Q & A: Noveller's Sarah Lipstate On Working Alone, Opening For The Jesus Lizard, Panic Attacks And Getting Kicked Out of Cold Cave
Noveller is the nom de musique of Sarah Lipstate, whose precise compositions build on a cathartic repetition of righteous riff aktion colored with gorgeous loopingfuckdoodlery and noise gush. Live, it's just Lipstate, all by her lonesome, just the way she likes it, slinging her guitar with rows upon rows of pedals at her feet while abstract, mind-bending visuals play behind her. She's not partial to "band" situationsbut more on that later.
The Branca/Chatham/No Wave disciple has been a Brooklyn mainstay since arriving in 2007, pulling guitar duty for electronics-twiddling noiserock mashmongers Parts & Labor (she quit) and minimalist synth-popsters Cold Cave (she got kicked out) before focusing on Noveller full-time.
Lipstate has a mesmerizing new LP called Glacial Glow, releases her own shit via her own Saffron Recordings label, and tours in her sister's Jeep. She recently paired up with Lee Ranaldo and played with feuding guitar army visionaries Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham; she also serves as mentor and frequent collaborator for Jesus Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims and his experimental solo project, unFact. We had a lot to talk about.
As a solo performer, do you have something against drummers?
No, I don't have anything against drummers. It was a revelation to me when I first started playing with Parts & Labor. They have a great drummer (Joe Wong) but one day at practice I was like "Oh, if I listen to the drummer while I'm playing, I'll be in time and the songs will sound good!" I'm glad I figured that out. [Laughs] Yeah, drummers are great but I never considered having percussion with Noveller.
Why did you quit Parts & Labor?
I didn't have any clue what I was getting myself into when I started playing with those guys. At the time I was 23 and pretty new to Brooklyn. We had a mutual friend from Austin (where I went to college) and it was suggested they contact me because they were looking for a guitarist. I ended up meeting Dan (Friel) a few times, learned a couple of songs and then met with the full bandI guess you can call it an audition. Then they said, "We're touring down to South by Southwest. Do you want to come with us?" I was like "OK, sure!" I told my day job that I was going to be away for a couple of weeks and they were cool with that. So I hopped in the van with these guys that I had never really met except for showing up for these auditions and we just went on tour. Then I was like, "Oh, I'm in the band?"
Playing with them was a great experience for me and I learned so much about touring, which is something I'd never really done extensively. What it came down to was I was pretty unhappy with the amount of touring they did and also being just one of four people in the band. If I didn't feel like going on tour when it was proposed it was 'Too bad.' That kind of bummed me out. I ended up losing my job because we toured so much. Having someone in the band who isn't really happy isn't fun for anyone. So we were all ready to move on.
It must be a lot simpler to tour alone as Noveller.
It's so great. With Parts & Labor there was money being made but I was like (laughing), "Where is this money going?" It wasn't going in our pockets necessarily. With the solo thing it's a lot easier. I know what my fee is and it's going to me. And that's definitely a huge benefit of being a solo performer.
What about lugging your gear from show to show all by yourself? It must be a drag.
I purchased a bass rig which is what I play through now for my live shows. I can manage all my gear on my own but it's definitely great to have help. That's the one drawback. It's great to have other people to help with the loading in-loading out aspect of things. My current set-up is a lot for one person to handle. My pedal bag probably weighs around 35 lbs. Then my guitar and my merchyou always forget about the merch but that has to come along too.
So you have a heavy load to carry, huh.
It's a lotta stuff. I envy people whose setup is, like, a laptop. Or an acoustic guitar. That would be so easy. Imagining taking the subway to a show? That would be a dream. I need my gearI just have to make it work.
So you prefer playing by yourself.
It just suits me so much better than playing with a band.
But you've collaborated live with David of the Jesus Lizard.
I put that in a separate category than playing in a band or playing other people's music in a band. All the collaborations I've done have been amazing and I want to do more.
Do you ever see Noveller expanding to include other members permanently?
As I see it now, I envision it as just me.
Recently, you played with Lee Ranaldo. That must have been a trip.
We played a 45-minute long set, all improvised. We hadn't played together prior to that show.
Had you met Lee before playing that show?
We met a few times. Lee had heard my previous CD (Desert Fires) and seen some live video. He knew what he was getting himself into. He asked me if I had any notes for him or ideas how the performance should go. I just said 'I wanted it to be free-form and for us to really listen to each other and see where it leads.'
Were you floored that you were playing with a dude from Sonic Youth? I assume they played a big role in shaping your direction as Noveller.
[Laughs] It really wasn't like that. I think it would have been weird being in that headspace and then trying to have a performance. I drove to the show and picked him up beforehand. We arrived together and it was very relaxed. Obviously, I admire him immensely and his work has been extremely influential. But in a situation like that you have to feel you are peers, in a way.
