Interview: Rebecca Basye of The Emerald Down
Conducted by Elizabeth Klisiewicz
I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the lovely Rebecca Basye over the past year after hearing her band’s song on a Saint Marie Records Static Waves compilation. Rebecca is guitarist/vocalist for The Emerald Down, a band that started out in the mid-90s and has only recently come back to us. Their classic album Scream the Sound has recently been reissued on Saint Marie and a new, supercharged version of the band is working on a new release in 2017 called Songs from Saturn, to be released by Wrong Way Records. For a deep dive into Rebecca’s musical history and for an accounting of her health woes, read on. Thanks so much to Rebecca for agreeing to this interview, and to When The Sun Hits for posting it.
EK: Going back to your early years, did you play any instruments as a young child? Were your parents supportive of your musical interests?
RB: My mother, who spent the better part of her life singing in musicals, was certainly an influence, and encouraged me to learn piano, violin and vocals when I was younger. I carried those experiences with me into my guitar sound, which incorporates some of those elements. We sang harmonies and songs together as far back as I can remember. I loved harmonizing when I was young and did that along with almost everything I heard. We were often around or playing music, and some close family friends worked in the music industry and taught music: rock and roll and classical. I remember going into a recording studio for the first time at the age of five to watch a band record in the Bay Area where I spent the first part of my life. The session was run by one of Neil Young’s engineers, another family friend. That was the 1970s such as they were, and there was much going on in San Francisco and surrounds as most know. I got to sit on adult shoulders at concerts in Golden Gate Park and the like. Growing up in such an environment definitely played a role in my becoming a musician.
EK: What were and continue to be the biggest influences on your music?
RB: From a song writing standpoint, I will always—albeit subconsciously—reference the music of my childhood as a measuring stick. Songwriters like Carol King, Jim Croce, David Gates/Bread, John Denver (don’t laugh) and rock and roll like Led Zeppelin, ELO and Fleetwood Mac. Later, as we turned to the next decade, I found myself digging the sounds of New Order, Split Enz, etc. Admittedly, however, I had to ‘discover’ punk and some of the more then-obscure 60/70s music (e.g. Nick Drake, Velvet Underground, etc.) much later, as I was too young in the 70s to get beyond mainstream radio, but by 1985 I had developed much of the musical background that made me who I was going into the emergence period of our dreamy, effects-driven genre. Thus, as far as music in the genre of The Emerald Down, I would say that the Cocteau Twins album Treasure kick-started things for me in 1985 and will always be the thing that made me a ‘shoegazer’ (for lack of a better term), and later Heaven or Las Vegas.
Other ‘classic’ bigger influences over time are Ride, Telescopes (honoured and thrilled to be working with legend David Fitzgerald in the new TED), Boo Radleys, Bowery Electric, Lush and, of course, Slowdive to name a few. There is certainly a little bit of each of those bands, plus my childhood influences and punk and post-rock roots from playing with Washington State friends like Unwound. Often many of these come together in the same song! What I noticed in my early days as a ‘shoegazer’ was that what many were really doing is electrifying, building upon, and deconstructing much of what I adored in 1970s ballads and rock with effects. So, in 1991, I thought, “Hey, if they can do that, I can too. I want to do that!” Never mind (pun intended) that I was in the wrong place for shoegaze.
I also have a tremendous crush on Baroque (what I know of it, I’m no expert), and have tried to emulate its patterns in my chord progressions and vocal harmonies. Our tracks “Recondite Astral traveller” (Scream the Sound) and “Acid” (Aquarium) have such a feel, and our upcoming single on Wrong Way Records called “Lucas” was directly inspired by a pretty famous Baroque piece. But I must underscore the influence of feminism, my participation in a pioneering queercore band the Mukilteo Fairies as well as the Riot Grrl movement at the time of its birth in early 90s Olympia, and the DIY environment in which I evolved into being a ‘proper’ musician on both my music and my outlook. It is the fairy dust that keeps me going. On our side of the ocean, this was the period of the International Pop Underground Convention, Girl’s Night, etc. in Olympia. It was an amazing environment in which to be a female musician. It fomented a belief in myself that cannot be extinguished no matter how many barriers I encounter. And now, after holding back the tide of what was supposed to be a terminal diagnosis (I was given a 22% chance of survival 2 years ago), that too propels me forward. I am on a mission to make an album and move on. You might say I’m a shoegazer that applies a Punk / DIY ethos.
