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Lisa Germano: Apathy and the Devil

May 22, 2013

The singer-songwriter talks with Dave Evans about her new label, the “protest album,” and her cats.

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Image courtesy of Lisa Germano.

In a just world, Lisa Germano’s “Bad Attitude” would be up there in the pantheon of early-90s self-loathing classics with Radiohead’s “Creep” and Tori Amos’s “Silent All These Years.” Perhaps it was too quiet or strange or small to stand next to such big emoters in an era just weaning itself off hairspray, red leather, and shoulderpads. I think of Germano’s work as in a line with the novels of Jean Rhys or the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois: minutely crafted, beautiful but never fragile, familiar and then unexpectedly sharp.

A trained violinist, Germano has played live and on recordings with artists from David Bowie to eels while recording her own work. Her “breakthrough,” the horror-concept album Geek The Girl, was released in 1994. Two years later she released Excerpts From A Love Circus, my first exposure to her: cue lots of bedroom dancing to the distortion-fiddle combo of “I Love A Snot.” Following disappointing sales of her next album Slide, Germano “retired” from music and went to work in a bookstore, resurfacing in 2003 with her alcohol-themed masterpiece Lullaby for Liquid Pig. Hers are songs about failures of self-recognition, of misguided yearnings and of cats—Germano is very serious about her cats—sometimes sampling them into tracks.

In a series of emails, Germano told me about her cats, her new label, and her new album No Elephants, her ninth album and first for Badman Recording Co., which focuses on environmental damage and technological invasion.

Dave Evans for Guernica

Guernica: Could you tell me about the decision to move to Badman for this record?

Lisa Germano: After I had No Elephants done, I reached out to Michael Gira from Young God [who released her last two albums] to see if he wanted to put it out. He was very encouraging in that he liked the record, but was focusing on Swans now and didn’t feel he would do it justice. He also sent me a lot of stuff on self-releasing it and felt this was the way to go these days. I considered this and found that I don’t like the idea at all. I rather hate the whole digital world concerning music—nothing to touch, too many songs and no thread, no artwork etc., and no label to talk with and have support from. A few months later through friends I found Dylan Magierek from Badman and appreciated his desire for tangible music as well. His roster includes many artists I relate and listen to (I love The Innocence Mission) and I felt this would be a good home.

Guernica: You’ve integrated recorded phonecalls into your work before but throughout No Elephants the phone seems to be more of a distraction, as with the first bit of cell interference in the song “No Elephants” or the ringing phone in “Apathy or the Devil.” “All plugged in/and tuned out.” Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with that sort of invasive technology as it runs through the record?

Lisa Germano: I truly am not a fan of iPhones, iTunes, Facebook, cell phones—all of these ways to be manipulated these days. The myth that everyone must have them or they can’t communicate. Where much of it can be good perhaps but most of it is not actually communicating, just thinking you did. So on the record I did want to include these sounds and energies with the subject of consciousness as we as people are going way too far in the wrong direction.

I don’t see No Elephants as a protest album but as an album about consciousness.

The theory about one reason the bees are having such trouble is that all these vibrations from these devices in the air mess up their incredible dance and they die off. We’re getting many other messages from animals and the earth saying we have to stop not seeing them and come back to earth more often. So I wanted to include these sounds since they are now a huge part of our relationship to the earth and its beings. Also it adds a tragic sense of humor to the whole subject, which sometimes helps me to see it better.

Guernica: The song “Apathy and The Devil” really gets to the heart of that infuriating sense of helplessness/uselessness but as an album No Elephants feels more directly campaigning (in terms of animal rights, environmental awareness) than the rest of your work. Do you see it as a protest album?

Apathy is so hard not to feel in this world that I see it and the devil walking hand in hand ruining our world because we let them.

Lisa Germano: I don’t see No Elephants as a protest album but as an album about consciousness. I never want to be preachy in my music, just share thoughts, things I have learned. “Apathy and the Devil” was written about recycling actually and how many people don’t do it because so many people don’t do it—and on and on, and then this attitude goes all over to many other aspects of our life. “Let’s save a tree, ha ha”–type comments are upsetting to me as of course recycling isn’t going to save the world, but being conscious of it and your surroundings can.

Apathy is so hard not to feel in this world that I see it and the devil walking hand in hand ruining our world because we let them. We can take more control by being conscious to start with.

Guernica: You’ve recently collaborated on Joe Probst’s The Avenue. Was that happening at the same time that you were putting together No Elephants and how did the two things chime together?

Lisa Germano: Joe Probst is a friend from my childhood. The Probsts lived two doors down and we all played together. Our neighborhood was many homes of at least six kids so it was really fun, hence the cover photo of a bunch of us dancing in my yard. My mom Betty would dress us up and we’d dance to [Stravinsky’s] “The Firebird Suite” so Joe asked me to play on his record and he sent files to Jamie [Candiloro] and I loved what we all made.

My music doesn’t seem to feel as good when it’s too tidy.

Guernica: Your recent albums feel very distinct thematically—almost like novels in that sense of operating as a complete piece of work. If (in crude high-school English class terms) Lullaby for Liquid Pig is a meditation on love/addiction and In the Maybe World on death/acceptance and No Elephants on the environment/engagement, where do you see Magic Neighbor fitting in?

Lisa Germano: Interesting question because Magic Neighbor does have a much more vague theme than the others. It is more of a collection of songs starting a new phase—the song “Painting the Doors” says that. It’s about trying to be less attached to the past and opening doors to new stories. I love [producer] Jamie Candiloro’s work with my music, he always makes it sound so beautiful and lets me mess it up where I feel I need to. The sound seems to tell a story on Magic Neighbor. My music doesn’t seem to feel as good when it’s too tidy.

Guernica: You’ve used the declarative second-person voice in a lot of your work: lines like “You’ve had all your treats and it’s only 8:30 a.m.,” “Drink what you said, Liquid Pig” etc.—but it seems pretty much absent in No Elephants. Was that a conscious choice and if so then what does that mean?

Lisa Germano: Hmmmm, never thought about that. I wonder why? I think I use this sometimes to distance myself from the action, a way to look at it from a different perspective, the same way I use a sense of humor. So the fact I don’t use it on this record must mean I’m looking right at it? I really don’t know.

Guernica: You’re obviously of a literary bent—who are your favorite authors?

Lisa Germano: I especially love Haruki Murakami, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Michael Pollan, whose book In Defense of Food helped me to see the manipulation of the food industry and inspired much of No Elephants. I’m reading Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood right now and love it! It’s not about cats but childhood relationships and how they can shape you.

Guernica: And what is your current cat situation?

Lisa Germano: Well these days I am ruled by Ruby, the main cat who takes care of everyone, Vian, my French kitty who is very insistent to get his needs met NOW, Marypan, who has no idea how big she is and gets into some fun situations, and then the petite Huila, who is so small and very busy—so many missions to do! I must eat her face every time I pick her up.

Dave Evans is a writer based in London.

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