E.M.A. (Credit: Alicia Gordon)
"I want to go back to building these alternative structures..."

Everything Erika M. Anderson says feels important.

Sat outside a cafe in East London absorbing the last of the summer sun, the American artist is a hive of ideas, a nest of new possibilities; speaking to Clash, her arms fly out to accent certain points, to physically underline the direction of her argument.

But then, EMA's music has always been thus. New album 'Exile In The Outer Ring' is certainly important, a record that deals with fascism, political unrest, misogyny and more in a direct, often confrontational fashion.

The first EMA record of the Trump era, it's actually a profoundly personal document that has found renewed vitality in the shifting context of world politics.

Letting the sun drift in and out of the clouds, Clash learns a little more.

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This is a hugely political record, do you feel that was propelled by the events of the past 18 months?

I mean, the record is actually pretty personal, and the songs were written quite a while ago. So they kind of just really took on a political aspect with what’s going on. I was thinking I was making a really personal record. But I think sometimes the best songs are things that are personal but then people can also relate to it.

When you approach topics like the patriarchy or misogony then the nuances become a lot more apparent in the Trump era.

Yeah. I mean, we were basically almost finished with the record when the election results came in. That was a rough night. I mean, I was surprised. I was never 100% sure but all the polls and everything were like, she’s going to win – don’t worry! And some of those things should have ruined Trump.

And people turned a blind eye to it.

Oh I know… I can’t believe it. And then you see that a huge percentage of white women voted Trump. It’s insane… it’s insane. I think that really speaks to how much people are still really uncomfortable with women who say: I’m the best at this and I’m going to do it. They’re still just like: I don’t like her! (laughs)

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I was thinking I was making a really personal record...

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People love to locate these imperfections.

Oh yeah. ‘She’s too good! She’s a know-it-all!’ Or something else, y’know.

The writing process seems very insular – do you consciously retreat during this?

A little. I don’t think it’s good to lose sight of the outside world, I just was coming from a place where emotionally I was a little bit of a hermit, a little bit reclusive. I just wasn’t really leaving the house much. But it wasn’t a conscious decision on how to write, and I don’t think it’s necessarily better to do that. I was like that, and then I was doing these museum shows, so that gave me a really good opportunity to expand on a lot of these ideas without having to present them as E.M.A. with a band.

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Which museums did you perform in?

I did one at PS1, MOMA. And it was durational, so it was four hours – playing solo. But there was also, like, I built up my shitty living room on the stage, so there was also that aspect. This was two years ago, so I think we were one of the first people to do VR there. It was me and a friend – it was a noise band, a duo. He was doing this, I did that… It was a really cool, freeing way to write, for me. And then I did a show at the New Museum, and then I did a show at the Barbican. And it was a really good way for me to write.

How did those shows enable you to write this record?

Well, I wrote some of the songs that ended up on it. That’s kind of how I used to work – when I was in Gowns – doing more one off shows. No one expected you to get up on stage and play all your songs.

45 minutes, full album, then an encore.

Yeah! I’m actually not used to that, and it’s actually not good for my process to try and be like: OK, now I’m making an album! No, it’s much cooler for me to think, well, I can do whatever I want now because there’s no expectations. As long as it’s good.

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I feel like it’s this sonic language that I developed...

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There’s a Gowns song on this record, too – it often feels like you’re going in two directions, pushing forwards but also reaching backwards.

I’m just going back to what I really like. I feel like it’s this sonic language that I developed and I’ve always really liked, and I’m just going back to that. Things that have been in my music for a long time, but I’d maybe gotten away from. I love a big long drone with crazy stuff happening, I love super heavy guitar hooks with melodic elements, and then narratives. All that stuff, I like it.

Did you do the Gowns track in rehearsals?

None of these songs are really done in rehearsal. I don’t rehearse with the band. I do it myself, building it out. And the Gowns song was just something that we were going to work on for a new record before we imploded. I just love that riff. So was more about wanting to do that guitar riff.

A drone, a narrative… and a riff!

Exactly! I mean, I love vocal harmonies. It’s not just power violence, or something.

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No one’s talking about it, there’s this vacuum...

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In the press note you mention This Is England.

No one in America has heard of it! Or even seen it. So maybe it’s something that feels obvious in England, but I feel like American audiences should watch it.

It’s the manner in which the insecurities of war and the economy can combine with tough leaders to produce fascism.

And the prison system! Which is the really big one in America. Within it there’s this insidious thing where people have to join gangs for protection, and they get racially segregated. It’s just awful.

Do you see these political issues now becoming an unavoidable thing?

When I wrote ‘Aryan Nation’ three years ago – the first song written, basically – a lot of people were like… are you sure? Especially with the title. But I said, well, this is happening, and part of the problem is that in liberal culture people just don’t talk about it. They think people will take it the wrong way, and I’ll get in trouble.