EK: When did you first conceive of being in a band? Was this a teenage dream or did it happen later?
I knew that I would play music in the 1970s, and that it was just a matter of time before I found my niche and instrument. Delayed by some childhood tragedy, the actual moment of band conceptualization came in 1991, when I marched down to Music 6000 in Olympia and purchased a 91 Orange Charvel Surfcaster. My friend with me said, Kevin Shields used one of those too. Sold! Did he really own one? I don’t know. Within three months I had mastered the fret board well enough to be dangerous and by the next year (1992) I was in my first band. It was actually along the lines of what you might call a ‘grungegaze’ band today, but in the actual land of ‘grunge’ (whatever that is).
EK: Before The Emerald Down formed in 1995, what other bands were you in? Can you describe those experiences and how they shaped the direction The Emerald Down went in musically?
I must preface this by saying my brain is mush, and after 25 years of playing music in so many bands and chemo, things are bit jumbled and I was often in a couple of things at once. That ‘grungegaze’ band I spoke of from 1992-93 was four piece band called Horehound with Jason Reece (Trail of Dead), Cheryl Hooper (Polecat, Leuko, Black Betty, Doris) and Erik Wolford. In that band I mostly honed my guitar skills and loved playing alongside and learning from Cheryl, guitar goddess that she is. Next up in 93-94 came the semi-shoegazey, twee-inspired Sleepwell with Paul Schuster (PEZ and Internal/External) and Reece again, where I began to explore finding my own musical voice a bit more. Sleepwell also recorded with Steve Wold at Moon Studios in Olympia, but sadly never released said recording.
Next up was Cherry 2000 in 1994, a very brief shoegaze band that was very much like The Emerald Down with Deanne Rowley McAdams (Leopards, Plain Jane, Trail of Dead, Dead Air Fresheners) and Lucas Porcell (Raisler), both of whom the world lost when they passed away, Kento Oiwa (IQU) and Jason Reece again. By the time of Cherry 2000 I had a much clearer sense of what I was doing on guitar and a somewhat clearer sense of where I wanted to go soundwise, and this assisted me in the next brief shoegazey Tacoma-based band in 1995 called Celeste with Joel Schumacher, Dan Lucy and Darren Renggli who played a few gigs including one with Goodness, directly followed by The Emerald Down. Even early TED was a bit unlike Scream-era TED, in that it had more post-rock, edgy elements that I attribute to the Pacific Northwest.
During all this I was also the guitar player for the Mukilteo Fairies (Kill Rock Stars/Outpunk) from 1993-1994 with Joshua Ploeg (Behead the Prophet, Lords of Lightspeed and the touring vegan chef), Jon “Quitty” Quittner (Tight Bros From Way Back When / Behead the Prophet) and Reece again, as well as Pat Maley’s (Yo yo A Go Go/Courtney Love) twee band called Skylab in 1995 with Jessica Marshall (The Emerald Down) and Jeff Fell (Tullycraft). I lead a double life, where some know me as the feminist, grindcore guitar player for Mukilteo Fairies more so than The Emerald Down despite the fact that they are so close together and from the same town in WA. There are some people with diverse taste who like both Rebeccas and that’s always cool. What I like though is that this desire to play punk and write feminist, politically charged lyrics sometimes invades my shoegaze song writing, so underneath all the tra la las there’s sometimes a heated political statement about society (e.g. our track “Henry Miller” which highlights my irritation with pseudo intellectuals) or some rather Mukilteo Fairies inspired riffs and the feminist messages in “Perilized” and “7am”. Ha! But one thing is clear from all that—it’s official—I think I have played in more bands with Jason Reece than any other person. One of the best bands mates ever, so nothing wrong with that. Truth be told, I am who I am musically and otherwise thanks to all these band mates and friends who contributed to my musical learning. Each and every one of them encouraged and influenced me in positive ways and I carry them with me. I am a very sappy person.
EK: How did The Emerald Down coalesce and become a group?
