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vol 6 - issue 07 (mar 2004) :: interviews
RASPUTINA'S ZOň KEATING
interview and image by night watchman

IN ADDITION TO PERFORMING WITH THE LADIESí CELLO SOCIETY KNOWN AS RASPUTINA, ZOň KEATING CREATES HER OWN MULTI-LAYERED, EXPERIMENTAL CELLO COMPOSITIONS THAT SHE PERFORMS LIVE UTILIZING ELECTRONICS. SHE SCORES INDEPENDENT FILMS, AND IS POISED TO RELEASE A NEW CD THAT MAY JUST CREATE A BRAND-NEW AUDIENCE FOR INSTRUMENTAL CELLO MUSIC. NIGHT WATCHMAN DISCOVERS HOW A WOMAN THAT STARTED OUT REHEARSING IN A MENTAL INSTITUTION AND PERFORMING IN PRISONS WILL MAKE YOU THINK OF THE CELLO IN A WHOLE NEW WAY.

Night Watchman: What got you interested in playing the cello?

ZoŽ: Well, when I was eight I lived in England, and the teacher just asked me if I wanted to play the cello, but I had no idea what it was.

N: You had never heard one before?

Z: No. I didnít know what a cello was, but I just agreed, and the next day they gave me a cello. That was it. And it just never occurred to me to stop.

Both: (laugh)

N: Thatís pretty cool. You went to school in England?

Z: Yeah, I went to school in England. I was actually born in Canada in Ontario, and then we moved to Alberta, then to England, and then to New York.

N: Wow. Youíve been all over the place.

Z: Yeah. Iím not really from anywhere. (laughs)

N: And now you live in San Francisco?

Z: Yeah. Nobody in San Francisco is actually from San Francisco, so itís the perfect place for me.

N: Growing up in all those different places and traveling around, how has that shaped the way you look at things?

Z: Iím not sure. I donít know what it would be like any other way. I think it really made me focus on the cello because that was the one thing that was constant no matter where I was. Iíd have an all new school, all new environment and new friends-- or no friends (laughs)-- but the cello was always there. So I think it made me focus on other things besides where I was.

N: Were you focused on playing classical, or have you always been writing your own music?

Z: I kind of always played my own thing. I was your run-of-the-mill black-clad outcast.

Both: (laugh)

N: No matter where you lived?

Z: Pretty much. When I was in high school, at least. I used to sit around listening to sad music; you know, like the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. I would always try to play that sort of style on the cello, but I always studied classical, too. I guess Iíve always had two sides.

N: So you knew there was a place for what you wanted to do outside of classical music, or was it later that the connection became apparent?

Z: I think that took a long time. For a long time there was the music I listened to, and the music I played. The music I listened to was not classical, but Iíd have to play classical. They were really separate for a long time. I donít think it was until after college that I even realized that I could do on the cello what I wanted to listen to, so itís a continual evolution.

N: I think for a lot of people itís hard to bring those two sides together. I was in band and orchestra, and all those people who played instruments for years just shoved everything away into the closet once school was over because they didnít know where to go with it once someone stopped telling them what to play.

Z: Yeah. I had no music program in my high school, and my mother would drive me four days a week to the nearest city for lessons. In the orchestra I was in, the cello section were rabid cello fanatics. We wouldnít even take breaks; all the cellists would get together and play arrangements of the Beatles or that type of thing on the cello. The first thing I ever did was "Yesterday", and I think we all just really loved the cello.

N: Wow. That sounds great. I read that you played in a group that played in an asylum and in prisons. Is that true?

Z: (laughs) Yeah!

N: Was that when you were in England?

Z: That was in Albany, New York, and it was called the Love Or Money Symphony. I was the only teenager; it was all adults. I think I was 13 or 14, and the rehearsals were in the Albany Psychiatric Center.

Both: (laugh)

Z: And then they had performances in prisons. It really disappointed me that they had a performance in Sing-Sing, but I wasnít allowed to go because I was too young.

Both: (laugh)

N: It seems like that would be scary, wouldnít it?