So when you play with David or Lee, you don't feel intimidated?
In most of these cases so far, I find that I tend to lead the improvisation. With Lee, he was like, "OK, I'm just going to follow you." I remember the first time I played with David he said, "I am just going to try to stay out of your way." [Laughs] I take a prominent role in it and feel comfortable, which is not necessarily a good thing. My goal is to really, really focus on what the other person is doing and try to make it more of a collaboration.
Did you grow up on Sonic Youth?
I did grow up seeing SY. I was introduced to their music when I was 16. When I was 17, I started working at the only independent record store in the city where I grew up, which was Lafayette, Louisiana. Sonic Youth were just like my world. I was able to see them live for the first time when I was 18 and they played at Tipitina's in New Orleans. Murray Street had just come out and they touring for that. My boss had actually gotten V.I.P. passes and we were able to go backstage. From SY, I got into No Wave and I got really into Glenn Branca. I love Branca, Lydia Lunch, the Contortions and DNA. And getting into Brian Eno was a big thing for me in leading me to listen to ambient composers.
Getting into Branca was a huge thing for me, thoughan awakening. When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote some term paper about him.
It must have been a big deal when you played in one of his ensembles for "Symphony NO. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 Guitars."
It was huge. I was living in Austin, Texas and was still in college at the time and I flew up for it. I just really wanted to do it and at the time I had a severe fear of flying. I was like 'I really want to do this but I have to get on a plane.' It was really great and I met a lot of people doing that performance that I am friends with now since I moved to Brooklyn. I was terrified about getting on a plane but I was like 'Sarah, you have to deal with this if you want to have this amazing experience.' I was dedicated to the idea of doing it.
You opened up some gigs for the Jesus Lizard when they reunited. Are you a big fan?
I never listened to the Jesus Lizarduntil I was asked to go on tour and open for them. That was my first introduction to them. I felt a little bit of a sense of having missed out. But it was very exciting to find something that I was like, "This is so amazing and I love this." It's cool that I was 26 years old and discovering this spark of excitement.
Opening up for Jesus Lizard, did you do something noisier to appease the fans?
No... it's actually quite funny thinking about what my set was like back then because it's very different from the stuff I'm playing now. The first show I opened for them was in Stockholm, Sweden. I was over there to play the No Fun Fest and it was already set that I was doing US dates for them.
I was like "Hey, I am going to be in Sweden the night you guys are playing there, so... " That was the first show I opened and the reception was great in Stockholm. I sold a bunch of CD's, made all these friends after the show and people saying, "It's so cool having your type of music before the Jesus Lizard!" People were really stoked on it. I was pretty well-received but I know some people who just hated it. Thankfully, those people didn't speak to me. [Laughs] My reception [when I opened for them] in D.C. was a little tepid. I think the only person who talked to me asked me why I didn't have a drummer. [Laughs]
Were you already collaborating with David at that point? Did you guys know each other?
No... We met because we both performed for Rhys Chatham at Lincoln Center for A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars. The first time I participated, but the performance got rained out. The second time around, David was one of the bass players. But we didn't meet there. It was the day after the performance that there was a show at Bruar Falls where I played with Chris Brokaw [of Come]. David is friends with Chris so he came to the show and decided to hang out. David saw me play and Kevin [Micka], who does this project Animal Hospital. He ended up getting in touch with both of us online a few days later and introducing himself. He was like, "Hi, my name's David, I play in this band called the Jesus Lizard. I saw you play and was wondering if you wanted to open some dates for my band." Looking back on it, it was such a funny email.
So unFact didn't exist at that point?
Not yet. I think part of the reason why he was so interested what I do was because for a long time he was interested in doing his solo thing. But he hadn't seen that many people do it live or pull it off.
That's weird because I thought you may have been inspired by David's project but it was the other way around.
It was funny because before that show in Stockholm, we went for an hourlong walk and he was just asking me about all my pedals, and stuff like that. I was able to point him in certain directions to realize this solo project he had wanted to do for years.
Your new LP, Glacial Glow, seems a bit mellower than some of your other stuff.
Mellower? I can see how people could say that about it. When I think about it, that doesn't necessarily come to mind.
Do you identify Noveller as part of the Noise movement? You've had albums released by Carlos Giffoni's No Fun label, played No Fun Fests and in August you are playing The Stone, curated by Giffoni.
I love it and buy a lot of Noise records. I do like being associated with Noise events, shows and festivals. Certainly, I don't consider Noveller to be Noise music. I feel pretty lucky to have my first official releases to come out on No Fun and playing those festivals. But I always kinda felt that I was making music outside of that.
If you listen to the very first Noveller recordings, I don't even use guitar, it was all just processing feedback. I started out making sounds more closely aligned with Noise.
Would you ever experiment with those types of sounds again or are you strictly guitars now?
