Sharon Cheslow interviewed by David Scott Stone for Jigsaw, 2003
(unedited version originally done for Jigsaw #8)
Dave: So perhaps you would like to write a little bit about your background?
Sharon: I've been interested in music and art from the time I was very little. My grandfather played harmonica and ukulele and my aunt was a painter. They both inspired me. My parents were folkies - the kind who loved Dylan before he went electric. My grandfather was like a father to me and he died when I was five. It was a big loss. The family moved to Washington, DC after that, and I sought refuge in music. My parents bought me rock and roll records when I was six - Beatles, Monkees, Herman's Hermits and Shirelles. My father explained Dylan's lyrics as poetry and protest to me, and I began to listen closely to music. My father listened to jazz and 20th century classical music, like Bartok, as well, so I grew up listening to that. They bought me a classical guitar when I was ten. I persuaded them to let me buy an electric guitar when I was thirteen, even though it was unheard of for girls to play electric guitar back then.
I got the idea because when I was eight I wanted to be an astronaut. My father had studied theoretical physics, so of course he was thrilled. But at that time there were no female astronauts. He encouraged me to write to then President Nixon to ask why not. I got a letter back from NASA saying that even though they didn't discriminate against women, no fully qualified woman had yet applied. It was really a defining moment, because it made me see at a young age that there were things women were supposedly not qualified to do.
Dave: Was there something that changed/saved your life and sent you on your path... Feminisim, New Music (or maybe that came later)?
Sharon: Actually, it was probably the Beatles. I read everything I could about them, which is how I found out about Yoko Ono - and also Linda McCartney whose photography I loved. I saw the Beatles perform Hey Jude & Revolution on TV in '68 and was impressed with how they sang with the audience. My first rock concert was George Harrison in '74. The opening act was Ravi Shankar. That turned me on to raga and improvisation. I bought every single Beatles record I could find - LPs and singles. When I was in junior high I found this 7" by John Lennon & Yoko Ono that had two Plastic Ono Band songs that completely changed my life: Power To The People and Touch Me. I thought it would be cool to be in a band like that. This was before punk. I think it paved the way for me to be open to punk as soon as I heard it. Patti Smith and then later The Clash. I first saw The Clash in 1979. The same month I saw The Buzzcocks, and Gang of Four opened up for them. It was incredible. I think listening to the Plastic Ono Band made me appreciate no wave as well. I bought Teenage Jesus & the Jerks records soon after they came out.
Dave: Unfortunately growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 80's left me with little knowledge about the DC scene. In fact, the few people who knew about Minor Threat/Bad Brains and bands like that from my school were total jocks, the football players with the mohawks who were the ones who would throw me into lockers/pants me/slap the back of my neck etc... Up until the early 90's I hated hardcore.
Sharon: Yeah, I can understand that. Hardcore degenerated pretty quickly. But in the beginning it was revolutionary. I still don't think anything can compare to The Germs and Black Flag. They were both mind blowing upon first listen. One of my favorite memories is hanging out with Henry Garfield (before he was Rollins) in 1980 at Nathan Strejceks' house. We went there to watch the Bad Brains and Teen Idles rehearse (Teen Idles were Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson's band before Minor Threat), and then went to see both bands play at dcSpace. Afterwards, Henry, Nathan and I stayed up until 6am listening to records and talking about music, art and culture. It was through Nathan that I met Anne Bonafede. She was going out with Jeff Nelson, and we hit it off and decided to form a band together. That led to Chalk Circle in 1981.
Dave: I was being drawn to more classic rock sort of wildness. I pretty much grew in this order Beatles/Stones/Bowie/Who/Hendrix/Velvets/Stooges.
Sharon: It was pretty much the same for me, except that I didn't get into the Velvet Underground or Stooges until after I'd gotten into punk. For me it was more like Beatles/Yoko/British Invasion (especially Who, Kinks & Yardbirds)/Bowie/US 60s garage punk (like 13th Floor Elevators & Seeds)/delta blues/classic rawk/Roxy Music/Syd Barrett/Patti Smith/etc. etc. Also, I liked electronic music in high school, like Kraftwerk, Eno and Robert Fripp - I saw a Frippertronics show in '79 at the Washington Ethical Society of all places.
Dave: The whole dam burst when I heard Sonic Youth on KXLU. Starpower. That was it changed/saved my life. Reading about all this new culture that SY talked about in interviews. Big Black, Laughing Hyenas, Teenage Jesus DNA Mars (glad I bought those no wave recordings back then), as well as cool non rock stuff like John Cage, AMM, Albert Ayler.
