photo by Dawn Sutter Madell
Interview by Jason Gross
If there's one New York indie band that's seemed ubiquitous but never really gotten the respect they deserve, it's Antietam. Maybe it's because of the odd name (coming from a Civil War battle) or that a woman's in charge or any other conspiracy theory that you'd like to come up with. It boils down to this- it's just goddamn unfair.
Regardless, singer/guitarist/leader Tara Key has soldiered on, along with her partner and bassist Tim Harris going back to the early '80's when they began in Kentucky with the Babylon Dance Band and a group called No Fun before that. They moved to NYC in the fall of '83 without any band to speak of and then formed Antietam in the spring of '84. They started out auspiciously on Homestead Records with a self-titled 1985 debut and took a break for a couple of years in the late '80's, but came roaring back in the '90's with four more records, winding up on Homestead once again as well as reviving the BDB. Key even found time to do a pair of solo albums then too. After a lengthy hiatus, they found a musical home In the new millennium with Chicago indie label Carrot Top Records and just released their third album there, Tenth Life. The odd and wonderful thing about that album is that this later-day effort might be their most confident and anthemic collection yet.
As luck would have it, I'd met the other members of the band before but not Tara. Drummer Josh Madell just happens to be co-owner of one of the most heralded record stores left in New York, Other Music, where he regularly mans the counter and the register. I bumped into Harris at the local post office where he was totting around a huge box labeled 'Antietam,' soon finding out that we lived in the same 'hood. The only time I'd seen Key was on stage, most memorably playing with Yo La Tengo at a free NYC show in the '90's (with Cyndi Lauper also on the bill) and a thunderstorm raging behind them during the encore that they shared together.
Despite our proximity, I interrogated Key over the summer via e-mail not only about her band but also her extra-musical activities, including her 'day job' and her art work. That actually turned out to be a good idea as she provided good, extended answers, which is what any writer hopes for with a story.
PSF: Which bands/performers motivated you enough to become a musician yourself?
TARA KEY: I got the music bug via an undercover post-midnight transistor radio, like many others my age. When I feel like a song has made a direct hit on me, it has often been a late night thing. This is when sounds stick with me. It started here. Radio was better than a magic trick at 3.
There is a certain frisson in turning a knob between zones of static, white noise and oscillation tones. Even to this day, driving at night on the edge of one town's sonic blanket while approaching another's (with a momentary blurt of a 50,000 Clear Channel station knifing through), I feel anything is possible. And that is really all I ask of music, that it make me hope and not despair.
Radio is how I internalized distance AND connection; while some of the news was the same on WWL New Orleans and WINS New York, the voices delivering it varied in accent and at the same time shared the excited cadence of a 60-second recap read. These late night communions connect the knob turning, the seeking, the mad scientist's nature, the negotiation of the tones of frequency interference to how I love to make sounds today! Lying awake intoxicated by issues of feeling alone and a part of things at the same time--that is where wanting to catch those stirred up, confusing feelings in a jar like a lightning bug and make some damn sense of them in a song started for me.
Blame the radio for all of my feedback. Blame it more than Mick, Neil and Jimi.
In terms of music, not static, the sound I felt was mine hit me right in the demographic. I was the perfect age for the Monkees and the Raiders. And one hit wonders. It's no wonder Tim and I are still trying to make a pop album as good as Raiders Greatest Hits. Hearing those tunes pop up on the radio is what got us excited initially about the power of music. Louisville radio, which actually broke "Wooly Bully" and some other tunes nationwide in the mid-sixties, was a huge influence. I did not know or care if the Monkees were cartoons who did not play on their records or if Phil and Fang really played on the Raiders' albums--it was the sound. And that is what we were trying to emulate when we started our bands (I don't think the other members of my first band shared the bubblegum love- that's why the Babylon Dance Band was such a good fit).
When I started to play with other people and to have a band, the ridiculous nature of going public with punk rock as a painfully shy person made me invent a Superhero strategy.
I can diagram that mythical being as one wearing the platform shoes of a 10 foot tall version of gentle glitter thug Mick Ronson with his impeccable touch, the astronaut/shaman suit of Hendrix, antenna up, my sleeve adorned with a heart, like Neil, while welded to a Les Paul. Ronson's strokes, his slashes, peaks and moans were licentious. They spoke of outer space and riled me up and confused me. All of that from a piece of wood!
