Interview with Alicja Trout: originally ran in Razorcake #29, now an ebook with a new introduction

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Alicja Trout has a modern-day lady approach to the Nikola Tesla work ethic: she is constantly working on new projects and finding electricity in the Memphis punk and garage scenes. Since we last caught up with her in 2005, the world of music has mourned the loss of Lost Sounds co-conspirator Jay Reatard, who died of a cocaine overdose in 2010 at the age of twenty-nine.

Alicja’s personal discography reads like the resume of someone who has never slowed down. She still records under her own name and as Alicja-Pop! Her bands River City Tanlines and Mouserocket are still active in recording and playing shows, and Alicja occasionally puts out records through her mail order label, Contaminated.

In 2007, Alicja first became a mother to daughter Valentine Allgood, and earlier this year saw the birth of her second child, Violet. When she’s not busy raising future rockers, she makes art and jewelry for purchase in her online store.

–Cassie J. Sneider, 2013

Where else but Memphis can you get a bike ride from a stranger named Ray-Ray to buy beer at 6:30 A.M., swerving down wide streets lined with thick, green brush through the heavy and hot mid-August air? A feeling of warmth and home are found in the promise of barbeque and whiskey. From the womb of Memphis have come some of the best musicians: innovators of the craft of independent music, blues legends, and garage punk masterminds.

Alicja Trout (River City Tanlines, Lost Sounds, Fitts, Contaminated Records) and I went to Ellen’s Soul Food on South Parkway. She took me to this particular restaurant so I could experience the glory that is southern cooking. And also so we could do this interview. Ellen sat behind a makeshift counter while her grandson waited on us. It was a simple place—unlike Graceland, which was just a scary gathering of old ladies with Elvis shirts and sandals with socks—which related perfectly to the character of Memphis. It was then that it struck me: Alicja is a very intricate person, considering the simple environment she grew up in.

Alicja is someone who is easy to admire if you love music and the craft that goes into making it. Her songwriting and guitar skill are complimented with a calculated fervor at putting out records. She makes a contribution to music and dedicates herself so fully that you wonder where she has time for a personal life. That’s the thing that’s so admirable: music is her personal life. She does what so few in any scene do: be productive at keeping something alive that could easily be wiped out. She also aids in moving it along and putting it into new forms so that it doesn’t stagnate. All this in a town so small and simple it would be easy to get a job at the local supermarket, pop a few out, marry the guy from high school, and contribute nothing to nothing.

Interview and introduction by Miss Erika
This interview originally ran in Razorcake #29, 2005
Photos by Miss Erika and Todd Taylor

Art Junk by Amy Adoyzie

Miss Erika: How many bands have you been in? Let’s talk about the music aspect of what you do.

Alicja: Probably like ten-plus bands. There’ve been bands that I’ve taken really seriously and pursued making records with and writing good songs for. And then other bands I had to write one song for. I was in a band that had thirteen people and only did two shows. It was funny but we only played those two shows ‘cause it was hard to get everyone together and one of the two drummers left.

Miss Erika: What was the name of the band?

Alicja: Rusty Nails. Our second and last show was documented in a Memphis film that won “best documentary” at the local film festival. But it was more about what happened backstage.

Miss Erika: What happened backstage?

Alicja: There was an issue with the keyboard that I was using. A guy who was known to be a junkie sold me the keyboard and some other guy who was a local hip-hop DJ—a dreadlock-haired dude—told all his friends that I had his keyboard. We even compared serial numbers over the phone and it wasn’t his. So I told him to leave me alone after that. The film that was shot backstage was these three guys fighting with me after I had a big bottle of whiskey. It was hilarious. Everyone [in my band] was told to dress up in costumes but none of the costumes matched. One guy was dressed as a bear, another was a bloody choir boy, and I made a costume out of a bunch of rusty nails with a black wrestling mask. It was really silly.

Miss Erika: Is Memphis really fun when it comes to shows, bands, and crowd cooperation?

Alicja: Pretty much. But you can never really get all the hipsters out to see really good out of town bands. But, when they do go out to see them, people in Memphis will react. They had no idea who the Ghetto Ways were but they came here, people saw them, and everyone went crazy. There was a while all these Japanese bands were coming here and they had the best audience here in Memphis. If the band goes crazy, we go crazy.

Miss Erika: What effect has growing up and still living in Memphis had on your music?

Alicja: Well, there’s a whole bunch of different aspects. I went to a private school and it didn’t really go well. There was a bunch of people who didn’t have anything to do with art or music or going to see bands. It was a really safe environment. So, early on, I put it in my head that if I was into those things, then I was always doing something wasteful with my time. I felt that way even when I was making tons of music and tons of records. People were liking it—that I was doing something for no particular reason—as opposed to somebody in New York who thinks they’re going to get famous ‘cause so-and-so’s label is shopping them around. I was just doing it for no particular reason except ‘cause I liked it. Also, in Memphis, it’s kind of crappy and there isn’t much hope to see. The history is really inspiring, though.