Sharon: I started listening to John Cage, Stockhausen and free jazz in the early 80s. Bob Moore is the person who really turned me on to a lot of experimental music, poetry and art. He did a zine called Noise and put out a few hardcore cassette compilations, with bands like the Minutemen, on his label Version Sound. He also released the first Die Kreuzen 7". He sent those to me. He's sent me a lot over the past twenty years that's been very influential to me, like La Monte Young. In BMO we had a sax player, Charles Bennington, who was jazz trained. It was the first time I learned how to improvise in a band. Some reviewer described him as sounding like Albert Ayler, and I had no idea who he was, so of course that made me want to find out! BMO almost opened up for Sonic Youth in DC in '83, but the show never happened. Their early live shows are some of the best I've ever seen.
Dave: The website you do about Women in Punk...what was the inspiration/motivation for it? I think it's really cool. When did you put that together?
Sharon: What motivated me was seeing the similarity in how Chalk Circle was received and the way bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were denigrated ten years later. All people could do was focus on the novelty of girls in a band, rather than the ideas or aesthetics of the bands or the historical context. I wanted to rewrite rock history in order to show the continuity of women playing music. Afterall, what people think of as the truth is really just an interpretation of history. The media and rock establishment had developed this whole mythology based on the male guitar god - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix - and four piece boy band, first with rock - Beatles, Stones - then with punk - Sex Pistols, Clash and later Nirvana. To me it was like the rock equivalent of a fraternity. The website grew out of my interest in late 70s punk as a fertile ground for girls to express themselves creatively, because what they were doing aesthetically was removed from that mythology. I wrote a short essay on this for Interrobang?! #2 in 1994 and compiled a list of bands to give women recognition. After teaching myself HTML, I put the list online in '96 so people could submit names. I liked the idea of using the Internet's capability for free access to information as a participatory medium. Originally I had intended to release a Nuggets-style compilation - I was inspired by the way Lenny Kaye kept the history of that music alive. What's made me happy is that people have taken on the challenge to re-release seminal recordings from the late 70s. Jason from Perfect Sound Forever, for example, has worked with Kill Rock Stars in releasing Kleenex/Liliput and Essential Logic, and Daniel Selzer has released the Theoretical Girls on his label Acute.
Dave: The "fraternity" mentality that is in every genre of music really makes things stale and boring. I can't tell you how sick I am of going to some sort of "experimental" event and seeing just a bunch of awkward guys operating on guitars lying on a table with enough effects to cover a basketball court, tape loops, ebay bought circuit bent Speak N Spells that they couldn't even bother to bend themselves, and the laptop, the oil drum of the 00'. I'm so uninterested. I mean I'll always love to see Keith Rowe, Merzbow, and Damion Romero. I just think I had a little more hope a few years ago when I was seeing someone like Marina Rosenfeld conducting a lipstick guitar orchestra, or her pressing prepared records, playing them with pins and needles coming out of them. Maybe one day Oliveros will be named-dropped by kids as much as Stockhausen, and Barbra Ess will be in a conversation without any mention of Glenn Branca. It seems a bit harder when you have a conservative president in office, and commercial tells you to eat more red beef. Like that billboard of that sexualized hamburger with big letters over it saying "...enough of the tofu already".
Sharon: That's great that you saw Marina. I've read about her and she sounds amazing. A woman I know, Chiara Giovando, performed in that orchestra. I think it was called Sheer Frost. Was that the piece you saw? Chiara and Cory Peipon put on a couple of Sound Structures concerts here in SF before Cory moved to LA and Chiara moved to Baltimore. They recruited a bunch of friends to perform old graphic and text scores and also did some of their own stuff. One of my favorites was a sound performance by Eli Crews and Paul Costuros (of Total Shutdown). I was fortunate to perform in one of the concerts, co-conducting a Mauricio Kagel score with Greg Saunier.
Dave: Marina...She has this 7 part opera that she's been working on. The name...it escapes me at the moment, but it was the 4th part. It had these records that she had pressed, I think she only had 4 or 10 made. She would spin them with these little posts coming out of them and when the arm of the turntable hit them they would skip in this pattern. Along with that, she commissioned this electro-acoustic generator that my friend Damion [Romero] made for her. It was pretty cool. Done at the MOCA museum here in LA.
Sharon: It sounds great. I actually had wanted to set up something with Damion at The Smell when I did some sound installations there a few years back. Tim Green had mentioned to me I'd like his work. I think I wasn't able to get a hold of him. I remember we talked about this when you were visiting Tim. That trip to The Audium we all took with Nels [Cline] and Carla [Bozulich] and Matt Hartman was fun. I'm happy that Tim is going to be building some electronics for me for the sound event I have coming up at Lincoln Center this summer.
