Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Exorcism Number Eighteen: Annie Strong

HELLO. Here we are back with the luminous and inspiring Annie Strong. I met Annie in 2010 when Black Wine first toured the USA! USA! I promptly fell in love with her and her pets. I listened to This Is My Fist shortly after this meeting and was blown away of course. Her voice is so striking and so honest. (That sounds like some serious bullshit, I know. But it's one of the rare occasions where the cliche is worth using because it actually applies.) THEN I FOUND OUT THAT SHE LOVES QUEEN AND ALAN RICKMAN AND IM LIKE, "OH MY GOD WHATTTTT?"

Here's the interview. It was an honor to read the answers.

1.     Where did you grow up? What are/were your parents like? Do you have siblings? What are THEY like?

I grew up in Bensenville, IL.  It was a smaller town, built around a train freightyard.  We lived in an old farmhouse that was kitty-corner to a sheep farm, which may explain my eternal love of small ruminants. Bensenville has the distinction of having been partially eradicated by the O’Hare Airport expansion.  It turned a large section of town (about 600 homes) into an apocalyptic-looking wasteland… empty houses, broken windows, overgrown weeds… like you expected virus-infected zombies to stumble out at any minute.  It’s sad, and I know Mayor Geils fought the expansion it for a long time before he was voted out of office.

My parents were both pretty much hippies, I guess.  My mom has a good story about hiding from cops under a truckbed during the ’68 riot during the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  She lives in the woods in northern WI with her dogs.  My dad and stepmom are RV nomads that wander around the country, finding work as they go.  My folks had me when they were very young, in 1974, and my two brothers followed not long after.  My brother, Tim, is an ER doctor who, for now, splits his time in CA and TX.  My youngest brother, Andrew, was in the process of going to nursing school before his daughter came along.  I think it’s weird that all of the Saunders kids ended up pursuing medical careers (I’m a ex-vet tech who made the possibly unwise transition to vet school).  I also have three kickass nieces that are the coolest. 

2.     What bands got you into music and made you want to play vs watch? Are there specific moments you remember where you felt it was more important for you to take part in making music rather than be a spectator?

I really liked Weird Al Yankovic as a kid.  Still do.  ‘Polka Party’ was the first cassette I picked out at the music store, and I listened to it until the tape broke.  The first bands I got into on my own, around 13-14, were more New Wave, industrial, or hair metal: Depeche Mode, The Cure, Bauhaus, Ministry, New Order, Guns & Roses.  That kind of stuff.  When I was 15, our school received another weirdo kid, a punk skater with a pink mohawk, so I was immediately smitten, of course.  Him and his friends introduced me to Naked Raygun and Black Flag, and I took off running from there.  My first real punk show was Life Sentence / Contracide at the Number One Soul in Elgin, IL.  It was the first time I saw a circle pit and people going nuts, and also the first time I didn’t feel completely isolated rom the people around me.  After I got my drivers license, I went into hyperdrive with going to see bands play.  It seemed like all I did was go to shows.  But that first one in Elgin, that has stuck with me for a long time.  Also, I thought the kids in Contracide were so cool.  They played in a band but also hung out together, ate together, tried to astral-plane project themselves to another dimension together… they were very family-like and that, I think, was what made me try to pursue that kind of relationship with future bands.

When I was 14-15, I wasn’t playing in any bands, but I was teaching myself guitar using my dad’s electric and tiny Crate amp.  I would put on the Standing on a Beach album by The Cure and just go song by song, learning by ear.  My pink-mohawked beau was in a band called Vomiting Babies on Fire (holy shit, I can’t believe that was a real band name).  VBOF had songs with titles like “Napalm” or “Cigarettes.” Their singer, Kurt, could not sing and play bass at the same time.  I was watching them practice shortly before their first show in a garage; meaning the 6 other skaters in town were going to come watch them practice too.  The drummer, Matt, was really frustrated; he looked at me and said, “Can YOU play bass?” and I was like “Yep.  Sure?” and they taught me their songs.  Thirty minutes later, the skaters showed up and I played my first show.  I was in the band after that and it was pretty fun, though we didn’t really do much.

