I’ve talked about Amy Klein before. In addition to being a guitarist for the popular indie band Titus Andronicus, she is in an amazing two-piece called Hilly Eye and has released a solo album. And that’s just music. She’s also a writer whose blog has gotten mentions online on The Village Voice, The DCist, and Flavorwire. As if all that weren’t enough, she is an organizer for the NY activist group Permanent Wave. In short, she’s a one-woman juggernaut. The interview…
When did you begin playing and why?
I was friends with a guy who played the guitar in middle school. Before that, I was really into listening to music but had never thought about starting a band, even though I could play several instruments already. When I heard about his playing guitar in a band, I just had this sudden epiphany that it was possible to write your own songs and perform your own music, and the idea struck me as something very special and magical.
After that, whenever I listened to my favorite bands, I would imagine myself playing along to the guitar parts and totally ripping the solos. It was always the guitar parts that stood out to me, and not the other instruments. Radiohead was one of my favorite bands, and I could sing along to every solo that Jonny Greenwood ever played on guitar because I was utterly fascinated by the intense variety of sounds he was able to produce from the instrument. The guitar struck me as the instrument that was capable of the widest diversity of expression, and I would always wonder when I heard some sound in a recording, “Could that really be a guitar?” I was hearing a lot of effects pedals I think, and was totally confused but also excited by the range of sounds that were possible from the instrument. The guitar also struck me as the most passionate of all the instruments and I felt as a teenager that I had so much intense love and sadness and rage inside me that I had to learn to express it somehow. I also was really excited by the idea of “the guitarist” as this totally cool, rebellious, confident figure in popular culture. At fifteen, I was a shy, insecure, quiet nerd struggling to fit in and the idea of the guitarist symbolized everything that I was not, but also everything I ever wanted to be.
Whenever I saw the jazz band at my school perform, I would get this really nervous and jealous feeling in the pit of my stomach because they had an electric guitarist, and I really wanted to be up there on stage doing what he was doing.
I finally got my first guitar when I was fifteen. That was the year I really started going to local shows and seeing other teenagers perform their own music. From watching other bands around town, I knew that it was possible to get good at the instrument one day, even though I was struggling to get better at home.
What was your first guitar, and how did you get it?
My first guitar was a black and white Fender Stratocaster with blonde wood (maple?) My parents got it for me for my 15th birthday. They took me to the music store on the highway and I picked it out.
What equipment do you prefer now? Which guitar(s)? What amps, cables, pedals? Why? Has this changed over time?
Right now, I play a black 1978 Gibson L6-Series. People are always asking me what kind of guitar it is because it’s a real vintage model! It looks a little bit like an SG, but it’s asymmetrical, smaller, and curvier.
A lot of famous musicians have played the L6 series though, including Carlos Santana (!) Although the L6 isn’t actually that obscure, it’s still pretty fun to confuse some people with this instrument they’ve never seen before. When someone knows what kind of guitar it is, I feel like, damn they know their stuff. They get a little extra respect in my book.
I like this guitar because the neck is really slender and I feel like it plays super fast. I also really like that there are six different settings on the pickup selector. You can make all kinds of crazy tones from the same instrument. When I was hanging around the used instrument store playing all these different guitars, I kept on coming back to that guitar, for weeks really, and thinking “This is the one.” I just couldn’t stop playing it and it felt easy. That’s how it should feel, I think, when you have the right instrument for you.
I use a Fender DeVille amp, which has “drive” and “more drive” settings. This is important for when I play with Titus Andronicus because we are a very loud, messy punk band that nevertheless pays close attention to things like dynamic contrast. I like to get super loud and distorted by halfway through the song, and then, just as you think it can’t get any louder, do some enormous crescendo that adds even more volume and distortion.
Basically, I use the foot switch to my amp to control the big dynamic shifts at important parts of the song. I also use an OCD pedal made by Fulltone for even more overdrive and distortion. So if I’m doing a big crescendo, I usually start with little to no drive on the amp, then move to the drive setting, then move to the “more drive” setting, and finally kick on the OCD pedal. At that point, the sound is just crazy and ear-splittingly loud. I love it!
