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MorleyView: Julie Christmas

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A few months back I heard the debut record by Made out of Babies and my jaw hit the floor. I had heard previously that they sounded like Bjork fronting a metal band. That was incorrect. It's more like a savagely-PMSing Bjork fronting a metal band while on a blend of hallucinogens set against a backdrop of Alice in Wonderland.

Right away, my ears perked up until they were almost on top of my head. Vocalist Julie Christmas has a voice that doesn't just command attention, its slams you over the head, drags you back to its cave and has its way with you in ways that you haven't yet allowed yourself to imagine. The band is heavy but not in a knuckle-dragging way. They pummel and plunder, yes, but they also set an impressive cement window dressing without clogging up the aural airways, allowing room for Ms. Christmas to do her thing.

Then while conducting an e-mail interview with Julie last week, I found out that she also does vocals for another band, Battle of Mice, which will release their debut this fall. She was nice enough to get the record company to send me advances of both, as Made out of Babies is also releasing their sophomore CD in September. Since I got them, I can literally not play anything else aside from these two records. 

Coward, the new MOOB record is fantastic, an abrasive yet melodic affair that is several steps above their debut…which was already remarkable. While relatively heavy, the record also allows subtlety to reign in many areas. It's kind of like letting Hannibal Lector operate on you; he may be light on anesthetics but don't worry, the incisions will be impressively clean.

Meanwhile Battle of Mice thrills the senses. This is some of the most exciting music I've heard in recent memory. Battle of Mice has echoes of Made out of Babies but is less brutal and more atmospheric. You don't really listen to this record as much as experience it. If any record was made for headphones, this would be it. Lyrically, this record seems like it was taken from a David Lynch movie with songs involving 911 emergency calls, people being pushed down stairs, chained up dogs…..my god……how can you deny such fascinating material? Caution….listen to this in the daytime unless you want this running through your subconscious all night.

The unifying element to both bands is the absolutely mind-warping vocals of Julie Christmas. She goes from melodic dream-like passages (OK scary dream, I mean…this isn't Dido or anybody like that) to spleen rendering screams that almost seems like she must get a euphoric rush from the violent exiting of the notes from her throat.

Julie turned out to be a great interview with a wicked sense of humor that you get a sense that you're just seeing the tip of the iceberg of. Here's what she had to say:

antiMUSIC: So I guess the easy questions first. Tell us about both your bands. Who's in them and how did they come about?

Julie: In Made out of Babies, Me and Brendan (guitarist) were a couple for 5 years (the longest five years in history). We broke up didn't speak for a year, and then I called Brendan to get together and play some songs at my sisters birthday party a week later. I was playing with Matt (drummer) and his sister was playing bass. We practiced 4 times wrote 3 songs and learned a Butthole Surfers cover and played the party. It was fun and we just kept going. A year later we replaced Viva (the bass player) with Cooper. We then wrote more than half the album in about 3 weeks and recorded it. The new made out of Babies album, Coward, is coming out in September on Neurot and was recorded by Steve Albini.

Battle of Mice is a project with guitarist/keyboardist Josh Graham. We met in Austin, Texas, when our respective bands-Made Out Of Babies and Red Sparowes-played the South By Southwest Music Festival in 2005. We hated each other immediately. When our two bands went on a West Coast tour together later that year, our attitudes toward one another changed. A long-distance relationship ensued, the furious and occasionally harrowing nature of which is reflected in the music of Battle of Mice. The sonic philosophy of the band reflects a huge, primal range of emotion: Love, lust, jealousy, whiskey, and blind rage. Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) plays bass on several tracks. Joel Hamilton (Book of Knots, Players Club, Glazed Baby) plays drums and is producing the album - he has a great deal to do with how happy I am with the album, which comes out in October on Neurot.

antiMUSIC: Tell us about the significance of the bands' names. 

Julie: Battle of Mice was a real battle. It works because it describes the shape of the relationship behind the band: That there never was a more violent conflict is a matter of record: The armies of the two nations with the greatest military reputation were fighting an evenly matched battle. -Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander the Great (volume 6; 1)

After the successful invasion of Crete in or around 331 B.C., King Agis III of Sparta laid seige the fledgling Arcadian city of Megalopolis. He was met by Alexander the Great's regent, Antipater, and a force of 40,000 Macedonian soldiers. The resulting battle is referred to historically as one of the bloodiest in Alexandrian times, with a recorded death toll of nearly 9,000 men. According to legend, Agis slaughtered a handful of enemy warriors-while on his knees-before being killed by a Macedonian javelin. Despite the carnage at Megalopolis, Alexander was unimpressed. Upon hearing of the battle, he is alleged to have said, "It seems, my friends, that while we have been conquering Darius here, there has been a battle of mice in Arcadia." (Plutarch, Life of Agesilaus, 15).
 