The real “awakening” came, however, on my 16th birthday.  My mom’s two biker friends, George and Liz, were living in our basement and I thought they were the coolest people in the world.  I mean, they had a ferret and rode motorcycles!  On my birthday, they took me with them to test drive semi trucks and then bought me a distortion pedal and taught me how to play “Ace of Spades” on the guitar.  That was one of the best days of my adolescent life and changed everything for me.
3. What instruments do you play and when did you start playing them? Which musicians inspired you as a kid? Which musicians inspire you today?
 Mainly now I play guitar and sing, but also have played bass and drums.  I have a real drumset now in the basement so I’m trying to get more confident with that.  I didn’t really start to write my own songs until I was about 22 or so.  At the time, I was really into the gruffer, melodic-type punk.  Dillinger 4, The Strike, Scared of Chaka, ManAfraid, M-Blanket… those were all bands I really felt inspired by, then and now.  The time from age 20-25 was a really intense and weird time of feeling truly immersed in the subculture I had been drawn into.  It was also a time where I was having crippling anxiety attacks, and the desperation of wanting to feel better was in bitter combat with the part of me that knew I was at my most creative when extremely anxious.

Now, I think that I get inspiration from other sources.  In This Is My Fist, it was mostly about being so fed up with all the bullshit, whether from people I cared about acting foolish, the over-the-top and ridiculous class/race disparities of the Bay Area, or that Bush Jr. had just started a goddam war.  Musically, inspiration comes from artists like Bob Mould, Matty Luv/Hickey, The Who, and Frank Black.  I saw F.B. play solo once in SF and his voice was so beautiful, it  brought tears to my eyes.  Each of these people/bands has something unique that just latches on somewhere in my heart and tugs and tugs at it.  Frank Black has this weird way of structuring songs so they sound like they volley between 4/4 time and 3/4 or 5/8 time, even though often, it is still just 4/4.  I also like to write songs that work with a rule-of-three in 4/4 time.  It sounds like you’re changing things up a lot within a song, even when you’re not.  Bob Mould and his crazy chords are something I can relate to personally. When TIMF started, I was not expecting to play guitar, but I ended up doing it.  Todd was a much better guitar player than I was.  I didn’t know how to play any actual chords, so I would just figure out what sounded OK and go with it.  In some of our later songs, I had learned a bit more and was using regular chords a lot and I don’t think it has the same discordant urgency as the earlier stuff.  I still like it, it was just different.

4.     Do you feel like you value different aspects of music/musicianship now vs when you first started playing? How has that affected your music/writing/that kind of thing over the years?

Definitely my relationship with music has changed.  When I was younger, it was all spitfire and beer and craziness.  The shows that Ambition Mission would throw at our house often ended with something on fire or things equally as entertaining.  Now, there are bands I like for the musicianship and not necessarily that I think songs are great.  David Bazan is a good example of that.  I never liked Pedro the Lion or that type of music in general, but his solo stuff is dark and well-crafted.  Even though I don’t like all of his songs, there are a few that I listen to frequently just so I can hear certain chord changes or bits of lyric that are really awesome.
I try to be more thoughtful when I write lyrics now.  I don’t end up singing the first thing that pops into my head.  I usually write the lyrics out, sit on it for awhile, then go back and change things that I don’t like.  It didn’t used to be like that, I would just go with my first gut instinct, which resulted in several embarrassing-to-sing songs.

I’ve got a new, two-man band thing going now with my friend Ben, and I am really pleased with the songs so far.  I’ve got two more years of school to go in this town, so I’m really excited to see what happens with it.

5.     I know you're a big Queen fan (AND SO AM I) TALK ABOUT HOW AWESOME THEY ARE!

Oh my… this could turn lengthy.  Haha.  I get a lot of flak for being so into Queen.  I think Queen wrote exceptionally well-crafted songs.  And Freddie Mercury’s vocal abilities and musical talent far exceeded those of his contemporaries.   His voice has a timbre, much like Frank Black, that moves me deeply.  Every measure of a Queen song is so thought out, and the effort and love that was put into it is completely inspiring.  They have a lot of songs that are truly horrible, but even still I can respect the musicianship that went into their construction.  The wealthy excesses of Queen go against pretty much everything that I hold sacred in punk, and I recognize that it is hypocritical to hold them in such high regard.  But, the art they created was real and beautiful, and that is an uncommon trait to be found in arena-rock.  Plus, I really love that they just didn’t give a fuck about anything and made music that THEY liked, as opposed to bands that were crafted by outside tinkerers.  I also feel that way about The Who. 