Hahahaha…which incarnation? Well, this is where I get to announce the final new line-up for the next album and single! Yay! The first TED that recorded the 96 ep was a three-piece composed of myself, Jessica Marshall and Joel Schumacher which quickly became a four piece right after recording that finalized with Jason Markin by 1997. In Columbus we added Jim Rock and Chad Williamson for Scream and Erik Kang and Bryan Ford for Aquarium. The new and current TED’s coalescence, after some last minute shuffling, I contribute to the mighty hand of Al Boyd at Wrong Way, who has devised the ultimate TED incarnation by hooking us up with stellar new label mates David Fitzgerald (The Junkyard Liberty / The Telescopes) and Nick Noble (93MillionMilesFromTheSun). We are honoured and excited to have them on board. Jason also wrangled in Tyler Royster (Branco Blanco) who is an excellent bass player. I feel so very thankful to be alive to work with all of these guys and never dreamed it this would be the new TED!!! Too cool!
EK: TED first emerged at the tail end of the first shoegaze movement, and now you are re-emerging like a butterfly from a cocoon and seeing much renewed interest in 2016 with the reissue of your beautiful record Scream the Sound on Saint Marie and a brand new album in the works for next year on Wrong Way Records. Can you discuss the differences in the scene between now and then? Do you think it’s easier to make a dent in this completely different music industry, both in the way music is marketed and the way it is deployed to fans?
Thank you so much Elizabeth for the compliment and the clarification. Oh gosh, yeah. TED formed in an odd time (and not really the best place) for ‘shoegaze’ at the end of the first wave in 1995 Olympia, WA. This is something I think some don’t realize as we are new to them, and others only know of the 2000s TED so they lump us in with that only. We are not really a ‘nugaze’ band (I really hate that term because I see it as derogatory), but rather we were already around and still active when the second wave came after forming at the end of the first wave. To me, the scene is now in a third wave. To be fair to Olympia however, from my experience, there were very few US shoegazers in the early to mid-1990s in general. One might have a few like-minded folks in their local city if they were really lucky, but many of us met each other through vehicles like the tragically, and tellingly named Britpop room on AOL, or else were insulated within our respective regional scenes with very little contact with each other. It was through that AOL chatroom in the mid-1990s that I first learned of other US bands like Bowery Electric.
We now know that there were a decent enough number of US bands to be able to say yes, there were shoegazey/dreampop/swirlie bands in the 1990s, but our mainstream press never let the world know. A good example is the wonderful High Violets or Clint’s other band The Bella Low, with whom we were PNW contemporaries, but had zero contact back then and they were only two hours away in Portland. Ditto for the activity to the south of us in SF, Santa Cruz or LA. And of course then there were other contemporaries who started at the same time as TED like Mahogany and others we should have hooked up with but did not. It’s a tragedy really that many were unable to connect in a more concrete way. We were fighting against a tide, and so somewhat blocked from each other. It’s a big country too, and back then it was still an offline media dominating who strongly favoured other genres or bands on known labels (what’s new really?). I’m still re-learning about hidden gems.
The other problem is that in the US, they had a tendency to confuse and mingle more slowcore and goth with shoegaze, so some bands that they use (and may still use) as examples of yet undiscovered ‘shoegaze’ bands were not, in fact, shoegaze at all in my opinion. The trouble with ‘shoegaze’ if we describe it as a genre, is that we have an easier time describing what it is not, than what it is. In my opinion, it’s as controversial as the term ‘indie’ in the US (most still battle over whether it’s a mode of music production vs. an ethos vs. a style). Maybe someday when shoegaze at least becomes a ‘genre’ not tied to single region or single era more of the actual shoegazey bands from the US and all over the world past and present will emerge in our consciousness. Someone recently mentioned how Euro- and Anglo-centric we are and I agree. There are things going on in Asia, South America and elsewhere that get completely ignored.
Because our first EP in 1996 gained no traction (I couldn’t get the local labels to release it) and was released on such a limited scale on cassette no less, it just kind of fell over despite the fact that we had some fans in the form of people like Calvin Johnson (who hooked us up with a great gig in the beginning) and other WA locals who appreciated such genres, or were so proactive about DIY music making they gave us at least local support at gigs anyway which was great. It was not until 1999 when we moved to Columbus just prior to the start of the often forgotten, neglected ‘second wave’ that we began to break the shackles of insular localism to join and tour with a growing set of some already formed and some new like-minded bands emerging on MP3.com like Skywave, Highspire, Stellarscope and Alcian Blue. This, and these fellow bands, are a large reason anyone knows about us today. We owe much to their support via word of mouth, CD burners, and the dawn of social networking. So yes, I do think it’s different and much easier in 2016 to release, deploy and promote music due to increased internet speeds, ample file sharing sites, and improved, affordable novice-friendly recording DAWs (it’s been easier since Myspace and beyond really).
