I’m a creative control freak and it’s complicated.
The way my band Wax Idols works is like this: it’s mine. I started by writing and recording everything by myself, and I could continue doing that forever if I wanted to. I’m fully capable. I realize that this will be hard for a lot of the silly sexist folks out there to believe, but there has never been some boyfriend figure who came in and wrote my songs, played the tough guitar parts for me or taught me how to use audio programs. It’s been fairly commonplace throughout my career to be regarded as some kind of succubus bitch who surely must be feeding on the talent of her sexual partners, as opposed to being a technically proficient and driven artist who calls the shots and also has sex and/or relationships with other artists. You know — the way in which men who are exactly like me (in this context) are revered. This is the typically sexist framework within which women are often assessed and judged. Being talented, strong-willed and in control are attributes that are associated with masculinity and are therefore impossible for feeble-minded individuals to process when exhibited by anyone other than a man. When someone such as Ariel Pink writes, performs and produces almost every element of his music, words like “genius” get thrown around. Not to mention the fact that I’ve rarely seen his ex-girlfriend Geneva Jacuzzi given any credit for her influence on Pink’s work, which seems fairly obvious to me. When I do that very same thing, it tends to get glossed over in favor of who I’m sleeping with, what I look like, or whatever dull comparisons can be made to assorted female artists who either don’t have, or choose not to exercise, a fraction of the creative agency that I do. Pretty cool, huh? Anyway….
I’ve been a multi-instrumentalist since I was a child. I went to school (briefly) for audio production and then got an internship at a commercial recording studio in Chicago. For the last several years I’ve worked in a proper studio with engineer-producer Monte Vallier, who has more equipment, knowledge and experience than I do, not to mention a seemingly limitless source of ideas and talent. I consider myself very lucky to have someone like him involved in what I’m doing, but if he decided tomorrow that he hated me, never wanted to work with me again and put a hex on me so that no other producer would touch me — I could still carry on making albums. And no, I’ve never slept with him. Thanks for asking!
Though I have encouraged and invited collaboration from the ten or so mostly female bandmates I’ve had over the years and appreciate each and every one of them more than any amount of words could properly express, at the end of the day, every creative decision is mine, and if I don’t like the way a part is being played, it doesn’t get played that way. Arthur Lee of the band Love once said in an interview with the NME that “…a rhythm guitarist has no right to do anything but play rhythm guitar if that’s all he knows how to do. I write, produce, sing and play guitar, drums and piano, and I wouldn’t attempt to do anything I couldn’t cut. If you’re just a rhythm guitar player, don’t tell me what to put in my song!” and that’s basically been my approach as well.
I am currently blessed with a band full of extremely talented multi-instrumentalists who really respect the way I work, but it hasn’t always been this way. There were power clashes with former members, and whenever I bent in order to accommodate their needs, I later came to regret it — eventually, despite my willingness to relinquish a certain amount of creative decision-making in order to be more inclusive, people decide that they can’t commit fully to the band and I am forced to find last-minute replacements. I don’t blame them. Ultimately it is my band, and I don’t expect anyone to care about it as much as I do, but I’ve still felt pretty hurt and disappointed when people have abandoned ship despite my every effort to make them feel valuable and important to the project. So with that in mind, I set out to work on the newest Wax Idols record, American Tragic, on my own, rather than trying to rope people into caring enough to write with me. This album found me working out loads of abandonment issues anyway, so the particularly singular approach to writing felt thematically appropriate as well. Luckily, our current drummer Rachel Travers was down to infuse the songs on this record with her unique style and ability after they’d been written. She is a much better drummer than I am, so I was and am grateful. I am open to collaboration, after all; it’s just that I don’t rely on it.
Being this kind of an artist within a band structure is both empowering and exhausting. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and being the head honcho of a project that requires the assistance of others means that my number one concern, after serving the music, is to make sure that everyone else is taken care of. The people who dedicate their time and energy to helping you achieve your vision should never be taken advantage of, or taken for granted. I know that all too well, having played in other people’s bands and been treated unfairly in some of those situations. This project is and will always be primarily a vessel for me to express the full spectrum of my musical ideas, but I’m not trying to shut everyone entirely out of the process. It’s a balancing act that requires constant awareness, consideration and nurturing.