Neil hit hard when I was old enough to fold disappointment, rage, helpless(ness) and numbness into the recipe. I got Neil when things got more emotionally complex. And clearly, he painted with tone. As a painter turned punk rocker, this was potent. Also, he did not own the Les Paul and it did not own him. They were partners. His body moved a little, the tone wavered. Like a half-tuned-in station. Like he and the guitar were one. Then... Slam! I got the courage to go public assisted by disenfranchised sympathetics hoisting me over the wall (and themselves as well), using Patti and Lenny's road map with the Pistols Clash/Ramones/Heads patrol units by our sides saying "bust down the gate--you can do it too!" (see: my article on Horses).
I am an energy-first, chops-if-necessary kind of gal. As a woman, as a fledgling player, as someone who heard jackhammers and in-between station static as a valid response to the end of a musical phrase (while thinking pop), finding community, spirit and locating my own perpetual edge was more valuable to me than thinking I had nailed a robot replication of a lead by any of these gentlemen. That is not to say that realizing one damn note was all it took in "Cinnamon Girl" to make the world turn sideways was not seminal. Just that I took my most valuable lessons from the heart to the heart and always had the goal of sounding like nobody else.
So to answer the question most honestly, SPIRIT wins out. And I think it is possible my biggest influences have been my peers. In Louisville, Wink O'Bannon, with the Blinders, channeling high heeled sneaker blues with cool; a perpetual smoke either in his mouth or stuck under his strings at the nut, Alex Durig's ridiculous blaze of sheets of chords and notes in the Endtables. In Chicago, Rick Rizzo as overgrown man-child romping around the stage, hands like bear claws tearing an entire set of strings off the fret board, Youngian school in moan and lurch, but furiously unique. In NY, shy boy Superhero counterpart Ira Kaplan bent double in abandon and little brother Chris O'Rourke's exemplary pop tunesmithing. My peers have always been my yardstick and to a tee we share some kind of "How the Hell did we get to do this?" nature. That energy got me here and keeps me going.
PSF: Could you talk about your work at Columbia University?
TK: I work at the largest of Columbia's libraries and I am responsible for addressing issues with brittle and damaged books. If I am going to have spent my life with a day job instead of a rock job, I could not have found a better one. I get to be a detective and an a triage worker at the same time.
When books are returned in disrepair, or, sometimes with objects embedded within (yes, love letters, train tickets, bedbugs and condoms have made an appearance over the course of 20 years) or, if they have been rousted from the stacks, ignored for years and should really go to rare books, I take a look and make the first decisions about whether the book will be repaired, given a protective casing, reformatted for preservation, taken out of circulation to be housed in a special place or replaced.
It's an interesting time to have the job. Libraries are, in general, in the midst of recalibration and debate about analog versus digital, artifact versus e-text, and participating in the dialogue and finding the most responsible point on the fulcrum is pretty fascinating.
It's funny how this zone mirrors similar issues in the other part of my life in music and photography. The ease and egalitarian nature of making and consuming digitally recorded and distributed music is the sibling of its verbal manifestation in Google Books is the sibling of version/replication questions about digital art. So I feel like I swim in these concerns 24/7 to some degree.
Another great aspect of my job is that I get to have the run of an Ivy League library's content to study anything I get interested in to my heart's content. One time I found, in my genealogy research, that my great-great grandfather blew up an L&N Railroad bridge in Hart County, KY to thwart the advance of the Union troops on orders from Simon Bolivar Buckner. What's more: he and my great grandfather had built the bridge--they were premier stonemasons of the region. http://scrtc.com/~ftcraig/rrbridge.htm I ran downstairs into the stacks and came back with a book published in 1862 that provided, from the point of view of a Union-sympathetic reporter keeping a diary of his travels in that year, a real time accounting of that act.
Once a book came to me about the Ohio River and its navigation from Pittsburgh to the point it joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois published in the 1840's that was dated and annotated, in pencil, by a man who made the trip himself (with a stop off in Louisville) in the 1850's.
