EMA talks About Her Horror Movie Soundtrack and Sci-Fi Influences
Posted by Isabelle 9 months ago in Features
Erika M. Anderson (EMA) is an unpredictable talent. Whether she’s bouncing between grunge revivalism and ambient electropop on her phenomenal 2014 album The Future’s Void or commingling live music and virtual reality for the multimedia installation-slash-performance piece I Wanna Destroy that she debuted last year at MoMA PS1, her ability to master whatever medium she’s confronted with is a thing of beauty. One constant throughout her work has been a fascination with people’s relationships with technology, and how technology increasingly mediates our relationships with each other. That theme even shows up in Anderson’s first film score, for Tara Subkoff’s #Horror, which uses social media as the engine for a story that adapts the horror movie framework for the age of cyber bullying.
Intrigued by Anderson’s shift into genre music-making (and still deeply in love with The Future’s Void), we called her up to talk about the process of scoring a horror flick and what’s been on her relentlessly forward-looking mind.
How did you end up making a horror movie soundtrack?
I really think it was Tara’s husband Urs Fischer, who’s a fine artist, sculptor. I think he was the one who was kind of a fan and tipped her in my direction.
Had you given any thought to scoring a movie before?
I mean it seemed like something that would be fun, I guess, but it wasn’t necessarily something I was actively pursuing.
What made you decide to take this gig?
Like I said, it seemed kind of a fun. A challenge. Something to do. Something new.
How was the creative process different from how you usually record albums?
This was kind of my first work for hire. I usually don’t keep much of anything in mind when I’m doing stuff for myself. I’m the boss, you know? When you’re doing a movie it’s like the director is the boss. That took a little bit of getting used to. Sometimes you have a vision for something you think is right but there’s another person and it’s really their vision for the film. Doing a feature film, that’s one of the most expensive and time- and resource-heavy works of art that you can do. You have to figure out where your ego fits in in that hierarchy of things. I think it was good for me. You kind of get your ego out of it, as someone who’s commissioned to do something. It was kind of freeing. I got to do “Amnesia Haze,” which is a song that I probably wouldn’t necessarily have done [on an EMA record] because it’s just so poppy but it fit in the scene, and it was really fun to do. I think I have a lot of musical sides to me. This summer I fronted a cover band for my friend’s wedding and it was really fun.
What kind of covers?
Actually I fronted two different cover bands for two different occasions. The first one was for my dad’s 60th birthday party. This was in a backyard in Minnesota, basically. That one, John Mellencamp was what really got people out on the floor dancing. For this other one we did this great song by F.R. David called “Words.” We did “Devil Inside” by INXS, we did “Cinnamon Girl.” It’s cool. Trying to constantly uphold some sort of artistic brand can be kind of limiting and boring.
People seem to really consider you a “serious” artist. Getting out of that must be nice.
Yeah. I think too, even some of the serious stuff that I do has a sense of humor that I don’t know if it comes across. I think there’ s an idea of me as some sort of stone cold bitch. Which is cool! That’s fine. I don’t mind that. It’s just not completely accurate.
Aside from recording poppier songs than normal, what other stuff did you get to do with the soundtrack that was sort of outside your normal thing?
Writing from different characters’ emotional perspectives. There were kind of like almost co-writing sessions. For part of it we sat in this pool house with Tara [the director] and these two women who were doing music supervision, and [producer] Leif [Shackelford], which was sometimes extremely frustrating, but at other times was kind of exhilirating, whn you got eveyone on the same page, and you had really immeditate feedback. Because Tara does not really mince words. She’s like, “No, I don’t like this. Get it out of here.” That’s really nice in some ways. I think overall I was like, yeah I can do this. It’s not like I don’t think of myself as a musician, but I think when I’m focussing on things, I’m not focussed purely on music. I’m focussed on message or almost the idea of what the sound is signifying. This one was really just, sonically, does this work? One of the things that was interesting about this film was that I really feel like it’s a society piece, and we were kind of tasked as musicians with trying to really put it in the [horror] genre. Like trying to make it a horror film. Which is fun because you’re thinking about history and what things signify what, but also keep it a little tongue in cheek and play with more modern instrumentation, something between organic and cyber or robot or something. Which I think fits with the theme.
I caught some parts that seemed to be nods to John Carpenter and other earlier horror composers. If you’re making a horror score it seems like you almost have to reference that stuff at least a little.
