- Kris Force interviewed by George Parsons
Over the course of four distinctively crafted and executed albums Kris Force and her musical vehicle Amber Asylum have produced a mesmerizingly beautiful melancholic body of work. They have been compared to Mazzy Star, This Mortal Coil, Siddal, Rasputina, Matmos, Rachelís, Area, Rimsky Korsakov, and Coil. Theyíve appeared at venues that range from Terrastock 4 to Metalfest 2000. Krisís lyrics have been compared to the work of poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. With a lot of different admirers, and fans that range from goths, to headbangers, and shoegazers. Happily blurring artifical boundaries between "high" and "low" art, and giving the family tree of womenís music some wild new branches.
Kris began solo home-recording on 4-track as Frozen In Amber in the late Ď80s, playing piano, keyboards, guitar and violin on a series of pieces employing a standard sonata form and trading cassettes of her work with other kindred spirits. The only constant of the first Amber Asylum recordings besides Kris herself was Martha Burns on cello. They were augmented by a shifting cast of folks including Steve Von Till (of Neurosis), John Benson, Annabel Lee, Timothy North, Camille Norment and John Benson among others, providing violins, percussion, guitar, clarinet and keyboards for a very organic musicality.
Kris Force has done studio and live work with Michael Gira as Swans and The Body Lovers, sheís also played with Neurosis on their last 4 albums.
The first album "Frozen In Amber" (1996 Elfenblut) occupies a twilight zone between the dark ambience of Coil, the orchestral soundtrack work of Bernard Herrmann, and the classical iconoclasm of Carl Orff and Maurice Ravel. Thereís even a brief nod to Mozart with "Ave Maria" (replete with scratched surface noise because vinyl from the 1700s tends to be scuffed up a bit). Only one song with words, and a couple with wordless vocals, this is primarily an instrumental excursion and a wonderful exercise in moody noir atmospherics.
The second full length release was 1997ís "Natural Philosophy of Love" (Relapse). Out of the gate a more "rock" release, heavier percussion and Krisís operatically trained soprano vocals are much more prominently employed (only one instrumental this time). The pieces have more song-structure, and employ a greater dramatic intensity, while remaining as spectrally ethereal as ever. Ghostly beauties like the instrumental "Looking Glass" (and itís vocal Reprise) hover moonlit like silver words traced against a black background. Sinister and lovely with the precise finesse of a spider weaving itís web in sacred cellular symmetry. "Natural Philosophy of Love" is where Amber Asylumís incisors glint while simultaneously revealing a greater range and folkish delicacy. "Jordina and Jorginal" rivals anyone for pure true sorrow; mourning out itís slow descent into memory and mortality.
By the time "Songs Of Sex And Death" (Relapse) came out in 1998, Kris had met cellist Jackie Gratz (another classically trained musician who had previously played exclusively with orchestras and chamber groups).Together theyíve since become the core of Amber Asylum. "Songs..." is an unusually quiet album, yet no less ominous or alluring than itís older siblings. More ambient drone elements are present, with passages nearing Terry Rileyís eternal continuum of cosmic trance and transport or Coilís dark inner world of night, and shadow. Elsewhere some of the free floating sound-bed and collaboration John Cale afforded Nico on her masterfully bleak, yet beautiful "Marble Index" is recalled. The cover of Buffy Sainte Marieís "Vampire" is even more chilling than the original. Madrigal folk, with the soul of a sincere seer, bridging worlds and sensibilities while translating the results into something immediately tangible and emotionally accessible. The closing several minutes of "Devotion Reprise" make the sound that starlight would, if it had a sound.
"The Supernatural Parlour Collection" (2000 Release) is the first recorded release of the line-up of the band thatís been relatively stable for a while now.
PT: Besides yourself who are the core members of Amber Asylum?
KF: Jackie Perez Gratz on Cello, Erica Stoltz on Bass, who is also the lead singer of stoner rock band Lost Goat, and Wendy Farina on drums. The line up has changed over the years, but this one has been going strong since 1998.
