Interview – Carla Buzulich
– by Shawn Conner
Carla Bozulich is going on a North American tour.
This is kind of a big deal for a number of reasons. The first is that the former frontwoman for the Geraldine Fibbers rarely tours North America. The second is that she’s opening for Swans – and Bozulich rarely tours as an opener (for good reasons, as you’ll see below). It’s notable also because the singer is touring in support of a new album that might also be considered by some to be her most accessible in years.
Born in New York, now based (if she is based anywhere) in Los Angeles, Bozulich came up through the East Coast music/performance arts scene, eventually fronting the art-rock project Ethyl Meatplow and the much-revered country-rock-punk hybrid Geraldine Fibbers (whose 1995 full-length debut Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home is a stone classic). Since the Fibbers split following the release of 1997’s Butch, Bozulich has recorded under the names Scarnella (a duo with Nels Cline) and Evangelista. Bozulich has also sung with the Nels Cline Singers, Mike Watt, Lydia Lunch, and many more. Bozulich is also a producer (of her own projects as well as a recent record by the Italian band Blue Willa), performance artist and writer.
Boy (out now on Constellation Records), her latest, is the fourth album under her name (the first was a 2003 album-length cover of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger). It’s somewhat more conventional effort than recent Bozulich efforts in that it has recognizable, almost pop, song structures, but it’s still sonically and compositionally adventurous. Long-time collaborator John Eichenseer (aka JHNO) contributes keyboards, viola, and electronics, Andrea Belfi plays synth and drums on all tracks except “One Hard Man” (John and Gambletron) and “Drowned To The Light” (Shahzad Ismaily). For the Swans tour, Bozulich will play as part of a trio. The tour begins Sept 1 in Salt Lake City and comes to Venue in Vancouver Sept. 5.
Shawn Conner: It seems like the Geraldine Fibbers was your stab at making more accessible music, and since then you’ve followed a more personal vision.
Carla Bozulich: Actually, the Fibbers was straight up exactly what I wanted to do. There were no compromises and no effort to accommodate anybody. And our record company had no creative control whatsoever. They said they thought “Dragon Lady” was the strongest song to try to make the single. And we were like “Oh yeah, cool.” But if we had said, “Fuck you, we like ‘Lilybelle’, they would contractually would have had no recourse. I felt like I was exercising my creative vision just how I wanted to. It’s just that it was more accessible. It’s not that I was going for that. It was fun to go in that direction. And I still like most of the songs.
Video – Geraldine Fibbers, “Dragon Lady”:
SC: What happened after the band broke up?
CB: I was kind of sick. It was prolonged. Nels Cline and I made Scarnella (1998) during that period, so it was a really big deal for me to make that album, and to make it up to Seattle and we recorded it at Reciprocal, which is where Nirvana made Bleach. It was a really incredible experience, we wrote a lot of the album on the way up and in Big Sur, which I love. I was super-sick and Nels turned that into part of the creative process. He’s just such a generous collaborator. It all made it end up being one of the best albums that I’ve ever been involved with. I just laid on the floor a lot of the time and the rest of the time we just freaked out. That album is very, very meaningful to me. We recorded and mixed it in two days. It was just so, sort of a healing thing. Also, there was a totally viable future because when you feel really really bad, you feel like ‘Shit, maybe that was it.’ And it was very good for me because I really wanted to explore improvisation more. It’s one of my strongest suits. Fibbers was not so much about that, though there were a lot of happy accidents.
Then when I wanted to sing again, i didn’t want the pressure of writing lyrics. That’s when I remade the Willie Nelson album, and slid back into the lyrical aspect of things, and voice-driven music. To me that’s the most accessible album I’ve ever made, by far.
SC: Is writing lyrics stressful for you?
CB: It’s not stressful. At the time I was coming out of a period where I wanted to explore other instruments. I just love that album (Scarnella) so much. It was so pleasant and nice to transition back to that. But writing for me is totally compulsive. I write all the time. I have thousands of pieces. I lose more than I have, I just throw it away or lose it. One time a girl stole a whole binder which was two years of writing, and replaced it with the same kind of writing book but with her writing in it!
I love writing. I would consider myself actually a writer, not just of lyrics. I consider music and singing to be equal aspects of musicianship. I consider voice to be an instrument. In writing, I consider it to be this contribution to this thing. But I generally write first. Then I look at it, if I find something lyrical in it maybe I’ll pursue it for a song. Usually I just need to write.
I consider my writing to be something that I craft so carefully. Sometimes I just rip it off, and it’s fine, it comes out great. Other times I’m crafting that shit, I’m really honing it. It’s a huge part of what I do. There are a lot of people who listen to music and don’t listen to lyrics. It’s super-common, they just listen to the sound of the words, to the voice as an instrument. I really respect that. But when somebody says, “Why don’t you just chill out and write some words” – it really matters to me. It doesn’t matter to me if it matters to you. But it really matters to me that I do a good job. It’s a craft.
SC: Are bad lyrics enough to turn you off a song?