Dave: How did you move from being punk to doing something a bit more personalized?
Sharon: One of the things that attracted me to punk actually was the individualistic nature of it. So I wanted to retain that spirit while exploring some of my other interests. It took a few years to figure out what I wanted to do, mostly through a process of trial and error. I'm still trying to figure things out!
Dave: Tell a little about your process to make the music on your latest CD...What kind of equipment did you use?
Sharon: I was interested in combining analog and digital to create sound collages and fragments of songs. I have the same electric guitar I've had for twenty years, a beat up old SG. I recorded that and vocals through a mixing board either directly into Pro Tools or onto analog tape and then converted the tracks to digital files and imported them into a simple sound editor. I then played those tracks for people to record overdubs with their instruments. I used various digital audio programs for editing and processing and to generate sounds. I also used some homebuilt electronics. The sampling was done by converting audio going straight from my stereo into my computer. I don't use any MIDI or sequencers. I did all the final edits and mixes in Pro Tools.
Dave: How do you approach collaborations?
Sharon: All of my bands were collaborative in the sense that we all contributed to the writing process. After the Electrolettes, though, I wanted to try something outside of a structured band context. I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote songs or came up with ideas and presented them to different people as the basic structure and then had them provide their own parts. There was more freedom to improvise. Usually I ask various friends with whom I've played music before or share similar tastes and approaches to music making if they want to participate. My favorite collaboration so far has been Sonic Triptych, which was a sound performance for nine people I did for Ladyfest Bayarea last year. I played guitar with scissors along with some digital audio. The other performers were Blevin Blectum, Alyssa Wilmot, Miya from Tiny Bird Mouths & The Teethe, Marisa Meltzer, Erin from Crack: We Are Rock, and Jenny, Bianca & Ellie from Erase Errata.
Dave: Is there some sort of connection between photography and music?
Sharon: I use both as a way to explore memory and time. I think of a lot of music making as a time and space based art. Both deal with composition, whether it's structuring images or arranging instruments and sounds. Somewhere in the middle is film. I've always loved movies that have a strong visual and sound component.
Dave: Talk about your label.
Sharon: I started Decomposition in the early 90s. I haven't released very much. I started out distributing the A Wonderful Treat cassette and putting out a 7" by Suture. The last release was Lullabye From The Sky.
Dave: I've noticed that you contributed a track to Thurston Moore's Protest label, also being a Libra you must have some opinions about art and politics and the relationship between them.
Sharon: I believe freedom of expression is fundamental and voicing dissent is part of this. I've been told I'm more philosophical than political. I don't make a distinction. Theorizing and visualizing the way things should and can be often leads to these things happening or is a precognition of the way things will be. I don't make a distinction between dreams and reality. They are fluid. I believe time is nonlinear. Stephen Hawking says contemporary physics has already proven this. It's like Galileo saying the earth isn't flat. I saw this great film recently on Galileo by one of my favorite filmmakers, Joseph Losey. It was an adaptation of a Bertolt Brecht play. Brecht has been a great influence on me. He has said the function of art is to shape reality. Anyway, the film showed how scientific discoveries are often threatening to the authorities in power because they challenge our way of thinking and lead to more freedom of expression.
The sound collage Thurston used for Protest Records is called "The Body Is A System". It's about the relationship between technological, biological, political and psychological systems. When the body functions in good health, all parts work together in harmony. When disease strikes, the body breaks down and loses its balance. Right now we are witnessing the breakdown of our society. The answer is to embrace love and compassion. The heart can restore harmony. It regulates the blood flow. It is something we have to learn. What makes humans special is our ability to think and feel and to have an objective awareness of this process.
We are witnessing a revolutionary change in consciousness from Copernican reality and the primacy of the rational over the intuitive towards an integration of both. It is a way of looking at the world without this duality. The rational, analytical mind has often been associated with masculinity whereas the intuitive, feeling mind is associated with femininity. The war on terrorism is an attempt to resist this movement forward. It sees difference as threatening to the ego. It sees aggression and domination as signs of health. It is the traditional masculine run amok. It sees the world in terms of duality: good/evil for example. Osama bin Laden is Bush's alter ego - the shadow side of himself he refuses to face.
I'd been thinking a lot about this before Sept. 11th, from teaching an art and technology course at UC Santa Cruz and reading Donna Haraway, a feminist philosopher who writes about cyborgs. But after Sept. 11th it became clearer to me that the reality the government wants us to see is not the reality that truly exists. A lot of people woke up to this reality. We are living through a nightmare, but we will get through it. We have a responsibility to express ourselves in whatever way is true for us because the government wants to censor free thinking.