Azita Youssefi is a Chicago based artist and has been a part of the city's music scene since the early 90's, when she formed The Scissor Girls while attending the Art Institute. Her next project was the angular and intense Bride Of No No, which left her wanting to explore other directions in music, and 2003 saw the release of the piano-driven Enantiodromia, the first of many albums under the name AZITA. Glen Echo (out now on Drag City Records) finds Azita playing everything for the first time as well as engineering. We discuss her musical history, new record, dislike for Billy Joel, and love of espresso.
Hey Azita, how's it going? Could you just tell us a bit about who you are, what you do, all of that?
I'm doing alright. Thanks. Ummm I'm a person that lives in Chicago and makes music. [laughs]
Hey, that works! I'm familiar with your projects The Scissor Girls, Bride Of No No, and of course your AZITA output.
That's really it.
I actually just got the Scissor Girls Demo LP. I think it turned out really well.
Yeah, it's pretty. I haven't heard it yet, but it looks nice. I mean, I can't really listen to my old stuff. But I realized that everything on that, I think it's like 7 things, that's the exact first time I wrote any songs. I never once even tried writing before those songs.
I know! It's so weird, because I never thought about that this whole time, but that's why it's hard to listen to?
If you haven't listened to it yet, you may not realize this, but it's a 45 rpm record, and I don't think it says that anywhere on the labels.
Oh my god, I did not know that! Wow, I guess that makes sense.
I threw it on and was like "Man, it's been ages since I listened to the Scissor Girls, but I don't remember this groove they've got goin' on..." and then your vocals came in and I realized the issue. That said, it's still a great listen!
It all makes sense now.
I know the label that put it out had some delays due to printing issues with the jackets, but the guy Ethan was super responsive and cool about the whole thing.
Right, right. They did have some printing issues. I got to know him because of this, but Dan Koretzky had put him in touch with me and was vouching for him. So yeah, he was very cool to deal with in every way. He wrote me an email explaining the printing problems they had. Someone had posted about the delay on my Facebook, and another person commented saying they saw pictures of the bad covers and that they looked terrible, so I'm glad he redid them. Then, what I saw what the finished ones really look like, I just thought they look amazing. To me, since I have the cassette that was scanned, obviously, it looks exactly like the cassette sitting in the middle of this black field because of the spot varnish. It's just the exact cassette cover. It's cool.
Ok, cool. So, let's talk about the Scissor Girls. From what I remember, you moved here from D.C.? Was that in anyway because of the band, or...
No no no. I moved here to go to the Art Institute. During my first year here, I did what I think a lot of people do in college and went home for the summer break. So, I hung out in D.C. for the summer and when I came back, my friend Heather decided to move here and start the band with me. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we just started coming up with some of the the stuff and then we had Sue Anne, who we both knew from D.C. and because she went to the Art Institute with me join as the guitar player. As far as I remember, we had already worked out a lot of those songs with just drums and bass first. I wouldn't trust my memory 100% on that, but I think it was something like that. like, I had no idea what I was doing.
We were around bands in D.C., we were friends with like Nation Of Ulysses and Fugazi and stuff, and I think Heather lived in a house with maybe James Canty and Guy, or something. One of those kinds of houses. I can't remember. We were just around that scene all the time.
I hadn't even tried playing a bass before. I had no idea how it works or anything. Now that I think of it, I have no memory of anyone showing me the first thing on a bass, like how to hold it, how to touch it, or how to do anything like that. I don't remember. I don't know how it happened, actually. I had forgotten until this point that I had ever had any musical background at all, you know? I had played piano in a really uncommitted, lame way from around 3rd grade until like 8th or 10th grade, and never really understood it. Then I became like, punk rock or whatever and had my uhhh alternative life [laughs]. I completely forgot that any musical experiences had ever happened in my life besides going to shows and stuff. Then, I decided we'd start this band. It's weird! All I really know, all I remember is that I went and got this Rickenbacker bass from Guitar Center and that I paid $475 for it. I don't even think I borrowed a bass before buying it! A 1978 Rickenbacker 4001, a really nice bass.
