An interview with
Amy X Neuburg (2004)

By Beppe Colli
May 17, 2004

As I've argued in my review of Residue, Amy X Neuburg's new solo record is a rare work, one that manages to be at the same time innovative and (relatively) accessible, extremely personal and yet very communicative, in a way traditional but perfectly aware (in ways that are never gratuitous or showy) of modern technologies. A result that's even more prodigious when taking into consideration the fact that Residue is an album that greatly differs from the bittersweet, ironic climates that were the prevailing note of her previous works, released under the collective name of Amy X Neuburg & Men. The only thing she needs now is an audience.

This could sound like a bitter note (and in a way it is). But if we read the "list of ingredients", the music of Residue is not really that far from certain pages by "middle-period" Beatles - and let's keep in mind that Strawberry Fields Forever didn't really sound accessible to all those who owned a radio. What's changed is - obviously - the context. But I'd really like that at least those who lament the disappearance of the "golden age" would behave accordingly: with more curiosity, and less ennui.

The only problem when talking with musicians like Amy X Neuburg is the amount of topics one can discuss: she's an extraordinary singer, a keyboard player, a percussionist, a composer, an artist of unconventional imagination... where do I begin? I decided to start this interview (conducted by e-mail during the first week of May) by referring to our previous conversation.

During our previous interview, in December 1999, you told me: "Then I hope to concentrate on an uncharacteristically serious and personal solo record". What were the musical reasons for this change, given the fact that the work you had done with the Amy X Neuburg & Men line-up had paid high artistic dividends?

The solo record I had in mind in 1999 is actually a completely different one from the one I recently released. I had a collection of songs composed, but had not recorded them, and still haven't.

But Residue did turn out to be serious and personal, and that is the direction I seem to be going in now, so it is no longer uncharacteristic. The fact is that the sound of Amy X Neuburg & Men was not conducive to "serious and personal" music. We were a bouncy, clever and rather manic band concerned with complexity, "macho" energy, and virtuosity. I also did not have a lot to say about personal issues during the heyday of Amy X Neuburg & Men, so my songs were more outward and less introspective.

A couple of years ago I read of a solo work of yours called Songs About Life & Death & Love & Insects, defined as "a theatrical multimedia 'one-woman techno-circus'". Was it a precursor to Residue?

Many of the songs performed in that show are on Residue. It was basically a theatrical setting (lights, projections, choreography, and MIDI stations set up all over the stage) of many of the solo works I had created at that time.

In our previous conversation I had asked you a question about how the "I" of the song is usually perceived as representing the singer's own voice, while in your case things were different/more complex. After listening to your new CD, I wonder whether the way you see this topic has in any way changed.

All of the songs on Residue are in my own voice (as opposed to being from the point of view of someone else), but that is more a reflection of what sort of songs were popping into my head than of any change in philosophy. In earlier songs I had more to say about the world, and sometimes expressed those thoughts using an "I" that might be a stereotype of a person (one I disagree with) to make an ironic point. My new music really is about me, though sometimes an exaggerated or distorted Me, and still with plenty of irony.

You've always played percussions - and drum pads. You studied electronic music at the Mills College Center For Contemporary Music - and you also studied percussion there, with William Winant. I'd like to ask your opinion of the way looped rhythms are (mostly) used today in the music we hear on TV/on the radio/in clubs.

Most of today's "electronic music" consists of automated beats rather than rhythms created in real time. Looping technology allows me to create rhythms in live performance, then add layers over the top. For live performance this is my preference; I like the fact that every sound I make can be directly connected to an action. This allows the audience to be in on the creation process; it's more intimate.

I have no problem with automated beats, though, if the purpose is to provide an audio experience. A lot of electronica is imaginatively produced and very danceable - great in clubs and on CD or as accompaniment to a visual medium. I've done plenty of groove-oriented studio work myself. But in live performance it's a different story. Some laptop musicians create great music, but for the most part I don't find it particularly interesting to watch a live performer sitting at a laptop doing who-knows-what, and hearing what amounts to "canned" music.

One element that I've always found intriguing is your use of electronic instruments. I've recently seen pictures of you, playing solo, where you're holding sticks - and no laptop in sight. Which is quite surprising, laptops being the instruments "du jour"...

Photo by Rob Thomas         

That is partly due to habit, partly due to trepidation, partly because I have not yet found software that does precisely what I want.

I began composing for my particular collection of instruments perhaps 8 years ago (though at that time solo music was not my focus). So those became my instruments, much like if you played and composed for piano you might find it difficult to switch over to guitar. My music is created with the unique capabilities of these instruments in mind, and a lot of work goes into programming them to do exactly what I want; having to re-create my songs for another instrument (without altering them) would be daunting if not impossible.