Made Out of Babies was something that Matt overheard a kid say on the street. I think the kid was looking at those bottles of suntan lotion with the little girl on them, and thought it was Made Out of Babies.

antiMUSIC: How do the two bands differ in terms of sound?

Julie: This is kind of hard to answer. Both bands are heavy. I think Made Out of Babies is more rock- based while Battle of Mice has a more melancholic sound.

antiMUSIC: With such a dramatic sound and band name, who are you trying to appeal to?

Julie: No one. I am not really trying to appeal to anyone in particular. If you have something in you that dictates that you make music, or any other kind of art, you just do it. Hopefully it will be something that other people can understand and maybe even appreciate. Trying to make something that appeals to people doesn't really enter into it if what you're doing is natural rather than forced. 

antiMUSIC: MooB sounds in parts more like performance art than metal. Are you more interested in the creation of your work or the dispersement of it to the masses, i.e. live shows?

Julie: Writing music and performing it live are not individual things. If you write something you know sucks, it seems like it would be pretty difficult to be confident enough to give a good performance. You may be able to fake it and pull off something average, but it will never have that indecipherable quality that makes us all wake up when we see it on the stage. 

antiMUSIC: Is there a thematic skeleton to "Coward"? 

Julie: No. About half of the songs on the album were written right before we recorded. Several of the vocal and instrumental lines were improvised during recording. One of the songs is about two years old - we never recorded it properly before, but we'd always wanted to finish it and now it's one of my favorites on the album. 

antiMUSIC: Does Coward differ greatly from Trophy in terms of progression, in your mind? In what ways? 

Julie: To me, Coward blows Trophy right out of the water with a giant elephant-cock shaped hose. There are some good things on Trophy - some things that I still love, but we just know more and are better at doing everything than we were. We had to leave off some material and take a few shortcuts on Coward, and recording with tape rather than Pro-Tools takes some adjusting to. Still, I am less disgusted with the weaker parts of Coward than I am of those on Trophy - to me that means it's better. The funny thing is, the parts I usually think are the weakest, are the ones that more outspoken fans seem to like the most.

antiMUSIC: A couple of the cuts seem even more melodic than anything off Trophy. Did you want to explore this avenue more on this record or did they just evolve this way?

Julie: No, we didn't have any pre-conceived ideas about how to work on the album. The differences you hear on Coward are just the natural changes that any growing band goes through. "In Death in April", I will say that I purposely sought out a new voice to fit the unique differences of the music. I am singing this song in my lower range, and it felt good. It's a more womanly sound than my normal freaked out seven-year-old crack head impression. 

antiMUSIC: What elements of the record did Steve Albini have the most effect on and how demanding was he?

Julie: For anyone who doesn't know that much about how albums are made, the producer is like an unseen member of the band. They are as important to the final sound of the album as anyone playing or singing. Steve Albini is well known for recording almost exclusively with tape, as opposed to Pro-Tools, which is a more traditional approach. Steve Albini's biggest contribution to our album, and probably every album he works on, is that when you listen to the album you are actually hearing something close to what the band sounds like in real life. He doesn't do anything to alter the natural sound of the band unless you specifically ask him to. I think this worked well for Made Out of Babies, because we benefit from a sound that is more raw. With him, it's up to the band to give a good performance. Rumors I'd heard about him being kind of an a**hole weren't true. He's just direct, which I appreciated. It's harder to trust someone who's always smiling and nodding I think. And he IS game to having fun in recording, which suits us also.

antiMUSIC: A Day of Nights is one of the most intense records I've ever heard. How did you go about determining what you wanted the record to sound like? And how much material was discarded to put together such a power collection?

Julie: Looking back, I can see that the songs were written in a timeline that mirrors what was happening between Josh and me in our growing, and then rapidly decaying, relationship.

We met each other in Austin, Texas, when our respective bands-Made Out Of Babies and Red Sparowes-played the South By Southwest Music Festival in 2005. We hated each other immediately. When our bands went on a West Coast tour together later that year, our attitudes toward one another changed. We pursued a long-distance relationship (Josh in LA, Me in NYC, the furious and occasionally harrowing nature of which is reflected in the music of Battle of Mice. The sonic philosophy of the band reflects a huge, primal range of emotion: Love, lust, jealousy, whiskey, and blind rage. 