Azita and her Rickenbacker, photo By John Fletcher.
Do you know Joaquin from Dog and stuff like that?
I don't think so.
Do you know Elliot Dicks?
Yeah, he's great!
Yeah, yeah. He was my boyfriend and we were living together for a really long time, even after that. But Joaquin was over and said "I can't believe you got this as your very first bass!" and it was this idea I had gotten this extravagant thing, which it was! I didn't even know if I was gonna keep playing, or like give it up, or who knows [laughs]! But, I still have it, you know? I don't really like to play it, but I have it. It got kind of trashed, being around different houses, borrowed by different people or whatever. I was not a person that babied things at all, so I had to put some money into fixing it up like a couple of years ago. I don't think I'll ever sell it, but it's not the particular bass sound that I'm interested in. I keep it because it's sentimental or whatever.
I feel like those are great basses for like loud rock, you know?
Yeah, it's not really like a volume thing for me, it's a trebly thing for me. I didn't know a lot about instruments or anything, but now that I've had more time I realize there's only one bass sound that my ear is always wanting to hear and it's P-Bass, so I don't need to fuck around with it, you know? That's the sound of what a bass is supposed to be, for me. It occurred to me that I was always trying to make my stuff sound like that without knowing it.
But yeah, all the pictures in that Scissor Girls record are that Rickenbacker, and it's funny because I only really played it during the time period of these demos. By the time the next record came out a few months later, I was already using this big Hagstrom bass that I used for the rest of the Scissor Girls and for Bride Of No No.
You mentioning the P-Bass reminded me that when I spoke with Michael Gerald of Killdozer for one of these, he told a story about how initially he was just singing and they had a bass player that they didn't really like. He had a P-Bass and actually mentioned trading it in. They may have nudged him a bit to do so, and then Michael bought it and just started playing bass.
[heavy laughter] That's fucked up man! [more laughter] I thought the story was gonna go in another way and you were gonna say they just wanted him to get a Jazz Bass or something and I was gonna be at odds with him, but now I realize that he was just next level! It's not like he couldn't have found one, they're like a dime a dozen! That's the most amazing thing about it. The best sounding bass is accessible to anyone, you know what I mean? At whatever price point. You can get the Squire version and it will still sound pretty much as good. [more laughing]
So, how long was The Scissor Girls active?
I think our first show was Halloween of '91? It would have been the same set as what's on the demos record. Those recordings would have happened around the same time? By '93 we had our first record out, and we went on a tour with Jaks, who I think maybe you're friends with, yeah?
I know Jessica, and can't remember if Bill was in the band as well? Great people.
He may have been later? it was Sean, Shawn, Katrina, and Jessica. Of course Magas was a part of that scene too. So, we went on this tour, and I had this big health issue where I went into a coma., and it was never really explained why that happened. It seemed to have something to do with the fact that I had lost my voice and been given this steroid prescription. So, maybe that lowered my immune system or something, but whatever, I had this event. I woke up in a hospital in Baltimore and the rest of the tour was canceled. That was '93, and it put things on kind of a weird course after that. We did another record, Sue Anne had already kind of quit when that came out, so there was a time period where we didn't know who the guitar player was going to be and then Kelly Kuvo joined. Everything was sort of just difficult after that. I'd say the whole thing was over by '95 or '96.
Any other memories of touring or performing tha you'd like to share?
Well, our touring was pretty sporadic. We weren't a band that went on a huge amount of tours, you know? I know we did some Canadian stuff with Candy Machine, if you remember them. I have a really hard time remembering most things, honestly. I remember waking up from a coma because, you know [laughs]. People are always like "Remember when you came here and did this?" and I don't know... that was a long ass time ago, obviously.
Cool. So, I remember going to what I believe was the very first Bride Of No No show, which would have been during the final week of shows at Lounge Ax.
Right. Yeah, that's weird also, because I remember the event but I have no memory of playing it and being at that stage in that band. Bride Of No No was a really hard band to get together and I just don't remember what the line up was, or really anything about it.
It was the Drag City night, and I believe it was you all, Jim O'Rourke, Palace, and King Kong. I hope I'm not forgetting anyone.