CB: Yeah, definitely. I was sitting in an airport recently and just marvelling at the words. It’s funny, because I’m guilty of a lot of the cliches associated with bad lyrics. If you look back. it’s so hard not to rhyme “fire” with “desire”! My bandmate [bassist] Tara Barnes had to tell me, the last time, “Really, Carla?” I love Tara because I let her read my lyrics and she’ll say, “I love this, but this one part here, you already said it in another way, in the verse before, and I think there’s something stronger you can say right there.” I love to have somebody edit stuff. I’m kind of down for anything. I like to write with somebody, like “Hey Lydia, why don’t you write a line and then I’ll write a line!” I just want to say what I have to say and I want to have fun. I want to go to outer space and find new planets.
SC: And that’s reflected in the number of collaborators you’ve worked with.
CB: The last time I tried to write down everyone who played in Evangelista, and they’re all kick-ass musicians, it was getting near fifty. It’s a fucking honour. I’m not a great musician. I think I’m a pretty fucking good lyricist. And I have the voice I have. But the thing is, whatever the cause, I am so honoured by the people who have come forward and played with me. Because there’s no fucking money. I’ve been so lucky. I want to keep being lucky [laughs]. My band that I’m about to go on tour with, it’s a great band, and they’re ready for whatever. I even have a sound engineer who’s getting a fraction of what she normally makes with Godspeed.
SC: Who’s in the band you’re bringing on tour?
CB: I has to be a really small group because of how much stuff they have. With a set-up like theirs [Swans’], you can’t move it. The sound is so carefully crafted to work in that room by the sound engineer. Typically, what you’ve got left is the area where the singer holds court. So we’re setting up in that area. It’s a three-piece, and I think that’s actually pushing it.
For me, a three-piece is super-challenging. I’m not used to that. I usually play with large ensembles. It’s all there supporting me. I don’t need to cover certain ground. I can just check out. The challenge is to still be able to check out but it’s more of a challenge.
I think for [Swans frontman] Michael Gira, from all the years we’ve been talking, the best thing would be just me singing with a guitar or electronics, just pushing my voice, double the volume of any album I’ve ever sung on and just get a really good mic and top-notch equipment, best studio, and make an album of really voice-and-lyric driven music. He’s been encouraging me in that direction for many years. And I can’t say that that’s what I’m going to be offering up at these gigs. But I want to try it out.
The fact that he’s aesthetically known to be quote-unquote who he is, makes it even more legit that that would be his take on me. I gave him the Boy album, and I thought, okay, here it is, it’s what he’s been wanting all these years. I gave it to him and he was like, “Where’s the voice? It’s all about your voice, we need to hear your voice.” He’s very supportive of that aspect of me. I, in the meantime, am just kind of obsessed with exploring music in general and being a part of just sort of a sound, a stimulating, surreal, gut-punching sound. If I have any fears musically – well there’s two of them. One, I have to push all the time, by being the only guitar player, I have to do that on so many tours because I can’t afford to take another guitar player, and I’m not a great guitarist in the conventional sense. I’m good at sound.
The other thing is featuring my voice in a very naked way and copping to the fact that that’s probably my strongest ability or whatever. I don’t know what it is about voice, I just don’t want to be a fucking singer/songwriter. I just don’t. And the voice is strong. I feel like I’m going to end up being a singer, and I want to be a musician.
But hey, on the other hand – I also kind of want to try pretty much everything before I die. So I’m going to give it a whirl. I love Michael Gira. I really trust him.
SC: Is this going to be your first Vancouver show in a long time?
CB: Yeah yeah. Actually, the last time – gosh. It’s been a long time – so long it’s like it never happened!
It’s possible I played there with JHNO, who plays in the Boy band. But I don’t think so. We did a little tour of North America a couple of years ago just because I wanted to lose a bunch of money and see my beloved tour roadie one more time.
I don’t play in the U.S. normally. This tour is something I never would have done unless I got an offer from Swans. There are about three or four bands that I’d open for at this point. There’ s no point to it otherwise. My shows are really small and I always headline. That’s the way it works for me. For me to open – nobody likes the music. If I headline, everyone likes it, because the only people who come like it.
I stopped opening for people a long time ago. The only time I’ll do it is if it’s for somebody where it really makes sense, where the audience is going to be interested. It’s not about money anymore. There just isn’t potential for it when you’re opening for an audience that doesn’t care. I opened for Wilco once just so I could hang out with Nels and talk. It was so blatantly wrong for the audience. And I was trying to do a pretty straight set, just to make things work in general. It just was so wrong. You’re playing in front of 3,000 people but there’s no point. I’d rather play in front of 70 people who are just flipping or crying or talking to me at the merch table or telling me about the books they’re reading or things they think I would connect with, you know, making friends. If I can say anything to a band, it doesn’t help to open for a band whose audience is not going to be into the music. They’re going to pay you shit, you’re not going to sell any merch, and the word “exposure” is complete bullshit.
SC: All right…
CB: On that note…
Carla Bozulich opens for Swans at Venue in Vancouver Sept 5. Buy tickets at electrostub.com.