The Svengali-esque way I run my band has always seemed extreme to people who don’t create music the way I do, but it’s the only way the noise in my head can be fully actualized. Ideas and songs come at me out of nowhere, and it’s up to me to try to capture them as effectively as possible. For example, a song on American Tragic called “At Any Moment” came to me in one big flash when I was in San Francisco to record the album. It was as if the song had been sent to me telepathically. Every part for every instrument, including the vocal melody, was fully formed as it arrived, as if I’d just turned on the radio and was hearing a new song for the first time. I wasn’t at the studio yet, so I scrambled to find a pen and paper and began furiously scribbling out the arrangement in some ridiculous code that I invented on the spot and then rushed to the studio. I was humming parts into my phone and making notes to help me remember what each coded symbol stood for while speed-walking through the Mission, terrified that the song would slip away from me. By the time I arrived, the song felt like vomit that could not be held in any longer. I scrapped all of our plans for the day and tried to explain to Monte what had happened as I frantically waved the notepad in his face, attempting to verbalize the coded language for him before realizing that I just needed to start working. “When it’s done, he’ll get it,” I thought.
Monte is pretty good at understanding the weird, neurotic way I try to explain what the sounds in my head sound like (a particularly difficult thing to translate to another person — like playing charades), but imagine if I didn’t know how to play all of the instruments myself and had to spend time trying to explain the nuances of each part to four different musicians. The song wouldn’t have remained pure. Time and the interpretations of others would have changed it, and that, to me, would have felt like failure. I didn’t fail, though, and I rarely do, because of the isolated way I work. The finished version of the song sounds exactly the way it did when it got dropped into my head like a present from Santa down the chimney.
Perhaps I am deluding myself that musical ideas are precious gifts that I somehow magically tap into and need to protect and serve like some kind of art cop. I do acknowledge the fact that I am a control freak, and maybe that’s what drives me to create in this way: my need for control. I need it because there is nothing in this world that I have control over other than myself and the art that I create. Making something out of nothing, finding order amid chaos, establishing a counter-reality to the suffocating reality that I am forced to live in every day — this is the only thing that makes me feel like I have a purpose.
I can trace this conscious need for control back to a specific moment in time. When I was almost thirteen years old, my mother finally left the horribly abusive man that she had been married to for most of my life. Realizing that I was free of his tyranny for good, I made a promise to myself: that I would never, ever let anyone make me feel invisible or powerless again. I’ve carried that promise throughout my entire adult life thus far, and it has served me well. I am fiercely independent, even to my own detriment at times, because I have remained determined from that moment on to accomplish all of my goals in spite of the shitty people, experiences and odds that might be stacked against me. Basically I see it like this: if everything and everyone else in my life were taken away from me, my ability to create would remain because I can do it alone, and therefore I can never be powerless. My mother always told me to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That might seem like Doomsday thinking, but it’s a survival tactic for me.
Obviously I realize that this is an ego thing to an extent, but the ego isn’t all bad. We have egos in order to protect ourselves from harm. Keeping my ego in check, however, is what keeps the source of my creativity pure. If the ego protects and manifests but is not the be-all and end-all of ideas and inspiration, where do all of the sounds and visions that appear suddenly in my mind like a flash of lightning come from? I am an annoying existentialist, so I like to answer my own questions with questions.
“What do you believe in?”
An expansive, convoluted question like this can send me down a rabbit hole fast, so I will try to cut to the chase here. On one hand, I don’t believe in anything other than myself. I’m classically anti-authority and anti-religion, god is in the self, “Do what thou wilt,” create your own destiny, etc. etc. On the other hand, I believe that artists act as a vehicle for the expression of the collective unconscious, which has pretty much nothing to do with us as individuals. We are just conduits for creation, bearing the burden with our bodies like the Virgin Mary. If the Ego is the white “yin” and the Universe is the black “yang,” I am basically the squiggly line that is both the intersection and the divide: an island carved out by a rich and furious sea. Waves come, waves go. Like I said, the only thing that I can actually control is myself and my work — that is, until the big wave snuffs me out.