desire. Just the repercussions of following desire without any thought of the feelings of others or community or the social contract of human decency. I think it’s an interesting book because our selfishness as humans, we all have this didactic self-interest, but you can’t act on it. This is really weird, because obviously he was living in a time period where the first step of just simply being homosexual is being outside of society, against everything that’s right or moral or part of the community standard. It was literally illegal. He starts from that point of view. What was the difference between the rest of his transgressions and the rest of his inherent wants of his person when the very basis of his own world was already like that? He was born immoral. It’s a really interesting story in that way, and of course it’s still kind of shocking because there’s so much implied sexuality. I feel like a lot of those those Greco-Roman just-pubescent boys and older—there’s not a lot of acceptable mainstream academic novel-writing where there’s cute 13-year-old boys wearing no underpants. But for him the shocking part would have been not shocking at all. There’s another writer who has the ability to write beautifully and transgressively and kind of call your own set of standards into, not question, but into a sort of re-examining how you think of right and wrong or moral and immoral: Dennis Cooper. That’s a writer who has an ability somehow in the modern world, when you wouldn’t think you would have to put it down because you’re so physically changed by what you’ve just read, but Dennis Cooper can do that. I’m sure when someone in the mid-1900s read The Immoralist they probably felt the same sort of stomach-dropping feeling over the crazy, different interpretation of a perceived human role re-interpreted. 

I was thinking about Dennis Cooper the other day. Out of nowhere I remembered the phrase ‘spicy-gross asshole aroma.’ It stays with you. Dennis Cooper, why did you do that to me?

That’s so powerful and awful. And what’s great about him too is that he does have that sort of excessive, visceral … in his choices and words there is that element of the shocking to his work, but I feel like the things that make him special and his fiction special are that he’s a master craftsman. He can write so beautifully and personally. God Jr. is completely absent of that kind of deep, sadistic, masochistic sexuality. That’s really not a part of it. It’s really good and really outside of how his oeuvre is perceived. The Sluts is another one of my favorites, and that’s not outside how his work is perceived. But that book is structured in an amazing way—it’s just masterful.
You’ve said that songwriting can be terrifying. Do you throw yourself in, wrestling with terror? Or are you the kind of artist and writer who tries to put it off and avoid terror but ultimately just can’t?

It’s probably both. There’s something about the idea that if you’re scared … there’s a greater ratio of reward. That’s like a cliché, but it ends up true. I feel like when you’re scared of something, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I feel like the correction of the child, of the father’s mistakes or something … there’s a long history of people in my family at least that were scared of their own authority, scared of certain risks—and they didn’t do it. It’s a weird corrective—of my people, who I come from, a terrified tribe of cowards! I’m scared of everything. If I didn’t do things just because I was scared of them I would literally be paralyzed in bed all the time because everything’s kind of at least vaguely scary. I can’t think of something that doesn’t have some element of that, something about living. I used to be really scared of bees as a child—terrified of bees. I thought they were going to come out of the ground and sting me, so I sat in my room when I was six and I put the shades down. I closed all the windows. It was summer! I spent weeks in a dark room! I was really little. I just sat there because I was so terrified of bees. Then I got stung by a bee when I was 22 and it’s fucking not that bad. It’s not a big deal … Maybe your brain tells you that the worst thing in the world is that someone would not like something that you made. I’m speaking sort of subjectively here—this isn’t risk like being in Syria. This is very cosseted risk, obviously. I just mean in your self-absorbed brain. It was kind of cool to immediately have this weird experience where I toured almost as soon as I started playing guitar, and it was the worst things you could imagine people yelling at you. Like a nightmare about being naked at high school. ‘You suck! You fucking suck! You’re fucking ugly!’ All of the worst things happened at the first tour. Really nice things, too, but it was sort of like, ‘This is the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is that some wiener calls me a bad guitar player … not knowing why I’ve been asked to play this show … having this total silence fall after?’ Standing on stage opening for a much more popular band, not knowing why I’ve been asked to play this show, feeling I definitely do not have any more right to be on the stage than anyone anywhere, and then having this total silence fall after a song and someone yelling, ‘You suck!’ That is a really good experience.

