by Verena Spilker

I don’t remember when I first listened to The Blow‘s album Paper Television. What I do remember is playing one of its songs while DJing in Leipzig and seeing the girl I had a crush on singing along. Which meant we had something to talk about later on. We had both missed the show in Leipzig, but I did get to see Khaela Maricich perform in Berlin in 2007. It was quite amazing. On stage all by herself she seemed a little shy, but offstage she still had the courage to talk about some very personal stuff. Quite a contradiction. Seeing her up on stage without a band to back her up made her seem vulnerable but incredibly strong at the same time. It’s a show I’ll never forget.

Now, three years later Dana (who also kindly contributed the photos) and I got to meet Khaela before her show at Lido, Berlin during her European tour with Jens Lekman.

TQU: What did you do after your last tour of Europe in 2007?

KM: I did some more touring and then I went on hiatus for four months, because I was really tired and needed time to do some new things. During that hiatus my girlfriend Melissa and I moved to Brooklyn, New York. We spent about a year there acclimatizing to the place. We’ve been seeing a lot of art and concerts and performances. Slowly during that time I’ve been working on new material to perform. Melissa is now actually collaborating with me. She’s an installation artist and she’s helping me with the show every night, treating the venue like an installation, playing with the possibilities of the space with light and sound. We’ve been touring like that for the last half a year, slowly bringing it back out.

TQU: So you haven’t been working on a new album?

KM: I am working on a new album, but it hasn’t been recorded yet. There are live versions of some new songs for the performances, but they are not yet the versions that will go on the album.

TQU: Why did you decide to move to New York?

KM: Mostly out of boredom. It’s just an exciting place with so much to see. There are so many things that you can be exposed to there. Getting to see performances or just getting to see people that aren’t exactly like you, coming into contact with people who don’t think that what you think is good is good… They have totally different values and that’s a really great challenge to be up against.

TQU: Before that you had been living in Portland for quite a while, hadn’t you?

KM: I’d been living there for four years. So not for so long. But before that I lived in Olympia, Washington, which is really small, and it was a wonderful community that made me feel really safe and comfortable, which I needed at that point. But once you feel safe for a long time, then it’s time to challenge yourself again. There wasn’t a lot of diversity of people or ideas in Olympia. It’s an amazing place, but Portland was sort of a bigger version of Olympia and it was just good to shake it up a little bit.

TQU: I talked to Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu and he said, that the West Coast is kind of dead now, in terms of an indie music scene. Do you agree with him?

KM: I don’t know what it means for there to be a scene exactly. I mean, I do know what it means, sometimes I really felt it when I lived in Olympia. I felt like a part of a scene, especially because it was all there was. I didn’t read magazines or newspapers, books even. I just paid attention to what people were doing around me. And I really needed that. But after moving to Portland and to New York, I’m not paying too much attention to what people are doing. I guess I am paying attention in terms of other performances and stuff, but now it isn’t necessarily one scene that I’m looking at. I can go see an opera and I can go see Grace Jones perform. Those are all things that I’m drawing inspiration from. But I can’t really speak about one scene on the West Coast. I’m sure there are various things happening all the time. There’s probably something happening among 17-year-olds in some strange town in California that we don’t know about…

TQU: And what’s it like in New York now? Did you find friends easily? Do you have people to collaborate with?

KM: Yes. It’s exciting. It took a while for sure. For the first year we were both slowly making friends. Melissa went to school to study audio and acoustics, so I was really alone a lot. But it was also good to spend some time alone, because I had such great friends on the West Coast, in Portland and Olympia. And it’s good to get away from everybody you know and see what’s left of you after you’re not surrounded by people who like you and agree with you.

TQU: I was wondering about your influences, because when I was reading about you I couldn’t really find you saying much about your influences.

KM: My influences? Oh, I can say something about that for sure!

A really big influence is Grace Jones. I got to see her perform and realized that what she’s doing with music, stepping with one foot in music and one foot in art is totally what I’m interested in. Also Laurie Anderson. She’s a performance artist from the 80s and she’s great. She makes records and sometimes they have songs and sometimes they have her talking and telling a story. She had a really big hit in the 80s called “O Superman”. Maybe you would have heard that in Germany, I could imagine it getting played on the radio.

Björk is also a huge influence, probably to everybody in the 90s, because her song writing was so radical. In her music things didn’t have to rhyme and she didn’t talk about things that people usually talked about, but about really subtle psychological states, which was super thrilling to hear. Those are the really big ones. I mean there’s lots. Like the Talking Heads and David Byrne, working with music in a way that’s also treating it as a genre of art.