I also find that using drums, pedals and big mixer faders is both easier physically and more theatrical than staring into a busy computer screen and moving a mouse around. It's difficult to tour with so much gear, though, so I may soon have to face the fact that a laptop will help me lighten my load. I won't give up on using drums as my main controller - my use of drums is the whole basis for my stage show and for my compositions - but as new software develops I may soon be able to use a laptop to substitute for a few of my synths and processors.

For those of us who haven't had the chance to catch you live, would you mind talking about the way you build and "overdub" your loops?

I use the DrumKat to control nearly everything. I hit pads to start recording a loop, overdub, erase, play the loop backwards, etc. I also hit them to trigger drum and synth sounds, or I can press them with my hands for sustained sounds. I can also use the pads to change settings on my MIDI mixer - add an effect, for instance, or change a level or switch to a different mixer patch. I occasionally adjust the mixer manually, and I use foot pedals to cycle through the various song settings.

I often start a tune by recording a loop of my voice doing something rhythmic, then overdub layers of harmonies to create a thick chorus, then sing the melodic line over the top. I may switch to another loop in mid-song, build that one up in a similar way, then switch back to the first, taking many detours in the process. This keeps the song structure interesting and unpredictable, and gives the piece a "composed" shape unlike that of most pop songs, and unlike that of most looping music (which tends to stick to one loop the whole time in a sort of new-age-y hypnotic way).

When performing live you use a DrumKat drum controller. Do you think that the availability/affordability of laptops has contributed to a halting of the development of "alternative controllers"?

That's an interesting question. Alternative controllers can add a theatrical visual element to a live performance, so I don't know that a laptop and an alternative controller serve the same function.

I'd like to ask you a more general question about the relationship between "experimental art", media and society. When in 1959 Ornette Coleman played at the Five Spot in New York, it was considered a "cultural event", widely reported and discussed by newspapers and magazines, besides the cognoscenti. At the end of the 70s, avant-garde musical activities in places like The Kitchen were still widely reported. I know you've recently played at the Roulette. What is the situation today?

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of staggering innovation - art that is so different it attracts attention as a new art form. Rather, these days one art form seems to gradually morph into another, the way hip-hop evolved from rap (rap being the last great innovation, in my opinion), or incorporate another, as in the huge world beat crossover into pop and electronica. Roulette is a treasure as a nurturing ground for experimental musicians, but even in the New York experimental scene, that "downtown" sound has, to my ears, gotten a little stale. This is not to say there isn't fabulous music happening - just nothing that creates a cultural stir the same way the avant-garde did in the '60s... unless you consider all the sensationalism in the commercial entertainment world - reality shows, the American Idol phenomenon, Janet Jackson going topless, television in general. Those are the "cultural" forces shaping society in America.

Last time you talked about favorite producers/musicians. Are there any other names you'd like to add to that list? And: what did you think of the Björk collaboration with Zeena Parkins and Matmos? (By the way, are you familiar with their work? I think they are from Oakland.)

I only know Matmos from their work with Björk, and I think Vespertine is stunning.

Have I mentioned Hedningarna? Several years ago I fell in love with the new sounds coming out of Scandinavia, combining traditional folk songs with heavy electronic production and energetic delivery. Hoven Droven is another example. Many of these artists can be found on the NorthSide label.

One of my favorite production jobs in recent years was Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile - very heavy-handed, thick, and dark - the most beautiful "noise" I've ever heard. I have also recently become a fan of commercial hip-hop music. In my opinion it's some of the best popular music around - pristine and imaginative production, remarkable talent, controversial and often amusing lyrics, cultural relevance, and a very sexy energy.

Among other things you've done, I've read of you composing music for an animated series called Piki & Poko. I'd be curious to know more about this.

You can go to to see reruns of the cartoons. I wrote the theme song and most of the incidental music. It's a fun, irreverent series about two astrology-obsessed girls in the magical world of Starland, with lesbian undertones and absurd characters. I had a great deal of fun composing for it - one of my most memorable (and lucrative!) artistic experiences.

Future projects? Still no Europe?

I have a 2-week tour in New Zealand coming up. My next big project will be a large-scale theatrical work (and CD) of songs inspired by New York, for voice and electronics plus three cellists. This may take a couple of years to produce. Meanwhile I am collaborating with a lyricist in New York on a musical theater piece, and I am to perform the leading role in a new opera - probably next year. It has long been my fantasy to tour Europe, but I honestly don't know how to go about doing it. If anyone out there can help, I would be most grateful.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | May 17, 2004