Onstage, Freddie Mercury was a human tornado.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone that has the same bravado and natural ease in front of a crowd as him.  The only person I can think that has that same sort of strength is John from The Fleshies.  Yeah, I just compared John Geek to Freddie Mercury.  Haha.  But it’s true.  John is someone who, if he does not feel completely at ease onstage, is a master bullshitter who deserves an Academy Award because he is so good at what he does with his music.

6.     Talk about the songwriting process in TIMF. What inspires your lyric writing? How do you go about putting a song together?

The process with TIMF was a lot different than my previous band, Ambition Mission.  In the Mission, someone would bring in a riff or part and we’d all work on it together and Frankenstein a song together.  There were very few songs where someone brought it in finished.  It was a very communal process and I really loved that.  In TIMF, one of us would bring in a completed song that we would just tweak a bit.  The early three-piece incarnation of TIMF was the most inspired one, even though towards the end, it was rife with conflict and our own immaturity; we literally imploded upon ourselves.  We were destined to burn out and sometimes I wonder if we should have just called it quits after we booted Will out of the band.  The later group was, I think, more solidly dependable and on the same page as far as playing shows and traveling, and got along better.  But at that point, it felt like it had turned into “my” band instead of “our” band and I really faltered under the weight of that.  We had so much fun playing together but it was extremely difficult for me to write anything new.

When I write a song, the music comes first, almost always.  The tone of the song sets the tone of the lyrics and I go from there.  I have a really hard time writing lyrics.  I never want them to sound like I didn’t try, although that has not always worked out in the past.  I have written some real stinkers over the years, like, songs that the band liked to play as a whole, but I could barely play live because the words were so embarrassing.  That’s my own inner shit, though, and I really have to just get over it.

When I was first writing songs, they were solely about things that made me angry.  Not that it is not the same now, there is still a great deal to be angry over.  As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’ve mellowed a bit.  I mean, unless we’re on tour, I can’t deal with the 5-6 band show that starts late and ends at 2am anymore.  A three-band show that ends before 10 or 11 is perfection to me.  When I was 20, I think I spread myself too thin with issues to feel impassioned about and would routinely get exhausted from being angry at the world.  Now, I’m rounding the bend towards 40 and have learned to pick my battles.  Things still make me angry or anxious enough to write about it, but they tend to be more focused on specific topics that mean the most to me: rich vs poor, haves vs have-nots, the brutal pragmatism of nature, and the desire to escape into the woods and never come back.

7.     Have you ever had any kind of stage fright and has it changed over the years?

Oh dear lord, yes.  My first real, functioning band I played in was The Mushuganas.  I played bass, no singing involved.  But I was terrified.  I pretty much just looked at my hands the whole time and would not look at the friends we were playing to.  I was also at the peak of my anxiety problems, and I still don’t know if playing shows helped or hindered me, but my gut says it helped.

When Ambition Mission started, I was still weird about playing in front of people but the band was like, “you need to sing too,” and I really balked at it.  The other folks in the band were so encouraging and positive, though, that it ended up being something I became really comfortable with, as long as we were at practice.  For live shows, however, I would need beer or whiskey or something.  I remember having a conversation with my friend Pete, who was the singer/bass player for a local band called Oblivion that I adored.  Pete was/still is an amazing frontman. He’s a pretty mild-mannered guy.  He’s quiet and thoughtful.  When we were roommates, he took naps everyday after work.  It was very cute.  But when he got on stage, he turned into this crazy animal, contorting his face and body, all without influence of drugs or alcohol.  I have never not been utterly entertained while watching his bands play.  I asked him how he did it, how he could just get up there and yell and be such a goof.  He told me to just mentally berate the crowd; he didn’t mean personally attack anyone, just not give a shit about their presence, which seemed completely antithetical to what the spirit of communal punk was about.  I once watched him go into full tirade mode to a crowd at the Fireside Bowl about how they don’t appreciate the influence that the Rolling Stones had upon rock and roll.  It sounds weird but it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen at a show.  So, I tried it and it really worked.  I would be up there thinking “fuck all of you fuckers, even though I really adore every one of you” and what-the-hell, it worked.  I think that practice only lasted a short time and then, probably by pure desensitization, I got over the stage fright part.  If I play solo, however, then all bets are off the table.  I am pretty sure I’ve been lit for every solo show I’ve ever done because it is still so nerve-wracking.

