January 10th, 2010 | Interviews

emily ryan

Download: Zola Jesus “Clay Bodies”


(from The Spoils out now on Sacred Bones)

Nika Roza and Freddy Ruppert must have met on some dark wave in the post-goth apocalypse. She lends her howling to his Former Ghosts, but as Zola Jesus, she lays down her own chilly rhythms and haunts their lattices with operatic breath. Darkness spreads its surreal shadows. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

What harsh realities does a country girl from Wisconsin grow up with?
Nika Roza: Definitely the climate. The cold is unbelievable. I try not to complain. Growing up in a hundred acres of woods, I didn’t have TV or internet. The reality of learning about yourself—and I am not a hippie about it at all. When you live around a lot of people in a city and that synthesized stimulation, you can get lost in that—the hustle and bustle. When you grow up in the country you have nothing to stimulate you but what you seek. If you want to be with people you have to go out and find them! I spent a lot of time with my family. I have one brother and my parents are still together. My mom has eleven brothers and sisters. We are super close.
What real-life texture most resembles the feel of your music?
Nika Roza: I really like the idea of metal and steel. That was more Spoils. What I like is when sound textures interweave and some come in and out like waves. But I am not going to go ‘ocean’ because that doesn’t suit my whole Wisconsin perspective. I usually record in the winter because I am holed up. It’s cold outside but warm inside with the heater and blankets. A lot of the songs are cold but in the coldness you find warmth. Winter has a lot to do with it. Being from the Midwest, you experience a lot of harsh climate—living in the country, there are a lot of harsh realities that teach you how to deal with things. I don’t just do what’s enjoyable, I do what’s important. It’s hard to make big songs when you are one little girl. It’s rough to get to the point, musically. You can tell what is natural to someone. The type of drum, the synth … it’s so intrinsic. It can’t be changed. You like what you like but what comes out is what is you. I will always have intense beats and have an epic sound structure. I think if you listen to someone’s music—which is an intimate thing—if you are certain that is a true representation of how they feel artistically and they are not emulating anything, if that’s them right out there—that is ballsy. I am way into it, if it’s honest.
Did you hunt growing up?
Nika Roza: No, but I’ll tell you something funny. My dad was a hunter so there would constantly be animal parts all over the place. He’d be out in the forest and bring back deer heads hoping that animals would eat the flesh and leave a skull. But it wouldn’t happen. There would just be a deer head hanging from a tree branch you could literally bump into. I never hunted. My father still hunts. He’s a survivalist about it. ‘I don’t hunt for game, I hunt for living.’ He’s very Emerson about it.
Have you eaten a lot of deer?
Nika Roza: Yeah! Our milk was from the neighbor’s cow. I am not a country bumpkin but this is how we live. We ate deer and pheasant and venison and all this meat that my dad would go out and kill.
So you’re a goth chick from the woods?
Nika Roza: People might assume I am a flower-dress hippie girl hearing my story. I don’t know.
How did you find music?
Nika Roza: My father would listen to Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys and Squeeze. That was my youth. When I was older, I found out about the Residents and Throbbing Gristle. I was exposed to new wave and stuff like that. That helped create an interest in seeking out far-out stuff.
Why don’t you believe in God?
Nika Roza: It’s how I was raised. I respect for people to believe in God or religion. In the end, it’s your life. If you are going to live for someone else, you have to live according to what you think is fulfilling, not what you’re told. If there were physical evidence then maybe I would consider it. But it’s such an intense thing. It’s a whole philosophical essay I would have to fucking write. The Bible and all these books written by people, they are stories—compelling, yes, and they teach you about life and how to take care of people. Taking them for fact, that’s really naive. They are great stories to teach moral structure, but they are just stories. Using Jesus in my name isn’t necessarily supposed to be a strong statement. I respect religion and I know people do need it, but it’s a weird phenomenon in our world. It’s so weird. I wonder if animals have religion.
Do you believe men and women are different?
Nika Roza: This is tough because I go back and forth. They’re obviously different because of hormones and things. But there’s an obvious pink elephant that society has created—these differences between men and women. Men must be strong and women must be homemakers. I think we are the same mentally and emotionally but we’ve grown up in the same world with the same societal influence. That makes us different. We grow up differently based on where we live and what our parents taught us as well. I don’t think we are intrinsically different. It’s all about how we were raised. I am the queen of ‘how we were raised.’ I came from a small town in the middle of nowhere. Me and my brother were raised really well. People who aren’t raised well are raised with bad ethics and have bad stigmas about relationships. I am in an extremely great relationship and I think we value each other equally. And he’s a male—ha! But I have been in bad relationships too.
Being a student of philosophy, what would you say is the most enduring philosophical question?
Nika Roza: ‘Why do I keep myself alive?’ That’s the general question, because at any moment you can decide not to be here. Why do you keep going? How do you get up? Is it out of fear? That is the one thing people will never know. I have something to keep me going. Before music I didn’t know what the point was, though. There were times in life where I didn’t know. Why do I keep going? Why do I keep doubting? You just have to be really confident in what you do and if you’re not, you have to convince yourself with what you wanna do and teach yourself to believe. You can’t let anyone else interfere with what you want. When I grow up, what do I wanna be? What’s my backup plan? People always ask. You can’t doubt what you want to do. It sounds like Oprah over here, but yes, you gotta go for what you want.
What is your philosophy?
Nika Roza: I believe in not avoiding things you’re afraid of. Especially really dark things. There are a lot of people that won’t want to experience certain music or books or movies. I am all about challenging that and challenging what makes you feel disgusted. Challenging what disgusts you. Challenging what you think has or hasn’t been done. Just challenge. I wake up and go to sleep making music. Some people get into music to have fun and party. Maybe it’s my ethics, but this is so serious to me that it’s not just about having fun and partying and getting people to have a good time. It’s so personal. If you are going to contribute something to society, it has to last. If it is going to be ephemeral, don’t waste your time. I don’t want people to think I am totally intense. I am a total dork. But when it comes to music, I am serious. When you put yourself out there it is a very vulnerable thing.
Are you good at sports?
Nika Roza: Awful. I am so bad. I was in remedial gym class in high school with all the people that weren’t cut out for real gym. No one else was able-bodied except for me. I was the shining star in that class!
How would you describe your music to a child?
Nika Roza: I tried to do this with my cousin. She’s an aspiring goth. I am trying to turn her into a weirdo. ‘It’s like pop music but it’s really noisy and there’s opera.’ I would probably say, ‘This sounds like Hannah Montana’ and let their minds adjust. ‘This is what Hannah Montana can also sound like.’ There’s got to be a Nickelodeon Black. If you turn on TV you see people yelling things and vomiting colors. But when I was growing up seeing cartoons they would have a lot of snot and bodily fluids and weird things. What is going to happen to this new generation? But I would tell the 7-year-old child it was the Apocalypse. You know what, fuck that. There’s nudity and language—let them see it! If not, they will turn into bigger creeps. You have to expose children to stuff like that. You gotta be ready.