But then there are also bands like Mirah, The Microphones, Yacht and Calvin. They all lived in Olympia and like I said, for those ten years or so I didn’t pay much attention to anything but these people on the streets.

TQU: You played at the Yoyo A Go Go festival in 1997. Was that one of your first stage appearances?

KM: Yes, it was. It was in fact part of the first little tour I ever went on. It was something called the Cha Cha Cabaret and Jen Smith organized it; she was in a band later on called The Quails. She asked two of my friends who aren’t musicians to perform. They made a little variety show, where they pretended to sell snake oil. You know, people who are selling snake oil and are pretending that it is medicine, but it’s really not. And they played their snake oil show, and I got invited and I played my ukulele and played songs and we did a little tour through the North West. One of those songs was used on the Yo Yo A Go Go compilation.

TQU: So how did the tour with Jens Lekman come together?

KM: Well, it’s one of these things where he’s actually friends with all these other people I know and it’s strange that I didn’t know him before. Lots of my music friends knew him and then it hit me that we had to meet up together.

TQU: At first, when I found out that the two of you were touring together, I wondered what the connection was between you. But when I thought about the lyrics and how both of you approach relationships in a very sensitive way it made a lot of sense.

KM: Yeah, I think the same thing. We have really different styles, but I think lyrically we have similar ideas about writing songs.

TQU: And how was playing with him yesterday?

KM: Oh, actually this is our 8th show together. It’s great!

TQU: Will you do something together on stage?

KM: No, we just keep it separate; I think we both kind of like to have things just so.

TQU: You’re a visual artist as well- does that influence your musical work?

KM: I used to think of myself as a visual artist, but then I realized that people who actually are visual artists have an attention span for sitting down and making things visually. I can draw, but just because I can draw doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a visual artist. The people I know that really are visual artists use it as their main form of communication. They make something and then people look at that and say: “Oh, I see you’re referencing the history of this kind of visual art…” And everything is there in the picture. Whereas if I made a picture all I’d want to do is go up there and stand next to it and explain it, which means that I’m really a performance artist. I spend my time thinking about what I’m going to say on stage and what I’m going to sing and how to make a performance and what the story behind it is. But I definitely think of the performances visually. Also because I’m working with Melissa, who is an installation artist and actually out there in the sound booth every night watching what’s happening. She’s conducting the guy who does the lights and telling him “this part should be cool, this should be warm”. So it’s all really been translated into the performance.

TQU: When speaking to female bands I always hear stories about sexist experiences they’ve had, like not being treated seriously by sound engineers when they go to a venue and so on. I even heard a story about a drummer who was left-handed and put the drums her way and had someone move it back. Have you ever had an experience like that that made you feel disrespected?

KM: Yeah, last night for example… But people treat each other shitty all the time for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because you are a woman, sometimes it’s just because they are assholes. But, yeah, definitely.

TQU: But do you think men and women are treated equally as musicians or is there still a difference?

KM: You know, Melissa is really good at enforcing that people treat her equally and she’s a good role model to me, because she doesn’t let anybody treat her as if she were weak just because she’s a girl. And sometimes I’m sort of like: “Ok, I’m just a girl, I don’t know…” But she’s really direct and forces or requires people to treat her equally. Having her around just helps that happen. She’s just like: “You are going to respect me!”

TQU: >How important are queer issues for you, when you’re on stage?

KM: Well, you can come and watch the show tonight and see. It’s an issue of identity for me and it’s about feeling a sense of freedom and liberty to do what I want to do. I think a lot about what role models there are for being the kind of person that you want to be. That’s what I’ve been thinking about with the show. Most of the queer role models I’ve seen are people that I can’t really identify with. Ellen DeGeneres, for example. Do you know who she is? She’s an American comedian and she’s really famous in the US. She had a television show, where she played a character and had the character come out first. Then she also came out and her career just went to shit. Nobody would talk to her, she was not cool all of a sudden and then she came back slowly over three years and now she’s really big again in Hollywood. She really took a hit for coming out as gay, but made it back up. And she’s really funny and she’s a huge hero to me, but you know, she’s a little butch and that’s not my style and so I’m just thinking about who are the other role models that could exist.

Seeing Khaela on stage now didn’t leave me as impressed as the first time. And that is a good thing. When I saw her for the first time she was one of a few women I had seen on stage by themselves. Since then I have seen many more. Since the riot grrrl movement we know that being a woman on stage is a political act and gives us the chance of showing new ideas and becoming role models for others. Even if it might seem hard in the beginning, it’s a great act of empowerment. So let’s hope that Khaela, along with many others, will keep on stepping on stage and broadening our horizons.


Interview by Verena Spilker and Dana Krusche