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Drawn to "creepy things" since childhood, Melora Creager wrote her first song, which was about Lizzie Borden chopping up her mom, at the age of five. The tune featured stabbing piano chords to capture the force of the 40 whacks Borden gave her mother with an ax. Creager describes her career since then as essentially an extension of that first composition. Fittingly the songs of her cello-rock ensemble Rasputina tend to center on narratives, some of which are partially infused with real-life historical references. A vague aura of dread pervades, but Creager's off-kilter sense of humor bristles even more clearly underneath.
"We have come here expressly to scare the bejesus out of you," Creager says with a chuckle while greeting the crowd at the beginning of Rasputina's 2004/2005 live album, Radical Recital. Before breaking into a thick, ominous, dirgelike howl that sounds as if it couldn't possibly have come from a cello, Creager jokes about "showing our hoodoo, displaying our juju, and tragically and embarrassingly exposing our supreme mojo."
The single "Rats," for example, which Creager introduces on Radical Recitalvia a stage rap involving a cold cheeseburger, her daughter, and mad cow disease, recounts the story of the starving population of Bolivia who appeal to the pope in order to have rats "as big as ponies" reclassified as fish by the Catholic Church so they can eat them. The song's verses detail how the rats are caught and prepared for consumption. Other numbers, such as "Momma Was an Opium Smoker," "Wicked Dickie," and "Saline the Salt Lake Queen," unveil a parade of gnarled but endearing, almost fable-worthy characters.
"I'm really not into gloom," asserts Creager. "Some of my subject matter is intense. I'm intrigued by the strange, but it's not about gloom or darkness. I think the humor is pretty easy to see.
"People have a really strong desire to label things and stereotype things so it's made easy and they can understand," she continues. "I don't look for things to be easy. I'm unable to put my music into a couple of descriptive words. If something is original or unheard of, it's harder for people to get their mind around. I think 'goth' or 'dark' or whatever are just labels and not anything I've ever been involved with. We have lots of different sounds and subject matters and moods."
Starting out as a three-cello outfit, Rasputina now consists of two cellos and drummer Jonathon TeBeest, whose playing Creager describes as "like a third cello."
"It's kind of a hard job for a drummer," she explains. "He has to be a really sensitive player to play well with us. He's just very musical. He's playing drums like an instrument, playing phrases."
That said, Creager has always maintained she is a rock musician who happens to be working with classical instrumentation. As the aforementioned live album demonstrates, the band has a surprisingly powerful attack onstage. Apparently, however, some audiences don't see it that way. Creager describes the difficulty in facing an unreceptive audience during a recent run opening for Primus.
"We had such a fantastic time touring with Les Claypool's Fancy Band in the summertime," Creager recalls with a laugh, "that we assumed it would be the same experience with Primus. But it was extremely different. It was a metalhead kind of crowd. It led me to question what kind of progress I've made in the ten years since I got stuff thrown at me by the Marilyn Manson audience!"
Which is not to say Creager regrets the experience.
"We kind of like our underdog role," she explains. "When you open for somebody big like that, it's a challenge to win people over. A big audience like that is like an organism unto itself. You're not experiencing different people. You only hear what people are yelling."
Creager recently starred in filmmaker Kim Wood's 2003 period short On My Knees, which quickly became a challenge for her as well.
"It was based on the diaries of a Victorian maid," she says, "who was really unusual. She gloried in her physical labor and had a strange, kind-of S&M affair with a nobleman. Kim got the rights to the diaries. I thought I was an actress, because I've done so much performing, but when it came down to it, I'm not very comfortable as an actress. It's a hard process, because I really don't like being told what to do, and that's what acting is being directed by the director. It's not really for me. But I got to do the score too. It was really interesting how I contributed so much to it. I'm about the only person in the movie and did the score and voiceovers, but it's still Kim's project."
The film's subject matter, setting, and wardrobe dovetailed perfectly with Creager's interest in vintage attire, which features prominently in Rasputina's live show.
"The film deals with stuff that I'm into," she says. "I read a lot of books about the history of housework to prepare."
Rasputina comes to Miami with a temporary replacement for departed second cellist Zoe Keating, who left the band to pursue solo work. Where Rasputina originally functioned as a revolving door with the admittedly autocratic Creager clearly and unequivocally at the helm, Keating and TeBeest afforded Creager with an opportunity to function more collaboratively when they joined. Creager, in fact, had been relishing their band chemistry.