Miss Erika: How did a private school education influence your music and the person you grew up to become?

Alicja: It probably made it a little harder for me to say something that was really simple to articulate ‘cause I had more education. It also pointed out to me from an early age that I was an outsider from the white, suburban, upper-middle class community. My friends were always a sort of mismatched group of people and I was always the artsy one. I was well-liked in private, but when it came to social events everyone got really snobby on me. It was the ‘80s and it was a lot like one of those Molly Ringwald movies.

Miss Erika: What type of music did you set out to play that you hadn’t played before? What made you want to combine garage rock with sick electronic keyboards and synthesizers?

Alicja: I think it came from me teaching myself how to play instead of having someone who I imitated. Making home recordings and not really having any limits. There were also all these really messed up garage punk bands that I’d see out. They’d play a show outside and be really wasted in the middle of the day. Everyone that was out there was stoned, drinking, and doing acid. I was fourteen and I’d wonder, “What the hell is going on? Who are these people? These people are crazy.” It was intimidating and weird but then it sunk in that there were never any environmental restrictions. People don’t move to Memphis to make it in music.

Miss Erika: They move to Nashville. [laughs]

Alicja: They move to Nashville. Make no money, be a toolbag, and feel like shit about it. [laughs]

Miss Erika: Or be a bouncer at a shitty bar. Tell me about some of your home recordings that escaped.

Alicja: Well, I used to make CD-Rs to sell for cheap or give away on tour of some of my non-band related home recordings. I made one called Pop. It wasn’t all about death and destruction as directly as Lost Sounds. Then I ran out of those and changed the name to 13 Songs That Aren’t Right for Any of My Other Bands to Play, which somehow got up on Soul Seek (an internet file sharing site). I think I made like fifteen or twenty of these and then it turned into Black Sunday. I redid, added to, and created some more songs specifically for that. For anyone familiar with the process of home recording, these songs were made haphazard; just making them to make them, with no particular attention to form or quality. That is why they sound like a pile of dirty laundry. You’ve got your stinky socks that have to be washed and your brand new T-shirt you just want to soften up a bit. Then your really dirty jeans mixed with the “I’m not sure if it’s dirty but it’s on the floor and I’m not going smell it to find out.” Then, finally, the “where and who did this come from laundry.” Yep, it’s bunch of sweaty clothes.

Miss Erika: Why do you think you have so much on your plate at once and you’re really productive?

Alicja: I think a lot of the reason I got really productive for a while is I was trying to catch up for lost time. I had gone to college. I had lived in New Orleans for a year and was drunk the whole time. Then I went to art school. I finally just decided that I wanted to do something in music when I was twenty-three or so. Now I lost track of the question! Oh, yeah, so many things on my plate! Well, during the Lost Sounds it was really bad. I was in really damaging relationship and I think I got a lot going so I could escape ‘cause I was miserable.

Miss Erika: Do you think that misery and bad things occurring—with just enough good things and personal satisfaction—gave you some kind of creative catalyst to writing awesome songs that are pretty dark but really well put together and catchy?

Alicja: I definitely think that even the best, happiest-sounding song has dark overtones in it. I would definitely say that hate and anger really inspire songs and sometimes really, really beautiful songs. [The food arrives] Damn, that looks great! You can try anything from my plate you want. I got too much. You’re eating a southern meal now.

Miss Erika: Aw, man. I’m so excited!

Alicja: The meal has just arrived and there’s a huge stack of cornbread pancakes.

Miss Erika: Field greens, macaroni and cheese.

Alicja: Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with homemade gravy, candied yams, cabbage.

Miss Erika: I believe they were called creamed potatoes. I’m expecting them to totally kick ass. So why do you think that you’re so self-sufficient in the sense that you can have other creative partners but you don’t rely on them completely. You do so well on your solo work, where most people need a band to complete their creative goals. You’re amongst a small group like King Louie and Ryan Wong that hold their own. Why do you think that is?

Alicja: I guess you just have to simply be really into playing. I don’t think any of us feel that we do well alone. I think, in a way, we all worry that we can’t do it by ourselves. Maybe we feel we’re better when we have the right combination of people.

Miss Erika: You guys really stick together. Would you consider them you peers in that respect?

Alicja: I definitely consider Louie my peer. He was someone I watched along time ago. Without directly doing it, he helped influence me. Watching him and liking what he did steered me. Ryan was the first one out of that group to be not be afraid to say he liked electronic stuff and darker-themed stuff: lyrics and music that didn’t come from the garage.

Miss Erika: Have you ever been on tour and been mistaken for someone in the band’s girlfriend?