Nothing was discarded at all. Some of the album is actually totally spontaneous and driven entirely by feeling. We work together well even if we aren't speaking, and have some kind of creative compatibility that allows us to express both positive and negative feelings through sound. Josh comes up with riffs and we worked on them together (with Joel Hamilton & Tony Maimone & Joe Taormino) to get them how we wanted them, but nothing was ever thrown away.

antiMUSIC: "Bones in the Water" contains a fury that would rival the Manson family in all of their artistic endeavours. What was/is the lyrical seed behind that cut?

Julie: The order in which the songs on A Day of Nights were tracked is different from the order in which they appear on the album. Anyway, before the album's final song was recorded, an unnamed band member accidentally "fell" down the stairs. I personally really like the spare brutality of the song, it's very different from most of the other songs - it's just an open and undisguised f***-you anger spew that I think most people can probably relate to on some level.

antiMUSIC: Ummm. Please explain "Sleep and Dream" if you would be so kind? (the more melodic vocals parts at the end are more than excellent, setting off the song terrifically!!!)

Julie: I really can't explain "Sleep and Dream". Every response I had to Josh's parts in that song required no thinking at all. I opened my mouth and the parts and words just fell out. This happens often with the music he gives me to sing to. I don't have to try. I only have to open myself to feeling the vocals hidden in the music. 

antiMUSIC: What is "At the Base of the Giant's Throat" about and how many takes were involved to get the perfect scream on the 911 call?

Julie: I am actually not allowed to talk about that. I know it sounds crazy and overly-dramatic, but I'm serious. Please feel free to roll your eyes! I can only tell you that it just took one take.

antiMUSIC: "Cave of Spleen" sounds pretty chilling. How did you approach this song?

Julie: By the time "Cave of Spleen" was recorded, Josh and I couldn't bear to be in the same room together. The guitars and vocals were completed on different days; the vocals in one take, with no pre-written lyrics. The tension of the working environment was so bad that Tone (bass) decided to take a break. Joel (guitar, drums, producer) was amazing and extremely professional. He just went with it, separated us, and helped us make what eventually became my favorite track on the album.

antiMUSIC: This may seem like a stupid question but how will you possibly be able to do a long tour with some of this material? Tracy Bonham blew her voice out during one tour, just from "Mother, Mother" alone. Your material goes about 4000% over that line and I can only imagine that you are even more impassioned on stage.

Julie: People keep asking me questions just like that! I can handle about thirty or thirty- five minutes a day of singing for about a month. I always warm up, and do shots and drink hot beverages to control pain and strain, but it gets tough. I have accepted the fact that at some point I will open my mouth and nothing will come out and it will just be over. I think the music starts and I just lose control- I think it helps to be so emotionally involved. It's also helpful that I have been singing forever. I've heard that if you start singing when you're really young, your body sort of naturally trains itself to sing properly. I guess that doesn't really apply to throat ripping screams, though, so we'll just have to see how it turns out. 

antiMUSIC: Since the two bands are releasing product around the same time, how are you planning on scheduling your time between the two? 

Julie: Made Out of Babies is more organic and paired down. We can go anywhere and play anytime without too much fuss. That's why I like the band so much.

Battle of Mice will be a much more involved live show. We are working on some new tracks that even involve string instruments, so the live show will take more effort to put on the road. That's why I like the band so much. 

To me, the projects have both divergent and convergent audiences and sound completely different. I don't think it will be too tough to figure out a schedule. Also, almost everyone in both projects is so involved in music and art that we all have multiple projects to keep us busy during down time.

antiMUSIC: Does the artwork on "Trophy" relate to pieces of a victim being kept by serial killers? 

Julie: The artwork on Trophy is a real photograph of our drummer as a little kid. He found a quarter on the sidewalk and raced across the street to play a video game. He didn't see the car obviously. I love that picture. It works with the music and the album title. He looks like some sort of cupid-monster collage, and it's sort of beautiful and vicious at the same time.

antiMUSIC: How does the writing work with both bands? Do you do all lyrics? Who comes up with the melody lines?

Julie: Usually, the music is written first. If it's being worked out in practice, I have a hand in how the song takes shape from its inception. If the song is given to me as a whole rough sketch, I work on the parts that hit me instinctively, and then make suggestions about how it should be edited to make a complete finished song.

antiMUSIC: What are the paths in your musical history that led you to these bands? Who else have you played with and do you have any formal musical training?