As far as other pedals, I use a Line 6 DL 4 delay and loop station. It’s cool because there are a ton of different delay settings that you can play around with and then you can save the ones you like. You can get weird space noises, or reverberant echoes, or even something like a chorus effect from making a lot of delayed notes happen really close together. Then you can use the loop station to play over yourself. This is important for me in my band Hilly Eye where there is only one guitar. We use a lot of loops to make our sound fuller and more textured. The loop function is also great for practicing a solo over chords (record the chords and keep playing them back to yourself as you solo) and for writing a harmony (play the original line as a loop and then improvise over it until you find a harmony you like.)
I also use a volume pedal to control dynamics, a Boss tuner, an AB foot switch (to switch from my guitar to my electric violin) and a MXR 10-band EQ pedal for my electric violin. The violin has a lot of high end and can be sort of ear piercing when it’s run through an amp, so I use the EQ pedal with the low and mid range turned up and the high end turned down. As far as pedals, I’m using those Fender ones that are supposedly unbreakable and come in a lot of different colors. It helps me keep the ones for the violin and the ones for the guitar straight if they’re in different colors. Also, I like the idea of having a lot of colors around me at all times.
My set up has changed a lot over the past year as I’ve started touring. First of all, the sheer wear and tear has broken a lot of my poor quality pedals and equipment. I had to invest in a really good, much more expensive EQ pedal, for example, when the old crappy one just died on me. As I’ve become a better musician, I’ve also become more aware of how to control my sound and how to produce the kinds of sounds I want at important points in a song. So that’s why I’ve ended up with more pedals over the past year or so, I think. About fifteen months ago, I didn’t even know how to use a volume pedal and now I’m pretty good at switching between my various pedals and using them in unison, etc.
Also, as you see start to feel better approaching other musicians and asking them questions, you can start to copy the effects that other people use that you really like. I got my OCD pedal after watching a post-hardcore band and really enjoying their sound, and then asking the guitarist what sort of pedal he was using. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do that when I was fifteen, but now I wish I did. You can also just learn a lot from observing other musicians’ set ups, if you’re too shy to ask questions directly. I just got a DigiTech Whammy pedal after noticing that Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females and Annie Clark from St. Vincent (two of my favorite guitar players) were using the same red box.
How and when did your band hilly eye form?
Catherine (the drummer) and I went to college together, where we were both involved in the college radio station, playing underground rock and punk music on the air. We met up again in NYC at a Lightning Bolt show when we were both done with college. We both had a common love of noise rock and experimental music and DIY aesthetics, and she had just started playing the drums, and I was looking to start a band, so we started practicing in the basement of our friend’s equestrian store (surrounded by horse saddles, whips, chains, and other interesting goodies.) I think we’ve been playing together for a year and a half now, and we recorded our first EP over the summer. Catherine and I work really well together and are actually both interested in literature as well as music. She’s just finishing up the first draft of a novel on punk culture. We were both students in the creative writing program in college (her fiction, me poetry.)
I know you lived in Japan for some time, and were influenced by female musicians there. Can you tell me about a few of those groups?
I got a research grant to study women making experimental music in Japan, and I spent about 13 months after college living in Tokyo and going to the most amazing shows and conducting interviews with many, many inspiring musicians. My personal favorites are Afrirampo, who have recently disbanded, but still perform solo and in other projects. (The drummer is touring soon in a new band with a member of the Acid Mother’s Temple.) Afrirampo symbolizes what significant gains can be made in art by people who come from a background of pure feeling, unadulterated by social norms and conventions. The two girls in that band created some of the most genre bending, craziest, most beautiful rock and roll music in this really pure, primal form that had to do with exploration of the borders of sound and language. A lot of the time you felt like you were watching some religious ritual devoted to female sexual energy and power as opposed to just a concert. Watching them, you would get lost in this alternative world where anything was possible.
