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And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out: EMA Screams Into the Void

EMA in New York City, February 2014

“It’s like high-school stoner shit.”

It’s just past noon on a Friday in early February, and Erika M. Anderson is on the second floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, taking in a painting by the American artist Mark Tobey called The Void Devouring the Gadget Era. The painting depicts a grey monster eating what appears to be a few bracelets, a broken Christmas tree ornament, and various other thrift store knick knacks. In reading the gallery text and discovering that Tobey was a friend of avant-garde composer John Cage, Anderson is reminded of one of the many times that she got bored and did something rather outlandish. Or, to use her language, something “naughty.”

Several years ago, before she began performing bleeding-heart industrial-noise folk hymns as EMA, Anderson, 32, worked as a substitute teacher in Oakland, California. It was an easy job to get (“The interview is, like, nonexistent”) and the lack of supervision allowed her to experiment with some rather unorthodox teaching methods, as she did when introducing the class to the music of Cage, specifically “4’33,” a composition noteworthy for its silence. “I was like, ‘Alright kids,'” she says. “‘We’re gonna do this piece.’ So I sat them all down on the rug and I tried to explain it: ‘You’re listening outside, and maybe there’s someone playing a basketball out there and maybe it sounds like a drum beat. Music is all around you.'”

During performances of Cage’s piece, musicians would stand onstage with their instruments in their cases, and whatever found sounds were around (the audience’s coughing, a door closing) would fill the space where the music would. And making something out of nothing has been Anderson’s m.o. since she was a bookish, teenage punk growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s also one of the underlying themes of her new album, The Future’s Void. It’s about the struggle to find meaning in a world that leaves you feeling empty at best, not yourself at worst. Some of the characters on the album fill their void with dumb parties or digital-age information crack; Anderson filled it by making an album with the fuck-with-me-and-die nerve of PJ Harvey, the what-does-this-button-do sonic ingenuity of Trent Reznor, and the wounded empathy of Patti Smith.

“I think I was probably into the third song, and IM’d someone in New York and said, ‘Have you heard this EMA record?'” says Matador founder Chris Lombardi, who signed her to the label after falling for her 2011 debut, Past Life Martyred Saints. “And he put it on and responded, ‘Whoa-a.’ It’s super ambitious and unbelievably confident. And that confidence is a big leap from the last record. She’s got big concepts and her head is full of things just bouncing all around.”

Insisting that she can’t take in a bunch of abstract art before getting some coffee — she just arrived in New York from her current Pacific Northwest home of Portland the night before — we head to the MOMA commissary. She is wearing black yoga pants, a black hooded sweatshirt, a black leather vest and a white T-shirt on which she drew the character Slimer from Ghostbusters with a Sharpie. Every so often, she says, she throws parties where she and her friends get together and make their own T-shirts, just like she did when she was a teenager.

“I’m, like, still kind of the 15-year-old Erika.”

EMA in New York City, February 2014 / Photo by Krista Schlueter for SPIN

After we move to the third floor, Anderson spots a painting that reminds her of one that once hung in her grandmother’s house back in South Dakota. “I knew people that were getting blackout drunk at 2 p.m. in the afternoon,” she says, of growing up in the Midwest. “I definitely knew people who were doing all kinds of weird drugs. I think because they were bored.” She tells me about the time her high-school boyfriend’s best friend grabbed a dead bird off the ground and bit its head off for no particular reason. Her boyfriend vomited profusely, so did the friend. And while telling the story, she sounds both rueful and impressed: “It was kind of punk.”

But Anderson tended to channel her boredom in ways that were much less nauseating, if similarly charged with a certain sense of ‘eh, fuck it.’ “The schoolwork was so not challenging that I had to do extra to amuse myself,” she says. “I did a lot of naughty stuff.” In U.S. History, in lieu of a more traditional presentation, she wrapped herself in the American flag and mimed a self-inflicted gunshot to head. In Biology, she opted to crucify a frog rather than dissect one, declaring, “It’s Christ the dissection,” as she displayed her sacrilege. “I was into Crass at the time,” she says.

South Dakota didn’t offer her much of a creative outlet either, but music was still all around her. When she was “15 or 16” she joined her friend’s riot-grrl-style band Mann Hayter, quickly taking it over and instructing everyone to “make a bunch of noise” while she said “some weird shit.” When that had run its course, she linked up with a Southern rock band called Swamp Pussy. “That,” she says, “was kind of short lived.”

After high school, she attended college in Northern California (she declines to say which school), where she majored in Media Studies (“The new English degree, right?”). It was there that her then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla formed Gowns, a Swans-like noise duo. Buchla was already a high-profile noisemaker because his father helped create the modern synthesizer. (“He was hanging out with John Cage at his dad’s house.”) They released two albums before breaking up, as both a musical and romantic unit. And while music was all around her in California, so was gossip. The Oakland noise scene was especially tight knit, and, “when Ezra and I broke up everybody knew everything,” she says. “It can kind of disconnect you from yourself.”

For a while, she found herself in an unfamiliar situation: completely unable to turn around a situation. She struggled with writing, and briefly considered quitting music and moving back home. She sent a few songs out to labels but got no response, until Berlin-based Souterrain Transmissions asked her if she had any songs she might like to release, just as she was preparing to give up. Those songs eventually formed the basis of Past Life Martyred Saints, a collection of “deconstructed folk songs” encased in tendrils of feedback that found her embracing a skewed version of pop songwriting and cataloging the lost souls she’s known, from the self-mutilating high-school goth in “Butterfly Knife” to the doomed “pretty man” of “Anteroom.”

