photo: Joel Unangst
by I. Khider (March 2002)An uncompromising visionary if not eccentric underground music maker, Azalia Snail (her real name) has been making lo-fi, psychedelic indie rock tunes for well over a decade. Born of hippie parents, Azalia was named after the azalea bushes that grew outside her childhood home in Maryland. She currently has nine albums to her credit, the bulk of them recorded during her residency in New York City where her music was released through various indie labels including Sub Pop and is now signed to Dark Beloved Cloud (www.darkbelovedcloud.com). She has toured North America and Europe several times and won the L.A. Weekly Music Award 2000 for Best New Genre. Azalia Snail has since moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles, California where she writes and records in a more relaxed environment. I had the privilege of speaking to Azalia over the phone as she was preparing for a CD release party.
Far from eccentric, unlike her music, she happened to be a very sweet and engaging conversationalist. We discussed her beginnings as a fledgling musician, the lo-fi stigma, her New York years, her love of improvisation, hallucinogenics and of course, her latest album. Since her teens, Azalia was an avid music maker, not to mention an adventurous soul eager for experience and expression as she relates.
Azalia: "I started making music in '87. I jammed with these guys called 'Open Wide' and we did allot of hallucinogenics together and went out to bars and recorded music then I went off and did my own thing, took a tangent and went for it. In New Jersey on WFMU there was a DJ named Bill Berger and he had a show called "Lo-Fi" and that was the first time I ever heard the expression-I'm sure he's not the first person to use that term but he used it on his radio show. I would send him my music and he would play a song of mine every week and that was very exciting."
Despite being dubbed the 'Queen of Lo-Fi,' she has distanced herself from the title since her music is now recorded professionally, opting for a cleaner studio sound.
Azalia: "I don't like to be thought of as lo-fi because I have gone to a studio and recorded my tracks. I don't know how they lumped me in that movement. I guess because it sounds odd that's the category I got lumped into. It was really good ten years ago when lo-fi was a hip thing and I was able to tour Europe. I don't think music should be listened to on how it was recorded but rather how it sounds. Lo-fi just means you don't have any money, I don't think it's a great artistic movement, you're not striving to be weird, you just can't afford to spend two hundred dollars an hour in a big studio."
Upon finishing high-school, Azalia lit-out for the bright lights and ruckus of New York City where she wrote the bulk of her repertoire, rubbing shoulders with artists, musicians and characters while cultivating her own unique voice.
Azalia: "New York is an Earthquake everyday, that's the way the people's psyches are. The rumbling of the subway, tons of people constantly milling about, little uproars... I learned everything about human psychology and cultural experiences and art, I saw incredible bands every single night. I was a baby when I got there and it became me. I still feel like a New Yorker, even though I'm in LA.. It's been gentrified since. I wanted to leave New York because my friends were getting pessimistic and frustrated. I don't think I ever fit into the New York musician stigma-whatever that means."
What is most striking about Azalia's music, other than her earnest post-rock song writing and shunning of conventional melody, is the noise aspect to her music. Her music sounds the way some experimental filmmakers shoot footage, slightly out of focus so you can see doubles or triples and then run through a kaleidoscope of effects, leaving behind a heady sensation. From shimmering up-beat songs like "Azalia Bloom" to the tranced out murmurings set to dogmatic guitar strumming of "they are like the sea" to chaotic noise-free improv pieces such as "a long coast" to the more intimate, laid back, gently floating Brazen Arrows, her latest and definitely mellowest album to date. Though Azalia's music coasts over a range of emotions and styles, her signature quality is that every song is composed creatively if not blatantly oddly.
Azalia: "It comes naturally. For me, just to do a quiet simple song doesn't quite seem fair. I'm just bored if it sounds too normal. I probably could just do my songs very straight-up, guitars, bass drums, whatever-it just doesn't seem natural. I do everything according to my natural inclinations. I think Brazen Arrows' title track is very quiet but then I did this trick with the microphone and made it sound just a tiny bit strange or give it some sort of edge. Nothing is really thought out."
This approach was influenced by her experience with hallucinogenics; though not taken in a recreational sense so much as in the vein of Arthur Rimbaud's (in)famous novel Illuminations. This choice stemmed from a consciously informed decision to use substances like LSD and magic mushrooms as a means of enhancing her perceptions, mirroring the methods of aboriginal cultures.
