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Melissa Auf der Maur 

Girl from the North Country

click to enlarge FIONN REILLY

By the time these words hit the page, the big thaw will, hopefully, have at least shown a few encouraging hints of its desperately awaited arrival. Hudson Valley winters are famously merciless, but this one has been uncharacteristically brutal. As of this issue’s mid-February writing, we have endured seemingly endless weeks of temperatures in the 20s and down into survival-suit levels, and we’ve been clobbered with enough snow to threaten the heights of our surrounding Catskills and Berkshires. It’s really been one for the almanacs. And by now, enough is enough. Please.

For singer-songwriter Melissa Auf der Maur, however, even such a cruel local winter as this is barely a blip on the barometer. “It’s like a summer holiday for me,” she says, with a laugh. Auf der Maur, the former bassist of two of the biggest alt-arena acts of the 1990s, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, lives in Hudson but grew up amid the routinely subzero climes and far lengthier winters of Montreal. “Hudson’s just four hours south [of Montreal], but it’s such a big difference, weather-wise. You can’t even compare. This is really my kind of climate, though. I love it. Being a photographer as well, I really like the light we get here in the winter.”

Auf der Maur is the only child of two who were paragons themselves. Her father, Nick Auf der Maur, who died in 1998, was one of Montreal’s most colorful, larger-than-life characters; a fedora-wearing, Gitane-smoking boulevardier and reporter-turned-politician who regularly held court in the city’s downtown bars. Her American-born mother, Linda Gaboriau, is an acclaimed literary translator and music journalist, and the first female rock DJ on Canadian airwaves. “My dad only liked classical music, and didn’t think any music made after 1917 was good,” the bass player recalls. “But I used to love listening to and looking at the albums my mom brought home—the Stones, Dylan, Jimmy Cliff. And all of the people she knew from her job, like Leonard Cohen, to me they were just her friends.” Her parents eventually separated, and her mother took her on an extended global sojourn, during which the pair lived in “a circus caravan in Wales, a red post-office box truck in Morocco, and a hut in Kenya. But after I got malaria for the third time in Kenya, my mom decided it was time to head home.”

Back in Montreal, Auf der Maur attended the progressive FACE (Fine Arts Core Education) School, where she sang in its classical choir. The nagging need to radically define herself apart from her celebrity parents’ worlds led her to bands with a Goth aesthetic—the Sisters of Mercy, the Cure, Jane’s Addiction. She also discovered photography. “I was your typical arty kid working stuff out, I did a lot of crying in the darkroom while listening to the Smiths,” she says, rolling her eyes. The interest in picture taking developed into a major at Concordia University, and by the early ’90 she had already been DJing off campus at renowned rock ’n’ roll hang the Bifteck for a couple of years. Deducing that the scarcity of local bass players could offer an opportunity to join a band, she started learning the instrument and was soon taking part in post-Bifteck jams with other aspiring rockers.

One of them was guitarist Steve Durand, now a producer and a recent Hudson transplant himself, with whom she formed a trio called Tinker. The band didn’t make much of an impact outside of Montreal, but looking back, Durand isn’t especially surprised that Auf der Maur went on to bigger things. “At the time with the band I was more focused on the local level, but Melissa always had a larger perspective,” says Durand. “And even back then she was a really inspiring musician.”

In an incident that’s since become part of rock lore, Auf der Maur attended Smashing Pumpkins’ first area performance and after the set ended up apologizing to singer Billy Corgan on behalf of a drunken friend who threw a beer bottle at him. She and Corgan stayed in touch, and when the Pumpkins next came to town, in 1993, Tinker opened for them. Impressed with her abilities and persona, Corgan prophetically remarked, “Someday you’ll be in my band.”

But not just yet. In 1994, when Kristen Pfaff, the bassist of Corgan’s friend Courtney Love’s band, Hole, died from a heroin overdose, the Chicagoan suggested Auf der Maur to Love as a replacement. Yet when Courtney came calling, Auf der Maur, surprisingly, initially turned her down. “Everyone told me I was crazy, but my first thought was, ‘Why would I do that? I have my own band,’” Auf der Maur recounts. Nevertheless, Love, then the freshly widowed Mrs. Kurt Cobain, was persistent, and eventually Auf der Maur was on a plane headed to the West Coast for her first rehearsals with Hole. She stayed with the band for five years, touring the planet and making 1998’s Grammy-nominated Celebrity Skin (Geffen Records), before leaving amid frustration at the lack of musical activity due to the legendarily erratic leader’s focus on her acting career.

“Being in Hole was like being on acid in outer space, and I’ll admit now the music itself was really a secondary thing for that band,” she says. “It was an incredible experience that taught me a lot of big human lessons, though. There was all of this spirit-trying tragedy—death, drug addiction, mental illness. But I’ll say this: When the band did work, it worked really hard. And I feel so good when I hear how we inspired a lot of younger girls to start bands; at most of the big festivals we played, Courtney, me, and [drummers] Patty [Schemel] or Samantha [Maloney] were the only women on stage.” [Founding guitarist Eric Erlandson was Hole’s only male musician.]

