Weathering The Storm: An Interview with Emma Ruth Rundle

“I’m sorry man, I’ve been really sick.” This is one of the first things Emma Ruth Rundle says to me as we ascend the stairs to the Green Room of the Paradise Rock Club in Boston (March 16, 2017). No apologies are necessary, but the exhaustion present in her voice is understandable. To put it mildly, New England has seen better weeks, especially in March. My initial plan was to arrive in Boston on Wednesday, the original date of Rundle’s show supporting This Will Destroy You and Deafheaven (one of the more epic tour lineups I can recall). However, I had to change things up, leaving Burlington, VT at 2 AM Tuesday morning following a 12-hour shift at work to get ahead of a storm that would ultimately dump at least 2 miserable feet of snow on a town that had been foolishly anticipating the coming of Spring. The rest of New England and New York were not spared either, resulting in the postponement of the show to Thursday evening. As a result, I had to spend an extra two days at an inn-that-shall-remain-nameless in the heart of the Harvard Ave area of Boston which, frankly, reminded me of the kind of place a depressed person would shack up at to drink themselves to death. I also made the mistake of only bringing one pair each of shoes and pants, which I nearly ruined attempting to navigate the slush-flooded Bostonian sidewalks Tuesday evening, leading to a fiasco in which I was, for at least a fleeting moment, sure I was going to die of hypothermia in an alley.

The lodgings combined with the dreadful conditions mostly sullied my typically-sunny disposition during the days leading up to the show. It is obviously also understandable that the performers would be exhausted after a long tour, exacerbated by sickness and long drives through a blizzard-ravaged region. Rundle would ultimately be forced to regretfully cancel performances in both Detroit and Portland later on during the tour, dealing with a persistent respiratory illness. But on this night in Boston she seemed in good spirits during her performance, and there was no sign of these issues during the set, which was composed mainly of songs from her much-lauded third album Marked For Death. When we sat down to talk, the sounds of “The Mighty Rio Grande” were echoing just outside the room as This Will Destroy You began their set, so all in all it felt like a good end to a rough week. Despite the sickness and her need to rest after a tough few days, Emma indulged me with a discussion ranging from Marked For Death’s difficult subject matter, moving beyond those themes in future releases, what makes artists hold weight with her, and the awesomeness of Billy Corgan.

Arctic Drones: Why did you decide to tour with a full band this around, as opposed to performing solo?

Emma Ruth Rundle: I thought this was a good opportunity, given the lineup. I thought it would make sense to do the tour as a full band. I had never done it before and I thought it was an opportunity to expand on what I’ve already done, touring-wise. I mean, I’ve toured with heavier bands, but given how I view this band, by that I mean Deafheaven, I thought it was just a good opportunity and the time to do it. It made sense.

AD: So, Marked For Death moves away from the singer-songwriter vibe of Some Heavy Ocean to fuller, more richly layered arrangements. Was that a natural progression, or more of a calculated decision?

ERR: It was kind of both in that I wrote songs and I wanted to do what would best serve those songs, and I had a hard time deciding whether or not to put drums on it because I knew that it was going to push into needing a band. Let’s be honest, really what it comes down to for me is it’s not something that I’ve ever been able to afford. This is what I do, and I make a very modest, modest living it at, so making the record was a hard decision in that I chose to have the drums; I had come off of a year of touring with Marriages, actually, I had just come off of a solo tour to be honest, and I wanted to do what would best suit those songs. There are some songs that are stripped down on that record, but there are some heavier songs that incorporate drums, and I feel like those songs…that’s what they needed. The next record is different.

AD: Yeah, we’ll get to that shortly. Religious language and imagery play a significant role on Marked For Death, but you’ve also noted that you’re not a particularly religious individual. So what is it about the iconography that makes it so compelling?

ERR: I’m just very drawn to it. It’s familiar in a lot of different ways, I mean… I get asked this question a lot. I grew up in and around a lot of spiritual ideas, my dad is a deeply philosophical person, and he’s not really religious, but…I don’t really know how to answer it. I feel something in and around certain kinds of spaces…but I’d rather not answer because it’s very personal to me and people like to run wild with it.

AD: You’d sort of leave it to the listener to make the determination for themselves?