I also saw Metalchicks (guitar shredding meets dance music!) and OOIOO (very Japanese and utterly entrancing band fronted by Yoshimi, the drummer of the psych-noise group the Boredoms,) and the spazz-rock trio Tsushimamire, and the classic garage punk band Melt Banana. These are all all-female bands by the way! I also saw Emulsion, a noise/electronic band from Tokyo, a great breakcore DJ named DJ NYU, a female rapper named Doddodo, and some great hardcore punk bands, The Happening, Screwithin, and Unarm. And of course, my friends The Suzan who have a 70’s soul meets ESG-flavored funk feel, and are currently living in NYC trying to make it in America.
Can you tell me a bit about Permanent Wave?
Permanent Wave is a feminist group that combines art and activism to build community among girls and women worldwide. We got started this past winter when I posted an essay on my blog about the need for a modern feminist movement that would bring girls and women together the way riot grrrl did for some girls in the 1990’s. A group of girls and some guys too (most of whom came because they heard about the group on the internet) all got together at my house to talk about what is wrong with the world right now, and how we could start to make change in our communities. We were inspired by the riot grrrl principle that anyone could participate in the movement just by declaring her (or him) self to be a part. We’re not all in bands but some of us are. We just want to create an alternative popular culture that is focused on girls’ feelings and ideas, a place where girls feel safe and encouraged and validated. Right now we’ve had two benefit events with concerts and art shows and presentations from different political groups, and we’re planning a third this month, a well as a film festival this summer. Anyone can join the group if they have an interest in finding a community of other girls and women and exploring feminism in the 21st century. All you have to do is get in touch with me via my blog or twitter (@AmyAndronicus.)
It seems like you have a ton going on. I know you’re working on your blog, on Permanent Wave, and making music with Titus Andronicus. You’ve also got a solo album and a hilly eye album available on bandcamp. Is there anything else you’re working on right now? Anything new we should watch for on the horizon?
Well, Hilly Eye is gonna record a full length album over the summer. We’re really excited about that. And we might go on tour some time after we’re done with that! I’m trying to do more freelance writing lately—not just for my own blog, but for other sites and publications as well. And I’m playing some shows in NYC—with Hilly Eye and solo. I’m totally confused at the moment and I’m trying to figure out what my life is really for, and it is not at all clear to me, but I hope somehow that by exploring these different paths, I might eventually figure it out.
Name one or two (or more) artists (musicians, writers, visual artists) you find inspiring. Why?
Well, right now I am totally inspired by Ellen Willis. She is easily the best music writer I’ve ever read, and the most intelligent. When she was only 26 years old, she was picked to be the pop editor of the New Yorker on the basis of a single essay that she wrote about Bob Dylan. And if you read that essay, it’s easy to see why. She had the ability to see outside of music to culture as a whole, and to pinpoint exactly why certain music was significant at a certain time in our intellectual history. She was a translator of music into cultural significance, into historical value, and so even though she has passed away, her words still remain vital to our understanding of the place of music within culture. There’s a new anthology of her music writing out right now called Out of the Vinyl Depths, and I can’t wait to read it. My friend has been telling me that there’s a really awesome essay on Janis Joplin and what it takes to construct a persona as a female pop star.
I’m also really inspired by Patti Smith. Her memoir, Just Kids, is a must read for anyone who secretly knows that he or she is an artist. Patti Smith knew this from the time she was six years old, and she never made apologies for her artistic sensibility. She just treated it as an aspect of herself to be honored, and not to be ashamed of, and you know what, people responded to that—even when she was pretty much the only woman in a world of all-male beat poets and painters and playwrights and bohemians and early rock stars. She stood out because she was an individual with a very deep faith in herself and in the utopian potential of art that would not be shaken by any desire for success, validation, or fame. She has always been committed to living her life on her own terms, and that is what I really respect about her. That’s how you become a true innovator in any artistic field, I think: Live for the magic of artistic creation, create on your own terms, and never compromise who you are.