“‘Oh, what went wrong now? Do I look like an idiot? What got taken out of context? How does the world feel about me?’… It’s a mindfuck.”
After years of making gorgeous, meditative anthems to disillusionment, first as Gowns and then as EMA, Erika M. Anderson is angry. She’s angry about living in a world where ever-faster, ever-better technology fails to make good on its promises to change the world for the better, where she can see the beauty of our interconnected lives and cultures but can’t go online without fear of losing herself to others perceptions. With this anger, she’s created The Future’s Void, an album that stands apart from any of her previous work, with music that’s vulnerable in an entirely new way. She’s taken on the precarious challenge of addressing these feelings directly, instead of cloaking them in poetry. It’s a statement by an artist in transition, filled with paradoxical emotions and industrial confusion.
In a long conversation before the first show of her tour, we talked to Anderson about what inspired her to take her work in this more complicated direction, how she has dealt with mixed reactions to the album, and what gives her hope for the future of art.
Clearly there’s a lot of stuff on the album about being disconnected from reality, dissociation. You’re wearing oculus rift on the cover.
Yeah, which maybe was my first mistake.
Because everyone keeps asking you about it?
Well I think it makes it easier for people to put it in terms of the entire record being a missive on our online lives.
Had you had other experiences with virtual reality before that? Do you play video games?
I just read this really interesting article about the way that 3D environments are programmed… women take different visual cues than men to perceive a space. I used to play video games as a kid, and then at some point I was like, “Oh, I don’t like these anymore.” And it was kind of around the time that 3D started to be a thing. I was also at the age when I wasn’t a kid anymore, so it’s hard for me to know if it was like, “I can’t get this 3D shit” or I just had other things on my mind.
What kinds of games did you like to play?
I played the platform games or whatever. I kind of liked the ones that were kind of easy, meditative. I liked playing the Aladdin video game on N64, it wasn’t a very popular one but it was easy and you could just kind of zone out and beat the whole thing quickly.
Do you feel like any of that stuff had an impact on the work you did on this album?
I want to clear up a few things about this record. I feel like there are certain things that are getting misinterpreted or misunderstood about the lyrics. First of all, I knew it was going to be really polarizing: Some people would love it and some people would fucking hate it. I kind of wish I could have made something happy that everyone liked again. But that’s not the place I was in. I was in this pissed-off, angry place, and I wanted to make something that was angry, not this kind of soothing spacious thing that I had done before. But that said, I feel like people, when they’re looking at “Neuromancer,” think that I’m trying to lecture millennials about their selfie habits or something, when really I’m including myself in all of it. I was thinking about all the pictures online I had taken of myself, and professional selfies is what they ended up being. The line, “Such a narcissistic baby, such a new millennial baby, is it true? Is it true?” is like well, do you believe these things they’re saying about you? But I think people are taking it as like, “Oh millennials are terrible and we’re all going to hell.” I just feel I need to clarify.
That’s kind of ironic considering misinterpretation online is sort of what the album is about in the first place.
Yeah, it totally is. Is it like I broke the fourth wall by responding to reviews that I think got it wrong, is that still some kind of taboo thing? People tell you to never respond when people say something mean about you online. Is that changing, or not?
I think considering the subject matter it seems appropriate. I was going to mention on “Neuromancer” when you sing that line about selfies, I was wondering who exactly you were referencing. Because to me it brought to mind camgirls, people who literally make a living on their webcams.
I’m referring to the phenomenon of it. I think if you read the lyrics it can come off as kind of didactic, but I’m just trying to chronicle what is happening. Cindy Sherman made a living off making selfies, I love her work. If you put that there and you don’t add the lines, “Is it true? You choose, you choose.” it could be kind of condescending. It could be about camgirls… We were talking about women on the internet, I think there’s definitely a lot of misogyny present in comments online. I think there’s also this frustrated, beta-male impulse, because they see these women who get more attention than they do and they perceive these women as having more power than they do and so to take the power back they say awful, hurtful things. And it’s sad because it can make you feel really terrible, so it’s somewhat efficient. I’m trying to think about what that’s about. I picture these dudes in their rooms that wish they had everyone looking at them in the way that everyone is looking at beautiful women, even though they are probably also consuming beautiful women.
