An interview with
Amy X Neuburg (1999)
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 4, 2002

I don't really remember how I became aware of Amy X Neuburg's music - much probably, through a common friend. Soon thereafter, the usually reliable Robert L. Doerschuck wrote a rave review of (Amy X Neuburg & Men) Utechma on Musician magazine, proving that when it came to my appreciation for her CD I was in good company. In a perfect world, Amy X Neuburg's songs would be all over the radio - and shooting up the charts with a bullet: brilliant melodies, odd time signatures, clever arrangements, deep-but-never-pretentious lyrics, a very personal and versatile voice, intelligent engineering work.

I had the opportunity to interview her (by e-mail) at the time of the release of the group's next album (Sports! Chips! Booty!) and it's that interview that you'll find below. The interview appeared in Italian language in Blow Up magazine, issue # 19, December 1999, but I had to edit out two Q/A for space reasons, so this is the first time the full-length interview text has appeared anywhere - and the first time it appears in English.

At the time of this writing the release date of her solo CD looks forthcoming, and judging from the unreleased tracks that are featured on This Is... an IS Production Sampler it'll be pretty different. Having caught - and reviewed - the group's performance on a Live Webcast (Oakland, Imusicast - Jan. 6, 2000) I can only hope that that European tour will some day take place.

The new album has more of a "live" feel than the previous one. Surely a conscious effort on your part…

Yes, a conscious effort. On stage we are VERY physical. We jump around a lot and employ choreography, interaction with the audience and with each other, and sometimes short "shticks" (abstract skits). Everyone has a great deal of fun, thereby offsetting the pretentiousness of our rather complex music and appealing to almost everyone, regardless of their experience with art-rock. On the CD I aimed to communicate this "entertainment" element by keeping the vocals not-too-polished, using laughter and other vocalisms during the music, and recording the band as a unit, though there were plenty of edits and overdubs afterwards.

One element that I find intriguing is your use of electronic instruments: the results are surprisingly organic and "invisible" - one has to read the booklet to see what's going on - though I imagine that, in concert, this is different, and maybe part of the "presentation"…

Electronics offer endless sonic possibilities, allow each band member to "create" an instrument for each song, and are often practical in live situations, since volumes and effects can be precisely controlled. But my goal is not for the music to be ABOUT electronics; rather to use electronics to convey the music. People often think of electronic music as automated or robotic. We use no sequencers or drum machines—every instrument is played. This literally adds a human touch, as does the heavy use of vocals and text. But, as you suggested, in concert the instruments give us a dramatic "futuristic" edge. Watching Joel play Lightning (an infra-red device played by waving sticks through the air) is always a highlight of the show; Micah's Chapman stick is unusual and eye-catching; and all of us have opportunities to surprise the audience with unexpected sounds: Micah can play percussion with his stick, I can play chords with my drums, Herb can play bass with his guitar, etc. On our CDs I always list the credits for each song, so people can get a sense of this versatility.

Quite a few songs appear to have an overt humorous element, but being an Italian (i.e., from a different culture) sometimes I'm not sure what you're talking about  - for in., in the song Orange County…

I can see how someone from another country might miss many of the cultural references. The band's whole attitude relies on cultural reference: the Men make fun of male stereotypes, as does the title of the new CD, which lists three typical American male preoccupations.

Orange County is notoriously conservative suburban area of southern California, where I spent several months while performing in a musical. Some of the references in the song are specific to my personal situation—i.e., I  really WAS housed in a characterless apartment with a nylon ficus tree, one block from the largest mall in the world. I refer to the L.A. smog and the lack of appreciation for art. But I could be describing any suburb in America, where malls are pervasive and all have Cinnabons (a national chain that sells cinnamon muffins). People practically live in their cars, the landscape contains the same stores repeatedly, and that American consumer mentality overtakes all of us now and then (myself included).

Ultimately Orange County is a rather sad song, as I end up alone in my apartment with my new purchases. Behind the humorous facades, my songs are always about something personally meaningful.

It's very common, when listening to songs, to assume that the "I" of the song represents the singer's own "voice" (for in., Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain or Joni Mitchell); singing "in character" is, I think, not very common (off the top of my head I'd say Frank Zappa or the "untrustworthy narrator" in the tradition of, say, Randy Newman)…

One reason I do this is to make a statement without being overt. I say the opposite of what I mean, or I pretend to be someone else, to illustrate a point without blatantly preaching, "Guns are bad", for instance. Overt politics in music rub me the wrong way because nothing remains for the listener to figure out, so I prefer to be political in a subtler way, with humor or irony. In Big Barbecue I portray someone who enjoys guns. In I Know You I portray someone who fears those unlike himself (with some of my own insensitivities leaking through).

I’ve also been influenced by plentiful experience in theater, musicals, and operas. In the same way the playwright can "speak" through his characters, sometimes my songs employ role-playing to communicate more engagingly.

You cover King Crimson's Waiting Man and I think there is a "subversion" of the original meaning here. Wrong?

We originally recorded Waiting Man for inclusion on a King Crimson tribute CD. We chose that song because the interlocking patterns seemed appropriate for our instrumentation, because it was not a complicated song, and because of the title. But of course, I had to modify the words so that they would make sense sung by a woman. The intention was not to subvert, but that was the result. The Man is now waiting for ME as I travel around the world, and I’m not terribly sympathetic towards him. The brief spurts of manly vocals are automatically humorous, thereby throwing K.C.'s sentimentality out the window.

In the song Hunger for Heaven, on Utechma, you cut all the "inhaling spaces" from your sung lines - and when one "gets it" the effect is very disturbing. In terms of record production who do you consider to be a creative producer?

Much of what influences me are the tools at hand. When I worked on Utechma I was beta-testing a hard-disk recording system. This was my first opportunity to edit music graphically, and the possibilities for sound manipulation seemed endless. But I feel any drastic audio production should be artistically justified, as in having no breath in a song about a slow suicide. "Producing" encompasses so many aspects of my music—from creating synthesizer patches to arranging vocals to choosing reverbs—that I’m not sure where composing ends and producing begins. With the new technologies, all of these aspects become integrated into what one might call "putting a song together".

Producers I consider creative include Brian Eno, Colin Newman, Kate Bush, and Björk et al. on Homogenic. Kate Bush’s albums The Dreaming and Hounds of Love are wonderful examples of "production as music", where the complexity of the songs is hard to separate from the drama of the production. In contrast, Björk’s producers turned basically unimaginative melodies and lyrics into works of art just by giving them amazing electronic backdrops. (It also helps to have Björk’s voice.)

Future plans? (I seem to remember there was a solo record in the works…) European tours?

We plan to tour Europe in the summer of 2000, after a western U.S. tour. Then I hope to concentrate on an uncharacteristically serious and personal solo record. Soon thereafter, we’ll start on our next band record. We also have ideas about producing a long music/theatre piece. Meanwhile, I continue to compose for modern dance: upcoming projects include an evening-length work about Gertrude Stein, and a show in Hong Kong with Asian-American Dance Performances.

© Beppe Colli 1999 - 2002 | Dec. 4, 2002
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