Yeah, yeah, we just did a couple of songs maybe? I have no memory. I wish someone had a recording or something, like a video. Of course, no one did shit like that back then, but it would be really cool because I have no idea what happened at all.
Bride Of No No
So, how did Bride Of No No come to be?
Well I can say personally, for me, that when we were doing Scissor Girls we were just doing stuff that worked for me and Heather. I didn't really know anything about how to write a song, I didn't have any strategy or whatever. That was kind of what made it so hard to deal with. Sue Ann left and then we had a different guitar player, and we didn't have any sort of language to describe it to someone new coming in. It was an incredible feeling of being stuck and not being able to make something again. It's funny, people think it's like "free" to make noise music because you don't have chord structures, you know? But, I found it actually really confining because it can really only be duplicated if you memorize it. There wasn't any freedom in it, in a way. I think with Bride Of No No I was trying to have another band situation but I didn't know how to make it happen. We ended up with this really intricate stuff that we practiced for so many hours. We would practice for like 3 hours, 3 times a week. I look at what we ended up with and its like two records worth of material or something, which isn't enough and seems kind of fucked up [laughs]. We talk about that and we are just like "do you remember how much we practiced?" If I compare that to now, when we practice before a show or a record, we do it like 3 times in a year or something! Like almost not at all, because everyone knows what the song is going to be ahead of time just by looking at a piece of paper that says what the chords are. So anyway, I guess that was me continuing to work, trying to figure out how to have this band, and it was a very difficult experience. During that time, I had gone back to studying some classical piano, as a totally separate thing. That's when I started writing the stuff that ended up being the first solo record. Then, at some point, around the second Bride Of No No record, it became clear to me that I could just do stuff a lot faster by myself, you know?
It's because I didn't have the language, I didn't know how to make the band work at that time. Now of course, it would've been different if I knew the things that I know now, but I didn't really know what I was doing [laughs].
I know you worked with Atavistic Records for the Bride Of No No stuff, but they also released your solo record Music For Scattered Brains, right?
Yeah, yeah. That was totally unrelated. It was actually something I had done as part of my BFA exhibition at the Art Institute for the sound program. That had already been put out on vinyl, and then Kurt just reissued it.
I gotta ask, because I've been curious for years now. Regarding Bride Of No No, what's the deal with the cover for the first record B.O.N.N. Apetit!? I've always been intrigued by it and wondered "What am I missing here?"
[Laughs] Well, we're in it in our outfits as the chefs, right?
On the back, yes.
I think we had some shows or something and were with Jeremy Lemos, who was doing sound with us, and were in Wisconsin or somewhere between here and Minneapolis. We stopped at some restaurant for lunch and that painting was on the wall, and I just decided that I really wanted the painting to be the record cover.
So shortly after, you released Enantiodromia?
Yeah, it was sort of simultaneous, in the same year anyway. I think when we were doing the second Bride Of No No record, we had already basically broken up as a band. While we were getting the record ready, I had either already recorded the record on Drag City or was getting ready to. I don't remember.
How long had it been since you had gotten back into playing piano when you made that?
I think it was around the time that Scissor Girls broke up? So, like '95.
Like so many, I was kind of forced into lessons as a kid, and I regret letting it kind of slip away over time.
Oh, definitely. That's what happened to me. I gave it all up, and then went back and did it all again. It doesn't matter, you can go back to it. Having spent a lot of time, thousands of hours, being a piano teacher you see people coming into lessons with all this shit, there's so much fucked up psychology about it. There's like this morass of self-actualization issues all tied to children's music lessons. You know what I mean? It's so unnecessary. Sometimes I'll get asked if I was classically trained. Like, what the fuck does that even mean to you? It means some kind of antebellum shit or something. Some wood paneled fantasy.
The majority of people that take "classical" piano lessons with a normal piano teacher, yeah, they're learning some classical music, they're learning how to read. That's just normal shit, but they try to put this whole thing on it, and I think it has to do with something else. I don't know if I'm being clear, but it's about regretting missed opportunities and your station in life or something. The reality of it is that you don't have some kind of advantage if you start as a kid, if fact you have many disadvantages. Your fingers don't totally work yet, you don't have very good coordination, you don't have the mental discipline to focus on things.