I’m appreciative of this outer-ring suburban aesthetic, it seems kind of democratizing. Probably because there’s no money in it yet. It’s cool to see what the hell is going on and it’s crazy the first time you look at dump.fm or whatever, you’re just like, “Whaaatttt is happeningggg??”
That makes me think about when the Times Magazine selfie generation thing came out. People felt like it was sexist and condescending.
With “Neuromancer,” I think I’m coming across as that voice, as an older voice shaking a finger, and it’s not that, it’s more complex than that. First of all, teenagers want to know what’s going on with themselves… It’s not like anyone [in a previous generation] would have done anything different, but it’s these perplexed older guys who are like, “What is this?” I was trying to think about this proliferation of making images of oneself and posting them online as a descendant of capitalism and advertising. Or is it about trying to create images if you don’t see yourself represented in the mainstream?
Yeah, I think it’s probably all of those things. On a different note, how many songs did you record for the album?
I’m not sure… Some things only got sketched out. There were a few things that did not make it on. One was something that in hindsight is probably really good I didn’t do, which was like this punk song about 9/11, and seeing my lyrics out of context already I’m like, “That’s probably good that that’s not there.” I was trying to give an empathic view of things, but it’s probably good it’s not on there. Then there was this weird drone piece where I talked about seeing Laurie Anderson telling everyone that when you want to feel empathy for the world look around at everyone and imagine yourself as their mother, and me trying that in a bar.
It seems like I had so much time to do this, but I was touring most of the time. I think the album is really dense because I was in this pissed off and angry place; some of those songs I could have just gotten out of my system? I don’t know which ones. There’s a part of me that wants to take the sketches and put them out for fans. Like look, this is your more Past Life Martyred Saints-style material, I’ll put this up. Maybe I’ll do that to make some people happy that aren’t ready for an industrial assault (laughs).
You said you feel The Future’s Void is being misinterpreted as a concept album. Did you ever feel like you wanted to make it a concept album? Or were you just writing songs and they ended up having similar themes?
I don’t know how similar the songs on the album even are. I don’t know how to explain how rushed I was. I should’ve written the press release but I didn’t have time and energy. It’s really important when you’re making art that can be ambiguous to try to get on all sides of it. Write about it, explain to people what’s going on, take the pictures you want to take, make the mix you want to make. Put the synths you want on it. It’s fucking hard to do all that. The way everything moves there’s not enough time. The more demand that’s put on you the less time you have to do everything, the more you have to give it to other people.
So about the angry vibe you were feeling when you made this? I read a few interviews wherein you talked about how your self-representation got away from you since you put out your first album. Was that a part of what contributed to the anger that fueled this album?
I’m still trying to figure it out. I thought I would get some of [the anger] out by writing the stuff on the record and I would feel more in control again, because sometimes when something terrifies you you have to confront it, which is why there is stuff about this on there. It was scaring me and making me mad and I had to get control over that. The frustration was partly that most people are not going to listen to the whole record, or they’re going to stream it; they aren’t going to listen to it multiple times. Some people will. But I know about plenty of musicians out there whose record I’ve never listened to, but you have an image and a one-sentence synopsis of what they’re supposed to be and maybe like a coolness rating of them in your head. Watching that happen to yourself is an infuriating experience.
I’ve seen you talk about net art on Twitter, and you used the artist Molly Soda in your video for “So Blonde.” What about it appeals to you?
