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Q&A: EMA on Oculus Rift, Sci-Fi Punk, and Social Media Dystopias

Talking with EMA about her coincidentally prescient new album, ‘The Future’s Void,’ and what our future Internet lives may look like.

It’s not uncommon for albums to take on a life of their own once they’ve been put out into the world, but for Erika M. Anderson, better known by the moniker EMA, the events that have come to define her sophomore record, The Future’s Void, are kind of eerie. The rough-edged noise-pop album, out today via Matador, is the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2011 solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, and deals with — among other things — Anderson’s uneasy yet also full-blown relationship with technology, from satellite surveillance and the terrifying velocity of 21st-century innovation to the personal exposure of social media and the noxious ubiquity of selfies.

Even though she began writing the album three years ago, it just so happens to be arriving at a time when global discussions about our modern dystopia (the alarming rise of corporate tech power, government surveillance, and the exposure of personal data) have reached a fever pitch. Sure, that could sort of make sense — Anderson, like one of her favorite authors, William Gibson, could just be an unusually perceptive artist — but how can you explain this uncanny icing on the cake? The Oculus Rift, which Facebook just bought for $2 billion at the end of March, already featured prominently on The Future’s Void’s cover art: a photo of Anderson wearing the virtual-reality face console that she doesn’t even like that much.

Those synchronicities seemed to weird Anderson out as much as they did me, so I got her on the phone from her home in Portland to talk about The Future’s Void, personal hellscapes, and the pitfalls of writing an album about a particular moment in technological history.

How have you explained The Future’s Void to people so far?

Originally, I was going to call it my “West Coast noise and sci-fi record.” And that’s how I thought of it. Some people were like, ‘Don’t say ‘sci-fi.'” I was worried about saying the “sci-fi” thing, because that can turn a lot of people off.

Really?

Well, that’s the thing! I’m talking to you, so maybe not.

Do people seem to be “getting it” in most respects, or do you think people are misunderstanding what you set out to do?

It depends. There are certain people who seem to really get it, and certain people who are latching on to things and putting their own interpretations on it. I have two things to say about [The Future’s Void]. One: It’s not all sci-fi. It’s not all about technology. It’s not all about the Internet. There’s definitely a number of themes there.

The other thing that I’m trying to get across is that it’s not supposed to be completely dystopian. I’m not trying to be didactic in any way, like, ‘Oh the Internet is so bad,’ or anything like that. There are some songs that talk about some personal experiences I found frustrating, but I also think that the diversity of styles on the record is pro-Internet and pro-technology. Because it’s not saying, ‘Oh we only like one thing, so I’m going to make a record that sounds like one thing.’ Now people can have all sorts of [music] … It’s allowed them to expand their taste, in a way.

Well, if you’re not necessarily taking a stand either way, what is your relationship with technology like? How do you see things as they stand right now in society, when it comes to tech?

Wow, big one! I’m so stoked on non-social stuff like recording technology and its ubiquity. I’m able to sit and play with it and make exactly the sounds I want. And that’s amazing. Being able to make this stuff by myself, that’s incredibly empowering; it allows me to make things sound the way I want them to sound. So on that level, I think I embrace [technology].

On the other hand, I, like many people, have a complex relationship with social media. Not even social media — the Internet [as a whole]. I think of it now as this thing where we need to remember that we can make the choices that feel good for us, that feel healthy for us, as far as our engagement with it. I liken it to this: Money is this currency that you can actually use to exchange for things, right? But some of us have figured out that instead of becoming stockbrokers or whatever, we would like to either have more free time or do work that’s meaningful to us, instead of pursuing money as an end goal. I think it’d be good to take that lesson and apply it to Twitter or online fame, stuff like that.

Everything in moderation, or what works for you?

Yeah, what works for you. I think one of the frustrations that people have about the Internet, something that’s good and bad, is … the person who puts out content, at some point, loses complete control over it. Which, again, can be good and bad. With something like that, you can’t really put the brakes on.

That’s just gonna happen more and more over the next few decades. The way that things spread, the way that the things you put on the Internet and the laws around what you can share and what can happen with the things you put out there, is just gonna get worse.

What do you mean?

Well, legally there are a lot of things happening with data right now. From an artistic standpoint, I imagine, you’re so much more exposed than the average Internet user, so you suffer from the effects of data being so easily accessed.