In the late 1980's, I found a book signed by Emile Zola in the stacks that no one ever noticed was inscribed before I came across it.
So beyond my selfish interests, I have a dual responsibility of both preserving artifacts and making information available to as many people as possible for as long as possible and I take it very seriously. I feel lucky to do something important with my days.
PSF: How about the exhibition that you're doing now?
TK: Last Friday (June 3rd, 2011), a show of paintings and photographs by me opened in Chicago at the Saki Store. Saki is the record store arm of Carrot Top Records and CTD distribution.
My dad was a pro photographer for a few years. During WWII, he was too small to go overseas with his peers and was 4-F. It was a very "Wound and the Bow" moment in his life and valuable instruction for me on how to turn that frown upside when, as a teen, I developed scoliosis and had an, um, bad attitude for a while. He worked as a staff photographer for the Louisville Courier-Journal for about three years, 1942-1945, traveling with celebs regionally, taking shots of sports stars... and then when the guys came home, he lost his job to the fellow who had had it before.
He tried to make a go of shooting weddings and portraits post-war, but could not support the family. Then I came along to add to fiscal difficulties. He returned to the job he hated, setting tile as an underpaid, non-health-insured manual laborer, and he held this backbreaking job for most of the rest of his working days. When I want to gripe about X, Y or Z in relation to music making, fame or the lack of it, or a review I felt missed the mark, I try to think about a man who was shorter than me and weighed only about 110 pounds, hauling 50 lbs. bags of grout around instead of shooting photos. In fact, I have always kind of felt like I owe it to him to follow my creative bent. He steeped me early on in taking pictures, developing film and making prints as if he was passing a torch.
After high school, I was a painter at the Louisville School of Art when punk rock drove a bargain with me to swap my brushes for an electric guitar. So for years, I would paint on and off, but I found it very difficult to do both at a reasonable intensity. Then I took a break from painting altogether for probably close to 5 years until I was generously given a good studio space a couple of years ago by some close friends. I never showed a single thing I did, except for album art. Until now.
I am committed to finding a way to do both at the same time and I think I can. As time has gone on, I feel like my sonics have developed a potential to be more painterly and my paintings have gained a sharpness of intent that I credit to song crafting for so long. So it all evens out eventually!
"Elemental" proceeds, roughly, on a Rural/Urban thematic split. It includes about 10 mid-size to large paintings, 50 small paintings I see as "singles" for sale in the record store, a Tarot deck designed and executed by me in the last decade, and about 40 photographs taken in Italy, Spain and upstate New York. I wanted to "play" the room, if you will, so I got exact measurements and designed for the space. I tried to take over the environment by designing seven Chapels for the two side walls, each with a set of photos tied in some way to one central painting. (I must give Tim credit for suggesting that arrangement, borne from our love of tromping together through the churches of Venice and Rome repeatedly over the last 15 years). I treated the back wall as more of a bulletin board with the latest breaking pieces.
The earliest pieces are four pictures of destruction in my neighborhood from a tornado on April 3, 1974, taken by me the next morning. The latest painting I was finishing in the car on the way to the opening.
PSF: You have an interesting situation where your bandmates are your husband and the co-owner of a famed New York record store. How does that work out for you?
TK: Well, one result of casting our lot together and being in a creative unit with the kind of longevity that our combo has is that you become family. So I don't really think about the implications of either much.
In the case of Josh and Other Music, I am a proud big sister. I met Josh when he was not old enough to drink at many places we played out of town. So to have experienced him growing up, to have watched him found and maintain a successful and respected business and, later, to be a part of his life as he starts his own family is awesome.
In the case of Tim and I being together band and life for over 30 years, it is the best of all worlds to me. I am challenged to separate very far from the dialectic of (life=art) + (guitar=brain) + what happened last Tuesday ÷ totally permeable membranes between them all = song.
I have been in a band with my mate since 3 months into having a band: the Babylon Dance Band. And, in the same spirit of the above, I can't separate Antietam from our love story. I feel lucky to be able to share every single triumph in a molecular fashion and it makes the challenging times more bearable. In knowing the parameters involved in each decision, either pertaining to verse/chorus/lyric/double it and go to bridge or in business, we give each other advice, perspective, gut checks.