(Wendy is the ex-drummer of Towel and currently plays with Red Shark and Condor besides attending to her Amber Asylum duties.)
Besides being bassist Erica Stolz also provides beautiful vocal contrasts and harmonies with Kris, which adds another dimension to their already rich sound. The album kicks off with the slowly building 8 and half minute instrumental "Black Lodge" thatís midway between "Bolero" and space rock in its trajectory. The "Black Lodge Reprise" is their most spacious headphone adventure yet, with acres of vast yawning extraterrestrial echo, moody distance and a mournfully somnolent, nearly minimalist construction. The track thatís bound to attract the most attention by many is their stark reconsideration of Ozzy and the crewís titular "Black Sabbath", which is done without a smirk, and might be a bit more scary than the original confrontation Oz had with The Devil the first time around. Elsewhere Kris, Jackie and company continue to refine their medieval chamber music rock sound, making "Supernatural Parlour" their most varied, psychoactively rich and fully realised work so far. A few more electronics, and a more (ahem) forceful sound, while fully sounding inextricably woven from the same cloth as their previous recordings. Spellbinding music from some time of their own making.
PT: Was your first recording as Amber Asylum "Frozen in Amber"? Can you tell me something about this incarnation of the band, and how you feel about this work now?
KF: I wasn't consciously moulding an identity with Amber Asylum at this time. I was naive but I still like this record today. It was the first Amber Asylum record so I had my whole life up to that point in time to make it. That's what it feels like to me. The work on "Frozen in Amber" spans 6 years. AmberAsylum was not really a band when this CD was made. 6 out of the 9 tracks were recordings that I made solo in the studio where I am playing multiple parts. There are 3 chamber pieces that are performed with John Oberon on piano and Martha Burns, the original Amber Asylum cellist.
PT: You mention tape trading in the late 80s. Is that how you met Martha?
KF: No, I didn't meet her through tape trading, that scene was foreign to Martha. Martha played in a group called Shiva Dancing, a pop goth band in the late 80's. I asked her to collaborate with me, but she really didn't have time. Later her band dissolved, I think up somebodyís nose, and she stumbled upon an in-store we were playing. She was sucked
in and offered her talents to the ensemble. And she was indeed talented, but the sad fact was that our relationship was always difficult and I stopped working with her in 1997 just before "The Natural Philosophy of Love" came out. Jackie approached me in the late spring if 1997 right after "Natural" came out. She says; "Hi I'm Jackie, I hear your looking for a cello player". Wow, I thought. She was finishing art school and looking for a music project. It's been a wonderful collaboration ever since. Jackie and I wrote and produced "Songs of Sex and Death" in it's entirety together. We invited guests to perform, but it was she and I doing the work and the long studio hours. Now she's learning engineering too.
PT: You started your recording career as Frozen in Amber, putting your stuff out on cassettes, has any of this material been reissued on CD?
KF: There are several tracks on "Frozen in Amber" that were originally traded on cassette - "Je suis Le Chat La lune", "Aurora", "Ave Maria" and a different mix of the "Romantic Theme". That would be more than half the album. There are many more tracks that I haven't reissued. I'm thinking of maybe doing it; some of them are pretty interesting. But they are originally recorded on cassette 4 track, so the fidelity is sub standard. That can be interesting too. We are thinking of doing a limited edition vinyl series, "Songs from the Supernatural Parlour". Some of these old tracks, bad fidelity included, may lend themselves nicely to this project, although there are plenty more from where they came from. There was also cassette demo with tracks from "The Natural Philosophy of Love". Different versions, but some of the same songs; "Jorinda and Joringel" with piano instead of guitar. I can't remember what else. I see it traded still on the web.. gee, wish I still had one.
PT: How is "Natural Philosophy of Love" an evolution from "Frozen in Amber"?