Alicja: I don’t want to get into the sexism thing but I definitely get treated different when people know who I am and when they don’t know. People can be assholes to me when they don’t know who I am. They’ll find out and totally change their attitude. They’ll see me setting up the merch table and the bartenders will be standoffish. It’s pretty weird. It depends on how you’re dressed, too. It’s not a world for fragile girls.

Miss Erika: So what other creative outlets do you have?

Alicja: Making T-shirts and posters. The visual aspect of everything. I try to work day jobs every once in a while. This summer I was teaching cartooning to little kids. I looked at that as a creative outlet rather than a job. It was temporary and it made me think differently. It put my drawing on the spot ‘cause the kids would always ask me to draw them. It was fun but sometimes it was annoying.

Miss Erika: Do you think being in a band and touring so often hinders your personal life?

Alicja: Oh, definitely. Guys look at you differently. They think what you do is really cool but they don’t look at you like wife material. Or you’ll have a great relationship going and you go out on tour and when you get back it’s hard. You go out and have this totally new experience and come back a little different and get back to someone who’s relatively unchanged.

Miss Erika: Do you think you’ll ever regret devoting so much of yourself to music and not cultivating a relationship?

Alicja: No. I see so many bored people. At least I’m not bored. I get unhappy sometimes but I’m very happy with what I’ve done.

Miss Erika: It’s like deciding to become a priest.

Alicja: It’s deciding to dedicate yourself to this thing that’s so not together.

Miss Erika: But you do it all in a very organized way. You have your shit together. Has there ever been a time when you wanted to say, “Fuck it. Fuck this. I’m done.”?

Alicja: I think I did that when I decided to let the Lost Sounds go. I had worked so hard on that band. I’ve switched gears since then. I took time to enjoy this summer and go swimming, watch movies, and do some fun shit. I just stopped being so driven to produce, produce, produce.

Miss Erika: So the personal relationships you have with the people in your band directly affect the band. Do you think with the River City Tanlines you found a combination that congeals well?

Alicja: I hope so. They’re easy to travel with ‘cause they’re not babies. They’re friends and they’re funny. It’s great to watch them banter back and forth.

Miss Erika: What made you decide that you wanted to start putting out bands?

Alicja: Well, I don’t make much off the label. I make money from the mail order. It started ‘cause I was in a band with three girls. We all knew that girls bands don’t last very long so we put out our own records. Then we put out the Ponys and it was fun. Then I started to reissue other records that had sold out, like the Feelers. It’s really fun making records and giving them to the bands… Try this yam. It’s really good.

Miss Erika: What does the future hold for you?

Alicja: I haven’t decided what I want personally. The idea of being in a relationship with somebody that I do music with is a little scary. At the same time, it’s pretty weird going from town to town and having little flings… I don’t know what to say about that. I want to put out a Kajun SS album or something by King Louie. It’d be interesting to do an LP on my label, continue the mail order, and continue touring. Mainly, I want to turn Black Sunday into a band. I’d like to have two bands that are really different from each other. The Tanlines, that are broken-down garage, and Black Sunday, which’ll be more organized. It’s like getting the elements of the Lost Sounds and putting them into two different bands; Black Sunday being a continuation of Nervous Patterns. I’ve basically taken songs that didn’t work with the band, stuff that would be on Lost Sounds demos but not Lost Sounds. The next Black Sunday record is a 7″ and will be done as a band. We are going to do a 7″ in the style of the Freestone Killed By Death 7″ where one song is very arty and the other is stupid and raw.

Miss Erika: So, what are some of your vices?

Alicja: Drinking and having tons of crushes on boys. Being insecure.

Miss Erika: Do you think you have underground popularity status? Like people being overly nice to you or people you don’t even know hating you based on gossip?

Alicja: People have treated me like I do but I don’t really feel. I don’t like it when people who don’t know me talk shit about me on public message boards. I also don’t like when people impose that celebrity on themselves. This girl from a Canadian band asked me, “Don’t you find it so insulting to run off stage and immediately have to be the merch girl for your band? I pay someone to do my merch.” I told her that I didn’t find it insulting at all.

Miss Erika: Do you think there needs to be that element of interaction with people that like your music, whether it’s selling merch or just being at the bar?

Alicja: I sell the merch. I want to tell them what the records sound like. I’ve designed the shirts. I’ve designed the record covers. I think, for the most part, it works better than running back stage and playing rock star. When we were in Europe, everyone was back stage drinkin’ up the alcohol and I was out talking to everybody. I think I had a more fulfilling time talking to the people at the bar. Did you like the chicken?

Miss Erika: The chicken was fucking awesome. 

With that being said, what are you doing? –Miss Erika

Find Alicja’s blog here: alicjatrout.blogspot.com