A Conversation With… Melissa Auf Der Maur
Melissa Auf der Maur never really wanted to be famous. In the 1990s, even as she found worldwide success as the bassist for the bands Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, she kept herself fairly apart from the drama and notoriety that consumed some of her bandmates. After launching a solo career, marrying her husband, filmmaker Tony Stone, and moving to Hudson, she’s finding a strong sense of purpose in building an arts community upstate. These days, she is one of the forces behind the revitalization of the Hudson Valley, as the owner (with Stone) of Basilica Hudson, the multipurpose art and music venue that each year is bringing thousands of visitors to the area. Here, she talks with Michael Mundy about art, celebrity, Courtney Love, and the importance of carving out your own space to make your mark on the world.
Michael Mundy: I want to start from the very beginning and ask you about your parents because I know they were a huge influence on you and they seem so interesting.
Melissa Auf Der Maur: I’m an only child of two remarkable people. I don’t share it with anybody. I’ve always been very alone. My parents were the same, following their own vision and beat of their own drum. They were writers and journalists. My father went into TV and my mother went into the theater. In both their cases, Montreal was the center of their lives. My father was married to Montreal. My mother was a fiercely independent single mother. Montreal is also one of my central muses. It’s very hard for me to be sitting here in this room, in my commitment to Hudson, but I really believe in the northeast, in Hudson in particular. I come from what is, I consider one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world. By the age of 16, I had a very strong realization of, “I’ve done this city.” My parents have made the city everything to them, and I lived in the shadow of both of them. I had an epiphany at 16 that I will never be able to build my own life in Montreal. I’ll always be the daughter of these two amazing people. That was heartbreaking for me because I realized that I couldn’t make Montreal the center of my life. So I set off on my first invitation to leave—joining Hole, which was a very epic, remarkable tale. I just took the first bus out of town.
MM: Off to a big career in music…
MADM: I never wanted to be a big musician. I just wanted to make really cool, weird art and explore that for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to become that word… “rockstar.” I hate that word. I mean, I was the shyest person. Through my journey with Hole, playing all those shows, being forced to do interviews, being the right-hand person to this very outspoken person, I had to come out of my shell.
MM: Do you consider yourself feminist? You seem to have been very conscious when you were asked to join Hole, that these women were doing something important. From what I understand, you first declined it and then decided to accept it.
MADM: Courtney Love heard about me and asked me to join, and she would not take no for an answer. I wasn’t into being a woman in a band. I was very shy, really tomboyish, very asexual. I was just tripping out on music and art. That’s what I was doing. It was because of the feminist thing. My mother is a 100 percent first wave feminist, I was raised like that. I am not motivated by anything political. I am entirely motivated by a desire to be heard and do shit that I believe in and be part of the world.
MM: So are you an artist first?
MADM: Photography was first. I am a visual artist definitely, but I’m also a photographer who refused to say that I’m a photographer. Just like, I don’t want to say I’m a feminist. I wasn’t a photographer. I wasn’t a musician. I’m not picking one. I’m just going to live life and do all of it. I don’t want to get pinned. It was really hard for me to be in the world of music when I made it in music. I never had a dream about making it in music. I just wanted to make music. Making it in music kind of fucked me up. A lot of what Basilica is is me trying to get back to the beginning because I wanted to be a lot of things. Music really locked me in a prison for quite a while. A lot of it came from almost a good girl mentality. I’ve been given this offer and it would be so rude to not take it. I owe it to women, to Courtney [Love], Patty [Schemel], and Eric [Erlanderson]. I owe it to these people, and to the young women out there that don’t have enough role models. I did it for them. I’m happy that I did, but it was a bit like a prison—an obligation to others. I was very motivated by doing it for the collective good, but on a personal level, it’s been really suffocating. Which is what’s so interesting about Basilica. Even though I’m just creating the platform, and the creative process is the space and the players, the whole program is like a three-dimensional concept album, only I’m not playing music and I’m not taking pictures.
MM: So where were you in your life when you discovered Hudson Valley?