KF: It's a departure... I wanted to sing and I was writing all of the music. It seemed the logical alternative to change instrumentation from violin to guitar and carry the rhythm and chord progression of the song, making it possible to sing. It's sort of difficult to sing and play violin at the same time. With "The Natural Philosophy of Love" I investigated the pop form. The songs are a congruent instrumentation throughout the CD, like a "band", and the forms are simplistic and repetitive. I thought I might try to play pop music, haa! It wasn't really pop. I couldn't bring up the tempo, write in a major key or let go of the ambient sensibility. I may have been deluded as to what pop really is. In retrospect, "The Natural Philosophy of Love" was not entirely satisfying. It's more a pit stop on a long journey. I do like many parts of the CD and learned a great deal from it, don't get me wrong... but now I've come full circle and am revisiting some of the feeling of "Frozen in Amber" along with new sensations.
PT: You were classically trained, were your parents involved in classical music themselves?
KF: No, they were not. My mother enjoyed popular music on the radio and bought me singles from as early as I can remember and my father was an audiofile with a large record collection; mostly jazz ballads by the great vocalist and big band stuff. I grew up singing along to Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitgerald and Julie London. Although I am a classically trained vocalist as well as a violinist, these jazzy, tongue in ear, vocal tunes are very influential to my style. There is no connection to my family with the violin. I traded a pair of shoes with a neighbour girl for her Spiegal catalogue violin when I was eight and enrolled myself in lessons at public school. I was a precocious young girl. I have always approached the instrument with a sense of freedom. My father, being an audiofile, did introduce me to multi-track recording at a very early age and today I am a professional audio producer for MTV. Jackie, my collaborator on cello, has musically inclined parents. Her father is a conductor and her mother a professional violist. Her sister plays the oboe and appears on our recording of The Black Swan aria.
PT: Did you always want to be a musician? (Or were you always a musician?)
KF: No, I always wanted to be an artist, but in post rationalisation I was always a musician. Funny, how that works out.
PT: Do any of your "classical friends" look down upon your use of your training?
KF: No, not really. I used to kind of hide what I was doing. Then I played a recording for my violin coach and she was very impressed, instantly catagorized the style as modern minimalist and immediately shifted the focus of my study to include much more theory. There is a real division in classical music. One would rarely play and write; you are a performer or a composer, not both. If you did do both your performance instrument would typically be the piano. When a classically trained musician hears what I'm composing they generally have a positive and supportive response. In life most people are cool and recognize what it takes to get out there and perform well, let alone write the song. I let my vocal coach know what I was doing with her knowledge right away. She thought it was cool and was very supportive and helped me performing the songs I wrote.
PT: Youíve worked with Neurosis and Swans, among others, how do you feel about doing session work?
KF: Depends really. I am typically bored playing acoustic violin parts. It's not really what I'm very good at and it's hard work to get it perfect, especially as a soloist; it's much easier to play ensemble with acoustic strings. When I get to adventure more electronically then I am happy and satisfied. This assumes a level of trust from the group that I'm working with which I sometimes get, but not always.
PT: What was the Swans experience like?
KF: It was great. I was especially honored to sit in on their last San Francisco performance for a couple of songs. Michael Gira can be really particular and demanding, but I respect a person with a vision and who can ask for what they want. I also worked on a distance project with Gira, The Body Lovers. I was given key signatures and durations and he compiled the results, which sound amazingly performed and congruent yet none of the players worked in unison. More recently I worked with studio track of Jarboe's vocal on an as yet-unreleased project called Meridiem by Percy Howard, with Bill Laswell and Fred Frith. I sing a duet or rather a response to her vocal track. I also added some textural violin to this track.
PT: Do you have a ghost story?