Back then, until about the time Myspace emerged and the US scene began to take a greater notice of shoegaze around 2005-2006, the hurdles were much higher in my experience (granted, this is my band’s experience). With the exception of a few places, the largest, indie US press outlets were brutal toward shoegaze bands and just a couple of years before a sudden revisionist lauding of bands like Pains of Being Pure at Heart (I like Pains don’t get me wrong)! People often say that we took a beating from the press because we gave our music to the wrong places. To that I say they were some of the only bigger places at that time if you wanted to sell and promote your music, some just didn’t even have shoegaze on their radar until some PR person pushed it hard enough on them or they heard someone they respect tell them it was ok to like it like sheeple, and still don’t really like it!
From 2001 to it seems about 2007 (give or take a year) until blogging began to get extremely popular as an alternative media source, and the mainstreaming of Myspace (a once great thing for indie music until the mass spoiled it), and the rise of the still questionable Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, bands had few alternative choices for promotion. If you wanted to be seen then one of the big places you had to get reviewed in the US was in Pitchfork (who trashed the first release of Scream). Someone recently comforted me about this very topic by saying you don’t need validation to make music. That’s very kind and I so much appreciate the support, but my delayed answer is, no you don’t, but you sure need it to sell it and promote it and that’s sometimes (not always) the difference in the end between those you know today and those who were forgotten. If you think all good music gets noticed and all bad music gets panned you are kidding yourself. In statistics, one might say that our music taste suffers from sampling bias, where certain bands are overrepresented and thus skews the results. None of us assess things fairly; it is evolutionarily advantageous to bias because it maximizes energetic efficiency. While I was away from music I completed my degree in anthropology and spent some time doing research on this and other topics related to music, subcultures and status and completed an ethnography called “I am Indie bandwidth: is it rite or is it Memorex”. This topic fascinates me.
Anyway, suffice it to say that in the early aughts unless you were one of the few stateside shoegaze bands lucky enough to be on a rare label friendly to shoegaze like Clairecords you had to self-release as usual and nobody wanted Scream so we did self-release. Tonevendor did carry our CD as a mail order item. It was still, however, largely me promoting, and the constant rejection proved too much in a time when social networking was not yet popular enough for me to reach more listeners or get positive feedback to tell me I was on the right track. I created Popsound Records just for Scream the Sound, its first and last release. I did the best I could and reached as high as I could. I sent it to radio stations etc. using distributors who did mass mailings to all pertinent 200+ US stations.
Many would not play us, and instead used Scream the Sound as a beer coaster. A good example is a known and celebrated Seattle radio station, who in 2001 told me via email that “we don’t play this kind of stuff” after I sent them Scream and followed up on it (even though this particular DJ, who shall remain nameless, had a shoegaze label at that exact time and now plays contemporary shoegaze bands). Thus, in 2001 that station threw Scream the Sound in the waste bin. However, a couple of stations in Atlanta, New York and Maryland did play us, and we managed to see ourselves listed in CMJ. A good number of Scream CDs were sent out/given away as promos, or to friends. Later, Scream was uploaded and shared quite a bit in the mid to late 2000s (perhaps from one of the many promo coasters) while I sat with the last box of the remaining unsold Screams for many years. I am happy that more learned of us this way, but sad that so few actually purchased one through Tonevendor or at gigs considering the cost of production and recording back then, never mind the work that went into writing the songs. As you can imagine we made nearly nothing, and did not even recoup the costs of recording or pressing. This was the impetus for me completely redoing the full expanded artwork, new versions for tracks and bonuses for Saint Marie, to give people a new reason to buy it. I wanted to add value after it had been ravaged so.
