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gnomeward bound

A Conversation with Alicia J. Rose (continued)

AR: Well, now things are really coming full circle, which is interesting for me. I took a very long diversion in the middle though, trying to get away from the grind of club booking. I wanted to have a less insane life, but really, it turned out to be just as insane. I ran a music distribution company for nine years.

PM: Of course you did. Where? In San Francisco or--

AR: No, in Portland. After a year or so at The Chameleon, I started doing some independent shows at the Great American Music Hall. I booked the Covered Wagon for a short while, The Nightbreak on Haight, which eventually became The Thirsty Swede, The Elbo room...all these different places. But at the same time, I wasn't really making enough money at that level to really do what I wanted to do, and it was getting a little boring. So I thought I should work in music distribution. And there were opportunities for that. I wondered, could I be a publicist, could I be in sales, what should I do? When you're young, it's like, what can I do? What am I good at? I don't know. Let me just try it all.

PM: Right. And which of these is attached to an actual revenue stream.

AR: Precisely. And so I started working in distribution.

PM: Right.

AR: I worked for Revolver Distribution for a short while, doing promotion and publicity. I never did sales for them. Shortly thereafter I got a job doing sales at Subterranean Distribution, which is also in San Francisco.

And I was getting more well known as Miss Murgatroid around this point. I started learning how to play in '89, and by '91 I was booking the Chameleon, and things started happening. I remember this great story. Lee Joseph, who used to run HellYeah Records and Dionysius--do you remember him?

PM: No, I don't know the man.

AR: A nice, sweet Jewish man who played garage music. I'm a good Jewish girl who was learning accordion. We kind of hit it off when he came to play the Chameleon with--I can't remember the name of the band at the time. He asked me, "So what have you been excited about lately?" And I told him, "Well, I just got my parents to buy me an accordion for Chanukah."

PM: [laughs]

AR: Yeah, I said, "I'm super excited. I just learned some songs. You want to hear them?" He said, "Yeah!" I happened to have it in the basement of the Chameleon. I said, "Listen!" So, I strapped it on, played him "Myrtle the Turtle" or some crazy song I had learned. And he's like, "You're kidding, right?" I said, "No, I love the accordion!" He then told me, "Well, if you ever want to put a single out, I'll release it."

PM: Oh, my God.

AR: I was honest with him, told him--"Well, I've never written any songs, I don't know."But he insisted, "Well, if you ever want to, and it's the right time, just let me know." And in my little crazy mind I thought, "Well, when the time is right, it will come to be." Which is sort of the way I approach everything. And of course one thing led to another. One friend asked me to add accordion to one of his songs, offering me time in his studio in exchange. Another friend had a school project at I think it was City College, San Francisco. He was in the recording program, and asked me to come in and be his final project!  I thought, well, there are two songs. That's a single, right? Okay, sweet. So I recorded both songs. And then I phoned up Lee and said, "Lee, I have a single. You want to put it out?" He agreed. Of course, one of the songs was my tribute to grindcore. It was 1992. I couldn't help myself.

PM: Wow.

AR: I had this notion of using the accordion to make all the parts of the song, percussion, feedback, guitar, bass...with the end logic being "It'll sound just like grindcore, but all made from accordion." I called it "Hells To"--a play on "Heavens To"...Murgatroid, that is.

PM: Right. [Just for reference, click here to hear Snagglepuss saying his signature line, "Heavens to Murgatroid!"]

AR: And so I tried. It was a tiny bit ridiculous. The other song was a really washy, gorgeous sort of allegorical, sad instrumental tune about my grandmother's death, even though there were no lyrics.

PM: I see.

AR: So I called Lee, and he said yes. He loved the songs, and put out a single. It had pretty bad artwork, at least for my standards. We found a picture of an accordion from some clip art book, used a "certificate of achievement" from one of my accordion songbooks for the back cover. I guess it was kinda cute. I think it sold out all of its 300 copies, which at the time was very exciting. That led to other things. This guy in Atlanta, at Worrybird Disc, he found it, decided I was the new Patty Waters, and wrote me a fan letter. Ironically or coincidently, he was working with a comic book artist I was a huge fan of at the time--Ted McKeever. I don't know if you know who he is. He did Metropol and Plastic Forks, and all these comics that I was just a huge fan of in my 20s.