Azalia: "I'm a big believer in Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and a lot of important philosophers who have all taken drugs to expand their horizons. I don't think you have to keep doing it throughout your whole life, and I don't believe everybody needs that, but it definitely turns you on to a whole new world and possibilities. I was interested in experiencing some of the things my favorite writers, artists and musicians have. I wanted to feel how they felt. I love being super-hallucinogenic, you want to be able to totally intrigue people and get them into that melancholy stage. I love totally rocking out with Alice Cooper, T-Rex, but then I also love Brian Eno and Can- bands that are trance-like. I still continue to make sensitive music and I haven't done hallucinogenics in ten years. That's another restriction on your life- to me it's the same as being dependent on a job or something in order to maintain your lifestyle."
Azalia Snail's albums are typically solo efforts with cameos by guest contributors of which she is a contradictory blend of being a "control freak" (her words) as a producer and being liberal with other people's ideas. Generally a 'Snail album consists of vocals and guitars with layered effects as her songs unfurl. She allows for variety in sound including trumpets, theramin, flute, drums, and keyboards all played by Azalia herself if not performed by a guest. This can explain the amateurish Shags-like quality to some of her tunes that flirt with chaos but are held in check by her refined guitar playing and original sense of melody; offering a chaos/order duality.
Azalia: "I like to use improvisation in my music but I also have songs. I always encourage guests to contribute their own ideas. I'm a fan of spontaneity. The greatest way to use improvisation is combine it with some sort of structure. Have some sort of jam songs where you can show off on different themes, but then it doesn't get too chaotic."
So does Azalia see herself as an inspired musician/songwriter or did she labor over her tracks? Azalia: "When I have to struggle with something, that's when I put the stuff away and I walk away from it because I don't want my music to become my work. My music is the thing that I'm passionate about, my creation. If that seems like work, I don't want to be doing it. I walk away."
I challenged her; I could think of many musicians and producers who labored endlessly over their tracks, struggling to attain perfection.
Azalia: "I think they're lying. I think they're trying to impress people by thinking it takes so long and it's such hard work. Music is inspiration and that doesn't always come easy. Whether its writing, music or art, if it doesn't pour out of you in a passionate way and if it's too thought out then I don't think it's pure creation. I think the audience has to be patient. On one tour I went on, (it was) just me and a guitar player and in every town we'd go to radio stations and ask for horn players, trumpet players, saxophone, whatever. They'd just show up at our shows, bring their horn and play with us and we ended up getting people in every town. We had a tuba player it Pittsburgh, we had this weird sax guy in Hollywood- literally I heard him playing as we were driving through Hollywood and I asked him if he could play with us that night and he came. I love that, complete improvisation, nothing rehearsed, just get up there and play. Even when I played with Beck, we were at First Avenue, Minneapolis and I went on stage and he played a song off Mellow Gold and I just kind of jammed and it was a great feeling."
I asked Azalia how she felt about still being something of an underground musician despite making music for more than a decade, releasing nine albums, not including single's and split releases, and several videos.
Azalia: "I still see myself as an underground artist, undiscovered, no one ever hyping me. My records are still reviewed in underground publications. Intrinsically I might be afraid of success because I'm afraid of people expecting too much from me and I don't want people to expect anything, I want to do whatever I want to do. When I have an album out, people discover it and then its like a little treasure and those who love it will really love it on its own accord, no one is telling them to like it. No one is expected to like it, they're only ascertaining their own opinions."
Her latest album, Brazen Arrows, is definitely her mellowest to date and was inspired by her moving to California, a less hectic environment.
Azalia: "It was the relaxed state that I am in now living in California. I feel a lot more mellow living here. It's very relaxing and comfortable, sort of like living in the country yet five minutes from the city. I guess that really inspires me and the surroundings. Here you can really get away from that and hang out, live in the hills and get a view of these gigantic, beautiful mountains and it's a very different feeling. I'm just happier in California, much more satisfied. I wanted it to be a seductive album, I was in a state of mind where I was trying to attain something in a sarcastic but sensual way. I don't think my music is abrasively sexual but I think it's sensual. I was going for that- it had to do with moving to California and rediscovering myself. I was in a pretty tranquil state of mind, going from the gamut of frustration and heartache to pure elation. Some of the songs I started writing after a crappy relationship. I'm writing exactly how I'm feeling. Each song I write is exactly about what I've been going through."
Though Brazen Arrows could be considered Azalia's perhaps most marmalade-textured work to date, she has still not lost her quirky, creative edge. She is still the adept indie rocker who sounds as if accompanied by the Pee-Wee Playhouse orchestra. Whether Azalia Snail will ever hit the charts is debatable but for having such tenacity to maintain her unique musical vision through nine albums, earning credibility and respect from rock connoisseurs, fans and underground media her, music may be destined to become exactly as Azalia put it, where "people discover it and then it's like a little treasure".
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