After she left Hole, Auf der Maur recorded and toured with former Cars front man Ric Ocasek before Corgan made good on his promise and invited her to replace another female bassist, D’Arcy Wretzky, for Smashing Pumpkins’ last commercially released album, 2001’s Machina / The Machines Of God (Geffen), and a farewell tour. (The lineup recorded one more album, the same year’s double-length Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, which was offered by the band as a free download.) “I only played with the Pumpkins for about a year, but what I got from them as a musician was tremendous,” Auf der Maur says. “The sheer musicality of that band was incredible; the musicianship was highly demanding. Billy has been a mentor to me, and making records with his band was what really gave me the chops to make my own.”

Before she came to make those records, though, Auf der Maur marked time with Hand of Doom, a Black Sabbath tribute band she fronted, and the Chelsea, a short-lived unit with her former Hole bandmate Maloney and several future Courtney Love cohorts. (There was also talk of a project with Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and indie darlings Evan Dando and Ryan Adams, but the idea was shelved when Adams’s career took off.) Her solo debut, Auf Der Maur (Capitol Records), finally appeared in 2004 and features guest work from Erlandson, Iha, Durand, and members of Queens of the Stone Age, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Helmet, Screaming Trees, and others. Sonically closer to the anthemic flights of Smashing Pumpkins than the punkoid tantrums of Hole, the disc landed two singles in the UK Top 40 and saw the bassist at last becoming recognized as a force on her own.

Off the road, big changes were taking place as well. Auf der Maur met and fell in love with indie filmmaker Tony Stone after a friend lent her a DVD of his black metal-soundtracked Viking saga, Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (2007, Heathen Films). A Bard College alum and the son of artist and part-time Germantown resident Bill Stone, Tony introduced the singer to his old stomping ground and another love soon blossomed, this one for Hudson and its surrounding areas. “We had to live somewhere with a lot of history and great, old architecture, but it also had to be somewhere with natural beauty,” says Auf der Maur, who bought an 1850s brick two-story in the city with Stone in 2008. “Hudson felt perfect—though we had no idea how perfect until after we’d moved here. There’s a real phenomenon in this town, these complex, hidden layers of character that keep revealing themselves. It’s also perfect for me as a dual citizen, because it’s roughly half-way between New York and Montreal.” In a further investment in the community, the Stone family recently took ownership of the massive Basilica Industria building on Front Street, which is now being renovated to become a regularly open, internationally focused alternative arts center housing music performance/festival and rehearsal spaces, film-production and recording facilities, visual art exhibitions, a farmers market, and more. For its April 30 opening the site is partnering with area restaurant Swoon Kitchen Bar for the first annual Ramp Festival, an event celebrating the region’s spring bounty of the wild-growing, scallion-like vegetable.

As with the plans for the Basilica, Out of Our Minds (2010, Phi Group), Auf der Maur’s sophomore release, is a multidisciplinary effort. In addition to the album proper—a perhaps more focused continuation of the swirling, proggy, Goth-metal of her first and boasting a duet with Glenn Danzig on the track “Father’s Grave”—Out of Our Minds also encompasses like-titled film and comic book components. The former element, a 28-minute short starring the songstress directed by Tony Stone, is a fantasy parable on the human-heart/savage-nature disconnect filled with high-def scenes of car crashes, blood-oozing tree stumps, and the auteur’s signature Vikings. (Stone also shot a video for the title cut.) OOOM’s accompanying 12-page comic, drawn by Brooklyn artist Jack Forbes, echoes the film’s imagery, but in black-and-white augmented with blood red. “Besides the technology-against-nature narrative, what also strikes me about [OOOM] is the male-versus-female undercurrent,” says Forbes, whose art has appeared in Outdoor Living and other publications. “Melissa’s character represents the feminine side, nature, which fights against the destructive side the Vikings and loggers show. We’re already talking about the next script, which I’m really excited about.”

While resting up from a lengthy tour and gearing up for more performances to support Out of Our Minds (the project is loosely designed to grow as an ongoing, ever-evolving serial), Auf der Maur says that although she and Love are on friendly terms they have no plans to work together again; not long ago, however, she and Corgan collaborated on a song that, alas, remains unreleased, and she says she’d enjoy recording more with the head Pumpkin. Despite her ongoing success with music, though, she maintains it’s with her camera that she has the most unfinished business. Over the years her work has appeared in high-end magazines like American Photo and been shown at Sotheby’s in New York and, last year, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; a book of images from her time with Hole and Smashing Pumpkins is also in the works.

“I’ve loved taking photos since I was 13; the aesthetic of these frozen moments, it’s like collecting clues from dusty corners,” says Auf der Maur. “Playing music has been amazing, but the whole time I’ve been doing it I’ve felt like I have to keep putting my photography career aside.” Still, not a bad-looking resume for a day job.

Melissa Auf der Maur will perform at Club Helsinki in Hudson on March 12.
www.xmadmx.com.

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