PM: Not really.

AR: So, I was a fan of Worrybird already, because ironically, [Worrybird] David was a fan of Ted's and was hiring him to do a lot of his cover artwork. I was buying all his records anyways, because I was a huge McKeever fanatic. So out of the blue David sends me this letter saying, "I love your music. I think you're the new Patty Waters. Would you like to make an album with me?" etc. He also included a bunch of his releases that I had already bought! I opened up the package, I remember I was like 21 or 22, and I was thinking, "This has got to be a joke."

PM: And you'd been playing for two years or something.

AR: Barely two years. It was kind of crazy. I knew who this guy was. So I wrote him back thinking, okay, I'm totally getting away with something here. That's actually become a major theme in my life: Any time I'm getting away with something I'm usually onto something.


AR: You know what I mean?

PM: Yeah.

AR: So I contacted him and said, "Of course I'd love to do an album."  I had never written more than a few songs, but I told him, "Sure! I'll do an album, but only if you'll have Ted McKeever do the artwork." [laughs]

PM: Wow.

AR: I thought it was worth a shot! He said yes, and I made an entire album filled with these bizarre little tunes. Strangely one of the little ditties on that album, "Methyl Ethyl Key Tones," got used in the soundtrack for a film that's still all over the place because its stars have become megastars.

PM: What was that film?

AR: It's called Freeway.

PM: And who are the people that became stars?

AR: Reese Witherspoon and Keifer Sutherland. [laughs]

PM: Holy jeez.

AR: I still occasionally get royalty checks even. It's pretty rad. The story behind that one is pretty nuts. Did you ever see Forbidden Zone, the movie?

PM: I don't think so.

AR: It's pretty damn bizarre. It stars Danny Elfman, Herve Villachez...and Matthew Bright, the guy who directed Freeway, plays Squeezit, the Chicken Boy. Anyways, a long time ago I was rather ridiculously obsessed with this movie. A few years later...maybe 1991 I sent a cassette of some Miss M tunes to a music supervisor dude, on the recommendation of David at Worrybird, because he was looking to do a documentary on women in music. So, before my first album even came out I sent him a cassette, I remember I used a picture of me playing the accordion as the cover. Apparently he kept it on his shelf for a few years after. Matthew Bright wound up using this same guy to help him with music for Freeway, and when he was putting together songs for his movie, saw my cassette, was apparently intrigued, and gave it a listen. The first song on the cassette was the one he wound up using--"Murgatroid Waltz In G." It was only going to be temporary at first, or just in one scene. Then they put it on temporarily as closing credits. They even toyed with the idea of bringing me to Sundance for the premiere. This was 1995 I think...I didn't even know what Sundance was! But it never happened. They did leave it on the closing credits though as well as the dream sequence where Reese Witherspoon dreams of going back to Grandmother's house....

PM: Oh, my God.

AR: I guess it was kind of a totally bizarre and fortuitous sequence of events, which led to other things. I eventually collaborated with a dancer, and a librettist, because they found my music through Freeway. We eventually did a rock opera together. You know how that kind of stuff is really very circuitous and coincidental, but awesome.

PM: Yeah.

AR: So there's a chunk of my history.

PM: It's amazing, the labyrinthine nature of the connection of the dots there.

AR: I call it a psychological--a topiary labyrinth, because it's very raised relief. Everything has texture, everything has feel, everything in my life has heart. I'm a huge Edward Gorey fan, and he was also fond of the shmancy topiaries. Maybe I got the idea from him. But, it was funny today-- a friend said, "Your life is like a puzzle." I responded, "Really? I prefer to think of it as a topiary labyrinth." Bring on the mysterious shrubs....    continue

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