In this movie, the way that people treat each other is more of where the real terror lies, how these girls are just horribly mean to each other and the way that the parents treat the children, and this sort of isolation of wealth where no one gives a shit about each other. So we had to sort of genre-ize that, and I think to do that you do have to pull in things that reference John Carpenter and stuff. We were going in a different direction originally, but Tara was like, “This is a horror movie and you need to make it one.” Like, okay, let’s bust out these signifiers.
Are you a horror fan in general?
It’s funny, because I thought that I wasn’t. I had kind of an interesting, eye-opening moment recently where I watched Green Inferno. I really considered myself someone who didn’t like gore, couldn’t handle scary movies like that, was not going to like something like that. A friend of mine put it on and I fucking loved it. I thought it was so great and funny and really topical. So now I’m really wondering, maybe there’s this whole genre that’s interesting to me, and maybe I can handle it. They don’t really stress me out. The thing that stresses me out the most in a movie is if somebody’s going to be embarrassed. That’s kind of my horror, seeing somebody being humiliated in front of a bunch of people. So I feel like I need to go back and re-evaluate [horror] as a genre.
Your work has a lot of pretty overt sci-fi references. I was wondering how that genre’s affected you as a musician.
I know it did on the last record for sure. A lot of the things I was dealing with, they were very new experiences, having your digitized online self or avatar become in some ways larger than your real-life self and having them kind of diverge. In some ways the only things that mirrored that was speculative fiction, me rereading Neuromancer in the tour van and then after getting home after two years on the road having this weird psychedelic bad trip slash partial nervous breakdown where I’m imagining the Neuromancer in my brain, but where the Neuromancer’s all the press and all the digital artifacts and ephemera that have been created around me for the past two years, and it fucking freaked me out. Some of the themes on The Future’s Void were the amalgamation of data that’s collected on you and how you have this sort of shadow self that’s available to advertisers and data aggregators. For some reason at the time it was hard for me to put these [ideas] into words, and the main things that I had for examples were these weird, futuristic sci-fi stories.
Are there any authors aside from William Gibson that you particularly like?
This is kind of a guilty pleasure but the author that I’ve really been into for the past six months is this historical fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay. Someone gave me one of his books and it was about kind of the history of the Iberian peninsula. It’s not like full-on Game of Thrones, witches, dragons stuff, but that’s something I’ve been interested in. I also got for Christmas a couple years ago old issues of Analog magazine. That’s just amazing. A lot of the stories in there still seem topical. They were writing almost pre-Cold War, and there are still these kind of tensions going on. I just read Kindred by Octavia Butler. It’s sci-fi but it’s not really tech-based. I really liked The Windup Girl. The whole idea of food being the next frontier, that felt really real. I recently watched Wild Palms. I loved it a lot. I thought the fashion was great and it was just goody and weird and awesome.
This sounds kind of hippie, but I study some with this yoga teacher who’s into the early Tantric myths, and the stories that are in there, in the Bhagavad Gita, or just these stories about wisdom goddesses, and their powers and weapons and what they stand for, that’s kind of the most trippy shit that I’ve been exposed to in the past while. At one point these people are all living in the forest and they get kind of complacent, so this buffalo demon comes and it’s the Demon of Complacency and someone has to come kill it.
Is there anything on your mind right now in the way that dataverse avatars were before your last album?
I’m totally sick about talking about the Internet in some ways. I don’t know if I get as much out of it as is there, supposedly. One thing that is on my mind right now is kind of this concept that I call “the Outer Ring” that I’ve been exploring in some of the music that I’ve been making and in some of these multimedia performances that I’ve been doing over the past year. It’s sort of the flip side of gentrification, because the whole idea of that has been “What’s happening to our cities?” and the spotlight’s been on the juice bar and the street that used to be this and now it’s revitalized. I’m more interested in where the economically marginalized are going to end up. There’s this crazy demographic inversion of the suburbs going on, where there used to be this idea that once you were rich enough you’d move out there and it was safe and idyllic and white, and the reality is that the suburbs are rapidly changing. What are they going to look like? What’s the outer ring of this city going to look like? That’s what I’ve been tripping on: what’s the culture of [the suburb] going to change to be like, what’s the aesthetic going to change to be like? What’s the story?