Former gowns mistress Erika Anderson talks telekinesis, mass exorcism and ritual nosie

Text by Emily Bick

Tank _vol 7issue 137

“When I would play my music to people, the one word that would pop up, over and over again, is ‘haunting’,” Erika Anderson, former singer with L.A. noise-rock band Gowns and now a solo artist working under the name EMA, says. Her new album is called Past Life Martyred Saints, which probably won’t do much to change that impression. Reviews compared Gowns shows to religious rituals and read like frenzied teenage poetry or Red Bull-fuelled graduate theses. She inspired devo- tion, either way.

This new record is the result of equally intense, obsessive recording sessions, where Anderson locked herself away with her guitar and Pro Tools. She’s taken some of the drones recognisable from Gowns – the kind that fill rooms like incense – but piled on the self-taught studio weirdness. In new song “Grey Ship”, the fidelity of the recording shifts from lo-fi scuzz to digital sheen, a trick designed to evoke the shift from black and white to colour in The Wizard of Oz. And Vikings, and an alien landing – Anderson has said as much on her blog, and the song doesn’t disappoint. Her leaf-dry voice skates over and through the mix, but this time around she sounds less world- weary, even a little more fun, ranging from girl-group pop harmonising to proto-grunge and beyond. “All the songs on the record have different styles and structures to them,” she says. “There’s even a kind of a trashy, sex-dance club thing... it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, you take the genre and take it to the extreme.”

Some of the songs on Past Life Martyred Saints were written as Gowns fell apart two years ago. Anderson thought they were cursed and would never be recorded. Then one day last May, as she was performing at a music and spoken-word show, she was offered the chance to perform an exorcism. “It was very light- hearted,” she grins. “This spot used to be a Santeria ritual space in San Francisco. So I passed out pieces of paper and pencils and said, okay, I want everybody to write down something that they wish they could be exorcised from, something difficult, or a guilt, something they feel haunted by. Then they had to make paper airplanes, and then we sang a song and all let them go.”

Because of her reputation for experimental noise, EMA was asked to open for Throbbing Gristle, at one of their last gigs before the death of Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson last year. They were less than thrilled with EMA’s contribution: they expected some nice loops with ethereal vocals, and got “Kind Heart”, a 20-minute Robert Johnson cover, which featured Anderson’s witch howls, her sister on caveman drums, guitars piled up like cars stacked in a scrapyard, and a drag-race squall through the history of rock, from honky-tonk blues to hard- core feedback. It’s somewhere in the no man’s land between noise and folk, areas Anderson is interested in partly because she is an autodidact who was never trained to separate the two. “If no one teaches you to do things, you’re driven by your own obsession and you do a lot of things wrong,” she explains. Of course, doing things “wrong” is the engine of progress, and Anderson appears to be taking giant strides.

When she’s not performing, Anderson works a bit of icono- clasm into her day job as a substitute teacher. Some of her lesson plans hint at the goofy shamanism she delivers onstage. “I kind of keep it on the down-low that I play rock music, because a lot of the lyrics might get me in trouble,” she admits. “But sometimes, with the little kids, I’ve told them, ‘We’re going to do a conceptual art experiment.’ I played some songs I’d been working on that were tape manipulations and vocals, and I’d tell them to draw a picture based on what they’d heard. No one checks in on you when you’re a substitute, so you can just be like, ‘Let’s talk about telekinesis today’ — it’s amazing.” §