I can have an adult come in, and they're like a stock broker or something and they have no ear, can't sing a tune, they have no evolved musical tastes, they have like three records they listen to... like Katy Perry or something, they don't know shit about music, but they just want to do something. If they start coming in once a week, and practice the stuff they're supposed to practice, in a year they can play Bach. They don't have to have any special talent or anything. It's just the repetition, and deciding to do it.
By comparison, say I get someone that's like a savant of the guitar or something, some self taught person, and they know all this shit. They may come in and be like "ooh, look at me!" and then they won't even do the first thing they need to do, and then they're like "I can't read!" There's just all this bullshit around it, and none of it has to do with actually just doing it. If you want to play piano, there's no time when you should have started. Three years later, you'll be able to do almost anything you can think of that you want to, if you're actually methodical about it.
You just reminded me that you started teaching at Old Town School of Folk Music years ago. Has COVID forced you to stop, if you hadn't already done so?
I hadn't stopped before, but I was really paring down a lot because I wanted to focus on my own stuff like my new record. It took a lot of time and work to make it, because I do everything on it. I did every single thing on it. I engineered it, I played everything, you know. I mixed it with one other person (Mark Greenberg) but nobody else touched it until it was time to mix. Anyway, I was trying to pare down my student roster, but I had some people that had been with me since they were 5 and they are now like 16. I didn't want to leave them hanging, or go to someone else. Then, this all happened and I didn't want to deal with trying to see people's hands on phones or something. I didn't want to deal with that. Now, I'm doing more and more of my own stuff, so I don't know what's going to happen. While the virus is around, I'm certainly not going to go sit in some 8'x8' room with some kids or whatever [laughs].
So let's talk about your new record, Glen Echo.
To begin with, you've been sitting on this record for over a year, right?
Yeah, yeah. It was mastered in November of 2019.
How does it feel having to sit on this for so long, but also continuing to write and create stuff, knowing this hadn't been released yet?
I mean... it sucks, man! [heavy laughter] What can I say? I'm not the only person this happened to, though. It's kind of wild to think about, I mean some of these songs were written and performed live before Trump took office. It might have even been like 60% of the songs.
I think at first I had a sense that the songs wouldn't even be relevant anymore, because the whole landscape of life had changed so drastically, especially with Trump being president! Then, I had the same feeling again with all the Coronavirus stuff. The first single that was supposed to come out was "Online Life". It was going to come out in April when "Shooting Birds From The Sky" came out. I just thought "This isn't gonna make any sense right now." It's like a party song about giving up the internet? That's not something that's gonna make any fucking sense to anyone right now [laughs]! The thing that sucks for me is that I'm slow at doing things, and I always feel like some percentage of the relevance of the idea suffers before it comes out, unfortunately.
"If U Die"
So as far as recording at home, do you have sort of a basic studio set up at all times?
I basically have everything besides drums in my dining room, you know, like in a normal Chicago style lay out, and I have my drums in the basement. I have sort of a separate recording set up for when I track drums.
I just remembered that we saw you play in D.C. in like 2009, because we were in town for a wedding.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I remember that. You saw us play when my band was Doug McCombs, Sam, me and Charles Rumback on drums probably?
I remember meeting your mom.
Oh, yeah! That's right, my mom was there! And Mark Shippy! That's right, Mark was there playing with Wrekmeister Harmonies and my mom had a big crush on him for a while, so she was glad to see him [laughs].
Throughout all these bands you've been in, which cover an sizeable amount of creative ground, what would you cite as far as influences and how have you seen those change?
Interesting. Well, I obviously listened to a lot more punk rock back then [laughs]. That was the sort of scene we were in or whatever.
As I said, I came out of all the Dischord stuff. That and Bad Brains and stuff like that is what I was around when I was in high school, and when I first moved here. I was also listenin to a lot of Ska/Mod stuff as well, like English Beat, The Jam, The Clash... stuff like that. I was probably listening to Wire, The Fall, Bush Tetras. Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, you know, anything in that whole New Wave vein.