In the afterword to his sci-fi drug addiction/surveillance state novel A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick lists the names of his friends who died or ruined their lives through drugs or other choices born of desperation. “These were comrades whom I had,” he wrote. “There are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven.” Past Life Martyred Saints is the album-length equivalent of that.

“I feel a really weird void in certain parts of the Midwest. Certain amounts of ambition are almost sort of a sin. People really look down on you if you’re too fancy, too smart, trying to be rich,” she says. We’ve just finished watching a film installation about the unreliable nature of memory and now we’re trying to avoid getting trampled by a rush of school children. “Midwest nihilism is intense.”

Then there’s “California,” a scorched-earth coming-out party that boasts perhaps the best opening line of this decade: “Fuck California / You made me boring.” The ominous squall that backs it implies that Anderson intends to punish the Golden State for its sins, but really, she says with a laugh, “that song is about boys. It’s a heartbreak song more than a California song.”

“Growing up around these crazy boys, I had to be tougher,” she continues. “They were the type that would get trashed and break TVs or piss in the refrigerator. So I just had to be super tough to be taken seriously. People are laid-back [in California], you know? And I was just like, ‘Why don’t we fucking break the bottles right now?!’ I took a while to mellow out, but now I’m like, ‘What sort of white wines do you have?'”

EMA in New York City, February 2014 / Photo by Krista Schlueter for SPIN

If Past Life was an elegy for where she came from and those that couldn’t find a way out, The Future’s Void looks at where she’s arrived and what she’s lost along the way. It’s heavy with references to surveillance (be it government, gossip, or Google) and not recognizing the version of you that others see.

Her 15-year-old bookworm self would no doubt be pleased to know that she would grow up to name two songs after the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, who was writing about information overload and the way we are slowly turning into machines way before that was a pressing concern. Anderson swears it’s not a Gibson concept album, and indeed, you don’t need to be a member of her book club to appreciate what an accomplishment her album is; you can hear the clash between the cyber and the punk in each of the songs.

She recorded The Future’s Void with engineer/bassist Leif Shackleford in her Portland home, carefully assembling a latticework of live instruments, analog synthesizers, and drum programming that can feel cold and menacing, but also warm and fragile, depending on whether she wants to invoke the feeling of being watched at all times, or focus on the quieter, often embarrassing moments satellites are capturing. (The album ends with “Dead Celebrity,” a this-is-how-we-live-now ode to feeling weird about clicking on a link to read about a celebrity death, but not so weird that you don’t do it.)

“I feel like it can’t be totally machine,” she says over lunch at a sushi restaurant near the museum. She’s still tired, and keeps getting distracted by a conversation in the next table over, trying to hear what the two guys at the next table are saying. She insists that getting some brain food will help her focus. “I just like music that breathes.”

The album’s centerpiece, “Neuromancer,” named for Gibson’s debut novel, began when she told her drummer to begin playing a reggaeton beat, and she began layering synths on top. Her bandmates told her that she should use “the grid,” her term for the sort of songwriting software commonly used to align all the elements in a song rhythmically, often quite rigidly. She ignored this advice. “And I don’t know if I would have been better on a grid or not,” she says, “but it’s like some sort of philosophical thing for me.”

The lyrical inspiration for “Neuromancer” is also of a philosophical nature. Burned out after the tour for Past Life, during which she often hit herself on the skull or strangled herself onstage with her microphone, she indulged in consciousness-expanding recreational activities and, mid-hallucination, began to believe an artificial intelligence was growing inside of her mind.

“I felt like there was a gleaming light cube in my brain that was made up of everything,” she says, referencing a passage from Gibson’s book. “Like the stress of this other persona that was part of me, but not completely.” The song posits that we are all making AIs of ourselves online every day. Through our saved e-mail and Google searches and social-media interactions, a computer could precisely reconstruct our personalities, and in fact that computer would probably be able to create a persona that is more “us” than we actually are. This, of course, is distressing.  In “3Jane,” (another Neuromancer reference), she laments that there’s nothing that can be done but live with the glitches that rise up in the uncanny valley between the AI self and the real self, sighing, “Disassociation / I guess it’s just a modern disease.”

Or you can steer into the uncanny curve. A few weeks after we met, Anderson e-mailed me a link to her Tumblr, which featured photos of her in her standard white T-shirt and black pants combo, posing next to various stills of pornographic video-game images. “One of the things that I think drove me a little crazy was accidentally getting too sexy in photographs,” she told me, by way of explanation. “I write all the songs. I help produce and mix. I play the instruments. But if I’m in a room with a professional photographer all I know is that I want to do a good job, and what instinctually comes out is some fashion shit, because that is most of what I’ve been exposed to my whole life. I ended up falling into visual modes that depressed me. To be a woman in the media, controlling your image is so much harder than keeping control of your actual art.”

Feeling adrift in the digital age has become a bit of a hot topic in the indie-rock world as of late, but before St. Vincent and Arcade Fire offered their takes on feeling lost in the superhighway, Anderson worried that talking about this sort of thing would be embarrassing. Later, she admits that sometimes that risk is the appeal of writing about anything and sometimes, dissociation is the best way to reboot your system so you can appreciate what’s around you.

“That night that I thought there was an AI inside my head, things kind of turned around a little bit and I listened to my first record for the first time in a while, ” she says. “I was still kind of outside myself. I’d just been focusing on the negative, and that night I pictured the other part of me, which was this weird blonde girl in a basement writing this crazy shit. And I was like, ‘Even if that wasn’t me, I would be stoked for this girl.'”