I’m still exploring it. I felt like the last time I tried to look for it, it hadn’t quite grown up yet. And then I checked back in and I was like, “Oh, there’s some cool stuff happening, there’s some freak shit happening,” and I kind of got excited about it. Being on Tumblr and starting to follow these weirdos… still not all of it is great, or good, but I like the feeling that these people could be from anywhere. I’m appreciative of this outer-ring suburban aesthetic, it seems kind of democratizing. Probably because there’s no money in it yet. It’s cool to see what the hell is going on and it’s crazy the first time you look at dump.fm or whatever, you’re just like, “Whaaatttt is happeningggg??” I’m kinda late to the game on it, but when it first started happening I just didn’t want to be online.
There’s a certain point too when it’s like there’s so much being written about you it makes going online kind of different, because how do you avoid kind of looking at your own shit? So it makes the internet this extra weird hall of mirrors that’s about you. It makes the internet not as fun. You’re not having fun looking at some new memes or watching some Youtube video because you’re just like, “Oh, what went wrong now? Do I look like an idiot? What got taken out of context? How does the world feel about me?” That’s just a lot, for anybody. It’s a mindfuck.
I know about plenty of musicians out there whose record I’ve never listened to, but you have an image and a one-sentence synopsis of what they’re supposed to be and maybe like a coolness rating of them in your head. Watching that happen to yourself is an infuriating experience.
That experience has become so normal for so many people. It really used to only happen to celebrities, but now it is something that happens to some extent to everyone, and even more so if you’re in the public eye at all. A lot of net art deals with that experience. It’s interesting you say there’s no money in it, because in New York there’s this small rarefied scene; net art is actually up in galleries and sells.
Yeah, totally. But there’s still a lot of people doing it for no money.
Totally. I thought it was interesting you said it feels like a lot of this stuff is coming from these nowhere kinds of places…
We’ve really made uniform all of our suburbs. There’s this landscape of the Best Buy, PetSmart, Toys “R” Us, Michaels, and a Barnes & Noble or something, and it’s always in this one place, so these kids are all across the country but they’re unified by this like, Mountain Dew, Taco Bell kind of thing. One thing I saw that totally blew my mind was this one game at SXSW Interactive, there was this one kid in the corner who had made this completely pointless video game. It wasn’t really a game, just an environment where you could walk around. It was a lo-fi, pixelated snowscape with like trees and deer, and I was about ready to cry, I was like, “This is the most beautiful thing.” A lot of it’s really giving me hope. I felt like I found a four-track demo of a video game, this experimental thing. And that just blew my mind.
Yeah, there’s a whole DIY avant-garde video game scene. You should really check out the collective Babycastles. They’re awesome, they do exhibitions of all kinds of crazy experimental video games.
That’s the thing I realized… I feel like I missed out on some stuff that’s really exciting. I feel like the way the record makes sense is in these kind of weird outer-ring net-art freak spots. It makes sense in this kind of jostled-up collage image, taking stuff from here and there, all these different styles, distorting-machine type of way. And that wasn’t something that influenced me at the time because it wasn’t something I knew existed. Like at one point I got really obsessed with fake plants and I got all these huge fake plants to put in my living room, and like afterwards I get on Tumblr and I’m like, “Oh, my people are here.”
They are definitely there. What inspired your use of Cold War references throughout the album?
This woman Herta Muller, I read a book or hers awhile back, and I thought it was really beautiful and inspiring. And then I was reading tons of weird 1970s and 80s sci-fi short story collections, and there’s tons of Russia all up in there. I was thinking about that and Slovenia and all these places that were former Soviet Union and what that experience was like. It’s a huge metaphor that I’m still unpacking. There was the big fascination with space, and now there’s the language we use to talk about the internet, all this metaphorical space language.
There’s one question I’ve been asking anyone I’ve interviewed lately. Obviously “The Future” is a very relevant theme to your album, it’s in the title. So: are you hopeful about the future?
The Future’s Void can be interpreted in a bunch of ways, which I’ve talked about other places, but to me, it’s like, thinking about the future is null. Thinking about it all is a void thought.