Cool, so what are you listening to these days?
So, I don't listen in the same way to things now. I don't really know how to explain it. I was thinking about this the other day. I can have the same thing on that I've heard like a million times, like The Alan Parsons Project's "Eye In The Sky" or something like that, and all I'm thinking is "Listen to how perfect that hi-hat is." I don't know how to offer up a worthy list of influences, because I'm just not listening that way anymore.
Let's say I really dislike something, like Billy Joel or whatever, that doesn't mean that I might not hear something that they did in it that I can appreciate, you know?
I don't listen to music recreationally anymore. The only time I might do something that would be considered that is when I'm driving the car, which I don't do that much. When I do, I have satellite radio, and that's the only way I like to listen, when I'm not picking it. I might change channels or whatever, run through the 5 or 6 channels that might have something that I like. Sometimes, there is nothing on that I like, but I never spend a lot of time choosing something to listen to, unless it's a friend's thing that I wanna check out, or something I want to learn. Sometimes, I think that when I'm done working on whatever, I'll spend a period of time going back and listening to various catalogs that I don't know well. Like, I don't think I know enough of the John Coltrane records, or know them well enough maybe. So far, that time hasn't come [laughs].
I really dislike Billy Joel though. Unfortunately, a lot of kids want to learn how to play Piano Man.
I don't know if you know this, but there's something that happens with musician's brains in an MRI, and the more they are a practicing musician, the more a specific part of their brain lights up when they're listening to music. I've known that for a really long time, and it's sort of like a sad thing, you know? It's like less of your intuitive part is lighting up, and more of your analytic part is. It's sad because I like to be able to lose myself in things, but like I can't do dishes with music on in the background. That doesn't work for me, I have to really think about what I'm hearing. I don't want to miss anything, or else I'll have to go back and listen to it again!
Alright, let's talk about coffee for a bit.
How do you make coffee at home, and what do you like?
Alright, I've had a Rancilio Silvia since 2004. I'm not very good about maintaining the machine, I'm just kind of lazy about that type of shit, and it's very, very finicky regarding when it wants to pull a good shot or not. My boyfriend Joe has become sort of the Silvia whisperer, he always gets a good shot out of it, so he makes coffee for me in the morning, unless I get up before him and then I have to make it myself. In the last week, I've gotten a little better at it. I mean, I've been using this machine since 2004, and for some reason, in the last year or so just every single shot I pulled failed. Lavazza Super Crema is what I use. I don't like a super dark espresso, I like it to be blondish. I used to get coffee from Cafe Umbria at Letizia's in Wicker Park for a really long time.
I also have the matching Rancilio Rocky grinder, but unfortunately, at the time that I bought it I didn't realize that I should get one without the doser.
Anyway, I pour my coffee over ice and put soy milk in it. My needs are not as exacting as Joe's, and he drinks it straight. He actually has his own Lavazza Blue machine that he uses. It takes these little cups. When we were in Italy, we stayed at a number of B&Bs, and we stayed with this lady in Florence that had one and he decided to get the exact same thing when we got back to the states. I was like "It's so wasteful!" but I couldn't talk him out of it, so... I guess everyone has their thing. I'm like "I have a real espresso machine!" His machine is very consistent though. One reason I don't drink coffee from it is that for some reason it's a lot stronger. Like one of them will hype me up insanely. I don't know why it's coming out so much stronger, but I can definitely feel it in the heart palpatations, you know?
What do you get if you're out at a cafe or a restaurant? Same thing?
Pretty much. I mean, there are times, like if I'm in Italy or at a really nice place or something, I will not get my usual drink over ice with soy milk. I'll get something approximating a dry cappucino or a machiatto. Something with a little foam and milk, but not too much. Maybe I would have a plain shot of espresso with the right dessert. I used to switch to hot in the wintertime and back to ice in the summer, but the past couple of years I've stuck with iced all year.
Well, I think that's about it. Thanks so much, Azita!
Don't make me look like an asshole!!! [Laughs]
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