Plus, it's still so great to come home after a rehearsal where we surprised even ourselves by writing our New Favorite Song to revel in it for hours and wake up the next morning singing it. Or the time we came in a little tipsy at 3AM circa 1989, turned on the TV and saw our video for "Something's Happening" on USA Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried. "Who's that... sounds like... oh man, it's us!!!"
I guess it's just the way I am wired, but over the course of 30+ years now, the times I have made music that was more than just a fun jam or cool stunt appearance and did NOT involve friendship I can count on about a half a hand. My commitments tend toward the tenacious. I make them with consideration and devotion. That's why the Babylon Dance Band is still a band, I can make a record with Rick Rizzo a decade after the first one, and Antietam can go from 1996 to 2004 without a sanctioned album release and never stop jamming at least once a week. I love making music that starts from a feeling that we are all sharing the same amusement park ride.
PSF: How do you keep motivated to continue your musical career?
TK: It's funny how this question stopped me in my tracks for a few days. It's not that I don't have a million reasons, but it all comes back to the fact that I should be thanking some deity for having the opportunity to KEEP doing this. And I'm not a point to the rafters after sinking the 3-pointer type of gal.
Very early on, I figured out that playing the guitar/playing in a band was the piece of the puzzle that finally made a lot of precocious and promising but disjointed impulses in me shape up. Yes, being on the cover of the Village Voice in the first year and a half of having a band (with the Babylon Dance Band) made it a lot easier to grab the bullhorn and good press was a steroid shot that bolstered me beyond being ridiculously shy and an only recently unfettered Good Girl.
Despite not being able to look strangers in the eye until my early 20's, I made the most sense to me yet on stage, in cartoon enlargement, fighting the good fight for propulsion and riding your life force - bronco or surfboard, whichever. And it became impossible to separate myself from the need to keep finding that salt lick. I feel grown to my Les Paul.
Having a platform to work stuff out on is cool, but having people's ears is essential to me. So I don't think I would be satisfied just doing it for myself and no audience. Maybe it's narcissism, maybe it's an amplified version of wunderkind strokes I always seemed to get growing up, but I get a lot out of going public with it all.
I hope, at least, that I am serving a purpose and that it is a fair exchange - that when I decode, confess and rail I am connecting with someone in a "yeah, me too!" way. I want to prove that Rock (since my generation signed on at both our and its birth, practically) is not only for being 15 or 20 or even 30 anymore. I hope that when you hear us we tacitly enter a Zone together where we can mess with the day to day, transcend or reshape it, praise or dissect it, and turn the thing that weighs us down on its ear, even if the agreement only lasts for 3 minutes to 1 hour. I want everybody who leaves one of our shows to feel happy, supercharged and like anything is possible.
To GET to do this, the bargain demands that the white noise of how many people hear us, how much we get written about, how much we sell, who didn't sign us, who got famous that we know, what bands were dismissive of us, get TUNED OUT as much as humanly possible. If you had asked me in 1994 how I felt about the circus, I may have given you a different answer, as I was referencing the vernacular from deep in the Venus Flytrap. I had entered the sweepstakes with all of my lunch money and was tearing up tickets left and right while cursing and swearing about the crooked rules.
How do I keep doing this? The other day we had our first rehearsal since putting an exclamation point on the release of Tenth Life with a trip out to Chicago to play and to open my art show. I love that first day of school feeling. Blank tablets. No gigs to practice for, no songs to bring to the finish line, no record to mix for the first time in almost a year. Open season. We hung out at the clubhouse for a long, long while, chewing the fat, then finally sat down and jammed two new songs.
Days later, walking down the street in mental comfy chair mode, I was struggling (in a Sunday crossword kind of way) with a new transition I was planning for one of the jams. I was unsure of the 1-2 or the 1-2-3 of it. Paces away, a semi-tractor trailer (in my neighborhood rather than I-95!) jackknifed on its way uptown from the Crosstown somewhat suddenly and disruptively, cutting off a 60-something gentleman in the crosswalk. T-shirted with grey-splattered hair, he was impatient and vexed, then, taking a deep breath, he Southern-drawled, "Alllll-rightt son. Make it work..." at the same moment the sonic rebus was solved. Bing-bam. Perfection. I cannot imagine ever being ready to give those types of process moments voluntarily.