You write poetry too—is there a medium where you fight that fear the most?

I would have to say the unpublished writing I have is not in the world yet because I’m being a total pussy about it. If I was treating it with any kind of non-cowardice it would probably be done right now. I have to put it out; I have to get it done. It’s just that idea of making something perfect. You can learn that lesson in so many ways and you can still be pulled into its dumb power. It’s so dumb! And you can’t move forward until you complete things and get them out of your head. It’s a pickle.
You have a lyric declaring free will a myth. Is absolute choice a myth? Does absolute free will exist? 

There’s the idea that every choice that is made has its outcome, and then somewhere exists the opposite choice made and its outcome—all possibilities are happening, always, on some level. In that idea, there’s no choice that matters. It’s a kind of absence of free will because whatever choice you make, every option has happened. There’s also the idea that with our minds, there’s an impulse that begins before we tell our minds to do something. When you look at really great athletes or really the best virtuoso musicians … your body can move faster than you can decide to move your body. Those things tie into this idea that choice is something we comfort ourselves with, like religion or something. The idea that we do have choice is really comforting but maybe not true. But then on the other hand, I feel like it would be impossible if there wasn’t some part of us that didn’t get to decide things a little—some actual choice—but that would be a simplistic side of me. 

You also have chemtrails in your lyrics: ‘Saw the chemtrails burning in the sky/and they wrote empty letters to you and I.’ What’s your position on chemtrails?

I didn’t know what they were, and I had a friend who was very smart but was also so ensconced in different types of conspiracy theories and the Art Bell radio program. He was so smart that I kind of felt, ‘Wow, he really knows what’s up.’ So I borrowed a couple books and read them and I thought, ‘He’s a little crazy—these are weirdly pulpy, repetitive, badly written, no-research-at-all non-histories.’ And I’ve read other books that certainly corroborate a lot of different things—obviously there are so many things that aren’t total nonsense—but these particular books he let me borrow, I thought, ‘Uh oh, you’re cuckoo.’ You’re very smart, but if you’re not reading these books critically, I feel like you’re maybe not super-smart. But there’s so many things that were treated as wacky conspiracies that turned out to be true. I just figure that’s hubris and a sort of godhead mentality of a person who’s like, ‘I know what’s up, man, I know exactly what they’re fuckin’ doing; I’ve nailed it.’ Yeah, you’re the one person in the world who knows about this. It feels like a weird kind of narcissism to think number one: that man is capable of that kind of high-level organization. Every other aspect of man’s community is fucked up and mistakes are made and chaos reigns, but somehow there’s this tiny cabal that’s just been keeping shit so secret and doing everything to control the world. And it gets a little into weird creepy racism and anti-Semitism. There’s lots of crazy aspects to certain conspiracy theories. But that long answer notwithstanding, the particular situation was this dude pointing out chemtrails to me and me being like, ‘Better check into those, that’s freaky!’ And then hanging out with this other dude who was also a really smart guy, me pointing to the sky when I saw these streaks of whatever, when I saw what was referred to as chemtrails, and he said it was like a letter in the sky. I thought that was a beautiful way to put it. It’s not anesthetizing drugs that make you buy flat-screen TVs; it’s in fact a beautiful letter written in the sky. It just had a different resonance. And I guess I like the idea of false rationalism and this weird fake control you think you have because you think you know something. Then there’s the poetic truth, and it’s different than the factual truth but has a better and more meaningful place, maybe, than any facts you think you could know. Knowing something on an intuitive or imaginative level is maybe a more true kind of knowledge than thinking you have some sort of fact.


ELISA AMBROGIO WITH SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE AND RESIDUAL ECHOES ON FRI., FEB. 27, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $10-$12 / 18+ / GET TICKETS HERE! ELISA AMBROGIO’S ALBUM THE IMMORALIST OUT NOW ON DRAG CITY. VISIT AT DRAGCITY.COM/ARTISTS/ELISA-AMBROGIO.