BREAKING THE MOLD
by Michael Bloom
It’s understandable why you wouldn’t often think of rocking out on a cello. Maybe you’d think instead of that scene in Take the Money and Run, where Woody Allen is trying to play one in his high school marching band. But appearances can be deceiving; the cello actually has a surprisingly vibrant niche in rock. Cream’s Jack Bruce played cello on their Wheels of Fire LP, and Jimmy Page scored a cello part in the Yardbirds’ “Little Games.” More recently Nirvana started a bit of a fad by including cello in their final Unplugged performance. Here in Boston, there’s a full time cellist in the polyglot fusion band Fluttr Effect.
Meanwhile, bridging the gap from the other side are such phenomena as the Kronos String Quartet playing a howling, amped-up rendition of “Purple Haze” designed to incite insurgencies in the conservatory.
Indeed, the cello has many features in common with the guitar, they’re roughly the same size and shape and play in roughly the same range. And there’s evidence that they share a common ancestor, in the bowed and fretted Renaissance instrument called the viola da gamba. But the differences can be profound; the bow, for example, gives cellists a pure liquid sustain that guitarists can only envy. And the bent notes that guitarists play by stretching the strings, and which consequently symbolize tension and strain? Cellists only need to dip their hand a tiny bit further down the fretless fingerboard, and it evokes ease and jollity.
And here we have Susanna Porte and Becca Thornblade, who studied at Oberlin Conservatory, and play the symphonic repertoire in orchestras, but as the Cello Chix, with drummer Nancy Delaney (Temper), rock out on classic hits like “Come Together,” “Paint It Black,” “Living in the Past,” “Misirlou,” and “Light My Fire.” There’s some diversity in their book (an actual notebook, with staves and stems and dots!), some more contemporary material, some original music, even the odd lounge tune. But by and large, their repertoire centers around the era when rock was potentially dangerous, and in some ways their distinct perspective makes it potentially dangerous again.
Noise: Do you want to give me the history of The Cello Chix, for context?
Susanna: I guess you could say Becca and I met for real at a party in 2002. We went to school together…
Susanna: And we graduated the same year. We knew each other by sight, and actually, I remember you came to my recital, because I saw you in that picture. But we didn’t really know each other until we met at a mutual friend’s party in Watertown. People said, you’re both cellists, you should play together. People who are not musicians might say that because they think you have something in common, but there’s not a lot written for two cellos. So we were invited by one of our friends to play at this party. We played some little duets out of a duet book—they sell these little gig books with little dorky duets for weddings, Mozart and Haydn and that kind of stuff. But I had always been into arranging since I was young, I really liked The Beatles, I really liked classic rock, and I thought it’d be cool to play it on cello, so I just threw in two little arrangements at the end, “I Want You” and “Come Together.”
Becca: Which we still play today!
Susanna: And I think we even used a foot tambourine, or I sort of pounded arhythmically on the floor. But they loved it, the crowd went wild, it was a crowd of like 15 people.
Becca: We started doing open mic nights at the Burren, that was the next step.
Susanna: That was kinda hell, cause everyone’s allowed I think 16 minutes, and 25 people show up, and you draw numbers out of a hat, so sometimes you wouldn’t end up playing until like 12:30 am, and of course it’s singer/songwriter after singer/songwriter, and then us, two girls with cellos, and people went whoo!
Becca: And we were using our real cellos at that point, not the electrics.
Susanna: And it was not a non-smoking state at that point, so we were first worried about banging up the cellos, then we’d get home with the cellos reeking of cigarette smoke and beer.
Noise: Now it’s just beer! [Sardonic laughter]
Becca: I’m trying to remember how we got into the electrics.
Susanna: It was November of 2003, at the Cyclorama, that was it. Our big break! We played at Grand Opening’s tenth anniversary party.
Becca: But the main reason is because we wanted to play with drums, a drum set, and we couldn’t do that with our regular cellos.
Susanna: Actually we hadn’t played with drum set yet, we didn’t have an official drummer, but we had guy friends of ours who would play djembe or something as a guest artist. But the problem was that the acoustic cellos gave a lot of feedback.
Noise: Did you try the little bug microphones?
Susanna: No, we just used regular stand-up microphones. But mainly we were concerned about the instruments, worrying about the antiques in a bar, and the squeaky feedback noises. So, November of ‘03, we auditioned the electric cellos at the Cyclorama, which is a very bouncy live space anyway, and it was also a party with sex toys and all, it was kind of embarrassing, wasn’t really our scene. But people liked it, and by that time we were playing Led Zeppelin and stuff.
I think it wasn’t until March of ’04 that we had our first official gig, at Toad, and then it just took off. And our first drummer joined us in July of ’04, but she did more of the sort of earthy hand drum type things, and we eventually decided that it just wasn’t loud enough, we wanted a real drum set player, and somebody who was more familiar with classic rock, so we invited Nancy to join us in January of ’06, and she enthusiastically agreed. We had already heard her with Temper, and we were worried that she wouldn’t come on board, because she had a lot on her plate, and maybe it wouldn’t be cool enough. But she loved it, because she loves classic rock, and she just knows the stuff backwards and forwards. And somehow she can handle being in three or four bands, plus having a nine to five job!