8.     How awesome is Alan Rickman? Talk about how glorious he is.

Oh, where to start?  The sweeping waves of auburn hair… the feline eyes… the deep, rumbly voice saying “Give me my detonators;” my love is strong for this one.  My least favorite incarnation of A.R. is the Snape character.  I thought I would love a goth-y Alan Rickman but it turns out I do not.  He is one of my top movie-star crushes.  It is a weird group that also involves Christopher Guest, Gene Wilder, and Ed Harris. 

I do love that you and I have this mutual fascination with A.R.  It is a bond that will stay strong forever.  I am pretty sure that decades from now, when he dies, no matter where we are, we will think of each other and that makes me smile.

9.     Have you any stories involving the strange and paranormal?

OHMYGOD, yes!!!

When I was fifteen, I fell asleep on the couch watching the Kids in the Hall.  I woke up to whispers in my ear.   They were so close that I could feel the breath on my skin.  I brought the sheets up over my head and just sat there, shaking, trying to process what had happened.  My heart was beating frantically, but I eventually calmed down and was starting to conclude that I was dreaming.  Then, something hit the pillow next to me with so much force, like someone slamming both fists downwards or dropping something from high up in the air.  It left a softball-sized indent in the pillow.  Now THAT scared the shit out of me, for real.  I had been fully awake when that happened.  I straight-up bolted out of the living room and into my mom’s room, like a scared kid.  I asked if I could sleep with her and she mumbled “of course” and fell back asleep.  So, I laid down, lying on my back with the sheets still pulled up over my head, and just freaked out internally for a while.  I felt our big tom-cat, Bruno, jump up on my belly and sit there.  That was something he always did.  He was a big guy, but he got heavier and heavier and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I moved the sheets away from my face so I could push him off of me and there was nothing there.  But something was still pressing down on my stomach.  Then, that pressure just felt like it moved down through me, out my back, and into the mattress beneath me.  I never had anything like that happen again but I did not like our house much after that.  I don’t know if it was something physical/mental happening in me, or a ghost, or whatever, but I can’t explain it.  The really crazy parts that happened occurred when I was fully awake. 

Interesting addendum: My pink-haired beau’s parents were super religious zealots.  Like, they would sit us down and make us watch videos from their church about how Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne were minions of the devil.  Or, that a sign of the impending apocalypse was that we would all have chips embedded in our skin, and that Revelations was already upon us.  The day after I had that experience, I mentioned it to Ryan’s mom while we waited for him to get home from juvie.  She told me some crazy stories about hooded figures lifting up her bed and demons chanting in her ears… all kinds of nutty shit.  She asked if I had a Ouija board and I said that I did.  My parents had gotten me one for Christmas.  She asked me to bring it over and I got kind of stoked.  Like, this crazy person that thinks Michael Jackson is an evil warlock is going to try and conjure up some demons and shit, so, of course, I was all for it. I went and got the board and brought it to her.  She ripped it out of my hands, and before I could say anything she was out the door, carrying a container of kerosene.  She brought the board down to the creek and lit it on fire.  Then, she started chanting and praying over it.  She got all sweaty and trance-y and it was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.  I just stood there and couldn’t stop watching her.  Then she came back to the house and made us some sandwiches like nothing insane had just happened.

THANKS ANNIE YOU ARE THE BEST... <3 (I got a sneak peek/listen of Annie's new stuff with her friend Ben and it is AMAZING. I'll definitely be sharing it when it goes up for real on the internet and in real life.)

Check out This Is My Fist here.