Z: You know, it never occurred to me that it was weird, but the psychiatric center was really kind of scary. They had nets over the stairwells, and the halls were always really empty. But, occasionally, you could see somebody wandering down the hallway who just looked totally blank.

N: Wow! Where were you rehearsing? Did they have you off separately by yourselves?

Z: They had an auditorium where weíd rehearse, and sometimes patients would come in and sit and watch us.

N: Wow.

Z: There was one time where my mother got in a car accident on the way to pick me up, and rehearsals were over at 10:00 PM. So, 10:30 rolls around, and 11:00, 11:30,...

Both: (laugh)

Z: ...and Iím stuck in this psychiatric center. (laughs)

N: Oh, wow. (laughs)

Z: Eventually, some police officers came and told me my mother had been in a car accident, but that she was alright.

N: Thatís good. So you almost had to spend the night there?

Z: Yeah!

Both: (laugh)

Z: I had some worries that they might get me mixed up with the patients and I wouldnít be able to leave!

Both: (laugh)

N: Now thatís what I call paying your dues.

Z: Yeah. (laughs)

N: What happened then to take you to the next step to start playing in other types of settings; doing something a little different from playing in an orchestra?

Z: Going to Sarah Lawrence College outside of New York City-Ė I studied music there. Itís a really small school. I had a teacher there who taught my composition class, so that was when I started officially composing. He was also the head of the improvisation class, so I just started improvising with other musicians. And then I started doing things for the dance department, like playing the cello while the dancers would dance. One thing led to another, and, eventually, I stopped doing classical music, and was just doing improvisational and working with dancers. So I put a lot of emphasis on rhythm, because itís important to dance. And then I just kept going from there.

N: Were you writing material for others to accompany you, or were they solo pieces?

Z: It was nearly always just for me. It was partially composed and partially improvised, and I would be on stage, and the dancers would dance around me; often, Iíd have to wing it. (laughs) They were college students, so they were high concept and low production.

Both: (laugh)

N: So they didnít have to try and follow your improvisation?

Z: We did a little bit of that, but, generally, I would just follow them. I really loved doing that; it kind of became my trademark at school. This sort of style is like rhythmic repetitive cello playing. It was about creating an emotion that you couldnít really express in words. Because dance and music are so similar that way.

N: At what point did you start collaborating with other people?

Z: Well, when you play the cello, everybody wants you to play in their band.

Both: (laugh)

Z: So, that happened to me. Some of my friends had bands, and they wanted me to play in them. This one friend, her name is Mila Drumke, she actually had a pretty good music career. I started playing in her band, and that was when I met my best friend, Tony Cross-- heís a violinist-- he played for her, too. So we started playing around New York when I was 19 at various clubs. That was when I started meeting other people through rock 'n' roll. When I got out of college I moved to San Francisco, but I didnít do very much music for a long time. I was just trying to make a living. Itís pretty hard to live out here, and I kind of got into computers. (laughs) I worked at a software company for a few years, and I kept playing with bands, but I never totally, fully committed.

N: Did it feel like they wanted you to play the bass lines, but on cello?

Z: Yeah. Or do something pretty in the bridge.

Both: (laugh)

N: So, it wasnít a very collaborative process?

Z: It was not challenging at all. Like, somebody would have a song, I would play one note, and theyíd be like, "Wow!"

Both: (laugh)

Z: Thatís all Iíd have to do.

Both: (laugh)

Z: Tony and I came up with a term for that reaction; we call it "stringy face", which is when you put string instruments in somebodyís song, and then you play it live and the audience goes, "Wow!"

Both: (laugh)

Z: They love it! They just love it. So, I did that for a while, and then I started wanting to do my own thing. I started a band with some friends, and it was a darkwave kind of band. We had a guitarist who sounded a lot like Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), and a bass player who was very serious and very Italian. We wrote a collection of really serious, stark songs, and started playing out. And that was really fun because I got to do something other than be a pretty string player. I started playing more rhythm guitar stuff. That was around 1996.

N: How long did that group stay together?

Z: We were together until í98, and then we broke up and I started doing solo stuff.