Becca: These are arrangements mostly written by Susanna—a couple original tunes, but all arranged for two cellos. Sometimes three cellos, sometimes flute and two cellos. But most of it is basically starting from Susanna’s creativity in arranging.
Susanna: Nerdiness! My first arrangement was “Eleanor Rigby,” when I was 12, at music camp. Nobody could get the rhythms right, including me. And it wasn’t really an arrangement, it was a transcription. But yeah, I was a real Beatles fan. Of course The Beatles have been done in countless arrangements, for all types of genres, and I think because they have a very classical structure, and the singing lines are very melodic and very well suited to the cello’s range. And in fact the male voice is very well suited to the cello’s range, so when you get a lot of high male voices—not quite as high as Robert Plant necessarily, although of course his stuff works really well, but that sort of higher male voice with a really wide range.
Noise: Well, that’s another characteristic of the cello, that you can get well up there.
Becca: She sounds just like Robert Plant on “Immigrant Song.”
Susanna: In the early years!
The bass line’s important too. People often say,, “Why don’t you do this song, why don’t you do that song”… somebody just suggested we do Devo’s “Whip It.” Well, okay, that’s funny and all that—personally I find it a little offensive—but you listen to it, it’s too repetitive, it doesn’t have a melody, the bass line isn’t very interesting. Basically a bass line needs to be tuneful in its own right for me to really consider it worth using, because you want this contrapuntal activity going on between the two lines.
Noise: Right, you don’t have a chordal instrument, although there are a couple tunes where you’ll hold a chord on your strings and kind of strum pizzicato
Susanna: But it tires out your fingers
Becca: Very athletic, what we do
Susanna: And you’re playing out of tune…
Actually there was a question I wanted to respond to in your e-mail, you were wondering why we picked the flute, the Jethro Tull songs. It wasn’t that we picked the flute as an instrument to accompany us, it was just that Jethro Tull spoke to us because it was so melodic and so classical sounding. So it wasn’t as if we said, first let’s start a band and oh, it should be a cello band, it was the opposite—saying, well, we play cello, and what would it sound like if we played this on cello, and we like playing this for our friends, so maybe we should just expand the audience a bit.
Noise: So you’re not cello ideologues.
Susanna: Ah… How would you define that?
Noise: That you want to recreate rock ’n’ roll in your own image and put more cellos in it!
Susanna: Well, actually, in a certain sense yeah, but very tame. I think what we’re really interested in is bringing cello to a wider audience. Because people are always saying, Oh, I love the cello, and taking them up on that.
Noise: I also want to ask what you thought about Kronos.
Becca: They were a huge influence on the string quartet scene, they took string quartet and completely turned it upside down, probably made the audience three times as big because of the electronics and the writing that they do, they do amazing stuff like George Crumb and Phil Glass, all electronic instruments.
Susanna: African stuff… I think they do a lot of acoustic too.
Becca: I think they’re great. We were really inspired by the former cellist, Jean Jeanrenaud.
Susanna: Actually she’s the one that inspired me to buy one of the electric cellos, the Zeta. In the summer of 2003 I went to Prague, I went to a tiny little theatre, and she was performing there, this little hole in the wall place that nobody would have known about, she was playing a solo multi-media act with first her regular cello with a pickup, and there was film of Philip Glass type images, like running water and pebbles and waterfalls and things.
Noise: (sings basso) Koyaanisqatsi…
Susanna: Exactly! And then she switched to the Zeta electric cello, but she played it standing up, and it was black! This shiny black cello that looked like an apple core when you’re done with it, I thought, whoa! And it filled the room with sound! I’m like, what the hell is that? I gotta get that! So I went on line, and it’s the only place you can get it. And you can’t try them out, it’s like, you bought it. And it comes in this big refrigerator size box full of packing peanuts. Tear it open, plug it in, you’re ready to go. So it’s maybe partial inspiration.
Becca: And people that have never seen a real cello before, and very few people have ever seen an electric cello, and it’s really this wild thing for people to see and get connected to, you know, the string family, just to know more about the string instruments.
Susanna: The electric cello looks really wild, but it sounds almost identical to the regular cello.
Becca: I wouldn’t say identical. The range is the same and the tone, but the quality’s a little different. I think the way we play a real cello versus electric is pretty different too. I just feel with the electric I have to change my technique a little bit to really get the flair, I change the vibrato and bow speed, things like that, things I wouldn’t do on a real cello
Susanna: Also you’re oddly disconnected, because you’re used to having the sound right in your ear, and it’s hard for us to hear something coming out of an amp, I think instinctively we still lean closer to the cello thinking that’s where the sound is coming from. And it’s hard for a purist to switch to the rock medium, because you feel like you’re always playing out of tune. But the audience is a little more forgiving too.
I have been inspired a little bit by the Turtle Island String Quartet, which is lesser known, but they have done some Ellington arrangements, some more jazzy stuff.