I think I’m probably much more aware of the ways that the things I put online can multiply. I’m from South Dakota, so I have a lot of people [from home] that add me on Facebook — some I remember, some I don’t — and the things that they post are amazing! They have no filter on there; they’ll talk about anything: the fight they just got in with their partner where the police got involved, ultrasound pictures. And they just “like” everything. I’m more aware that I don’t want that stuff on there, but I’m not worried someone is looking at me. To be honest, the NSA doesn’t scare me that much. Compared to these huge corporations that have our data and have been storing it for much longer than the NSA.

Honestly, in some ways I trust the government more than I trust these corporations. I really do. When you pay taxes, you get free sidewalks, parks, etc., and you know you pay a certain amount of taxes for it. You’re not always happy, because things get divided up and there’s plenty of corruption — whatever. But [with the Internet], you’re getting tons of free services, right? Why are you surprised that there’s a hidden cost?

There’s been a lot of debate in arts and writing and music about whether it should just all be free. “What is the real harm if it’s all free?” And it’s hard to give a really concrete answer other than, “You’re fucking me over personally.” But people don’t really empathize with it that much, as opposed to how it’s going to affect them. Artists can’t really depend on record sales or tour alone to support them financially anymore, so what they end up having to do is sell songs to companies that are selling products: new jeans, new shoes, this, that, and the other.

So that’s happening across the board. Basically my dystopian nightmare, which I’m just realizing right now, is that by getting all this stuff for “free,” everything now that’s important to us or that takes up our daily lives, advertisers have access to that and are tying it into a product of some sort. Using all of these experiences and everything to sell us something. If you think about it, that’s like completely taking over and fucking up your brain: Every time you hear a song, every time you see a child walking on a beach, you’re reminded of a Chase commercial. Now every time you see a herd of wild horses or something, you think of a Chevy truck. That kind of association has been around since the ’80s, but now, with all this access that [companies] have, it’s like, everything.

To clarify what you’re saying here, your personal dystopia has to do with how our brains are being rewired to associate art with commerce?

Right. And I would even take it a step further to say that [it includes] whatever information we’re giving up through whatever is being put in a metric … even like, the pictures you post. I’m sure that there is an analytic algorithm out there that can take the most common sort of picture with the most common sort of likes, and take a personal moment that you had, and say, “That’s the one that’s getting the most responses. Let’s put that sort of image in our ad for, I don’t know, Bud Light, or a new pharmaceutical.” An antidepression medication, or something like that. So, it’s photos and I’m sure it’s words, too — like, what words are coming up the most? And how can we use that, too? They take your popular photo, or one like it, and apply it to their campaign. And now every time that you see your photo or you are just walking on the beach and having that moment, your brain has been colonized by that ad campaign. Which, to me, that is much more sinister and nefarious than anything some Star Trek–loving freak at the NSA is gonna do to me.

Hey now, don’t be dissing Star Trek. Speaking of which, are you a sci-fi fan?

Yeah, I am. I’m a real omnivorous reader. It’s funny, because a lot of the [sci-fi-related] stuff on the record is turning out to be very timely, which is not something that I planned on.

Your album cover is a photo of you wearing an Oculus Rift; pretty great timing considering the album is coming out just weeks after the big announcement that Facebook bought the company for $2 billion.

Yeah, that’s the thing, too. Facebook’s buying Oculus completed the meaning of that. A real-world event completed the meaning of my album cover! At the time, I thought the cover was just OK. I wished I had done something different. Leif [Shackelford, bandmate and partner] had forwarded me a picture of someone wearing the Oculus and making the hand gesture I had made on the cover of Past Life Martyred Saints, saying, “Album cover no. 2!” as a joke. Leif’s a programmer, a total tech person, and there’s this Oculus lying around his office at work. [At first] I was like, no way. Then for some reason it just happened that we decided we would do that. I was originally going to be making like a peace sign with [the Oculus] on, but peace signs seemed too trendy, so it just turned into me wearing the Oculus. I was like, “This is fine. This is OK.” I didn’t have a clear vision. It’s funny … in some ways, I didn’t have a really clear vision of what this record was or what it meant. It wasn’t like I set out to make these statements. Using words like “selfie” or “clicking on a link,” I thought, people are gonna fucking gag and hate this. But somehow, a lot of real-world things are timing up with it. The real world is completing it.

HP_matador_EMA_655

Matador Records

I think you’ve talked about that in other interviews, too, right? The taboo of using those everyday tech subjects in your lyrics, the stuff that we do deal with every day. If you could figure out how to do it tastefully, it would resonate, because it’s true that our emotional lives take place online. But it’s uncool to use words like “link” and “click” and “selfie” in music.

Oh, yeah, yeah, totally.

How do you navigate that? How did you decide to just go for it?