MADM: The moment I left Hole and joined the Smashing Pumpkin’s, I moved back east and moved to New York City. I was living in the Chelsea Hotel for a little bit. Then I got this really cool house in the East Village with a bunch of artists and friends. We had this bizarre huge house and that was as good as it got. I lived there during 9/11, and then the Iraq war came out right around my birthday that year and I was like, “I’m done.” I have to get out of here. So I moved to Cape Cod. I wanted to be alone. I was literally in a tiny town with nothing but old retirees and I wrote my whole second record there. I went and recorded at different places and in that time I also started thinking about Montreal again. So I actually maneuvered back to Montreal after the Cape. Cape Cod was kind of my segue out of American cities. Only six months into being in Montreal, I was meeting with managers for my second solo record, went to New York City, was there for 48 hours, and called my one super nerdy, amazing culture friend. I’m like, “I’m here for 24 hours. What should I do? Is there a museum I should go to?” And he said, “You gotta come with me. This guy, Tony [Stone], made a movie about Vikings with heavy metal as the soundtrack. He really wants your opinion on the soundtrack.” I was like, “Vikings, metal guy, called Tony? I’m there!” I’m brought to his house and, it was full-on love at first sight. I saw a rough cut of his film, Severed Ways, the Norse Discovery of America. I was like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” This is like the most singular vision of bizarre filmmaking I have ever seen. I moved in a month later. I basically fell in love with a New Yorker, right as I was trying to live in Montreal. Within six months, I realized that this is the man of my dreams, I’m going to be with him. We came to Hudson to have dinner with his aunt who’s a painter and all of Tony’s Bard friends were there—Hudson is a world I didn’t know existed. It seemed… and it still does feel a lot like Montreal to me as far as small isolated communities that are able to change where they live. You have a voice in Montreal. In the 50s through the 70s, there was an entire cultural revolution where the French demanded to be part of the conversation after the English had removed their voice. So my mother and my father and I witnessed a full-on change in the city. Where the rights were given back to those who founded the place.
MM: Because people spoke up.
MADM: Yeah, because it was like a revolution. My parents both fought for the French. They fought for the underdog to be heard.
MM: So here in Hudson you feel like you have a voice?
MADM: Yes, a 100 percent. People do because it’s small.
MM: I agree, I think your voice is much more important up here.
MADM: And that’s why, as the future of America, these cities that are owned by banks and real estate people… We can’t change them. We can change pockets—your block, your neighborhood, your art gallery, your school—but you cannot change the system you’re living in. We certainly can here. And that’s what I saw the moment I arrived here. It was a scalable city. It looked like a slice of the best of New York City and Montreal and surrounded by not a lot of anything else. Half the buildings are empty. I thought let’s do this. So within less than a year of being together, we just committed to buying a house up here. We’ve got a big old house in Hudson and it wasn’t really until I moved in that I realized just how magical and crazy and terrifying Hudson, New York is.
MM: So how and when did Basilica come around?
MADM: Almost right away. We looked at Basilica through every window of our house. We asked his aunt who owned that building. “Oh, my eccentric friend, Patrick, owns that building.” He’s a large scale spectacle artist, kind of like a pre-burning man of a different generation. He had it in his mind that this would be this future community center. So we met him and we just asked what he was doing. He showed us the building and we were so in love with it. I spent six months here. While I was getting ready for my record, Tony shot a couple of films here and we just sort of struck a relationship with this guy and asked him if he ever wanted help with programming, we could bring music and film. Then in 2010, he approached us and said, “You and Tony have to take this building. It’s yours.” It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Never in my life did I imagine taking on 17,000 square feet of anything.
MM: I want to back up just a little bit and discuss more about the inspiration. What goes on here? How did Basilica become what it is today?
MADM: It really evolves every year. It started really hand to mouth, small scope. We brought music, film, and art that would otherwise not be coming to the Hudson Valley. We had remarkable friends and allies in organizations, creators of things, that would come here.
MM: Did you think you had an audience here? Clearly, you had access to talent.
MADM: That, we didn’t know exactly, but we gained one very quickly. Our first event was a very obscure novel by Rudy Wurlitzer called Slow Fade. Rudy Wurlitzer was in that first wave of ex-pats from New York. He and his amazing wife, Lynn Davis live in Hudson. They became, sort of like our fairy godfather and godmother. They had a great network of eccentric people that lived in the Hudson Valley but also had really great taste. And so, we launched the first event with Will Oldham, who did an audiobook recording with music to Rudy Wurlitzer’s very obscure novel. We were like, we are open, and 200 people came. It was just word of mouth that weird shit is happening in tiny Hudson. We have been so fortunate to have an audience the whole time. The other big thing that happened was the Nada Art Fair. They came here the second year. They were friends of friends. Tony’s Bard friends are all part of Nada. That was in 2012. A 100 art dealers from New York City set up a whole market and 3,000 people came over the weekend. Amtrak called us and asked, “What is going on? How did you get every single train from New York City to Hudson sold out over the weekend?” And then we did it again the following year—the same thing. It’s as if there’s some magic phone between New York City and Hudson. A lot of us are artists, musicians, filmmakers. I mean this was all word of mouth. That’s what we build our lives on anyway, so it’s just how we built it. But in terms of what we do, we present innovative and independent voices in all arts. By year three, I launched Basilica Farm and Flea. That’s when the mission started shifting and being informed by the local region, the local economies, and local movements.