But in general I don’t think we’ve been so much influenced by groups as just motivated by the sound that certain classic rock songs have, a very tuneful, sort of mournful quality. I mean we don’t do a lot of happy sounding songs, a lot of them sound maybe a little bit angry, but not in a headbanging way, but just sort of moody.
Noise: What, you’re not gonna do “Enter Sandman?” [laughter]
Susanna: Like “My Sunday Feeling” (Jethro Tull) is great, but it’s a little angry. Zeppelin songs have a wide range, and they really show off what the cello can do.
Becca: It’s not just classic rock, we do some tango, some latin…
Nancy: I joined this group thinking, Oh, this’ll be a breeze, I’m just gonna be playing these classic rock songs I’ve been playing since I was a teenager. And then all of a sudden it was, Oh, I gotta learn some jazz, some latin, some sambas. Definitely a bit more of a challenge.
But the thing is, with rock bands it’s, listen to the song and let’s play it. Whereas this, it’s so much work for Susanna, and Becca’s starting to arrange for it. Just to try out a song they have to spend a day arranging. It’s not like winging it.
Becca: We’re not a four-piece band!
Noise: Speaking of which, do you think there will be a point where you’re comfortable not bringing the sheet music?
Becca: It’s really there just for reference. Once we learn the song and do a few gigs, it’s just sort of there for comfort.
Susanna: I do fantasize about being gig book-free.
Nancy: At practices they’ll be like, all right, let’s start at measure 54, and I’m like, “Yah, can you hum the part? Help me out here.”
Susanna: Yeah, but the thing is, how do you think Jethro Tull rehearsed? I mean, they must have had a system in place.
Nancy: I never knew their stuff was so classical- based.
Noise: When I hear a guitar part or a Robert Plant vocal line on the cello, I start thinking about the baroque tradition, where the music was scored somewhat ad hoc based on what was available, and the composer wouldn’t have flipped out if you played his music on a chalemeux instead of an hautbois.
Susanna: Well, except it’s not a last minute decision, though, it’s a decision that’s made after very careful thought. We’re not substituting, but thinking whether it would work for cello. And many things do not. Now we’ve become so specialized in this day and age that you can’t really do that any more.
Although, when you were talking about chamber music, Becca and I both love playing chamber music. Becca does it professionally, and I do it for fun every once in a while. Like we used to have what we called cello parties, where eight or nine or ten cellists would get together and play all cello music. And of course a lot of this would include arrangements. Many Beatles tunes, because those were pretty easy to arrange. But also maybe some Bach, or some Beethoven doubles. I think once we did a Bach Brandenburg, the viola one, on all cellos. That was cool, and that was more the kind of thing you were talking about. But for us it ‘s easier to do that in the classical realm, we can’t really do that in rock music, because it’s not running through our veins. Through Nancy’s, yes.
Nancy: I didn’t grow up with a musical upbringing; my parents were not musical in any way. I just learned in the garage like everybody else. I always liked jazz and classical, but I couldn’t understand it on the level of playing it, I just enjoyed it as sound. Which is pretty much still where I’m at (laughter)
Becca: Maybe the question is, how can we bridge the gap between the rock band and the classical world?
Susanna: Becca does a lot of teaching, and a lot of her students are children. And a lot of parents have approached us and asked whether we played at places where children, or people under 21, can attend. And they very often said, because my son is taking cello but he’s losing interest, or my daughter needs to be inspired. And I think it can be inspiring, and I think it’s good to see that the cello can be used many different kinds of music.
Becca: Every once in a while when we play more classically oriented songs in our set I think it’s fun to have them hear the whole spectrum.
Susanna: For the audience so much more than you. Like “Habanera” (from Carmen) to us is a chestnut, a warhorse, that “orange” song
Becca: Cheesy in the classical world
Susanna: But people like it! We have live recordings where people go, “Whoa!”
Nancy: I dunno, it always amazes me when people say, “Wow, that’s so unique.” We’re just playing music—either you like it or you don’t. You can over-analyze it to death if you want to, but I’m just having fun.
I hope that Becca will mention that she did play with The Who.
Becca: In an orchestra! They wanted to do a 50th birthday celebration for Roger Daltrey, and they wanted to hire the Juilliard orchestra to play in Carnegie Hall. Not all of us got to play, just a few—they had to just pick out of a hat who was going to play. It was two nights at Carnegie Hall, with Pete Townshend and all these special guests. My first exposure to The Who, I really didn’t know them at all, and it was great!
Susanna: Becca recently had to turn down a Barry Manilow concert.
Noise: Good for you!
Becca: It would’ve made money!
Susanna: We played a wedding instead. It was worth it.
Becca: Did you announce the most exciting news?
Susanna: Our CD release party is—drum roll— February 8 at 9:00 pm at the Lizard Lounge! We’re not playing until the end though.
Becca: You will put that in the article, right?
Susanna: You know those little Bush countdown clocks that say how many more days? We should insert one of those digital countdown clocks into the Noise December issue, then when February 8th comes, beep beep beep, come to the Cello Chix!
Can’t wait ’til February? Catch them on Saturday, December 8, at the End War Now DVD release party at the Abbey Lounge.