N: Were you always doing four-track recordings?

Z: Yeah. Four-track recordings, cassettes,.. and then I got really into computer recording around 1999 when I got a G4. Since then, itís been so easy. You get an idea, and you just plug yourself in and go. Itís great.

N: And itís not that expensive to get a good sounding recording out of it.

Z: Yeah. Itís amazing what you can do. And also Iím lucky enough to live in a warehouse with some other musicians.

N: So you can play all hours of the night?

Z: Yeah. And I have my own studio, so thatís great. I would say since then things have really been taking off. I feel like I was kind of a late bloomer.

N: Really? I donít know. If you were playing asylums when you were 15, I donít know if that would be considered a late blooming. (laughs)

Z: (laughs) Maybe. But so many string players start when theyíre four.

N: Yeah. But you seem to have taken a different approach to it, which is very cool.

Z: Well, itís like Melora (Creager) in Rasputina. We donít have a lot of precedents; we have to make it up as we go. She made up her whole thing, and sheís been totally successful just by doing her own thing. But there was nobody to really lead the way.

N: Right. When did you first hear about Rasputina?

Z: I think right when they came out. (laughs) It was simultaneous. I heard of them, and I was like, "Cool. A cello band." I went to see them play right away when they came through town.

N: Were you in contact with Melora before you actually joined the band, or were you more of just a fan?

Z: I guess I was in contact with her back when she had done Cabin Fever, and she was looking for other cellists. Right when she got Nana (Bornant) and K. Cowperthwaite, I responded to an ad she posted on a cello website. "Rasputina looking for cellists." So I sent her a CD of my stuff, and I didnít realize she was in New York. I had moved from there, and had no intention of going back. (laughs) So that didnít pan out. But we kept in contact. When she needed a cellist desperately in the Fall of 2002, she sent me a line and asked if I still wanted to do it. I said yes.

N: Is it a pain to go back and forth from West Coast to East Coast?

Z: I have to say that since Jet Blue came along itís so easy.

N: Jet Blue?

Z: Itís an airline. I can go direct from here to J.F.K. in New York for really cheap. So, itís actually not a problem at all. And sheís a mother, so we tend to do the band in chunks anyway, which works well for her. Iíll go out there for a period of time, and then Iíll come back. It works out pretty well.

N: Good. I was wondering how you worked that out.

Z: Weíre not the kind of band that rehearses three times a week. Itís more like we rehearse a couple weeks before a tour.

N: I remember when Rasputina started out, there were three cellists, and now there are just two cellists, and Jonathon TeBeest on drums. Is that the way it will stay?

Z: I think so. I only heard Rasputina live once, but I think the sound is pretty different. And I think we really like being a trio. I think rock trios, in general, are really strong. Nobody can really slack off in a trio. When you have a quartet, you can have one person not play, and the other three will cover. But when itís just three musicians, you all have to carry your weight, and itís really hard. Like, if I stop playing, it just leaves Melora and Jonathon.

N: You can really tell when someone is missing.

Z: Yeah. And I think it makes the sound really clear. We have our different roles. I think we like it that way. We also all get along really well.

N: Thatís always difficult to find in a band. With working in chunks with Rasputina, does that make it easier for you to pursue doing your own thing?

Z: Definitely. Actually, I couldnít ask for a better situation. Neither of them conflict with each other, and theyíre different enough that I can do both. My music is instrumental, and Iíll never be playing the kind of shows that Rasputina plays. Iím the kind of person who performs in warehouses and art galleries. (laughs)

N: For your solo performances you use looping tools so that you can accompany yourself. How did you get interested in that?

Z: I think itís just the kind of culture that Iím involved in out here, which is a DJ-oriented world, and I have a roommate whoís an electronic musician. Heís amazing. I think I was just really influenced by some of the things I had seen him do involving various little gadgets and his Power Book. Very minimal sound, and I think itís just influenced me, and looping was a natural thing for me to do in this scene. And then I really wanted to be able to recreate the pieces Iíve written in a live situation, and I had a hard time finding other cellists. (laughs) So, again, looping solved that problem.