I think it would be more likely that I would reincorporate more noisy elements into what I am doing now instead of just saying, "OK, I am putting the guitar back in the closet and going back to no-input stuff." But you never know.
No Fun has definitely branched out beyond Noise over the years.
Well, yeah. Emeralds isn't Noise music. Oneohtrix Point Never isn't Noise. I think it's so interesting to branch out and evolve what your label is about.
Cold Cave played No Fun, a band that you were in.
I wasn't involved with them at that time. I played with Cold Cave for like two months. It was an exciting time for them because I was there when they signed with Matador and we got to go to the office and all that. We did some photo shoot and then I got kicked out and they just kinda cropped me out of these photos. [Laughs] It was messed up! Everyone gets kicked out of that band.
Were you bummed that you got kicked out right when they hooked up with Matador?
Cold Cave is basically a revolving door and realizing that's the way it is, you can't take it personally. I'd like to say I don't have hard feelings about it (laughing). But I think it's funny that if I continued to play with them, I wouldn't be able to focus on Noveller the way I have been. It was very exciting for those two months to be like 'Wow, I'm in a band that's taking off and going places.' But one thing I was really bummed about was at the time we got booked to open for Dino Jr and Sonic Youth at Terminal 5. I got kicked out before that show happened. You know, whatever.
Can you envision yourself in another "band" situation again?
Honestly, I actually get really paralyzing anxiety when I'm onstage playing in a band that, when I am performing solo or when I am doing a live collaboration, I do not experience that one bit.
That's fucked up.
Get me onstage with Cold Cave or Parts & Labor and I will have a paralyzing panic attack. It sucks that it happens.
You don't experience this anxiety when you perform as Noveller?
The most that will happen is I'll get nervous right before I'm about to go onstage. But as soon as I put my guitar on, I feel calm and confident and ready to perform. I tend to get nervous before but it just goes away. That reason alone is why I'm reluctant to play with other people (in bands) again.
I would think being in a band would be less anxiety because you can sorta hide behind people.
When I am onstage playing as Noveller, I have to be so focused on what I'm about to do. My brain is so filled on what to do with the pedals, what to play and what's coming next. When I'm playing someone else's music in a band, for some reason my brain is more freed up to start thinking in the patterns that devolve into panic. My mind is just free to wander and come up with these awful scenarios. "What if I pass out on stage?" I'd let all my bandmates down. If I'm doing a Noveller show and there's an emergency or I'm freaking out and have to get offstage, I can just leave.
Has that happened?
No. It's, well, just me up there so I can put a loop on, climb offstage and drink some water. This started when I was in Parts & Labor and we played ATP in Minehead. It was the largest audience we ever played for. I got onstage and just felt like I was gonna pass out. I was looking at my hands and playing these chords thinking, "How am I doing this?" I started getting the spots in front of your eyes before you pass out. I had a bottle of water and I got through the set. I was so mad at myself for not being able to enjoy that experience.
So you don't get lonely onstage as Noveller?
I love it. It's nice.
Do you ever lose yourself in the array of pedals you're working with?
No but I have to stay really focused. Things go awry. I've had technical problems that really suck: pedals stop working, things are malfunctioning. As far as timing, that's always a variable. When you're creating loops and something's off you just go with it. That's part of being a solo loop-based guitarist in the live settings. You have to be clear headed when you are up there playing to remember all the settings. I change my pedal settings for almost every song so I have to adjust things. You just have to have it all in your head and re-call it when you need to.
Can you point to a concert or record that spearheaded your direction musically?
Early on, when I started getting into the electric guitar when I was around 17 or 18 years old, Glenn Branca's The Ascension was huge for me, as well as a Teenage Jesus and the Jerks CD that compiled all their recorded output. It would be hard to pick one Sonic Youth record. As soon as I got my guitar, I was like, "OK, I'm not interested in standard tuning." I wanted to come up with my own tunings that sound interesting to me and begin developing my approach to the guitar in a non-traditional way right off the bat because of being influenced by those people. Through the record store I was working at, I was able to get VHS tapes of Sonic Youth's music videos and live concert stuff. I would watch that almost every day when I got home from school.
How do you see Noveller evolving?
I would say a compositional evolution rather than a dramatic shift in instrumentation. Obviously, I am obsessed with using one instrument and not supplementing the electric guitar with synthesizer or other stringed instruments. Compositionally, there will be a new direction. I got obsessed with Philip Glass after watching the documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts. Not obsessed, but extremely inspired. Avant-garde and classical influences are seeping into my brain.
I wouldn't consider myself a drone artist or an ambient artist. I think the only thing seen written that I strongly identify with is "experimental guitarist," which is pretty broad. If you ask me how I would classify my music genre-wise, I'd be at a total loss. I haven't come up with anything.
Noveller plays Public Assembly on July 6 (with Zs), Coco 66 on July 7 and Shea Stadium on July 15.