KF: I don't know if it was a ghost, I think it might have been an angel or a voice from the future. I was really destitute, just having a terrible time of it, really just unbelievable. I was a new single mom with a screaming infant and he had just been crying for days and nights with colic. I hadn't eaten all day and I made some food dropped it on the floor and I sat there looking at the food all over the floor and I suddenly heard this woman's voice singing. It was loud and perfectly clear and entirely beautiful. I got up and walked towards it. I entered another room where I thought the sound was coming from, and stood in the middle of the room but realized I was completely alone in the house. Shivers went down my entire body. I was frozen in awe and fear. I listened to the voice and although she wasn't singing words the message was that I was not alone and during that time in my life that was exactly what I needed to hear to keep on going at all. Years later I began to sing and one day I heard that very same voice coming from myself... oooohhhhhhhhh s c a r y.
PT: Your music is certainly otherworldly, is there much room for improvisation within your performances or recordings?
KF: Absolutely, much of our music is composed with improv sections. I like to have some structure, but I am seemingly unattached to it. It is more a rallying point to share with others; some fixed destination yet there are millions more destinations to choose to travel too.
PT: You seem to have been embraced by the goth scene, how do you feel about this connection, and is Amber Asylum goth?
KF: I don't think we are Goth in the contemporary sense. I don't feel that warmly embraced by the scene either. I think some Goth lovers like Amber Asylum due to the classical overtones, the down tempo and our moody lyrics. But what might really wet ye old noodle is that we are totally embraced by the METAL scene. This can only be from my session work with Neurosis and that our first CD came out on a Black Metal subsiderary, Elfentblut. Now that is totally weird, but really fun. Recently we've played a number of metal shows and it has been some our most satisfying performance experiences.
PT: How did you come to play Terrastock 4?
KF: I asked Phil McMullen if we could after his wonderful and poetic review of our CD, "Songs of Sex and Death".
PT: How was the Terrastock appearance / experience for you?
KF: I really enjoyed playing at Terrastock. I thought it was super cool and I was honored to be on the same bill as Moe Tucker. The live recording is one of the finest I've ever heard. The audience seemed turned on to us like we were a new sound for them. The whole weekend was awesome. We played in Portland the night before to a packed house too.
PT: Have you heard from many Black Sabbath fans regarding your version of the song "Black Sabbath"? How did you come to record this song?
KF: We came to record this song because we were invited to contribute to a Sabbath Tribute compilation with HydroHead and Relapse, which are both METAL labels. Amber Asylum was just Jackie and I at the time. This song was the impetus for working with Erica and Wendy in the first place. Jackie and I had just finished "Songs of Sex and Death" and when we received this invitation thought, "wow, wouldn't this be fun and different from what we've been working on." We did it for the kicks and to push our own envelope. We picked the track "Black Sabbath" for the guitar riff in the end section, which we thought would be excellent with classical strings. I don't think the Sabbath Tribute comp ever came out or we never made it on, probably because the material was so foreign to us it that it took us forever to complete the track and we missed the deadline. We were hyper aware that this piece was not congruent with our body of work. That's why it's at the end of the CD with an extra long space; almost a bonus track. I feel that we did a fine interpretation of the piece and we challenge the status quo simply by having female voice and that was enough to include it on our album. We get mixed feedback from listeners with this track. Some find it profoundly evil and cool, others comic. Some love it and others hate it and some just go, eh?. We knew this would happen. When we have performed it at hard rock and metal venues the audience response is overwhelmingly favourable.
PT: Do you feel any kinship with groups like Rachels, Big Eyes, or Dirty Three, in incorporating instruments traditionally associated with classical music into a new context?
KF: I definitely felt a a kinship with early Rachels, especially the "Handwriting" LP and "The Sea and the Bell". I was already releasing material before I had even heard of the Rachels. My friend Drew from Matmos was always telling me about them, that I would like them, etc... So I was eager to check out their music. I saw The Dirty Three once live, by accident. I had gone to see the opening band, Low. And sadly the Dirty Three audience chattered through most of Low's set. The Dirty Three were good and up to that point I had never been exposed to a violin in a post-Punk setting such as the Dirty Three, but the violinist was drunk and talked too much between songs. My general impression of the Dirty Three was chatty and rude. Later I heard one of their albums
and thought it was great. It changed my impression of them. I can't say that I felt a kinship though. Again, I was already well on my way before I was turned on to their music. I haven't heard Big Eyes, but I'll check them out since you mention them!