N: You couldnít put an ad on the cello website?

Z: I have actually interviewed a few cellists, and Iím having a hard time finding this combination of cellists that are really good; who have good technique, but also are willing to play music that is not written down. (laughs) People that can improvise and swing, and play rhythm that is not classical. The two are hard to find. There just arenít very many. Itís just been easier for now to use electronics to build up the pieces in a live situation.

N: This way you donít have to coordinate peopleís schedules.

Z: Yeah. I think, eventually, Iíd like to find some more cellists. But I think itís going to take awhile to get them all together.

N: Itís like a cult, isnít it?

Both: (laugh)

Z: Yeah. (laughs) We get to do our little rituals together.

Both: (laugh)

N: Do you find it hard to take your cello back and forth from San Francisco to New York? What does the traveling do to it?

Z: Well, we have these flight cases, which are enormous. They are these huge white things that,.. theyíre just huge. (laughs) And you put your cello case inside of this thing, and then it goes into the belly of the plane. So, as long as you pack it really well-- knock on wood (laughs)-- itís been okay so far. Actually, the hardest part is getting through security, because the case was designed before September 11th. It takes a special key to open and close it, and it doesnít fit through the x-ray machine, so thereís always this ordeal at the airport of, "Oh. It's you again." (laughs) I stand there as they inspect the cello, and then we put it back in the case.

N: But airport security has never tackled you or anything?

Z: No. The worst thing that ever happened was I was with Rasputina, and we were flying from Chicago to L.A., and the key that locks the case canít be taken through security because itís made out of metal. So they had already taken my luggage and my cello, and I was left with the key, so I couldnít get through security. It was really frustrating. (laughs)

N: Wow.

Z: I was like, "Iíll go check it in my bag." But by the time I got back, the plane was leaving. So the security is hard to deal with when youíre a musician. Not to mention that I always have a bag of really suspicious things, like distortion pedals and tools, you know?

N: And donít you take your taxidermy mouse on the road with you?

Z: Yeah. Thereís that, too.

Both: (laugh)

N: Thatís got to raise a few eyebrows.

Z: Yep. (laughs) Yeah, he comes everywhere. Heís looking a little worse for wear right now. He needs some repairs.

N: Do you do those yourself, or do you have a specialist?

Z: Thereís a woman who made it. I think Iíll bring it to her shop. Basically, his arm fell off.

Both: (laugh)

Z: Which is a little disturbing.

N: Yeah. He needs fixed before he goes on the road again. Is that whatís coming up next? A Rasputina tour?

Z: Yeah. Weíre going on tour in April.

N: Is it a long tour?

Z: I think weíre going to do a few chunks. Several three week-long tours, but itís still being planned right now.

N: Do you enjoy touring?

Z: I love it. Itís really fun. Itís really hard work, though. You know how you can never remember pain after itís happened? (laughs) While weíre touring I think, "This is horrible,.. so horrible. I havenít slept in four days. I havenít eaten anything but French fries."

Both: (laugh)

Z: But then, after the tour, all I can remember is how great it was.

N: And what about your solo work? Is there another CD in the works?

Z: Yeah, I have a full-length Iím working on right now, and I hope to finish it before the next Rasputina tour.

N: Good. And that will be available on your website?

Z: Yeah. Iím also talking to people about putting it out. But Iíve been doing so well just selling them on my website, that it makes me wonder what I'd need a label for. Itís not like instrumental cello music has a huge audience.

N: Well, you never know. Maybe youíre the one that will make it into a huge scene.

Z: Maybe.

N: One last question that we like to ask everyone is, in your professional opinion, do you think dogs have lips?

Z: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

N: Wow. That was definite.

Z: Yeah. Iím sure of it. My friend Tony has this beautiful coonhound, and it makes these crazy expressions, and Iím just sure that she has lips. Thatís a good question. Whatís the poll? How is it broken down?

N: Itís pretty evenly divided. Some people say they don't, while others say theyíve got to have lips; theyíre just bigger and hang off their face. A lot of different reactions.

Z: (laughs) Thatís great.

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