ERR: Yeah, I mean, I think there is something about it, there’s an idea in this record about salvation, there’s an idea about loss, there’s an idea about transition…

(At this point, the door opens and Stephen Brodksy of the legendary Boston post-hardcore band Cave In walks into the Green Room to check to see if Emma still wants to attend the Sunn 0))) concert which starts in about 30 minutes at the Coolidge, a cinema where I have attended many horror movie marathons, but which also apparently now hosts epic drone concert events. The following exchange takes place:

ERR: I am so sick, man, I probably shouldn’t.

SB: I hear ya.

ERR: But I really want to. Like, who says no to Stephen Brodsky and Marissa Nadler saying “come to Sunn 0))) with us?” Only a fucking fool.

SB: Will you quote her on that?

Me: Well, it’s on there. Is that in Boston tonight?

SB: Yeah, at the Coolidge. It’s right around the corner.

Me: Yeah, I’ve actually been there a bunch of times. So, you’re going with the dude from Cave In?

ERR: Yeah, that’s him right there.

Me: Oh shit, is that you?

SB (laughs): Yeah, I was totally gonna play it off, like “yeah I know the dude from Cave In.”

Me: Oh, well, nice to meet you.

SB: Yeah, you too.

You read that correctly. I failed to recognize someone whose music I’ve been listening to for twenty years. This is my ditzy moment for the evening. Moving on…)

AD: So, “Real Big Sky.” It features a juxtaposition of gritty guitar production but also pleasing vocal melodies that feels like it has a sense of purpose, like reflecting themes of ugliness and beauty co-existing in the same space that sort of carries throughout the record. Was that a conscious decision on your behalf?

ERR: Most things are conscious decisions in the making of music. Definitely using that acoustic guitar through a bass amp with the distortion was a very conscious decision. We did record a few different versions of “Real Big Sky,” and we really struggled to land that song, but the demo of that song sounds almost exactly like what ended up on the record, and that was exactly that – an acoustic guitar through some distortion. To me, that’s my most important song – [in terms of] the themes, it was a very emotional song for me, very emotionally potent. It is dealing with the loss of a family member…I mean, I don’t wanna say…it’s really up for people to decide – it’s a song about transition and salvation, and whatever that means for you. For me personally, I have a lot of shame and I want forgiveness. That’s something I want in my life, and it has nothing to do with Jesus or God, I think that those are…not easy themes, but they’re just there.

Photo by Allan Wan

AD: Speaking of transition, you’ve talked about Marked For Death being the end of one chapter leading into the beginning of another, noting that you’re kind of tired of staring into the darkness when you write. Has this new approach begun to take shape yet, and do you plan on exploring it, at least texturally, on Electric Guitar Two, which is what you’re working on now, right?

ERR: I’ve been working on Electric Guitar Two for a while now, and it really comes down to I need to get into the right space to finish it. I’m writing another record that has singing. Electric Guitar Two I’m hoping to get done by the end of this year. The new record I’ve been working on…I’ve been playing a lot of classical guitar and a lot of acoustic guitar. Almost all my songs are written on that acoustic guitar that I played on “Reel Big Sky.” There are more hopeful themes musically. I feel like the technical aspect of the playing is more driven by finger style. I don’t know that there is room for drums, I think that it’s slightly more…it’s more of a Spring record, ya know? And less of a Fall [record].

AD: You’ve mentioned Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream as being one of your first favorite albums and Billy Corgan as a really influential guitarist. What is it about his work that has influenced your own material? For instance – especially hearing it live – the guitar solo on “Heaven” feels really Pumpkins-y.

ERR: Yeah, totally, there’s your answer. I mean, I learned to play guitar playing along to that record. Just sitting there listening to it, I mean, those solos, for me, that was… it was like Billy Corgan on Gish has super Hendrix-y influence, but then he kind of comes into his own a little more on Siamese Dream, and it just hit me when I was at that age, it was just in that sweet spot when shit really sticks in your brain. I had grown up really loving Jimi Hendrix and that kind of psychedelic ‘90s rock thing. I mean, you can’t argue with Billy Corgan. The guitar solos on that record are fucking awesome, and I will never be that good, but it certainly has influenced [me]. There’s a modal quality to the note choices he makes, and I think that’s what has really influenced my playing the most – not making those straight minor/major choices, there’s the in-between modal scale stuff.

