A couple years ago, Montreal-born bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur was re-examining her life, attempting to map out the circuitous path that led her from home back in ’94 and straight into four-string stints in Hole, Smashing Pumpkins and a Black Sabbath cover outfit called Hand Of Doom. All coveted gigs, to be sure (well, two outta three ain’t bad). But was this where her life was truly headed? Down the rebellious road of rock ’n’ roll? Once her assignment on the Pumpkins’ farewell tour was complete, she took several decompressing months of vacation just to answer that crucial question.
The artist finally opted to record a star-studded solo set, Auf Der Maur on Capitol. But the choice wasn’t easy. “I wanted to deconstruct everything,” says Auf Der Maur, who until recently resided in New York with her beau Andrew W.K., just one floor above childhood chum Rufus Wainwright (she just moved back to Montreal). “And I mean everything, like ‘Wait a second—maybe I don’t even wanna do this anymore. Maybe I just wanna be a working photographer instead.’ So I started going through all my negatives and put together a few photo exhibits.” After all, her college study of photography had been cut short a decade earlier by a call from Great Pumpkin Billy Corgan, asking that she leave her local group Tinker to join Courtney Love’s notorious juggernaut Hole. Should the shutterbug simply pick up where she’d left off?
“I’ve basically been documenting the world around me since I was 14,” explains Auf Der Maur, who brought an elaborate arsenal of cameras along to freeze-frame her concerts with the Pumpkins. And within her university courses, she’d done nearly three years of self-portraiture study, a la one of her idols, Cindy Sherman. “And it wasn’t so much because I’m fascinated with Melissa—it’s that I’m fascinated with what it is to be a human being. I mean, what do these days upon days equal up to? And the camera is an amazing way to sorta keep track of all your different questions of identity. So now I have a book in the making, a tour diary basically, called July 1994 Through December 2000. A book of my years on the road with these bands, but from the inner feminine perspective versus traditional rock photography. It’s much more about the dust on the hotel room floor than the lead singer doing their vocal warmups.”
Her wildest photos? There’s one uncomfortable series, says the shooter, of herself in a French hotel room on her first European jaunt with Hole, staring bleary-eyed at late-night television. “Every evening I had jet lag, and there was nothing but horrific French porn on TV,” she hisses. “It was the most depressing, hollow experience ever—I felt so alone, with my world going on without me back in Montreal.” Another shot—usually on prominent display in her bathroom—cuts even closer to the quick. “See, I’ve had chronic nosebleeds since I was a little girl, ‘cause I’m a redhead and doctors tell me that redheads bleed easier ‘cause our skin is thinner,” Auf Der Maur prefaces. “I’d be on the school bus as a kid, with blood just pouring from my face, unstoppable.” As she got older, and more adept with a lens. “I started to photograph the nosebleeds because they were just so crazy. And I laid down in my bath one day at 22 and let the blood run all over me and documented it with some self-portraits. And I realize that it could look pretty disturbing to someone, but it was just my intimate relationship to one of my deepest vulnerabilities—I bleed easily.”
And when she first saw the cover photo of W.K.’s “I Get Wet” debut—a snapshot of the singer with blood gushing from his nostrils—she knew they’d make a perfect pair. “It was a strange, fateful little thing,” she contentedly purrs.
Her photo jones sated, Auf Der Maur re-entered the musical fray, determined to do it D.I.Y. style. She funded just about every aspect of Auf Der Maur, and wasn’t shy about calling in cameo guitar/vocal favors from old friends like Hole’s Eric Erlandson, the Pumpkins’ James Iha, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme and ex-Tinker bandmates Steve Durand and Jordan Zadorozny. The sound is what you’d expect from any hard-hitting rock bassist—huge, crushing, serpentine-rhythmed, and heavy as a lead-laden Peterbilt, hurtling down the turnpike. On coliseum-destroyers like “Skin Receiver,” “Lightning Is My Girl” and a galloping “Followed The Waves,” Auf Der Maur’s lyrics ripple with dark, visceral shades while her vocals waft cumulus-ethereal overhead. Like a muscular Great Dane barking in a perky Pomeranian’s voice.
Auf Der Maur has nothing but respect for benefactors like Corgan and Love. And she first took up bass, she says, because “it’s a way to communicate within music on a subconscious level, a sneaky, sensual, sexual communicator—the mother of all instruments, the female role within a band.” Similarly, she adds, “In my lyrics and music, the soundscape of it definitely looks—or sounds—like my photos. And I’ve always said that. And you know there are people who are worried about that, like ‘Oh. I’m a musician. I can’t be a photographer!’ Or ‘I’m an actor. I can’t be a musician!’ But it’s all one and the same thing, one big form of expression. So if you have something to say, why not find as many ways to say it as possible?”