MM: Why Basilica Flea?
MADM: Basilica Flea was to me, a no-brainer. It was the anti-Black Friday event. I just wanted to showcase everyone that’s making stuff. That’s when I really started understanding what we could be. The moment we said “handmade” and “locally made,” somehow our little word of mouth mailing list grew from a 1,000 people to 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 people a weekend. So the train station is 50 percent of our audience. I don’t know if you know, the Hudson station is the busiest train station outside of Penn Station. It’s the gateway to Upstate New York and the Berkshires. Hudson is the fastest growing hub of the whole region. So Basilica is the first thing you see when you come in on the train. We don’t even have a sign or a billboard. You can’t miss it. Ultimately we’re just artists with no background in development or management or even event production. We’ve learned it all ourselves. But we’ve been striving to be informed by the city and the region, striving to be a gateway to bring up struggling artists and independent small businesses.
MM: You’re giving people a voice.
MADM: Exactly. That’s what we’ve always thought.
MM: Okay, so you did Basilica, and now you’re coming into your next ten year period…
MADM: Yeah. 2020.
MM: What’s going to happen?
MADM: Tony and I believe in the power of bringing people together in shared creative art experiences, but that’s really just a fraction. Now it’s really about flipping it on the inside, the inside mechanics. How can the nonprofit really give back to the region? That’s what we have to do. Primarily we want to focus on workforce development in the creative industries. As gentrification threatens to be like the end all, if we work together and leverage these creative industries that are part of gentrification, and then tie in local future labor with those as role models and trainers, we then have a future workforce of people who can make film, media, carpentry, cooking, agriculture and farms. Through all of this, I ended up meeting a lot of people in Albany that are part of the Economic Development Council. I’m now on the Economic Development Council for Upstate New York. Governor Cuomo appointed a position of volunteers who are essentially guiding the state where they should invest money in grants. I ended up going up to Albany and asking them, “Do you know that the creative economies are actually changing the economy?” They didn’t quite understand that yet.
MM: You recently had a presentation with Courtney Love at the Basilica this past November, tell me more about that.
MADM: It was 20 years since Courtney and I really sat down and talked about what we did together. It was a two-hour show with a jumbo screen that started with a video. I worked with a video editor to make a Courtney in Two Minutes. How can we talk about the spirit of this woman? With all due respect, I feel the legacy is in the gutter of Youtube. I’ve been broken hearted about it since I’ve watched it sort of, just stagnantly, not be nurtured since I left. It is not my responsibility to fix and reclaim Hole or it’s legacy or Courtney, but it’s a huge part of me, as a woman, musician and as a person who cares about history, cares about relevance, and how shit looks different later. Courtney was ahead of her time. She was the only thing that a woman could be at that time screaming, “I am a fucking bitch, listen to me.” And she was written off! She was smarter than anyone else in the room that I was ever in and way ahead of everything that I was ever thinking about in terms of women’s impact on society. She was quite literally burned at the stake. It’s absolutely disgusting what this world does to people. Meanwhile, did anyone ever think about what she may have grown up as and why she might be that person? It was so sick to walk through the world with her and see people judge her for a fucking boob job or drug addiction. Have you ever thought about the human that she was at 10 years old? How do people not see that? So for me, revisiting her two weeks ago and honoring her worked out so beautifully, and it was one of the most healing and empowering moments of my adult life. It was a true blue love fest.
MM: What was it like?
MADM: People came from all over the world, from Sweden and Argentina to local Hudson people who may have heard of her, and tons of New York City people. It was so heartwarming. We had dancers, academics, feminists, unique people doing really personal tributes to her. People who have known her for a long time. Then it culminated into a conversation between her and I. I was able to hit on #MeToo, climate change, and all of the things that… she was way ahead of her time. The whole thing was profoundly satisfying, profoundly personal, profoundly rewarding. The legacy of Courtney and I, and the incredibly misunderstood voice of hers. She should be revisited and I’m happy to be a facilitator towards it. So that’s my 20-year chapter. I’m sort of preparing for the next 10 with a nice segue in 2020 to set this ship on its course.
MM: So will Basilica be your legacy?
MADM: It’s really exciting to have that be a thing, you know, instead of Googling a band name or a painting or an album, it’s like this is the project and it’s been so life-affirming and so profoundly defining for me. Who would have known how much brick and mortar could mean to me and how much having a place to call your own in a world where you will die and leave something behind, other than your children and your work. It’s a really affirming relationship to a place that I was drawn to. I wanted it so bad with Montreal, and I couldn’t, so Hudson became my Montreal, and Basilica became my Hole, and now I just got to figure out how to love the world I live in and then continue growing.