PSF: I've heard that you're pretty busy right now. What's going on at the moment?
TK: I am inching back down to Earth after an incredible weekend that was the cap to about 2 years of non-stop work: recording, arranging and mixing Double Star for Rizzo/Key, writing and recording Tenth Life for Antietam, learning Final Cut to make the "Star Spangled Banner" piece for WNYC/PRI (did you see that?)... and so on ... The weekend was super-super-rewarding. Chicago has classically been the place that has embraced us the most fully--there have always been over the top shows and responses--and the streak was not broken this time.
I have bruises all over my body not only from Antietam's set, ended on the floor, but also from the freight train known as Rick Rizzo, who demolished gear and my person at the end of the Rizzo/Key set. Guitars, guitar cases, amps, drums; and the two us of on top of each other under it all wrapped up as one, like two intertwined ropes of aggressive climbing weeds, continuing to make feedback. When he gets that El Toro look in his eyes and they glaze over from Rock and Roll, oh Lord, look out! I started out the set as a cog in a pastoral machine and ended as a member of the NY Rangers.
PSF: Nowadays, which other bands do you consider kindred spirits?
Of course, I take the most encouragement from the gang I run with, both from the contingent who are my age and the youngsters. It has been hard at times to keep perspective when this thing we love to do is generally regarded as a young man's game. Having these peers still thinking forward, still with something new to say--to reference off of them is critical in continuing. We shore each other up.
I saw Peter Hook the other night doing the Joy Division cover thing and interesting questions aside about ownership and reimagination, the thing that struck me about the show is that Hook sang and played like someone who still had something left to prove. It doesn't matter whether it was to himself, his ex-band, someone else. And I guess that is the way I feel too and the way the people I admire do, at least a little.
Obviously YLT (Yo La Tengo). Sleepyhead and Eleventh Dream Day (both of the latter putting out superb records this year while having lives, jobs, children). I admire Chris Brokaw and Tara Jane O'Neill for their commitment to new experience, the way they use their skills and sensitivity as a passport to incredible adventures and the way all of this finds its way back into their music. Those two are dictionary versions of lifers. New friends like Zach Cale whose voice is so unique but, at the same time he seems like a new face in a long lineage of gentle men with guitars and a little Laurel Canyon in them. Pat Gubler is an ace and I have learned something about touch and sensitivity from watching him play. Rattle (Rick Brown, Sue Garner, Gubler, Greg Peterson) are making new music that sounds totally different from anything they have done in the past. The crew who use room 502- the Scene Is Now, Special Pillow, P. G. Six. Beyond individual motivations, we all do this because we kinda HAVE to to keep happy. Even if tours are shorter and further between and it is like solving a perpetual rebus to figure out how to disseminate it all. I think everyone I just mentioned feels the same or better than they did 10, 20, 30 years ago playing. It has become part of our fabric and our personal growth. PSF: Do you find it easier or harder to write songs now? Why or why not?
Much easier. I feel like I don't have enough time left to say everything I want to!
Our way of writing has not really changed much. On occasion, I will bring something in with a beat or a bass line I hear and a song pretty much mapped out, but that has always been rare in comparison to our jam factory style of writing. We can take each other to some pretty great zones and I think our telepathy continues to sharpen. Josh and I have been co-writing on the last two records and that re-imaging of our collaboration is exciting to me.
With this record, after Opus Mixtum got a lot off our chest and Tenth Life came the closest ever to being the taut hard hitter we have always heard, I plan to sort of lay open the process a little. We are going to be posting songs on Soundcloud as we make them. Some of them might be rehearsal tapes. Some might be a little more studied. Many of them I think will have guests. Most of them will probably not be on a record, whatever the hell the definition of that will be by the time we make it. But I am excited to try something new and let anyone who is interested peek in our window. Antietam Labs is at http://soundcloud.com/antietamlabs
Also see Tara's list of most memorable gigs (Acrobat/PDF file) & the Antietam homepage
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