Today the cost of home recording (assuming you find the digital workspace of acceptable quality) and the ability to sell your music online to those worldwide for very little overhead cost means it is easier and your out of pocket costs are way down. Not that they are not pouring their hearts into writing or working their ass off, but the financial loss can be far less (though still not at all cool) should it be illegally shared if they managed to keep it cheap. In that sense I am also really pleased about this vinyl resurgence and a renewed respect for the same.
We got lucky for Aquarium that a non-shoegaze indie label who was friendly to our sound took a shine to us after watching us perform at More Than Music Festival in 2002, the wonderful Brooksie at Honest in Secret. This is the release that more people know of partially for this reason I think. And now, in comes Saint Marie Records and Wrong Way Records like a miracle, finally easing some of the sting and releasing brand new material. For that we are truly thankful and the supportive, social media-driven environment of 2016 has given us wings. I am also getting to meet people I should have met long ago had the environment been more receptive. This whole thing is amazing considering I was not supposed to be here anymore!
EK: How did you connect with Wyatt from Saint Marie and Al from Wrong Way?
Wyatt Parkins approached us about reissuing Scream at the end of 2014 when I had just been diagnosed with cancer. Then we had to wait while I trudged through cancer treatment and simultaneously worked on new versions for Scream and “Turn Away” for Static Waves 4 with the help of J*A*L*A*L in Germany, as well as created all new artwork for the 2016 Scream during 2015. It was in late 2015 that I met Al Boyd through a friend after helping with some artwork for Wrong Way’s first release. Al has since become one of TED’s (and my) biggest supporters and friends and will be releasing our new single “Lucas” and new album Songs From Saturn.
EK: You are now based in Europe. What about the rest of the band? Do you create your music individually and then mix it together, or do you arrange to get together for studio time?
David is in Normandy, Nick in the UK, Jason and Tyler in Tacoma, and I’m in Germany. What a modern world we live in! We have methods devised right now to collaborate remotely. This method of production may evolve as we go along, and there is talk of going into David’s studio as an end measure. Which would be great! Still working out the kinks.
EK: From a composition standpoint, who does most of the songwriting? How does it all come together?
In the past, we have always been a democratic band and one where anyone can bring contributions to song writing in the way of parts or whole compositions if they choose. That being said, the lyrics and melodies have usually written by myself and one or two other bass and/or guitar players together for each release (e.g. Jim Rock and I on Scream and Erik Kang and I on Aquarium) given that this tends to be the lot of stringed instrument players in this type of band. But our writing style has been very open. Many songs started from one maximum two measures worked out together and built upon as a live band. Nobody in TED has ever been “just a drummer or bass player”. Sometimes a change will happen purely because the drums or a bass hook took us there. I consider that song writing too. So I really always like to say the songs were written by ‘the emerald down’ (meaning all those who took part in writing the songs for that particular recording). I hate the cheesy idea of a ‘front person’. Save that for Whitesnake. The only reason you mostly hear from me now is because I am TED’s founder, there have been line-up changes, and some of these other members have followed another path in life than music. I hope you will start hearing more from our new line-up which I am really excited about because frankly I don’t want to be the only one talking! They have some exciting things to say and contribute.
EK: I understand that you have suffered healthwise from advanced stage cancer. How has this impacted you emotionally and physically and has it changed your life outlook at all? You seem like a grateful and joyous person, and I wonder how hard it is to achieve this in the face of adversity like what you have experienced?
My early childhood was fairly bad in spots. I learned quickly that nothing was going to get me down. I fight tooth and nail against every barrier with a belief that I can change things. So when the cancer came it was just one more thing to beat. I have almost come to expect such challenges. My doctors were even surprised and said they had never seen someone so positive and active in chemo. Not that it is has not been scary. It has, and I still have moments of self-doubt and fatigue that I have to overcome.
Here’s the thing. I was diagnosed at Stage IV and given a small chance at living in November 2014. Working on our music and the hope of making new music definitely played a role in keeping me going through six months of the strongest chemotherapy one can have (it was awful), surgery, followed by maxim radiation in three locations of my body. There was a concern this would impact my lungs and throat so we were worried for a bit but all is well in that department. They believe my chances are now only 10% that the cancer will return. So I’m treating that like 0%. The funny thing is the worst part of it for me was the hair loss! I know that sounds so silly, but I love my hair. For me, it was a total loss of identity and confidence with no hair. The musical activity over the last two years kept that identity alive and intact. I had the memory of the strong me to hold on to, the non-cancer me.