Photo by Nick Sayers

AD: I’ve actually seen you mention Mizmor a couple of times…

(Rundle lifts up her Mizmor fanny pack, which has to rank as one of the least likely things I could imagine seeing.)

AD: …Nice. I actually reviewed “Yodh” last year for the magazine and likened it to what I imagine hell would sound like.

ERR: Which is funny because he plays in another band called Hell.

AD: What is it that most compels you about bands like that?

ERR: Aside from [the fact that] they’re my friends, I just feel at home in metal. I just do. There’s something so deeply moving and sad and, like…physically moving about that record to me. Urzeit is different, that’s not his project, Mizmor is his project, and there’s this struggle, sort of dealing with a lot of the same themes I’m dealing with. I don’t want to speak for Mizmor, but there’s a darkness and a beauty and a heaviness and a deeply soul-searching aspect to that music that just…it would shock me if anyone wasn’t moved by that record.

AD: Yeah, it’s pretty crushing…moving away from that darkness a bit, what would be an album that you love that might surprise people, like an out-of-left-field type of thing?

ERR: I listen to so much different kinds of music, I don’t know…I mean, outside of listening to metal…I do listen to metal, but not all metal, not all rock, but I listen to, like, Persian classical music, and… one of my favorites, and I’ve said this in other interviews, but one of my heroes is Chris Whitley. Do you know who that is?

AD: I don’t.

ERR: Chris Whitley had like a second of mainstream success in the ‘90s. He’s my hero. He’s a saint, he’s a fucking saint, I mean, that guy – what a unique soul. He was – rest his soul, man – a one-of-a-kind bright flame. The way he plays guitar – he has this combination of a slide and finger style that’s just fucking soulful and his voice is unreal. I would say…I like War Crime Blues, but Dirt Floor – that’s the record. It’s rootsy, it’s got an R&B vibe to it, but it really can’t be qualified. If you like very potent, moving music that’s coming from a very genuine place – that’s what I like about Mizmor, that’s what I like about Chris Whitley, and the music has nothing to do [with one another], and I think that’s kind of what Deafheaven is doing with this bill. I think they curated something that’s emotionally potent, but isn’t all the same.

AD: Considering our readership base, I guess I’d be remiss not to ask at least one post-rock-related question. So what’s your favorite record in that genre?

ERR: I don’t want to crush people, but I don’t listen to that much post-rock. I was in a post-rock band, but… [pauses for reflection]… my favorite post-rock band is This Will Destroy You, hands down, and Tunnel Blanket is my favorite [record]. I love Pelican also.

AD: So, you were recently announced as a performer at the upcoming Dunk! Festival in Belgium. So what are you most looking forward to about that experience?

ERR: I really have missed post-rock, my previous answer aside, I do love post-rock, [especially having been] listening to This Will Destroy You every night. I feel I’ll be a little bit of an odd man out, but as a listener and as a musician I’ll feel very happy, and I’ll also be excited to see everyone’s pedalboards [laughs]. That’s my answer – I’m most excited to see everyone else’s pedalboards.

AD: Completely changing the subject, I’ve seen you point out an affection for horror films in previous interviews, which is my other love in life besides music. Do you have a favorite horror film?

ERR: I’ve kind of chilled out on the horror, but my favorite, it’s kind of a comedy horror, but [Peter Jackson’s] Dead Alive. I love Suspiria, and I really love I Saw the Devil, that was a great Korean horror film. I love The Ring – that’s a classic horror film…the American one from the early 2000’s, I think that’s a perfect horror movie. Not as obscure as some people might want to hear my answer be.

AD: [barely-intelligible ramblings about the complexities and value of horror films that need not be re-printed here]…. So, if there’s one thing you’d like people to understand about you as an artist in this moment, what would it be?

ERR: That I’m always changing and have the freedom and will and support to continue to do that, and I never want to be stuck in one place or one genre or one time or be beholden to one sound or one album. Artists that I invest in are artists like Chris Whitley, who just remain true to what’s in their heart, and as long as that music is honest, that’s what matters.

Thanks to Emma Ruth Rundle for sitting down with me to have this conversation, to Stephanie Marlow for facilitating it, and to Stephen Brodsky for not making me feel like an idiot.

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