Melissa Auf der Maur: Not Just the Bass Player Anymore
By David Chiu
“Life is about change and evolution–I like trying new things in life,” says bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, as someone who certainly lived through those changes professionally. Most alternative music fans know that Auf der Maur had a front row seat in two of the ’90s biggest bands first as a member of Hole, and then later joining the Smashing Pumpkins. She played behind two charismatic singers Courtney Love and Billy Corgan of those respective bands
Now the Canadian musician is entering the second phase of her musical career, from side player to frontwoman. Using her last name as the moniker of her new solo outfit, Auf der Maur released her self-titled debut this past summer. Those who were familiar with her work on Hole and the Pumpkins will find Auf der Maur (Capitol) in the similar musical vein-sweeping, hard-driving alternative rock.
Capitol Records had given the record a big promotional push, and the artist has been a regular on the media circuit from the New York Times to the Tonight Show. It might be easy to say that the record was conceived with commercial aspirations in mind, but Auf der Maur says there was no hidden agenda involved. “I’m not someone who is calculating other than making music that I love,” says the affable and articulate artist via phone during a tour stop. “The fact is I love heavy rock music and I always have. That’s what inspired me to play music. This sounds exactly the way I intended it to be because it sounds like what I hear in my head.”
Singing isn’t something new to Auf der Maur; in addition to her bass playing duties, she provided harmonies along with Courtney Love during her stint with Hole. But it was a totally different experience having to record and sing on her own material for her own album. It is why she cites the first single off the album “Followed the Waves” as one of the important tracks she recorded. “That was a song where I really got over this complex that I had-the fact is that I am a choir-trained nice Canadian girl who is not angry and does not want to be angry or scream, and I always had the complex of my voice couldn’t fit in rock music,” she remembers. “I basically wrote the music, closed my eyes, sat scared to try to sing over it, and saying exactly as it is on the record. I listened back and it gave me the extra boost of confidence that I needed.”
Performing live, however, is a different story as she learned while doing the first ever shows on her own. Now the focal point on stage and with no one like Courtney Love and Billy Corgan to play behind, Auf der Maur is now responsible to connect with the audience. “In terms of between songs, it’s up to me to say, ‘Hello Ohio! How are you?’ And to also have the energy to really connect with your words when you are trying to speak to these people. I’m totally happy and comfortable with it.”
The album was a couple of years in the making as Auf der Maur began to write and record her own material after the Pumpkins’ breakup. Wanting to maintain artistic control throughout the album, she financed the record without record company help. For the record, she used her friends Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) Eric Erlandson (Hole), and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) to play on it, and employed Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age) to produce it. “I approached Chris because I wanted to make a big, heavy soundscape record,” she explains.
Auf der Maur’s music is built on a hard rock foundation with swirling atmospherics, charged guitars, and her intense, rhythmic bass playing (i.e. “Lightning is My Girl”) though elements of pop seeps its way in (i.e. “I’ll Be Anything You Want,” “Overpower Thee”), adding some variety. It is a reflection of the artists’ musical influences growing up listening to Blondie, the Smiths, Jane’s Addiction, and the Smashing Pumpkins. “For people who were familiar with the record I made with Hole [Celebrity Skin], the thing I most contributed to that band are the vocal melodies and harmonies,” she says. “I love melody and singing and harmonies. That’s definitely in the record of course.”
One of the interesting and poignant touches on Auf der Maur is towards the end when one hears a lady yodeling. That was Melissa’s 100-year old grandmother, who recently passed away earlier this year. “She’s a huge inspiration in my life,” Auf der Maur says proudly of her. “She was really passionate about things that she loved family music, and her home country of Switzerland. My grandmother always painted pictures the Alps in my mind standing on a table and yodeling at the top of her lungs. That was her on her 100th birthday with the still same fire and passion for her homeland, which has a lot to do with just my romanticism and sentimentality of my roots, my ancestors, and my grandmother.”
It was the sense of family that nurtured Melissa’s interest in music. Her father was a journalist, and her mother was Montreal’s first woman rock DJ. “I was very lucky,” says Auf der Maur. “My mother raised me on her amazing record collection and sent me to music school. From seven years old on, so I’ve always played music. It’s always been part of my life. By the age of 17, I was a DJ at a Montreal bar and I was going to see an exciting wave of music in the late ’80s and early ’90s.” Not just content of spinning discs, she started to make music too. When it came to closing time, she and her colleagues would turn the bar into a rehearsal space where everybody jammed.
In the early ’90s, Melissa formed a band called Tinker. It was around this time that she saw the Smashing Pumpkins play in her hometown and met Billy Corgan through interesting circumstances. “They blew me away and my friend next to me said, ‘I hate them,'” Auf der Maur remembers. “He threw a bottle at Billy, and got into a fistfight with him during the show. Then I went to introduce myself to Billy after the show and apologized on behalf of Montreal and said I was devoted fan from that moment on.
“A couple of years later, I wrote a letter to Billy and asking if Tinker can open up for the Smashing Pumpkins when they came through town on their Siamese Dream tour. After I played that show, he told me, ‘You’re going to be in my band one day.'”
However the call back from Corgan six months later was not an invitation to join his group, but for an opening spot in his friend Courtney Love’s band Hole when their bassist Kristin Pfaff died from a drug overdose. Auf der Maur joined the band in 1994, toured with them, and recorded Celebrity Skin (1998). In 2000, she was asked by Billy Corgan to join the Pumpkins to replace their bassist D’arcy, and stuck with them until they broke up. “In many ways, my experience in the bands before were like an education process,” she acknowledges. “I’ve been graduated to the place of being able to know who I am, know what I want, and know how to do it.”
2004 is beginning to look like a busy year for Auf der Maur in terms of touring, one of her favorite aspects of the musician’s life. She has already headlined her own shows while being the support act for the Offspring and the Cure. “I love to see the world and connect with people through music,” she says. “All of this is more than I ever hoped for. That’s my favorite way to share music. Even if you don’t speak the same language you still rock to the same music and feels so cozy and makes the world so small, and I love it.”
Whatever interesting twists and turns her career has taken her, it all comes down to her love and respect for the power of music. “The making of the record was all I really thought about it at the time,” says Auf der Maur. “Even when I was making it I didn’t really think about releasing it-I was just making it because I love music. I wanted to live this utopic reality for a year, make the record of my dreams, and play with all my favorite friends. Everything since then was a bonus.”