Julie: I have been singing as long as I can remember. I have been trying to find other people to actually work with since I was a teenager. I used to approach complete strangers on the street, to ask people if they had friends that played anything on the heavy side. I even answered adds in the paper for a while of bands looking for singers. I got rejected so often that I started to keep a "journal of rejection". Most bands didn't like all the screaming. Before the first shocking acceptance, I was actually trying hard to be rejected, which was really more fun than I can describe. I got kicked out of the band I was accepted into for bad behavior. They can all suck on my indie dust.

antiMUSIC: Do you play any musical instruments?

Julie: I don't play any musical instruments. I do have formal training, but I'd rather not talk about it because it embarrasses me. Some of it is invaluably useful and I love classical music, but I found that world to be shamefully exclusive. I always saw a distinct connection between punk and harder music and the music of the classical giants. That was not an appreciated, or even momentarily considered, viewpoint.

antiMUSIC: Your vocal sound is very wide-ranging, going from a little girl to the full-throated screams. Sort of like a really pissed off Björk. How did you come to form this style and have you sounded like that with your previous bands?

Julie: I have been singing since I was a little kid and I think I retained some youthful quality in my voice. I get the Björk comparison a lot and I'm actually kind of sick of it. I also get compared to P.J. Harvey, Kat Bjelland, and a few others. While they are all amazing singers and innovative in specific spectacular ways, I don't want to sound like them and I don't really think that I do. I'm very different from them and none of them has lived through the specific experiences that make my voice mine. It's just a plot by the man to force me into a box with a label, if you really stop to think about it. 

antiMUSIC: Have you had much stage experience prior to Made out of Babies? What was touring like over the past year?

Julie: Made Out of Babies is my first extensive stage experience - the first time that I have ever been forced to think about the elements that make an effective performance. On stage, my job in the band is to relate to the audience personally and to help them make a connection to the music. When the first note of the set starts, I just lose control. Up to that point though, it takes some serious effort to "psyche myself" up for it and I get scared every time. It's a very naked feeling to be in front of a room full of people who are watching you. You have to get comfortable with the idea that what you are about to show people is honestly a part of you, and if they don't like it there's nothing to be done about it.

antiMUSIC: Your music is very mood-inducing atmospheric. How do you approach getting into the mindset before a live show? Are you a pacer or do you just go out and sing?

Julie: When the band before us begins to break down at the end of their set, I go out and walk around the block and warm up. Sometimes I get strange looks from people on the street. A few times I have been mistaken for a hooker and men slow their cars down until they see my middle finger. Then I go back in, do a few shots and get on stage.

antiMUSIC: If we were to go through your CD collection, what would we find in there?

Julie: Not much. I really don't listen to that much music. I love Jesus Lizard, The Melvins and Barkmarket and Neurosis. I like some Spanish music and a bunch of Classical. I have Otis Redding and B.B. King box sets that I listen to. And Louis Prima and Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonius Monk. I like Melt Banana. Since I have started touring and listening to more contemporary heavy music, I have realized how many unique, inspired, bands there are. OxBow is great. Red Sparowes are great. I also just saw SunnO))) and loved it. I guess it just comes down to being able to recognize when bands and performers really mean it or are doing something different.

antiMUSIC: If your own CDs woke up bleary-eyed one morning after an interesting night out, which CDs would they be embarrassed to wake up next to?

Julie: Great question. I think my CDs would be a little embarrassed to wake up next to a Cyndi Lauper CD. I don't think they should be embarrassed though. They've always secretly been attracted to her vivacity, wacky earring choices and the sound of her voice. I like to think that I am the type of person who encourages her CDs to explore their interests without inner repercussion. Just don't be seen in public together, that's all.

antiMUSIC: What are the plans for both bands for 2006-2007?

Julie: Touring and recording and touring and recording. 

antiMUSIC: Anything else you would like to tell us that I didn't ask?

Julie: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. If anyone is actually reading this, thank you, too. 

Made out of Babies will be on a full US tour during July. We have some great shows with bands like Oxbow, Thrones and Dillinger Escape Plan. Everyone should come out to see us and come say hello, we promise to only hurt a little. 

I just want to take a second and say that record labels like Neurot, Robotic Empire, Hydra Head, Conspiracy, Southern Lord and a few others should be supported. They put releasing good music first, and that's pretty special and definitely ballsy. Kristin and Steve Von Till (Neurosis) and everyone in Neurosis treats us like family and signed us just from a demo that we mailed. They gave us a chance to do this and I can never thank them enough. 

Morley Seaver and antiMUSIC thank Julie for this entertaining interview. We wish her all the best with both of her upcoming records. 


Links


Preview and Purchase Made out of Babies CDs Online

Visit the official Made Out Of Babies homepage

Visit the official Battle of Mice homepage

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