PT: Could you articulate Amber Asylumís aesthetic ideal?
KF: I have an ongoing inquiry with juxtapositions between high and low art, tension and grace, and the narrative and the metaphor. I am both composer and performer and as any performer I want to convey believable meaning to the listener. I really need to be "feeling it". So, one ideal would be to "feel it on command". Another ideal would be to always have inspiration for a new and fresh investigation. I suppose one could interpret this as the freedom to change my ideal...
PT: Amber Asylum has evolved into an all female band over time, and the sound has always been very female in itís way, how much do you identify the work as being "Womenís Music"?
KF: In the contemporary sense of the "Lilith fair" type singer songwriter, I would not identify at all. I would identify more with Rebel Grrls. I see the gender of Amber Asylum as a non issue. I just happened to be working with all women because they were a good match. Our audience is equally divided between men and women, girls and boys.
PT: Thereís a strong ambient/ instrumental aspect to your music, do you relate to artists like Brian Eno, Coil, or Alan R. Splet?
KF: Yes, very much. There was a period in the past where I listened to Brian Eno exclusively. I have also listened to a great deal of Coil. I had the opportunity to work with Brian Eno for a week straight. I was a sound consultant at a think-tank owned by Paul Allen and a project developing new midi controllers and instruments had hired him as a visiting consultant. It was very cool to see how the man works and thinks, up close and personal.
PT: When there are lyrics present there seems to be a strong poetic sensibility at work, where does this come from?
KF: It comes from my training as a vocalist and being exposed to amazing vocal works. I studied with an opera singer and although much of the training is dedicated to actual singing technique, a large degree of focus is interpreting the narrative and creating believability with the character. With all the drama, I decided that I really never wanted to be an opera singer and focused on the Art Song instead. The Art song is all about the poetry and fortunately traverses into the realm of metaphor. Exposure to the Art Song evolved my writing. From there on out, if I were to include words they really needed to mean something or convey an image or space.
PT: Finally Kris, where do you live and why?
KF: I live by the Pacific ocean. It's about 50 ft from my window. I see the sunset ever day and soak in millions of negative ions that make me very calm and help me to feel that all is o.k. with the world. I love it.
Kris Force was interviewed by George Parsons, © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 2001
Amber Asylum Discography:
"Looking Glass" picture disc 7" (Fireball 1996)
"Frozen in Amber" (Elfenblut/Misanthropy 1996)
"Avenging and Bright"/"I Have a Bonnet" 7" (Eishaus 1997)
"The Natural Philosophy of Love" (Release 1997)
"Songs of Sex and Death" (Release 1999)
"The Supernatural Parlor Collection" (Release 2000)
"The World and Everything In It", 1997 CD with Book, (Tursa)
"Presumed Guilty", 1998, (Misanthropy)
"Sieriena", 2000, (Projekt)
"Funeral Songs", 2001, (Crowd Control/Release)
"Tori Amos Tribute" 2001, (Cleopatra)
"Deprogramming Music", 2001 (Sacred Sound)
Kris Force session work:
Neurosis, "The Sun that Never Sets", 2001
Meridiem, 2001.. forthcoming
Subarachnoid Space, "Endless Renovation", 1999. (Relapse)
Neurosis, "Times of Grace" 1999, (Relapse/Play it again Sam)
Matmos, "The West" 1998, (Vague Terrain)
Body Lovers 1998, "Number One of Three"
Swans, "Swans Are Dead" 1997; "Soundtracks for the Blind" 1996, (Young
Neurosis, "Through Silver in Blood" 1996, (Relapse/Play It Again Sam)
Tribes of Neurot, "Silver Blood Transmission" 1995, (Relapse)
Cyborgasm 2, "The Edge of The Bed" 1993, CD, (Time/Warner)
Neurosis, "Enemy of The Sun" 1994, "Souls at Zero" 1992, (Alternative