Well, I’m always drawn toward lyrics that are slightly taboo or seem awkward. I’m always interested when I run into “You can’t say that in a song.” This is supposed to be rock and roll. There aren’t supposed to be these rules. So whenever I come up against something that feels like a rule to me …

The thing is, when I’m writing lyrics sometimes, I try to get out of my own way. I try to let [through] whatever my mind or emotions are dealing with. People say, “Think before you speak,” but the best lyrics to me are when you’re able to speak without thinking. So [lyrics] would come out and I’d be like “Oh, wow, I can’t say that.” But I thought, if I’m having this strong of a reaction to something, I should probably leave it in.

Why do you think putting something like online or tech-related interactions into an artistic or emotional context would be uncool or taboo, in some way?

I don’t know. I’m just riffing here. First of all, art about technology is hard because usually the first people who actually master [technology] are maybe technically inclined, but aren’t, I don’t know, the best at metaphor and allegory? It seems like we’re supposed to pretend that these [online interactions] don’t exist.

We’re supposed to deny we’re spending our entire days interacting with a screen instead of with a human face.

Yeah. Traditionally, technology has been the realm of nerds, at least until it became widespread. It felt really weird, but I decided to go with it. I decided, I’m going to go with this because it’s making me feel something. I didn’t know how this album was going to be received, if people were going to totally puke or be OK with it. It seems like the timing is right and that people are more OK with it than I would’ve thought.

Like you said, current events are giving it meaning that you didn’t realize it was going to have. Are you concerned with making timeless music, or are you just making the music you want to make and going with it?

I guess I was worried about that. “Well, shit, if I talk about all this stuff, I’m precluding it from being a classic record.” But it’s also really dumb that this rock permutation, which is like two guitars, drums, and bass, is somehow considered “classic.” I understand why it works, but it’s also pretty arbitrary, and it should be dated [by now]. What’s considered “classic” is definitely changing. There also are things that are of their time but that are classic too. You can hope for that. Like, great sci-fi books are definitely of their time, but they’re classic.

What sci-fi are you into? What do you read?

I am just a complete book slut. I’ll pick up anything, ever, always. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now … I have these science fiction anthologies. I liked sci-fi when I was a kid — I had forgotten about that. I read everything. Christopher Pike, I love him; also stuff like [William Sleator’s] Interstellar Pig, Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling. Once I realized I was interested in it, I just started picking up everything, going to Goodwill and picking up books that had weird covers. I read Ender’s Game, of course, but I’m not as into the ones where it’s like the main character is the Chosen One. I like fuck-up heroes, accidental heroes.

I obviously also love William Gibson[’s] books, they’re really well written: Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive. Everything he’s ever written has an element of prescience to it. Even if it takes 10 or 15 years to come true — he basically foretold Google Glass. He basically foretold the Internet. He coined the term “cyberspace.” Some people even say it’s possible that his idea of the Internet had such an effect on a generation of sci-fi geeks that they built it around his [idea].

They say the same about a lot of sci-fi; a lot of the technology on Star Trek essentially came into existence because Trekkies figured out how to invent it.

I can imagine that.

Critics have definitely picked up on your love of Gibson.

People who know definitely know. Even that seemed a little risky, though, to say anything about sci-fi. I was like, “OK, great, everyone’s gonna call this record cyberpunk.” And it is. I wanted to make a punk record using electronics. That was the thing: Am I really gonna put this out in the world? Oh my god. I’m totally a nerd.

This is what happens to female nerds: You have to get really tough about the stuff you love. I was the nerd who became a cool girl because I was like, “I can see where this path is leading; I better become a badass now.” But at heart, if I had all the free time in the world to do whatever I wanted to do, I would be somewhere right now reading a terrible sci-fi book.

One more question. You wore the Oculus Rift, but did you play any games on it?

My favorite is this Tuscan villa. It’s just a demo, but it’s this beautiful little spot you can just explore … OK, I just had an insight.

I was trying to think of a possible upside for having Facebook buying the Oculus. If it had been bought by a pure gaming company, you’d probably have a lot of action-oriented, first-person-shooter-type of options for it, right? But if you open it up to all the old ladies playing Farmville, or whatever they’re playing, you might actually get more of a diverse offering for a major gaming console. That could be cool. I’d love to sit with the Oculus and be underwater, going through coral reefs or something.

Like a virtual reality Planet Earth?

Yeah. So it’s possible that the numbers on Facebook will make the offerings more diverse than if it were purely this for-profit gamer platform. I can’t believe I just said that there would be an upside to Facebook owning something.

Devon Maloney (@dynamofire) is a music and culture journalist living in New York.