Now those two Rebeccas have merged, and I have a reached a kind of peace, though I do have permanent cognitive damage (memory loss and moments of foggy thinking), chronic pain and nerve damage in my hands, arm and feet that make walking and using my left arm a bit strange (probably why I just took an easy spill down the stairs recently…ha!) but I am adapting. Onwards and upwards! Let’s make an album!
EK: What music is the band currently keen on?
Oh god, the loaded question. I can only answer for me personally of course. It’s like making a list, and lists are so truly awful because someone always feels excluded when we don’t intend to. Plus, my new forgetful chemo-injured mind sometimes dumps names but not melodies, so recalling is hard on the fly. To be honest I have been listening to classical and 70s ballads most of the last year and Rollerskate Skinny (who’s classic album Horsedrawn Wishes deserves way more respect and attention than it’s getting). Of course I like most of the catalogue of my two labels Wrong Way and Saint Marie.
Of some newer things that really stood out and caught me recently that are not on one of my labels are My Invisible Friend, Flyying Colours, Pinkshinyultrablast, Churchill Garden, Champanes and Jett Brando. And of course I dig Junkyard Liberty and 93millionmilesfromthesun, whose new album I look forward too! I am also trying to get an education in Psych right now as I did not know much beyond BJM, and some of what is labeled ‘psych’ I loved but didn’t know was called ‘psych’. Many of my longest buds are also putting out great new music like Tom Lugo (Panophonic) who’s recent track “I Can’t Come Home” I really like, and Conrad Keely with his latest album Original Machines, and I have been enjoying and looking forward to the current and next releases from Whimsical and Static Daydream.
I try to listen to as much new music as I can, but I’ve been swamped with so much activity offline and away from the scene these past months that this has been hard until now. I have a stack of files people have sent me that I am determined to listen to. If you ask me this question next year, I’d bet I can answer it much better.
EK: How do you achieve the band’s sound? Any favorite instruments or effects pedals you like to employ?
As for guitar, in the past we have had two guitars running in stereo. My amps were always a combination of various Fenders plus a Roland. I ran my effects out stereo to these two and through two different rack mount effects processors. All loops were created live on the fly using my Boomerang (still one of my favourites). Of course, my favourite guitar will always be my Charvel surfcaster for its butter-like action, semi-hollow body goodness, and liquid tremolo, but I am getting to like my Jazzmaster nowadays. My favourite distortion will always be the Turbo Rat.
Now with three guitars, bass, drums, and five minds contributing to The Emerald Down’s next releases I imagine the sonics will get even more interesting and likely evolve. Plus, music technology has improved tremendously since our last release and I am bringing some all new effects for myself, so I’m sure this will play a part.
EK: Looking forward to the upcoming record, how is it different from your past work and what songs are you most proud of? When is the release date?
Well, we are still in the very early stages of writing the new album and it is not set for release until Autumn 2017. “Lucas”, however, which will be our next single on Wrong Way prior to the label’s release of Songs From Saturn is first out of the gate, and it will surprise you I think, it is an evolution for us of an earlier concept. So far it is a much more rock-oriented sound and we may incorporate cello, various other strings, but still maintain a TED flavour. However, that really tells you nothing I know, as I know there will be multiple styles expressed on this single and album and perhaps even some psych creeping in, which really follows in the eclectic spirit of TED (but, bet on nothing).
Ask me again in a few months. Ha! It’s an open field, though I do imagine even less of a ‘dreampop’ focus, as I really want to trip and rock out after holding song writing in for so long. And given the current political climate, it’s very likely some political statements may enter my lyrics. On that note, I will say I think this new album is bound to evolve into something pretty cool considering its new contributors. We are thrilled to have David, Nick and Tyler on board. I am super excited and honoured to work with them and know this is going to be our best release yet. Hands down.
EK: Will the band tour in support of the album, or is that too logistically difficult?
Right now it is a goal to play some gigs. I love playing live, and it is my hope that we will find a way to do so after we release Songs from Saturn. Where there’s a will there’s a way! Our US-based members have expressed interest in coming over here to Europe/UK, so things look promising. And that’s my approach to everything as you know. It usually works.