But that’s exactly the problem- no one’s talking about it, there’s this vacuum, and the only people that come in and talk about it are right wing. There’s this void of conversation, and then people like the alt-right come in and then they get to dominate the discourse. So I think you have to say something about that stuff, and not just repeating the party line, or whatever.

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One of the striking things about the song is that refusal to supply easy answers.

There are complex issues going on. I think the portrait of this geography, the place, and these issues… they’re not black and white. And my idea of the outer ring – which isn’t really a saying in America. They don’t have ring roads, like Europe does. But it seemed like a really apt metaphor. And that is where the rural culture and city culture are meeting face to face. Otherwise they can be pretty segregated.

Some of the material was written years ago, but when was the last track completed?

The songs were mostly complete but they also changed a little bit. Jake was really appreciate of the noisey bits and the things that go against genre. But he also was like, what if we just take out this obliterating noisey synth on ‘Blood And Chalk’ and just have a little piano there? But the tracklisting changed after the election, because there was this one point where I was like, OK… going back and forth between: should I just take out some of the more controversial aspects of it? So there were some poppier songs instead.

But once the election said we thought: what are we doing? Are we playing it safe now?

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That is where the rural culture and city culture are meeting face to face...

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‘Breathalizer’ is this bracing piece of noise…

But it’s melodic! At least to me. Those modular synth solos sound like bagpipes or something. I guess people are like, it sounds scary… but I think it’s cool you can make something that sounds scary at this point.

Bagpipes are one of the original drone instruments.

And then all of this stuff on top! I can’t play bagpipes… but I can play modular synths!

‘Where The Darkness’ is this powerful spoken word performance.

Oh yeah. It was taken from this improvisation. So I was just in a trance, I put on this backing track and I just said all the lines. It was even a little bit longer – I actually like the long version but it’s too long for the record. And so that’s just what it was.

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I want to go back to building these alternative structures.

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How do you focus those improvisations during the editing process?

It depends. I really like the improvisations but there is always like a few moments that it’s better just to cut out. So with this one, there was just a few more lines that I really liked but musically it was a little hard to know if it could keep people’s attention for that long. But maybe I’ll put out a long version, or something.

Many of these tracks are quite long, does that link back to those museum shows, to those lengthy pieces?

That’s what I came from. I didn’t come from the ‘writing songs’ aspect, really. With Gowns, we were half in the very experimental noise-based scene where there were no songs, really. I’ve always liked doing that. Once I figured out that you could sit at a computer and build these structures. It was almost like a rebellion when I decided to do songs, actually, considering the scene we were in. I want to go back to building these alternative structures.

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‘Down And Out’ divides human worth from monetary worth, a divide that is so often blurred.

I mean, in America that’s so prevalent. It’s so entwined in the way people think that there’s almost no untangling it. It’s only by looking at history and going over to visit friends who grew up in East Germany, you realise that this wasn’t always the system.

I lived in China for a little bit – I mean, they’re moving into hyper-capitalism – but just that idea. I feel like a lot of Americans feel really shitty about themselves because they’re not making money, but they don’t even realise that there’s no way of untangling it in their minds.

Americans take less days off than any other country – they literally work themselves to death.

Yeah. And they feel extremely bad about themselves when whatever they’re doing isn’t making them money. They’re like: if I just do this thing right! If I just work hard enough! And that’s not what’s happening. You almost don’t even have to enforce it, it’s just continually reiterated. And the people who are hit the hardest by advancing technology, so their fields are disappearing – like coal miners or the car industry – they’re the people who vote against these social programs that would actually aid them.

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It’s so entwined in the way people think that there’s almost no untangling it.

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It’s like democratic self-harm.

I think the shame runs so deep. The shame of not being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take care of yourself and provide. It’s like self-loathing. There’s a huge drug problem in the United States, and it stems from that.

Do you think this places a renewed importance on art, to create these self-operating adjuncts to a society that is plainly broken?

Yeah. I think communities are important, I think DIY spaces are important. I do a radio show on Red Bull radio, and I did one on DIY spaces in LA because The Smell was facing the possibility of eviction. I was thinking about what those spaces mean, what they actually do, and what’s really cool is that they’re self-policing. There’s a culture of respect that’s apparent there, so people don’t misbehave.

It’s in a terrible part of town but there’s not security guards in any respect, there’s nobody checking your bag when you come in. There’s no enforcers of rules, it’s like everyone just picks up on this culture of… Yo, be cool. And it actually feels really, really free.

And so these DIY spaces that I’ve been able to be a part of – like The Smell and these different spots in Oakland – it’s this paradoxical thing. But I think there’s a real feeling of freedom and empowerment in these places where there isn’t a tonne of outside rules.

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'Exile In The Outer Ring' is out now. Catch EMA at the following shows:

2 Brighton Sticky Mike’s
3 London Oslo
4 Manchester Soup Kitchen
5 Leeds Brudenell Games Room
6 Glasgow Broadcast
7 Leicester The Cookie

For tickets to the latest EMA shows click HERE.

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

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